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Bowl Picks 2016-2017: Holiday Bowl to Russell Athletic Bowl

Luke Falk, Washington State
National Funding Holiday Bowl (December 27th)
Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4) vs. Washington State Cougars (8-4)

It has been a long and crazy last month in Minneapolis for the Gophers, who enter the Holiday Bowl in a weird place. First, there was the two agonizing losses to rivals Nebraska and Wisconsin that knocked the Gophers out of Big Ten West title contention, and then there was the controversial boycott of this game that was later ended. The Gophers will hope to put it aside and take home a victory over a quality Washington State team that also ended their year with two straight losses. The Cougars are led by their usual air-raid attack, with junior quarterback Luke Falk leading the way. Falk obliterated his fair share of defenses throughout 2016, finishing with 4,204 passing yards and showing deceptive running ability when needed. Falk has a ton of weapons to work with on the perimeter, namely Gabe Marks and Tavares Martin Jr., which should be enough to give the Minnesota secondary plenty of issues. Minnesota's defense has been good for much of the year, but this secondary has not faced a passing attack quite like Washington State's. If they aren't properly prepared, they could be in store for a rude awakening. For the Gopher offense, they lean more on their rushing attack, which is led by two superb backs, sophomores Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Many thought it was Brooks time to shine after ending 2015 on fire but it has been Smith who has been better, running for 1,084 yards on the year and breaking open a number of games. However, the passing game continues to lag behind, despite having experienced Mitch Leidner at quarterback. Leidner has had some great moments, but turnover issues have been troubling, and the Cougars have an aggressive defensive backfield. Washington State's defense was once the serious Achilles Heel of the team but it has improved enough that it shouldn't cost this team this bowl. Unless the Gophers shut down Falk completely and Leidner has a huge day, the Cougs should have enough to get their ninth win of the season.
Washington State, 31 Minnesota, 21

Motel 6 Cactus Bowl (December 27th)
Boise State Broncos (10-2) vs. Baylor Bears (6-6)

Remember way back when Baylor was undefeated and a dark horse Playoff contender? Six losses later the Bears are just trying to end a frustrating 2016 on a high note against the tough Boise State Broncos. After that 6-0 start, the Bears seemed to lose their focus, and losing starting quarterback Seth Russell to injury did not help. A big-armed gunslinger, Russell suffered a scary leg injury that cost him the season, forcing Baylor to turn to freshman Zach Smith. Smith has done okay as a replacement, but has not had a whole lot of help from a porous offensive line. Also hurting BU's offense in this one is the fact star running back Shock Linwood will not play, instead deciding to rest and prepare for the 2017 NFL Draft. That will put more pressure on back Terence Williams and others to step up and make some plays against a talented Broncos' defense. Meanwhile, the Baylor defense will also hope to figure some things out after a rough second half. Their major losses in their front seven became clear and the pass rush disappeared. They will need to find some ways to get pressure on Boise QB Brett Rypien, who had a great sophomore season. Rypien threw for 3,341 yards and 23 touchdowns, and looked extremely calm and poised despite being young. He is joined by one of the nation's most underrated running backs, explosive Jeremy McNichols. McNichols ran for 1,663 yards and 23 touchdowns on the season but didn't get the attention he deserved playing in the Mountain West. Baylor struggled to defend the run at times this season and although they will prepare for McNichols, the elusive running back could also have a field day. Further helping out the offense will be veteran receiver Thomas Sperbeck, whose big play ability will open up things underneath. Young Baylor players will be playing hard to impress new head coach Matt Rhule, who arrives from Temple. Even so, this is a young that has completely fallen apart in the season's second half. Rypien and McNichols could be in store for a huge day, and the disciplined Broncos defense will lead the way to another strong postseason showing for Boise.
Boise State, 38 Baylor, 24

New Era Pinstripe Bowl (December 28th)
Pittsburgh Panthers (8-4) vs. Northwestern Wildcats (6-6)

