Seventh Day Adventure
Football Outsiders' weekly preview for people who like their football played on Saturdays

Seventh Day Adventure: Bowl Spectacular Part I

George Holani
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

The holiday season isn't truly complete without a full schedule of bowl games between college football teams that even most fans of the sport don't know particularly well. It's generally really fun to watch these kids in games that are major opportunities for smaller programs. There's more purity and there isn't the taint of programs that clearly don't care as much about their bowl games if they miss the playoffs and who have star players sit out to protect their health and status for the NFL draft.

The early slate of games has a lot of Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA, and MAC teams playing each other with a few bigger programs mixed in. Some of these teams are legitimate squads that can hang with programs from the Power Five conferences. There are also a few NFL prospects littered in for draftniks who may want to tune in to see some players that will be relevant in March and April during that season.

Our big matchups include SMU vs. Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech vs. Miami, Boise State vs. Washington, and BYU vs. Hawai'i in Honolulu on Christmas Eve.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl
Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas
Buffalo (-6.5) vs. Charlotte -- December 20, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Buffalo (7-5) Charlotte (7-5)
F/+ 59 83
FEI 36 76
When Buffalo has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 66 117
SP+ 97 115
IsoPPP+ 125 109
Rushing SP+ 61 118
Passing SP+ 92 112
When Charlotte has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 24 31
SP+ 49 51
IsoPPP+ 77 31
Rushing SP+ 25 50
Passing SP+ 43 17

The Buffalo Bulls have started to become a serious contender in the MAC with a very traditional model for generating wins. They play defense and they run the football, with the latter serving to boost the former by shortening games and keeping their very effective unit off the field.

This season the Bulls had two different running backs rush for over 1,000 yards, with each getting over 200 carries as well. Jaret Patterson was the main back with 280 carries for 1,626 yards at 5.8 yards per carry with 17 touchdowns. His alternate, Kevin Marks, had 215 carries for 1,008 yards at 4.7 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. The Bulls were fourth nationally in time of possession grinding away at teams with this formula. They have an above average-sized offensive line for this level, with everyone across the starting lineup measuring in at 6-foot-4 or taller and tight end Zac Lefebvre checking in at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds. Interestingly enough, they run a lot of pistol offense with heavy doses of outside zone blocking that forces opponents to try and maintain the line of scrimmage against their lanky line and constant rotation of fresh running.

The Bulls defense is also very good and boasts three different defensive ends with seven or more sacks anchored in the middle by defensive tackle Chibueze Onwuka. Their safeties make a lot of tackles, finishing first and third on the team, often playing downhill and cleaning up the mess left by aggressive and upfield techniques employed by the defensive line.

Charlotte will need to either handle that pressure on offense in limited opportunities or else have a plan to stop the Buffalo run game. 49ers defensive end Alex Highsmith is one to watch with 19.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, and 19.5 run stuffs, but the rest of the defense has struggled. The Charlotte offense is keyed by a spread-option attack led by dual-threat quarterback Chris Reynolds, who threw for 2,366 yards and ran for 840 with 27 total touchdowns. They're effective in the run game but not super explosive and will have their work cut out for them trying to keep up with Buffalo over the course of the game.

Watch for:

  • Charlotte defensive end Alex Highsmith.
  • Will Buffalo just slowly squeeze the life from Charlotte with a relentless run game and defense?
  • Did either team fall into the trap of having too much fun in the Tropics to be ready to play a football game?

FEI Outright Pick: Buffalo by 9.8

Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl
Frisco, Texas
Utah State (-6) vs. Kent State -- December 20, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Utah State (7-5) Kent State (6-6)
F/+ 91 107
FEI rating 96 105
When Utah State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 101 121
SP+ 82 119
IsoPPP+ 73 52
Rushing SP+ 68 112
Passing SP+ 64 119
When Kent State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 77 53
SP+ 76 91
IsoPPP+ 29 97
Rushing SP+ 105 63
Passing SP+ 60 59

This game has been infused with some extra drama after police arrested a group of Utah State players that included NFL-bound quarterback Jordan Love and star running back Gerold Bright for possession of marijuana. It's not clear yet if they'll be suspended for all or any of the game.

