by Ian Boyd
Our bowl season extravaganza begins! We're going to start with the first week of bowl games that run from December 16 up through December 22.
Most of these games feature Group of 5 Schools. These bowls may actually produce the most entertaining contests in an era where bigger programs don't take bowl games very seriously and players with pro futures to consider are often sitting out.
All of these games take place at times when you may be looking for downtime with family or relatives and will generally feature two teams making a genuine effort to secure victory.
All times are listed as Eastern.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
New Orleans, LA
Troy (-6.5) vs. North Texas
December 16, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
||F/+||34||72||Special Teams S&P++||122||51||When Troy has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||56||110||S&P+||66||96||IsoPPP+||53||97||Rushing S&P+||44||50||Passing S&P+||92||112||When North Texas has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||28||35||S&P+||18||22||IsoPPP+||37||37||Rushing S&P+||52||63||Passing S&P+||72||34|
Troy had a pretty solid year in 2017, highlighted by a victory over a shocked LSU team and splitting the Sun Belt Conference title with Appalachian State. The Sun Belt doesn't have a title game and those two teams didn't play each other, so neither has a clear claim to the title. The Trojans are keyed mostly by their defense, a swarming 3-3-5 scheme with multiple playmakers in the secondary, such as second leading tackler Cedarius Rookard and cornerbacks Marcus Jones and Blace Brown (seven combined interceptions). They're good at shifting defenders around and having them show up in unexpected places.
They're up against an explosive and balanced Air Raid offense from North Texas. Mean Green running back Jeffrey Wilson ran for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns on the year, and four different wide receivers had 500 or more receiving yards. Quarterback Mason Fine threw for 3,749 yards at 8.1 yards per attempt. He is the sort of undersized Texas high school quarterback who has led many other offenses of this sort to great success. His ability to diagnose the shifting Troy defense to distribute the ball will be the key to this game.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Troy
AutoNation Cure Bowl
Western Kentucky vs. Georgia State (-6.5)
December 16, 2:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
|Overall||Western Kentucky||Georgia State||F/+||94||109||Special Teams S&P++||91||127||When Western Kentucky has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||98||67||S&P+||76||60||IsoPPP+||83||73||Rushing S&P+||117||40||Passing S&P+||58||115||When Georgia State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||95||107||S&P+||73||111||IsoPPP+||98||101||Rushing S&P+||97||130||Passing S&P+||123||75|
With Jeff Brohm leaving after last season to go to Purdue, Western Kentucky had to transition to Mike Sanford at head coach, and Sanford's first year did not go well. The Hilltoppers offense collapsed despite returning quarterback Mike White, and they spent a lot of time handing the ball off for only about 3 yards a pop. Their defense wasn't exceptional before, and it didn't become so in Year 1 under new leadership either.
Georgia State had similar issues: a plodding run game and a passing game that didn't do much to relieve pressure. They haven't been great on defense either, so the major edge in this game goes to Western Kentucky. This will be White's last start with the Hilltoppers, and they have a three-year bowl game winning streak to protect, so expect the senior to come out firing in an effort to end on a high note (and finish above .500).
S&P+ Outright Pick: Western Kentucky
Las Vegas Bowl
Las Vegas, NV
Boise State vs. Oregon (-7.5)
December 16, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
||F/+||25||43||Special Teams S&P++||30||97||When Boise State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||32||46||S&P+||41||58||IsoPPP+||27||44||Rushing S&P+||33||28||Passing S&P+||27||31||When Oregon has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||45||44||S&P+||34||25||IsoPPP+||22||29||Rushing S&P+||21||28||Passing S&P+||83||46|
This is by far the most intriguing matchup of the first weekend of bowl games. The numbers say that Boise State is actually the better team by a fair margin, but those numbers don't account for the fact that Oregon lost starting quarterback Justin Herbert for five games and had to replace him with a freshman who couldn't get the offense going in a 1-4 stretch. When the Ducks have Herbert in the game, they are a totally different team than the season's numbers suggest.
Another factor that makes this game difficult to analyze is that Oregon head coach Willie Taggart is gone, off to coach the Florida State Seminoles, and offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal has already been named the new head coach. That should help provide some stability to the Ducks and some motivation to show well in Cristobal's first game, but it's hard to be confident in what all of that transition will mean for the program.
