The bowl season starts today with the first of 42 bowl games including 82 teams (including two from the FCS). It’s hard to believe that 80 FBS teams will play in these games – so many that three losing teams had to be included to complete the field. How excited should we be to watch 5-7 teams play in the postseason? This sort of bowl madness really needs to be curtailed, but as long as people buy tickets and turn on the TV to watch, they’ll keep coming up with more games. Honestly, at this point, why not come up with a Toilet Bowl to pit the two worst teams in the country against each other? As long as they’re letting losing teams play, why not?
Today, I’ll start with predictions of every bowl game, including the six that will be played today. Usually, in the early going there are only boring games pitted between much lesser teams. But there are a couple of gems today that should be watched at least by hard-core college football fans.
Bowl prediction record: 3-3 SU, 1-5 ATS, 3-3 O/U
Alcorn State (9-3) vs. N.C. A&T (9-2), Atlanta, noon, ABC
N.C. A&T – 1.5 – O/U 51.5
The first bowl of the year isn’t a matchup of tradition college powers or even of Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Instead, two Football Championship Subdivision conference champions will face off in Atlanta to decide the true HBCU (Historically Black College and University) champion. Both teams are run heavy, with Alcorn led by the tandem of RB Darryan Ragsdale and QB Lennoris Footman, who combined for more than 2,100 yards this season. The Aggies are paced by RB Tarik Cohen, who rushed for 1,248 yards and 12 TDs. Usually, the better defensive team might have the advantage, which would point toward N.C. A&T. But the SWAC teams seem to be more battle tested, especially having to play in a conference championship, and both their passing and rushing attacks seem more reliable. Prediction: Alcorn State 31, N.C. A&T 21
Result: N.C. A&T State 41, Alcorn State 34. MVP: Tarik Cohen, RB, N.C. A&T. 22 carries for 295 yards and 3 TDs. Bottom Line: N.C. A&T never trailed, though Alcorn State did its best to keep things close and keep itself in the game. RB Tarik Cohen was a one-man wrecking crew for the Aggies, ripping off three TD runs of more than 70 yards.
New Mexico Bowl
Arizona (6-6) vs. New Mexico (7-5), Albuquerque, 2 p.m., ESPN
Arizona -9 – O/U 64.5
It has to be nice for New Mexico to essentially get a home game for their bowl. Well, not essentially. It is a home game, played on their home field on their campus. That’s a huge advantage in a game between two teams that eked into the bowl field with 6- and 7-win seasons. Other than the home field equation, so much depends on the head of Arizona QB Anu Solomon, who has had problems with concussions this season, and missed the season-ending loss to Arizona State. When he’s healthy, he’s extremely dangerous, and all signs point to him starting against the Lobos. The problem for Arizona is that he also doesn’t play defense, but maybe he should. The Wildcats gave up 30 or more points in nine of 12 games this year, and rank 106th in scoring defense and 114th in total defense. New Mexico isn’t much better on that side of the ball. While they’re only 64th in scoring defense, they rank 98th in total defense. QB Lamar Jordan leads a tough rushing attack that’s accompanied by an anemic passing game. Arizona is more battle tested in a stronger conference, and Solomon should be the difference in a high-scoring affair. Prediction: Arizona 45, New Mexico 35
Result: Arizona 31, New Mexico 29. MVP: Offense – Anu Solomon, QB. 13-of-24 for 329 yards and 2 TDs. Defense – Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona. 15 tackles, 11 solo, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks. Bottom Line: Arizona held a 35-17 lead early in the third quarter, but New Mexico kept coming back, and moved to within five points at the start of the fourth quarter. The rest of the game was an uncharacteristic defensive battle (both teams gained more than 500 yards for the game), and Casey Skowron kicked a 37-yard field goal with less than two minutes left to help seal the victory.
Las Vegas Bowl
BYU (9-3) vs. Utah (9-3), Las Vegas, 3:30 p.m., ABC
Utah -2.5 – O/U 50.5
It’s unusual for an early bowl game to be so competitive and interesting, but college football fans need to set an alarm to watch this one. BYU’s early-season hopes were pinned on golden boy Taysom Hill. Sadly, Hill suffered his third season-ending injury in the first game of the year. (2012 – knee injury; 2014 – fractured leg; 2015 – lisfranc fracture.) Freshman Tanner Mangum stepped up more than anyone could have imagined, passing for 3,000 yards and 21 TDs. Utah is led by QB Travis Wilson, who is decent through the air, but is also a threat to run. The defenses look almost identical on paper, allowing 21.8 yards and about 350 yards per game. This one is extremely hard to pick, since both teams are so evenly matched. Utah is better recently in bowls, going 8-1 with Kyle Whittingham since his arrival in 2005. Bronco Mendenhall has also been around with BYU since 2005, but is 6-4 in bowls since then. There might be the key: Mendenhall will head to a new job at Virginia after this game. These two teams played each other every year since 1922, at least until 2013, when Utah moved to the Pac-12. The Utes have won four in a row in the series. That streak will end Saturday. Prediction: BYU 24, Utah 21.
Result: Utah 35, BYU 28. MVP: Tevin Carter, CB, Utah. 2 INTs, 1 TD. Bottom Line: To look at the end-of-game stats, BYU was the clear victor, as it held Utah to only 15 first downs and 197 total yards. But the first 10 minutes of the game dictated the outcome, as the Cougars turned the ball over five times, and the Utes scored on all five, including two pick-six interceptions. Down 35-0, BYU fought back and pulled to within seven with just over three minutes left. But Utah was able to run out the clock and escape with the win.
