Picks for the first week of college bowl games
College bowl season is upon us! With a slate of 40 games to evaluate, our picks will be broken down into three separate pieces, with next Wednesday’s article covering the games between Dec. 23 and Dec. 29, and the following Wednesday’s highlighting the remaining games between Dec. 30 and Jan. 2.
Today we’ll focus on the lineup that runs from Saturday through Dec. 22.
Saturday, Dec. 17
Gildan New Mexico Bowl
New Mexico vs. UTSA
Line: New Mexico, -7.5
While UTSA has a number of front-seven defenders who have graded out very well against the run this year, the defense has been susceptible to the big play on the ground. In five of the last six games, the Roadrunners have yielded individual gains of at least 25 yards. This plays right into the hands of New Mexico, as the Lobos’ offense has thrived off huge ground gains through their triple-option attack all season. RBs Tyrone Owens and Teriyon Gipson both eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in 2016, with Owens posting individual runs of at least 40 yards in six of the last eight games, and Gipson ripping off gains of at least 59 yards six times this season. Neither team has shown any level of consistency on defense throughout the season, especially New Mexico, who has had a combined score of over 60 in 10 of its 12 games. UTSA has proven throughout the season that it has the chops to stay with just about everybody it has faced, and should be able to cover this spread, but look for the Lobos to come out on top.
Prediction: New Mexico 33, UTSA 27
Las Vegas Bowl
Houston vs. San Diego State
Line: Houston, -3.5
This is without question the most intriguing matchup of the first week, as it pits two of the best offensive players in the nation against each other. Houston owns two of the more impressive wins of the college season, as the Cougars defeated Oklahoma by double-digits in Week 1, and smashed Louisville by 26 in Week 12. However, injuries and inconsistent play after a hot September start led to three losses, and certainly not the bowl game the school had in mind after spending the first month of the season ranked in the top 10. The key to Houston’s offense will of course be the health of QB Greg Ward, as well as the offensive line’s ability to hold up in pass protection. When under pressure this season, Ward has completed just 46.5 percent of his passes, and his passer rating drops by almost 50 points.
Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. versus pressure in 2016
San Diego State’s defense stumbled down the stretch, but the Aztecs were able to avenge their Week 12 loss to Wyoming by defeating the Cowboys in the MWC conference championship game two weeks later. They are led by outstanding RB Donnel Pumphrey, who will surpass 2,000 yards with 35 more in this bowl game. His dazzling agility and quickness had allowed him to produce 68 missed tackles and score 15 touchdowns. Trying to stop him will be our seventh-highest cumulatively-graded rush defense, led by super star freshman Ed Oliver, who ranks among the top three defensive tackles nationally in run-stop percentage.
Despite Houston head coach Tom Herman leaving to take the vacancy at Texas, I like a rested and healthy Cougars team to come out on top in this one. San Diego State can be had through the air, and their once-solid rush defense yielded 635 yards rushing in the final three games of the season. Look for a strong, all-around effort by a motivated Cougars team looking to prove it can perform at a high level without its coach of the past two season.
Prediction: Houston 31, San Diego State 24
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl
Appalachian State vs. Toledo
Line: Toledo, -1
Toledo RB Kareem Hunt had an outstanding season both as a runner and as a receiver out of the backfield, as he forced 88 total missed tackles and ranked fifth nationally in PFF’s elusive rating metric. A heavy run-centric game-plan does not bode well for Appalachian State, who ranked 11th in the nation in cumulative pass-coverage grading, but was just 62nd on run defense, without any clear standouts. The Mountaineers have two very capable backs of their own in Jalin Moore and Marcus Cox, who have combined for 2,240 yards rushing with 55 forced missed tackles, but they don’t have a passer of the caliber of Toledo’s Logan Woodside. Woodside has had an outstanding season, especially when working in a clean pocket. When not facing pressure, he has completed 74.1 percent of his passes with 34 touchdowns to just five interceptions, recording a QB rating of 137.1. Considering Appalachian State ranks just 82nd in the country in cumulative pass-rush grade, Woodside should be able to post a big day. There will be fireworks on both sides of this matchup, but Toledo looks to be the clear victor in this contest.
Prediction: Toledo 35, Appalachian State 21
AutoNation Cure Bowl
UCF vs. Arkansas State
Line: Central Florida, -6.5
The Arkansas State offense is led by RB Warren Wand, whose 60 forced missed tackles in 207 total touches ranks him 11th in the country in our elusiveness rating. UCF, however, has a solid rush defense from top to bottom, as the Knights rank 17th in PFF’s cumulative run-defense grading, and are led by DE Tony Guerad, who ranks third among all defensive ends in run-stop percentage. On the other side of the ball, the Red Wolves boast two excellent pass-rushers in DE Chris Odom and OLB Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, who have combined for 27 sacks and 97 total QB pressures this season. They should also have an advantage against UCF’s rushing attack, as the Knights have not graded well in run blocking, and Arkansas State’s defensive line has stout run defenders across the board. Without any true difference-makers on offense for UCF, I look for the Red Wolves to pull off the upset in what is likely to be the lowest-scoring game of the day.
