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2014 Bowl Season Primer, Part 1

Go ahead, fry up some of your famous chicken wings, pop a bag of chips, mix up that legendary guacamole (if it has Miracle Whip in it, you're dead to me), and crack open a cold one to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year - bowling!

I love this guy.
I love this guy.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, many of these games may feature teams that barely have a pulse, some will be pillow fights, and some will be walkovers. But you know what? Football, baby. Give me more. I will watch bowl games like I eat Thanksgiving dinner, gorging myself so thoroughly on seasonal delights that the only thing I can do is lie on the couch... and watch more football. Hike!

In deference to our staff's friendly Northern neighbors/grizzly experts, Larz and Jamie, Part 1 of our bowl primer will cover the games from this Saturday, December 20th, through Boxing Day, December 26th, which is also the Feast of Stephen. As the Christmas carol goes: Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen, watching football all day long, and all night even. Or something like that.

Note that all times are Eastern, because I'm biased against other time zones.

Saturday, December 20th

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Nevada (7-5) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4)

Line: Nevada -1, O/U 61
TV: ESPN, 11:00 AM

Statistically, Nevada has a good running game, a bad passing game, and a bad defense. Yet four of their five losses were by a single score, including close games dropped to Arizona, Boise State, and Colorado State, so the Pack can certainly be dangerous. If dual-threat quarterback Cody Fajardo gets rolling, we could see some fireworks.

As for the Cajuns, they're bidding for their fourth consecutive year with a bowl win. They're very similar to Nevada - good running game, bad passing game, soft defense - but when they've lost, they've done it in style. Their four losses are by an average margin of -28 points. Ouch. Watch for sophomore running back Elijah McGuire, averaging a robust 8.3 yards per touch with 16 total touchdowns.

Gildan New Mexico Bowl
Utah State (9-4) vs. UTEP (7-5)

Line: Utah State -10, O/U 46
TV: ESPN, 2:20 PM

Utah State has a scrappy defense that has carried them through this season; in fact, had the offense been just five points better in low-scoring games against Arkansas State and Colorado State, the Aggies would be 11-2. The Vigil brothers, Zach and Nick, form a prolific linebacker keystone for this defensive unit with a combined 261 tackles and 35.5 tackles for loss.

UTEP executed an impressive turnaround from last year's 2-10 record and has a respectable rushing attack (213 yards per game), but beating a more complete Utah State team will be a tall order. Big-play receiver Ian Hamilton, who belongs in the Finer Things Club, has 23 receptions on the year for a whopping 21.7 yards per, but somehow has only two touchdowns. If he can add to that number UTEP can make this interesting.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl
#22 Utah (8-4) vs. Colorado State (10-2)

Line: Utah -3, O/U 58
TV: ABC, 3:30 PM

Utah continues the theme of a solid defense carrying a team; their defense leads the nation in sacks and is third in the Pac 12 in passing defense. Utah also likes to run the ball, which Colorado State isn't particularly good at stopping. Elite return man Kaelin Clay could change momentum in a heartbeat, provided he actually carries the ball across the goal line.

Colorado State, meanwhile, had a breakout season under Jim McElwain, but now McElwain is in Florida and the Rams are searching for a new coach. Will they be able to focus enough to win this game? If nothing else, tune into this game to see Colorado State's All-American receiver, Rashard Higgins, who led the nation in receiving yards per game and receiving touchdowns.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Western Michigan (8-4) vs. Air Force (9-3)

Line: Pick, O/U 58
TV: ESPN, 5:45 PM

I can see why this game is a pick 'em. Western Michigan isn't particularly good at any one thing, but they're solid at everything. Sophomore quarterback Zach Terrell hit 70% of his passes for an average of 9.5 yards per attempt and accounted for 23 touchdowns, and freshman running back Jarvion Franklin racked up over 1500 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns.

On the other side you have Air Force, who has the typical excellent rush game/awful pass game mix of a triple option team to go with a middle of the road defense. Coach Troy Calhoun recently said the playoff is "un-American," which sounds like something Trey Parker would come up with. That's not relevant to this game, but I thought it was worth mentioning, because HA!

