It’s the most wonderful time of the year but also the most bittersweet time of the year for diehard college football fans like me. Bowl season is always fun because with all the coaching changes & a whole month to prepare, you never know how the games will turn out. Here is Part 3 of our Bowl Preview:
Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman – Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (Annapolis, Maryland) 2:30pm
(8-4) Pittsburgh Panthers v. (10-2) Navy Midshipmen
This was a successful season for both the Panthers & the Middies. The Pittsburgh Panthers were welcoming a new & first time head coach in Pat Narduzzi and the reigning ACC Player of the Year exited with an injury in the first quarter of the first game of the season. Their regular season finale loss against Miami is a head-scratcher but Pittsburgh’s other three losses are pretty understandable (late GW FG at Iowa, narrow defeat versus North Carolina & another narrow defeat against Notre Dame). Pittsburgh’s style of play is pretty straightforward; they are going to run the ball down your throat & not make any mistakes. Navy is going to do the same thing but with a little more pizazz with the triple option attack and at the helm is the greatest triple option quarterback to ever lace ’em up in Keenan Reynolds who is now the NCAA all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 85. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo elected to stay in Annapolis and not take the coaching vacancy at his alma mater BYU last week so I’m guessing that is a morale boost for the Midshipmen.
Player to Watch: Navy senior fullback Chris Swain – The Macon native is the hammer of the offense. Navy will pound him up the middle & set up Reynolds on the outside. If Navy gets him going early, it could be a long day for the Panthers.
Bradley’s Pick: Navy Midshipmen
Quick Lane Bowl – Ford Field (Detroit, Michigan) 5pm
(7-5) Central Michigan Chippewas v. (5-7) Minnesota Golden Gophers
This was an odd season for the Gophers who began the year with high expectations & played extremely well in the opener against TCU but the offense never got going in 2015 averaging only 357 total yards of offense per game. Head Coach Jerry Kill retired abruptly midseason due to health reasons & Minnesota almost pulled the upset of then 15th-ranked Michigan. The Chippewas turned out to be a pretty tough team to contend with in 2015 as they played Oklahoma State, Michigan State & Syracuse tough this season but weren’t quite able to get wins against those opponents. Once they got into the MAC schedule, they were able to close out the regular season 6-2 in their final eight games with wins over Northern Illinois & Akron. Minnesota’s defense is serviceable but they will have to pitch a near shutout against Central Michigan’s offensive attack in order to get a win just two and half hours away from Kelly/Shorts Stadium on the Chippewa’s campus.
Player to Watch: Central Michigan junior quarterback Cooper Rush – He’s not flashy, he won’t blow you away with his athleticism but Rush will not make many mistakes & that’s a good trait to have a quarterback.
Bradley’s Pick: Central Michigan Chippewas
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl – Amon G. Carter Stadium (Fort Worth, Texas) 2pm
(7-5) California Golden Bears v. (8-5) Air Force Falcons
Both Cal & Air Force like to keep the pace of the game very high and the fact that they are extremely different offensively makes this a very intriguing matchup of two solid football teams. The Cal Bears were one of the college football darlings early in the season as a program that had been down for a while but head coach Sonny Dykes had them playing well with senior quarterback Jared Goff. Dykes, Goff & company began the season 5-0 but finished just 2-5 with a four game losing streak in there as well. Air Force has steadily been a solid program for years & the forgotten service academy despite winning the Commander-In-Chief Trophy in 2014 but something was different this season and they found lightning in a bottle midseason when they hit their conference schedule reeling off five straight wins but fell just short in the final two games of the season which included the Mountain West Championship Game, which they lost by three against San Diego State. This game all comes down to which team can have more success stopping what the other team does best: California stopping the run or Air Force stopping the pass.
Player to Watch: Air Force senior quarterback Karson Roberts – It’s rare that you find a ‘gunslinger’ mentality in an option-style quarterback but that’s exactly what we’ve got with Roberts. He’s got a knack for making the big play but also making a big mistake.
Bradley’s Pick: California Golden Bears.