For NFL draftniks, this game would have been an interesting opportunity to see Love play, albeit against a Kent State defense that is among the very worst in college football. This has been an off year for Love, who fell off under the new staff when his old head coach and offensive coordinator (Matt Wells and David Yost) left to take the vacancies at Texas Tech. He threw for 3,085 yards at just 6.7 yards per attempt this year with 17 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. The Aggies have been carried this year mostly by their remaining players on defense such as linebacker David Woodward and defensive end Tipa Galeai.

For Kent State and gamblers, this game could present a major opportunity to score a big win. Kent State tends to play a lot of off coverage and bend-don't-break defense with cornerbacks Keith Sherald Jr. and Jamal Parker, who are 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-8 respectively, combining this season for six interceptions and 14 pass breakups. If the Aggies aren't careful with the football or Love is suspended for the game, the Golden Flashes could make a move here. Their own quarterback Dustin Crum was very careful with the ball this year, throwing 18 touchdowns to just two interceptions while leading the team with 734 rushing yards at 6.7 yards per carry.

Watch for:

  • Will the Utah State starting quarterback and running back be allowed to play after their off-field issues?
  • Kent State dual-threat quarterback Dustin Crum.
  • Utah State quarterback Jordan Love is an NFL draft prospect; if he's playing he'll be going up against a bad pass defense.

FEI Outright Pick: Utah State by 2.3

New Mexico Bowl
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Central Michigan vs. San Diego State (-3.5) -- December 21, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Central Michigan (8-5) San Diego State (9-3)
F/+ 73 66
FEI 64 75
When Central Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 50 32
SP+ 79 17
IsoPPP+ 65 6
Rushing SP+ 69 9
Passing SP+ 44 19
When San Diego State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 69 115
SP+ 73 127
IsoPPP+ 69 129
Rushing SP+ 31 125
Passing SP+ 86 107

San Diego State had an impressive run over the last few years with 11-win seasons in 2015 and 2016 and then a 10-win season in 2017 before dropping off in the last two seasons. In that three-year stretch the Aztecs had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers the first season; a 2,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard rusher the second; and then another 2,000-yard rusher in the third. Then in 2018 lead running back Juwan Washington finished with 999 yards, and this year he's sitting at 500 at 3.3 yards per carry. It has been a pretty severe drop-off for the Aztecs offense and it will certainly leave them vulnerable to a Central Michigan defense powered by a fantastic linebacker corps and disruptive defensive line with three players with 14 or more run stuffs.

The Aztecs defense is still going strong though, and is the main reason San Diego State still managed eight victories and is in this bowl game. Their 3-3-5 has been extremely influential and their use of a middle "Aztec" safety who plays like a Tampa-2 linebacker is becoming a mainstream practice with the development of the "inverted Tampa-2" defense played by emerging units like Baylor, Iowa State, and even Clemson this last year.

The "Aztec" safety this season is Dwayne Johnson Jr. (not that Dwayne Johnson), and he's their second-leading tackler and will be instrumental in going up against a potent Central Michigan run game. The biggest star on the San Diego State defense is cornerback Luq Barcoo, who had eight interceptions and 16 pass breakups this season.

The Central Michigan offense has quite a bit of talent, starting with quarterback Quinten Dormady, who transferred from Tennessee. They spread the ball around pretty generously to all three starting receivers and also tight end Tony Poljan (496 receiving yards and four touchdowns), but running backs Kobe Lewis and Jonathan Ward combined for 351 carries, 2,059 yards, and 26 touchdowns. San Diego State will deploy Johnson in the box regularly to try and deal with the run game while trusting Barcoo and the secondary to handle Central Michigan's diverse cast of receivers in man coverage down the field.

Watch for:

  • San Diego State's unique 3-3-5 "Aztec" defense against Central Michigan's balanced offense.
  • Can the Aztecs score on the Central Michigan defense?
  • Central Michigan quarterback Quinten Dormady vs. San Diego State cornerback Luq Barcoo.

