College Bowl Season: The First Movement Through Christmas

Like a great symphony, the college bowl season functions in movements, and after last Saturday’s opening doubleheader,  the first real movement begins tonight. The BYU-San Diego State game  kicks off the sequence where the crescendo builds slowly, with six games between now and December 26. The best of the six is Washington-Boise State on Saturday afternoon  in Las Vegas and its there where our preview of the first movement will begin.

As we go through each game, I’m picking the winner, the pointspread winner and the Over/Under line.  At the bottom of the column is my full disclosure segment, with how well those picks are doing after Saturday’s opening doubleheader.

Boise State-Washington (Saturday, 3:30 PM ET, ESPN, Las Vegas Bowl): Boise didn’t have a vintage season this year, but that’s a testimony to how high their program has risen under Chris Petersen. The Broncos still went 10-2 and the losses were close ones to Michigan State and San Diego State, and Boise still shared the Mountain West title. Not bad for a down year.

Washington had its moments this year—they beat Stanford in September and Oregon State in October and were all set to have an eight-win regular season, something that would have been a nice achievement in the tough Pac-12. But the Huskies inexplicably lost to Washington State in the season’s final game. I suppose we can write that off to the fact that it didn’t impact their bowl destination much, but I have a problem with a team that shows up flat against a bad archrival in the season finale.

More to the point, I don’t like how Washington matches up. The weakness of this year’s Boise team is that they are not explosive offensively. The run the ball well with D.J. Harper, and quarterback Joe Southwick is a good game manager, and they play good defense. If you’re going to beat them, you need to either get them out of their comfort zone, or play the same style, only better. I don’t see Washington doing either.

Washington quarterback Keith Price had a huge bowl game last year, going to toe-to-toe with RG3 and Baylor before losing 67-56, but if that’s your last memory of Price, you need to be updated. He hasn’t gotten the ball downfield well and he’s been mistake-prone. Washington plays the same style as Boise and they don’t do it as well. If the Huskies do win this game it would send a loud and clear message about Pac-12 strength in the middle. I do respect the conference a lot, but I don’t see it happening in Vegas.

Outright Winner: Boise State
Pointspread Winner: Washington (+5)
Over/Under: Under 43.5

Here are the other five games of the first movement, in chronological order…

BYU-San Diego State (Thursday, 8 PM ET, ESPN, Poinsettia Bowl): San Diego State has homefield advantage for this one and even with quarterback Ryan Katz injured since late October, the Aztecs have been coming on strong. They beat Boise on the blue turf to get a piece of the Mountain West crown, and have won seven straight after a 2-3 start. And even those three losses weren’t bad, coming to Washington, San Jose State and Fresno.

The Aztec offense has been carried by running back Adam Muema, and while backup quarterback Adam Dingwell isn’t as effective down the field as Katz, and is a little bit more mistake-prone, he’s still proven to be a functionable stand-in.  He’ll face an outstanding defense tonight, as BYU gives up only 14.7 ppg, with a schedule headlined by a 6-3 win over Utah State—a team you may recall went 10-2, won its bowl game on Saturday and sent its coach, Gary Anderson, on to the Wisconsin job.

BYU also played well in close losses to Boise, San Jose and most notably Notre Dame. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah can make life miserable for Dingwell if the ground game isn’t established, and even a back like Muema will face a challenge producing against a quality defense that makes stopping him their first priority.

But the Cougar offense is not very good, and there’s some inconstancy at quarterback, with Riley Nelson’s ribs being questionable and James Lark preparing to start. I suppose the positive is that you can ask if it really matters, because BYU’s not gotten much offensively all year.

Normally I take defense over offense and in that case that would mean BYU, especially against a backup quarterback. But I’m going to give San Diego State the benefit of the doubt because not only do they have homefield, but they lost a heartbreaker in a bowl game last year to UL-Lafayette, and I think there will be a little extra motivation. It should be a good game, but a close lean to the Aztecs.

Outright Winner: San Diego State
Pointspread Winner: San Diego State (+3)
Over/Under: Under 47.5

Ball State-Central Florida (Friday, 8 PM ET, ESPN, Beef O’Brady’s Bowl
): Ball State lost competitive games to MAC powers Northern Illinois and Kent State and then closed with six straight wins, including over good teams in Toledo and Ohio. The Cardinal offense is well-balanced, able to establish the run with Jahwan Edwards and then throw the ball, with quarterback Keith Wenning looking primarily for Willie Snead.