Despite having four losses, Pittsburgh had quite the year under second year head coach Pat Narduzzi in '16, and it isn't unreasonable to think this program has a bright future ahead of them. The Panthers beat Penn State and Clemson in thrillers, and get this: of their four losses, three were decided by a touchdown or less. One of the greatest stories out of Pittsburgh was the play of back James Conner, who came back from Hodgkins Lymhoma to rush for 1,060 yards and lead the balanced Panthers' attack. Conner has already decided he is leaving for the NFL after this season, but he should be bale to give Pitt some more big plays in his finale. Quarterback Nathan Peterman had a solid year, making all the right plays en route to 2,602 yards and 26 touchdowns. Peterman does not have a huge arm but he proved he could handle and beat some great defenses this year. That will be important against a talented Northwestern defense with plenty of playmakers in their secondary. That defense also includes linebacker Anthony Walker, one of the most talented defenders in the Big Ten, who had 98 tackles on the season. He will be tasked with stopping Conner and the rest of the Pitt ground game. The Panthers' defense has been inconsistent throughout much of the year, but they will be pumped up and energized in this one. Defensive end Elijuan Price is one of the nation's top pass rushers, and will look to wreak havoc on the Wildcats' offense. Northwestern is led by a variety of playmakers, namely Justin Jackson at running back and Biletnikoff finalist Austin Carr. Carr caught 84 passes for 1,196 yards and 12 touchdowns, and will look to have success against an undersized Pittsburgh secondary. Overall though, it is very hard to know what you are getting week in week out from the Northwestern offense. This is the same unit that put up just seven points against FCS foe Illinois State, but has also looked fantastic at times. That makes picking this game very hard, as the Wildcats could come out in a big way or look extremely flat. Pitt has been the more consistent team and looks like they should be able to lock down a win here.
Pittsburgh, 28 Northwestern, 23

Russell Athletic Bowl (December 28th) 
Miami Hurricanes (8-4) vs. West Virginia Mountaineers (10-2)

Entering the season, it wasn't crazy to think Dana Holgorsen was on the hot seat at West Virginia. The Mountaineers were consistently good under him, but the team hadn't been able to record many big wins since moving to the Big 12, and it didn't appear as though 2016 was going to be much different. However, a resurgent year for the Mountaineers has seemingly pulled Holgorsen off the hot seat, as WVU was in the Big 12 title mix for much of the year. They hope to cap off the year in style, against a Miami that started off hot, struggled mightily, then regained their footing to finish off 8-4. For many Hurricanes fans, it wasn't the magical start to the Mark Richt era they were hoping for, but they looked much better under the former Georgia head coach. Junior quarterback Brad Kaaya played very well, recording 3,250 yards and 23 touchdowns and continuing to show improvement. When paired with backs Mark Walton (1,065 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Joe Yearby (592 yards), the 'Canes bring a balanced and effective offense to the table. But, contrary to what they once were under Holgorsen, WVU plays defense. Despite overcoming plenty of injuries, the group has been wonderful, with big contributions from cornerback Rasul Douglas and physical defensive linemen Noble Nwachukwu. Those two, along with plenty others, helped West Virginia hold opponents to just 23 points per game, their lowest mark in years. On the other side of the ball, Holgorsen's aggressive passing attack is still being utilized. Quarterback Skyler Howard has put together a tremendous senior season, chucking the ball all over the place, en route to 3,174 yards. He is joined by a plethora of options on the perimeter, along with two talented running backs in Justin Crawford and Pitt transfer Rushel Shell. Crawford in particular, was a revelation. The young back quietly ran for 1,168 yards on the season, while averaging 7.4 yards per carry. The Hurricanes have a rock-solid defense, but stopping the Mountaineers' various playmakers could prove to be challenging. I think this has the makings of what should be a very good bowl game. No matter who wins this one, both should feel good about what they accomplished in 2016, and both appear to be very good football teams. I feel slightly more confident in West Virginia's defense at this point, which should put them over the top.
West Virginia, 27 Miami, 24

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