Unlikely Bowl Bids, Underdog Stories Shine in Early Bowls

Wyoming Cowboys RB Xazavian Valladay
Wyoming Cowboys RB Xazavian Valladay
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Bowl Season - Plenty of FBS teams aspire to great things in the regular season. Frequent playoff guests such as Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State, as well as a horde of underdog hopefuls, make up a fairly large group chasing spots in the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, at the top of the Group of Five, those not lucky enough to face the nation's No. 5 team in the middle of their second straight undefeated season still have conference titles to hunt down.

If you're a fan of one of these teams, used to bowls that fall around New Year's Day in prime locations, it may come naturally to poke fun at lesser postseason games. There's certainly no shortage of material—this year's early slate hosts such oddities as two games in Frisco, Texas (the Frisco Bowl and the Frisco Football Classic); six bowls whose names are at least five words long; and events sponsored by RoofClaim.com, the Idaho Potato Commission, and Jimmy Kimmell.

But for most of FBS, the opportunity to make a bowl—even one of these rather bizarre ones—is something worth celebrating. There are plenty of teams in the first week of the postseason that can take pride in their seasons, even if their finale is the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl.

  • There's UTEP, which won two total games from 2017 to 2019 and now has a shot to win their first bowl since 1967.
  • There's NIU, a mighty MAC dynasty back at the start of the decade, but reduced to a miserable 0-6 season just a year ago; in 2021, they have come storming back to win the conference on the strength of a 7-2 record in one-score games.
  • There's NIU's opponent, Coastal Carolina, seeking its first bowl win ever behind quarterback Grayson McCall and his FBS-record 12.1 yards per pass attempt.
  • There's Old Dominion, a Conference USA team that struggled to a 1-6 start before pulling off a remarkable streak of five straight wins.
  • There's North Texas, also a Conference USA team that struggled to a 1-6 start before pulling off a remarkable streak of five straight wins.
  • Oregon State's in a bowl for the first time since 2013, facing off against a Utah State team that won the Mountain West in their first season under Blake Anderson.

Every team here has a story, from 6-6 stragglers such as Wyoming to the dominant, 12-1 UTSA.

Yes, when you check the college football slate over the next week, the games might be in Shreveport rather than Pasadena. Instead of massive corporate sponsors, they'll probably be promoted by agriculture marketing boards or roof repair companies. And the teams involved won't be bluebloods or upstart titans—rather, they'll be known by tongue-twisting acronyms or patently inaccurate "State" names. But they're all here for a reason, and while the stakes may not be as high, the conclusions of their seasons are still worth a watch.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Bahamas Bowl
Nassau, Bahamas
Middle Tennessee vs. Toledo (-11)
Friday, December 17, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Middle Tennessee
Toledo
2021 F+ 89 61
When Middle Tennessee has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 107 24
2021 EPA/pass 82 6
2021 EPA/rush 121 31
When Toledo has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 68 77
2021 EPA/pass 30 109
2021 EPA/rush 66 3

It has been a long couple of years at Middle Tennessee. Long-tenured coach Rick Stockstill landed on the hot seat after failing to win more than a third of his games in 2019 and 2020, the first two such seasons in his 15 years with the Blue Raiders. Then offensive coordinator Tony Franklin resigned and leveled biting criticism towards Stockstill and his staff, claiming that COVID-19 regulations had been blatantly ignored at the risk of Middle Tennessee players. When the season finally got underway, the Raiders sputtered to a 1-3 start and could have fallen apart.

But the team jumped out to a 28-7 lead in an eventual 34-28 win over reigning division champion Marshall, kick-starting a 5-3 finish that culminated in a season-ending 24-0 scoring run to defeat FAU and reach bowl eligibility. Obviously, unqualified praise is a bit hard to give to Middle Tennessee, but the whole season was a remarkable performance by a group of players that has obviously been through a lot. The team's defining attribute: turnover production. The Raiders led FBS with 2.4 takeaways per game and a 27.5% overall havoc rate, making up for their offense's own lack of ball security (103rd in giveaways per game, 127th in havoc rate allowed).

The end of that bowl-clinching win over FAU was emblematic of the heroics this defense has produced all year: trailing by three, the Owls drove downfield quickly and came up with a 31-yard pass that put them near the red zone and seemed destined to save their own season. On the very next play, DQ Thomas stormed into the backfield at top speed and recorded his fifth sack of the season, stripping the ball away for Jordan Ferguson to recover and return for a 71-yard touchdown scamper. When FAU got the ball back, they again made it deep into opponent territory, but Gregory Grate Jr. picked off a pass to seal the deal and put the Raiders in the postseason.

Toledo started Carter Bradley (7.5 yards per attempt, 4 TD, 1 INT) under center, but soon moved to DeQuan Finn (8.8 yards per attempt, 16 TD, 1 INT), a rare third-year freshman who burst onto the scene this season as one of the MAC's best quarterbacks. Despite his impressive dual-threat performance—419 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per carry—Finn was pressured more often than Bradley (38.8% of dropbacks to 34.7%), though he performed well in such situations. Among quarterbacks pressured 100 times or more, only three others managed to avoid throwing a single interception, placing Finn in the company of Brennan Armstrong, Hendon Hooker, and Cade McNamara. But even adept play under pressure can fall prey to the Raiders' swarming attack, as teams such as FIU—which lost four turnovers against Middle Tennessee compared to a 1.5 average in other games—can attest. To come up with the first (non-interim) bowl win of the Jason Candle era, the Rockets will have to stand up to one of football's toughest pass rushes.

Watch for:

  • Can backup quarterback Nicholas Vattiato step up and deliver a much-needed career game for Middle Tennessee?
  • How much of the Raiders' strong defensive lineup (Thomas, Ferguson, and Reed Blankenship in particular) will play?
  • Will the Rockets' star rusher, Bryant Koback (1,618 total yards, 18 total TD), be available?

FEI Outright Pick: Toledo by 7.0

Tailgreeter Cure Bowl
Orlando, Florida
Northern Illinois vs. Coastal Carolina (-11)
Friday, December 17, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall
Northern Illinois
Coastal Carolina
2021 F+ 100 39
When Northern Illinois has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 69 75
2021 EPA/pass 54 86
2021 EPA/rush 11 58
When Coastal Carolina has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 113 15
2021 EPA/pass 90 1
2021 EPA/rush 128 12

The organizers of 2021's bowl season clearly had a lot of fun putting together the schedule for college football's final month of festivities. Regional ties and competitiveness are always important, of course, but narrative significance takes center stage in many matchups this year. The Gasparilla Bowl matches up Florida and UCF, two teams whose fans have quite a score to settle. Then there's the Liberty Bowl, which pits Mississippi State's Mike Leach against his former team, Texas Tech, for the first time. North Carolina and South Carolina will test budding rebuilds against each other, while Oregon and Oklahoma look to put the past behind them and launch new eras under new coaches. But the cleverest matchup on the calendar lurks right at the start of bowl season, with two of the most similar teams in the sport.