Ohio (8-4) vs. Appalachian State (10-2), Montgomery, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
Appalachian State -7 – O/U 55
This game is a bit of a curiosity. On one side, you have Ohio, a team that lost badly to Western Michigan, Buffalo and Bowling Green, but somehow beat Northern Illinois with a backup QB. On the other side is Appalachian State, a team that has played in lots of FCS playoff games, but not in a bowl since the defunct Burley Bowl in 1955. The Mountaineers are led by QB Taylor Lamb, who is a threat through the air and on the ground, and by RB Marcus Cox, who has more than 1,200 yards rushing. Ohio’s best QB, Derrius Vick, went down with a leg injury on November 10, and they’ve won two in a row since then with his backup, JD Sprague, though Greg Windham has also been used in a platoon system. Their running backs are an effective platoon as well, with A.J. Ouellette and Daz’mond Patterson being the best of the bunch. Both teams will likely score a lot, as neither has much of a defense. The key is probably Appalachian State’s 19th-ranked scoring offense, with about 38 points per game, with Ohio coming in much lower at 27 points per game. That sounds about right for where the final score will end up. Prediction: Appalachian State 38, Ohio 27
Result: Appalachian State 31, Ohio 29. MVP: Marcus Cox, RB, Appalachian State. 24 carries for 162 yards and 1 TD. Bottom Line: Ohio held a 24-7 lead going into the fourth quarter before Appalachian State staged a furious rally in the first three minutes of the quarter. Ohio regained the lead briefly with two minutes to go, but the Mountaineers’ Zach Matis kick the game-winner with two seconds left to give Appalachian State its 11th win, plus its first-ever FBS bowl win.
San Jose State (5-7) vs. Georgia State (6-6), Orlando, 7 p.m., CBSSN
San Jose State -1 – O/U 55.5
This is what we’ve come to expect from early bowl games, but even worse. Georgia State has only had a football program since 2010 and in its school’s first-ever bowl game. San Jose State is one of three teams that were allowed to play in a bowl game with a losing record (the sad result of having too many bowl games and not enough worthy teams). With only five wins, San Jose State got their “marquee” victory against 7-5 New Mexico. While they didn’t exactly get blown out of most of their games, they did lose seven of them. Georgia State is one game better at 6-6, but their big win was a huge 34-7 blowout of Georgia Southern in the season-ender. The Spartans live and die by the run, following the lead of RB Tyler Ervin, who had close to 1,500 yards for the year. Good for them that Georgia State struggles against the run, allowing more than 180 yards per game. Of course, the Panthers seemed to solve that problem against Georgia Southern, a team that averages more than 350 yards per game, by allowing only 200. For Georgia State, their fortunes will be determined by the arm of QB Nick Arbuckle, who threw for 4,160 yards and 21 TDs. They run only to set up the pass, and San Jose State’s No. 2 ranked passing defense will try and slow Arbuckle down. In the end, Georgia State is a team on the rise, having won four in a row, and San Jose State has dropped three of four. Prediction: Georgia State 27, San Jose State 24
Result: San Jose State 27, Georgia State 16. MVP: Kenny Potter, QB, San Jose State. 10-of-18 for 89 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT, plus 15 carries for 69 yards and 1 TD. Bottom Line: It turned out to be the Spartans’ rush defense that dictated the flow of the game, stuffing Georgia State’s runners throughout and holding them to just 23 yards. RB Tyler Ervin ran for 123 yards, and added a punt return for a touchdown. Georgia State managed to take the lead 16-13 in the fourth quarter, but held it for less than a minute, as QB Kenny Potter got the lead back for the Spartans with a 42-yard TD run.
New Orleans Bowl
Arkansas State (9-3) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-4), New Orleans, 9 p.m., ESPN
Louisiana Tech -1.5 – O/U 68
This is another great early bowl matchup. Arkansas State is a team on a roll, having run the table in the Sun Belt, and with three losses to decent teams from other conferences. None of their wins were actually close, with the narrowest win a 37-27 decision over Louisiana-Lafayette. Fredi Knighten is a solid, if not spectacular, quarterback, but the Red Wolves largely make their living from a brutal rushing attack led by RBs Michael Gordon, Warren Wand and Johnston White. Of course, rush defense is Louisiana Tech’s strong suit, giving up only 114 yards per game. The Bulldogs are strong on offense, led by QB Jeff Driskel, the Florida Gator transfer who flourished in his last chance, passing for 3,575 yards and 24 TDs. They’re also good enough on the ground, with RB Kenneth Dixon picking up almost 100 yards, plus 17 TDs this year. Overall, Louisiana Tech is just a little better on both sides of the ball, and they’ll also have a stronger fan presence at the game. Don’t miss this one – it could be the best and closest game of the day. Prediction: Louisiana Tech 38, Arkansas State 35
Result: Louisiana Tech 47, Arkansas State 28. MVP: Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech. 21 carries for 102 yards and 2 TDs plus 6 receptions for 113 yards and 2 TDs. Bottom Line: Arkansas State stayed close until midway through the third quarter, when it was tied 20-20. After that, the Bulldogs exploded for 24 unanswered points and held the Red Wolves to just a touchdown on a kickoff return. QB Jeff Driskel was stellar in his career finale, completing 26-of-38 for 458 yards and 3 TDs, leading Louisiana Tech to almost 700 yards in offense.