FORT COLLINS — During Jim McElwain's nearly three-decade journey as a college football assistant, he coached in nine bowl games, including a pair of BCS championship games at Alabama.

But, his emotions building, McElwain paused for an instant and said topping them all was telling his Colorado State Rams on Sunday afternoon to begin preparations for the Dec. 21 New Mexico Bowl.

"I can honestly say this is probably the most satisfying," McElwain said, referring to his bowl history. "To see the joy on people's faces, that really makes me happy. I know this place hasn't been (to a bowl) in a while."

CSU (7-6, 5-2 Mountain West) will face Washington State (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12) in Albuquerque, with kickoff at noon. The bowl is the Rams' first since 2008, when it defeated Fresno State 40-35 in the New Mexico Bowl.

The Rams took the field before facing Boise State in November. They’ll play in their first bowl game since 2008.
The Rams took the field before facing Boise State in November. They'll play in their first bowl game since 2008. (Karl Gehring, The Denver Post)

There were six bowl slots for seven bowl-eligible Mountain West teams. San Jose State was left out.

"This is a big moment for our program; we were all really excited and everybody was cheering," CSU senior linebacker Shaquil Barrett said of McElwain's announcement. "I like playing a team from a big conference."

McElwain said the benefits of playing in a bowl game are far-reaching, including the national exposure which can give a bump to recruiting and fundraising, and the additional practices which provide a head start for 2014.

"This just puts you in that 'club' (of bowl teams)," McElwain said. "There are certain teams in the club and certain teams that are not in the club. This gives us an opportunity to show the good things that are happening at Colorado State."

CSU plans to do most of its practicing in Fort Collins. The team will depart for Albuquerque on Dec. 18.

Nobody on the Colorado State roster has played in a bowl game.

"As a senior class, that's the mark we wanted to leave — starting CSU on the right track and getting to a bowl game," said center Weston Richburg, a four-year starter.

McElwain said CSU is just getting started.

"This (bowl invitation) speaks volumes about how far we've come," he said. "It's something we'll get used to." Tom Kensler: tkensler@denverpost.com or twitter.com/tomkensler


Eye on... The Cougars 

CSU beat reporter Tom Kensler takes an early look at Washington State:

Record: 6-6, 4-5 Pac-12 (tied for fourth in North Division)

Coach: Mike Leach is in his second season at Washington State and, like CSU's Jim McElwain, his team improved by three victories from 2013. Fans along the Front Range may remember Leach's 10 seasons at Texas Tech, when he guided the Red Raiders to a bowl game each year and won 84 games.

Best victory: The Cougars won 10-7 at Southern California on Sept. 7 in their Pac-12 opener. That immediately put then-Trojans coach Lane Kiffin on the hot seat. Washington State also won conference road games at California and at Arizona.

Best defeat: As it turned out, it was the season-opening 31-24 loss at Auburn, which will face Florida State for the BCS championship. Auburn managed just two field goals after halftime and had a 100-yard kickoff return in the second quarter. WSU outgained Auburn 464-394, in total yards.

Best player: Operating out of Leach's signature spread offense, junior quarterback Connor Halliday ranks fourth nationally in passing yards (4,189) and is tied for 13th with 28 touchdown passes.

Series history: Surprisingly, this will be the first meeting between Colorado State and Washington State.