Both Northern Illinois and Coastal Carolina soared from struggling backmarker to conference champion in one season, though the Chanticleers did it one year earlier. They're both built around ultra-efficient offenses that lean heavily on the run game (third-highest rush rate for NIU, 13th for Coastal Carolina)—and, partially as a result, they both have elite passing attacks (21st in EPA per play for NIU, second for Coastal Carolina). This figures to be a high-scoring shootout due to the struggles of both defenses, but the occasional stops that both teams can make might define the result.

What NIU does well defensively mostly has to do with limiting explosiveness. The Huskies are dismal when it comes to opponent EPA (119th) and success rate (121st), which has allowed offenses to put together long drives against them. Their third-down conversion rate (42.4%, 95th) and line yards per carry (3.01, 121st) allowed both emphasize that problem. But NIU was able to pull win after win out of the fire en route to a dramatic MAC title run, thanks in part to a knack for preventing big plays. The Huskies allowed only 1.30 EPA per successful play, ranking much higher than their other stats at 76th overall. And interestingly, Coastal Carolina struggles to produce in that area—their success rate (first in passing, 12th rushing) is far better than their explosiveness (20th passing, 67th rushing). Grayson McCall is one of the best quarterbacks in modern memory—he's running away with the career and single-season records for yards per attempt and passing efficiency record for a reason, after all—but airing the ball downfield isn't his specialty, nor is breaking off huge runs the key to Coastal Carolina's rushing success. It remains to be seen whether that's a good thing against this NIU defense, which does well against the things the Chanticleers aren't good at but could struggle against their consistent attack.

When it comes to the Chanticleers' defense, the problem is more or less the opposite. They only allowed 0.16 EPA per play (36th) and a 38.9% success rate (30th), both solid figures. Throw in advantageous field position (19th-best in FBS) and solid havoc production (30th overall), and this defense should be solidly in the upper half of football. But even against a staggeringly easy schedule, Coastal Carolina had a tendency to fall apart and allow big plays, to the tune of the 15th-worst explosiveness in FBS. And NIU could punish that weakness—they produce explosive plays fairly well (32nd rushing, 44th passing) and lead the nation in total rushing yards in the open field. For the Huskies to hang with a heavily favored opponent, they're going to need to score often and turn the Cure Bowl into a haymaker-heavy thriller.

Watch for:

  • How much will NIU (fifth-highest rush rate) lean on their quintet of Jeyvon Ducker, Harrison Waylee, Clint Ratkovich, Antario Brown, and quarterback Rocky Lombardi?
  • By what margin will McCall's final season totals set FBS records for future quarterbacks to chase?
  • Will senior Chanticleers receivers Jaivon Heiligh (1,034 yards) and Isaiah Likely (816 yards) take the field?

FEI Outright Pick: Coastal Carolina by 12.4

RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl
Boca Raton, Florida
Western Kentucky vs. Appalachian State (-3)
Saturday, December 18, 11 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Western Kentucky
Appalachian State
2021 F+ 38 32
When Western Kentucky has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 12 51
2021 EPA/pass 7 20
2021 EPA/rush 110 101
When Appalachian State has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 88 28
2021 EPA/pass 65 13
2021 EPA/rush 65 20

In 2019, when Dana Holgorsen arrived at Houston, things took an immediate turn for the worse. A disappointing 1-3 start with a pair of one-score losses led the coach to attempt an odd strategy: redshirting many of his top players with the goal of stacking up talent for the future. Though the plan got off to a rocky start with star quarterback D'Eriq King transferring out, it's starting to look like it might have worked perfectly: Houston is now 11-2 and has a ranked finish in its sights for the first time since 2015.

Yet in the realm of unexpected schemes involving Houston teams and recently amended NCAA rules, that plot may not be the most successful of the last few years. In 2020, while the Cougars were struggling to a 3-5 record and planning for the next season, Houston Baptist's offense was soaring just 15 minutes' drive west. The Huskies were one of four teams in the Southland Conference that decided to play in the fall rather than move their season to the spring, and the result was a schedule that looked more FBS than FCS—they faced North Texas, Texas Tech, and Louisiana Tech, with only one game against equal competition. That made their impressive offense, which scored at least 30 points in every game, appealing to Western Kentucky, which only managed half as many 30-point performances in a season thrice as long.

So the Hilltoppers essentially imported the entire offense, from staff members such as coordinator Zach Kittley to players such as quarterback Bailey Zappe and receiver Jerreth Sterns. The plan worked to perfection: Western Kentucky scored a ridiculous 43.1 points per game, second in all of FBS, and much like the 2020 Huskies, scored 30 points or more in every game, including 40 or more in six of the seven games in their lengthy winning streak to end the season and reach the C-USA championship game.

Teams such as Michigan State and Marshall offered strong defensive challenges that couldn't contain the Hilltoppers, but no opposing defense has been as good as the one they'll face in the Boca Raton Bowl. Whereas Western Kentucky never scored fewer than 30 points in a game, Appalachian State only allowed more than 30 once—to Louisiana, which finished 12-1. Great defense has been a hallmark of recent Mountaineers teams, but this year's unit has managed to stay steady despite a significant shift in skill. Whereas 2020's group locked down in the secondary to the tune of the fifth-fewest yards allowed per pass attempt, they have fallen to 31st in that metric this season. Meanwhile, the defensive line has stepped up to take the lead: a group that was merely average last year (64th in line yards per carry, 45th in sack rate) has become one of the nation's best (fifth in both stats). The dynamic duo of linebackers D'Marco Jackson and Nick Hampton (who have combined for 179 tackles, 36 tackles for loss, and 16 sacks) has controlled the midfield—even against an unusually high pass rate, which should accustom them well to Western Kentucky's frequent throws. At the end of a resoundingly successful college career that should land him in the NFL, Zappe faces his toughest test yet, with the single-season records for passing yardage and touchdowns still within reach.

