Bowl season came fast this year. Seasons were delayed in order to create margin with COVID pauses to finish conference schedules and get the slate of conference championship games last weekend. This was a big win for college football in preserving the meaning of those conference seasons by being able to crown champions and reward these programs for fighting through a bizarre and challenging year.
The championship games were really quite good. The midday games from the Big 12 and Big 10 were competitive. Oklahoma took an early lead against Iowa State but the Cyclones chipped away at the lead, despite some Brock “Pump Fake” Purdy interceptions, and the Sooners kept kicking field goals late. Iowa State was driving with a chance to win the game on a touchdown but Purdy threw a third interception and Oklahoma walked away with their sixth straight Big 12 title. They have not failed to win the Big 12 since head coach Lincoln Riley was hired as offensive coordinator back in 2015. In the Big 10, Northwestern held onto a lead into the second half against Ohio State before the Buckeyes overcame them 22-10.
Notre Dame vs. Clemson dominated the afternoon, which was tough for the Fighting Irish because with Trevor Lawrence back at the helm throwing and running the Tigers obliterated them in the rematch. Notre Dame still snuck into the playoff ahead of Texas A&M, whose resume was marred by a lighter overall schedule and getting obliterated themselves in their matchup with Alabama.
At night, Cincinnati missed the playoff but eked out their first AAC championship with a last-minute field goal against Tulsa. In the SEC, Alabama was scoring all night long against the Florida Gators, but Kyle Trask threw for 408 yards, three scores, and zero interceptions and had Florida within striking distance late before succumbing 52-46.
Meanwhile in the nearly forgotten Pac-12, the Oregon Ducks won their second straight championship with head coach Mario Cristobal, defeating USC 31-24 thanks to three interceptions of Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis due to the constant pressure their defensive front was able to apply. Now we have all the playoff and bowl matchups settled.
Every year we preview every bowl game, so why not start this very afternoon?
All times are listed as Eastern.
Myrtle Beach Bowl
Conway, South Carolina
Appalachian State (-21) at North Texas — December 21, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Appalachian State (8-3)||North Texas (4-5)|
|When Tulsa has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||25||99|
|Passing success rate||45||85|
|When Cincinnati has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||44||28|
|Passing success rate||1||57|
Our first bowl game of the season may be a bit of a snoozer … or not! The numbers suggest North Texas is hopelessly overmatched by Appalachian State. Ever since Graham Harrell left for the USC offensive coordinator job, UNT has really struggled to run the Air Raid without him. They finished 4-8 last year and improved to 4-5 this season. Austin Aune and Jason Bean both played quarterback and Bean has taken over; he threw for 880 yards at 8.1 yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in his starts.
He’ll have to take on App State without star receiver Jaylon Darden, who has declared for the NFL draft. Darden caught 74 balls this year for 1,190 yards with 19 touchdowns, huge numbers. Aiming to replace him will be young Deonte Simpson, a sophomore who caught 25 balls for 517 yards and four touchdowns. Simpson gives the UNT Air Raid some explosiveness at receiver, otherwise Darden was catching almost EVERYTHING for the Mean Green offense. They still have running back Deandre Torrey, who ran for 656 yards at 5.8 yards per carry with six touchdowns. It’ll be tough to establish the run meaningfully from the Air Raid and against the App State defense, but Torrey could have a big day if they can generate some favorable box counts from the Mountaineers defense.
The App State defense will have Demetrious Taylor in the middle of the field, a quick defensive tackle who had 13 tackles for loss and six sacks on the year, to help stop the Mean Green spread run game. Junior linebackers Trey Cobb and D’Marco Jackson have eaten well playing behind Taylor this year. They lead the team in tackles and have combined for 14 tackles for loss and 4.5 more sacks. If UNT can’t handle these guys up front, Bean and Torrey will be eaten alive and the ball won’t find its way to new targets in the passing game.
