They say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, but would they say that if it didn’t coincide with bowl season? I mean, participating in a Bowl Pick ‘Em is much less stressful than Christmas shopping. I kid, I kid, but I am stoked to preview the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl and, later this week, the Holiday Bowl. Aside from game analysis, I’ll cover the truly important things, like what kind of swag these bowls are giving away to participants and how many bowl games are sponsored by a company that pedals chicken (spoiler: five).
So let’s just jump right in and discuss the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Previously the TicketCity Bowl, this is the second year that Zaxby’s is the sponsor.
“What’s a Zaxby’s?” you ask? Well, allow me to educate you: Zaxby’s is a franchise of [not fast food] restaurants that specializes in delicious chicken fingers, flavorful (and, if you like, very spicy) wings, sandwiches, zalads (yes, zalads), and awesome dipping sauces. Oh, and the Texas toast; you have to get a basket of the warm, garlicy, buttery Texas toast.
“Wow, Jill, you seem to know a lot about Zaxby’s.”
Yes, yes I do; And I’m glad you noticed. Zaxby’s and I go waaaaay back.
Some of you probably assumed that I am previewing this bowl because a PAC-12 team is involved, but in actual fact it’s because being a cashier and cook at Zaxby’s was my first job.
I was employed by a Zaxby’s in North Carolina from the time I was 15 until I graduated high school. By the time I was a senior, I’d made my way up to Assistant Manager and had a lot of responsibility. I eschewed sports, clubs, and other extra-curriculars in order to work at Zaxby’s as much as possible. Why? Well, for one: car insurance for a 16-year-old moron who totalled her car 9 months after getting her driver’s license wasn’t cheap, and because the 16-year-old moron (me) really loved working there.
I loved the puzzle of creating the weekly schedule, strategizing how to staff each shift based on each person’s unique strengths, and figuring out where I could save money on supplies and payroll. I learned diplomacy and tact, the many ways to motivate people, and how to effectively serve the general public. All of these things have been invaluable as I’ve moved through jobs in research, recruiting, and higher education.
I am very thankful to Zaxby’s for giving me the opportunity to develop such a well-rounded skill set in my first job, and I’m so proud to see how the company has grown since I last worked there over a decade ago. According to Wikipedia, there are now more than 600 locations in 16 states.
Now, for actual football things:
Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl Preview
Washington Huskies (6-6) vs. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (9-4)
December 26, 2:20 PM ET
Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas, Texas
Line: Washington -8.5
Bowl swag: According to Saturday Down South and several other websites, the participants will receive an Ogio backpack and hydration bladder, a commemorative football, and a beanie. Fox Sports listed something completely different on their website, but by rule I ignore Fox Sports and Joe Buck whenever possible.
This year was one of rebuilding for Chris Petersen’s squad, which lost most of it’s key personnel in the NFL Draft. If you take a look at the depth chart, you’ll see that seven of 11 offensive starters and five of 11 defensive starters are underclassmen. Youth at some of the most important offensive positions (freshmen quarterback, running back, left tackle and right tackle, and two sophomore wide receivers) is both why this season didn’t go so well, and why Washington has a really bright future. Despite a young secondary and linebacking corps, the defense played well, particularly at the end of the year, only giving up 17 total points in the final two games. I think that the defense will prove to be the difference maker in the Heart of Dallas bowl.
While Southern Mississippi has a more robust win-loss record, Washington plays in a far tougher conference; ten PAC-12 teams are bowl eligible and all but one (Oregon) are favored to win. In fact, Utah and Arizona have already locked in their victories. Unfortunately, the Huskies went 3-5 against bowl-eligible PAC-12 teams, and 4-6 against all bowl-eligible teams on their schedule. That said, if you ignore the loss to Stanford, they lost all other games by 11 or fewer points, and three of those games were lost by one score.
What it will take to win: the offensive line must hold up, quarterback Jake Browning (13 turnovers on the year) must play a clean game, and the defense must take control early.
Aside from Southern Miss, four Conference USA teams are bowl eligible: Louisiana Tech (won their game), Marshall, Middle Tennessee, and Western Kentucky (won their game). Southern Miss went 1-2 against bowl-eligible Conference USA teams this season.
Overall, the Golden Eagles had a pretty great year. They won the West, head coach Todd Monken was named Conference USA Coach of the Year, and junior quarterback Nick Mullens was named Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year.
The Southern Miss squad is far more experienced than Washington’s: every offensive starter is an upperclassmen, and Nick Mullens is something special. This season, he set Southern Miss records in passing yards and touchdowns, and among Division I quarterbacks, he ranked number 14 in QB rating, seventh in passing yards, and tied for fourth in passing touchdowns. According to the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl website, the Golden Eagles had 37 touchdown drives of two minutes or less. The one problem with Mullens is the number of turnovers: twelve interceptions and six fumbles this year.
What it will take to win: The offense plays quickly and efficiently, making it difficult for the Washington defense to establish any rhythm. Nick Mullens does Nick Mullens things (without all the turnovers).
Prediction: Southern Miss will make it difficult for Washington, at least initially. After that, the Washington defense buckles down, and Browning plays well enough to get his team the win.
Final thoughts: Go visit a Zaxby’s near you. Some friendly advice: stay away from the ‘insane sauce’ unless you have a sinus infection or you ran out of paint thinner. My god that stuff is hot.
Photo courtesy of Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl