Western Michigan stayed home last season, despite being bowl-eligible.
Tim Lester and Co. are much happier this time, having earned a spot in the Potato Bowl against BYU in Boise, Idaho, on Dec. 21. That news made for a far-more festive mood at the team's season-ending banquet, set for Sunday night in Kalamazoo.
“We are extremely excited to be invited and accept an invitation to play in the ... Potato Bowl,” second-year coach Tim Lester said in a statement. “We know it is a first-class event and are gratified for the opportunity and to play on the famous blue turf.”
The Broncos (7-5) put together a solid resume this season, including a last-possession win over eventual Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois in the regular-season finale. That record was despite losing starting quarterback Jon Wassink with an ankle injury, and a defense that was so wobbly that it led to the firing of the coordinator before the regular-season finale.
Still, a bowl was far from a certainty entering Selection Sunday.
Then things got dicier when the Big Ten only got two teams in the New Year's Six, which eliminated the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit as a possible MAC destination.
But then came the good news: Northern Illinois earned an at-large bid in the Boca Raton Bowl. ESPN Events owns the Boca Raton Bowl and did its partner — the MAC — a solid by picking a MAC team for an at-large spot, and that opened up another bowl with a MAC tie-in. That got both Western and Eastern — almost certainly one of the two would be the odd team out if the conference didn't get an at-large — into the postseason.
This will be Western's fourth bowl trip in five years, and ninth overall. The Broncos played on the famous blue turf four years ago, in a loss to Air Force.
"I look forward to seeing it," Lester said of the blue turf. "Our indoor field is half-brown, half-gold, you know, which is different. You kind of get used to it over time."
Lester will receive a $25,000 bonus for making a bowl game, and gets another $25,000 if his team wins the bowl game.
Western and BYU have a history, albeit not a recent one. They've met five times, all between 1962 and 1970, which BYU winning three times.
BYU (6-6) is an independent program that beat Wisconsin early in the season. It lost to Northern Illinois, 7-6, in a defensive slugfest, not uncommon for BYU. That was one of the films Lester and his staff broke down before playing Northern Illinois, which was a victory the team needed to get a chance at a bowl.
"It was a big win for us and we played a great opponent and we played the way we liked to play," Lester said at Sunday night's team banquet, of that 28-21 win. "All three phases showed up and that's something, we've been getting closer and closer to that moment and it was great to have."
Western joins Eastern Michigan and five other MAC teams in the postseason; Eastern Michigan (7-5) heads to Montgomery, Ala., to play Georgia Southern in the Camellia Bowl on Dec. 15.
MAC bowl matchups
Camellia Bowl, Dec. 15: Eastern Michigan vs. Georgia Southern
Boca Raton Bowl, Dec. 18: Northern Illinois vs. UAB
Frisco Bowl, Dec. 19: Ohio vs. San Diego State
Bahamas Bowl, Dec. 21: Toledo vs. Florida International
Potato Bowl, Dec. 21: Western Michigan vs. BYU
Dollar General Bowl, Dec. 22: Buffalo vs. Troy
Who: Western Michigan vs. BYU
When: 4 Dec. 21, Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho
Records: Western Michigan 7-5, BYU 6-6
WMU's bowl history
1961 Aviation Bowl: New Mexico 28, WMU 12
1988 California Bowl: Fresno State 35, WMU 30
2006 International Bowl: Cincinnati 27, WMU 24
2008 Texas Bowl: Rice 38, WMU 14
2011 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl: Purdue 37, WMU 32
2014 Potato Bowl: Air Force 38, WMU 24
2015 Bahamas Bowl: WMU 45, Middle Tennessee 31
2016 Cotton Bowl: Wisconsin 24, WMU 16