Breakout Campaigns, Underrated Stars Kick Off Bowl Season

Jackson State Tigers QB Shedeur Sanders
Jackson State Tigers QB Shedeur Sanders
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Bowl Season - It has been a long seven years for both Jim L. Mora and the UConn Huskies. Mora had UCLA rolling in the early 2010s, starting 37-16 after taking over a program with one winning season in five years, but things took a turn starting in 2015. The Bruins' 4-0 start was derailed by 2-2 Arizona State, and they floundered to an 8-5 season, then completely collapsed to 4-8 and 6-6 before Mora was ousted. As for UConn, 2015 was a much-needed resurgence after going 3-9 and 2-10 in the previous two seasons. The Huskies' inexperienced staff pieced together five wins against losing competition, then shocked the college football world by upending 10-0 Houston to reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010. But like Mora's success, it was over as quickly as it began: Bob Diaco was out just a year later after going 3-9, and retread hire Randy Edsall won just six games in four seasons.

When UConn hired Mora at the end of 2021, having gone 1-11 with two games against FCS competition, both seemed like they might be on their last chance to succeed at the FBS level. On the upside, considering the state of the program, nobody expected immediate results, and a 1-4 start was no surprise. But the Huskies finished 5-2, knocking off eventual division champion Fresno State, ACC foe Boston College, and top-20 Liberty along the way in another stunning run to bowl season. It remains to be seen if this success will last for the coach or his program, but it's well worth celebrating now.

The first week of bowl season is an opportunity to take in the wonder of countless improbable stories like UConn's, from Oregon State (chasing its first 10-win season since 2006) to South Alabama (which has 10 wins for the first time in program history). Beyond the miracles, there are more typical success stories, such as Toledo finally putting its talent together to win the MAC and that Fresno State team overcoming its slow start to make the Mountain West title game. And, of course, there are the narratives: UTSA and Troy in a battle of underrated Group of 5 teams, Louisville and Cincinnati in a rivalry charged by a coach swapping sides, Jackson State trying to send Deion Sanders off with a Celebration Bowl victory, and more. It's only a glimpse of all the drama still to come, but there's plenty of must-see football to kick off bowl season.

All times are listed as Eastern.

HomeTown Lenders Bahamas Bowl
Nassau, Bahamas
Miami-Ohio RedHawks vs. UAB Blazers (-11)
Friday, December 16, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN)

Miami-Ohio UAB
2022 F+ 104 71
When Miami-Ohio has the ball
2022 F+ 127 66
2022 EPA/pass 120 44
2022 EPA/rush 108 119
When UAB has the ball
2022 F+ 64 72
2022 EPA/pass 90 26
2022 EPA/rush 62 6

Nobody in college football was quite able to match the nearly unprecedented 1-6 bowl comebacks of 2021, pulled off by teams of destiny at Old Dominion (which hadn't won an FBS game in over a thousand days before winning five straight to reach eligibility) and North Texas (which somehow took down 11-0 UTSA to cap its run to the postseason). But there are always teams which find an unlikely path to a bowl, and Miami-Ohio was one of this year's best examples. The RedHawks knocked off Northwestern early in the season, but they started MAC play 1-3 with every game coming down to a one-score finish. At 3-5, they were a long shot, and they needed wins by a combined seven points in their final two games to beat the odds and make it to the Bahamas. In their final game of the season, they trailed 17-3 late in the fourth quarter before mounting a desperate comeback to win by a single point.

It was fitting that the RedHawks locked in their bid on a defensive highlight—lineman Brian Ugwu's lone interception of the season—as their defense was their most consistent strength all year. Only conference championship game participant Ohio scored more than 24 points on Miami-Ohio in the RedHawks' final nine games, who made it to the postseason despite never scoring 30 points on an FBS opponent. The RedHawks' run defense was exceptional, holding opponents to a 38.2% success rate (21st in the nation) and a 10.1% explosive-play rate (26th). Meanwhile, their secondary created havoc on an FBS-best 11.5% of plays and limited opponents to a 7.7% explosive-play rate through the air, ranking 15th overall.

That group has its work cut out for it against a dynamic, explosive UAB attack. DeWayne McBride is the criminally underrated crown jewel of the Blazers' offense, leading all of college football with 1,713 rushing yards and ranking sixth with 7.4 yards per carry and second with 19 rushing touchdowns. The Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year and All-American is among the nation's most dangerous rushers: he has 45 carries of at least 10 yards (fourth) and 23 of at least 20 (first). Alongside Jermaine Brown Jr. (832 yards), he has led UAB to rank among the top 10 in rushing EPA and explosiveness, including the most yards per carry of any team in the open field. Miami-Ohio has locked down plenty of teams to make it this far, but can they hold off one of football's most talented running backs to pull off an unlikely winning season?

Watch for:

  • Will quarterback Brett Gabbert, who entered the portal but returned to Miami-Ohio, be available following an injury that kept him out for most of the season?
  • After a cold finish to the season (21-for-43 with 249 yards, a touchdown, and an interception against LSU and Louisiana Tech), can Dylan Hopkins test the RedHawks' secondary?
  • How well will UAB rally around outbound head coach Bryant Vincent as Trent Dilfer prepares to take up the role?

FEI Outright Pick: UAB by 7.9.

