The Definitive Guide to Bowl Season, Part I

Craig Bohl

Have you ever wondered why winter break is what it is? Like, why it’s a month long starting halfway through December and stretching into January? The weather’s pretty drab unless you have the money to fly south about a thousand miles. It’s too cold to do much of anything outside for longer than 30 minutes. And staying inside for a month begins to feel like a prison sentence after a while. So why place winter break right now? Most of you probably respond with ‘because Christmas’. Most of you are wrong. Thanksgiving is a much better holiday and we only give it three days. There has to be more to it than simply presents and the-TV-channel-formerly-known-as-ABC-Family’s 25 Days of Christmas movie marathons.

The answer? Bowl games. Bowl games are the true reason for the season. Think about it. Bowl season kicks off on December 17 at 12 pm with the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, so even the poor and unfortunate souls who still have a final exam on Friday the 16th are still able to enjoy the full slate of bowl games throughout December and January. The break is perfectly placed to accommodate the bowl season in its entirety. “But, Daniel, the National Championship is on January 9, and that’s when spring semester starts!” Point noted. But in all honesty, nobody goes to the first day of classes anyways and those that do quickly realize nothing important is about to be said and soon leave, free to spend the rest of their Monday in preparation for the National Championship and the climax of college football’s version of March Madness.

So, if bowl season is so important that the university grants leave to all of us students to be able to enjoy it thoroughly, then you need to properly prep for it. I’m here to help. There are 41 bowl games this year, 42 if you include the National Championship game, and for every one of those game, we’ll take a look at the teams playing and what they’ve accomplished over the season plus how I think the game will play out.

‘Tis the season.

 

Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl – North Carolina Central vs. Grambling State

The only bowl game to feature two FCS teams, the AFR Celebration Bowl pits the champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference against the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. This year, that’s Grambling State and North Carolina Central, respectively. Both teams come in on long winning streaks. Grambling comes in on a 10 game win streak with their only loss of the season coming in a 31-21 defeat to Arizona, a game in which the Tigers were leading 21-3 at the half. NCCU rebounded from two losses against Duke and Western Michigan to start the season by reeling off nine straight wins, including a 42-21 win over reigning MEAC champion North Carolina A&T to claim a spot in the Celebration Bowl.

There will be a fair amount of talent on display here, despite the predispositions people may have of FCS teams. NCCU had seven players selected to the MEAC All-Conference First Team while head coach Jerry Mack received Coach of the Year honors. But Grambling State can match that talent, and even surpass it. The Tigers have the SWAC Coach of the Year in Broderick Fobbs, the Defensive Player of the Year in Donovan McCray, and the Offensive Player of the Year in Devante Kincade to go along with seven other teammates who were named to the SWAC All-Conference First Team.

Kincade is the player to keep an eye on in this game. A transfer from Ole Miss, the guy’s been lethal in the FCS, throwing for nearly 2900 yards with 29 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He’s also added 565 yards rushing on the season. For the vast majority of people, this will be the first time hearing of Kincade. But with a good performance, Kincade could become a decent NFL prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft.

On the strength of Kincade and a defense that has allowed less than 16 points per game this year, I’d expect Grambling State to come away with a fairly convincing win.

Prediction: Grambling State 38 – North Carolina Central 20

 

Gildan New Mexico Bowl – New Mexico vs. UTSA

Two programs who have not had a great deal of postseason success, for two very different reasons. UTSA is in only their sixth year of playing football at the collegiate level, and only their fifth in the FBS. Under first year head coach Frank Wilson, the Roadrunners qualified for the first ever bowl game by going 6-6 (UTSA was not eligible for a bowl game in 2012 and 2013, when they won eight and seven game, respectively). New Mexico can’t use inexistence as their excuse. The Lobos have had only one bowl win since 1961. Whether or not the Lobos change that narrative depends a lot on what Lobos team shows up. The team that beat Wyoming 56-35? Or the team that lost to Rutgers 37-28 and New Mexico State 32-31?

Either way, it might not matter. The Roadrunners have a respectable rush defense, allowing 157.8 rush yards per game, food for 52nd in the country. But New Mexico is no normal rushing offense. The Lobos were the best rushing team in the country by far, averaging 360 yards per game. Second-best Army averaged thirty yards fewer. The Lobos have two 1,000-yard rushers on their team in Tyrone Owens and Teriyon Gipson, and both average more than eight yards per carry.