Watch for:

  • Can Mountaineers quarterback Chase Brice polish off a surprisingly decent season with a good passing game against Western Kentucky's middling defense?
  • How much will the Hilltoppers employ their disused rushing attack against a team that doesn't face runs often?
  • In a battle of two teams that tend to gain favorable field position, who will win out in the special teams showdown?

FEI Outright Pick: Appalachian State by 2.6

PUBG Mobile New Mexico Bowl
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Fresno State (-11) vs. UTEP
Saturday, December 18, 2:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Fresno State
UTEP
2021 F+ 42 92
When Fresno State has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 50 74
2021 EPA/pass 45 42
2021 EPA/rush 115 13
When UTEP has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 39 97
2021 EPA/pass 17 5
2021 EPA/rush 24 109

By all accounts, Fresno State's 2021 season was a resounding success. The Bulldogs went 9-3, spooked eventual Pac-12 North champion Oregon, and briefly reached as high as 18th in the AP Poll. But the heart of that performance was based on the success of their quarterback (Jake Haener, who led the Bulldogs to the 22nd-most EPA per pass, averaged 8.5 yards per attempt, and tossed 32 touchdowns to nine interceptions) and their coach: Kalen DeBoer, who previously delivered as many NAIA championships as losses (three of each) in a five-year stint at Sioux Falls. And both of the keys to Fresno State's rise could be missing for the New Mexico Bowl: DeBoer is off to Washington, to be replaced by interim coach Lee Marks for this game before Jeff Tedford reclaims his position. Haener is more uncertain, as the star quarterback entered the transfer portal shortly after DeBoer's departure, but withdrew it not long after.

Most teams enter bowl season with some absences, but Fresno State's could be particularly notable, which opens the door for UTEP to potentially spring an upset. The Miners were a feel-good story this season, rolling to 6-1 thanks to an absurdly beatable first half (New Mexico State, Bethune-Cookman, New Mexico, Old Dominion, Southern Miss, and Louisiana Tech in their first seven games). The schedule was heavily backloaded outside of an early game against Boise State—which UTEP promptly lost 54-13—but even in a 1-4 finish, the Miners showed their hot start wasn't all thanks to the schedule. The team only took one really rough loss down the stretch (to a UTSA team that finished 12-1) and played competitively against FAU, North Texas, and UAB, all relatively solid C-USA opponents.

Nevertheless, computers are forgiven for calling UTEP a paper tiger. Most projected margins for this game sit in the double digits, at least among those that don't assume Haener's absence. But there's reason to think the Miners could surprise, particularly if Fresno State has to employ their dreadful run game more than they did in the regular season. The Bulldogs rushed at a low 40.0% rate, 123rd in FBS, and for good reason: they averaged only 0.04 EPA per rush (116th) and at one point went three straight games without scoring a touchdown on the ground. The offense has hummed along with Haener having a career year through the air, but if Fresno State doesn't have that option in the backfield, they'll have to lean on the run a little more. And few teams are better than UTEP at defending on the ground, where they allow only 0.02 EPA per rush (12th) and 2.41 line yards per carry (24th). To reach eight wins and tie their best total from the last 30 years, the Miners should bring their quietly impressive defense to the fore.

Watch for:

  • Can fifth-year senior Ronnie Rivers (career: 3,417 rushing yards, 1,421 receiving yards) get 162 yards to cross the 5,000-yard mark at Fresno State?
  • Will off-and-on receiver Jacob Cowing find holes in the opposing secondary to exploit?
  • Can daredevil UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison (8.9 yards per attempt, 16 TD, 12 INT) make big plays for the Miners without giving them to the Bulldogs?

FEI Outright Pick: Fresno State by 12.4

Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl
Shreveport, Louisiana
UAB vs. BYU (-7)
Saturday, December 18, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall
UAB
BYU
2021 F+ 57 40
When UAB has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 53 71
2021 EPA/pass 70 84
2021 EPA/rush 5 101
When BYU has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 48 8
2021 EPA/pass 54 15
2021 EPA/rush 9 13

Kalani Sitake's 2020, his fifth season at BYU and a four-win improvement to 11-1 behind second overall draft pick Zach Wilson, brought his name to national recognition. But BYU's performance after Wilson's departure is what solidified Sitake as one of the best coaches in the business, and it very nearly landed them in the New Year's Six. Alas, the final CFP rankings didn't have the Cougars quite high enough to earn a bid—Michigan State held on to earn the last at-large spot, and the Pac-12's autobid went to a resurgent Utah, BYU's 5-0 record against the conference and head-to-head win against the Utes notwithstanding. For the Cougars, the margin between a 71,000-strong crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and an assembly of perhaps 30,000 in Shreveport is that narrow.

On the upside, BYU does at least get an intriguing opponent. UAB went 8-4, but their record is somewhat deceiving, as they haven't lost by more than one score since the start of October and came one play away from winning C-USA West. That division-deciding game, against the AP's No. 15-ranked UTSA, was decided in the final five seconds, so UAB's meeting with No. 12 BYU promises fireworks. Both teams can drive well on the ground and through the air, but the Blazers pass a little less often to a little more efficient effect. The way they got to that solid quarterback production, though, is a rather winding tale.

In his first three appearances back in 2019, quarterback Dylan Hopkins threw only two passes (neither completed) while rushing 10 times for 42 yards. Then starting quarterback Tyler Johnston III, not for the first nor the last time in his four full seasons with UAB, was injured and Hopkins found himself thrust into the spotlight. The redshirt freshman faced growing pains—his final season line was 6.6 yards per attempt, three touchdowns, and five interceptions, not exactly world-beating stuff—but after a rough 37-2 loss to start the Hopkins era, the Blazers dragged themselves to three straight wins and eked out a victory over Louisiana Tech to win the West on a tiebreaker.

Despite his role in saving UAB's season, though, Hopkins wasn't called to take the lead when Johnston again went down in 2020—that honor went to Bryson Lucero, who likewise struggled in relief. So when Johnston predictably suffered an injury in UAB's second game this year, it fell to Hopkins to take the reins again. Now two years older, he did so with gusto, putting up gaudy numbers (9.8 yards per attempt, 15 TD, 6 INT) and going 6-3 as the starter. With Hopkins leading the way, UAB ranked in the top 10 in EPA per play (0.47, eighth) and explosiveness (1.92 EPA per successful play, fifth).