FEI Outright Pick: Central Michigan by 3.5

FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl
Orlando, Florida
Liberty vs. Georgia Southern (-5) -- December 21, 2:30 pm (CBSSN)

Overall Liberty (7-5) Georgia Southern (7-5)
F/+ 90 84
FEI 94 82
When Liberty has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 58 67
SP+ 54 64
IsoPPP+ 20 80
Rushing SP+ 42 20
Passing SP+ 57 59
When Georgia Southern has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 103 92
SP+ 100 98
IsoPPP+ 54 50
Rushing SP+ 107 75
Passing SP+ 83 117

This is the first bowl game for the Liberty program, who started to arrive in 2017 when they beat Baylor in a shocking upset. This season they hired Hugh Freeze, who'd been removed at Ole Miss amidst scandal, and went 7-5 with senior quarterback Stephen Calvert. They utilized an RPO spread with Calvert throwing for 3,393 yards and 26 touchdowns; two different running backs combining to go for 1,670 and 18 touchdowns; and lead receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden serving as the main target with 74 catches for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns. Gandy-Golden is a big guy, 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, whom the Flames move around to different positions to create matchups and he's the strongest part of their offense.

Georgia Southern, like most every school in Georgia other than the Bulldogs, is a triple-option team. Their "dive" option, fullback J.D. King, was a transfer from Oklahoma State. At 220 pounds, he's a thick and powerful inside runner who got the heaviest load this year with 175 carries for 776 yards at 4.4 yards per carry and eight touchdowns. Quarterback Shai Werts ran for 793 yards at 6.3 yards per carry with five touchdowns, keeping the chains moving and involving primary pitch option Wesley Kennedy III, who had 760 yards at 6.9 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns. Their passing game also included a 6-foot-4, 220-pound weapon in Mark Michaud, but that receiver only had 14 catches for 218 yards and four touchdowns, using his size mostly for perimeter blocking.

Neither defense was fantastic this season, but Georgia Southern was able to put pressure on opposing offenses and Liberty was vulnerable to units like that. The Georgia Southern defensive front is a 3-4 unit with linebackers that made a lot of tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage, particularly rush linebacker Randy Wade Jr., who had 12 tackles for loss and 12.5 run stuffs. Their safeties are also big and won't be easily bullied by Gandy-Golden. The Liberty defense was a bend-don't-break unit that tended to break when serious stress was applied. Their star is defensive end Jessie Lemonier, who had 8.5 sacks and 17.5 run stuffs this year. He'll have to navigate perimeter options and try to string out Werts late so he can't pitch to Kennedy with space to win the edge.

Watch for:

  • Hugh Freeze was extended by Liberty and will be eager to make his mark in their first bowl game.
  • Will the Liberty defense be ready to stop the triple option after extra bowl practices?
  • Can Liberty quarterback Stephen Calvert find receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden against Georgia Southern's blitzing defense?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia Southern by 1.8.

Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl
Boca Raton, Florida
SMU (-3) vs. Florida Atlantic -- December 21, 3:30 pm (ABC)

Overall SMU (10-2) Florida Atlantic (10-3)
F/+ 35 31
FEI 31 27
When SMU has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 16 21
SP+ 27 41
IsoPPP+ 15 118
Rushing SP+ 66 49
Passing SP+ 28 41
When Florida Atlantic has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 64 41
SP+ 63 56
IsoPPP+ 124 6
Rushing SP+ 48 65
Passing SP+ 61 45

The expectation for this game is that it will be a shootout between Sonny Dykes' Air Raid Mustangs and Lane Kiffin's pro-spread Owls. Kiffin won't actually be coaching in this game after moving on to the head coaching job at Ole Miss, but the Owls will be playing in their own stadium at Boca Raton.

The Mustangs fell off at the end of the year with losses in their big games against Memphis (54-48) and Navy (35-28). It was a good year for their big three of quarterback Shane Buechele, receiver James Proche, and running back Xavier Martin, but the defense struggled down the stretch. They had some boom-or-bust tendencies as a function of their most disruptive player being nickel linebacker Patrick Nelson, who had 17 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, and 19 run stuffs. If he wasn't getting home on the blitz then SMU was often getting gashed.

Buechele was a grad transfer quarterback from Texas who threw for 3,626 yards at 7.7 yards per attempt with 33 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Proche caught 102 of those passes for 1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns. Martin ran for 1,232 yards and 21 touchdowns, while his backup Ke'Mon Freeman added 465 and another five touchdowns. Dykes' brand of Air Raid makes pretty good use of the run game and combines it with RPOs and play-action.