But don’t expect UTSA to simply roll over in this one. The Roadrunners would love nothing more than to continue to build up a program that is still in its infant stages. QB Dalton Sturm has been reliable so far this season, throwing for 2000 yards with an 18-5 TD-to-INT ratio.

Overall, though, the Lobos’ ground game should be too much for UTSA to overcome.

Prediction: New Mexico 31 – UTSA 20

Las Vegas Bowl presented by Geico – Houston vs. San Diego State

The obvious highlight of the first few days of bowl season, the Vegas Bowl has several interesting storylines accompanying it. Houston, of course, lost head coach Tom Herman to Texas after leading the ‘H-Town Takeover’ the past two years. San Diego State RB Donnell Pumphrey needs only 108 rushing yards to pass Ron Dayne for most rushing yards in NCAA history. Plus, there’s the fact that both of these schools had much higher hopes for their seasons back in September. SDSU did win their championship, but has to be wondering what would have been had they not lost to South Alabama. Houston’s Playoff hopes are a very distant memory, but that was a major topic of discussion following their win over Oklahoma to start the season. Regardless, both teams will be fighting for a victory here. The Aztecs will be looking for their second-straight bowl win while Houston would love nothing more than to start off the post-Herman era with a bowl win.

Match-up wise, this is still a terrific game, with one of the best strength-on-strength match-ups we’ll see all bowl season. SDSU comes in with the seventh-best rushing offense in the country, largely thanks to Donnell Pumphrey’s 2,000 yard season and fellow RB Rashaad Penny, who will eclipse the 1,000 yard mark with five more yards. But this will be the toughest defense the Aztecs face all year. Houston is one of only four teams in the country to allow less than 100 yards rushing per game. Ed Oliver, the first 5-star recruit to not attend a Power 5 conference team, has been as good as advertised, totaling 18.5 tackles for loss and five sacks on the season. Oliver also has the propensity to show up in big games. The Cougars’ two games against Oklahoma and Louisville, for example, Oliver racked up four sacks and five TFLs. If Pumphrey can’t run, the Aztecs are much more vulnerable, evidenced by their 2-game losing streak to Wyoming and Colorado State in which Pumphrey ran for 129 yards combined. If Oliver and Co. can contain the Aztecs running game without having to stack the box, the Cougars could run away and hide in this one.

Running away and hiding requires that you score points, though, so Greg Ward Jr. will also be vital in this contest. When he’s on, he’s one of the best QBs among Group of 5 teams, if not the country. When he’s off, however, Houston is not the same team. In the two losses to Navy and SMU that derailed Houston’s season, Ward posted adjusted QBRs of 55.5 and 43.7, two of his three lowest scores on the season. The good news is that he’s posted adjusted QBR scores above 65 in nine of 12 games this year.

It’s fairly safe to assume that Houston has more talent than San Diego State across the board. What’s tripped up the Cougars is their inability to always play up to their talent level. Without Tom Herman, it’s unknown if Houston will be able. I think they do.

Prediction: Houston 34 – San Diego State 28

 

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl – Appalachian State vs. Toledo

I’ll come right out and say it: the Sun Belt Conference is a lot better than people give it credit for. Yes, they still have teams like Texas State and New Mexico State. But every conference has their own Rutgers, Kansas, Rice, and Fresno State. The Sun Belt placed their first team into the AP poll this year when Troy burst through the rankings, and the conference had several good out-of-conference showings, including Troy’s near upset at Clemson and Appalachian State’s opening game at Tennessee. So even though Toledo finished second in the MAC this year behind Western Michigan, this is not a gimme.

Toledo has one of the most high-powered offenses in the country, scoring 38.8 points per game. They’re eighth in passing yards with 329.1 yards per game and average 14.47 yards per completion, the 14th best mark in the nation. Toledo QB Logan Woodside has been spectacular this year, setting new school records at Toledo for passing yards and touchdowns in a single season. He’s amassed 3,800 yards and 43 touchdowns while also completing 69 percent of his passes. The passing game’s effectiveness also opens up the ground game for senior RB Kareem Hunt, who only needs 25 yards to break the school’s all-time rushing record.

