2014 New Orleans Bowl, New Mexico Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and Camellia Bowl Previews

December 18, 2014

We’re less than two days away from the greatest time of the year.

I say it every year, and even though I have fairly recently graduated from college and won’t get to sit back and do nothing for its entirety, the college football bowl season still holds a special place in my heart.

It’s also a special occasion for the blog, because around five years ago I began to contribute with some consistency to Around The Corn.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since I was a senior in high school, with sideburns way too long for my own good and thinking that I was somehow going to end up in Sports Illustrated thanks to my online presence. Because as anyone with a pulse knows, all the editors of major sports magazines scour the internet for new talent on a regular basis.

So maybe I didn’t land among the stars, but I’m pleased that I’ve managed to keep this thing around for such a long time.

But I digress. Bowl season is upon us, and you’ve come here to see how badly I’m going to do in ESPN’s Bowl Mania this year. I appreciate the support. But if you’d really like to make me happy, go ahead and throw an entry into the official Around The Corn Sports Blog Bowl Mania group. The password as always is “gigitty”.

Without further procrastination, let’s take a look at the first five bowls that will kick off the party on December 20.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

Nevada vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (Saturday, 11 AM ET – ESPN)

The Wolf Pack may have a difficult time waking up for this game, as the rare 11 a.m. start time will actually feel like 8 a.m. to the Nevada players. But second year head man Brian Polian should have his squad ready after a one-year absence from the postseason. Winning won’t be easy, however, as the Wolf Pack must face three time New Orleans Bowl defending champion Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns love to play in the dome in front of what is essentially a home crowd.

Fans of the dual threat option at quarterback will be pleased with the bowl season’s opening act. Nevada’s Cody Fajardo is the only player in the Mountain West Conference to rank in the top ten in both rushing and passing yards per game. The senior has been on a tear as of late, eclipsing 100 yards rushing in four of the past five games. The Ragin’ Cajuns will be a handful for Fajardo in his last collegiate contest, however, as they lead the Sun Belt in rush defense. Not one to be outdone, Louisiana-Lafayette signal caller Terrance Broadway will also show off his running abilities in this game. Nevada is much better against the run than it has been in prior years, though, so Broadway will likely have to rely on his arm as well.

Not much separates these two teams, which is to be expected from a bowl game. Nevada has definitely played the tougher competition this season and looked competitive, taking teams such as Arizona, Boise State and Colorado State down to the wire. Whether that is enough to overcome the advantage Louisiana-Lafayette will experience by being close to home and used to the time zone remains to be seen. My suspicion is that Nevada’s experience in close games will serve the team well, as Louisiana-Lafayette doesn’t possess nearly the amount of offensive firepower it has in prior years. I have the Wolf Pack finally dethroning the Ragin’ Cajuns in the Superdome for 11 points in Bowl Mania.

My Pick: 35-31 Nevada

Gildan New Mexico Bowl

Utah State vs. UTEP (Saturday, 2:20 PM ET – ESPN)

We’ll learn a lot about the strength of the Mountain West Conference after Saturday, as four of its teams play in bowl games on the first day of action. Of all of the games, though, this one might only speak to the strength of the conference if the Aggies were to lose. UTEP is one of those teams that casual and die-hard fans alike are likely surprised to see playing in a postseason affair. But Utah State has had its issues this season as well, so this is far from an easy game to call.

The Aggies have gone through not one, not two, not three, but four quarterbacks this season due to various injuries. Running the show currently is true freshman Kent Myers, who has played pretty well after being thrown into the action midway through the season. Myers has some running ability to go along with a decent arm, which should be enough to give UTEP’s defense fits. The Miners have experienced a Renaissance of sorts defensively after ranking next to last in Conference USA in 2013. Now allowing just 369 yards per contest, solid defense will be how UTEP will attempt to keep things close. The Miners can run the ball well thanks to sophomore Aaron Jones, but will be going up against the MWC’s No.1 rush defense. Without much of a passing game to speak of, the Miners will hope to keep the scoring in the teens or low 20s.

It’s difficult to win any games with your fourth string quarterback, let alone become bowl eligible. But Utah State’s success this season speaks to its depth as well as the talent at many positions. UTEP should be ecstatic just to be bowling and often times that is enough to surprise an unsuspecting opponent. But the Aggies don’t normally overlook their foe and generally show up to play in postseason games. The better overall team will win here, which is why I have Utah State for 16 points in Bowl Mania.

My Pick: 31-20 Utah State

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl

#22 Utah vs. Colorado State (Saturday, 3:30 PM ET – ABC)

I didn’t get the chance to write my annual “5 Underrated Bowl Matchups to Watch” article on Bleacher Report this year, but had I done so this game would have been on the list. The upstart Utes had a very solid season in the ultra-competitive Pac-12 South, taking down teams like UCLA and USC. Colorado State is one of the hidden gems of college football, but it will be interesting to see how the Rams operate without former head coach Jim McElwain, who agreed to take the same position at Florida and will not be coaching this game.