The Florida Atlantic defense tried to put a lot of pressure on opponents and was subsequently also prone to getting popped for big gains. They blitzed a lot; star linebacker Akileis Leroy had 15.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, and 22 run stuffs. It's pretty likely that they'll give up some big plays against the Mustangs.

What makes this a shootout is if the Florida Atlantic passing game can get going. Kiffin's pro-spread came alive thanks to tight end Harrison Bryant, who spent most of his time flexed out and catching 65 passes for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns. John Mitchell and Tavaris Harrison gave the Owls two more big targets on the perimeter for quarterback Chris Robison, a former transfer from Oklahoma. Robison overcame a checkered offseason to throw for 3,396 yards with 26 touchdowns to six interceptions. This game quietly features transfer quarterbacks on either side from rival programs Texas and Oklahoma, which is one of a few small subplots. The Florida Atlantic run game is a smaller component to their offense this year, but running back Malcolm Davidson did average seven yards per carry and scored nine touchdowns.

Watch for:

  • Texas transfer quarterback Shane Buechele looking to outduel Oklahoma transfer quarterback Chris Robison.
  • How will SMU's defense cover Florida Atlantic's big receivers like flex tight end Harrison Bryant?
  • This should be one of the more exciting shootouts of the bowl season.

FEI Outright Pick: Florida Atlantic by 2.2

Camellia Bowl
Montgomery, Alabama
Florida International vs. Arkansas State (-2.5) -- December 21, 5:30 pm (ESPN)

Overall Florida International (6-6) Arkansas State (7-5)
F/+ 93 82
FEI 88 90
When Florida International has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 88 92
SP+ 103 105
IsoPPP+ 71 89
Rushing SP+ 92 67
Passing SP+ 73 76
When Arkansas State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 78 69
SP+ 79 48
IsoPPP+ 30 13
Rushing SP+ 90 116
Passing SP+ 51 43

This is one of many close matchups that should be fun as a "hey, these two teams are really going for it!" sort of bowl game. The best unit on the field will be the Arkansas State offense, a strong passing attack with several weapons that took off after inserting exciting freshman Layne Hatcher behind center. Hatcher ended up throwing for 2,553 yards at 8.4 yards per attempt with 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions and adding 147 more on the ground.

The Red Wolves receiving corps was the main strength of the team. Omar Bayless had 84 catches for 1,473 yards and 16 touchdowns, Kirk Merritt added 64 for 763 yards and 11 more touchdowns, and Jonathan Adams Jr. moved the chains with 58 catches for 788 yards and four more touchdowns. The Wolves also held up OK in pass defense when other teams tried to return the favor with defensive end William Bradley-King inflicting 8.5 sacks on opponents.

This game will get interesting if Florida International can match Arkansas State's firepower with their own offense. The Golden Panthers defense is overmatched and likely won't be able to limit scoring from Hatcher and his targets. They might be able to shorten the game, though, with a rushing attack with a pair of big senior running backs and a senior quarterback in James Morgan who threw only three interceptions this season in 319 attempts.

The Florida International strategy will have to be to protect the ball, maintain drives, and finish in the red zone when they get the chance because their own defense has proven susceptible to giving up big plays and the Arkansas State passing game will be gunning away.

Watch for:

  • Arkansas State freshman quarterback Layne Hatcher firing away with a deep and talented receiving corps.
  • Can Florida International win by protecting the ball with a senior offensive backfield?
  • Arkansas State defensive end William Bradley-King on crucial passing downs for Florida International.

FEI Outright Pick: EVEN

Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl
Las Vegas, Nevada
Boise State vs. Washington (-3.5) -- December 21, 7:30 pm (ABC)

Overall Boise State (12-1) Washington (7-5)
F/+ 26 20
FEI 22 29
When Boise State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 32 20
SP+ 29 27
IsoPPP+ 56 16
Rushing SP+ 36 42
Passing SP+ 42 13
When Washington has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 29 46
SP+ 48 23
IsoPPP+ 70 86
Rushing SP+ 22 44
Passing SP+ 30 56

This game will get a lot of attention for sentimental reasons. After coaching at Boise State for 13 seasons (including their heyday from 2006 to 2012) and then at Washington for six more seasons, Chris Petersen is retiring as a football coach. His final game? A bowl matchup between those two schools with Boise State now coached by his former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and Washington poised to be run by his longtime assistant Jimmy Lake. There will be emotional tributes and then there will be a heck of a game between a talented but flawed Washington team trying to send out their coach on a high note against perhaps the best Boise State team since he left for Seattle.

