NCAA: Bowl Previews for December 18-21

Bowl season is off to a start with a mix of blowouts and down-to-the-wire finishes. Here’s what to expect in the next round of games.

Dec. 18: Boca Raton Bowl

Line: UAB (-2.5)

The Boca Raton Bowl is one of this week’s most underrated bowl games.  In a bowl season that has seen three teams score at least 40 points in blowouts, it is likely there will be defense in this one. Northern Illinois boasts a stingy front seven with two of the nation’s top talents.

Defensive lineman Sutton Smith leads the entire country in solo sacks this season with 15. Linebacker Josh Corcoran isn’t too far behind him with 10 total sacks on the season. UAB frankly does not have very good quarterback play, so NIU putting pressure on Tyler Johnston III of the Blazers will make the Conference USA champs one-dimensional.

UAB’s defense can hold its own, too. Linebackers Jamell Garcia-Williams and Tre’ Crawford combined for 17.5 total sacks this season. The Huskies’ Marcus Childers has a slight edge at quarterback. Against Buffalo, he threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns in a one-point win over the Bulls. He’ll need to be productive in the passing game to open up the field for his running backs.

Dec. 19: DXL Frisco Bowl

Line: Ohio (-2.5)

San Diego State started the season 6-1 but dropped four of its last five games by a combined 17 points as it stumbles into bowl season. The Aztecs have been competitive all season thanks to a defense that holds opponents on average to 21.8 points per game and 327 total yards per game, which is good enough for 20th nationally and second in the conference.

Ohio comes into this game 8-4, and three of its four losses this season have come by a combined nine points. If not for a two-point road loss at Miami (Ohio), the Bobcats could have found themselves in the MAC Championship in what would’ve been a rematch against Northern Illinois.

The Bobcats come into the game highlighted by Nathan Rourke, one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the Group of 5. The junior has 2,225 yards passing and 22 touchdowns as well as 816 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. His play opens up opportunities for running back A.J. Ouellette, who has 1,142 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground and 14 overall.

Dec. 20: Gasparilla Bowl

Line: Marshall (-3)

After a strong 7-0 start, the South Florida Bulls come into bowl season stumbling on a five-game losing streak. But they’ll benefit from playing in their home stadium in Tampa. The Bulls need to get back on track, and it starts at the quarterback position.

Alabama transfer Blake Barnett has thrown for 2,477 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he has thrown for 11 interceptions. Running backs Jordan Cronkrite and Johnny Ford have rushed for a combined 1,832 yards and 17 touchdowns. South Florida’s defense has forced 10 fumbles this season to make the team’s turnover margin at a dead even zero.

The Bulls need to push the turnover margin in their favor. They need help from freshman defensive back Nick Roberts, who has three interceptions on the season and the third-highest number of solo tackles on the team with 48.

Marshall has won the last six bowls it has made, and five of those wins came under current head coach Doc Holliday. Since 1998, the Thundering Herd are 11-1. Marshall ranks 23rd nationally and second in the Conference USA in total defense, allowing 336 yards per game.

This season, the Herd are 8-1 when holding the opposing team to under 30 points. One way they get it done on defense is with sacks. The Herd ranks seventh nationally with 38 on the season led by junior lineman Ty Tyler, who has eight solo sacks. Getting the defense off the field and putting the ball back in the hands of quarterback Isaiah Green will be key, and that’s what they’ve been doing all season. Marshall ranks 15th nationally in 3rd down conversion rate with opponents converting just 32 percent of the time.

Dec. 21: Bahamas Bowl

Line: Toledo (-6)

Both teams come into this game looking to avenge bad bowl losses last year. The Rockets and the Panthers lost by a combined score of 62-3 last season.

Last year’s MAC Champion Toledo won 11 games a year ago but have fallen to 7-5 in Jason Candle’s third season as head coach. The offense has led the way for the Rockets with 448 yards per game, good enough for 29th nationally and second to Ohio in the MAC.

A trio of running backs, led by Bryant Koback, have 1,964 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns on the season. Toledo’s rushing offense ranks 22nd nationally with 223 yards per game. Once a backup, Eli Peters has stepped in as the starting quarterback position with 1,573 yards passing and 15 touchdowns. The Rockets can score, but they also give up yards, too. They rank 94th nationally giving up 430.1 per game.

FIU was just one game away from a Conference USA championship bid until the Panthers suffered a home upset to Marshall. Butch Davis’s squad has still had a solid year and can get a ninth win in the bowl game.

The offense is led by quarterback James Morgan, who’s thrown for 2,727 yards and 26 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. Morgan is backed up by a defense that consists of ballhawks. The Panthers’ defense has 17 interceptions this season, tied for seventh in the FBS, by nine different defenders. In conference games, the Panthers have allowed more than 30 points just twice, and one of those games they won. If the defense shows up, they could find an edge over Toledo.

Dec. 21: Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Line: BYU (-12.5)

BYU comes in as one of the biggest favorites outside of the playoff games. The Cougars have had an up-and-down season, taking down playoff hopeful Wisconsin in September but dropping close decisions at home to Northern Illinois and Cal. But the Cougars are back to bowling after a 4-9 record last season.

The Cougars have a trio of running backs led by Lopini Katoa who has more than 1200 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns on the season. On defense, the Cougars have a knack for forcing turnovers, especially Dayan Ghanwoloku, who is second nationally in fumble recoveries with four on the season. BYU ranks 18th nationally in total defense, giving up just 325 yards per game and 28th in scoring defense with 21.7 points per game. BYU has faced tough competition this season, which could help Kalani Sitake’s squad heading into the Idaho Bowl.

Western Michigan won its first four MAC games before it saw its dreams disappear after three conference losses in a row.  The Broncos did not make a bowl game last season after its 13-win season in 2016. But Western Michigan is back, and it’s lead by running back LeVante Bellamy, who has 1,172 yards on the season.

Jamauri Bogan leads the team with 15 touchdowns and 702 yards. The Broncos rank 30th nationally in offense with 447 yards per game and 32nd in rushing offense with 204 per game on the ground. The rushing attack will have to overcome BYU’s tenacious defense. But the Broncos have studs of their own, too. Ali Fayad and Najee Clayton have forced a combined seven fumbles this season.

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