SHERATON HAWAII BOWL
CINCINNATI BEARCATS (7-5) vs. SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS (10-3)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, Thursday, Dec. 24
Las Vegas: San Diego State -1.5
Cincinnati and San Diego State are two high-potential Group of Five programs on much different trajectories this season.
When Cincinnati last visited Hawaii in December 2008, the Bearcats had just wrapped up the Big East Conference championship and the first BCS bowl bid in program history. They repeated a year later, cracked the Top 5 and went undefeated in the regular season.
Brian Kelly’s success there brought Notre Dame calling, but successor Butch Jones continued on Kelly’s success with shares of two more conference championships.
After flourishing with two up-and-comers in the profession, Cincinnati tabbed a coaching veteran in Tommy Tuberville in 2013. The Tuberville hire always struck me as a little odd, and through three seasons with him at the helm, the promising program is regressing.
Though underachieving in 2013 and 2014, Cincinnati still finished 9-4 both years. A 7-6 finish to 2015 is a real possibility, which would mark the program’s worst season since Jones went 4-8 in his debut.
San Diego State tabbed another longtime veteran, Rocky Long, when it lost a hot coaching prospect, Brady Hoke, to the Power Five ranks. The Long hire’s worked out more favorably for San Diego State than Tuberville’s hire at Cincy, evidenced in the Aztecs winning their first outright Mountain West Conference championship in program history.
San Diego State also won its first share of a conference title under Long, splitting the crown with Fresno State and Boise State in 2012.
The Hawaii Bowl is an opportunity for San Diego State to set a new standard for the program, bringing national attention to the program not seen since Marshall Faulk’s days chasing the Heisman, or when Don Coryell was crafting his innovative offense.
On paper, Cincinnati probably looks like the more talented team, even without former 5-star quarterback Gunner Kiel. Back-up quarterback Hayden Moore’s posted big numbers in his opportunities this season, compiling 1,683 yards passing and nine touchdowns.
But the San Diego State defense is one of the stingiest Cincinnati will have seen all year. The Aztecs rank No. 10 nationally in points allowed, and have steadily improved throughout the course of the season. They’re playing their best heading into the Hawaii Bowl.
Cornerback Demontae Kazee won Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, making up one-third of the Aztecs’ postseason awards sweep. Kazee can and will make big plays against the turnover-prone youngster Moore.
State complements the imposing style of its defense nicely on the other end, pounding away with the dual-backfield of Donnel Pumphrey and Chase Price. Pumphrey’s among the most explosive ball-carriers in the Group of Five, and should go wild against a UC rush defense that ranked 93rd in the nation.