The Huskies will be down a few crucial starters as left tackle Trey Adams and tight end Hunter Bryant will both miss the bowl game to save themselves for the NFL draft. Bryant led the Huskies with 825 receiving yards while Adams helped keep quarterback Jacob Eason clean (4.6% sack rate) and paved the way for starting running back Salvon Ahmed to rush for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Broncos also have some NFL prospects on their team to watch, and as far as we know all of them will be playing. That list includes left tackle Ezra Cleveland, who protected three different starting quarterbacks this year, pass-rusher Curtis Weaver (13.5 sacks, 22 run stuffs), and receiver John Hightower (915 receiving yards, eight touchdowns).

Boise State interestingly has a lot of high-end talent on their team, a testament to their program's constant ability to evaluate and recruit at a high level. Normally Washington has better athletes than their opponent even in the Pac-12, but this game is fairly evenly matched from a talent perspective. The Broncos also can boast in having five returning starters on the offensive line from their 2018 team that include three seniors. With that edge, for perhaps the first time under Harsin, the Broncos didn't lean on the run game quite as much as normal. Lead running back George Holani had 979 yards for 5.4 yards per carry and seven touchdowns, but receivers Hightower and Khalil Shakir both had over 800 receiving yards. The battle between the Boise State passing game with redshirt senior quarterback Jaylon Henderson and the Washington secondary will be a crucial one for the Broncos.

There's also a fair amount of experience on the Boise State defense, including four-year starter Curtis Weaver and junior linebackers Riley Whimpey and Benton Wickersham. The Washington defense is very talented but had to find their way over the course of the season with a rebuilt secondary and interior front. Sophomore outside linebacker Joe Tryon helped them find their way down the stretch as he had six sacks in four games. His ability to bring pressure should help the Huskies, who prefer to drop seven or eight into coverage and dare opponents to work their way down the field against an always talented and well-coached secondary.

This will probably be a tight defensive struggle that may come down to Chris Petersen and his disciple Bryan Harsin's ability to game-plan each other and draw up some tricks to inflict game-changing plays.

Watch for:

  • A big, emotional sendoff for head coach Chris Petersen.
  • NFL talent on the field like outside linebacker Curtis Weaver, quarterback Jacob Eason, and receivers Aaron Fuller and John Hightower.
  • Both teams have strong pass rushes and experienced offensive lines, so what gives?

FEI Outright Pick: Boise State by 1.8

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
New Orleans, Louisiana
Appalachian State (-16.5) vs. UAB -- December 21, 9 pm (ESPN)

Overall Appalachian State (12-1) UAB (9-4)
F/+ 25 87
FEI 26 91
When Appalachian State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 40 65
SP+ 28 28
IsoPPP+ 33 78
Rushing SP+ 37 14
Passing SP+ 71 42
When UAB has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 18 96
SP+ 40 120
IsoPPP+ 81 42
Rushing SP+ 30 108
Passing SP+ 16 23

Appalachian State has had a lot of turnover in their coaching staff of late but are still bringing a strong team into this game. They lost head coach Scott Satterfield, who came up through the program as a player, assistant, and finally head coach but left for the 2019 season to take the Louisville job. He was replaced by North Carolina State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz for this year, but Drinkwitz is now leaving to be the new head coach at Missouri.

UAB is in more stable shape with head coach Bill Clark in his fourth year of turning the Blazers into an annual contender in Conference USA. Clark's defenses have been a stable constant for the team with a blitzing style that has generated major results. Linebacker Kristopher Moll lead the team in tackles while adding nine sacks and 20.5 run stuffs; outside linebacker Jordan Smith added 10 sacks and 18.5 run stuffs; and defensive tackle Garrett Marino added another six sacks and 15.5 stuffs. They're a team that gets caught from time to time but they are very hard to run the ball against because of how effectively they send players into backfields and break up run-blocking schemes.