Duluth Trading Cure Bowl
Orlando, Florida
UTSA Roadrunners vs. Troy Trojans (-1.5)
Friday, December 16, 3 p.m. (ESPN)

2022 F+ 47 46
When UTSA has the ball
2022 F+ 24 17
2022 EPA/pass 10 28
2022 EPA/rush 24 42
When Troy has the ball
2022 F+ 91 88
2022 EPA/pass 83 66
2022 EPA/rush 57 81

Despite its early place in bowl season and its relatively recent introduction, the Cure Bowl seems to have a knack for putting together superb Group of 5 matchups. In 2020, it pitted No. 23 against No. 9 Coastal Carolina in a rivalry that went to overtime, while in 2021 it saw Coastal Carolina outlast MAC champion NIU in a down-to-the-wire shootout. This season, it's one of only three bowls outside the New Year's Six to match two ranked teams against each other, and it's the only bowl anywhere to feature two conference champions. Both teams only reached the top 25 in the last few weeks of the season, flying under the radar as they finished on 10-game winning streaks and secured the Sun Belt and C-USA titles with dominant conference championship game wins.

For all the parallels between these teams, there's one obvious difference. UTSA scored at least 30 points in 12 games this season, only falling below that mark in their loss to Texas; meanwhile, Troy held 12 opponents under 30 points, only allowing Appalachian State to beat that mark in a heartbreaking Hail Mary loss. The Roadrunners' offense against the Trojans' defense is a matchup of two fantastic units, both in the top 30 of EPA, but they specialize in opposite characteristics. UTSA relies on the steady passing of quarterback Frank Harris, whose 71.1% completion rate ranks third in FBS. The Roadrunners' 54.1% success rate on passes is key to their 50.4% overall success rate (11th nationally), which makes up for a middling 13.3% explosive-play rate (54th). Meanwhile, Troy allowed opponents to move the ball consistently (40.0% success rate allowed, 41st) but stifled big plays (8.6% explosive-play rate, 8th).

That contrast of styles makes this meeting of two elite units particularly fascinating. UTSA has been a slow but unstoppable force, facing passing downs on only 27.5% of plays and converting a superb 40% of them (third in FBS). But more than any other team the Roadrunners have faced, Troy is fine with being beaten up front because of how well they limit deep threats. While big plays haven't been a focal element of UTSA's offense, that fact has also made them extremely potent: Harris has 11 touchdowns on 20-yard passes, tied for 11th nationally. If the Trojans can take away that piece of the Roadrunners' attack, will it be enough to shut down one of the nation's most potent offenses?

Watch for:

  • With lead rusher Brenden Brady (699 yards) unavailable due to injury, can UTSA muster any big runs against an airtight Trojans run defense (fourth in open-field yards per carry allowed)?
  • Will Kimani Vidal (1059 yards, nine touchdowns) and DK Billingsley (656 yards, eight touchdowns) provide enough firepower on the ground to keep Troy's offense flying high?
  • If so, will the Roadrunners' late-season struggles against the run (three 170-yard games allowed from November on) continue to hold them back?

FEI Outright Pick: UTSA by 0.5.

Wasabi Fenway Bowl
Boston, Massachusetts
Louisville Cardinals (-1.5) vs. Cincinnati Bearcats
Saturday, December 17, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

Louisville Cincinnati
2022 F+ 33 35
When Louisville has the ball
2022 F+ 62 25
2022 EPA/pass 96 18
2022 EPA/rush 98 64
When Cincinnati has the ball
2022 F+ 21 70
2022 EPA/pass 9 51
2022 EPA/rush 29 76

The line movement for this game is an apt summary of how strange the circumstances surrounding it are. A handful of books opened lines when the matchup was announced on December 4, favoring Cincinnati by about -1.5 or so. Then, early on December 5, news broke that the Bearcats were poaching head coach Scott Satterfield from their historic rival—and bowl opponent—the Cardinals. The line promptly shifted ... in favor of Louisville, the team being poached from. It's a fittingly weird setup for a game that will feature two teams with no love lost on the same sideline, all in the bizarre setting of a converted baseball stadium nearly a thousand miles from their home stadiums, which are just two hours apart.

The freakish setup for this renewed rivalry (played in all but three seasons from 1966 to 2013, but never since) has somewhat overshadowed what a good game it could be. While there are plenty of offensive weapons to be found, both teams have leaned on sturdy defenses to make it here. Louisville's showed up after giving up over 30 points in three of their first five games, holding every opponent but Clemson under that mark in the rest of the season. Cincinnati's, meanwhile, was impressively consistent, with only Arkansas managing more than 27 points on them. The Cardinals had a knack for making must-have plays and getting after quarterbacks on late downs, ranking fourth in FBS with 3.5 sacks per game. As for the Bearcats, they have stood up well against all kinds of pressure, ranking among the top 30 in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness allowed against both the pass and the run.

Cincinnati's defense is probably better, especially with unanimous All-American linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (119 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss) guaranteed to play. But when Louisville's offense is playing well, it's an extremely difficult group to defend. Dual-threat quarterback Malik Cunningham is out of the picture as he prepares for the draft, but journeyman Brock Domann has put in a solid performance down the stretch, and the rushing corps is nearly as potent as ever. The Cardinals are averaging 193 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry this season, with Jawhar Jordan (700 yards, 5.3 yards per carry) keeping the offense steady through injuries and depth problems at receiver. It hasn't been an easy road to 7-5, but Louisville can close a muddled chapter of team history on a high note if they can put the offensive pieces together here.

Watch for:

  • How will Cincinnati's passing attack handle the loss of top targets Tre Tucker (672 yards on 52 catches) and tight end Josh Whyle (326 yards on 32 catches)?
  • Can Louisville's defense keep up its remarkable success on opponents' scoring opportunities (2.88 points per opportunity allowed, fifth in FBS)?
  • How high can Pace, currently tied for ninth in Cincinnati history with eight single-season sacks, climb in the all-time program record books?

FEI Outright Pick: Louisville by 5.0.

