Congratulations to Memphis for earning the Group of 5’s spot in the Cotton Bowl this year, and congratulations to Florida Atlantic, Miami (OH), Boise State, and Appalachian State on their conference championships as well. There’s a lot more to a season than a conference championship, though, and we still have a top 15 that reflects that, as one conference champ isn’t on our rankings. We’ll provide a brief preview of each team’s bowl game in their ranking, and recap the conference championships at the end. To view last week’s rankings and out championship game previews, click here. Let’s get to the rankings.
#1. Memphis Tigers (Last Week: 1)
Once again, the Group of 5 team heading to a New Year’s Six game owns the top spot in my rankings. This year, however, the Tigers could slip off the top spot with a loss if Boise State or Appalachian State look particularly impressive in their bowl games. The Tigers will match up against Penn State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic in the pre-playoff semifinal slot on December 28th. Memphis averaged 40.5 points per game this year, but they’re matched up against a Nittany Lion defense that averaged 14.1 points allowed and never gave up more than 31 while facing teams like Ohio State, Minnesota (who got the 31), Michigan, and Indiana. Memphis has athletes that could overwhelm some of their opponents, but they won’t be able to just outrun Penn State. Still, Brady White and the Tigers have a lot of weapons to slow down. They had four different players run for at least 300 yards, led by Kenny Gainwell with 1425. They also had four players with at least 500 receiving yards, led by Damonte Coxie with 1144. Antonio Gibson and Gainwell were in both of those groups. The Nittany Lions have a well-balanced offense themselves, having thrown for 2744 yards on the year and rushed for 2082 without a single player running for more than 700. KJ Hamler was QB Sean Clifford’s favorite target in the passing game with 858 yards receiving, but tight end Pat Freiermuth will be a handful for Memphis’ defense as well. Memphis has a chance, but Mike Norvell might leave for the Florida State job he’s already accepted before the game, and it will be tough for Memphis to match up with Penn State’s depth. It’s already been the best season in Memphis football history.
#2. Boise State Broncos (2)
Boise State won the Mountain West title to earn a matchup with former head coach Chris Peterson in his sendoff from Washington, where he’s announced he will be stepping down at the end of the season, in the Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl. Washington opened as slight favorites in a betting line that surprised me. Obviously, Washington plays in a better conference and had a tougher schedule, but there’s a big difference between 12-1 and 7-5, and there’s a reason Boise State is ranked and the Huskies aren’t. I suppose there could be some doubt as to who’s going to play quarterback for the Broncos in the game leading to Washington being favored, but if true freshman Hank Bachmeier isn’t good to go, they have a senior in Jaylon Henderson who proved himself capable of leading this team to wins down the stretch. Still, this game might be won on the defensive side of the ball, and it may prove wise to pick the under on the 49.5 points Vegas has the over/under at right now as both teams’ defenses ranked higher in ESPN’s efficiency scores than their offenses did. Boise State, of course, has Curtis Weaver to lead their pass rush with his 13.5 sacks this year to go along with an interception and a forced fumble, while Washington got QB pressure from Joe Tryon, who had eight sacks, and Ryan Bowman, who had 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles on the year. Boise State’s back end is led by Riley Whimpey, who led the team with 72 tackles and had six pass breakups, Kekaula Kaniho, who also had six pass deflections along with 59 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception, and Kekoa Nawahine, who led the team with three interceptions. If they can keep Jacob Eason and the Huskies offense in check, they can have their best season since the 2009-’11 run under Peterson when they went a combined 38-2.
#3. Appalachian State Mountaineers (3)
Appalachian State has a good chance to become the first Sun Belt team ever ranked in a postseason AP poll as they’ll take on UAB in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. UAB went 9-4 this year, but only averaged about three more points per game than their opponents. They played a very easy schedule and regularly came up well short against good teams, especially away from home. That includes an embarrassing 49-6 loss to Florida Atlantic in the C-USA championship game for the Blazers. Both the Mountaineers and the Blazers boast strong defenses, but App State has an offense to match it while UAB relied on their defense to win them games with a weak offense. Zac Thomas, Darrynton Evans and the Appalachian State offense will try to make the UAB defense look more like they did in surrendering 30 points to Tennessee, 37 to Southern Miss and 49 to FAU than they did the rest of the year, as no other team scored more than 21 on the Blazers this year. But App State’s offensive talent is more like those three schools than the rest of the teams UAB played, so I feel confident in their ability to put up 30+ points on the Blazers, which should be enough to win the New Orleans Bowl. There’s a reason the Mountaineers are 17-point favorites, and it’s because most people expect Jordan Fehr, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Shaun Jolly, Demetrius Taylor, and the App State defense to be able to hold down UAB’s offense along with their offense putting up points. They’re strong favorites in spite of head coach Eliah Drinkwitz being hired by Missouri after just one year of being a head coach at App State, with Shawn Clark being promoted to head coach by the Mountaineers with reports that he’ll be given a new contract for that role, not just used as an interim for the bowl game.