It's hard to run the ball on UAB as a result, so teams end up having to beat them by throwing against that same pressure. The UAB offense isn't much to speak of; quarterback Tyler Johnston threw for 1,952 yards with 15 touchdowns to 14 interceptions while adding 315 on the ground. The most effective Blazers skill player was wide receiver Austin Watkins Jr., who had 47 catches for 933 yards and five touchdowns.

The big question in this game is whether Appalachian State is ready to handle UAB's defensive pressure when their head coach has left to go take over another program and the offensive line coach (Shawn Clark) normally responsible for drawing up the blocking schemes is now the head coach and busy taking over the show. If the Mountaineers can't get their outside run game going, then it could be a tough day for Clark in his first game as head coach. That said, the Mountaineers have a clear talent advantage and their own defense could make it all academic by shutting down the Blazers offense.

Watch for:

  • Can the UAB offense do their part against a very stout Appalachian State defense and keep the Blazers in the game?
  • How will new App State head coach Shawn Clark balance his duties in the transition going against a pressure defense?
  • Can App State quarterback Zac Thomas catch the UAB defense on the blitz?

FEI Outright Pick: Appalachian State by 18.5

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl
Tampa, Florida
UCF (-17) vs. Marshall -- December 23, 2:30 pm (ESPN)

Overall UCF (9-3) Marshall (8-4)
F/+ 13 67
FEI 11 65
When UCF has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 9 57
SP+ 13 57
IsoPPP+ 3 51
Rushing SP+ 30 46
Passing SP+ 15 58
When Marshall has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 26 91
SP+ 20 95
IsoPPP+ 26 68
Rushing SP+ 59 46
Passing SP+ 10 96

There was a period where it looked like UCF head coach Josh Heupel would be leaving for a job vacancy, but for now he's still the Knights' head man, which is bad news for Marshall. The Thundering Herd are pretty badly outmatched in this one as the Knights have tended to field very strong teams with talent comparable to that in some of the better Power Five programs.

UCF has a new freshman quarterback at the helm named Dillon Gabriel, who threw for 3,393 yards and 27 touchdowns to seven interceptions while hitting three different receivers for 40 catches or more. The lead target is Gabriel Davis, a big 6-foot-3 receiver who had 72 catches for 1,237 yards and 12 touchdowns. The run game was also explosive and diverse with three different backs getting involved with 80 carries or more and Adrian Killins Jr. averaging 7.2 per carry.

It's an explosive veer-and-shoot offense that uses wide receiver splits, RPOs, and regular deep shots to receivers running vertical option routes into open grass. Cincinnati managed to hold them down and edge them out for the AAC East division crown, relying on man coverage to reduce the efficiency of the deep shots and force Gabriel to consistently make throws against coverage. Marshall has a solid pass defense, but they are pretty small across their defensive backfield and may rely on a more modern approach of dropping eight speedy defenders into coverage and hoping to rally and tackle against the run.

The UCF defense is pretty solid once more, with a disciplined unit and some size along their defensive line. They have struggled to find another explosive, impact player since Shaquem Griffin left, but defensive lineman Brendon Hayes had 7.5 sacks and they make a fair number of plays around the line of scrimmage. Their starting secondary also snagged 10 interceptions and broke up another 42 passes.

Marshall doesn't have much of a passing game; quarterback Isaiah Green ran for 427 yards but he threw for only 14 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Their preference is to control the game with running back Brenden Knox, who had 244 carries for 1,284 yards at 5.3 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns. Their two leading receivers are tight ends Armani Levias and Xavier Gaines. It's a spread-option attack that can burn teams with play-action tosses to those tight ends running free when defenses forget about them.

Watch for:

  • Can UCF's disciplined secondary keep tabs on Marshall's tight ends on play-action?
  • How will the small Marshall defense try to match the explosive and balanced UCF spread offense?
  • Coaching rumors about UCF head man Josh Heupel if anything opens up during bowl season.