If Appalachian State wants to stand a chance at beating Toledo, they’ll need to slow down the Rockets’ offense. But at 29th in the country, Appalachian State has a solid passing defense that allows only 200 yards passing per game. The Mountaineers start their pass defense with a solid pass rush that’s averaging 2.3 sacks per game this year. Their rush defense is also formidable, holding opponents to an average 125.8 yards per game while keeping four teams under the century mark this season, including holding Texas State to an embarrassing 14 yards rushing on 28 attempts. The Mountaineers may seem to be a lowly Sun Belt team to many, but the program head coach Scott Satterfield has built in his three years poses a formidable challenge to anyone in the country.

But with a QB-RB duo that’s shattering school records, Toledo poses too much firepower for the Mountaineers to handle.

Prediction: Toledo 48 – Appalachian State 40

 

AutoNation Cure Bowl – UCF vs. Arkansas State

Bowl season is an education in strange stadium names across America. This year, Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, which hosts the Cure Bowl along with the Russell Athletic Bowl and Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, beats everything else. Apart from the name of the stadium, the game lacks a lot of luster, even compared to other mid-December bowl games. There are several interesting developments, though.

The first is that this is as close to a home game as you can possibly get. UCF plays their home games at Bright House Networks Stadium, though I prefer its nickname, ‘The Bounce House’. Camping World Stadium is a mere 27-minute drive away. In comparison, Centennial Bank Stadium, home of the Arkansas State Red Wolves, is nearly 13 hours away. UCF should have a major fan-advantage, but I’m not sure how much that’s really going to matter. After an 0-4 start to the season, Arkansas State has recovered more than admirably, going 7-1 down the stretch to qualify for their sixth straight bowl appearance. Former Oklahoma QB Justice Hansen looks to have settled in after taking over the starting job from Chad Voytik two games into the season. The redshirt sophomore concluded conference play having thrown 12 touchdowns to only five interceptions. With a full season of playing time now under his belt, Hansen is a legitimate passing threat.

UCF does have the athletes to counter Hansen and the Red Wolves, though, with both CB DJ Killings and FS Drico Johnson leading the way. The two don’t stand much chance at being drafted in the NFL Draft in April, but will probably sign as undrafted free agents and compete in training camps. Overall, UCF has allowed only 200 passing yards per game this year and will be one of the biggest tests for Hansen.

Arkansas State finally has a head coach in Blake Anderson that isn’t running off to another school after one year, but they’ve yet to win a bowl game with him at the helm. Even in a de facto road game in Orlando, I think that changes.

Prediction: Arkansas State 26 – UCF 17

 

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl – Southern Mississippi vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

ULL won three of their last four to become bowl eligible. Southern Miss also waited until the final week to reach six wins, but their surprise win over Louisiana Tech was only their second win in seven games. What’s making the difference for each team? The Ragin’ Cajuns, on top of having the best mascot in college football, cut down massively on penalties, almost halving their penalty yardage from the first two months of the season. Meanwhile, for Southern Miss, the wheels have kind of fallen off. They’ve averaged over 50 yards per game less in November than in September and October. Plus, they’ve turned the ball over at a higher rate in the final third of the season, averaging 3.3 turnovers over their final four games.

Much of the reason for the Golden Eagles’ struggles was an injury to senior QB Nick Mullens during a 38-27 loss to Charlotte. That started a three-game skid with backup Keon Howard managing only 365 yards over the next two games, both losses, while throwing four interceptions. Mullens returned in the season finale to lead Southern Miss to their victory over Louisiana Tech and bowl eligibility. For the Golden Eagles to emerge with a New Orleans Bowl victory, Mullens will have to show that the blow to his head he took against Charlotte is no longer affecting him. The Golden Eagles completely depend on Mullens for every win. Literally. Since coming to the program, Southern Miss has never won a game in which Mullens did not start.

But ULL does have a quality front-seven to combat Mullens and the Eagles’ 1,300-yard rusher Ito Smith. Four defensive linemen and linebackers received recognition on the Sun Belt All-Conference teams, with senior LB Otha Peters receiving first team honors. The defensive secondary will have to perform better than the 242 pass yards per game they allowed in the regular season. The Ragin’ Cajuns will be very familiar with this situation, though, as they’ve won the New Orleans Bowl four out of the past five years.

But that streak comes to an end here with the Golden Eagles winning their first bowl game since 2011.