BYU's defense took a major step back from 2020, with a senior exodus robbing it of the experienced talent that lets Ilaisa Tuiaki's system perform best. But the group still had bright points, and locking down big-play quarterbacks such as Hopkins was their best attribute. The Cougars allowed only 1.31 EPA on successful plays, the fourth-lowest figure in the nation, thanks to a lockdown style that avoided big gains well. As a team, BYU's missed tackle rate was under 15%, and the only two players to allow multiple touchdowns in coverage did so on over 35 targets each. With Jakob Robinson (26 tackles, four breakups, three interceptions) and Payton Wilgar (57 tackles, seven tackles for loss, four breakups, two interceptions) leading the way, this secondary should show how high Hopkins' Blazers can fly as he comes into his own at UAB.

Watch for:

  • Will Hopkins start to combine his early rushing with his passing and become more of a dual-threat quarterback?
  • Where will sophomore DeWayne McBride's season rushing yards—already fourth in UAB history—land in the school record books after this game?
  • How will star running back Tyler Allgeier conclude his admirable career with the Cougars?

FEI Outright Pick: BYU by 5.7

LendingTree Bowl
Mobile, Alabama
Liberty (-8.5) vs. Eastern Michigan
Saturday, December 18, 5:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Liberty
Eastern Michigan
2021 F+ 60 90
When Liberty has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 58 114
2021 EPA/pass 88 88
2021 EPA/rush 4 110
When Eastern Michigan has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 51 70
2021 EPA/pass 36 42
2021 EPA/rush 48 89

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis was tabbed to take a major step forward and solidify himself as a top draft prospect this season, but it's debatable whether that improvement has materialized. His numbers have dipped slightly from 2020 (8.5 yards per attempt to 8.3, 20 TD and 6 INT to 24 and 12), and he acquired a habit of occasional blowup games that got more common towards the end of the season. In the Flames' sixth and seventh games (against Middle Tennessee and ULM) as well as their three-game losing streak to close the year (against Ole Miss, Louisiana, and Army), Willis threw six touchdowns and all twelve of his interceptions while averaging 6.1 yards per attempt and 3.7 yards per carry. In all other games, he passed for 18 touchdowns, threw no picks, averaged 10.7 yards per attempt and ran for 5.1 yards per carry.

Obviously, that kind of inconsistency is a major concern. But Liberty was still able to find seven wins and test the tough back end of their schedule, thanks in large part to a dynamic rushing attack. The Flames were good on the ground in 2020, when they went 10-1, but their impressive 5.6 yards per attempt (eighth that year) belied a paper-thin schedule. Three of Liberty's first five FBS opponents won zero or one games all season, and the best went only 5-7 in C-USA. When they hit a more difficult closing run that included Virginia Tech, NC State, and Coastal Carolina, cracks started to show—particularly in a loss to the Wolfpack where Liberty ran for only 107 yards and 2.8 yards per carry with a miserable 28% success rate.

In 2021, it looked like the Flames had taken care of the run game. Willis may have been inconsistent at times, but between his scrambling efforts and the three-headed attack of Joshua Mack, TJ Green, and Shedro Louis (all between 350 and 450 yards on the ground), Liberty managed at least 150 yards and 3.7 yards per carry in each of their first seven games. But just as Willis was recovering from a two-game slump through the air, he went quiet on the ground against North Texas, and the Flames managed a dreadful 45 yards on 29 carries. Great passing—along with a 72-yard punt return touchdown—dug them out of a 26-14 hole in the second half, but throughout the final month of the season, up-and-down performances from the passing the rushing corps alike plagued Liberty. The final two games, in which Willis averaged 5.8 yards per attempt and the team managed just 2.8 yards per carry, exemplified the depth of their problems.

Eastern Michigan's defense has been less than impressive this season—they recently allowed 49 points to 7-5 Toledo and 34 to 3-9 Ohio in a two-game stretch—but you could argue that it matters far more how Liberty plays on offense. If Willis can show why he's an intriguing NFL prospect, or if the deep run game can rebound and wear down the Eagles, this should be a comfortably winnable game for the Flames. But if Eastern Michigan catches them on an off day, they stand a chance at their first bowl win since 1987.

Watch for:

  • Can Eagles quarterback Ben Bryant cap off a great late-blooming season by leading them to a win against Liberty's tough pass defence?
  • How much can the Flames' offensive line (ninth in line yards per carry) physically dominate in the rushing battle?
  • Can Eastern Michigan take advantage of that line's glaring weakness to sacks—which they have allowed at a 12.7% rate (127th)?

FEI Outright Pick: Liberty by 7.0

Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl
Inglewood, California
Oregon State (-7) vs. Utah State
Saturday, December 18, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall
Oregon State
Utah State
2021 F+ 44 67
When Oregon State has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 16 72
2021 EPA/pass 23 61
2021 EPA/rush 15 21
When Utah State has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 91 64
2021 EPA/pass 82 11
2021 EPA/rush 94 116

Based on record, the best game of this first week is either the Cure Bowl between Coastal Carolina and NIU or the Frisco Bowl between San Diego State and UTSA. For narrative, it's hard to argue with the Gasparilla Bowl, starring Florida and UCF. The LA Bowl, which genuinely is sponsored by late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, doesn't stand out as far as those fascinating events, but it might be the most fun of these early games. There's some disappointment in the bowls mentioned above—Coastal Carolina was hoping to take home a Sun Belt title, and Florida had hopes of challenging Georgia in the SEC East, for example. But down in Inglewood, both teams are just happy to be here.

Oregon State was a massive rebuild for Jonathan Smith, who in 2018 took over a team that had just gone 1-11 and fired Gary Andersen. In his first game at the helm, the Beavers visited The Shoe and were completely demolished by Ohio State, with the final score settling at 77-31. They would ultimately go 2-10, giving up the second-most points in college football and bookending the year with another blowout loss, this one a 55-15 flattening at the hands of rival Oregon.

But Smith started to put things together over the next two seaseons. The Beavers would have bowled in 2019 if not for a literally last-second touchdown in a 54-53 loss to Washington State, and though a 2-5 record in 2020 marked an overall step back, every loss was competitive, and Oregon State pulled off a stunning upset over Oregon. It finally came together this season as the Beavers jumped out to a 5-2 start and pulled off a genuinely excellent win over Utah. Chance Nolan (8.4 yards per attempt, 19 TD, 9 INT) came into his own as a passer, while B.J. Baylor (1,259 yards, 6.0 yards per carry, 13 TD) headlined a rushing corps that put up 0.31 per play (11th overall) and a 54.3% success rate (third). The Pac-12 North may have slipped out of reach during the last week of the season, but the 7-5 season was still a great one by the Beavers' standards, and it landed them in the postseason for the first time since 2013.