Cricket Celebration Bowl
Atlanta, Georgia
Jackson State Tigers (-14) vs. NC Central Eagles
Saturday, December 17, 12 p.m. (ABC)

Jackson State NC Central
2022 net yards 2 8
When Jackson State has the ball
2022 total yards 14 17
2022 yards/pass 48 27
2022 yards/rush 42 67
When NC Central has the ball
2022 total yards 1 17
2022 yards/pass 1 14
2022 yards/rush 4 15

What hasn't been said about Deion Sanders' three-season stint at Jackson State? The first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer and two-sport athlete is iconic for his ventures beyond his playing career, but taking the reins of a struggling program in FCS might have been his most ambitious. In some ways, it has gone better than anyone could have imagined—the Tigers are undefeated and in the top 10 this season, in position to cap off the best year in program history by winning a de facto HBCU championship—but some would say Sanders' recent departure for Colorado overshadows his achievements his accomplishments at Jackson State. There are plenty of lingering questions about what the Tigers will look like when alum T.C. Taylor takes over, such as whether former top recruit Travis Hunter will stay or follow Sanders through the portal.

Before all that, though, Sanders will see out the season in the Celebration Bowl, matching SWAC champions Jackson State against MEAC champions NC Central. The Tigers suffered a stunning blowout loss in the 2021 edition of this game, falling to 6-5 South Carolina State, but they have been untouchable this year, with just a single one-score win in their 12-0 season. While Shedeur Sanders, Deion's son and Jackson State's quarterback, has gained plenty of attention, it's the defense that has gotten the Tigers this far. Hunter (14 tackles, two interceptions) has been a solid contributor despite missing games due to injury, but hard-hitting pass-rushers such as Justin Ragin (16 tackles for loss, 10 sacks) and SWAC Defensive Player of the Year Aubrey Miller Jr. (106 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles) are the real standouts.

Jackson State's defense is the best in FCS by many measures, but holding off a balanced NC Central offense will be one of its toughest tasks this season. Davius Richard is a dual-threat force for the Eagles, averaging 8.5 yards per pass and 6.5 yards per carry with 24 passing and 13 rushing touchdowns. His development has been aided by a spectacular offensive line, featuring not one but two guards (Corey Bullock and Robert Mitchell) who could justifiably be considered the best in FCS at the position. The receiving corps leans more on depth than elite talent, which could be a problem as they face an extremely talented secondary, but the line should do enough to keep things interesting. If the Eagles can pull off the MEAC's second straight shocker in the Celebration Bowl, their tough offensive front will likely lead the way.

Watch for:

  • Will NC Central lean on their strong rushing game against Jackson State's 4-2-5 base alignment?
  • Can Eagles safety Khalil Baker (51 tackles, four interceptions) shut down the Tigers' top receiver Shane Hooks (705 yards, 10 touchdowns) between the numbers?
  • Can the Tigers make critical stands against an offense that excels at keeping the chains moving (57.3% third-down conversion rate, first in FCS)?

FEI Outright Pick: N/A.

SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl
Las Vegas, Nevada
Florida Gators vs. Oregon State Beavers (-10)
Saturday, December 17, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Florida Oregon State
2022 F+ 27 21
When Florida has the ball
2022 F+ 21 19
2022 EPA/pass 70 25
2022 EPA/rush 3 73
When Oregon State has the ball
2022 F+ 67 44
2022 EPA/pass 81 94
2022 EPA/rush 111 15

Two teams from the Sunshine State are on opposite sides of some of bowl season's most lopsided matchups. In the Cheez-It Bowl, 9-3 Florida State is a comfortable favorite to roll past 6-6 Oklahoma, with a heavy majority of bets on the Seminoles to cover a 7.5-point line. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Bowl sees 6-6 Florida as a prohibitive 10-point underdog to 9-3 Oregon State. That doesn't mean this game lacks intrigue, however; the Gators are hoping to avoid their second losing season in as many years after falling below .500 just twice in the previous four decades, while the Beavers are in position for the third 10-win campaign in program history and the first since 2006.

Florida held high expectations early on, stunning No. 7 Utah at home in a brilliant win to reach the top 15 quickly, but they couldn't find a way past any of the four ranked teams they faced over the rest of the season (nor LSU, which arrived in the rankings shortly after beating the Gators). Oregon State took an opposite trajectory, dropping early games against USC and Utah after a solid non-conference slate before picking up steam down the stretch. The Beavers won six of their last seven games, only falling by a field goal to 10-2 Washington, and shattered Oregon's conference championship hopes with a stunning 21-point comeback in Corvallis. For the first time in a decade, they're in the top 20 and have a solid chance to finish there.

Oregon State pulled off that come-from-behind rally without throwing a pass, which was typical of their success this season. With expected team leader Chance Nolan struggling, then missing more than half of the year with an injury suffered in the Beavers' fifth game, Damien Martinez did most of the heavy lifting for Oregon State's offense this season. Complemented by secondary rushers Deshaun Fenwick (446 yards) and Jamious Griffin (486 yards) and the solid efforts of backup quarterback Ben Gulbranson (7.4 yards per attempt, eight touchdowns, five interceptions), Martinez led the way as the Beavers averaged 32.4 points per game. Oregon State ran the ball at a staggering 62.1% clip (13th in FBS)—65.7%, with at least 40 carries in every game—once Gulbranson took over. It worked to great effect, as the Beavers finished the season ranked 12th in rushing success rate and 23rd in rushing explosiveness. Against a struggling Florida defense that gave up 227 yards and five touchdowns on the ground last time out, it'll be key for Oregon State to put the finishing touches on a momentous season.