#4. Navy Midshipmen (5)
Navy impressed in their win over Army as they blew out the Black Knights 31-7. Malcolm Perry ran for an Army-Navy game record 304 yards with two touchdowns on 29 carries without a single pass attempt. Jamale Caruthers had another 22 carries, and a touchdown reception on their only pass attempt of the game, for 75 yards and a score. The Midshipmen now move on to face Kansas State in the Autozone Liberty Bowl as they’ll head back to the stadium where they suffered their only in-conference loss this year. The Liberty Bowl figures to see a lot of running the football by both teams. Both programs had unexpected success this year, with Navy making a major turnaround from a 3-10 season to a 10-2 record, while Kansas State went 5-7 last year with Bill Snyder retiring after the season. It will just the third bowl game played by a Kansas State team coached by someone other than Snyder after Snyder went to 19 bowl games in 27 years at the helm. Chris Klieman had great success at North Dakota State, but it’s a big jump to go from the Missouri Valley to the Big 12, and this year was a great sign for the future of the K State program. Kansas State lost the Liberty Bowl back in 2015 against Arkansas, while Navy is making their first appearance in the Liberty Bowl since 1981 when they lost to Ohio State. Both teams love to run the football, and both quarterbacks love to scramble when they do call pass plays. Whichever quarterback has more success in the passing game, whether it’s throwing or scrambling, will give his team a great chance to win the game. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo heads into his tenth career bowl game at 5-4 while Klieman looks for his first bowl win in his first season as an FBS head coach after winning four FCS championships in five years at NDSU.
#5. Cincinnati Bearcats (4)
It was a disappointing end to the year for Cincinnati with back-to-back losses in Memphis to miss out on a shot at winning the AAC championship, but they still won ten games already this season with a chance at eleven if they can beat Boston College, who fired head coach Steve Adazzio earlier this month, in the Ticketsmarter Birmingham Bowl. Adazzio got the Eagles to bowl eligibility in six of his seven seasons but failed to reach eight wins in any year and had just a 1-3 record in bowl games, with last year’s First Responder Bowl canceled due to lightning and his firing before the bowl game this year. Cincinnati is still building for the near future, with QB Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren II among several impact players due to return in 2020, but they have a great team right now as well as they were one win away from their first outright AAC title after winning a share of the conference in 2014, the year before the conference instituted a championship game. Boston College gave up an average of 480 yards of total offense every game this year, and a weak defense might be just what the doctor ordered for the Bearcats, who survived this year by being strong defensively and just okay on offense. Slowing down AJ Dillon will be a problem, as would slowing down any back that racked up 1685 yards in a season like Dillon did, but having seen running backs like JK Dobbins of Ohio State and Kenny Gainwell of Memphis, Cincinnati should be able to keep Dillon contained just enough to keep this one from turning into a shootout. If Cincy’s offense can make a few big plays, they should be able to get the win.
#6. Air Force Falcons (6)
Air Force is set up in a very interesting matchup against Washinton State in the Cheez-It Bowl as the #1 passing offense (WSU) faces off against the #3 rushing offense (Air Force). Air Force’s defense seems better than that of Washington State, but their offensive style helps keep their defense off the field while the Cougars defense has to face a few more possessions per game as their offense slings the ball around the field. Washington State QB Anthony Gordon is one huge game from the all-time FBS single-season records for pass completions, attempts, and yards. We can throw out the chance at attempts, his season-high is 70, he needs 72 to get to the record, and WSU might not run 72 offensive plays against Air Force, let alone pass attempts. That will make the completions record hard, too, as he needs 47 to get there. He’s had 50 and 48 his last two games, but he’s not likely to top 60 attempts against the Falcons like he did in those games. He needs 605 yards, and had 606 against Oregon State but again, won’t be on the field that much. Second place could be in play in yards and completions, needing 28 completions and 478 yards to get to second all-time. 28 completions would be a season-low for Gordon. Donald Hammond III and the Falcons offense will do their best to keep Gordon on the bench, and we’ll see how the Washington State defense, which was usually beat more through the air than on the ground, handles Air Force’s triple-option attack. Of their top three rushers, only Taven Birdow is a senior and playing in his final game before graduation. This team could be great again in 2020, though we’ll have to see how the defense holds up.
