Fresno State (9-3) made quite a splash in its new league, posting a 7-1 record to earn a share of the title - its first conference championship since 1999. The Bulldogs have been dominant in five games since a 20-10 loss at then-No. 24 Boise State on Oct. 13, winning by an average of 25.8 points and scoring at least 42 in each victory. They'll be trying to snap a three-game bowl skid after notching the program's fifth nine-win season over the past decade.
Fresno State hasn't reached double digits in wins since going 11-3 in 2001. Perhaps even more important is that the Christmas Eve game in Honolulu won't be the last in a Bulldogs uniform for junior quarterback Derek Carr. The Mountain West offensive player of the year announced following the team's regular-season finale - a 48-15 win over Air Force on Nov. 24 - that he would return for his senior year.
"Hard work pays off and I'm a firm believer in that," said Carr, who has completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 3,742 yards with 36 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
"You know personally how hard you worked, when it comes to fruition like this and you get to hold the (championship) trophy, you know you've done something right."
Led by Carr, the brother of New York Giants backup quarterback David Carr, the Bulldogs have done plenty right on offense, ranking 14th in the FBS with 488.5 yards per game and tied for 12th in scoring (40.3 ppg).
Carr's favorite target is league freshman of the year Davante Adams, who has 13 TDs among his 89 receptions and is 14th in the nation with 97.3 yards per game. Senior running back Robbie Rouse also keyed the passing game with 58 catches and 406 yards - both surpassing his previous three seasons combined. The first-team all-conference selection is the Bulldogs' all-time leading rusher after a third straight 1,000-yard season. He's 81 yards and one rushing TD shy of his career highs of 1,549 and 13, set last year.
"This is the best season since I've been here, and the best season in at least over a decade," Rouse said.
"... With all the adversity that was thrown at us with new coaches, getting a new scheme and us coming off of last season and how we all pulled together as a team. As captains we got everyone together and were able to pull off this season and it feels great."
The SMU Mustangs (6-6) are thrilled to be making a school-record fourth consecutive bowl appearance after opening the season 2-4. SMU became bowl eligible Nov. 24 in its last game, a 35-27 victory over Conference USA West champion Tulsa.
"Having been affiliated with this bowl since its inception, I know that it is one of the best bowl experiences in college football," said coach June Jones, who arrived at SMU in 2008 after nine seasons with Hawaii.
"I'm very excited for our players, staff and fans. This is a special experience."
The Mustangs will make their third postseason appearance in Honolulu and first since beating Nevada 45-10 in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl, their first bowl game in 25 years.
SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert, a Texas transfer, will make his first bowl appearance since the 2010 BCS national title game. He was a freshman coming off the bench in the first quarter for an injured Colt McCoy, finishing with two TDs and four INTs in a 37-21 loss to Alabama.
Gilbert completed just 53.1 percent of his passes this season for 2,720 yards and 14 TDs, but he hasn't been picked off in the last five games.
Bulldogs safety Phillip Thomas will try to end that streak after leading the nation with eight interceptions. He was named the Mountain West defensive player of the year and a Thorpe Award finalist as the nation's best defensive back.
Gilbert, though, is also a big running threat, as he's reached the end zone seven times and ran for a career-high 111 yards in the regular-season finale. Senior tailback Zach Line had three rushing TDs in that game to move within one of Eric Dickerson's SMU career record of 47. Line is the fourth player in Conference USA history with three straight 1,000-yard seasons after rushing for 1,207 this year.
The Bulldogs are ranked 75th against the run (171.9 ypg), but they're among the top 20 nationally in total defense (335.3), sacks (35) and turnovers gained (33).
Fresno State last faced SMU in 2004 and has won the past five meetings by a 144-38 margin after losing the first one in 1999.