FEI Outright Pick: UCF by 21

Sofi Hawai'i Bowl
Honolulu, Hawai'i
Hawai'i vs. BYU (-1.5) -- December 24, 8 pm (ESPN)

Overall Hawai'i (9-5) BYU (7-5)
F/+ 74 60
FEI 70 66
When Hawai'i has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 20 62
SP+ 30 51
IsoPPP+ 70 5
Rushing SP+ 13 56
Passing SP+ 40 50
When BYU has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 112 62
SP+ 113 72
IsoPPP+ 92 57
Rushing SP+ 115 74
Passing SP+ 93 31

The Hawai'i Rainbow Warriors this season have maintained their approach of being a wide-open, creative passing offense. Quarterback Cole McDonald missed a few games but still finished with 3,642 yards at 7.4 yards per attempt with 29 touchdowns to 14 interceptions while adding 492 rushing yards and another six scores. The Rainbow Warriors had one 1,000-yard receiver in Cedric Byrd II (95 catches, 1,068 yards, 10 touchdowns) but also a pair of 900-yard receivers in Jared Smart and JoJo Ward while Jason-Matthew Sharsh had another 823.

The name of the game in Hawai'i is to never stop chucking the ball around from spread sets and make defenses continue to rush the passer and keep them from opening things up over the course of a game. It's a stressful offense to defend. This style also puts a lot of stress on the Hawai'i defense, which posted some weak numbers again and lacks good pass-rushing with their leader in sacks (Jonah Laulu) at 2.5.

BYU does have a good defense and they know how to handle passing attacks like the Hawai'i system, having beaten USC earlier this year. The Cougars strategy in that game was to drop eight into coverage and play the linebackers with a fair amount of depth to force USC to throw checkdowns or else check into runs which were then absorbed by nose tackle Khyiris Tonga (6-foot-4, 321 pounds). BYU was ninth nationally in interceptions with 15 and they just know how to play this game. If Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson is more fully recovered from the broken hand that sidelined him for a few games, then perhaps the BYU offense can make hay against Hawai'i's weaker defense and blow this game open.

Watch for:

  • How does BYU quarterback Zach Wilson look after a few weeks to heal?
  • Can the Hawai'i passing game find openings against BYU's drop-eight defense?
  • A Christmas Eve potential shootout for people who love football and don't want to watch A Christmas Story again.

FEI Outright Pick: BYU by 1.6

Walk-on's Independence Bowl
Shreveport, Louisiana
Louisiana Tech vs. Miami (-6) -- December 26, 4 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Louisiana Tech (9-3) Miami (6-6)
F/+ 65 37
FEI 59 46
When Louisiana Tech has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 73 25
SP+ 80 13
IsoPPP+ 61 68
Rushing SP+ 51 26
Passing SP+ 72 24
When Miami has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 58 75
SP+ 62 73
IsoPPP+ 24 8
Rushing SP+ 54 43
Passing SP+ 54 53

The expectation for this season at Louisiana Tech was that senior quarterback J'Mar Smith would unite with star receiver Adrian Hardy and TCU transfer Isaiah Graham to build a nasty passing attack that carried the team. Smith had only a solid year though, throwing for 2,814 yards with at 7.5 yards per attempt with 17 touchdowns to four interceptions. Hardy averaged only 7.2 yards per target and missed several games with injury, and Graham ended up with just 19 catches. Short, bowling-ball running back Justin Henderson was the main bright spot on offense with 166 carries for 967 yards at 5.8 yards per carry and 15 rushing touchdowns.

What has really propelled Louisiana Tech this season has been the defense. Cornerback Amik Robertson has been a star with eight tackles for loss, a sack, five interceptions, and 16 pass breakups. The rest of the secondary also has sticky fingers and the defense managed to pick off 15 passes, putting them in the top 10 nationally. The Bulldogs have played pretty stout defense all year; they're hard to run against and generally keep the ball in front of them as evidenced by their good IsoPPP numbers. They picked up former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in the offseason to install a 3-4 and this is one of his more versatile and sound units he has yet produced at the college level.

Miami had a rough opening season for first-year head coach Manny Diaz, relying on true freshman quarterback Jarren Williams, who had a sack rate of 11.1% while averaging only 6.5 yards per passing attempt. He did keep the ball some in the option game, helping a run game whose two complementary backs DeeJay Dallas and Cam'Ron Harris combined for 1,232 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Buffalo transfer wide receiver K.J. Osborn was their strongest weapon in the passing game with 491 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Miami will have to pound Diaco's defense and hope to generate some points.

