B/R Experts Answer Biggest CFB Bowl Season Questions, Part 1December 16, 2021
B/R Experts Answer Biggest CFB Bowl Season Questions, Part 1
If you can never get enough football, bowl season is the best time of the year. From now into early January, the overflowing buffet of college football's postseason games gives us something to watch on the gridiron almost daily.
Every step of the way, Bleacher Report will be previewing the slate through the eyes of our CFB writers.
Heading into the first stretch of matchups, our expert panel—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Morgan Moriarty and Brad Shepard—assembled to offer predictions on the six-day span from Dec. 17 to 22 that features 12 FBS bowl games.
Topics include Appalachian State's bowl winning streak, the Miami Beach Bowl showdown, the best individual performance and more.
Which Bowl Features the Best Storyline?
While UTSA-San Diego State is rife with the underlying storylines of a team that took care of conference championship business and one that wants desperately to make up for failing to do so, it takes a back seat to the best storyline in all of college football.
Blake Anderson left behind Arkansas State, where he lost his wife to cancer and needed a change of scenery. In his first year at Utah State, he turned around the Aggies and shockingly won the Mountain West.
There was nothing fluky about a team that isn't known for its defense dominating the Aztecs on both sides of the ball to earn a spot in the first-ever Jimmy Kimmel L.A. Bowl on Dec. 18. The competition is going to tick up a notch with Jonathan Smith's Oregon State Beavers, too.
While the Beavs had a slim chance to represent the Pac-12 North in the conference championship game, their season didn't end anywhere near the way they wanted with a lopsided loss to rival Oregon, but this is a good team capable of playing at a high level on both sides of the ball.
Smith, of course, is back at his alma mater, and this is the first time Oregon State has been to a bowl game since 2013. So, a lot is at stake for the Beavers, too.
Will Anderson's storybook season continue, or will Smith rebuild his pride and joy with a postseason victory? There are a lot of nice things to watch in this one, besides the sheer entertainment value associated with whatever Kimmel has in store.
The same matchup stands out for me.
Inevitably, we all experience loss. You aren't looking for an invitation to my personal life, but Anderson's story resonates with me. Cancer sucks. This unfortunate connection drives my attachment to Utah State and the L.A. Bowl. Perhaps that's why you might find yourselves pulling for the Aggies in the postseason, too.
But as Brad mentioned, the opposing sideline also has a great story. It's the classic local-boy-made-good narrative. Immediately after his playing career in Corvallis ended in 2001, Smith began his coaching as a grad assistant. He rose through the ranks with stops at Idaho, Montana, Boise State and Washington before taking the reins at Oregon State in 2018.
One way or another, the L.A. Bowl has a reason to jump on a bandwagon you usually don't see.
Which Matchup Will Be Most Entertaining?
Normally, I can answer this question somewhat easily. The early slate of bowl games is typically, well, light on intrigue. Don't get me wrong, I'll watch all of it. But CFB usually eases into the exhibitions.
Not this year.
Now, "entertaining" is the key word. I think I'm most excited about watching Oregon State play Utah State in the L.A. Bowl. That said, I don't believe it will be the most entertaining game of the bunch.
Instead, give me the Boca Raton Bowl. Western Kentucky, powered by the nation's No. 2 scoring offense, should put on a show. And Appalachian State, which very quietly had another superb season, should be up for the challenge.
In terms of points, this game should have plenty. The total on DraftKings is approaching 70 points, and I'm not sure it will be enough. And with the point spread hovering around a field goal, we could have a high-scoring, competitive game.
This has all the ingredients I look for when it comes to scouting out fun. Let's hope it delivers.
If you follow our expert picks throughout the season, you've read these words from me before: I love points.
Whenever I'm watching an off-the-radar college game or any NFL tilt, I want to see offenses thrive. Thanks to WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe, that's always a possibility. And there will be nothing more entertaining during the opening stretch of bowl season than watching Zappe try to chase down FBS single-season records in yards and touchdowns.
Plus, my optimism in WKU's defense is shattered. Prior to the C-USA title game, the Hilltoppers held seven straight opponents to 21 points or fewer. Then UTSA scorched WKU for 556 yards and 49 points. App State will score plenty.
Will App State Win Its 7th Straight Bowl?
Yes, the Mountaineers will.
