Bowl Game Previews: December 31

AJ Fernandez

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! I’m not talking about Christmas, I’m talking about going bowling! Look, we’ve all had a rough year but things feel like they are slowly progressing back to normal. However, even the bowl schedule is a little wonky with some teams declining bids and some having to skip because of team outbreaks.

Barring any unforeseen news, there will be some college football on the TV between Christmas and New Year’s Day. That’s something to celebrate. For once, I don’t think motivation will be something we have to guess about. If these teams are playing, it would seem to be it’s because they want to and for many of these guys it will be the last time to put some plays on tape for NFL evaluators.

Without further ado, let’s dive into some of the season’s exciting match-ups!

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl

#24 Tulsa (-2.5) vs. Mississippi State

ESPN, Dec 31st @ 12 p.m. EST

Tulsa has long been considered a place for offense but the 2020 product boasts three quality NFL prospects on the defensive side. They have shut down many explosive offenses this year including an intact Oklahoma State, Central Florida, and Southern Methodist. Central Florida has the most success but was held to 26 points, well below their season average of 42.

For those in IDP leagues, we’ll touch briefly on one star of the Tulsa defense, versatile linebacker Zaven Collins, who recorded 52 total tackles, four sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles in just eight games. The massive 6’4” 260-pound stud just took home the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is essentially the defensive Heisman. His ability to contribute in multiple ways makes him an enticing fantasy prospect and he should be drafted no later than day two of the NFL draft.

The Golden Hurricane offense was very underwhelming in 2020. They seemed to play more keep-away with their defense and didn’t need to open up the passing attack that had quarterback Zach Smith throwing for over 3,000 yards in 2019. Even with the abbreviated schedule, his numbers were weak compared to his previous season. As far as pro prospects, Smith doesn’t pop on any metric and his sub-60% completion percentage says he’s unlikely to make an impact if he even winds up on a roster.

Keylon Stokes put himself on the map in 2019 with a 1,000-yard season as a junior. Tulsa’s leading receiver stayed the top dog in 2020, but like the entire offense, his numbers took a hit. I can see him making a team in the NFL but this profile doesn’t give me a lot of confidence he’s more than a depth piece.

Finally the running back room is pretty boring as well. No pass-catching backs contribute and two players split the work in 2020. For the bowl game, senior Corey Taylor should see the majority of carries as redshirt sophomore TK Wilkerson is not on the team’s depth chart ahead of this contest. Taylor was the best runner for the Golden Hurricane and hopefully he can end his career on a high note. However, he will face a stingy run defense for Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs are much more interesting on offense with Mike Leach installing his Air Raid system in Starkville. Freshman Will Rogers has done a nice job distributing the ball. He’s completing about 70% of his passes but like a point guard, they are all short to intermediate with his yards per attempt at only 5.8. His pro prospects remain unknown but as a college player, the volume is exceptional in this offense. Obviously, this matchup is extremely difficult with Tulsa able to shut down the boundary with their top two cornerbacks who play a physical style of coverage.

It would be great to see freshman breakout Jaden Walley continue his second-half surge, but as stated above that’s going to be a tall order. Walley has been outstanding over his last four games, eclipsing the century mark every week. He’s caught 29 balls in that span and now is MSU’s leading receiver on the season. He is certainly one to watch going forward. Walley, JaVonta Payton, and Austin Williams share the slot duties and perhaps they can find success if Tulsa’s corners stay outside. The rest of the pass-catchers all split time with Osirus Mitchell the main outside receiver.

At running back, NFL prospect Kylin Hill has opted out and started preparing for the next level. True freshmen Dillon Johnson and Jo’Quavious Marks head a split backfield. Marks has more touches on the season but Johnson is used if they get near the goal line. Both backs should be expected to catch three to five passes as Leach will rarely run the ball. Both are intriguing prospects because of some early production and pass-catching ability. Keep an eye on them to see if one can earn a lion’s share in the bowl and beyond.