Prediction: Southern Mississippi 34 – Louisiana-Lafayette 24

 

Miami Beach Bowl – Central Michigan vs. Tulsa

It’s fair to question whether Central Michigan should even be here. The Chippewas struggled down the stretch, going 3-5 in MAC play to finish 6-6. But look to their second game of the season and you’ll remember their game against Oklahoma State, where they were incorrectly awarded an untimed play at the end of the game. As you probably remember, CMU went on to win on a Hail Mary-and-lateral on that untimed down. Meanwhile, their APR score, an indicator of a school’s academic success used to determine which 5-7 teams can receive a bowl invitation, was much lower than that of North Texas and Mississippi State, two of the several 5-7 teams playing in a bowl this year.

But while there is some legitimate beef to be had, what’s done is done and the Chippewas’ reward is to play a 9-3 Tulsa team whose three losses all came on the road at Ohio State, Houston, and Navy. Frankly, it’s hard for me to see a bigger mismatch in any of the other 40 bowls. Tulsa ranks 11th in the nation in points per game and eighth in rushing yards per contest. It’s not that Central Michigan’s defense is terrible; they allowed a middle-of-the-pack 161.3 yards rushing per game. The Chippewas were able to slow down a high-flying Oklahoma State offense. But they were completely run over by Western Michigan to the tune of 49-10 while allowing over 250 yards rushing. Tulsa’s offense, by most metrics, is even better than both that of Western Michigan or Oklahoma State.

The Golden Hurricane feature a duo of running backs in James Flanders and D’Angelo Brewer, both of whom have eclipsed 1,300 yards rushing this year and are liable to gash a defense on any carry. Central Michigan does have talent in its front seven, with ILB Malik Fountain being named to the MAC All-Conference first team. Fountain, along with DL Joe Ostman, will need to have an astounding game in order to contain Flanders and Brewer. That’s easier said than done, however. Flanders and Brewer have had amazing seasons due in large part to Tulsa having four offensive linemen named to the AAC All-Conference first and second teams.

Central Michigan will need to keep pace offensively in this game to stand a chance. And while Tulsa’s defense does lag far behind their offense, the Chippewas simply don’t have the personnel to exploit those matchups.

Prediction: Tulsa 52 – Central Michigan 37

 

Boca Raton Bowl – Memphis vs. Western Kentucky

Is Conf-USA a good conference? Yay or nay, it’s irrelevant. Western Kentucky isn’t your typical Conf-USA team. The Hilltoppers outscored conference opponents by 31 points per game, including a four-game stretch to close out the regular season where they outscored opponents an astonishing 206-37. Their only conference loss was at Louisiana Tech by 3, who they came back to beat 58-44 in the conference championship. Out of conference, WKU lost in overtime to Vanderbilt, failing on an all-or-nothing 2-point conversion try, and to Alabama, which is kind of forgivable. For the record, I think Conf-USA is the worst conference in FBS football. But Western Kentucky has dominated the conference and performed extremely well out-of-conference, including a 45-35 victory over South Florida in last year’s Miami Beach Bowl.

Is the American Athletic Conference a good conference? Or rather, how good is the AAC? That is relevant, since it’ll shed a lot of light on how good Memphis is. The Tigers’ best win out-of-conference was against Kansas. In conference, they went 5-3, but those three losses were to Navy, Tulsa, and USF, i.e., they’re somewhat excusable.

So predicting this game is a study in the following: do you credit Western Kentucky for dominating a lesser conference or do you credit Memphis for playing in a better conference but struggling against the cream of that crop?

That’s not an easy task here. Western Kentucky averages more yards rushing, passing, and points scored than Memphis. And while the Tigers’ defense ranks a lowly 90th in total yards allowed, the Hilltoppers rank a respectable 37th. But is that gap due to playing North Texas and Rice instead of Houston and Tulsa? Probably, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that Western Kentucky has built an incredible program.

This will be a high scoring shootout with two efficient offenses. All-around, however, WKU is the better team. And it will show.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 48 – Memphis 34

 

San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl – BYU vs. Wyoming

Unlike what some people to the south may have predicted, this is not the national championship. And despite what some of those people say about being ‘eight points from being undefeated’, the Cougars were never really close. In all fairness, I’m not saying that as a self-proclaimed BYU-hater; I’m saying that looking at the facts. Who has BYU beaten? All the talk of a tough schedule crumbled along with Michigan State and Mississippi State. Having lost to Utah and West Virginia, the only two teams on BYU’s schedule that have even sniffed the playoff rankings, the Cougars’ best win is arguably a shootout win over Toledo at home. The Cougars’ strong defense has carried into the Sitake era, with the Cougars ranking 32nd in the country in total defense. A 70th ranked offense is much more pedestrian, however. This team is, frankly, mediocre relative to the lofty heights we’re all used to Cougar fans predicting.