#7. UCF Knights (7)
UCF heads into the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl as 17-point favorites over Marshall. It’s one of the rare bowl games between two Group of 5 teams that won at least eight games but doesn’t have questions surrounding their coach potentially leaving. That’s because Marshall head coach Doc Holliday is 62 years old and in his tenth year as a head coach (all at Marshall), and this year was seen as a disappointment for UCF, and head coach Josh Heupel hasn’t done much yet to impress people, as it’s hard to say yet whether he’s good enough to be successful on his own or if he’s just riding what Scott Frost built. UCF should be on upset alert, though, in part because of their disappointing year leading to potential lack of interest in a smaller bowl game and in part because of Holliday’s 6-0 bowl record as a head coach. The Thundering Herd have received some favorable matchups, but Holliday always has his players ready for a bowl game. A loss might start setting off alarm bells in Orlando, however, and UCF has more offensive firepower than most of Marshall’s opponents this year had. The Thundering Herd also had some problems away from home this year, as it was upset losses at Middle Tennessee and Charlotte that kept them out of the C-USA championship game. If freshman QB Dillon Gabriel plays well, expect the Knights to win comfortably.
#8. SMU Mustangs (8)
SMU is playing in the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl against host and Conference USA champ Florida Atlantic after the Mustangs had their best season since 1984. They had no more than eight games in the years since then (and the NCAA’s death penalty) before winning ten this year. A few of their players found themselves climbing the career leaderboards at the school, with James Proche now holding school records in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Shane Buechele and Xavier Jones both set single-season records, in passing and rushing touchdowns, respectively. They’ll be leading SMU’s side in what should be a shootout in Boca Raton against the Owls with two teams with great offenses. Playing in the AAC, SMU faced a tougher schedule than FAU did, but FAU won their conference with losses to two tough opponents (Ohio State and UCF) in their out-of-conference schedule. Vegas has SMU going in as slight favorites while FPI (which wouldn’t factor in Lane Kiffin leaving FAU) gives FAU a slight edge. We’ll see if Power 5 interest comes for SMU head coach Sonny Dykes, but after having an unsuccessful run at Cal he’s going to need more than one year of success like this for offers to start coming to him.
#9. Florida Atlantic Owls (11)
Florida Atlantic will play a bowl game from their home stadium as they square off with SMU in the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl after winning their second conference title in three years. It had been reported even before the C-USA championship game that head coach Lane Kiffin had been hired by Ole Miss, but it was confirmed after that game was over that Kiffin was headed back to the SEC for the next chapter in his coaching career. FAU has already tabbed Willie Taggart, who’s from the state of Florida and had success at USF before being fired earlier this year by Florida State, as their next head coach, but head into the bowl game with Glenn Spencer, who served as the Owls’ defensive coordinator this year, as their interim head coach. This year marked FAU’s second conference title and Boca Raton Bowl bid in their three years under Kiffin. Taggart will be inheriting a lot of talent, with a sophomore quarterback in Chris Robison who will likely throw for over 3,500 yards (needing 104 in the bowl game to get there) and has a 26-6 TD-INT ratio thus far and a freshman running back in Malcolm Davidson who led the team in rushing yards this year with 711, adding nine touchdowns on the year. He won’t get to have Harrison Bryant, who became the first Mackey Award (given to the nation’s best tight end) winner to come from a small conference school (though I could have sworn this award just stayed in Iowa) after gaining 1,004 receiving yards on 65 catches with seven touchdowns. The defense was solid on their end this year as well including not allowing UAB to reach the end zone in the C-USA championship game, their fourth time holding their opponent under 10 points this year. That will be tough to replicate with key seniors like Meiko Dotson and his nine interceptions, and it could be even tougher if superstar junior linebacker Akileis Leroy decides to go to the NFL. Leroy had 101 tackles, 7.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, and three interceptions this year, being disruptive in all fazes of the game.
