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Bowl Picks 2021-22: Bahamas Bowl to New Orleans Bowl (Dec. 17-18)


Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky (Boca Raton Bowl)

Bahamas Bowl (December 17)

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (6-6) vs. Toledo Rockets (7-5)

The 2021-22 bowl season kicks off in the Bahamas, as a pair of Group of Five foes go toe-to-toe. Toledo has asserted themselves as one of the true powers of the MAC and pushed Notre Dame to the brink earlier this fall, but they'll get a tough game from Middle Tennessee, who started off 1-3 but closed out strong.

Middle Tennessee will rely heavily on their defense, but their offense is an interesting watch. Like any college football team at this stage of the season, they've dealt with injuries, but it's still fairly shocking to see just how much of their depth chart has seen action in 2021. Quarterback duties have been split four different ways, including Chase Cunningham, Nick Vattiato, Bailey Hockman, and Mike DiLello. Vattiato has seen most of the snaps down the stretch and the freshman has upside. He is supported by several former Power Five transfers, including West Virginia transplant Martell Pettaway, who has been their most consistent weapon on the ground. The aerial attack doesn't have one primary star, but the combo of Yusuf Ali and Jimmy Marshall. I am curious to see how Vattiato and the entire Blue Raider offense looks after several weeks off. It's a group that doesn't jump out at you, but they've been productive enough to get Middle Tennessee to a bowl. Facing a Toledo defense that is probably the best they've seen all year, especially against the run, will be a stiff challenge.

Toledo looked like the MAC favorite after falling just short against Notre Dame, but they had a tough September and October before putting it together over the final month. The offense has shown drastic improvements over the last few weeks, thanks in large part to youngster Dequan Finn taking hold of the QB job. Despite being young, Finn has shown impressive ball control and patience, which should bode well for him as he faces an experienced Blue Raider secondary. Finn's play has been crucial, but there's little question who the star of the offense is: tailback Bryant Koback. He totaled 1,274 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season and has been particularly potent as of late, going for over 200 yards in the win over Ohio.

Middle Tennessee has one of the best defenders in C-USA in Reed Blankenship, but I'm not sure the rest of the defense will be up to the challenge of Koback and company. Just getting back to a bowl after a down 2020 was huge for head coach Rick Stockstill, but Toledo is the more balanced team and ultimately, the smarter pick.

The Pick: Toledo, 30 Middle Tennessee, 20

Cure Bowl (December 17)

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (10-2) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (9-4)

While they weren't quite able to replicate the magic of the 2020 season, Coastal Carolina still had an awfully productive fall, going 10-2 on the season. They hope to take home a Cure Bowl victory here after losing in this matchup last winter, but don't have an easy foe, as Northern Illinois is fresh off a MAC Title.

The Huskies play a physical brand of football that relies on a ferocious offensive line and a workhorse back in Jay Ducker. Ducker took over as feature back after the injury to Harrison Waylee and has not looked back, finishing with 1,038 yards and three touchdowns on the season. He plays larger than his 185-pound frame but has quite a bit of wiggle to him, which should challenge a gifted Coastal Carolina defense. Waylee has not played since early October, but there's apparently still a chance he could see some action in this game, albeit limited. At quarterback, Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi has been decent, but has to take better care of the football. His completion numbers aren't great, nor is his 13-8 TD-INT ratio, and the Chanticleers have a hungry, ball-hawking secondary that feeds off turnovers. If they give Coastal even more opportunities offensively, they'll be facing an uphill climb.

Coastal Carolina's offense hasn't been quite as magical this fall as in 2020, but they're still a joy to watch. They run a unique triple-option offense that is able to get their athletes out in space and challenge defenses in a variety of ways. However, the offense has lost some of its luster due to injuries, primarily to star QB Grayson McCall. McCall originally got hurt in their win over Troy in late October and the team feared he would be lost for the season. However, he ended up returning for their final two games, and just happened to go for five touchdowns against Texas State. He's still not at 100 percent, but even an unhealthy McCall is a real problem for defenses. It's not just what he does on the field, but how the entire Chanticleer team feeds off his energy and attitude. The rest of the offense also has several weapons that should challenge Northern Illinois, including a three-headed monster in the backfield in Shermari Jones, Braydon Bennett, and Reese White, plus two potential NFL guys on the perimeter in Javon Heiligh and Isaiah Likely. Outside of McCall, Likely is the player defensive coordinator Derrick Jackson has to be the most concerned about. He moves amazingly well for somebody who is 6'4", 240 pounds, and he's an absolute demon in the red zone. I'm not sure the Huskies will have any answers against him unless Jackson is able to come up with something awfully creative in a few weeks time.

Coastal might not have reached the heights of 2020 this fall, but it was still a nice encore from Jamey Chadwell and the entire program. They could still complete a goal that they were unable to do a season ago: win a bowl game. NIU is a difficult foe that plays all four quarters hard, but they don't have the explosiveness of Coastal offensively, which will cause them to come up short.

The Pick: Coastal Carolina, 38 Northern Illinois, 24

Boca Raton Bowl (December 18)

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (8-5) vs. Appalachian State Mountaineers (10-3)

If you're looking for a fun, fast-paced early bowl game, look no further than the Boca Raton Bowl. It pits one of the Group of Five's top programs, Appalachian State, against a Western Kentucky team that puts up points in a hurry.

