The Cougars put up an underwhelming performance against Minnesota in last year's Holiday Bowl. They get a chance to fix that this year, as they earn a second-straight Holiday Bowl bid.

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For the second year in a row, Washington State is headed to sunny San Diego for bowl season.

“We’re excited to go back to the Holiday Bowl,” WSU interim athletic director John Johnson said Sunday afternoon. “It’s really a tribute for our program, and to play such a storied program as Michigan State is wonderful as well.”

After finishing 9-3, the Cougars earned a repeat trip to the 40th annual Holiday Bowl to face Mark Dantonio’s 16th-ranked Michigan State team at San Diego County Credit Union Stadium on Dec. 28 (kickoff slated for 6 p.m., Fox Sports 1).

Michigan State finished 9-3, with a 7-2 Big Ten record, and was third in the loaded Big Ten East Division. The Spartans’ biggest win came in a 27-24 upset over then-No. 7 Penn State, but they lost games to Notre Dame and Northwestern earlier in the year, and were annihilated 48-3 by No. 13 Ohio State on Nov. 11.

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WSU coach Mike Leach is the first coach in school history to lead the Cougars to four bowl games in six seasons, and to three-straight bowl games.

Even though Leach reportedly interviewed for a job with Tennessee last Thursday, Johnson said Sunday, “Mike’s our coach today, and we expect him to be our coach at the bowl game. I know he’s excited to be our coach in the bowl game.”

Johnson’s comments on Leach were the first public comments WSU administrators have been about their head coach’s reported dalliance with the Vols. Johnson said he’s exchanged some texts with Leach since Leach’s meeting with Tennessee, but that, “he’s been busy recruiting and I’ve had  other responsibilities as well.”

WSU was ranked 18th in the final College Football Playoff rankings that were released Sunday morning, and going into this week, the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara appeared to be the most likely postseason destination for the 9-3 Cougars.

But, lucky for WSU, the College Football Playoff committee selected two Pac-12 teams for New Year’s Six Bowl games instead of one. Even though the Pac-12 was shut out of the four-team playoff,  conference champion USC, ranked eighth, was sent to the Cotton Bowl to face No. 5 Ohio State, which won the Big Ten championship but was passed over for a playoff spot.

No. 11 UW benefited from TCU’s drubbing against Big 12 champion Oklahoma, to earn a New Year’s Six Bowl bid for the second-consecutive year, and will play No. 9 Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.

So when the Alamo Bowl selected No. 13 Stanford to play No. 15 TCU, the Holiday Bowl was left with a choice of No. 18 WSU (9-3) or the two Arizona teams that finished with 7-5 records.

Johnson said he didn’t really even have to lobby the Holiday Bowl to get them to select WSU for the second-straight year.

“They liked WSU as a matchup,” Johnson said. “There wasn’t a lot of lobbying. … Typically, you don’t see teams go back-to-back to bowls unless it’s like the Rose Bowl where the champion goes (there). I think it’s a tribute that they would invite us back again this year. It’s not typical.”

Even though WSU is just coming off a Holiday Bowl appearance — it lost 17-12 to Minnesota last season — the Cougars have a reputation for traveling well. They sold out their initial allotment of 7,000 Holiday Bowl tickets within 48 hours of the bowl announcement last December, and the chance to pit two ranked teams against each other outweighed the potential con of inviting WSU to San Diego for the second-straight year.

Johnson said he expects that WSU fan will travel well again.

“It’s a great time of year, and the proximity to our fan base is a benefit as well,” Johnson said. “It’s a terrific bowl for our fans, it’s easy to get to, last year we had great attendance, and we look for that in the future.”

The Cougars last played Michigan State in 1977, beating the Spartans 23-21 in East Lansing. However, WSU is 2-5 all-time against Michigan State.

WSU will be in San Diego by Christmas Eve for the bowl game. This will be WSU’s fourth trip to the Holiday Bowl. Before last season’s defeat to Minnesota, the Cougars’ last Holiday Bowl appearance ended in a win against No. 5 Texas in 2003. WSU’s first Holiday Bowl bid ended in a defeat to No. 14 BYU in 1981.

Tickets for the Holiday Bowl are available at beginning Sunday afternoon, and are also available through the WSU ticket office (1800-Go-Cougs) starting 9 a.m. Monday morning.