#10. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (9)
Louisiana and their opponent for the LendingTree Bowl, Miami (OH), each had over four weeks between their conference championship games (the Redhawks winning the MAC while the Ragin’ Cajuns came up short in the Sun Belt title game) and their bowl appearance in Mobile on January 6th. While most college students will be starting their spring (or winter, depending on what the college calls it) semester, these teams will be facing off in the latest bowl game of the season (other than the National Championship Game). The Redhawks defense has been called the best in the MAC by some, but they still allowed over 28 points and 380 yards per game. Most MAC teams have a much better offense than defense, but that’s troubling if that’s the best your conference has to offer defensively. Louisiana, meanwhile, averaged 19.9 points allowed and 373.4 yards allowed per game, both better marks than Miami (OH) had this year. The bigger difference came on the offensive side of the ball, though, where Louisiana averaged 14 more points per game (38.8 to 24.7) and nearly 200 yards more in total offense (501.3 to 305.9). Levi Lewis, Elijah Mitchell and the Louisiana offense stack up a little better than Blaine Gabbert’s younger brother Brett and the Redhawks offense, which is why Louisiana goes into the matchup as 14-point favorites. This is already the first season in school history with double-digit wins for the Ragin’ Cajuns, so an eleventh would be the icing on the cake of probably the best year in team history.
#11. Temple Owls (10)
Temple will have their hands full trying to keep North Carolina and freshman QB Sam Howell contained in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman. Howell looks primed for a big career at UNC after throwing for 3347 yards and 35 touchdowns to just seven interceptions as a freshman this year. The Owls have a more experienced QB in junior and second-year starter Anthony Russo, who threw for 2733 yards with a 21-11 TD-INT ratio this year. Normally, a two-game difference in record between a Group of 5 team and a Power 5 team would mean likely a slight advantage for the power conference team, but the American wasn’t much worse than the ACC this year, and Temple and UNC both had fairly difficult out-of-conference schedules, leading me to believe Temple has a better regular-season resume than North Carolina. One advantage the Tar Heels may have is the experience of Mack Brown. On Temple’s side, Rod Carey had a lot of success at Northern Illinois, but bowl games were not his specialty. His Huskies teams were 0-6 in bowl games, while Brown was 3-2 in his first stint at UNC and 14-8 overall in his career. Temple had a slightly better defense than North Carolina, but they’ll need to come up with a big game for Temple to win the Military Bowl. If this one becomes a shootout, the team with the better quarterback has the advantage, and that’s North Carolina.
#12. San Diego State Aztecs (12)
San Diego State will take on MAC runner-up Central Michigan in the New Mexico Bowl after their 9-3 season that saw them just miss out on an opportunity to play in the Mountain West championship game. Both head coaches have previously coached a team in the New Mexico Bowl, though both schools are making their first appearance. Aztecs head coach Rocky Long went their twice with the host Lobos, losing in 2006 but winning the game in 2007, while CMU coach Jim McElwain went to and won the New Mexico Bowl with Colorado State in 2013. San Diego State has relied on their defense all year, and they’ll ask them to clamp down a Central Michigan offense that averaged just over 30 points per game and 445.6 yards of total offense. CMU didn’t win a game while scoring less than 30 points this year and were held to 21 or fewer in each of their losses. That plays right into SDSU’s hand, as they never scored more than 31 points but never gave up more than 23. The Aztecs go into this one as favorites for a reason, with a better 2019 record in a better conference. McElwain has done a great job rebuilding Central in a single season, and the Chippewas have more offensive talent, but the gap on defense is better and no one else has figured out how to put up points on San Diego State this year. Unless CMU figures out how to win a close, low-scoring game, then the Aztecs will win it. I expect Ryan Agnew and the San Diego State offense to make a winning drive in the fourth quarter when they’re in a more familiar situation than the Chippewas.