But that doesn’t mean the Cougars are bad or that they’re overmatched here. They are 7-1 in their last eight games. Meanwhile, the Cowboys of Wyoming are riding a 1-3 stretch that nearly cost them the Division crown. After a 5-0 start in conference play that saw the Cowboys wrestle the top spot away from Boise State and definitively assert themselves as a force to be reckoned with, the Cowboys have simply struggled. They’ve turned the ball over nine times in their past four games, which has been a major problem the entire season. The Cowboys have turned the ball over 22 times this year, tied for 27th most in the nation.

In and of itself, that’s bad. That’s particularly troubling coming into a game against BYU. The Cougars have forced 29 turnovers, second most in the country. And when the Cougars turn you over, they’re liable to score, notching four defensive touchdowns on the year. Turnovers are highly subject to luck and chance, fluctuating greatly from year to year and even game to game. But eventually, when that luck and chance happens enough, luck and chance turns into habit. And plainly said, BYU has made forcing turnovers a habit while Wyoming has made of habit of giving them up. In a game where other facets of the game are fairly equal between the two teams, that’ll be enough to decide it.

Prediction: BYU 33 – Wyoming 29

 

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Idaho vs. Colorado State

Idaho is 8-4 with a chance to post their best record since 1998 when they went 9-3 as members of the Big West. Yet despite seeming to have turned the corner, the Vandals will move down to the FCS next year as a member of the Big Sky Conference. The Vandals are thought to be the first team to ever move down to the FCS from the FBS, let alone moving down immediately after appearing in a bowl game. But before they do, a farewell of sorts will take place in Boise. And as much as I’d like to send Idaho down to FCS with a win, I just can’t see one in here. Colorado State has the better offense, better defense, and while the Vandals do hold an edge in turnover margin, it’s simply not large enough to overcome the discrepancies that favor the Rams.

The Rams have approached offense with a committee approach on nearly facets. Three running backs have gained over 500 yards (Dalyn Dawkins, Izzy Matthews, and Marvin Kinsey Jr.), though none have yet eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark. Quarterbacking was also a multi-person effort, though that was due to a season-ending injury to freshman QB Collin Hill. But with junior QB Nick Stevens at the helm, the Rams offense hardly skipped a beat and arguably became better. Since entering mid-game against Utah State, Stevens has thrown 14 touchdowns to only 1 touchdown. The offense has ridden his play, as well, averaging over 40 points per game when Stevens has started.

At 29.8 points per game, the Vandal defense isn’t exactly stingy, but Idaho does have several difference-makers on the defensive line. Aikeem Coleman and Tueni Lupeamanu were both named to the Sun Belt’s All-Conference second team with Coleman also receiving the conference Newcomer of the Year award. QB Matt Linehan has also been stellar en route to throwing for over 2,800 yards and also being selected the All-Conference second team. Linehan is also climbing career passing leaderboards at Idaho and could leave the school as its all-time leader with another quality season next year.

Sun Belt Coach of the Year Paul Petrino does have the best team in his four-year tenure at Idaho. But the Vandals won’t have much of a home-field advantage against Colorado State, and the Rams simply have more talent. It’s simply a matter of showing it.

Prediction: Colorado State 28 – Idaho 21

 

Popeyes Bahamas Bowl – Eastern Michigan vs. Old Dominion

I know what you’re thinking. “Why does Eastern Michigan and Old Dominion get to go to the Bahamas?” While it looks unfair on the surface, Old Dominion is from Norfolk, Virginia while Eastern Michigan is from a no-man’s land in between Detroit and Ann Arbor. It’s more than fair. In terms of play, even more so. This is Eastern Michigan’s first bowl since 1987. Meanwhile, this is Old Dominion’s first bowl bid since moving up to FBS three years ago.

Eastern Michigan especially came out of nowhere this year. Last season, the Eagles went 1-11. Before that, they went 2-10. But in Chris Creighton’s third year, the Eagles have finally found some success. Junior QB Brogan Roback took over the QB job midway through the season and has amassed nearly 2,400 yards passing while protecting the ball, throwing only six picks while throwing 16 touchdowns. Receiving has largely been a team effort, with only Sergio Bailey II earning MAC All-Conference honors, being named to the third team. Five players have totaled over 300 yards receiving, while Bailey leads the group at 799. But the Eagles are still a program that needs building. The offense has arrived, eclipsing 450 yards per game on average this year, but the defense is still lagging. Opponents have averaged 435 yards per game on this defense. The defense’s saving grace, though, is its knack for forcing turnovers. The Eagles have forced 23 this year, tied for the 29th best mark in the country.