North Texas’ defense is definitely overmatched here. App State running backs Camerun Peoples and Daetrich Harrington could control this game; they combined for 252 carries for 1,403 yards at 5.6 yards per carry with 14 rushing touchdowns this season. App State will run the ball all day in this game while quarterback Zac Thomas takes his shots off play-action. The quarterback threw for 2,075 yards this year at 7.5 yards per attempt with 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. He is effective and damaging in their play-action game but has tended to throw more interceptions than you’d like to see. But if App State can bottle up UNT’s offense, they’ll just run the ball and run clock in this one until it’s time to go home with their ninth win and plan to get back to the Sun Belt championship in 2021.
- Young North Texas wide receiver Deonte Simpson, who figures to be the next big thing with Jaelon Darden sitting this one out to prepare for the NFL draft.
- Can North Texas block Appalachian State’s defensive front?
- Appalachian State’s run game against an overmatched North Texas defense could define the game.
FEI Outright Pick: Appalachian State by 26
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Tulane (-3) vs. Nevada — December 22, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Tulane (6-5)||Nevada (6-2)|
|When Tulane has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||22||52|
|Passing success rate||74||57|
|When Nevada has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||47||50|
|Passing success rate||48||46|
These two teams have a nice contrast in styles for this game, which should make for a good matchup. Tulane’s head coach Willie Fritz has long been a “triple option from the shotgun spread” coach and this year’s unit has had a lot of success on the ground. Quarterback Michael Pratt has thrown for 1,638 yards at 7.2 yards per attempt with 18 touchdowns to just five interceptions while adding 212 rushing yards and seven more scores. Running backs Stephon Hudson and Cameron Carroll have a combined 1,337 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns and are the main thrust of the offense.
Wide receivers Deuce Watts and Jha’Quan Jackson each have six touchdown catches as well; this team moves the ball pretty well but they really have a knack for finishing drives with touchdowns. This is certainly of some concern to the Nevada defense, which has been great at preventing big plays this season but is now facing a team that excels at finishing drives with touchdowns.
The Wolfpack have a more traditional type of spread offense; they lean on the passing game. Quarterback Carson Strong has thrown for 2,587 yards at 7.9 yards per attempt with 22 touchdowns to four interceptions and has a number of strong targets. The leader is outside receiver and third-year starter Romeo Doubs with 52 catches for 952 yards and nine scores. Freshman wideout Tory Horton adds another 306 yards and five touchdowns, and then they have tight end Cole Turner who exploded this year with 44 catches for 545 yards and seven touchdowns. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, he’s potentially the biggest problem in this entire game for either team.
The Wolfpack defense has a nice edge/tackle combo with Sam Hammond and Dom Peterson who have combined for 14.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, safety Tyson Williams is regularly involved in the run game, and the lead tackler is inside linebacker Lawson Hall. They’ll look to keep the ball in front of them and hope Hammond and Peterson can kill some drives up front.
The Tulane defense is very aggressive. Linebackers Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson have a combined 24 tackles for loss and big, powerful defensive ends Cameron Sampson and Patrick Johnson have 12 sacks between them. The Green Wave are going to blitz the Nevada offense and look to overwhelm the offensive line. The ability of Cole Turner to create problems for the back end of the Tulane defense and help clear the picture for Strong will be instrumental to the Wolfpack’s efforts.
- Tulane’s option offense in the red zone against a bend-don’t-break Nevada defense.
- Will Nevada be able to block Tulane’s blitz packages?
- Tulane’s linebackers and secondary looking to cover 6-foot-6 Nevada tight end Cole Turner.
FEI Outright Pick: Tulane by 3.7
RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl
Boca Raton, Florida
Central Florida vs. BYU (-7) — December 22, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Central Florida (6-3)||BYU (10-1)|
|When Central Florida has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||9||12|
|Passing success rate||28||54|
|When BYU has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||76||26|
|Passing success rate||99||3|
If we ever get a Group of 5 playoff tournament due to programs giving up on being included in the playoff chosen by committee, games like this BYU vs. UCF matchup would be featured battles en route to the title. As it stands, the game will only carry bragging rights for these two teams despite how compelling a battle it is. Were it not for BYU’s last-minute scheduling of Coastal Carolina, who then defeated them, BYU could be playing for a chance at an undefeated season and perhaps a claimed national championship if they wanted to go that route, as UCF famously did years ago.
