Wednesday, December 14, 2016

College Football Preview: Bowl Week 1

Army’s not playing this week, and with the Army-Navy game in the rearview, I can’t help feeling a little lost.  The Streak is over, Army’s got a winning program again, and we’re headed to a bowl game in which I expect the Black Knight to play pretty well.  There’s not a lot of tension in the air.  True, we’ve got Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to look forward to, and I suppose that’s something, but man, I really enjoyed this season of college football.  
It’s been the best in years.
I needed a graphic here.
Well.  We’ve still got some forty bowl games ahead of us, enough so that there’s gotta be something on the docket for pretty much everybody.  This week’s preview is a look at the weekend’s bowl games and their potential implications for Army fans.

Celebration Bowl: NC Central vs. Grambling State
This is my favorite logo, easily.
Noon at the Georgia Dome (ABC)
The Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl is a postseason college football game featuring the conference champions from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). The event’s mission is to provide the schools, alumni, fans, and sponsors with a first-class bowl experience while continuing to celebrate the heritage, legacy, pageantry and tradition of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
This is only the second edition of the Celebration Bowl, which is notable for the fact that it matches two FCS teams in an FBS-style bowl.  The winner will be the de facto HBCU college football champion.  This year’s game will be a rematch of last year’s contest, pitting the MEAC champion NC Central Eagles (9-2) against the SWAC champion Grambling State Tigers (10-1).  Both are quarterback-centric teams, and both won their respective conferences easily.  
Grambling has to be considered a heavy favorite, having gone 10-0 in SWAC play.  The Tigers’ only loss came against Arizona (31-21), and they won last year’s contest by a score of 45-14.  By contrast, NC Central started slow, dropping bad losses to Duke (49-6) and William & Mary (70-21) before righting the ship and dominating in conference play.
Why it matters to Army fans?
Army played HBCU Morgan State out of the MEAC this year, and it has had the Bears on its schedule in previous seasons.  I doubt the Academy will schedule a lot of MEAC or SWAC schools in the future, but I’d quite like to see a match-up with Grambling at some point.  For that matter, I’d like to see Grambling play my B-School alma mater Fordham.
New Mexico Bowl: New Mexico vs. Texas-San Antonio
2pm at University Stadium, NM (ESPN)
The game... pits the Conference USA member against the Mountain West member, in the first FBS bowl game of the season.
The New Mexico Lobos (8-4, Mountain-West) are the top rushing team in the country, averaging more than 360 yards/game[1].  They own wins against Rice, North Texas, and Middle Tennessee State (MTSU), among others.  The Lobo defense hasn’t been great, especially against the run, but with such a strong ground game supporting their time-of-possession stats, they haven’t had to be.  The Lobos allowed a whopping 183 yards/game on the ground but only 21 points.  That’s unbelievable.
Unfortunately, the UTSA Roadrunners (6-6, C-USA) are not a particularly good match-up.  They started 1-3 but then rebounded, becoming bowl eligible for the first time in their history.  Like the Lobos, the Roadrunners also own wins over Rice, North Texas, and MTSU.  However, the Roadrunners are primarily a passing team.  QB Dalton Sturm is 159/273 (58.2%) for 2,052 yards (7.52 yards/pass) and an outstanding 18 TDs against 5 INTs.  UTSA only rushes for 2.7 ypc, though, and that’s gotta suck against a New Mexico team that’s much better against the pass than the run and which has excellent time-of-possession statistics.
Why this matters to Army fans?
Black Knight fans want Army to take the rushing title.  Though this seems unlikely, I’d personally like to see the Roadrunner defense to show up big.  The Lobos are favored by seven, but if you need a rooting interest, cheer for the Roadrunners.
Las Vegas Bowl: Houston vs. San Diego State
3:30 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas (ABC)
[A] pre-holiday kickoff pit(s) teams from the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences against each other at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The Houston Cougars (9-3; American) have had a decidedly mixed season.  They own wins over Louisville and Oklahoma but also losses to Southern Methodist, Navy, and Memphis.  The Cougars have the nation’s #2 rushing defense despite getting gashed by the Mid’s.  Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has been outstanding as well.  He went 294/435 passing (67.6%) for 3,328 yards, 22 TDs and 9 INTs.  I would be very surprised if those statistics aren’t enough to make him an NFL prospect.  However, the Cougars don’t have great rushing statistics (3.6 ypc), which is probably why Navy and the rest were able to beat them.  Any defense will give up points when their offense can’t stay on the field.