Watch for:

  • How will Jack Miller III (14 career passes, all for Ohio State in 2021) fare in his first career start against an excellent Oregon State secondary?
  • Without dual-threat quarterback Anthony Richardson, can running backs Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne punish the Beavers' porous run defense?
  • Can Oregon State (first in offensive starting field position) create big returns against Florida's inefficient special teams coverage (125th in defensive starting field position)?

FEI Outright Pick: Oregon State by 0.9.

Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl
Inglewood, California
Washington State Cougars vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (-3.5)
Saturday, December 17, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Washington State Fresno State
2022 F+ 34 58
When Washington State has the ball
2022 F+ 64 44
2022 EPA/pass 55 38
2022 EPA/rush 33 90
When Fresno State has the ball
2022 F+ 26 61
2022 EPA/pass 89 65
2022 EPA/rush 50 83

A soft schedule down the stretch meant Fresno State would probably have reached a bowl regardless of their sluggish start, but it's arguable that no team had a more impressive turnaround this season. The Bulldogs started 1-4, dropping games to Oregon State and USC (understandable) and to UConn and Boise State (less so, especially considering the latter came by 20 points). But Jeff Tedford turned things all the way around after that, immediately knocking off a strong 4-1 San Jose State team to launch an eight-game winning streak. The Bulldogs' resurgence was underscored by their final win of the season, which secured their first conference title since 2018: an efficient, dominant 28-16 victory over the same Boise State team that had blown past them two months prior.

Fresno State's red-hot finish earned a third matchup against a Pac-12 opponent, as they'll meet an up-and-down Washington State, which is navigating heavy turnover. Numerous key pieces—including two starting receivers and linebackers as well as both coordinators—have departed ahead of this bowl, putting Jake Dickert's roster and staff management to the test. For a team which was already lacking in depth at some key positions, shuffling these pieces around in time to put up a fight against Fresno State will be tough.

That being said, Dickert isn't short on experience with muddled rosters, having taken over a team in disarray after Nick Rolovich's unceremonious firing midway through the 2021 season. Quarterback Cameron Ward is still with the program, continuing to improve in a pass-heavy system that has placed plenty of weight on his shoulders; the talented rushing tandem of Nakia Watson and Jaylen Jenkins (1,132 total yards, 5.7 yards per carry) should be fully healthy as well. Ward will have his hands full with an overhauled receiving corps and Fresno State's strong secondary (20th in passing success rate allowed), but the Cougars should find plenty of success on the ground, where the Bulldogs have allowed 158 yards per game and a 15.6% explosive-play rate. It's reasonable not to expect much from Washington State, but they have made a habit of defying low expectations under Dickert's watch, and there's plenty of reason to think they can pull off an upset here.

Watch for:

  • Can Jake Haener (8.3 yards per attempt, 18 touchdowns, three interceptions) go out on a high note by exploiting the Cougars' struggles against the deep ball (122nd in passing explosiveness allowed)?
  • Will the Bulldogs be able to stuff Watson and Jenkins at the line, or can Washington State break into the second level (15th in yards per carry) and open field (11th)?
  • With offensive coordinator Eric Morris headed to North Texas, will the Cougars continue to lean heavily on the passing game?

FEI Outright Pick: Washington State by 5.3.

LendingTree Bowl
Mobile, Alabama
Rice Owls vs. Southern Miss Golden Eagles (-6)
Saturday, December 17, 5:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Rice Southern Miss
2022 F+ 118 88
When Rice has the ball
2022 F+ 99 52
2022 EPA/pass 100 21
2022 EPA/rush 49 56
When Southern Miss has the ball
2022 F+ 110 111
2022 EPA/pass 127 108
2022 EPA/rush 99 116

For Rice, a program which is 165 games under .500 in its history and hasn't made the rankings since 1961, the timeframe of a rebuild is understandably lengthy. Mike Bloomgren's Owls are only here thanks to an odd number of bowl-eligible teams and an excellent academic ranking, but he'll be back for a sixth season in hopes of earning his first proper bowl bid next year. Progress has been slow, but Rice was 1-11 before his arrival and has been climbing the ranks, one rung at a time. It's a difficult program to sell recruits on, so for now, the steady rise is enough.

Their opponent in this bowl makes for an interesting contrast. Southern Miss was in a similarly dire place when current head coach Will Hall took over: they fired Jay Hopson after losing the 2020 opener, then went 3-7 for their first losing season in six years. Hall's first team had no real quarterback for long stretches and lost nine of its first 10 games, eventually finishing 3-9 in a weak C-USA. If this were Rice, the switch to a Sun Belt schedule and the mitigating circumstances would make another dire season understandable—but Southern Miss, with its legacy of upsets and relatively recent success, is a very different job. Hall rallied the team, pieced together a roster that could hang with the Sun Belt's talent level, and put the Golden Eagles back on the map with a 6-6 season.

Sure, this is the sort of bowl people have in mind when they complain about how bloated the college football postseason has become. But it's a useful opportunity for both programs to step back and look at how far they have come—albeit in very different timeframes. For both teams, the passing game will be a sign of their progress over the past few years. Rice has managed a solid season despite four different players taking snaps under center, including potential bowl starters TJ McMahon (7.9 yards per attempt, 18 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) and AJ Padgett (8.5 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, one interception). As for Southern Miss, having a quarterback at all marks a turnaround from last season, when 11 different players threw passes and running back Frank Gore Jr. briefly served as the primary passer. Several players took the role throughout the season, but freshman Zach Wilcke (6.6 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns, nine interceptions) should see the most time if available. This game may be more about the future than the present for both teams, but it's also a valuable opportunity to look back at how far they have come as they prepare to keep moving forward in 2023.