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl
South Alabama (6-6) vs. Bowling Green (7-6)

Line: South Alabama -2.5, O/U 53.5
TV: ESPN, 9:15 PM

This is one of those games that people use as evidence that there are too many bowl games. South Alabama lost four of their last five to stagger to 6-6, and is the anti-Western Michigan in that they're bad at a few things and not particularly good at anything. Despite the offense's struggles, senior quarterback Brandon Bridge is a dark horse NFL prospect and could be worth watching.

Meanwhile, Bowling Green is reasonably competent at moving the ball but can't stop anybody, giving up 40+ points six times this year and 50+ points three times. And they lost their last three games, which means these two teams combined to go 2-6 in the last month of the season. Whee! Junior tailback Travis Greene started out strong this year, got hurt, and then came to life again in the last two games. Keep an eye on him and his 5.9 yard per carry average.

Monday, December 22nd

Miami Beach Bowl
BYU (8-4) vs. Memphis (9-3)

Line: Memphis -1, O/U 55.5
TV: ESPN, 2:00 PM

BYU had a brutal mid-season four-game losing streak, beginning with the Utah State game that Taysom Hill left with a broken leg. Had they righted the ship a little more quickly their season likely would've been very good, but even as it is now it's respectable. Senior signal caller Christian Stewart has stepped into the role very admirably.

Memphis has put together a surprisingly solid season on the back of an excellent defense (fifth nationally in points allowed per game) and a competent offense. Their near-miss against UCLA in week 2 was probably their best game of the year, but they've had some very good results against respectable Group of Five teams also. BYU will have to plan around senior linebacker Tank Jakes, who has recorded 15.5 tackles for loss this year.

Tuesday, December 23rd

Boca Raton Bowl
Marshall (12-1) vs. Northern Illinois (11-2)

Line: Marshall -10, O/U 67
TV: ESPN, 6:00 PM

Before the overtime loss to Western Kentucky in week 13, Marshall was sitting pretty in their bid to take the New Year's Day slot reserved for the highest-ranked Group of 5 team. Instead, they land in the Retiree Boca Raton Bowl on the 23rd. Can they avoid a letdown? Record-setting quarterback Rakeem Cato has a 45-game touchdown pass streak and has thrown for an absurd 13,798 yards and 128 touchdowns in his Marshall career.

Northern Illinois lost 2013 Heisman hopeful Jordan Lynch but won the MAC again anyway. They have a very effective running game that could keep the Marshall offense off the field. The Huskies have a whopping five players with at least ten carries and better than 5 yards per rush; workhorse back Cameron Stingily has 13 scores on the ground, and dual-threat quarterback Drew Hare has 8 to go with 17 passing scores.

I like the Huskies to cover and possibly win outright in this one.

San Diego County Credit Union Bowl
Navy (6-5) vs. San Diego State (7-5)

Line: San Diego State -2.5, O/U 54
TV: ESPN, 9:30 PM

Navy has had a bit of a down year by recent standards, but showed excellent fight against Ohio State and Notre Dame and should give San Diego State all they can handle. It might seem like this should be a home game for San Diego State, but with all the military personnel in San Diego expect the crowd to be pretty even. The key to Navy's success is of course their excellent option quarterback Keenan Reynolds, the best they've had since Ricky Dobbs.

San Diego State runs the ball pretty well too, so if you like the running game you should definitely tune into this one. They lost tight road games at North Carolina and at Boise State and have a respectable defense - they could well be better than their 7-5 record indicates. Running back Donnel Pumphrey should become the Aztecs' all-time leading rusher sometime during this game, needing only 82 yards tacked onto his season total of 1,755.

Wednesday, December 24th

Popeye's Bahamas Bowl
Central Michigan (7-5) vs. Western Kentucky (7-5)

Line: Western Kentucky -3.5, O/U 66
TV: ESPN, 12:00 PM

Not only is this game in the Bahamas, it's sponsored by Popeye's. If the gift basket includes buttermilk biscuits, I, like the Boz, will be headed back to college. Just saying.