That spells some bad news for the Eagles. While Eastern Michigan has been adept at forcing turnovers, Old Dominion has been downright elite at avoiding them. The Monarchs are second in the nation this year, turning the ball over only nine teams. Only Western Michigan has fewer. That all starts under center with senior QB David Washington. Washington has thrown four picks all season. Meanwhile, he’s thrown for 2,800 yards and 28 touchdowns. At 6-foot-3, it’s astonishing to me there’s not at least incrementally more hype around him for the NFL. Washington can also thank a solid running game, led by 1,100-yard rusher Ray Lawry. Any talk about the Monarchs also has to include an impressively built defense. The Monarchs feature four defensemen who were named to Conference USA’s first and second teams, with another two receiving honorable mentions. The defense is only one notch behind Eastern Michigan for turnovers, as well, forcing 22 on the season. DB Aaron Young has three interceptions on the season, including a pick-six in the season opener against Hampton, while fellow DB and Conf-USA second team selectee Brandon Addison has two. En route to being selected to the All-Conference first team, LB TJ Ricks has amassed 93 tackles and forced two fumbles on the season.

Out of any bowl games on the schedule, this is one I have very little opinion as to how it’ll go. Both teams are fairly evenly matched. This game will probably come down to who executes better and who comes up with more plays down the stretch. Given Old Dominion’s good history of forcing and avoiding turnovers, I’d expect them to continue the habit.

Prediction: Old Dominion 27 – Eastern Michigan 23

 

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl – Louisiana Tech vs. No. 25 Navy

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. There’s also more than one way to move the football. Louisiana Tech boasts one of the country’s best passing games, throwing for 360 yards per game. On the flipside, Navy has always had one of the nation’s best running games, and has averaged 310 yards per game this season. Two offenses that couldn’t be more different but are almost equally effective putting on a clinic… at least that’s what this game would have been until Navy QB Will Worth suffered a broken foot in the AAC championship game against Temple. Worth was the FBS leader in rushing touchdowns and somehow made most people forget that first-stringer Tago Smith went down with an ACL tear in the first game of the season. Now the job belongs to Zach Abey, and so far, things have looked bleak. Abey has thrown four interceptions on only 23 pass attempts while the Midshipmen have lost both games since Worth’s injury. Unless something clicks for Abey, this game belongs to Louisiana Tech.

The Bulldogs are walking into an ideal situation for them to win their third bowl game in as many years. QB Ryan Higgins is a possible NFL quarterback who currently projects right near the cutoff of being drafted in April. With 4,200 yards, a 66 percent completion rate, 37 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions, it’s no surprise as to why. The Conf-USA MVP also has a stellar supporting cast built around him. Junior wideout Carlos Henderson was named both the Conf-USA Offensive Player of the Year and the Special Teams Player of the Year. He’s gone for 1,400 yards receiving and 17 touchdown receptions while also returning two kickoffs for touchdowns. Henderson is joined on the wings by senior WR Trent Taylor, who’s tallied 1,500 yards receiving and 10 TDs on the year. The Bulldogs proficient pass offense also opens the door for an efficient run game, with RB Jarred Craft benefiting by eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark for the season. The defense isn’t spectacular by any means, but simply by holding teams to 418 yards per game, Louisiana Tech averages nearly 100 more yards than their opponents.

Injuries aren’t always a death sentence. Ohio State’s recent championship season attests to that. Alas, Navy is not Ohio State and Cardale Jones is not coming off the bench. Without Worth, it’s asking way too much of the Midshipmen defense to try and slow down Louisiana Tech’s offense. It’s going to be hard for Navy to stay in this game.

Prediction: Louisiana Tech 45 – Navy 24

 

Dollar General Bowl – Ohio vs. Troy

Several weeks ago, Troy became the first team in Sun Belt history to be ranked in the AP poll. The Trojans immediately responded by losing two out of their last three to finish the season. The offense simply began to sputter. After averaging over 475 yards per game over the first two months of the season, Troy managed only 388 yards per game in November and only mustered 344 yards in their final game, a loss to Georgia Southern. At first glance, that looks like trouble against an Ohio team that fielded arguably the second-best defense in the MAC behind Western Michigan. But there is reason for optimism for the Trojans, and reason for fear for the Bobcats.