The best hope for the Hurricanes avoiding another embarrassing bowl game defeat is their own defense, which will be a real load for the Louisiana Tech pass protection. Gregory Rousseau was a revelation on the defensive line this year with 14 sacks and 20 run stuffs while defensive ends Jonathan Garvin and Trevon Hill and linebacker Michael Pinckney all combined to add another 14.5 sacks. Miami will need their own defense to make heavy use of the turnover chain and put their offense in position to finish drives with the run game.

Watch for:

  • Can Miami get the turnover chain on display going up against Louisiana Tech's struggling passing game?
  • How will the Miami run game fare against a very solid Bulldogs run defense?
  • Louisiana Tech cornerback Amik Robertson may be small at 5-foot-9 but he may also be an NFL prospect.

FEI Outright Pick: Miami by 4.3

Quick Lane Bowl
Detroit, Michigan
Pittsburgh (-10.5) vs. Eastern Michigan -- December 26, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Pittsburgh (7-5) Eastern Michigan (6-6)
F/+ 58 94
FEI 68 84
When Pittsburgh has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 109 102
SP+ 97 115
IsoPPP+ 125 109
Rushing SP+ 61 118
Passing SP+ 92 112
When Eastern Michigan has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 16 54
SP+ 49 51
IsoPPP+ 77 31
Rushing SP+ 25 50
Passing SP+ 43 17

These bowl games often create some interesting matchups as teams with contrasting styles or strengths are pitted together over the holidays. The fascinating dimension to this game is Pittsburgh's nearly helpless offense facing Eastern Michigan's entirely helpful defense. Pitt starting quarterback Kenny Pickett averaged only 5.6 yards per attempt this season and his top targets Maurice Ffrench and Taysir "Face" Mack averaged 6.2 and 6.7 yards per target respectively. Lead running back A.J. Davis ran for 532 yards at 4.2 yards per carry. It was a slog of a season for the Pitt offense. But the Eastern Michigan defense wasn't dominant this season and lacks impact athletes that can wreck the carefully planned designs of the Pitt offense on their opening scripts in this game.

The other side of the ball features the finest Pitt defense yet under Pat Narduzzi going up against a dynamic quarterback in Mike Glass III. Glass threw for 2,858 yards and 22 touchdowns with a sack rate of just 3.3% and ran for 401 yards and seven touchdowns. The Eagles spread the ball around effectively with four receivers at around 500 receiving yards or so. The Pitt defense has been vulnerable in the past to spread attacks with dual-threat quarterbacks.

This year's Panthers defense , though, has some NFL-caliber players that are causing major problems. Defensive tackle Jalen Twyman could take over the game; he had 10.5 sacks this season, and defensive end Patrick Jones II added 8.5. This is the best defensive line they've had yet and in Narduzzi's aggressive schemes those linemen will be set up to get a lot of one-on-one matchups against the Eastern Michigan offensive line, which will likely be overmatched. The opening offensive script for Pitt may be enough to earn them the win if the Eagles can't get early stops.

Watch for:

  • Can Pitt manufacture some early offense with a good opening script against a vulnerable Eastern Michigan defense?
  • Will the talented Pitt defensive line lead by Jalen Twyman simply dominate this game?
  • Both of these teams recruit the region and will be looking to make a statement.

FEI Outright Pick: Pittsburgh by 4.1

FEI PICKS: Bowl Week 1

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Ian's Pick
Against the Spread
Buffalo 6 Charlotte Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo
Utah State 7 Kent State Utah State Kent State Utah State
San Diego State 3.5 Central Michigan Central Michigan Central Michigan San Diego State
Georgia Southern 5 Liberty Georgia Southern Georgia Southern Liberty
SMU 3 Florida Atlantic Florida Atlantic Florida Atlantic Florida Atlantic
Arkansas State 2.5 Florida International EVEN Florida International Florida International
Washington 3.5 Boise State Boise State Boise State Boise State
Appalachian State 17 UAB Appalachian State Appalachian State UAB
UCF 17 Marshall UCF UCF UCF
BYU 1.5 Hawai'i BYU BYU BYU
Miami 6 Louisiana Tech Miami Louisiana Tech Louisiana Tech
Pittsburgh 10.5 Eastern Michigan Pittsburgh Eastern Michigan Pittsburgh

FEI's Picks against the spread last week: 5-1

FEI's Picks against the spread on the year: 46-40

Ian's Picks against the spread in last week: 4-2

Ian's Picks against the spread on the year: 43-43

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