Central Michigan had their highlight early, pounding Purdue 38-17 in week 2. They lost their next three, though, and closed out the season with a loss to rival Western Michigan. Workhorse power back Thomas Rawls, a Michigan transfer, could give Western Kentucky fits if he gets on a roll.

Conversely, the Hilltopper's highlight came in their last game, the dramatic 67-66 overtime upset of previously undefeated Marshall. Season momentum definitely favors Western Kentucky in this one. Senior quarterback Brandon Doughty has lived up to his last name, completing 67.5% of his passes for 4,344 yards and 44 touchdowns, against just 10 interceptions. The Chippewas will need to contain him to win this game.

Hawai'i Bowl
Fresno State (6-6) vs. Rice (7-5)

Line: Rice -2, O/U 59.5
TV: ESPN, 8:00 PM

Fresno State had a rough start to the year, posting three consecutive big losses - although those losses were at USC, at Utah, and versus Nebraska, so it's hardly surprising. Their defensive stats are skewed by those three games; their defense is better than its 101st scoring ranking. Rice will have to account for defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, who has recorded a respectable 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss from the interior.

Rice also lost their first three games, but their losses were to Notre Dame, Texas A&M... and Old Dominion. And they got destroyed by Louisiana Tech 76-31 to close out the regular season; this feels like one of those games where the spread might be off. Defensive tackle Christian Covington had a lot of pre-season hype, but the guy one spot over, defensive end Brian Nordstrom, had the numbers, racking up 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.

Friday, December 26th

Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl
Illinois (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-5)

Line: Louisiana Tech -6, O/U 58
TV: ESPN, 1:00 PM

Beckman lives! But for how long? Illinois is a decent passing team but not very good at running it, and they have an awful defense, ranking 108th in scoring. They'll have their hands full against a potent Louisiana Tech offense. Tune in to see former Okie State quarterback Wes Lunt, who apparently has a deep-seated affinity for orange, start for the Illini.

Louisiana Tech, meanwhile, ranks 13th in scoring offense. Yeah. That stat is padded by some demolitions of below average teams, but they can definitely move the ball and put up points. They did lose the Conference USA title game to Marshall the last time out, so they may have a bit of a hangover effect. Junior running back Kenneth Dixon has 26 total touchdowns on just 266 touches.

Quick Lane Bowl
Rutgers (7-5) vs. North Carolina (6-6)

Line: North Carolina -3, O/U 66.5
TV: ESPN, 4:30 PM

Rutgers had a bit of a rough go of it in their first season in the Big Ten, but they did manage to open the season with a road win at Washington State and to knock off Michigan in their first-ever Big Ten game. What bowl game is Michigan in again? Oh, right... Wide receiver Leonte Carroo has accounted for 38% of the Knights' receiving yards and 50% of their receiving touchdowns this year.

North Carolina was a tough team to read this year - they struggled with Liberty and lost big to East Carolina, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Miami, and NC State, but they also gave Notre Dame all they could handle, beat Georgia Tech, and demolished Duke on the road. The engine to their prolific offense is do-everything quarterback Marquise Williams, who will probably go over 3,000 yards passing and 800 yards rushing for the season in this game.

Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl
NC State (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3)

Line: UCF -2, O/U 49.5
TV: ESPN, 8:00 PM

NC State lost a heartbreaker to Florida State that was much closer than the 56-41 final indicated. They have an effective running game and a middle-of-the-road defense, which is a good combination to be a nuisance against anyone. Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett broke out at the quarterback position this year, throwing for 2,344 yards and 22 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions while also running for 498 yards and 3 scores.

American Conference co-champ UCF put together yet another solid season, anchored by their defense that ranks 9th in scoring. They did provide UConn with its only conference win, but they also played Penn State tough, beat BYU, and held down East Carolina in their regular season finale. Senior linebacker Terrance Plummer leads that defense with 92 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss to go with 3.5 sacks, 6 passes broken up, and 1 interception.