The exotic locales and warm weather will be on full display for the two bowls taking place on Wednesday. It certainly won’t be a white Christmas in either of these places but the panoramic views of palm trees and the ocean will look mighty splendid on television when they come back from commercials. This bowl preview features those two games where the “wish you were here” factor definitely comes into play.
Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, noon ET, ESPN: Central Michigan vs. Western Kentucky
Both teams’ players, coaches and fans needed to make sure their passports were updated for this one, taking place at Thomas Robinson Stadium in Nassau, Bahamas. It’s the first bowl game to be held outside the United States since the now defunct International Bowl was played in Toronto from 2007-2010. The two schools, located in Mount Pleasant, MI and Bowling Green, KY respectively, must be wondering what they did to deserve this trip. Well, they both went 7-5 in mid-major conferences to garner the invite.
Central Michigan’s fifth year head coach Dan Enos was under a lot of pressure to show some improvement after two straight 6-6 seasons. The Chippewas ended up finishing a game better in 2014 with a 7-5 mark that included a pair of impressive victories over Purdue and eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois whose only conference loss came to CMU.
Much of the preseason hype from an individual player standpoint for the Chips was centered around senior wide receiver Titus Davis, who opted to stay in school despite appearing relatively high on NFL draft boards at the position last year. Despite injuring his knee in the season opener and having to miss three games this year, Davis finished with a respectable 843 receiving yards and nine touchdowns which exceeded his eight trips to the end zone in 2013.
Expect CMU running back Thomas Rawls to figure prominently in the Bahamas. The Michigan transfer had a breakout senior season, averaging 122.6 yards per game on the ground which was 17th best nationally along with ten touchdowns. He should be able to capitalize against a Western Kentucky run defense that ranks 13th-worst in the nation conceding nearly 230 yards each contest.
It was pretty much expected that Bobby Petrino wouldn’t be in Bowling Green very long, and sure enough he left for Louisville after a single season when Charlie Strong took the Texas job. Petrino’s offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm took over for 2014, his first ever head coaching gig, and performed admirably. Four of the Hilltoppers’ five losses were by an average of 5.25 points and the icing on the cake moment of the year came in the final regular season game when they spoiled Marshall’s bid for a perfect season with a scintillating 67-66 overtime win where WKU successfully converted a two-point conversion in the first overtime.
Redshirt senior quarterback Brandon Doughty had one of the most prolific seasons in all of FBS throwing the football. He led the nation in total yards (4,344) and passing touchdowns (44), was second in yards per game (362.0) and sixth in passing efficiency (163.5). He has a boatload of receivers to pass to, including Jared Dangerfield, Willie McNeal, Taywan Taylor, all of whom have at least seven receiving touchdowns. Junior running back Leon Allen finished 15th nationally with 124.2 rushing yards per game and added 15 total touchdowns that included 12 on the ground.
Central Michigan clearly has the edge defensively and may be able to slow down Doughty. The unit has 14 interceptions on the year and allows only 211.4 passing yards per game. To say that Western Kentucky plays defense at all would be generous considering their total defense numbers are 120th in the nation (501.8 yards per game). If the Chippewas can force Doughty into some mistakes and put forth a balanced attack themselves with quarterback Cooper Rush commanding the offense, they should be able to come out on top.
Either way, expect this to be an insanely high scoring game.
Hawai’i Bowl, 8 pm ET, ESPN: Fresno State vs. Rice
Roughly four and a half hours after the festivities in the Bahamas conclude, another bowl game in paradise will be commencing practically a world away on the island of Oahu. Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, HI has played host to a college football postseason game pretty much uninterrupted (with the exception of the 2001 season) since 1982.
You may have noticed that Fresno State’s final record is currently below .500 at 6-7 and are wondering why on Earth are they being rewarded with a bowl game at all, let alone one in such a lush locale. Well, they somehow won their division in the Mountain West with a 6-6 overall record (5-3 in conference) and fell to Boise State in the conference title game. Division winners are bowl eligible so long as they finish with a .500 or better record in the regular season.
Second-year head coach Tim DeRuyter had a reclamation project of sorts on his hands this year, and it looked as much early on. The Bulldogs rebounded pretty well from three consecutive beat downs in a row to start the season at the hands of USC (52-13), Utah (59-27) and Nebraska (55-19). Brian Burrell beat out Duke transfer Brandon Connette for the starting quarterback role in the wake of record-setting quarterback Derek Carr’s departure for the NFL and acquitted himself pretty well, particularly late in the year with two 300+ yard passing games against Nevada and Boise State.
The Rice program is experiencing unprecedented heights in recent years under head coach David Bailiff who concludes his eighth season at that position. Last year’s C-USA championship was the school’s first outright conference title in 56 years. The Owls will be appearing in a bowl game for the third consecutive year when they take the field in Hawai’i, the longest such streak in program history.
Redshirt junior quarterback Driphus Jackson is a talented dual-threat signal caller who, as I’ve always discussed before when praising such players abilities, runs when he has to but doesn’t let that aspect of his game overshadow his passing skills. He has 21 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions on the season and is among the top 40 nationally in passing efficiency. His two favorite targets through the air, Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull, have combined for 1,320 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns between them. The Owls also possess a nice running back by committee setup, with Jowan Davis (910 yards, six touchdowns) and Darik Dillard (651 yards, 10 touchdowns) proving to be a tenacious tandem in the running game.
Defensively, the edge has to go to Rice, especially if this game comes down to Fresno State needing points late in the game and having to give Burrell time to make crucial throws. The Owls are one of the nation’s best teams at getting to the quarterback averaging nearly three sacks a game, and when you combine that with the fact the Bulldogs nearly concede that much (103rd nationally in sacks allowed) you have a potential X-factor.
In the end, ESPN has given us college football aficionados not one, but now two reasons to sit on the couch in front of the television on Christmas Eve and pretend we’re lounging on the beach in 80-degree weather with a cocktail in our hand. I’m actually interested to see how well attended this inaugural game in the Bahamas is with two fan bases from the Midwest converging on Nassau. It’ll be nice to see the stadium, which has a capacity of 15,000, as close to full as possible, but I guess we’ll see at noon on Wednesday.
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