Watch for:

  • Can the Golden Eagles' stalwart defense (15th in success rate allowed) hold off a depleted Rice attack?
  • Will quarterback-turned-receiver Luke McCaffrey (793 total yards in 10 games) return from injury for the Owls?
  • Can Rice force takeaways against a Southern Miss offense that averaged 2.0 turnovers per game this season (tied for 119th nationally)?

FEI Outright Pick: Southern Miss by 9.0.

New Mexico Bowl
Albuquerque, New Mexico
SMU Mustangs (-3.5) vs. BYU Cougars
Saturday, December 17, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

2022 F+ 54 68
When SMU has the ball
2022 F+ 12 109
2022 EPA/pass 17 117
2022 EPA/rush 68 108
When BYU has the ball
2022 F+ 118 28
2022 EPA/pass 98 15
2022 EPA/rush 128 34

For fans of high-scoring shootouts—and let's be honest, we all are—SMU's recent bowls have been awfully tantalizing. In 2020, the Mustangs averaged a 39-31 final score and were set to face UTSA, still a year away from its true offensive outbreak but loaded with potential. Then, in 2021, the Mustangs averaged a 38-28 final score and were lined up for a meeting with Virginia, defined by star quarterback Brennan Armstrong's 4,449 passing yards and a corresponding lack of defense. In both seasons, COVID-19 concerns led to the cancellation of bowls that would have been explosive standouts in the mid-December slate.

Now, finally—fingers crossed—SMU will get to duel with a high-scoring opponent. The Mustangs' average score this season is 38-35, and their foe in the New Mexico Bowl isn't far behind: BYU has averaged a 32-30 score this season, which should set up for a combined total in the high 60s at the very least. Sure, these defenses may be glaringly poor, but the variety of stars on both offenses should make this a spectacle worth watching.

There will, however, be at least one luminary missing from the Mustangs' constellation of offensive talent. First-team all-conference receiver Rashee Rice, whose 147-yard season finale was just enough to set the program's single-season receiving yardage record, has played his final game for SMU. In his absence, the offense will look to a deep lineup of potential targets: seven other players posted over 150 receiving yards for the Mustangs, led by emerging big-play threat Jordan Kerley (538 yards, 17.4 yards per catch). Expect Tanner Mordecai (8.1 yards per attempt, 31 touchdowns, nine interceptions) to spread the ball and test a swarming BYU defense.

BYU's chances of hanging with the Mustangs' potent offense hinge on one of the biggest unanswered questions heading into bowl season: will Jaren Hall play? The second-year starter has been a statistical match for Mordecai, with 8.4 yards per attempt, 31 touchdowns, and six interceptions, but he left the Cougars' regular-season finale against Stanford with an ankle injury. It seems increasingly likely that he won't be healthy for the bowl, which could result in former Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan being thrust into action after backup Jacob Conover recently transferred out. Pulling off a win with a quarterback who hasn't thrown a pass in two years would be difficult, but BYU does have plenty of talented offensive players who could give them a chance, regardless of who's under center. If Keanu Hill (572 yards) is available to complement Puka Nacua (625 yards) at receiver, the Cougars should be able to make plays against SMU's defense and stick around in a high-scoring showdown.

Watch for:

  • Will the Mustangs' rapid pace (149.8 total plays per game) affect the slower, steadier Cougars (132.9 total plays per game)?
  • Can SMU take advantage of BYU's key linebacker losses to the portal (Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar, who combined for 92 tackles) with big plays up the middle?
  • Will SMU's middling run game (64th in success rate, 90th in explosiveness) hold their offense back if Mordecai misses a beat without his top target?

FEI Outright Pick: SMU by 3.7.

Frisco Bowl
Frisco, Texas
Boise State Broncos (-10.5) vs. North Texas Mean Green
Saturday, December 17, 9:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Boise State North Texas
2022 F+ 61 84
When Boise State has the ball
2022 F+ 75 112
2022 EPA/pass 95 84
2022 EPA/rush 41 117
When North Texas has the ball
2022 F+ 34 53
2022 EPA/pass 2 24
2022 EPA/rush 26 56

It seems fitting, in a way, that Seth Littrell's career at North Texas ended with an even 44-44 record. The Mean Green fired him after a decisive loss in the C-USA Championship Game, ending a seven-year stint defined by accomplishing the bare minimum and not much else. The program's future under Eric Morris, who guided Incarnate Word to a top-15 finish in 2021 and coordinated Washington State's offense this season, is uncertain, but they're trying something new for the first time in over half a decade. For a program whose potential has always been a few steps ahead of its reality, that's reason for intrigue as they prepare for the jump into the AAC next year.

The Mean Green's bowl opponent, Boise State, is the type of model program they could be if all goes well. The Broncos aren't in position for annual top-10 finishes as they used to be, but top-25 rankings and conference titles are still goals they aspire to every season. Both were on the table this year, but key losses in winnable games held Boise State back amid an unsatisfying 9-4 season. Still, making it to the conference title game marks a step forward from 2021, and getting to 10 wins would help to establish this as part of an upward trajectory in Andy Avalos' second season at the helm.

The Broncos are a decisive favorite to leave Frisco with a win thanks to their defense, which Avalos has quickly made a defining strength for this team. Boise State ranks ninth in EPA and fifth in success rate allowed, including the lowest passing success rate allowed by any team this season (29.8%). Thanks to a shutdown secondary, the Broncos have killed drives with ruthless efficiency: just 17.5% of opponents' passing downs result in successful plays, the best mark in FBS. With JL Skinner (four interceptions, 5.3 yards allowed per target) leading a deep defense, Boise State should be able to limit Austin Aune (8.7 yards per attempt, 32 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) and polish off a solid return to form with an eighth win in their final 10 games.