#13. Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (13)
Hawai’i is going to stay at home this bowl season for the SoFi Hawai’i Bowl on Christmas Eve against BYU. It should be a fun, high-scoring affair featuring two teams with potent passing offenses and just okay defenses. For Hawai’i, that’s nothing new, as that’s been a common theme of their football team for well over a decade. It’s a bit more unfamiliar territory for the Cougars, but head coach Kalani Sitake has done a good job in adapting to the change in style his team had to make. For the Rainbow Warriors, quarterback Cole McDonald had another productive season, with a higher completion percentage than he had in 2018, but with slightly lower yards per attempt, fewer touchdowns, and more interceptions. He’ll hope to combine the best aspects of both years for his senior campaign in 2020, but for a single game look no further than back-to-back outings he had against Nevada and Boise State to see what kind of impact he had, as he combined for 48-71 passing for 563 yards and seven touchdowns in those games without an interception. Their receiving corps this year was an incredibly balanced group that featured four wideouts with at least 800 receiving yards. They were led by Cedric Byrd with 1,068 yards, and he had ten touchdowns while JoJo Ward led the team with eleven touchdowns while making 58 catches for 975 yards, good for a massive 16.8 per reception. Only ten other players in the country had at least 58 catches with at least 16.8 yards per catch. Hawai’i’s defense might not have done a great job of containing opponent offenses this year, but they did create big plays of their own. They forced twelve interceptions this season and returned four of them for touchdowns, all by different players. BYU will have to be careful to not throw themselves into trouble.
#14. BYU Cougars (14)
BYU, as mentioned above, will be playing Hawai’i at their home field in the SoFi Hawai’i Bowl. Zach Wilson doesn’t have quite the game-wrecking tendency that Hawai’i QB Cole McDonald has shown, or at least he hasn’t outside of bowl games. In last year’s Potato Bowl against Western Michigan, however, he was a perfect 18-18 for 317 yards and four touchdowns. It was a fairly disappointing season for BYU, going 7-5 after a 6-6 year with a bowl win led by the midseason emergence of Wilson at QB, with Lopini Katoa returning at running back after having a 155-yard, four-touchdown performance late last season and four returning offensive lineman, the offense was supposed to finally catch up to where the defense was, and they did. The problem was the defense wasn’t as good as they had been in recent years, allowing about 60 more yards, three more points, and two more first downs per game, which limited the time that their improved offense was on the field. They played a difficult schedule, but one or two more wins against teams like USF, Toledo, or San Diego State would have made this season feel a little bit better for the Cougars. The offense, while it did improve greatly this season, was still a big issue in the losses, where they scored no more than 23 points while scoring no fewer than 29 in their wins. So, ironically, it may be Hawai’i that doesn’t want this game to become a shootout, even though their games average about thirteen more total points than BYU games. Whichever defense can make more big plays (turnovers, fourth-down stops, three-and-outs) should win this one by setting their offense up with good field position. It’s going to be a high-scoring game, but that doesn’t mean the defenses can’t make a difference.
#15. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (On The Bubble)
Louisiana Tech will look to get to ten wins for the first time in school history when they take on Miami in the Walk-Ons Independence Bowl. The good news for their hopes to get to ten wins is that they’re 5-0 in bowl games under Skip Holtz, son of more famous football coach Lou. The bad news is that while Miami is 6-6 this year, their second-order win percentage (as calculated by ESPN’s Bill Connelly) expected them to be better, and they went 3-5 in one-score games, showing that they could/should have finished the season with a better record. So Miami probably has more talent than Louisiana Tech. There’s always a question of whether or not players care in a bowl game after a disappointing season like the one Miami just had, but with a first-year head coach, I’m guessing effort won’t be an issue. Miami’s defense will seem more like the defenses from Texas, UAB, and Marshall, that held the Bulldogs to fourteen points or fewer, than the other teams like UMass, UTEP, UTSA, and North Texas that allowed Louisiana Tech to boost their season average in points to 34 and yards to 445. It’s that much easier schedule that Tech faced that has ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) ranking them 87th and Miami 39th. FPI also gives the Bulldogs just a 27.8% chance to win. J’Mar Smith was more efficient this year than his past two years as a starter, but with a bit less volume than the previous two years. Louisiana Tech will need their senior QB to have a big game after Smith’s seventeen touchdowns this season brought his career total to 50, good for fourth place on the school’s all-time list, and his 2,814 yards got him over 9,000 in his career, third-most in school history. If he and Justin Henderson, who ran for 967 yards and fifteen touchdowns this year, can put up big games in spite of facing a better defense than they’re used to, then Holtz and the Bulldogs can continue to build on arguably the best run in school history, as they now have six consecutive years of at least seven wins.
