Bowl season continues in grand fashion on Thursday night, with BYU playing what essentially amounts to a road game against San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl.
BYU was hovering around the .500 mark all season before winning three of its last four games to ensure itself an appearance in a bowl game for the eighth consecutive season. The Cougars will also be looking to win their fourth straight bowl game.
San Diego State caught fire after a 2-3 start that included a 52-40 loss against conference rivals Fresno State on September 29. Since that loss, the Aztecs have won their last seven games and have outscored their opponents 244-135 during the streak.
With two teams ending the season playing so well, here are the matchups that will determine who walks out of San Diego with a victory.
San Diego State's Rushing Offense vs. BYU's Run Defense
Neither team is spectacular on offense—BYU ranks 66th in scoring, San Diego State is 29th—but there is a clear strength-versus-strength matchup that will be on display.
San Diego State's running game ranked 15th in the country this season, with more than 229 yards per game. Adam Muema led the charge with 1,355 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Walter Kazee provided the lightning with 822 yards and eight touchdowns.
On the flip side, BYU's run defense was incredible all season. It finished second in the country (just behind Alabama) in opponents' rushing yards per game (84.25). If that's not enough, the Cougars only allowed five rushing touchdowns.
In the battle between the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object, you usually give the defense the advantage, but BYU was picked apart by Notre Dame's Theo Riddick earlier this season.
San Diego State's offensive line isn't as big or physically imposing as Notre Dame's, so the Aztecs will have to figure out a way to plow through the big defensive line.
BYU's Passing Game vs. San Diego State Secondary
There is not a lot of flash to what BYU wants to do on offense. Basically, the game plan is to not turn the ball over and win the field position battle to keep the defense in a good position to keep the score low.
San Diego State is not a defensive juggernaut. Its pass defense ranks just 60th in the country, allowing over 11 yards per reception and opposing quarterbacks to complete passes at a nearly 63 percent rate.
Quarterback Riley Nelson still isn't confirmed to play in this game after suffering a rib injury against San Jose State, so the burden could fall on James Lark's shoulders. That might not be the worst thing, as he has thrown eight touchdowns with zero interceptions in 74 attempts this season.
Granted, a lot of Lark's performance came in garbage time, so it is not a fair assessment, but he has looked good when he has played.
San Diego State QB Adam Dingwell vs. The Big Stage
Dingwell took over late in the season for Ryan Katz and didn't look bad. He was at the helm when the Aztecs knocked off Boise State, and although he didn't play great in that game, he was efficient enough to keep the team ahead.
This is an entirely different environment than Dingwell has faced, though. We make fun of lower bowl games as being jokes or excuses to line conference presidents' pockets with money, but the players feel something when they are on the field.
Dingwell is the new kid on the block. He has never played in a game with stakes like this for his team. How he responds, especially against a great defense like the one BYU has, will determine the outcome of this game.