Prediction: Arkansas State 24, UCF 21
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Southern Miss vs. UL Lafayette
Line: Southern Miss, -6
While the Southern Miss offensive line has had a shaky season both on run blocks and pass protection, the trio of QB Nick Mullens, WR Allenzae Staggers, and RB Ito Smith will be very difficult for Louisiana to stop. Considering that the Ragin’ Cajuns rank among the bottom 10 in the country in pass defense, and don’t possess the offensive playmakers needed to keep pace, look for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles to distance themselves from their opponent fairly early.
Prediction: Southern Miss 31, UL Lafayette 17
Monday, Dec. 19
Miami Beach Bowl
Central Michigan vs. Tulsa
Line: Tulsa, -12.5
Central Michigan has had a bit of a roller-coaster season, with wins over Oklahoma State and MAC championship finalist Ohio paired with losses to Kent State, Eastern Michigan, Toledo, Virginia, and Western Michigan. Senior QB Cooper Rush has had a good season, but not the breakout performance many were expecting. This is certainly in part due to the talent around him, as he was sacked 34 times, and his skill players recorded 24 drops. Tulsa hasn’t scored less than 30 points since its Week 2 loss to Ohio State, and is led by the two-headed rushing attack of RBs D’Angelo Brewer and James Flanders. The duo has combined for 2,845 rushing yards, 24 touchdowns, and 64 forced missed tackles, and are supplemented nicely by QB Dane Evans’ passing. Chippewa DE Joe Ostman is the key for Central Michigan, as he posted 23 total QB pressures and 18 total defensive stops in his last five games. Without another obvious pass-rush threat, if Tulsa can limit Ostman’s effectiveness, the Golden Hurricane will have its way with Central Michigan on offense.
Prediction: Tulsa 39, Central Michigan 20
Tuesday, Dec. 20
Boca Raton Bowl
Memphis vs. Western Kentucky
Line: Western Kentucky, -5
If you enjoy scoring, and I am quite certain you do, you’ll want to tune into this game, which has the highest implied scoring total of any of the 40 bowl games this season. Memphis QB Riley Ferguson has thrown 28 touchdowns to nine interceptions this year, and has a QB rating over 100.0 regardless of whether opposing defenses blitz or not. What he doesn’t have is a consistently complimentary run game, as the Tigers rank 10th from the bottom in cumulative run-blocking grading. Western Kentucky has a more balanced attack, as their offensive line has been outstanding throughout the year, and is led by LT Forrest Lamp, who has yet to give up a sack this season and has yielded just four total QB pressures. Look for the Hilltoppers’ offensive line to stymie the Memphis pass-rush, allowing Western Kentucky QB Mike White to improve upon his already highly-impressive numbers on the season (28 touchdowns to six interceptions, 124.9 QB rating). Expect to see star WR Taywan Taylor end his college career with yet another huge game (218 catches, 40 touchdowns in three years of grading).
Prediction: Western Kentucky 44, Memphis 35
Wednesday, Dec. 21
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
BYU vs. Wyoming
Line: BYU, -8.5
BYU had a bit of an inverted schedule this year. The first half of the season was filled with numerous close losses to the likes of Utah, UCLA, and West Virginia, paired with big wins against Toledo and Michigan State; the Cougars closed the regular season with four November wins by a combined score of 116 to 29. Wyoming is led by the passing of QB Josh Allen, who has an impressive passer rating of 89.6 and a touchdown-to interception ratio of 11:6 when under pressure this season. The key for the BYU defense will be contesting the downfield targets to Cowboys WR Tanner Gentry, who has posted 65 grabs and 1,212 receiving yards this year, with an average of 18.6 yards per catch. Only 199 of those yards have occurred after the catch, however. With the BYU defense and run game on a roll, they should be able to carry momentum over into this game and come out with a comfortable win.
Prediction: BYU 34, Wyoming 17
Thursday, Dec. 22
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Idaho vs. Colorado State
Line: Colorado State, -13.5
While Idaho plays host to the Rams, they will have difficulty stopping an offense that put up 195 points in four November matchups. In those games, Colorado State has recorded 1,154 rushing yards while forcing 31 missed tackles on the ground. Considering that the Vandals have missed 125 tackles on the season, expect both trends to continue, and Colorado State to leave Idaho victorious.
Prediction: Colorado State 44, Idaho 20