While it wasn't a terrific springboard into the postseason with a loss to Louisiana and departing coach Billy Napier in the Sun Belt title game, this program is battle-tested. Are they high-powered? No, not at all. But they are resilient, and they are exactly the type of team with which Western Kentucky struggles.
Bailey Zappe and Co. are capable of putting up points in bundles, and while they also didn't have the type of showing they wanted in a Conference USA title game loss to UTSA, they did show some positives in coming back to make it a close game in the fourth quarter after being down by four scores in the second half.
The problem for the Hilltoppers is the things they are good at are also the things Appalachian State is good at stopping. The Mountaineers are terrific against the pass, as evidenced by their national rankings of sixth in opponent completion percentage (54.6) and 13th in average opponent team passer rating. They also get to quarterbacks and allow few big plays through the air.
That's good news for Appalachian State, which is not only going to win but will cover a three-point spread.
I want to see Bailey Zappe set FBS records. And, ideally for him, that would happen in a Western Kentucky win.
But a run defense that had excelled since late September just collapsed in the Conference USA title game. WKU surrendered 304 yards and five touchdowns on the ground to UTSA, and Appalachian State's rushing attack is no less forgiving. I'm not optimistic about a bounce-back performance from WKU's defense.
On the bright side, Zappe's record-pace production can overshadow the defense's issues and keep it close anyway. Still, the Mountaineers clip WKU and extend the nation's longest bowl winning streak.
UTSA vs. San Diego State: Who You Got?
I like San Diego State, although I like the Aztecs considerably less than I did before their last game.
I'm just being honest here. The last time out was that bad. Brady Hoke's team was blown out by Utah State in the Mountain West Championship Game, which was a radical departure from the many close wins San Diego State enjoyed all year.
Regardless, I think the Aztecs rally. UTSA enters bowl season with just one loss, but this will almost certainly be the best defense it faces this year—assuming SDSU recovers after the last debacle.
I believe that a rally is imminent. Selfishly, I also will celebrate any opportunity to watch punter Matt Araiza blast footballs into the atmosphere.
No, punting is not why San Diego State will win. Well, at least not totally why. As long as the team is not completely dazed about the title game loss, the talent should come through as it did for much of the year.
Don't you love a good rock fight? I know my mom does not, considering that's sort of how I chipped a tooth many moons ago.
UTSA is fully content to lean on running back Sincere McCormick, whose next attempt will be No. 300 for the season. But he and dual-threat quarterback Frank Harris aren't likely to find much room against an Aztecs defense surrendering only 2.6 yards per carry. Fortunately for the Roadrunners, SDSU's passing attack—if you can call it that—is generally a frustrating mess on a good day.
Translation: Not expecting many points in the Frisco Bowl.
Without question, SDSU is the best defense UTSA has faced. But the Aztecs can be beaten through the air, and I trust Harris' arm—he's averaging eight yards per throw with 25 scores to five interceptions—more than SDSU's limited offense.
Which Bowl Brings the Largest Upset?
Big upsets are always hard to find in bowl season. That's not because things all of a sudden start playing to form in December. Far from it. There just aren't many big spreads.
But there is one double-digit spread on DraftKings where I kind of like the underdog, and it's happening on Day 1 of bowl season: Northern Illinois +10.5 vs. Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl.
I have been a huge bandwagon fan of Coastal Carolina over the past two seasons. The combination of the mullets and the high-octane offense has been fun to watch. However, the Chanticleers didn't look right in November with Grayson McCall banged up.
And if there's one bowl team that knows how to eke out a close win, it's Northern Illinois, which won seven games by eight points or fewer. The Huskies quietly had one of the best rushing attacks in the country this season, and they'll lean on that ground game to pull off the upset.
I have my doubts that NIU's defense can limit McCall and the Chants. But I also thought that before the MAC Championship Game against Kent State, so what do I know anyway?
Let's stay in the MAC, though. Despite an ugly loss at Central Michigan to close the regular season, Eastern Michigan otherwise put together a very competitive year. Eastern's other conference losses were never by more than eight points, and it picked up wins over Toledo and Western Michigan.
Liberty, which awaits in the LendingTree Bowl, is an 8.5-point favorite but hasn't played well in a long time. Once-prized NFL prospect Malik Willis started the season brilliantly before tossing 12 interceptions in the last seven games. Liberty enters the matchup on a three-game losing streak, and EMU will make it four.