Watch for:

  • Will Texas native Stefan Cobbs (396 yards, 13.7 yards per catch) be available for Boise State after missing their last two games due to injury?
  • Can Broncos rusher George Holani carry his strong stretch run (101 yards per game, 6.1 yards per carry) into what might be his final game for Boise State?
  • Will the Mean Green's stable of running backs (three with over 600 total yards) be able to break off big plays against the Broncos' tough run defense (ninth in explosiveness allowed)?

FEI Outright Pick: Boise State by 9.7.

Myrtle Beach Bowl
Conway, South Carolina
UConn Huskies vs. Marshall Thundering Herd (-10)
Monday, December 19, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

UConn Marshall
2022 F+ 114 65
When UConn has the ball
2022 F+ 119 9
2022 EPA/pass 109 1
2022 EPA/rush 51 3
When Marshall has the ball
2022 F+ 85 118
2022 EPA/pass 60 123
2022 EPA/rush 65 97

I covered UConn's miraculous run to the postseason in the intro because it's emblematic of everything wonderful about the early bowls, but also because Marshall deserves some appreciation in their own right. The Thundering Herd came four votes away from reaching the top 25 after they stunned Notre Dame—which would have made them just the third Marshall team in the last 20 years to earn a ranking—but losses in three of their next four games took them off the radar. The Herd rebounded admirably, however, winning five of their last six to finish an impressive 8-4 in their Sun Belt debut. For head coach Charles Huff, his solid 15-11 start has been validating after Marshall's decision to hire him after moving on from reigning C-USA Coach of the Year Doc Holliday drew skepticism from many.

What's particularly intriguing is that despite Huff's reputation as a masterful recruiter and offensive coach, the Herd didn't win by overpowering or outscoring their opponents. Instead, a defense coordinated by Lance Guidry has been key to Marshall's success, holding 11 of 12 opponents under 25 points and ranking among the national top five in EPA, success rate, havoc, and points per scoring opportunity. After three seasons as an FBS defensive coordinator without a unit that ranked in the top 40 of points allowed per game, it's a stunning breakthrough. From expected leaders such as Koby Cumberlander (10.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and Micah Abraham (eight pass breakups, five interceptions) to breakout stars such as Owen Porter (14 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks), Guidry has pieced together every bit of talent at Marshall's disposal to shut down a schedule laden with strong offenses.

UConn made it to bowl season thanks to strong defense as well—they ranked 61st in points allowed per game and among the top 75 in EPA and explosiveness—but it was the development of a rushing attack that spurred the late-season charge to reach eligibility. The Huskies' rushing offense averaged 217 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry during their 5-2 finish, and it ranks 51st in EPA and 21st in explosiveness despite seeing the second-heaviest usage of any non–service academy. Four different players picked up over 350 yards on the ground, led by spectacular true freshman Victor Rosa (561 yards, nine touchdowns). Marshall will be a daunting test, but if UConn can get into the open field, they'll have a shot at picking up enough big runs to upset the Herd and secure their first winning season since 2010.

Watch for:

  • Will Khalan Laborn (1,423 yards, 16 touchdowns, 36 carries for double-digit yardage) provide enough explosiveness to beat the Huskies' defense?
  • Can Marshall's strong run defense (third in EPA and success rate) handle UConn's high rushing rate (34.4% higher than the Herd's average opponent)?
  • Can UConn quarterback Zion Turner (4.0 yards per attempt, two interceptions on pressured passes) handle the elite Marshall pass rush (fourth in front-seven havoc rate)?

FEI Outright Pick: Marshall by 14.3.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Boise, Idaho
Eastern Michigan Eagles vs. San Jose State Spartans (-3.5)
Tuesday, December 20, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Eastern Michigan San Jose State
2022 F+ 96 74
When Eastern Michigan has the ball
2022 F+ 80 55
2022 EPA/pass 62 34
2022 EPA/rush 35 38
When San Jose State has the ball
2022 F+ 111 77
2022 EPA/pass 63 28
2022 EPA/rush 101 62

It has been a long season for San Jose State. The Spartans have stepped up from a 5-7 record last year to a 7-4 record this year, but they have missed opportunities to impress further; one-score losses to Auburn, Fresno State, and Utah State still sting. It's impossible to discuss this campaign, of course, without touching on the tragic death of running back Camdan McWright, which led to a cancelled game and overshadowed the rest of the season. Through it all, though, San Jose State has pressed onwards in pursuit of their first eight-win season since joining the Mountain West a decade ago.

The opportunity to reach that mark comes in a rematch of their opponent's only bowl win—the 1987 California Bowl, which Eastern Michigan won as a huge underdog to complete the sole 10-win season in program history. The Eagles have struggled to climb beyond the bottom of the MAC for most of the 35 years since that victory, but head coach Chris Creighton has led them to the postseason consistently, though a bowl win has eluded him in four attempts thus far. Eastern Michigan's eight wins this year are already their most since that 1987 season, and they could add to the parallels by pulling another postseason upset against San Jose State.

Quarterback has been an open question for the Eagles this year, but Taylor Powell finished with the strongest claim, passing for 581 yards and six touchdowns in the last two games of the season. If Powell struggles, Austin Smith (6.5 yards per attempt, six touchdowns, four interceptions) could get an opportunity; regardless of who's under center, however, Eastern Michigan's best weapon will be in the backfield. Running back Samson Evans has been a force this year, racking up 1,084 yards with 13 touchdowns on the ground, and his 28 runs for double-digit yardage rank third in the MAC. Some teams have been able to limit him, but he's always capable of a breakout performance—such as his four games this season with over 120 yards and 5.5 yards per carry.