Oregon State's opponent, Mountain West champion Utah State, shares something surprising with the Beavers: their improvement has come on the heels of Gary Andersen's firing. Following a lifeless 1-5 campaign in 2020, the Aggies hired Blake Anderson (with an o, not an e), who brought along a legion of players from Arkansas State—most notably, quarterback Logan Bonner and linebacker Justin Rice. In Jonesboro, Bonner was part of a head-scratching two-starter system that bemusingly paired his iffy performance (7.1 yards per attempt, 18 TD, 6 INT) with that of the far-superior Layne Hatcher (10.6 yards per attempt, 19 TD, 2 INT). But whatever Anderson saw in Bonner, it showed up in a big way once he arrived in Logan, where the quarterback put up 8.5 yards per attempt with 36 TD and 11 INT while leading the Aggies to 0.49 EPA per pass (seventh in FBS).

Meanwhile, Rice was a much surer thing: the fifth-year senior had already put up eye-popping stats, not only at Arkansas State (76 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks in 2020), but also in the Mountain West with Fresno State (112 tackles, five breakups, two interceptions in 2019). Named the conference newcomer of the year before the season—despite having made its second team with the Bulldogs—Rice put up yet another ridiculous line (115 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions) and helped drop opponents' point per game by nearly 10 points from 2020. With Bonner and Rice leading the way, Utah State overcome a 3-2 start to win seven of their last eight games and earn their first-ever Mountain West title in resounding fashion. Like the Beavers, they have already surpassed all expectations, and a win in the LA Bowl would just be the icing on the cake.

Watch for:

  • Will the Aggies be able to muster anything against Oregon State's elite offensive line (first in line yards per carry, seventh in sack rate)?
  • How reliably can the up-and-down Utah State offense (103rd in success rate, second in explosiveness) drive downfield against the Beavers?
  • Can the Aggies' troubled rushing performance (122nd in EPA per play, 4.3 yards per carry between their top three rushers) stabilize?

FEI Outright Pick: Oregon State by 2.8

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
New Orleans, Louisiana
Louisiana (-5) vs. Marshall
Saturday, December 18, 9:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Louisiana
Marshall
2021 F+ 51 55
When Louisiana has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 55 40
2021 EPA/pass 61 51
2021 EPA/rush 28 75
When Marshall has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 42 48
2021 EPA/pass 21 69
2021 EPA/rush 61 36

With all due respect to Levi Lewis, Louisiana's starting quarterback across the last three seasons, it's surprising that the Ragin' Cajuns have been this good without truly elite play under center. Since 2019, they're 33-5, including a full two-year stretch in which they didn't lose a single game by more than 10 points. It's not all defense, either—that unit has been excellent, but the offense has averaged 34.2 points per game under Lewis, and they have scored at least 18 points in 32 consecutive games.

Yet the passing game has been merely solid, not superb. For his career, Lewis has averaged 7.8 yards per attempt with 73 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. That's a good line, but it's closer to middling Sun Belt title game opponent Chase Brice (8.2 yards per attempt, 23 TD, 10 INT at App State) than expected first-team all-conference quarterback Grayson McCall (10.9 yards per attempt, 50 TD, 6 INT). Lewis has been a steady foundation for the Cajuns' offense, but he's not the reason it has soared so high. For that, Louisiana has turned to the rushing corps.

Stability on the ground hasn't been a theme for this team, but they have managed to put up great numbers despite shifting personnel. In 2019, Elijah Mitchell's 1,147-yard season led the way, with Raymond Calais and Trey Ragas both contributing over 800 yards as well. The following year, Ragas stepped up and took nearly as many carries as Mitchell, while Lewis scrambled for a career-high 335 yards and 6.1 yards per carry. With all three primary rushers from the last two seasons gone, however, Louisiana has had to shake things up this year. Chris Smith, a secondary option who totaled 684 rushing yards across his first two seasons, rose into the top spot and put up 855 yards this year. Lower on the depth chart, former three-stars Montrell Johnson and Emani Bailey combined for 1,332 total yards and 17 touchdowns. With Smith out for the New Orleans Bowl, that tandem will be particularly important for the Cajuns against Marshall.

For a group that only had one particularly noteworthy player entering the season, depth has been an unexpected strength. Even with their top rusher out, Louisiana's run game is a threat, although it may be a slightly more manageable one for Marshall. The Thundering Herd are better in pass protection (19th in EPA, 39th in success rate) than run defense (78th in EPA, 69th in success rate), but it's not clear how much of that is the result of (or the cause of) opponents' high 54.8% rushing rate (19th-highest in FBS). In any case, Marshall did improve toward the end of the year, allowing an average of only 121 rushing yards to UAB, Charlotte, and Western Kentucky in their final three games. If they can continue that performance against the Cajuns' somewhat-depleted rushing attack, they could surprise the Sun Belt champions and emerge with a win.

Watch for:

  • Can Louisiana turn the tide of this game with their turnover-focused defense (10th in front-seven havoc, seventh in secondary havoc)?
  • Who will deal with unusual situations better: Marshall's offense on passing downs (which they face at the 14th-lowest rate) or Louisiana's defense on standard downs (fifth-lowest)?
  • Can rising freshman running back Rasheen Ali (1,570 total yards, 21 TD) lead the Thundering Herd to a solid offensive showing?

FEI Outright Pick: Louisiana by 1.8

Myrtle Beach Bowl
Conway, South Carolina
Old Dominion vs. Tulsa (-9)
Monday, December 20, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Old Dominion
Tulsa
2021 F+ 99 68
When Old Dominion has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 113 82
2021 EPA/pass 95 35
2021 EPA/rush 38 74
When Tulsa has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 77 50
2021 EPA/pass 44 74
2021 EPA/rush 57 114

The job that Ricky Rahne undertook at the start of 2020 was quite possibly the worst situation for a new head coach in college football history. Old Dominion was terrible on the field—they hadn't bowled since 2016 and had gone 1-11 in their last season—and to make matters drastically worse, COVID-19 struck just months after Rahne was named the successor to Bobby Wilder, the first and only coach in modern Monarchs history. The team hadn't won an FBS game since 2018, and that didn't change during the first eight weeks of the season, as a win over Hampton provided the only positive note on their 1-6 record to start the year.