On the Boise State side, the Broncos tend to take bowl games pretty seriously as another chance to prove they belong on the main stage with the big boys. Their season sputtered early. It turned out that losing lead receiver Thomas Sperbeck and shuffling the offensive line to deal with injuries and departures was going to be a difficult issue to overcome. For this bowl game, star running back Alexander Mattison and their best tight end Jake Roh are both questionable with injuries that hampered them late in the year. The Broncos were pretty much rolling by the end of the season though, and have been playing consistently strong defense. Boise State has a defensive structure designed to confuse where extra help will come from before outnumbering the running game with their nickelback or a safety. Oregon will need to be well prepared to get their potent rushing attack going, but the difference in this game may come in the ai,r where the Ducks are flying high again with Herbert back in the lineup.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Boise State
Gildan New Mexico Bowl
Marshall vs. Colorado State (-5.5)
December 16, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Marshall||Colorado State||F/+||60||68||Special Teams S&P++||67||10||When Marshall has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||95||107||S&P+||105||97||IsoPPP+||100||114||Rushing S&P+||128||96||Passing S&P+||56||111||When Colorado State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||49||29||S&P+||22||14||IsoPPP+||32||22||Rushing S&P+||19||55||Passing S&P+||69||20|
The first week of bowl game season features a lot of teams that are particularly strong on one side of the ball and then weak on the other side. The battle between Marshall's offense and Colorado State's defense is not a high-powered contest, but when Colorado State is trying to move the ball against Marshall's defense, you have a compelling fight.
Colorado State has a very balanced offense guided by head coach and former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Lead back Dalyn Dawkins ran for 1,349 yards at 6.2 yards per carry this season, while his back-up/change of pace companion Izzy Matthews went for 588 more and handled short-yardage with his 220-pound frame. Quarterback Nick Stevens threw for 8.3 yards per attempt, avoided sacks throwing off play-action (sack rate of 1.9 percent), and effectively pushed the ball down the field for their offense.
The Marshall defense was small this year, but aggressive and filled with good run defenders like lead tackler and linebacker Chase Hancock; safety Malik Grant; and big (6-foot-7, 280-pound) defensive lineman Ryan Bee. They were a small defense that moved guys around and outnumbered the run game with speed, but they'll face an old school challenge from Colorado State's double-tight end formations and downhill run game. We have been seeing a lot of "speed vs. size" battles this year with big, run-centric teams facing smaller and faster defenses, and so far the defenses have tended to come out ahead.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Colorado State
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl
Middle Tennessee vs. Arkansas State (-4)
December 16, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Middle Tennessee||Arkansas State||F/+||86||41||Special Teams S&P++||48||45||When Middle Tennessee has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||103||56||S&P+||96||55||IsoPPP+||60||80||Rushing S&P+||81||51||Passing S&P+||91||66||When Arkansas State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||60||78||S&P+||45||20||IsoPPP+||52||51||Rushing S&P+||61||113||Passing S&P+||80||57|
The S&P+ rankings like the Arkansas State offense and very little else about this game. That offense is an interesting one, largely charged by quarterback Justice Hansen, an Oklahoma transfer. The junior is a 6-foot-4, 218-pound athlete who excels at making the quick option reads in their offense, getting the ball to the right playmakers in the right areas of the field. The Red Wolves run a lot of zone and counter schemes with Hansen surveying the field and handing off, keeping, or flipping the ball to a receiver on the perimeter based on the defensive reaction. It's a full-bore spread-option system, and he's very experienced and capable making it go.
Middle Tennessee is another of these Group of 5 defenses that loads the field with smaller, faster defenders, and they also like to fire them into backfield on the blitz. Their three linebackers -- D.J. Sanders, Khalil Brooks, and Darius Harris -- combined for 28 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks this season. Their starting defensive backs also made some stops in opposing backfields. The key matchup in this game will be how well those blitzes fluster or pressure Hansen and prevent him from making the right distributions in the Arkansas State option system. The smart money is probably on Hansen diagnosing and carving it up.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Arkansas State
Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl
Boca Raton, FL
Akron vs. Florida Atlantic (-22.5)
December 19, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
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|F/+||100||17||Special Teams S&P++||125||4||When Akron has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||104||78||S&P+||110||63||IsoPPP+||118||56||Rushing S&P+||124||89||Passing S&P+||111||50||When Florida Atlantic has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||59||12||S&P+||76||7||IsoPPP+||82||11||Rushing S&P+||119||7||Passing S&P+||86||79|
Florida Atlantic had a big first year under new head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, the son of Art Briles. They installed Briles' "veer and shoot" offense at Florida Atlantic, with Kiffin adding some of his own tweaks and updates to the system. The result was the Owls obliterating their opponents, scoring 43 points a game.
