Hawaii Bowl 2015: Preview, Predictions for Cincinnati vs. San Diego State

Alex BallentineFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2015

San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey gets past Air Force defensive back Brodie Hicks during the first half of the NCAA Mountain West Championship football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Gregory Bull/Associated Press

The Cincinnati Bearcats and San Diego State Aztecs can trade in their evergreens and jingle bells for palm trees and ukuleles. They're headed to Hawaii for Christmas. 

The Aztecs and Bearcats will meet on Dec. 24 with an opportunity to cap their winning seasons on a high note.

The bowl game represents a chance for both programs to turn recent bowl struggles around. For all the success that Rocky Long has brought to the San Diego State program as head coach, they are just 1-3 in the postseason under his guidance. 

Tommy Tuberville has had similar struggles in turning the Bearcats into a postseason player. Despite 9-3 seasons in his first two years at the school, they are 0-2 in bowl games. 

2015 Hawaii Bowl Information
MatchupCincinnati (American) vs. San Diego State (Mountain West)
LocationAloha Stadium, Honolulu, Hawaii
TVESPN
DateDecember 24, 2015
Start Time8 p.m. ET
ESPN

So which one of these teams has the best shot at ending its slump? Here's a look at what to expect from both teams and how this game should shake out. 

 

What to Expect from the Cincinnati Bearcats

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Stopping the Bearcats comes down to one basic question. Can you force Gunner Kiel into making mistakes?

Cincinnati loves to air it out with the former Notre Dame quarterback. He has 316 attempts this season despite playing in only 10 games. When Cincinnati has been successful this season, Kiel is making good decisions and throwing the ball well. 

For the season Kiel is 206-of-316 for 2,777 yards and 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. 

The ability to hurt teams in the air is made apparent when looking at where they rank nationally in metrics like Football Outsiders' S&P+, along with FEI:

Cincinnati Bearcats Profile
Record7-5
S&P+ Rush Rank60
S&P+ Overall Rank21
FEI Overall Rank58
S&P+ Rush Defense Rank121
S&P+ Pass Defense Rank62
Football Outsiders

However, Kiel is much like the Bearcats team as a whole. He—and by extension his team—suffers from inconsistency. 

That's how you get a team that barely beat both Miami from Ohio and the Miami from Florida. Kiel can show up like the quarterback who picked apart Tulsa to the tune of 386 yards and two touchdowns in one game or like the quarterback who showed up the next week to go 8-of-15 for 84 yards and two interceptions against South Florida. 

As the numbers show, the real concern for the Bearcats will be on the defensive side of the ball. Tuberville's squad has struggled mightily at times this season—especially with stopping the run. 

The Bearcats give up a whopping 5.02 yards per carry. And it's a big reason they give up 30 points per game. 

It's a weakness that could continue to haunt them into the bowl game. 

 

What to Expect from the San Diego State Aztecs

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Under head coach Rocky Long, the Aztecs have developed a clearly defined identity. They're going to run the ball effectively and stop the opposing offense from running the ball. 

It's an approach that has worked wonders. 

While the Bearcats suffered a bit of a letdown from back-to-back 9-4 seasons, San Diego State continued its upward trend with its first 10-win season under Long, including a Mountain West title. 

Here's a look at their profile using the same metrics as Cincinnati:

San Diego State Aztecs Profile
Record10-3
S&P+ Rush Rank82
S&P+ Pass Rank79
FEI Overall Rank55
S&P+ Rush Defense Rank3
S&P+ Pass Defense Rank75
Football Outsiders

The metrics might not love the Aztecs running game in terms of efficiency, but it is effective from a sheer volume standpoint. They've rushed for over 3,000 yards this season and are No. 15 in rushing yards per game. 

A lot of that has to do with Donnel Pumphrey. The junior is ninth in rushing this season with 1,554 yards on the season. 

Pumphrey doesn't do it all on his own, though. San Diego State also benefits from consistent quarterback play. As GoAztecs Stats notes, the Aztecs hold the current streak for most pass attempts without an interception:

Quarterback Maxwell Smith has been effective in leading the offense without turning the ball over all season. He finished the season with 13 touchdowns to two interceptions. However, backup quarterback Christian Chapman played in the Mountain West Championship Game and went 9-of-14 for 203 yards and a touchdown without an interception. 

Where Long's team really excels, though, is on the defensive side of the ball. The Mountain West champions allow just 3.2 yards per carry and force teams to be one-dimensional. 

 

Prediction

Dec 5, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego State Aztecs linebacker Jake Fely (left) celebrates with linebacker Calvin Munson (54) after a sack of Air Force Falcons quarterback Karson Roberts (right) during the first quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at the matchup, this game has the potential to be a close one. At least in the first half. 

San Diego State's defense is strong overall but has a secondary that can be exposed. Kiel has had some rough spots this season, but he certainly has the tools to take advantage of those weaknesses. 

Even the Aztecs' weakness can be a strength, though. Their secondary might get beat occasionally, but it's also No. 5 in the nation in interceptions with 20.

The Bearcats' hopes to win this game relies on him jumping out to a lead against a secondary that excels at capitalizing on bad decisions.  

If Cincinnati fails to jump ahead, it means that the team is going to have to trust the defense to stop the run over the course of four quarters. Given the numbers surrounding this game, that's not a good bet to make. 

The Aztecs have come a long way since starting the season 1-3. Long commented on his team's resolve after winning the Mountain West Championship Game. 

"I was concerned, visions of the early season were coming back to me as we dropped punts and caused fumbles we didn't recover," said Long, according to Kirk Kenney of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "You get very concerned. Did I have any concern that our players would stop playing? None whatsoever."

That sounds like a team that is ready to outplay an opponent over the course of four quarters. Expect the Aztecs run game to take over late and put the game away. 

Prediction: San Diego State 34, Cincinnati 21

 

Statistics via cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.