For fans watching this game, the big draw is how explosive both of these offenses are. The Cougars will put Zach Wilson on the field at quarterback for potentially the last time before he heads off to the NFL. He’s up to 3,274 passing yards this year (plus 242 yards and eight touchdowns rushing) throwing at 10.9 yards per attempt with 30 touchdowns to three interceptions. His top targets Gunner Romney (38 catches, 755 yards, two touchdowns) and Dax Milne (62 catches, 1,099 yards, eight touchdowns) will be the main threat for UCF, but running back Tyler Allgeier feasted in space created by those threats rushing for 957 yards at 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns. Some of the BYU passing game is play-action off outside zone runs to Allgeier; other dimensions are pure dropback throws.
The Knights are going to need to handle the outside zone running game without giving away leverage on the play-action throws BYU has feasted on this season. In the past they have had effective defensive backs and athletes up front, but this season they really fell off and wouldn’t be your first pick of the top Group of 5 defenses to try and slow the Cougars down.
They’ll have to outscore them, which makes for a fun game for the viewers. Central Florida’s quarterback Dillon Gabriel had a good year in his own right with 3,353 passing yards at 9.1 yards per attempt with 30 touchdowns to four interceptions. His top receivers Marlon Williams (71 catches, 1039 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Jaylon Robinson (51 catches, 935 yards, five touchdowns) are big problems for the BYU defense, which has played bend-don’t-break all year. Both of these guys have big-time speed and it’s difficult to keep them in front of you for even highly disciplined secondaries like the BYU crew.
The UCF running game is designed to live in the alleys and spacing created by the vertical passing game, and running backs Greg McRae and Otis Anderson combined for 240 carries, 1,295 yards, 5.4 yards per carry, and 13 rushing touchdowns. BYU’s formula on defense will be straightforward as it has been most weeks. They’ll play back at safety with Troy Warner and George Udo and make the UCF running backs earn it against nose tackle Khyiris Tonga and the Cougars inside linebackers. The game will turn on whether or not the Knights can either keep pace with the run game or else still find a way to win over the top against BYU’s defensive backs.
- Can Central Florida handle BYU quarterback Zach Wilson in what may be his final college football game?
- Will UCF receivers Marlon Williams and Jaylon Robinson be able to get behind the conservative BYU secondary?
- BYU nose tackle Khyiris Tonga and their run defense isolated in the box against the Knights’ speedy running backs.
FEI Outright Pick: BYU by 14.4
R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
New Orleans, Louisiana
Louisiana Tech vs. Georgia Southern (-6.5) — December 23, 3 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Louisiana Tech (5-4)||Georgia Southern (7-5)|
|When Louisiana Tech has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||103||27|
|Passing success rate||96||36|
|When Georgia Southern has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||82||43|
|Passing success rate||72||75|
We have got another option vs. spread throwing matchup in this game between Georgia Southern (option squad) and Louisiana Tech, who is regularly mixing in pro-spread passing under head coach Skip Holtz. It’s a down year for Louisiana Tech, though, as they started over at quarterback with senior Luke Anthony, who had been waiting behind J’Mar Smith for years. Anthony had 1,479 yards this year at 6.7 yards per attempt with 16 touchdowns to five interceptions.
He was spreading the ball around quite a bit, and three different Bulldogs wideouts had 30 catches or more between Adrian Hardy, Cee Jay Powell, and Smoke Harris. Hardy did the most damage with 440 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Lead running back Israel Tucker had only 525 rushing yards at 4.1 yards per carry with four touchdowns and the Bulldogs weren’t scoring a ton this year, averaging 29.3 points per game on offense while giving up 34.3 on defense. They had three wins in Conference USA which came by less than a touchdown, lost a couple more that way, and were blown out in non-conference games against BYU and TCU.