Central Michigan (15)
On the Bubble
Central Michigan, Marshall, Western Kentucky, Miami (OH), Utah State
Conference Championship Game Recaps
My prediction: Memphis 35, Cincinnati 27
Final score: Memphis 29, Cincinnati 24
Memphis had beaten Cincinnati in the last game of the regular season to secure a rematch, again in Memphis, for the conference championship, and pulled out a win in a back-and-forth game. Antonio Gibson stole the show, with a 65-yard run for a touchdown in the first quarter and a 6-yard touchdown reception with just 1:14 to play to put Memphis back into the lead, and ultimately seal the win, as part of a game where he piled up 234 all-purpose yards. He was one of the very few offensive bright spots for the Tigers, as QB Brady White was just 18-40 passing, though he did have 253 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, and running backs Kenny Gainwell and Patrick Taylor Jr combined for just 82 yards on 29 carries. Damonte Coxie also had a big game for the Tigers, catching nine passes for 165 yards. It proved to be enough as Memphis QB Desmond Ridder also struggled in his return from injury, completing just sixteen of 36 passes for 233 yards with an interception. He was able to make an impact with his legs, running for 113 yards and a touchdown to go along with Michael Warren II’s 99 yards and two scores, but they fell short. On their last drive, after Memphis had taken the lead, they had a second-and-10 from the Memphis 21 with 43 seconds left after a spike to stop the clock. From there, they had incompletion-false start-incompletion-incompletion to turn the ball over on downs and end the game. Riley Patterson connecting on all three of his field goal attempts, including ones from 50 and 52 yards, made a big difference as it took away the option for Cincy to kick a field goal on their final drive. Many colleges, especially in small conferences, don’t have kickers that can consistently hit long field goals like that and Memphis showed the value in having one as they earned their first AAC title since earning a share of the conference (along with Cincinnati) in 2014 before they instituted a championship game.
My prediction: Florida Atlantic 30, UAB 21
Final score: Florida Atlantic 49, UAB 6
This one got ugly in a hurry, as FAU had opened up a 28-3 lead midway through the second quarter and it never really got better for UAB. In a matchup between the two most recent winners of the conference, with the Blazers winning in 2018 following Florida Atlantic’s conference championship in 2017 in their first year under head coach Lane Kiffin, FAU showed no hesitation in asserting their dominance. After the Owls turned good field position into a touchdown on their second drive, UAB had driven for a field goal on their ensuing possession. Florida Atlantic quickly made it a two-score game with a 75-yard touchdown pass from Chris Robison to Deangelo Antoine on the first play of their following drive. An interception by Meiko Dotson, his ninth of the year, ended the Blazers’ next drive which was followed by another FAU touchdown. The Owls’ defense wasn’t done making big plays, though, as Tyrek Tisdale blocked a punt and Eddie Williams grabbed it and rolled into the end zone a few minutes later. Nothing much mattered after that, and it was mostly just Robison racking up stats from there, as he finished with 267 passing yards and four touchdowns. Malcolm Davidson ran the ball eleven times for 128 yards for the Owls, while BJ Emmons finished off a pair of drives with 1-yard touchdown runs. Nick Vogel was arguably the biggest star for UAB in the game as he made both of the field goals for them, though Will Dawkins deserves credit for his interception for the Blazers as well. UAB still has a lot to be proud of, having their best three seasons in school history following the program being shut down in 2015-16. Florida Atlantic will have to see if Willie Taggart can approach the level of success that Kiffin had in his time in Boca Raton.