Those miserable circumstances make what happened on October 30, and what happened again on each of the following four Saturdays in a row, all the more remarkable. The Monarchs won. They kicked a 46-yarder at the gun to beat Louisiana Tech—their first FBS win in over a thousand days—and they ran over FIU with 282 yards on the ground. They scored only one touchdown in the first 55 minutes against FAU but still managed to find 22 points with field goals, safeties, and an ultra-rare defensive two-point conversion. They stared down Middle Tennessee at the goal line and made a fourth-down stop in a tie game, then rolled downfield and took the lead six plays later. And with bowl eligibility within reach, they took a 28-7 lead on Charlotte, blew 20 of its 21 points, and then rattled off three unanswered touchdowns to complete a comeback for the record books. Along with North Texas, they became one of only three teams in college football history to reach a bowl by winning five elimination games in a row.

Now they face the task of winning a bowl after losing five or more of their first seven games, which only one team (2019 Tennessee) has accomplished since the margin for bowl qualification dropped to 6-6 in 2006. The Monarchs made it this far for a number of reasons, but their shutdown defense has been especially impressive. If they can get opponents into passing downs, they have one of the best units in the country—second in EPA per play and 16th in success rate. Their pass defense has faced a heavy workload (54.6% of plays, 13th-highest), but it has stood up well (45th in EPA, 47th in success rate) behind the star quartet of Roger Cray, R'Tarriun Johnson, Tre Hawkins, and Joe Joe Headen (combined 234 tackles, 26 breakups, and five interceptions). As a team, the Monarchs' missed tackle rate was under 15%, and they ranked in the top 15 at preventing yardage in the second level and open field. Against Tulsa's offense, which was rough across the board but had particular problems on passing downs (114th in EPA per play, compared to 99th on standard downs), Old Dominion's defense should have the edge as they seek a historic victory.

Watch for:

  • Can the Monarchs' quarterback of the future, Hayden Wolff, successfully tangle with a dangerous Tulsa secondary (32nd in EPA per pass, third in havoc rate)?
  • How well will Old Dominion (92nd in sack rate allowed, 118th in havoc rate allowed) protect their backfield?
  • Can quarterback Davis Brin (7.9 yards per attempt, 16 TD, 16 INT) avoid turnovers and keep the favored Golden Hurricanes on top?

FEI Outright Pick: Tulsa by 6.4

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Boise, Idaho
Kent State vs. Wyoming (-3)
Tuesday, December 21, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Kent State
Wyoming
2021 F+ 104 81
When Kent State has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 60 87
2021 EPA/pass 62 31
2021 EPA/rush 31 70
When Wyoming has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 122 59
2021 EPA/pass 114 100
2021 EPA/rush 104 35

This might be the last game of Xazavian Valladay's career, and if so, it's one worth watching. In 2019 he rushed for over 1,000 yards and added over 200 receiving yards—the first such season for Wyoming in the 21st century. Now, if he rushes for 16 yards in their bowl, he'll complete that feat a second time. Unsurprisingly, Valladay is a prospect to watch for the draft as well, but he seems likely to take the field for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, though his plans beyond that are uncertain. Most expect him to head to the NFL, though, which would make this game his swan song with the Cowboys.

Valladay's opposite number, likewise in his fourth year and expected to consider going pro, is Wyoming linebacker Chad Muma. An established leader of the defense across 2019 and 2020 (122 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four sacks), Muma emerged as one of the Mountain West's best defenders this year, racking up 129 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and three interceptions to earn the Cowboys' only first-team honor. When he makes his second tackle in the bowl—which he has confirmed he'll play in—Muma's 2021 season will move into the top 10 in tackles in school history. If he reaches double-digit tackles for the 11th time this year, he'll break a tie with Chris Prosinski's 2009 for the most in a 21st-century season at Wyoming.

For both Valladay and Muma, this season has been a bittersweet conclusion to their superb careers. Making a bowl is meaningful at Wyoming, which has been bowl eligible in six straight seasons (if you count the weird, no-eligibility postseason of 2020) but had just two bowl wins in the 50 years preceding Craig Bohl's breakthrough in 2017. But early in the season, it looked like the Cowboys might be destined for much more. They started 3-0 and looked quite good, especially in retrospect—they beat NIU in a dramatic 50-43 shootout, which turned out to be a lot more impressive when the Huskies went 9-4 and won the MAC. Then Wyoming went up to Storrs and very nearly lost to UConn, needing a two-point stop with four seconds to go in order to escape unscathed. The offense, which had scored 95 points over two future bowl teams in its first two FBS games, didn't recover all year. After the 24-point performance against UConn, Wyoming scored 14, 0, 3, and 21 points in a four-game losing streak. They did recover somewhat towards the end of the season—a 2-2 finish to secure bowl eligibility saw an average of 26 points per game and a victory over soon-to-be-champion Utah State—but scrambling to reach six wins was a disappointment after their hot start.

The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is hardly a resounding conclusion to Valladay and Muma's illustrious careers, but that's where they have ended up nonetheless. Against a dodgy Kent State run defense (106th in EPA per play, 111th in success rate, four games allowing over 250 yards), Valladay should have plenty of opportunities to shine. Things will be more difficult for Muma against the Golden Flashes' offense, which has soared behind their own strong rushing corps (eighth in EPA, fourth in success rate). Both have milestones to reach and a game to win, and that alone makes this game interesting—but they are also, in all likelihood, writing the final chapters of their time at Wyoming. And even if the end of the story hasn't gone as they hoped, it's an era that will be remembered fondly in years to come.

Watch for:

  • Will Wyoming be able to slow down Kent State's daunting rushing attack, particularly up front (where the Flashes rank 27th in line yards per carry)?
  • Can Kent State defensive back Elvis Hines (61 tackles, 10 breakups, three interceptions) be a playmaker in the secondary?
  • Can the Flashes take advantage of the great field position Wyoming's special teams have allowed (129th in FBS)?

FEI Outright Pick: Wyoming by 8.4

Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl
Frisco, Texas
UTSA (-2) vs. San Diego State
Tuesday, December 21, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
UTSA
San Diego State
2021 F+ 53 59
When UTSA has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 31 12
2021 EPA/pass 12 11
2021 EPA/rush 56 6
When San Diego State has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 66 105
2021 EPA/pass 77 119
2021 EPA/rush 36 83

"National punting sensation" isn't a commonly encountered phrase, but it's an apt description for San Diego State's Matt Araiza. In his first two seasons, he had primarily been the Aztecs' kicker, a job he performed well (32 makes on 40 field goal attempts). But with primary punter Tanner Kuljian set to graduate, head coach Brady Hoke decided to give Araiza a handful of attempts. He liked what he saw enough to award him the full-time job going into 2021, and that decision has made history. With 3,904 yards on 76 punts (a 51.4 average), Araiza has a virtually insurmountable lead over 1997 Chad Kessler (50.3) for the all-time single-season yards per punt record. Thanks to that fabulous special teams advantage, the Aztecs' opponents have averaged a starting field position around their own 26—ninth-best among all defenses.