They made great use of running back Devin Singletary, who took 275 carries for 1,796 yards and 28 touchdowns in the wide-open creases he found thanks to the extreme spacing of the offense. The offense is designed to ultimately produce opportunities for the quarterback to pile up yardage throwing the ball down the field, but signal-caller Jason Driskel threw for 1,977 yards and mostly contented himself to handing off to Singletary or back-up running back Gregory Howell Jr., who added another 690 rushing yards.
Akron does not have a stout run defense, and they don't regularly face the kind of concepts and spacing that Florida Atlantic will use to attack them in this game, hence the massive spread. The S&P+ numbers say 22.5 points is a bit much, but the challenge that Florida Atlantic will be for the Zips, combined with what will likely be an earnest desire by Lane Kiffin and Kendal Briles to make a strong statement in a prime-time game, suggests this could very well get that far out of hand. You still might want to watch, though, for the blending of Kiffin's strong offensive mind with the deadly Briles offens. This system will probably show up at a bigger school even if these two coaches don't.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Florida Atlantic
DXL Frisco Bowl
Louisiana Tech vs. SMU (-5)
December 20, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Louisiana Tech||SMU||F/+||83||57||Special Teams S&P++||57||93||When Louisiana Tech has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||71||103||S&P+||56||121||IsoPPP+||62||120||Rushing S&P+||27||98||Passing S&P+||71||98||When SMU has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||88||14||S&P+||87||8||IsoPPP+||111||36||Rushing S&P+||124||21||Passing S&P+||106||45|
SMU had a sort of breakthrough this season on offense in Year 3 under Chad Morris' direction, but Morris parlayed that success into the head coach job at Arkansas. His assistant, ace recruiter and fellow Texas high schoool coach Jeff Traylor, was named the interim head coach, but then SMU hired former Cal head coach Sonny Dykes over Traylor. Traylor then ended up leaving SMU to join Morris in Fayetteville. Now Dykes is coaching SMU in the bowl game after just arriving as a head coach and likely bringing a different offense and philosophy to the program. What's more, SMU had a lot of players publicly lobbying for Traylor to get the job. It'll be interesting to see if they have bought in or not on Dykes as the new head coach.
If not for that, you'd have to like SMU blowing out the overmatched Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, but that really complicates things for the Mustangs. SMU still has a loaded offense with young up-and-comers in the backfield and on the offensive line, and then three excellent receivers that make things go. SMU likes to line up and run the football from a spread-I formation with a tight end in the backfield; when teams try to load the box they'll throw it down the field with vertical shots at one-on-one matchups. All three of their top wideouts had 800-plus receiving yards, and it's a hard system to stop. The big question is just how well-oiled that system has been over the last few weeks while the program has been in turmoil and transition.
S&P Outright Pick: SMU
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl
St. Petersburg, FL
Temple (-7.5) vs. Florida International
December 21, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Temple||Florida International||F/+||79||90||Special Teams S&P++||99||41||When Temple has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||96||101||S&P+||104||92||IsoPPP+||97||101||Rushing S&P+||114||109||Passing S&P+||90||124||When Florida International has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||35||49||S&P+||52||58||IsoPPP+||53||68||Rushing S&P+||49||101||Passing S&P+||70||38|
Temple took a step back this year after losing head coach Matt Rhule to Baylor and star defensive ends Haason Reddick and Praise-Martin Oguike to the NFL. They were still good across the defensive line though, with Sharif Finch, Jacob Martin, and Quincy Roche combining for 21.5 sacks, while nose tackle Julian Taylor led the team with 17 run stuffs.
The offense wasn't particularly good under Rhule and remained iffy in his absence. The run game actually decreased in efficiency, and the quarterback position struggled with sophomore Logan Marchi before finding more success late with junior Frank Nutile.
The Florida International offense probably isn't enough of a threat to punish Temple's defensive decline, and may indeed get into trouble against the Owls pass rush. Florida International quarterback Alex McGough was sacked 21 times this year. His offensive line may struggle to keep the Temple defensive line off him. Another fun thing to watch for in this game is Florida International's lead receiver Thomas Owens, who checks in at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, but averages 10.4 yards per target. Could be pretty interesting to see how such a wide-bodied receiver can be so explosive in the passing game.
