College football’s final stretch begins in earnest Saturday with a full slate ushering in the 2017-18 bowl season. The first day of postseason action features five FBS bowl games, an FCS bowl, and an FCS semifinal (though that’s not included in the Six-Pack). Purists might argue that the postseason has become oversaturated, but who can really be that upset with another three weeks of football before eight, long months of dormancy?
Only a Grinch would argue against more college football. And, considering how many Group of Five programs landed postseason invites in 2017, this particular bowl season provides a bigger platform for programs that sometimes fall in the background.
Such is the case for this first edition of the Bowl Season Six-Pack. Just one Power Five conference team appears in the rundown, while Conference USA, the Sun Belt, the Mountain West and FCS all represent in this edition.
BOWL SEASON RECORD: 0-0
SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: AVERY OLD JUBILATION ALE
T’is the season. Hanukkah began this week, and Christmas is just over one week away. With bowl season now also in effect, it’s a time for celebration. The aptly named Old Jubilation by Boulder, Colorado-based Avery Brewing is a malty ale, its richness a complement to traditional holiday foods.
CELEBRATION BOWL: GRAMBLING vs. NORTH CAROLINA A&T
at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
Kickoff: Noon ET/9 a.m. PT
Line: North Carolina A&T -7.5
Launched in 2015, the Celebration Bowl pits the champion of the MEAC against the winner of the SWAC. The first two installments produced different, albeit equally great games, and each featured one of this year’s participants. Current Chicago Bears breakout rookie star Tarik Cohen ran wild in North Carolina A&T’s 41-34 defeat of Alcorn State in 2015, while Grambling gritted its way to a 10-9 defeat of North Carolina Central a season ago.
Prior to last season’s Celebration Bowl, The Open Man’s Trenise Ferreira wrote of the significance behind Grambling’s recent resurgence. This was a program just four years seemingly on the brink of extinction. Now, the Tigers have an 11-game winning streak heading into their second straight Celebration Bowl.
MEAC champion North Carolina A&T arrives in Atlanta matching Grambling’s 11-game streak. The Aggies are playing for a perfect season, which sparks the faint albeit not entirely possibility possibility of a split national championship. A&T’s scoring defense ranks alongside that of James Madison and North Dakota State, the two programs accounting for the last six FCS championships. That juxtaposes against a 32.7-point per game Grambling offense, paced by outstanding two-way quarterback Devante Kincade. Kincade has 21 passing touchdowns and six scores on the ground this season.
Despite Grambling’s offensive firepower, I anticipate defense setting the tone. A&T’s Mac McCain III is one of the premier defenders in FCS and will do his part to limit Kincade’s passing options.
In this kind of matchup, I default to the better defense. It should be another hotly contested Celebration Bowl, but I like North Carolina A&T to survive with its defensive intensity.
PREDICTION: NORTH CAROLINA A&T 24, GRAMBLING 20
NEW ORLEANS BOWL: TROY vs. NORTH TEXAS
at New Orleans Superdome
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT
Line: Troy -7
I spoke to Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers before the season about the Trojans’ breakout 2016 season, in which Troy earned its first-ever Top 25 ranking. However, Silvers’ focus was on what the Trojans lacked that campaign: a Sun Belt Conference championship.
A dramatic win over Arkansas State in the regular-season finale landed Troy that Sun Belt title, and the Trojans now go for a program record 11th win in the New Orleans Bowl against resurgent North Texas.
Seth Littrell has done a remarkable at North Texas, taking a program that just two years lost to an FCS opponent by nine touchdowns to back-to-back bowls. The 2017 Mean Green won Conference USA West with an exciting offensive style, and they can finish out with 10 wins by knocking off Troy.
North Texas’ 35.9-point per game offense, quarterbacked by Mason Fine, goes up against a Trojans defense ranked 11th in the nation in points allowed at just 17.5 per game. Troy’s All Sun Belt defensive end Hunter Reese can wreak havoc in the backfield, which does not bode well for a North Texas offensive line that gave up 85 tackles for loss on the campaign.
PREDICTION: TROY 31, NORTH TEXAS 21
CURE BOWL: WESTERN KENTUCKY vs. GEORGIA STATE
at Camping World Stadium in Orlando
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT
TV: CBS Sports Network
Line: Western Kentucky -6.5
Western Kentucky and Georgia State were ships passing in the night, as the Hilltoppers departed the Sun Belt Conference just as Georgia State arrived. The Panthers came into FBS just four years after beginning competitive football, and took serious lumps not unlike Western Kentucky when it first transitioned from FCS.
Western Kentucky began turning the corner under newly minted Florida State coach Willie Taggart in the early part of this decade, and has now qualified for bowl games in each of the past six seasons. That’s the kind of consistency and growth Georgia State is aiming for under Shawn Elliott, the first-year head coach leading the Panthers to their second bowl in program history.
Georgia State opened 2017 with a head-scratching loss to Tennessee State, then was blown out in a paycheck game vs. Penn State, but rallied nicely to win six of the next seven. The Panthers could have guaranteed themselves the first winning record in FBS program history, but suffered a loss to Idaho in the regular-season finale that was just as head-scratching as the season opener.
Arguably the most explosive player on the field is a wide receiver, but ironically, not lining up for Western Kentucky. Georgia State’s Penny Hart caught for a shade below 1,100 yards on the regular season and hauled in eight touchdown passes. His numbers are akin to the big totals Hilltopper wide receivers produced under Jeff Brohm, but the nation-leading pace Western Kentucky used to set slowed down in Mike Sanford’s first season at the helm.