Araiza deserves every bit of the recognition he has received, but don't let his brilliance obscure that of the rest of San Diego State's defense. Those punting records couldn't be shattered if the Aztecs weren't the kind of team they are—awfully good at stopping opposing offenses, and simply awful at driving downfield themselves. They rank 108th in EPA per play and 125th in plays per drive, and their painfully inept offense was on full display in the Mountain West championship game. With a much-desired 26th conference title at stake, the Aztecs rushed for just 3.8 yards per carry and passed for just 5.8 yards per attempt, ultimately scoring 13 points and losing to Utah State in a rout.

It hasn't been all bad offensively, but there's little doubt which side of the ball has taken the lead for San Diego State thus far. That defense faces a strong opponent in UTSA, which is looking to add their first bowl win to a growing mountain of 2021 achievements (which includes their most wins by a wide margin, their first AP ranking, and their first conference title). Until now, Sincere McCormick, the Roadrunners' preposterously underrated running back who put together back-to-back 1,400-yard seasons and demolished the school's career rushing record by over 85%, has starred in their Cinderella story. But with McCormick sitting out the bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft, UTSA will pivot to their strong passing attack instead. Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus, and De'Corian Clark account for 2,414 of Frank Harris' 2,906 passing yards, and they'll look to overcome the Aztecs' mighty defense. In one of the most exciting early bowl games of the season, two elite units will clash in one of the best matchups all year.

Watch for:

  • Without much of a rushing game beyond McCormick, will the Roadrunners even try to run on the Aztecs' FBS-leading run defense?
  • Can Rashad Wisdom (86 tackles, six breakups) and the rest of UTSA's secondary lock down San Diego State's passing attack?
  • Who will start for the Aztecs—will Jordon Brookshire continue to hold the quarterback position or will Lucas Johnson finally return from injury?

FEI Outright Pick: UTSA by 2.1

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Fort Worth, Texas
Army (-4) vs. Missouri
Wednesday, December 22, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Army
Missouri
2021 F+ 46 75
When Army has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 30 105
2021 EPA/pass 8 98
2021 EPA/rush 18 120
When Missouri has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 54 62
2021 EPA/pass 49 89
2021 EPA/rush 45 72

If you want a playbook to upset Army, you probably shouldn't start with their game against Navy. Yes, the Midshipmen were the worst team to beat the Black Knights this year, but their style is going to be difficult to replicate for any team that can't trot out seven different 100-yard running backs. And Missouri can't; their rushing attack is basically Tyler Badie (1,612 yards, 14 TD) and a dozen secondary options that have shuffled fairly interchangeably all season. They're not going to run all over Army, as iffy as the Knights' defense is.

The main reason the Tigers are in the postseason at all, however, is defending the run. Any metric will show that Missouri struggled against rushing attacks all year (they were 112th in EPA and 120th in yards per game, for example), but they found a spark towards the end of the season. In two pivotal wins over South Carolina and Florida, Missouri allowed just 150 total yards on the ground and a miniscule 2.1 yards per carry. Silencing the Gators' running attack, which averaged 207 yards per game (21st) and had just romped to a 253-yard performance against Samford, was arguably the defining moment of the Tigers' season, which seemed doomed before they pulled off a 24-23 upset in their last home game of the year. If that run defense shows up against Army, the Knights' high-flying offense could be in for a surprise.

Of course, stopping Army on the ground is a very different proposition from stopping Florida. It's not just that the Knights have a lot of running backs (10 with at least 100 rushing yards) or that they average a lot of rushing yards (274 per game, second in FBS)—a lot of the difficulty comes simply from the fact that they run the ball so much, without any kind of subterfuge or misdirection. When you go up against this offense, you know they're going to run about 58 times and pass about nine. Facing off against the Knights will become an intensely physical battle, whether you want it to or not, and winning that battle is difficult for any team. With veteran transfer Blaze Alldredge (75 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) leading the way, the Tigers did start to look like a team that could measure up to Army near the end of 2020. But can Missouri's surging defense face off against one of football's most unique offenses and live to tell the tale?

Watch for:

  • Can Missouri keep surprisingly adept passer Christian Anderson (59 attempts, 11.1 yards per attempt) from blowing the top off of their defense?
  • Will Badie be able to run effectively against an Army defense that excels in preventing successful rushing (38.9% success rate, 26th in FBS)?
  • Following a sluggish late stretch, can Connor Bazelak aspire to his early season form and add some big-play potential to the Tigers' offense?

FEI Outright Pick: Army by 8.4

Frisco Football Classic
Frisco, Texas
Miami-Ohio (-3) vs. North Texas
Thursday, December 23, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Miami-Ohio
North Texas
2021 F+ 78 96
When Miami-Ohio has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 75 85
2021 EPA/pass 9 93
2021 EPA/rush 100 15
When North Texas has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 78 98
2021 EPA/pass 60 121
2021 EPA/rush 82 43

I could try to sell you on this bowl for any number of reasons—how about Miami-Ohio's terrifying pass rush, or North Texas' wild five-game winning streak to reach bowl season that concluded with a stunner over UTSA?—but let's focus on just one: Jack Sorenson. Despite his origin as a two-star recruit with offers from only two other FBS teams, he immediately solidified himself as a key component of the receiving corps with a 106-yard debut in 2018. He would ultimately lead the RedHawks with 742 receiving yards that year, then do so again with 568 yards in 2019. An abbreviated three-game season limited him to only 354 yards in 2020—while nobody else had more than 77—but in 2021, he has delivered a career year.

Sorenson has put up 1,290 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, much of it coming in a preposterous six-game streak in which he totaled over 110 yards every week. In game after game, he was one of the best deep threats in the country, racking up 16 catches on passes thrown at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage (tied for fourth nationally). It's not surprising, then, that Miami-Ohio averaged 1.76 EPA per successful pass, the 18th-best explosiveness in FBS.