Russell Athletic Bowl – Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium (Orlando, Florida) 5:30pm
(11-2) North Carolina Tar Heels v. (9-3) Baylor Bears
I remember a time when a 9-3 record was something to be celebrated in Waco, Texas, but not these days as injuries plagued the Bears in the final month of the season when their schedule finally got tough so we really have no idea how good this team actually was. Starting quarterback Seth Russell went down with a neck injury in late October. His backup Jarrett Stidham came in and performed well but was also injured with two games remaining forcing wide receiver Chris Johnson to fill in as quarterback. The fact that the Bears were even competitive in those two final games is a testament to the coaching job that Art Briles did at Baylor this season. On the other side of the field in this bowl game will be North Carolina who bookended their season with losses: the first one being one of the ugliest of all of the top ten teams and last one being one of the more admirable ones as the Tar Heels were robbed of a chance to unseat the top-ranked team in a conference championship game. North Carolina had a dream season in 2015 and should continue rolling into the bowl game against a depleted Baylor team.
Player to Watch: North Carolina sophomore running back Elijah Hood – The best player you’ve heard nothing about only had 1,345 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns on the season for an 11-2 football team. Other Tar Heels players got the publicity but Hood has been the unsung hero for North Carolina in 2015.
Bradley’s Pick: North Carolina Tar Heels
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl – Arizona Stadium (Tucson, Arizona) 7:30pm
(6-6) Nevada Wolf Pack v. (7-5) Colorado State Rams
At first glance, you say okay this will be a pretty good game and then you realize that the brainiacs that run the Arizona Bowl selected two teams from the same conference. The good news is that it isn’t a rematch since these two didn’t play this season. Colorado State, under first year head coach Mike Bobo, was in a serious rebuilding scenario in 2015 and the 7-5 record is respectable & Nevada was trending upwards under 3rd year coach Brian Polian. I have a feeling these two programs will be on the rise in the next few years but the winner of this game will be one step closer. The Rams didn’t have the rushing attack that they would have liked this season which made their play-action passing attack a little less potent but Colorado State did get some quality quarterback play out of sophomore quarterback Nick Stevens who finished the season with 21 touchdown passes. Running the ball is no problem for the Wolf Pack who boast not one but two 1,000-yard rushers this season but the forward pass just hasn’t been there this season. These are two very well-coached teams that don’t make a lot of mistakes but just don’t have the horsepower to produce big offensive outputs.
Player to Watch: Nevada running back duo of James Butler & Don Jackson – This sophomore/senior combo rushed for a combined 2,181 yards & 16 touchdowns with a 5.4 yards per carry average.
Bradley’s Pick: Colorado State Rams
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl – NRG Stadium (Houston, Texas) 9pm
(8-3) LSU Tigers v. (7-5) Texas Tech Red Raiders
What a matchup of two completely different teams! The Tigers are a run heavy team and who wouldn’t be with living legend Leonard Fournette in the backfield and the Red Raiders spread it out and sling it all over the field. LSU came into the season with a lot of lofty expectations, as always, and fell short when the quarterback play wasn’t where it needed to be. MonStar Leonard Fournette was third in the nation in rushing yards with over 1,700 and that’s in one two fewer games than the two players ahead of him if that gives you any indication of how amazing of a season he had. Texas Tech was just a notch below the big dogs in the Big 12. They gave TCU a significant scare early in the season but that just alerted the rest of the Big 12 power teams who all beat the Red Raiders by an average of 27 points but Texas Tech still scored 167 points in the four games against TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma & Oklahoma State. LSU has one of the top defensive secondaries in the country but they never saw an offense like Texas Tech’s in the SEC & that’s not a knock on the Southeastern Conference but a compliment to the efficiency of the Red Raider’s passing attack.
Player to Watch: Texas Tech sophomore quarterback Patrick Mahomes – The gritty Texan threw for over 4,200 yards in 2015 and accounted for 42 total touchdowns.
Bradley’s Pick: LSU Tigers
Birmingham Bowl – Legion Field (Birmingham, Alabama) Noon
(6-6) Auburn Tigers v. (9-3) Memphis Tigers
If I had told you before the season that Memphis would have barely achieved bowl eligibility & Auburn fell just short of their conference championship game with a 9-3 record, it wouldn’t have come as a shock. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction sometimes because it’s quite the opposite with this bowl game. The Auburn Tigers enter the 2015 season with expectations as high as any program in the country but fell as hard as any team in the country as well. It became extremely obvious that this team was nowhere near the offensive juggernaut it had been the last two seasons with narrow wins against Louisville & Jacksonville State before LSU show us their real stripes. The Memphis Tigers on the other hand, were coming off of a 10-win season (rare in Memphis these days) & were looking to make a push for the AAC Championship Game. The Tigers began the season 8-0 with a win over 13th-ranked Ole Miss but dropped three in a row to the other three good teams in the AAC (Navy, Houston, Temple) in November before finishing with a 63-0 drubbing of SMU. Strong armed Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch will definitely test the Auburn secondary & if they get a lead, don’t expect the Tigers to let off the gas against their orange-striped cousins. In order to win this game, Auburn will have to find a way to move the ball on offense and generate some points which is something they struggled to do much of the season.