The San Diego State Aztecs (10-3, Mountain-West) are primarily a rushing team (5.9 ypc) backed by a solid defense.  The Aztecs are 35th in points allowed, giving up just 21.0 points/game.  QB Christian Chapman hasn’t thrown a ton, but he’s been effective when he’s had to be—143/237 for 1,866 yards (60.3%) with 19 TDs and 6 INTs.  For what it’s worth, SDSU also once owned one of my favorite competition pools back when I was swimming competitively in Southern California.
Why this matters to Army fans?
I started to get worried about the Navy game when the Mid’s destroyed Houston back when the Cougars were ranked #6 overall.  Now I’m starting to think that maybe the whole American Conference is not quite as good as the hype would lead us to believe.  That makes this game an interesting test case for Navy’s overall strength of schedule.  Also: as a San Diego native, I root for SDSU out of habit.
Camellia Bowl: Appalachian St. vs. Toledo
This logo is so ugly, it's a crime
against marketing. A felony.
5:30 p.m. in Montgomery, AL (ESPN)
Named after the Alabama state flower, the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl is a college football bowl game that annually features a representative from the Sun Belt Conference against one from the Mid-American Conference at the historic Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala.
Oh man, talk about a let-down.  Here you are, getting ready for the excitement of bowl preparation, only to discover that you’re playing in Montgomery, Alabama.  
Uh… wut?
The Appalachian State Mountaineers (9-3; Sun Belt) almost beat Tennessee in the Vols’ home opener.  They would have won that game had it been played under NFL rules.  Like a lot of other bowl-bound teams, the Mountaineers have a strong rushing game (184 yards/game) and a strong defense (17 points/game allowed).  They’ve had a bit of trouble scoring, however, putting up just 29.1 points/game, though that’s been enough against their particular schedule.
The Toledo Rockets (9-3; MAC) are much more balanced.  They’ve put up 38.8 points/game and 529.8 yards while allowing only 25.3 points to their opponents.  That’s excellent.
Why this matters to Army fans?
I’m not sure it does.  The Rockets are getting a point and would appear to have the more balanced team.  Appalachian State has played tough against a few good teams but doesn’t quite have a signature win this season.  Nevertheless, this is a bowl game, and defense travels.  It could well be an interesting contest.
Cure Bowl: Arkansas State vs. Central Florida
5:30 p.m. at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. (CBS Sports)
The American Athletic Conference vs. the Sun Belt Conference.
The UCF Knights (6-6; American) qualified after going winless last season.  They hold victories over East Carolina, UConn, Tulane, and Cincinnati among others.  They have a decent defense, but their offense is suspect, and QB McKenzie Milton has thrown almost as many interceptions (7) as touchdowns (9).  Plus, he’s been sacked 21 times.
By comparison, the Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-5; Sun Belt) finished with a winning record despite dropping their first four games.  QB Justice Hansen went an impressive 185/314 for 2,514 yards (58.9%) with 16 TDs and 8 INTs.  Plus, his name is JUSTICE!  However, the Red Wolves only average 2.7 ypc on the ground, and Hansen’s production hasn’t been nearly enough to sustain a consistently competitive offense.  The Red Wolves beat South Alabama and a few other minor teams, but they don’t have any wins against legitimate D-1 contenders.
Why this matters to Army fans?
If you’re the Army Athletic Department, you might be watching this game as a way to scout potential future opponents.  Granted, Army tends to try to schedule schools that are either relatively local or a little more well-renowned for their academic reputations.  Nevertheless, I could see putting UCF on the schedule because of its proximity to MacDill AFB.
For what it’s worth, I went to high school in Tampa, so I’ll probably pull for UCF.  As of this writing, the Knights are favored by 5.5 points.
New Orleans Bowl: Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Southern Miss
9 p.m. in New Orleans (TV?)
Sun Belt Conference vs. Conference USA
The Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (6-6; Sun Belt) are 4-0 in this game over the last four years.  They meet the Southern Miss Eagles (6-6; C-USA) in a game that would seem to have at most regional implications.  Despite four years of dominance, the Cajuns are getting 3.5 points at home.
Why this matters to Army fans?
It doesn’t.  I have no plans whatsoever to watch this game and only included it for completeness.  The Cajuns are probably the better bet, but beyond that, I got nothin’.

[1] Army is 2nd with 328 yards/game.

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