Sorenson may well return for 2022, but either way, he's appointment viewing in the newly created Frisco Football Classic. North Texas, for all they do well, is severely limited against downfield passing—they were 127th in passing explosiveness and 102nd in open-field yards allowed per carry, which usually signifies general tackling weakness in the secondary. Sorenson has already shattered the single-game record for receiving yards at Miami-Ohio with a 283-yard game earlier this season, and he could break it again against the Mean Green.

North Texas is going to have to match the RedHawks blow for blow to win this game, which is where their run game comes in. The Mean Green rush a lot—at the ninth-highest rate in FBS, in fact—because they have a great lineup at the position and a pretty dubious passing game (6.5 yards per attempt, 12 TD, 12 INT). That's all right, though, because Deandre Torrey (1,214 yards, 13 TD) is likely to play in the bowl game, and some combination of Ikaika Ragsdale, Ayo Adeyi, and Isaiah Johnson (combined: 1,328 yards, 15 TD) should be around to back him up. They can put up yards against Miami-Ohio's poor run defense (92nd in EPA), but it remains to be seen whether they can put up enough to hang with the flashy passing the RedHawks will likely show off.

Watch for:

  • Can North Texas (13th in front-seven havoc allowed) hold up against Miami-Ohio's pass rush (third in front-seven havoc created)?
  • Will Miami-Ohio's defensive line (14th line yards per carry) stand tall against a powerful Mean Green rushing corps?
  • Will North Texas quarterback Austin Aune's gradual recovery towards his 2020 performance continue?

FEI Outright Pick: Miami-Ohio by 2.8

Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl
Tampa, Florida
Florida (-6.5) vs. UCF
Thursday, December 23, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Florida
UCF
2021 F+ 25 66
When Florida has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 34 47
2021 EPA/pass 56 29
2021 EPA/rush 77 88
When UCF has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 31 68
2021 EPA/pass 19 86
2021 EPA/rush 78 25

Who ever imagined that Florida and UCF would finally meet under such circumstances as these? Back in 2017, when the Knights went undefeated and claimed a national championship on the strength of their win over Auburn, the Gators were 4-7 and in no position to take potshots at any in-state rivals (though that didn't stop some fans). But Dan Mullen arrived in 2018 to lead an immediate turnaround and Florida went 10-3 the following season, beating out a once-blemished UCF in the final AP Poll. This time, it was their turn to point to transitive victories, claiming a win over the LSU team that ended the Knights' two-season winning streak. Both teams continued to lead their conferences in 2019 and 2020, though cracks started to show in the last season—Florida ended on a three-game losing streak, while UCF went a mere 6-4 with several disappointing losses by one-score margins. Then, well...

The 2021 season hasn't exactly been kind to any teams in the state of Florida. FAU missed the postseason thanks to a four-game losing streak at the end of the season. FIU went 1-11, and their most recent FBS win remains a 2019 victory over Miami, which eked out a 7-5 record and fired Manny Diaz despite a 5-1 finish. Florida State came up short in the Sunshine Showdown to miss bowl season, and just yesterday they lost top prospect Travis Hunter to their own former player and current Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders. USF bumbled their way to a 2-10 season, and their offensive coordinator is Charlie Weis Jr. At least Florida and UCF made bowls, though both had rough moments—losses to South Carolina and Missouri for the former and to Louisville and Navy for the latter.

And here, finally, they meet in the Gasparilla Bowl. A few years ago, this could have been a New Year's Six showdown; now, it's a matchup between two teams looking for direction and stability amid transition. There are positives for both sides, to be fair: the Gators moved on from Mullen and picked up Billy Napier from Louisiana, while UCF should have a solid future under Gus Malzahn as they prepare to join the Big 12. And on the field, both teams have some of the best offenses in their conferences. With fan favorite Anthony Richardson (8.3 yards per attempt, 6 TD, 5 INT) likely to take the reins after Emory Jones' (8.3 yards per attempt, 19 TD, 13 INT) transfer, the Gators have plenty of upside and talent. The defense is obviously a work in progress, but Napier put together good units on that side of the ball at Louisiana, and he could easily put together a juggernaut in the SEC East capable of challenging Alabama and Georgia in a difficult division. As for UCF, the rushing offense has excellent depth (seven players over 100 yards this year), and the defense is improving quickly, particularly against the run. With so much change and uncertainty in the air, as is true across this state in FBS, neither team is going to put a fully polished product out on the field. But between bad blood and glimpses of potentially bright futures, this will be of the most fascinating games of bowl season.

Watch for:

  • Will Richardson show off the dual-threat abilities (401 yards, 7.9 yards per carry) that led fans to clamor for him to start earlier in the season?
  • How will UCF's quietly excellent pass defense (17th in EPA, fifth in explosiveness) fare against Florida?
  • Can Florida's defensive line, a liability all season, keep the Knights from bullying their way to easy yardage in the short rushing game?

FEI Outright Pick: Florida by 8.3

FEI Picks: Bowl Spectacular Part I

Favorite
Spread
Underdog
FEI Pick
FEI Pick ATS
Preston's Pick ATS
Toledo -11 Middle Tennessee Toledo Middle Tennessee Middle Tennessee
Coastal Carolina -11 NIU Coastal Carolina Coastal Carolina NIU
Appalachian State -3 Western Kentucky Appalachian State Western Kentucky Western Kentucky
Fresno State -11 UTEP Fresno State Fresno State Fresno State
BYU -7 UAB BYU UAB BYU
Liberty -8.5 Eastern Michigan Liberty Eastern Michigan Eastern Michigan
Oregon State -7 Utah State Oregon State Utah State Utah State
Louisiana -5 Marshall Louisiana Marshall Louisiana
Tulsa -9 Old Dominion Tulsa Old Dominion Old Dominion
Wyoming -3 Kent State Wyoming Wyoming Wyoming
UTSA -2 San Diego State UTSA UTSA San Diego State
Army -4 Missouri Army Army Army
Miami-Ohio -3 North Texas Miami-Ohio North Texas Miami-Ohio
Florida -6.5 UCF Florida Florida UCF

FEI's picks ATS in Championship Week: 3-3

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 41-43

Preston's picks ATS in Championship Week: 2-4

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 38-46

Comments

1 comment, Last at 18 Dec 2021, 5:59am

#1 by stanleygoober // Dec 18, 2021 - 5:59am

Both Richardson and Jones are transferring with Jones apparently going to play QB for just this game. Not sure if that affects the pick at all.

Points: 0

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