Which Player Has the Best Individual Performance?
Assuming he plays, I have to go with Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener, even though it's been an odd week or so for him.
Initially, it looked as if Haener wouldn't play in this game after announcing he was entering the transfer portal. Despite initial reports that he was heading to Washington, Haener took his name out of the portal on Dec. 9 and returned to bowl game practices. The decision came shortly after Fresno State named Jeff Tedford the new head coach.
If Haener plays, he should add to an already incredible season. He's thrown for 3,810 yards and 32 touchdowns, averaging 8.5 yards per throw. Haener should have no problem against the UTEP secondary, which gives up 203.4 passing yards per game.
Apologies to my friend Kerry, but Coastal Carolina is positioned for a massive day against Northern Illinois.
Late in the season, running back Shermari Jones shouldered a much greater share of the offense. He averaged 20.5 carries over CCU's last four contests, including 23 in back-to-back games to finish the season. During the finale at South Alabama, he racked up 211 yards on the ground while catching two passes for 25 yards.
Among bowl qualifiers, NIU's 5.7 yards allowed per carry is only ahead of Virginia's 5.8. Jones should obliterate the box score.
Which Bowl Will Be the Highest-Scoring Game?
I mean, it has to be Appalachian State vs. Western Kentucky in the Boca Raton Bowl.
The Mountaineers do have a pretty good defense that held opponents to 19.3 points per game, but you simply don't shut down Bailey Zappe and the Hilltoppers, who finished the season with more points per game and more yards per game than all teams not named Ohio State. Zappe is less than 300 yards away from breaking the FBS single-season record for passing yards, and he's going to get there with some room to spare.
For as great as WKU's offense has been, though, the defense is pretty terrible. The Tops looked fine against the likes of Charlotte, MTSU and Rice, but they allowed 38 points to Army, 48 points to Michigan State and a combined total of 101 points in the two games against UTSA. Competent offenses have marched down the field time and again against this defense, and Appalachian State is plenty competent with 25 passing and 25 rushing touchdowns on the year.
ASU's Camerun Peoples and Nate Noel run all over Western Kentucky for a 42-35 Mountaineers victory.
If you watched Army lose to Navy 17-13 and know the basic fact that the Black Knights run a triple-option offense, the Armed Forces Bowl probably feels like a strange choice. Hear me out, though.
Last season, West Virginia edged Army 24-21. Only 45 total points. Prior to that matchup, however, Army's last three postseason games included 84 (2018 Armed Forces Bowl), 77 (2017 Armed Forces Bowl) and 69 (2016 Heart of Dallas Bowl) combined points.
Only three defenses in the FBS have surrendered more carries of 10-plus yards than Missouri. This is a bad matchup for the Tigers, though they should still be able to score 28-plus points as Army runs up, over, around and through the defense.
And the Lowest-Scoring Game?
Give me UTSA-San Diego State in the Frisco Bowl. While the Roadrunners have put up 37.8 points per game, SDSU's defense hasn't let too many teams score big on them. The Aztecs allow just 19.5 per game, and they're likely one of the best units UTSA has faced thus far. DraftKings' over/under of 49.5 is one of the lowest in this first slate of games. I'll trust Las Vegas on this one.
San Diego State's defense is also ranked second nationally in rushing defense, giving up 77.7 yards per game. That's not the best news for UTSA running back Sincere McCormick, who leads the Roadrunners with 1,479 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season. San Diego State is also inside the top 20 in total defense, allowing 321.5 yards per game.
While I think UTSA can pull this one out and finish the year 13-1 (!), I don't think it will be high-scoring at all. I trust SDSU's defense as well as Vegas on this one, but it should be a fun game regardless!
Short answer: I'll take the Frisco Bowl, too. In the interest of variety, however, my second option is the Bahamas Bowl between Middle Tennessee and Toledo.
Although both defenses are decent against the run, Toledo very much prefers keeping the ball on the ground. Middle Tennessee is less hesitant to throw, but an offense that ranks joint-104th nationally in yards per pass attempt isn't all that effective.
I anticipate a low-scoring game in which the clock just keeps on moving. Throw in Toledo's defense owning the seventh-best red-zone touchdown rate in the nation, and a matchup with limited possessions will probably have plenty of field goals, too.