Viliami Fehoko will be critical to limiting both aspects of the Eagles' attack. The Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, Fehoko has set career highs with 65 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, and 9 sacks this season. While he stands out the most as a pass-rusher—his 60 pressures rank third nationally—he's also one of the Spartans' best defenders against the run, with a team-leading 27 stops on rushing plays. Containing Fehoko is essential for Eastern Michigan to keep the chains moving on offense and put themselves in position for a momentous bowl win.

Watch for:

  • Can the Eagles' secondary (11th in havoc rate) force at least one turnover from interception-averse quarterback Chevan Cordeiro?
  • With Evans facing a mismatch in the open field, will Powell or Smith provide enough big plays to keep up with San Jose State?
  • On the other side of the ball, can top Spartans receivers Elijah Cooks and Justin Lockhart create explosiveness if Eastern Michigan shuts down a thin rushing corps?

FEI Outright Pick: San Jose State by 9.8. Boca Raton Bowl
Boca Raton, Florida
Toledo Rockets (-5) vs. Liberty Flames
Tuesday, December 20, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Toledo Liberty
2022 F+ 80 75
When Toledo has the ball
2022 F+ 81 48
2022 EPA/pass 53 13
2022 EPA/rush 73 25
When Liberty has the ball
2022 F+ 61 91
2022 EPA/pass 19 111
2022 EPA/rush 34 52

Expectations in the MAC tend to be fairly uniform, since the conference has so much parity. Consistent bowl seasons with the occasional eight- or nine-win year and conference championship bid will do for most teams (though Western Michigan's Tim Lester serves as a recent exception to that rule). Toledo is a major outlier, though, because the Rockets' solid history and location have given them a consistent advantage in recruited talent on the rest of the conference. This season marked the third in a row in which they had the highest team talent composite of any MAC team, and they haven't been outside the top two since 2015.

For that reason, Jason Candle entered this season in need of more than just another adequate performance. His Rockets had lost their last four bowls, hadn't won more than seven games since 2017, and were stuck in the middle of the West despite having the talent to compete for conference titles. Toledo expected more, and Candle finally delivered in 2022; though they lost three MAC games, all by a single score, they snapped red-hot Ohio's seven-game winning streak for their second conference title under his watch.

The future is still uncertain—Toledo was two Bobcats touchdowns away from a 7-6 letdown with a three-game losing streak entering bowl season, and it might look like a fluke in a few years' time, as the 11-2 championship in 2017 is now seen. But for now, Candle and the Rockets are riding high, finally living up to expectations and looking for their first bowl win since Candle's debut in Boca Raton seven years ago. Defense, particularly against the pass, has led the way for Toledo, ranking among the top 10 in success rate and explosiveness allowed. Six opponents have failed to crack the 100-yard mark through the air against the Rockets, and they'll look to make it seven against ... well, whomever starts for Liberty.

Quarterback is an open question for the Flames, whose depth chart for the game lists no less than four potential starters. There's Charlie Brewer, who has started at Baylor and Utah and opened 2022 as Liberty's top option, but has barely played due to injury; Johnathan Bennett, the second-string who took over from Brewer in the season opener but struggled and was benched; Kaidon Salter, who engineered a four-overtime comeback win in that game but has also missed games with an injury; and Nate Hampton, the last available quarterback who has made brief appearances as the Flames' available options have shifted. Jamey Chadwell, who will arrive from Coastal Carolina in 2023, could simplify things next year by bringing Grayson McCall with him, but the situation will be muddy for the Boca Raton Bowl. Whichever passers Liberty uses most will have their hands full with Toledo's strong secondary, but star receiver Demario Douglas could give the Flames enough of an edge through the air to pull off a win.

Watch for:

  • Will Liberty's quick offensive pace (23.9 seconds per play, 31st in FBS) prove difficult for Toledo to handle?
  • How will the Rockets look to hold off a deep Flames pass rush (four players with at least 10 tackles for loss, led by Durrell Johnson's 22.5)?
  • Can Toledo's trio of running backs get past a tough Liberty line and take advantage of the Flames' weakness in the open field?

FEI Outright Pick: Toledo by 0.1.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
New Orleans, Louisiana
Western Kentucky vs. South Alabama (-4.5)
Wednesday, December 21, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Western Kentucky South Alabama
2022 F+ 62 45
When Western Kentucky has the ball
2022 F+ 52 30
2022 EPA/pass 20 17
2022 EPA/rush 74 20
When South Alabama has the ball
2022 F+ 68 66
2022 EPA/pass 24 31
2022 EPA/rush 86 60

In the offseason, South Alabama was bandied about as a team that could have some serious upside in 2022. Kane Wommack had a solid 5-7 debut season, and flipping any of four losses by a single score would have given the Jaguars a chance at their first-ever bowl win. But even the most wildly optimistic forecasts couldn't have anticipated this: a 10-2 season, losses by a combined five points to 9-3 UCLA and 11-2 Troy, and the program's most wins in FBS by a country mile. That first-ever bowl win—and, if voters respect their excellent résumé, potentially a first-ever ranking—could now be in South Alabama's sights.

To add more history to this season, they'll have to get past Western Kentucky, which is 8-5 but frustratingly close to a much more impressive record. The Hilltoppers fell to Troy and UTSA, a pair of 11-win conference champions, by a combined 10 points in back-to-back weeks, which was fairly emblematic of their season. On the upside, they avoided the setback that losing record-setting quarterback Bailey Zappe could easily have caused; Austin Reed has been capable under center, and receiver Malachi Corley continues to establish himself as an elite offensive piece to build around. Unbalanced offense and defense, neither of which could handle rushes well, meant things sometimes fell apart in a hurry, but the Hilltoppers have been capable of impressive performances when they put it all together.