Georgia Southern had a solid year with returning quarterback Shai Werts, who led the team with 638 rushing yards at 4.9 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. Inside runners J.D. King and Logan Wright added another 1,201 yards and nine touchdowns, and pitch man Wesley Kennedy III had 447 yards and six touchdowns. This game will be a test of two main factors: first, Louisiana Tech’s ability to put a disciplined, option-stopping game plan together; and secondly, Georgia Southern’s ability to match up with Louisiana Tech’s athletes in a spread passing attack.
Georgia Southern’s cornerback Derrick Canteen was one of their stars on defense this season with three interceptions and nine pass break-ups, and he’ll be huge for them in this game. Fellow defensive back Darrell Baker will be needed to help match the slots, and defensive end Raymond Johnson III (13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks) and his matchup on the edge will be another big factor for this game. On the other side, Louisiana Tech paired senior linebacker Trey Baldwin with a true freshman named Tyler Grubbs this season and backed them up with redshirt sophomore safety Bee Jay Williamson. They have some athletes here if the option-stopping game plan and structure is there.
- Will Louisiana Tech have a good option-stopping defensive game plan installed in time for this game?
- Georgia Southern’s athletes going up against the Louisiana Tech passing game in space.
- Senior quarterback and four-year starter Shai Werts of Georgia Southern playing his final college game.
FEI Outright Pick: Georgia Southern by 12.3
Memphis vs. Florida Atlantic — December 23, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Memphis (7-3)||Florida Atlantic (5-3)|
|When Memphis has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||97||24|
|Passing success rate||49||33|
|When Florida Atlantic has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||38||91|
|Passing success rate||97||103|
Memphis fell off some on offense this year; they were still effective but the drop-off was enough to prevent them from winning the AAC West division, which was instead claimed by Tulsa. Surprisingly, the issue was in the run game despite the promotion of offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield to head coach after Mike Norvell left to become head coach at Florida State. Memphis was paced by Rodrigues Clark in the run game with 125 carries for 523 yards at 4.2 yards per carry with just two rushing touchdowns.
However, senior quarterback Brady White threw for 3,096 yards at 8.0 yards per attempt with 28 touchdowns to nine interceptions working with star receiver Calvin Austin III, who had 60 catches for 1,025 yards and 10 touchdowns. Austin is a 5-9, 162-pound water-bug Memphis plays outside who is remarkably effective at beating man coverage and winning down the field. The Tigers still like to play with one or two tight ends and try to command bodies and attention in the box, but their bread is buttered throwing to the resulting one-on-one matchups outside to Austin.
Florida Atlantic has totally fallen off on offense without Lane Kiffin’s guidance as head coach. New head coach Willie Taggart tried to use quarterback Nick Tronti to get back to his spread option game, but Tronti threw for 759 yards at just 5.6 yards per attempt with five touchdowns to two interceptions and then ran for 106 yards at just 1.9 yards per carry with two scores. Lead runner James Charles had 347 rushing yards at 4.6 yards per carry with four touchdowns and led the team in yards. However, Kiffin left behind some pieces on defense, and FAU got here by relying on that side of the ball.
The stars of the show are defensive ends Leighton McCarthy (11.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks) and Jaylen Joyner (5.5 sacks), who will be mitigated in this game by Memphis’ heavy use of RPOs and max-protection play-action shots to throw the football. FAU will need to try and match Austin with defensive back Ryan Mungin, another smaller speedster, or else give him a lot of safety attention and hope to hold up against the run game without as much safety help.
FAU inside linebackers Chase Lasater and Caliph Brice are upperclassmen, and if they can get some protection from the line and swarm Memphis’ favorite running plays perhaps that will afford the Owls the ability to give Austin the attention necessary to take him out of the game.
- Memphis star receiver Calvin Austin III, a burner outside who supplies the heavy firepower for the Tigers offense.
