Two games dot the FBS schedule tonight, and we’ll break down what each game means to the participants and what match-up figure to decide the doubleheader.
Florida International at Florida Atlantic (8 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
The 11th Annual Shula Bowl takes place tonight Sun Belt’s South Florida programs square off in Boca Raton. Don Shula helped both programs get off the ground financially and has a connection to a former head coach at each school, former FAU head coach Howard Schnellenberger worked for Shula with the Miami Dolphins and former FIU head coach Don Strock played quarterback for Shula in Miami. The Owls have a commanding 8-1 lead in the series, but FIU earned its first official win last season, 41-7. (FIU’s 2005 win was vacated.)
The first half of the season was unkind to first-year head coach Carl Pelini, but the Owls enter tonight on a two-game Sun Belt winning streak, including a 38-27 upset of Western Kentucky last week. A strong finish can put FAU in position to contend for the Sun Belt crown in 2013, as the Owls will lose a Sun Belt-fewest nine seniors after the year. One of those seniors, however, is quarterback Graham Wilbert, the Sun Belt’s third-leading passer. Wilbert has thrown for 518 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in FAU’s last two wins.
After playing in bowl games in back-to-back seasons, this season has been a disappointing one for Mario Cristobal and FIU. The Panthers’ best moment came on Nov. 3 when they bested South Alabama 28-20 to stay out of the Sun Belt basement.
Hawaii at Air Force (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
This match-up slants heavily in favor of an Air Force team looking to sneak its way into a tie for the Mountain West title. At 5-5 overall and 4-2 in league play, Troy Calhoun’s team will need to win out and receive some help to claim a share of the conference crown. But that won’t matter if they can’t beat a 1-8 Hawaii team looking for its first conference and road wins under first-year head coach Norm Chow.
The telling match-up figures to be when Air Force runs the ball. The Falcons’ triple option has been its usual self in 2012, ranking second nationally with 335.3 yards per game and 5.41 yards per carry. Attempting to slow down the Falcons will be a Warriors run defense that checks in at No. 106 in the country with an average of nearly 210 yards per game and 4.77 yards per carry allowed.
In a telling sign of the struggling season, a marriage between passing guru Norm Chow and a Hawaii program with a history of prolific passers has not materialized in year one. The Warriors rank ninth in the Mountain West in passing efficiency, seventh in passing yards and 10th in scoring.