S&P Outright Pick: Florida International
Alabama-Birmingham vs. Ohio (-7.5)
December 22, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||UAB||Ohio||F/+||82||36||Special Teams S&P++||60||14||When UAB has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||69||63||S&P+||89||48||IsoPPP+||114||50||Rushing S&P+||82||67||Passing S&P+||107||82||When Ohio has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||67||43||S&P+||37||33||IsoPPP+||58||41||Rushing S&P+||55||29||Passing S&P+||78||73|
This is another of those games where each team leans pretty heavily on one side of the ball, and those two strengths will square off in this game. Ohio has a sturdy run game with two different backs who logged at least 100 carries in addition to quarterback Nathan Rourke, who had another 118 carries, averaging 8.3 yards apiece. They run a lot of zone-read, and Rourke is quick and dangerous on the perimeter. Ohio throws the ball around some and operates out of a three-wide spread with a blocking tight end, but the passing game is not the strength of the offense.
UAB's offense is built around pounding the ball inside with 235-pound running back Spencer Brown and then flipping it down the field to speedy little wide receivers Andrew Wilson and Collin Lisa, but their passing component is not a real strength to their offense. If they aren't moving the chains with Brown, they aren't scoring. The UAB defense will have to help them out as they did all year. That defense is led by Broderick Thomas, who plays strong safety for the Blazers and specializes in limiting the damage from his deep perch, and linebacker Tevin Crews in the middle. UAB will need Thomas to prevent Rourke from burning them on option-keepers while Crews focuses on blowing up blocks against the standard Ohio rushing attack.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Ohio
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Central Michigan vs. Wyoming (-4)
December 22, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Central Michigan||Wyoming||F/+||74||71||Special Teams S&P++||113||43||When Central Michigan has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||93||24||S&P+||84||9||IsoPPP+||89||16||Rushing S&P+||121||35||Passing S&P+||81||48||When Wyoming has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||54||117||S&P+||49||120||IsoPPP+||78||126||Rushing S&P+||114||106||Passing S&P+||42||126|
Wyoming was pretty hyped coming into the season after they narrowly lost the 2016 Mountain West Championship game and then narrowly lost the Poinsettia Bowl to BYU. Quarterback Josh Allen is strong-armed and athletic, and his playmaking drew the eyes of scouts across the nation. But then his top receivers and running backs all graduated or left for the NFL and Allen battled injuries (including one that may keep him out of his game) and the Wyoming offense collapsed. Meanwhile the struggling Cowboys defense had a big breakthrough thanks to the return of multiple starters, especially safety Andrew Wingard and linebacker Logan Wilson. Those two made a lot of tackles, and Wingard added four interceptions as part of a starting secondary that had 11 on the year.
Despite his struggles this season, Allen is still likely to be drafted pretty high in 2018. That might make him more questionable to actually play in this game since he has a lot at stake, but he's reported to be working to play and show he's ready for the pros. Sophomore Cowboys running back Kellen Overstreet had a strong finish to the year, and they may emphasize their power run game with him in this game.
Central Michigan is led by former five-star recruit and Michigan quarterback Shane Morris, a good athlete who struggled to win a starting job with the Wolverines due to his decision-making. This year with the Chippewas, he had a sack rate of 4.5 percent and threw 13 interceptions, generally ranging from "great" to "terrible" depending on whether he was playing a good defense or not. Wyoming has a good defense, and if they have a healthy Josh Allen or a stronger run game, they may be able to draw out the Morris who never got any traction at Michigan and win this game big.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Wyoming
S&P+ PICKS: Bowl Week 1
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P Pick||S&P Pick against the spread|
|Troy||6.5||North Texas||Troy||North Texas|
|Georgia State||6.5||Western Kentucky||Western Kentucky||Western Kentucky|
|Oregon||7.5||Boise State||Boise State||Boise State|
|Colorado State||5.5||Marshall||Colorado State||Colorado State|
|Arkansas State||4||Middle Tennessee||Arkansas State||Arkansas State|
|Florida Atlantic||22.5||Akron||Florida Atlantic||Akron|
|SMU||5||Louisiana Tech||SMU||Louisiana Tech|
|Temple||7.5||Florida International||Florida International||Florida International|
|Wyoming||4||Central Michigan||Wyoming||Central Michigan|
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 45-37