Hanging with South Alabama will be about as difficult as keeping up with those Trojans and Roadrunners, so it's clear that Western Kentucky is capable of doing so again, at least on paper. With Reed pulling out of the transfer portal, they'll need his ability to handle a heavy workload as they face a secondary which has dealt with plenty of pass-first offenses. Both the Hilltoppers' offense and the Jaguars' defense rank fourth in passing play rate, presenting an intriguing matchup of two units that have heavily defined their team's success this season. Talented defensive backs such as Yam Banks (5.9 yards allowed per target, five interceptions) and Darrell Luter Jr. (7.9 yards allowed per target, 50.9% completion rate allowed) will have their hands full with an offense averaging over 43 passes per game, including 55.5 in its last two appearances. For Western Kentucky to spoil South Alabama's spectacular season, they'll need a deep receiving corps to beat that secondary and create big passing opportunities in the open field.

Watch for:

  • Will Western Kentucky's lost transfers on the line (Gunner Britton and Rusty Staats) leave Reed vulnerable to South Alabama's pass rush?
  • Can Jaguars quarterback Carter Bradley (7.9 yards per attempt, 25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) beat the Hilltoppers' pass defense with short gains?
  • Will first-team all-conference running back La'Damian Webb (1,019 yards, 13 touchdowns) provide enough offense for South Alabama on the ground?

FEI Outright Pick: South Alabama by 0.1.

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Fort Worth, Texas
Air Force Falcons vs. Baylor Bears (-5.5)
Thursday, December 22, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Air Force Baylor
2022 F+ 56 32
When Air Force has the ball
2022 F+ 94 54
2022 EPA/pass 21 72
2022 EPA/rush 22 95
When Baylor has the ball
2022 F+ 23 26
2022 EPA/pass 48 43
2022 EPA/rush 37 42

Remember Halloween 2020? If you're having trouble dredging up your recollections, I can offer a brief look at the state of college football from back then. Clemson was the best team in the nation, still a week away from losing to Notre Dame and losing a No. 1 spot they haven't reclaimed since. Texas dashed theretofore-undefeated Oklahoma State's championship hopes in an overtime thriller, while Ohio State rolled past Penn State in its first real test of a shortened season. Indiana was in the top 20, LSU was losing to Auburn by 37, Baylor was in the midst of a horrific 2-7 collapse. 2020 was only a couple years ago, sure, but in college football, it feels like a lifetime.

Few things have stayed the same in the intervening 775 days, one of which is this astonishing fact: Air Force hasn't lost a game by more than one score. Their 49-30 defeat at the hands of No. 25 Boise State that day marked the most recent such loss, a streak which is nearly an entire year longer than any other FBS team can claim. Across the last two seasons, the Falcons are 19-6, and they have arguably been unlucky—just 38 more points in the right games would make them 25-0 in that span.

The consistency of Troy Calhoun's program is admirable, and they'll look to demonstrate it on the national stage in this game by winning their fifth straight matchup against a Power 5 opponent. Baylor has come a long way since that 2-7 season, winning the Big 12 championship last year and starting 3-1 this year before fading down the stretch with a 3-5 finish. The Bears' middling record, however, belies their strength, as they demonstrated in their last two games of the season. Looking for revenge on rival TCU after the Horned Frogs dashed their playoff hopes in 2021, they led in the closing seconds and fell to a playoff-bound team by a miraculous last-second field goal. In the season finale, Baylor went to Austin and led for almost the entire day until the final 10 minutes, when the Longhorns' powerful run game proved just enough to scrape out a win. The Bears enter this bowl on a three-game losing streak, but they have put in some of their strongest performances down the stretch.

Run defense—which doomed Baylor against Texas, as they surrendered 208 yards and five touchdowns on the ground—is key against the nation's most run-heavy team. The Bears have limited big runs fairly well, but they have allowed plenty of short gains underneath, which should suit Air Force's steady rushing attack. Brad Roberts—the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year who's looking to reach 3,000 yards across the last two seasons—will lead the way as the Falcons hope to take advantage of Baylor's defensive front and close out their second straight 10-3 campaign.

Watch for:

  • Can the Bears keep quarterback Haaziq Daniels (733 yards on 76 attempts) from catching them off guard with Air Force's rare, explosive passes?
  • Will Baylor's struggles with closing out defensive drives (121st in success rate allowed on passing downs) allow the Falcons to extend their possessions?
  • How well can Air Force's own run defense (35th in success rate) hold off a strong Baylor rushing corps led by true freshman Richard Reese (962 yards, 14 touchdowns)?

FEI Outright Pick: Baylor by 5.3.

FEI Picks: Bowl Spectacular Part I

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Pick ATS
UAB -11 Miami-Ohio UAB Miami-Ohio UAB
Louisville -1.5 Cincinnati Louisville Louisville Cincinnati
Jackson State -14 NC Central N/A N/A NC Central
Oregon State -10 Florida Oregon State Florida Oregon State
Fresno State -3.5 Washington State Washington State Washington State Fresno State
Southern Miss -6 Rice Southern Miss Southern Miss Southern Miss
Boise State -10.5 North Texas Boise State North Texas Boise State
Marshall -10 UConn Marshall Marshall UConn
San Jose State -3.5 Eastern Michigan San Jose State San Jose State Eastern Michigan
Toledo -5 Liberty Toledo Liberty Toledo
South Alabama -4.5 Western Kentucky South Alabama Western Kentucky Western Kentucky
Baylor -5.5 Air Force Baylor Air Force Air Force

FEI's picks ATS last week: 5-1.

FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 38-45-1.

Preston's picks ATS last week: 1-5.

Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 38-45-1.


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