- Florida Atlantic’s strong defensive ends and experience inside linebackers against the Memphis RPO run game.
- Will Florida Atlantic be able to score enough to stay in this game?
FEI Outright Pick: Memphis by 4.4
New Mexico Bowl
Hawai’i vs. Houston (-13) — December 24, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Hawai’i (4-4)||Houston (3-4)|
|When Hawai’i has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||51||28|
|Passing success rate||91||73|
|When Houston has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||114||54|
|Passing success rate||34||50|
You’ll struggle to find a program more affected by COVID than Houston. The Cougars didn’t play their first game until October 8 due to endless postponements and cancellations. They notably scheduled a game with Baylor to fill an early slot, only for the Bears to pull out when a COVID outbreak reduced their ability to field a team. Then Houston lost star receiver Marquez Stevenson to a leg injury. Without Stevenson — and with running back manned by steady Texas transfer Kyle Porter, who ran for 394 yards at 4.1 yards per carry and four touchdowns — the team had to evolve. They ended up emphasizing fifth-year senior Keith Corbin and speedy JUCO transfer Nathaniel Dell, the latter of whom replaced Stevenson as head coach Dana Holgorsen’s favorite constraint weapon in the RPO/play-action game.
Quarterback Clayton Tune had to carry a heavy load for the team, throwing 247 passes for 1,832 yards at 7.4 yards per attempt with 13 touchdowns but seven interceptions and then 62 carries for 269 yards at 4.3 yards per carry with five touchdowns. In seven games, that adds up to 44 passes or runs per game.
Hawai’i was in their first season without former head coach Nick Rolovich, who took his run ‘n’ shoot offense over to Washington State. With Todd Graham at the helm, they maintained a spread approach but put more emphasis on the quarterback run game, running Chevan Cordeiro a team-leading 108 times for 452 yards at 4.2 yards per carry with seven touchdowns and then having him throw for 1,947 yards at 6.7 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns to six interceptions. The Rainbow Warriors spread the ball around quite a bit with four receivers catching between 28 and 34 passes, Cordeiro was the main star. At 175 pounds, the native Hawaiian is quick and obviously pretty tough to have carried such a load.
The Cougars defense has been receiving transfer reinforcements every year since Holgorsen took over and relied on some in the secondary with Oklahoma State’s Thabo Mwaniki second on the team in tackles and Troy’s Marcus Jones playing their top cornerback spot. Their main guy is speedy linebacker Grant Stuard, who played nickel last season and had 61 tackles this year with five tackles for loss. He’ll need to be ready to race Cordeiro to the perimeter and keep tabs on him to prevent the Rainbow Warriors making this a shootout.
Hawai’i’s defense was their weak link in previous years, but Graham is a defensive coach who has tended to hire top-notch spread offense assistants. He greatly boosted the efficacy of the Hawai’i defense and positioned sophomore inside linebacker Darius Muasau to have a breakout year with 93 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. Hawai’i had seven different defenders log at least four tackles for loss in Graham’s aggressive schemes. If they can disrupt the Houston run game with those blitzes, the game comes down to whether the Cougars can land some haymakers in the passing game.
- Can Houston track Hawai’i quarterback Chevan Cordeiro as a scrambler and runner?
- Houston’s offensive front trying to pick up Darius Muasau and the Rainbow Warriors on the blitz.
- Will Hawai’i be able to handle speedy Houston receiver Nathaniel Dell in space?
FEI Outright Pick: Houston by 8.4
FEI PICKS: Bowl Week 1
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|Appalachian State||21||North Texas||Appalachian State||Appalachian State||Appalachian State|
|Georgia Southern||6.5||Louisiana Tech||Georgia Southern||Georgia Southern||Georgia Southern|
|Memphis||9.5||Florida Atlantic||Memphis||Florida Atlantic||Memphis|
FEI picks against the spread Championship Week: 2-4
FEI picks against the spread this year: 47-39-1
Ian’s picks against the spread Championship Week: 4-2
Ian’s Picks against the spread this year: 47-39-1