Ohio does have a terrific defense, but the teeth of their defense is in rush defense. Ohio had the sixth-best rushing defense in the country this year, allowing only 105.8 yards per contest. Pass defense was not the Bobcats’ forte, as they ranked 103rd in the nation with 257.4 yards allowed per game. Against more elite pass offense in games against Eastern Michigan and Toledo, the Bobcats allowed 347 and 438 yards passing, respectively. Troy will probably struggle running the ball, though junior RB Jordan Chunn was named to the Sun Belt All-Conference first team. But the Trojans have a much more potent passing game that ranked 36th in the nation at 262 yards per game. QB Brandon Silvers and WR Emanuel Thompson were both selected the All-Conference first team while fellow wideout Deondre Douglas was named to the second team.

The Bobcats’ hope will be that their pass rush, which has been outstanding this year, will be able to reach Silvers before he can get it out to Douglas and Thompson. The Bobcats were eighth best in the country in sacks, reaching the quarterback about 3.3 times per game. Tarell Basham is 15th in the country at 11.5 sacks per game and will need to make his presence felt for Ohio to be able to contain the Trojans passing attack. Blair Brown and Quentin Poling, who amassed 4.5 and 4.0 sacks on the year, will also be counted on to keep Silvers and the Trojans from being able to pick apart the Ohio defense. The Bobcats are also opportunistic, forcing 24 turnovers on the season.

Troy’s defense isn’t a liability in this game either, as they rate  20 yards behind Ohio in terms of rush defense but also 20 yards ahead in terms of pass defense. The Trojans are equally opportunistic, forcing 25 turnovers on the season and have the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year in Rashad Dillard along their defensive line. Ohio has relied on the strength of their defense for much of the season and will need the offense to come through with enough plays in this game to come away with a victory. For an offense that hasn’t eclipsed 400 yards of total offense in a game since October, that’s a tough ask. A stingy defense keeps it close, but the Trojan offense will find just enough success to come away with the program’s first bowl win since 2010.

Prediction: Troy 26 – Ohio 20

 

Hawaii Bowl – Hawaii vs. Middle Tennessee

You like offense? We got offense. Or at least no defense, which makes it look like there’s a lot of offense. Hawaii has held opponents under 30 points only five times all season. MTSU has only accomplished that feat three times and also just gave up 56 points to Florida Atlantic, who fired their head coach one day later. If you’re a fan of defensive battles, it’s probably best to skip this game. If you want to see cornerbacks get roasted like chestnuts over an open fire (this game is on Christmas Eve, after all), then set your DVR.

Both the Rainbow Warriors and the Blue Raiders are here almost solely because of their offenses. MTSU averaged 317 yards passing per game and ranked ninth in the nation in total yards per game. That passing offense ranked 12th in yards per game in the nation, while the running game posted a very respectable 46th ranking while average 198 yards per game. Meanwhile, Hawaii… ranked 86th in rushing yards per game in the country… and 74th in passing offense… and 88th in total offense. Wait, so if Hawaii doesn’t have this super-prolific offense, how’d they overcome a defense that allowed 37.4 points per game? Well, for starters, the Warriors gave up 50 points in four of their losses, including 63 to Michigan, so the defense was slightly better than their averages in games against less elite competition. Secondly, they performed well against anemic offenses like Fresno State and San Jose State. In other words, the Warriors had a good defense when they played a terrible offense.

Unfortunately for Hawaii, Middle Tennessee State doesn’t have an anemic offense. RB I’Tavius Mathers was first-team All-Conference in Conf-USA after rushing for 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns. Sophomore wideout Richie James joined him on the first team by hauling in 97 receptions for 1,463 yards. All in all, eight of 11 MTSU offensive players were placed on the Conf-USA All-Conference first and second teams or received honorable mention, including four offensive linemen. Sophomore QB Brent Stockstill also received honorable mention.

Hawaii’s had a good season, or at least a much better season than most people thought they would have. But despite this practically being a home game for the Rainbow Warriors, they just don’t have the talent on defense to slow down Middle Tennessee, or the talent on offense to keep pace with the Blue Raiders.

Prediction: Middle Tennessee State 45 – Hawaii 34