This is a classic battle between a strong defense and a powerful offense. The Utes have been keeping things close thanks to their defense all season and have seen offenses like Colorado State’s before. But not many receivers are as good as the Rams’ Rashard Higgins. The sophomore was voted a consensus All-American and left every other wideout in the country in the dust with regards with receiving yards per game. In fact, Higgins actually bested Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper in that category as well as touchdown receptions with 17, and was just 14 yards shy of Cooper in receiving yards for the season. If Higgins can find a way to create space against Utah’s secondary, expect him to find the end zone at least once.

The Rams will be led by current offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, so the offense should continue to produce without McElwain. But the Rams were also a decent defensive squad and it remains to be seen if Baldwin will be able to trust in his staff to step up in the absence of McElwain. The Utes aren’t the type of team to take advantage of a suspect defense, so if Utah wins this game it will be because its defense was good enough to slow down the Rams. I see that happening, but just barely. I have the Utes in a close one for 13 points in Bowl Mania.

My Pick: 28-27 Utah

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Western Michigan vs. Air Force (Saturday, 5:45 PM ET – ESPN)

The Broncos will play on the blue turf one final time this season…just not the Boise State Broncos. Western Michigan returns to a bowl game for the first time since 2011, while Air Force is back in the postseason after a one-year absence. It’s hard to tell what we’ll get from the first three bowl games on Saturday, but chances are that this one will produce a lot of points.

Statistically, the Falcons are not good against the pass. As the No. 11 pass defense in the Mountain West, Air Force does not appear to be set up well to slow down Western Michigan’s strong air attack. However, Troy Calhoun’s squad has employed a bend-but-don’t-break mentality in its biggest games in 2014. Against Boise State and Colorado State, the conference’s top passing offenses, the Falcons allowed 370 and 366 yards through the air. But thanks to 6 combined turnovers between the two games, Air Force managed to win both games. The Falcons are the only MWC team to beat Boise State and ended Colorado State’s short stint inside the Top 25. Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell has been on the wrong side of more than a few interceptions this season, so despite the numbers Air Force may be able to work its magic on defense yet again.

Teams that face the triple option in a bowl game are usually at an advantage because there is extra time for the defense to prepare. But Air Force is unique in that its quarterbacks also have the ability to throw the ball. The Broncos have already had an impressive campaign after finishing 2013 at 1-11 overall, but the MAC didn’t look like the strongest conference this season. More than anything else, I’m taking Air Force in this one for 15 points because the Mountain West looks better than the MAC. We’ll see if that holds true.

My Pick: 34-31 Air Force

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl

South Alabama vs. Bowling Green (Saturday, 9:15 PM – ESPN)

In only its second year of eligibility, South Alabama qualified for a bowl game. Expect the Jaguars to be far more excited to be playing in Montgomery, Alabama as a reward than the Falcons, who were obliterated in the MAC title game by Northern Illinois two weekends ago. With only 168 miles separating Mobile from Montgomery, this one will have the feel of a home game for South Alabama.

The Jaguars aren’t much to write home about statistically but did go out and play two SEC opponents this year, so they shouldn’t be intimidated in the least by Bowling Green. The Falcons completely flipped defensively, going from the MAC’s best in 2013 to conference cellar dweller this season. That should serve South Alabama well, because the Jaguars have only eclipsed the 300 yard mark offensively once in 2014. Between South Alabama’s entire season and Bowling Green’s second half of the year, there hasn’t been a lot of offensive fireworks to speak of from either team. And if this one comes down to defensive effort, the Jaguars are better equipped to come out on top. Bowling Green does have the best skill player on the field in running back Travis Greene, who has had two straight 100-yard games since returning from an ankle injury. But his production has been hampered this season by an offensive line that has also had trouble protecting the quarterback.

If the analysis of this game seems like a jumbled, disconnected mess, that’s because it is a jumbled, disconnected mess. Neither team has offered a lot to suggest that it should be the favorite in this one, which is good from a competition standpoint. But at the same time, this game runs the risk of being a battle between punters which is never entertaining. I like South Alabama to come out excited to play in its first ever bowl game, whereas the Falcons are reeling after three consecutive defeats. It probably won’t be pretty, but I have the Jaguars winning for 12 points in Bowl Mania.

My Pick: 24-20 South Alabama

If you’d like to share your opinion on Around The Corn for any of the upcoming bowls, shoot me an email with your thoughts and prediction to kbecks@aroundthecorn.com. You can also like Around The Corn’s Facebook page or send me a tweet @KBecks_ATC. As long as you send your thoughts at least two days before the game is to be played, I can assure you that your thoughts will show up in an article.

– K. Becks

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