Arizona Bowl

#22 San Jose State (-8) vs. Ball State

CBSSN, Dec 31st @ 2 p.m. EST

The Arizona Bowl doesn’t have a lot of pro potential but both teams have some players we should be monitoring. San Jose State has won on defense this season and balanced that with a lot of rushing on offense. Nick Starkel, a journeyman from Texas A&M and then Arkansas, found a home in San Jose and had a nice season for the Spartans. He completed 65% of his passes with a very good nine yards per attempt. He threw for 272 yards per game and tossed 16 touchdowns to only four interceptions. He has the potential for a career day against Ball State’s soft pass defense.

The beneficiary of Starkel’s throws should be seniors Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker. Gaither is SJSU’s leading receiver in his sixth collegiate season while Walker shared more of the work after a 1,000-yard campaign in 2019. Both players are likely to be able to exploit Ball State through the air and I really like the entire Spartan passing attack for daily fantasy purposes.

Like many teams, SJSU’s backfield has been a split between Kairee Robinson and Tyler Nevens. The senior Nevens has shown a knack for big plays with 8.1 yards per carry, while Robinson sees more volume but slogs around with 3.9 yards per attempt. One of these players is likely to be helpful for fantasy on Thursday but it’s a coin flip to know who will have the most production.

Ball State was a very fun team to follow in 2020. They have a very good offense combined with a leaky defense that produced fantasy-friendly contests. Senior quarterback Drew Plitt had his best year and threw 16 touchdowns while chipping in three on the ground. He averaged about 275 yards passing per game and completed a respectable 65% of his passes.

Plitt’s favorite target is Justin Hall who led the team once again led the team in receptions which he has done every single year in a Cardinals uniform. He is a very interesting sleeper with an impressive and dynamic production profile that includes 85 rush attempts for 610 yards and four touchdowns in addition to his receiving statistics. He has simply dominated the receiver room since he was a freshman and while the raw numbers are not terribly impressive, his market share at a young age shows there is potential to play in the NFL. He will almost certainly be the focus of the Spartan defense. After Hall, junior Yo’Heinz Tyler has emerged as the second option for Plitt. He leads the team in receiving touchdowns with seven.

Senior workhorse Caleb Huntley will not be playing in the bowl so we should see a timeshare between Tye Evans and Will Jones. Neither has impressed in the few games since Huntley departed with a couple of touchdowns between them and sub-five yards per carry. I would not be very excited to count on either back for much in this game.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Army vs. West Virginia

ESPN, Dec 31st @ 4 p.m. EST

With Texas Christian and Arkansas getting cancelled, this is quite a sad game to end the day on. Army, as usual will be running their triple option. In 11 games they have collectively attempted 70 passes as a team. Quarterback Tyhier Tyler leads the attack but four players saw over 75 carries on the season and none of them averaged more than five yards per carry. Sandon McCoy leads Army with ten touchdowns on the season. I am not aware of any NFL potential on this team, and don’t really like to play around with backs in a triple option for daily fantasy unless one stands out. In Army’s case, no one does.

Leading receiver Tyrell Robinson has a 6-117-2 line on the year, which as I type this, Wake Forest’s Jaquarii Roberson has eclipsed in the fourth quarter of his bowl game. There just isn’t much going on for the Army offense. Adding insult to injury, West Virginia has one of the nastiest defenses in the nation. Perhaps the surprise of the triple option will allow Army to move the ball.

On the Mountaineers side of things, Bowling Green transfer Jarret Doege is the man behind the center. He is a middling college quarterback and nothing about his profile says he will be considered for an NFL roster. Averaging about 250 passing yards a game, the best thing you can say is that he limited interceptions only throwing three.

The receiving corps is almost as uninspiring with Winston Wright turning in 45 receptions for 528 yards and two touchdowns through their nine-game season. Doege spread the ball around and six receivers had over 200 yards. Bryce Ford-Wheaton is probably their best deep threat and led the team with three scores through the air.

Junior Leddie Brown was a pleasant surprise, assuming a true workhorse role for West Virginia. He averaged a career best 5.3 yards per carry while catching 31 passes, good for second most on the team. He was used as the engine of the offense and scored 11 times. The 5’10”, 210-pound Brown does not possess elite athleticism, but racks up yards on heavy volume. He would be one to watch in 2021 if he can continue to be the centerpiece of this West Virginia offense.

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