The 2013 college football bowl season begins in earnest with a potential high-scoring matchup of teams from the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences, as Colorado State (7-6) and Washington State (6-6) will meet in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
Colorado State is making its first appearance in a bowl since 2008, when the Rams downed Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl. For Washington State, the bowl game is its first since 2003, when the Cougars beat Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
Both teams are led by coaches in their second year at the helm. Jim McElwain was 4-8 in his first season at CSU after a four-year stint as Alabama's offensive coordinator, while Mike Leach had WSU at 3-9 last year following a brief coaching hiatus. Leach was head coach at Texas Tech from 2000-2009.
It will be the first ever meeting between the schools, which are separated by about 1,100 miles of mostly Rocky Mountain terrain.
Colorado State (7-6) vs. Washington State (6-6)
When: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2 p.m. ET
Where: University Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.
Radio: Colorado State Rams Radio Network; Washington State IMG Sports Network
Feed the beast
Running back Kapri Bibbs has rushed for more than 1,500 yards this season, but it wasn't until the second half of the year that he became a featured part of the offense. Consequently, that's when CSU got on a run, winning five of seven.
During those seven games, Bibbs was nearly unstoppable. He scored at least three touchdowns in six of those games, with a school-record 312-yard performance and four TDs followed by a 291-yard, six-score effort.
Force the mistakes
Washington State has turned the ball over 32 times this season, a big reason the Cougars lost six games. Most of those giveaways were truly that: given away.
For Colorado State to slow down the potent WSU offense, it needs to be aggressive and force Connor Halliday into making bad throws. A key to that is getting in Halliday's face and putting pressure, as he's been sacked 27 times this year.
Get into a rhythm
Despite scoring nearly 30 points per game, Washington State doesn't have a quick-strike offense. It relies on establishing a rhythm through Connor Halliday's spread-it-around passing game that leads to longer drives than you'd expect from a team that threw the ball 698 times in 12 games.
But WSU does average more than 10 yards per completion, mostly because the routes and schemes allow receivers to make plays after the catch by weaving around the field.
If the Cougars can connect on those short throws early, it opens up the deeper passes and can lead to big points.
Colorado State's got a tough running back in Kapri Bibbs, but the Rams also feature a quarterback in Garrett Grayson who has thrown for 3,327 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Which do you concentrate on more?
Washington State has dealt with this problem all season while navigating the balance-heavy Pac-12 Conference. It's allowed 119 rushing first downs and 129 passing first downs. Many times, though, the issue has been focusing too much on one facet of an opponent's offense, which can't lead to success.
Shaquil Barrett, Senior, LB
Barrett is ranked ninth in FBS in sacks per game, tallying 12 in Colorado State's 13 contests this year. He's also 10th in tackles for loss, with 20.
At 6'2" and 250 pounds, Barrett has managed to get himself all over the field and be involved in the plays, logging 74 total tackles but also snagging an interception and recovering a fumble.
Kapri Bibbs, Sophomore, RB
Bibbs went from an almost forgotten member of the Rams offense to its focal point in the second half of the season. He leads FBS in rushing touchdowns with 28, and 22 of those came in the final seven games.
Bibbs, a junior college transfer from Snow College (Utah), he's only 5'11" but weighs in at 203 pounds and is tough to take down. He's eighth nationally in rushing yards, with 1,572, a tally that includes 312 in a win over Nevada.
Deone Bucannon, Senior, S
While WSU doesn't get much credit for its defense as a whole, Bucannon is known by every offensive coach in the Pac-12.
At 6'1" and 215 pounds, it's tough to miss the hard-hitting senior, who ranks ninth nationally in solo tackles per game (6.2) and also has five interceptions this season.
Connor Halliday, Junior, QB
Halliday has thrived in the pass-happy offense that Mike Leach brought with him when he took over the program in 2012. Though the results have been mixed, Halliday hasn't shown any shyness when it's come to slinging it around.
He's second nationally in completions per game (34.33), fourth in passing yards (4,187) and fifth in passing yards per game (348.9). Halliday set the FBS record for passing attempts in a game, throwing it 89 times (completing 58) in a loss to Oregon in October.
The hiring of Mike Leach at Washington State was a huge surprise two years ago, both in terms of the school and the coach.
The Cougars were the worst team in the Pac-12 and, save for a nice run by Mike Price in the early 2000s, have traditionally been at the bottom of the league. But it was the perfect place for Leach to restart his career after being fired from Texas Tech after the 2009 season in the wake of an incident involving the treatment of a player who had suffered a concussion.
And while athletic director Bill Moos was confident his choice of Leach would pan out, even he's surprised the Cougars are in a bowl after Leach's second season, according to Moos' comments back in May at the Associated Press Sports Editors Northwest Region conference. "We're setting the foundations for what I believe will be a very strong program," he said. "Year 3 is when I believe it will show."
Washington State hasn't played a game in Albuquerque in 10 years, but the same can't be said for Colorado State.
In fact, the Rams seem quite comfortable playing in University Stadium, site of the New Mexico Bowl, according to what linebacker Shaquil Barrett said to reporters in Fort Collins on Sunday:
We’re familiar with the stadium so that’s going to help us out a lot...It feels good to know that we’re going somewhere we’ve already been and that gives us some sense of home because it’s familiar to us. — CSU linebacker Shaquil Barrett
CSU beat host New Mexico 66-42 on that field on Nov. 16, a game in which running back Kapri Bibbs ran for 291 yards and six touchdowns.
The Rams also won at UNM in 2011, and its last bowl appearance came in the 2008 New Mexico Bowl, a 40-35 win over Fresno State.
This game pits a pair of teams that weren't highly regarded entering the season. Colorado State was projected to finish fifth in its division of the Mountain West Conference, yet ended up third, while Washington State tied for fourth in its half of the Pac-12 after being picked dead last.
The exceeding of expectations has led to this bowl invite for both schools, and as a result, a passionate and intense game is expected. Both squads can score lots of points and have numerous offensive weapons, but the difference may be on the defensive side. Colorado State has more playmakers on that unit, and with WSU's tendency to make mistakes, look for the Rams to capitalize.
Prediction: Colorado State 38, Washington State 31