The comeback story is almost fully complete for either Washington State or Colorado State, the two teams fortunate enough to kick off bowl season in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 21.
The 6-6 Cougars from the Pac-12 went 3-9 in coach Mike Leach's first season a year ago, but now he has the team in its first bowl game since the 2003 Holiday Bowl.
Conversely, coach Jim McElwain led the Rams of the MWC to a 4-8 record a year ago. Now Colorado State is 7-6 and appearing in its first bowl since the 2008 iteration of the New Mexico Bowl.
In the first ever meeting between the two sides, the game will be decided by impact players who have helped to get their team to this point. Both teams have marquee players, but three rise above the rest as the names to focus on to start bowl season.
Garrett Grayson, QB, Colorado State
While not the most prolific quarterback in the contest, Rams junior quarterback Garrett Grayson shattered team records on his way to being a main component of Colorado State's impressive run in 2013.
The school's athletics Twitter account shared the jarring statistics:
The graphic does not show Grayson's impressive 62.2 completion percentage. Perhaps most impressive of all, Grayson stood tall in mid-September against then-No. 1 Alabama and threw for 228 yards. While a loss, Grayson showed big-game ability against one of the best teams in the nation.
Colorado State will need that smooth ability from Grayson once more to beat the Cougars, a team certainly capable of being exposed as it allows an average of 31.3 points per game.
Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State
Connor Halliday has been the biggest beneficiary of Leach's air-raid attack, which has resulted in some eye-popping numbers for the junior signal-caller.
Halliday has thrown for 4,187 yards, 28 touchdowns and 21 interceptions while competing 62.8 percent of his passes. As the team's Twitter account points out, Halliday is also in the neighborhood of breaking team records:
The turnovers are certainly a concern as he has thrown two or more interceptions in six games this season—four of which were losses. Halliday will have to avoid the turnover bug against the Rams, as Colorado State surrenders an average of 28.6 points per game.
There can be no wasted possessions for Halliday and the Cougars offense because the Rams are more than capable of keeping him off the field via the next player on this list.
Kapri Bibbs, RB, Colorado State
Kapri Bibbs is the key for the Rams.
The sophomore back is a national commodity after his breakout season that includes 1,572 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns—earning him a prestigious honor:
As Drew Pappas, the team's recruiting assistant points out, those are the type of awards star players earn for major numbers:
If there is one thing McElwain is aware of, it is that he will have to ride his super sophomore to keep the explosive Washington State offense off the field. McElwain told reporters via the Cougars' official site that he is intricately familiar with Leach's offensive approach:
I know that they throw the heck out of it. I know that he’s not afraid to throw it and he’ll throw it probably coming off the bus. I am familiar kind of with Washington State just from where I grew up and the time I spent down in that area. I know anytime we get an opportunity in the Mountain West Conference to play against a Pac-12 opponent, that is something awful special and we’re not only looking forward to representing Fort Collins and Colorado State but the Mountain West Conference.
McElwain has used Bibbs in a workhorse capacity this year. The sophomore has received 25 or more carries in five games, and had just two games with less than 10 attempts.
Against the Cougars, a team that allows an average of 185.4 rushing yards per game, McElwain will be forced to call on Bibbs once more in order to counteract the opposing offense while controlling the pace of the game.