Still, quarterback Mike White was an All-CUSA honoree, so the Toppers still have firepower. The Western Kentucky defense features playmakers in Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Chris Johnson capable of setting the tone.
PREDICTION: WESTERN KENTUCKY 35, GEORGIA STATE 17
LAS VEGAS BOWL: OREGON vs. No. 25 BOISE STATE
at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
Line: Oregon -7
Oregon and Boise State have not faced since the infamous LeGarrette Blount punch in 2009.
Things have changed in the years since, with Oregon taking the field in Vegas Saturday under its fourth head coach since that game. Mario Cristobal’s tenure after just one season of Willie Taggart begins in earnest Saturday. Coincidentally, Chip Kelly made his debut against Boise State in that 2009 meeting.
Bryan Harsin is the head coach at Boise State, in his fourth season since replacing Chris Petersen. Though it’s a new face on the sideline, Harsin’s version of Broncos football plays a similarly stifling brand of defense as that 2009 Boise State bunch. With Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Leighton Vander Esch leading the way, might Boise State again hold Oregon to single digits in a new coach’s debut?
Eh…not likely. While the Ducks are playing without running back Royce Freeman, who is opting to sit out in preparation for the NFL draft, Tony Brooks-James and Kani Benoit are more than capable of picking up the slack. Oregon has also been a dramatically different team in 2017 with Justin Herbert at quarterback. It’s not unreasonable to suggest the Ducks could have won 9 or 10 games with Herbert healthy for the entire campaign.
Herbert is a strong-armed slinger in the same vein as Virginia’s Kurt Benkert, who threw for three touchdowns in a Cavaliers romp of Boise State back in September. The Broncos will likely need to keep pace offensively, in a similar manner as their last matchup with a Pac-12 team, Sept. 9 vs. Washington State.
Oregon’s defense made considerable strides under first-year coordinator Jim Leavitt, particularly against the run. Establishing Alex Mattison and Montell Cozart might be a challenge — but Cedrick Wilson could give a shaky Oregon secondary fits.
Don’t expect a repeat of the 2009 encounter; this should be a more high-scoring affair, which ultimately benefits the Ducks.
PREDICTION: OREGON 42, BOISE STATE 35
NEW MEXICO BOWL: MARSHALL vs. COLORADO STATE
at Dreamstyle Stadium in Albuquerque
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. ET/1:30 p.m. PT
Line: Colorado State -5.5
Marshall has not lost a bowl game since 2004. Colorado State’s lost its last three postseason games. Might the trends continue?
Not only is Colorado State seeking its first bowl win since its last New Mexico Bowl appearance in 2013, but the Rams are trying to avoid a third straight 7-6 finish under head coach Mike Bobo. Colorado State had designs on contending for the Mountain West championship heading into 2017, but a fourth-quarter collapse against Boise State last month punctuated a disappointing finish to the season.
With coordinators Marty English and Will Friend both leaving — English is retiring after the bowl game, while Friend’s joining Jeremy Pruitt’s staff at Tennessee — the future of Colorado State football is uncertain. The Rams could use this win to salvage 2017 and set the program on a positive trajectory into 2018.
Marshall endured its own disappointment, tumbling from 6-1 at a point in the campaign to finish just 7-5.
Colorado State’s high-scoring offense is reminiscent of other Marshall teams, but clashes in comparison to a 2017 Herd bunch that prefers a more methodical style. How Marshall addresses wide receiver Michael Gallup should define this game. I like the Biletnikoff Award finalist to get loose, and Colorado State to get that elusive bowl victory under Bobo.
PREDICTION: COLORADO STATE 38, MARSHALL 27
CAMELLIA BOWL: MTSU vs. ARKANSAS STATE
at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
Line: Arkansas State -4
Former Sun Belt Conference counterparts clash in the fourth edition of the Camellia Bowl — a postseason contest that has implicitly thumbed its nose at all the bowl-game naysayers. The Camellia Bowl launched in 2014, at the height of complaints about the oversaturation of the postseason.
Through its first three years, every Camellia Bowl has been exciting. The trio of games were decided by a combined 10 points, with Appalachian State outlasting Toledo a season ago, 31-28.
The bar is high for Arkansas State and MTSU, two teams that took differing paths to Montgomery. Blake Anderson had Arkansas State in the hunt for the Sun Belt championship yet again, hosting Troy on the final day of the regular season with a share of the championship at stake.
A late Trojans rally denied Arkansas State its fourth Sun Belt title since 2011, but the Red Wolves had an impressive season nonetheless. Ja’Von Rolland-Jones was a breakout star, ranking among the nation’s leaders in tackles for loss to pace a solid Red Wolves defense.
MTSU was a team with designs on a Conference USA title heading into the year, but injuries and a few disappointing performances had the Blue Raiders playing for their postseason lives in the regular-season finale. A blowout win over Old Dominion was no guarantee of a bowl bid — and after being passed over for invitations twice in the last five years despite finishes above .500, this was a program all-too familiar with disappointment.
Quarterback Brent Stockstill is back and healthy, but will be without leading wide receiver Richie James. That’s a huge loss for MTSU, which owns a transitive win over College Football Playoff No. 1 seed Clemson (the Blue Raiders beat Syracuse one month prior to the Orange’s upset of the Tigers).
Arkansas State’s talented defense should be able to capitalize.
PREDICTION: ARKANSAS STATE 34, MTSU 23