My prediction: Miami (OH) 31, Central Michigan 27
Final score: Miami (OH) 26, Central Michigan 21
Miami rode a strong defense and four field goals by Sam Sloman to their first MAC title since 2010. Central Michigan did a great job of using last year’s starting quarterback Tommy Lazarro as a runner to keep them in the game, as he had touchdown runs of 21 and 4 yards including leaving a Miami defender completely lost with a pump fake on the 21-yard keeper in the first quarter, but it wasn’t enough to overcome their other struggles. The Chippewas actually outgained Miami, 355-272, in total offense, but a failed fourth-down conversion on a fake punt gave the Redhawks an easy field goal in the second quarter, an interception in the fourth quarter took away a scoring opportunity for CMU and led to another Miami field goal, and Central committed four more penalties for 24 more yards than Miami. A 97-yard opening kickoff return by Miami helped out their offense a lot as well, as it led to the first of their two touchdowns in the game, and the Redhawks going into halftime with ten points in spite of not gaining more than 20 yards on any drive made a big difference in the game. Brett Gabbert was 14-27 through the air for Miami for 196 yards and a touchdown, with eight of those completions going to Jack Sorenson, who had 123 receiving yards and caught the 31-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Lazarro’s second touchdown run made it 23-21 with 1:24 to play, but failing to convert an onside kick set up Miami’s third scoring drive without a first down as Sloman made his fourth field goal of the game with 28 seconds left. Central got a chance for a hail mary, but Quinten Dormady, who was 26-41 for 232 yards with a touchdown and interception, was unable to complete the heave as Sterling Weatherford broke up the hail mary for Miami as they escaped with the championship in Detroit.
My prediction: Boise State 48, Hawai’i 35
Final score: Boise State 31, Hawai’i 10
Boise State had been the class of the Mountain West all year, and Hawai’i wasn’t able to keep this game competitive as the Broncos rolled on their home turf. Jaylon Henderson and Khalil Shakir led the way for the Boise State offense, with Henderson throwing for 212 yards and two touchdowns, including a 36-yard touchdown to Shakir, on 20-29 passing and had a rushing touchdown late in the third quarter that stretched their lead to 31-3. Shakir ended the game with seven catches for 89 yards including that touchdown catch in the second quarter, had ten rushing yards and a score on the ground, and even through an 8-yard completion amid a drive that ended with a missed field goal. For Hawai’i, Cole McDonald had 241 passing yards but completed just 20 of 36 passes with an interception and a lost fumble. Miles Reed had 87 rushing yards and a touchdown, but the rest of the team combined for -8 rushing yards in the game. Boise State sacked McDonald three times on the day, and somehow none of them were made by Curtis Weaver, who did still have 1.5 tackles for loss, as Sonatane Lui had a pair of sacks for the Broncos, one of which was a strip-sack that he recovered. Kekoa Nawahine had the interception for Boise State, his third of the year, as the game was still tied in the second quarter with Hawai’i driving in Boise territory. Hawai’i didn’t manage a lot of big plays defensively, but Jonah Laulu had two tackles for loss and a sack, and Kai Kaneshiro came up with an interception in the fourth quarter to keep the score from getting any worse. The win marked Boise State’s third Mountain West title in the last six seasons.
My prediction: Appalachian State 34, Louisiana 13
Final score: Appalachian State 45, Louisiana 38
When Josh Thomas came away with a 16-yard pick-six in the third quarter to make it 42-17, I was feeling good about picking this game to be a blowout. Then Louisiana’s offense woke up, scoring 21 points in the final eighteen minutes and coming a failed onside kick away from having a chance to at least tie the game with a touchdown. The mistakes proved to be too much for the Ragin’ Cajuns to overcome, though, after losing two fumbles in App State territory, the pick-six, quarterback Levi Lewis being called for an intentional grounding on what was a third-and-8 from the App State 10-yard line that made it a 53-yard field goal attempt (that Stevie Artigue missed) instead of a chip shot, etc. The Mountaineers controlled the ball on offense, with three different players running for at least 70 yards and a touchdown. Darrynton Evans added two touchdown receptions (including one of 58 yards) to his 73 rushing yards for a total of 136 yards of offense and three touchdowns. Zac Thomas threw the ball just seventeen times, completing nine of them for 149 yards and the two touchdowns to Evans. Lewis had a huge game through the air for Louisiana, throwing for 354 yards and four touchdowns on 24-46 passing, setting career highs in attempts, yards, and touchdowns. Peter LeBlanc had three catches for 37, 38 and 43 yards, the shorter two for touchdowns for easily a personal best 118 receiving yards. The freshman receiver’s previous high in receiving yards was 53 in the win over Texas Southern, which came on one catch. Noel Cook and EJ Scott were responsible for forcing the fumbles for the Mountaineers, with Scott recovering the one he forced and Desmond Franklin coming up with the football that Cook punched out. The win was App State’s second in as many years of the Sun Belt having a championship game, and they’ve now won at least a share of the conference title in four consecutive seasons.