Central Florida doesn’t have the same sort of balance, but they play good defense and were competitive in a September loss at Ohio State, as well as to Missouri. UCF lost to on the road at Tulsa twice in the final three weeks of the season (the latter being the Conference USA championship game), but one loss was by two points and the other in overtime. They run the ball very well with Latavius Murray. And while I’m high on the MAC, we have to acknowledge that historically C-USA has been the significantly better league.

You can make a good argument that Central Florida is the best team in their league—had their regular season game with Tulsa been at home, they likely would have won it, which would in turn have ensured the championship rematch was in Orlando. They’ll have a home crowd advantage on Friday night in St. Petersburg, and I’m looking for Murray to have a big game and UCF to win.

Outright Winner: Central Florida
Pointspread Winner: Ball State (+7)
Over/Under: Under 61.5

East Carolina-UL Lafayette (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN, New Orleans Bowl):
Lafayette beat San Diego State in this game last year, one of the best games of the early
college bowl schedule and I’d expect the Ragin’ Cajuns will have the same home crowd advantage for this game. They also have a talented quarterback in Terrance Broadway, who throws the ball downfield well and does it without locking in on one particular receiver. His backup Blake Gautier, was the engineer of last year’s win, so Lafayette has more than its share of quarterbacks on hand.

Lafayette also has some confidence rolling. They didn’t have a great year in the Sun Belt, with losses at North Texas and a blowout home loss to eventual league champ Arkansas State. But it was ULL who nearly shocked the world in November when they pushed Florida to the limit in Gainesville and the Cajuns are playing their best football right now.

East Carolina’s had a nice year, and this is a game that will be a big test of Conference USA strength, joining the UCF game discussed above. The Pirates have averaged 31 ppg, but Shane Carden’s throws are mostly underneath, so if the Cajuns’ simply wrap up on defense, they can slow ECU down and win. I’m very high on the Sun Belt this year and like Lafayette to win this game as a five-point underdog.

Outright Winner: UL-Lafayette
Pointspread Winner: UL-Lafayette (+5)
Over/Under: Over 66

Fresno State-SMU (Monday, 8 PM ET, ESPN, Hawaii Bowl):
It’s the usual Christmas Eve festivities from Hawaii, but if you’re one of the many who will be unwrapping presents or doing other family things, don’t feel like you’re missing anything. This is the biggest mismatch of the first movement.

SMU’s only 6-6 and as the record shows, this isn’t one of the better teams June Jones has produced. They got a nice win over Tulsa the last week of the season to get bowl-eligible, but in that case the Golden Hurricane had already clinched their division and had nothing to play for. Garrett Gilbert’s had interception problems at quarterback and if you take away Zach Line running the ball, you can stop the SMU offense.

Fresno State , on the other hand, is playing extremely well. Their 9-3 and joined Boise and San Diego State in the Mountain West throne room. They’ve won six of their last seven, including decisive wins over SD State and bowl teams in Nevada and Air Force. Fresno does everything well offensively, from giving the ball to Robbie Rouse, to Derek Carr targeting Davante Adams in the passing game and using Isaiah Burse to ensure secondaries don’t get too comfortable focusing on Adams.

Unless you can think of a reason why SMU would be more motivated—and I can’t—then there’s not much argument against picking Fresno to win big.

Outright Winner: Fresno State
Pointspread Winner: Fresno State (-12.5)
Over/Under: Over 58

Western Kentucky-Central Michigan (Wednesday, 7:30 PM ET, ESPN, Little Caesars Pizza Bowl)
: Regular readers of TheSportsNotebook know I love the midmajors, but this matchup is absolutely atrocious. Central Michigan struggled to a 6-6 finish and lost to everyone on their schedule that was any good.

Western had a more interesting season. They started 5-1, including a win over Arkansas State and then dropped an overtime heartbreaker to UL-Monroe, a game that looked like it was for the Sun Belt title. Then the season just slipped away, with three straight losses and only a one-point win over North Texas getting the Hilltoppers to a winning season at 7-5. It still got head coach Willie Taggart a promotion to South Florida and now Bobby Petrino will begin his comeback at WKU next year.

For this year, Western’s got the better team and they can run the ball with Antonio Andrews, a 1,600-plus yard rusher who’s the best at his position in the Sun Belt. I am very concerned with Western’s focus coming into this game, given the lack of momentum and coaching change. This game will be played in Detroit, so Central Michigan will have a home crowd advantage. I guess I don’t have the guts to pick the Chippewas to pull the upset, but they kept it closer than the experts say.

Outright Winner: Western Kentucky
Pointspread Winner: Central Michigan (+5)
Over/Under: Under 59

Outright Winners: 2-0
Pointspread Winners: 1-1
Over/Unders: 1-1