Bowl season really gets cranking Thursday with the first of four straight non-Sundays with three or more bowl games.
Military Bowl – San Jose State vs. Bowling Green (3 p.m. ET, ESPN): San Jose State travels across the country to Washington, D.C., looking to close out one of the best seasons in school history. Playing for interim coach Kent Baer, the Spartans have won six straight and lost only to Pac-12 champion Stanford and WAC champion Utah State. San Jose State has thrown the ball 425 times and run it 423, but ranks 102nd nationally in rushing and second in passing efficiency. Spartans quarterbacks complete nearly 72 percent of their passes for 9.25 yards per attempt with 33 TDs and 9 INTs.
Dave Clawson’s Bowling Green team makes its first bowl appearance in three seasons having won seven of its last eight contests. The Falcons’ only loss in that eight-game stretch came in a 31-24 defeat to Kent State, while opponents were held to 14 points or less in all seven of Bowling Green’s wins. Clawson’s team finished towards the bottom of the MAC in every offensive metric but nothing about the San Jose State attack will scare the Bowling Green defense. In an offense-heavy league, the Falcons led the MAC and ranked 14th or better nationally in every major defensive statistic.
Belk Bowl – Cincinnati vs. Duke (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): Perhaps no team limps to its bowl game worse than Duke, with losses in four of its last five games often coming in blowout fashion. But that’s not the point. After an 18-year drought, Duke is back in the postseason. Yes, it may just be a two-hour trip down state instead of to a beach somewhere, but the point is, they’re there. As we pointed out yesterday, Duke’s defense will contend with a unit that allows less than half of what the Blue Devils’ defense does, but David Cutcliffe’s team boast the only receiving corps with three pass catchers with 60 or more grabs.
Steve Stripling steps in as Cincinnati’s interim coach, and his task is very simple: protect the football, win the game. Cincinnati comes out ahead on almost every statistic, especially on defense, but turnovers have been the Bearcats’ undoing this season. All three of their losses have featured Cincinnati quarterbacks throwing multiple interceptions. Avoid that, and Cincinnati should feel good about its chances.
Holiday Bowl – UCLA vs. Baylor (9:45 p.m. ET, ESPN): After defensive struggles in each of the past two seasons, the Holiday Bowl should get back to its roots: a late night shootout. UCLA boasts a diverse offense that can lean on FBS’s eighth-leading rusher Johnathan Franklin, who trailed only Ka’Deem Carey and Kenjon Barner among Pac-12 rushers with 1,700 yards and 13 touchdowns. UCLA can also turn to quarterback Brett Hundley, who ranks near the top 25 in the country in total offense as a redshirt freshman with 3,411 passing yards, 365 rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone can also make Baylor contend with massive tight end Joseph Fauria, who has snagged 41 grabs for 578 yards and 11 scores.
On the opposite sideline is a Baylor team that was one of the hottest teams in the last month of the regular season. If college football had a 48-team tournament, this would be the 7-5 team no heavyweight would want to see in their bracket. Baylor closed the year by stomping Kansas State and taking care of Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Quarterback Nick Florence has a chance to shatter Robert Griffin III’s year-old total offense records, as he leads the country in total offense with 4,121 passing yards and 531 rushing yards. A key figure in Baylor’s rally has been running back Lache Seastrunk, who rushed 54 times for 508 yards (9.41 ypc) and two touchdowns over the Bears’ last three games.
If it seems like this preview has focused primarily on the two teams’ respective offenses, that’s not an accident. UCLA ranks eighth in the Pac-12 in total defense and scoring defense, while Baylor ranks last in the Big 12 in each statistic.