Player to Watch: Memphis sophomore running back Doroland Dorceus – The New Orleans native has two 100-yard rushing games on the season & is lightning out of the backfield.
Bradley’s Pick: Memphis Tigers
Belk Bowl – Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, North Carolina) 3:30pm
(7-5) NC State Wolfpack v. (8-4) Mississippi State Bulldogs
Early in the season, NC State looked like were going to be an offensive juggernaut in 2015 but once October hit their offense was met with stout defense & that’s when the Wolfpack started struggling to score points against the like of Louisville, Virginia Tech & Florida State. When NC State got into conference play the only teams they defeated were Wake Forest, Boston College & Syracuse who finished the year with a combined record of 10-26. The Mississippi State Bulldogs were in a similar boat in 2015 as they faced four ranked opponents this season and finished 0-4 in those games. Two of them were close but the other two weren’t at all so this will be a bowl matchup between two teams that fell well short of preseason expectations. With all that said, this will be a pretty good quarterback matchup between NC State’s Jacoby Brissett & Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott. Combined the two quarterbacks have thrown for 14,505 yards and accounted for 153 touchdowns in their careers. This will be a wide open game between two teams that run similar offenses and both have veteran quarterbacks in their finals game so I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a true blue shootout in Charlotte.
Player to Watch: Mississippi State junior wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson – At 6-foot-5, Wilson is the big play receiver for Dak Prescott and he has the speed to get down the field in a hurry. NC State will need to keep tabs on him whenever he is on the field.
Bradley’s Pick: Mississippi State Bulldogs
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl – LP Field (Nashville, Tennessee) 7pm
(8-4) Texas A&M Aggies v. (7-5) Louisville Cardinals
Louisville started the season on a three game losing streak to Auburn, Houston & Clemson each in narrow defeats. At the time the Auburn & Clemson losses were understandable, especially since they were such narrow losses. The Houston loss was vilified but by the end of the season it was what the SEC calls a ‘quality loss’. Throughout the season, the Cardinals kept rotating quarterbacks in and out and somehow Bobby Petrino made it work and led his team to a 6-2 record in the final two months of the season. Something is awry in College Station. The Texas A&M Aggies have been attracting top flight quarterbacks in pairs for the last four to five years but lately it seems like they are all transferring away. Texas A&M began the season 5-0 but only had three wins after against South Carolina, Western Carolina & Vanderbilt. The meat of the conference schedule seemed to be too much for what has become one of the most talented teams in the country. This is an odd matchup between two teams that never really found their identity and the Aggies will be starting a new quarterback after their first & second stringers transferred this month.
Players to Watch: Louisville freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson – Coach Petrino finally settled on Jackson (we think) and he leads the team in rushing yards & rushing touchdowns as well as throwing for 1,613 yards in limited duty earlier in the season.
Bradley’s Pick: Louisville Cardinals
National University Holiday Bowl – Qualcomm Stadium (San Diego, California) 10:30pm
(8-5) USC Trojans v. (9-3) Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers had one of the quietest 9-win seasons in the country while USC had one of the most boisterous 8-win seasons in the nation. USC began the season in the top ten in most polls & went through one of the most bizarre coaching changes in recent memory with Coach Sarkisian being fired in the first month of the season. With all that having happened the Trojans still finished strong but only had a 2-3 record against ranked opponents in 2015 but it’s obvious that USC is loaded to the gills with athletes at every position, most notably sophomore defensive back/wide receiver/return man Adoree’ Jackson who, with the blessing of new head coach Clay Helton, will concentrate on making the 2016 Rio Olympics in track & field instead of participate in spring football practice. Meanwhile in Madison, the Badgers didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2008 but still managed to finish the year in the thick of the Big Ten West divisional race. Wisconsin’s style of play is exactly what USC had trouble stopping against Stanford on two different occasions in 2015 but I don’t know if Wisconsin has the athletes to keep up with the Trojans.
Player to Watch: USC sophomore wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster – I didn’t see a player who exploded off the screen all season like Smith-Schuster. At 6-foot-2 & 210 pounds, he is as explosive of a player as there is in all of college football and quarterback Cody Kessler’s favorite target.
Bradley’s Pick: USC Trojans
Stay logged on to Sowegalive for the Southern Football Report: Bowl Preview Part 4 coming soon!