The Mountaineers continue to be a model of consistency, as they've now won at least nine games every single year since 2014. This particular group is incredibly balanced on both sides of the ball, with an effective offense and well-coached defense. At QB, Chase Brice has had a redemptive campaign after a frustrating season with Duke in 2020, but turnovers continue to be a problem. He can't give Western Kentucky's explosive offense any more chances than they have originally, which could motivate Appalachian State to lean on the ground in this one. It helps that the Mountaineers have a dangerous 1-2 punch in the backfield in Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples. Peoples entered the year as the feature back, but Noel has quickly emerged as the offense's most lethal weapon. He'll operate as their top option in normal offensive sets, where he can change the game in a hurry, while Peoples will be their goal-line and short yardage option. It's going to be a tough matchup for a Hilltopper defense that has struggled for most of the season and has been consistently gashed through the air. Of course, WKU's defense is also on the field significantly more than the average group, which has to be considered when looking at their numbers.

After a frustrating 2020, WKU head coach Tyson Helton made an interesting series of moves over the off-season. He decided to break into the FCS ranks and bring in a new OC, Zack Kittley, as well as a new QB, Bailey Zappe. Those decisions have ended up working out extremely well for Helton and the Hilltoppers, who are averaging over 43 points per game. Zappe in particular has been an absolute joy to watch; the fearless veteran signal-caller has a rocket of an arm, and has used it to come within striking distance of the single-season touchdown record. Zappe currently sits at 56 and has a real shot to break Joe Burrow's mark set back during the magical 2019 campaign. He's helped out by a familiar receiver in Jerreth Sterns, who also joined Zappe and Kittley in coming over from Houston Baptist. Sterns has put up monster numbers himself this fall, with 137 catches for 1,718 yards, but faces a Mountaineer secondary with a lot of experience ready to shut him down. Junior Mitchell Tinsley has had a breakout season in 2021 and offers an extremely effective complementary piece who Zappe may look towards often in this one, assuming App. State focuses their resources in on Sterns.

Western Kentucky has been a great story and Helton deserves a ton of credit for the decision to bring in all the Houston Baptist transplants. With that being said, Appalachian State is the better overall team, and one of the most talented Group of Five teams in the country. As long as Brice doesn't force anything and plays within himself, App. State seems like a good bet.

The Pick: Appalachian State, 40 Western Kentucky, 35

New Mexico Bowl (December 18)

UTEP Miners (7-5) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (9-3)

After years of being the cellar dweller in the C-USA, UTEP put together an impressive 2021 regular season, winning seven games and making their first postseason trip since 2014. They square off against a Fresno State team in transition, with head coach Kalen DeBoer taking the head coaching job at Washington.

Offensively, UTEP doesn't put up huge numbers and has struggled down the stretch. They still have an aerial attack that can make plays when needed, but they need quarterback Gavin Hardison to get back on track. Hardison is an aggressive player who has had to deal with a struggling offensive line, but has also taken too many chances when the offense can't find any rhythm. He has a superstar to help him out in the perimeter in Jacob Cowing, but you'd like to see the Miners figure out their ground game after a slow few weeks. Tailback Ronald Awatt has had a productive season overall, but has struggled against some of the top defenses UTEP has seen this fall. He's fresh off a quiet day against UAB, when he carried the ball just five times for 13 yards for an offense that has behind the sticks the entire way. Additionally, the offensive line has to figure things out after a rough final month. Fresno State has an athletic defensive front that plays a relentless brand of football; they'll come after Hardison early and often.

It's been a whirlwind of a few weeks for Fresno State, with head coach Kalen DeBoer and star quarterback Jake Haener originally pledging to join him before taking his name out of the transfer portal when news of Jeff Tedford's hire became apparent. Tedford, who has a long relationship with the program, is set to take over following the bowl game, with RB coach Lee Marks acting as the current interim coach. Haener's return is massive for Fresno for 2022, but interestingly, it's unclear whether he will start on Saturday. Marks has made no official comment on Haener's status and there remains a chance freshmen Jaylen Henderson or Logan Fife could make their first career start. Even if that's the case, the Bulldogs have a proven commodity in the backfield in veteran Ronnie Rivers. Rivers sits second all-time in the Fresno rushing record book, but he's had a quieter season than most expected. The UTEP rush defense is rock-solid, but I still wouldn't be shocked if this is a chance for Rivers to have a grand finale. Wide out Jalen Cropper also gives the Miners a reason to worry defensively, even though the pass defense has also been fairly strong for most of the year.

Even as they embark on a transition moving on from DeBoer and with Haener's status uncertain, Fresno State seems like the better pick in this game. For one, they have an offense loaded with talent that should be able to produce, even if Haener doesn't play. Just as importantly, UTEP has been going in the wrong direction for the past month-and-a-half. Perhaps a few weeks to get back on track is what they needed, but the Bulldogs are one of the most talented teams they will have seen this fall.

The Pick: Fresno State, 31 UTEP, 21

Independence Bowl (December 18)

UAB Blazers (8-4) vs. BYU Cougars (10-2)

BYU was expected to take a massive step back in 2021 after losing QB Zach Wilson to the NFL and OC Jeff Grimes to Baylor. Instead, the Cougars put together another double-digit win campaign under Kalani Sitake, which included five victories over Power Five foes, including eventual Pac-12 Champ Utah. It's been a great year for Sitake and the Cougars, but UAB offers a real challenge in the Independence Bowl.

Since coming from a two-year hiatus, UAB has been the power program in the Conference USA. Although close losses to UTSA and Rice kept them out of the C-USA Championship Game, they once again proved that they were a tough out en route to an 8-4 mark. They continue to produce some of the best Group of Five tailbacks in the nation, with sophomore DeWayne McBride the latest in line. McBride has been beat up down the stretch but has still been productive, including going for 144 against UTSA several weeks ago. The larger question for the offense is not McBride's health, but the play of quarterback Dylan Hopkins. Hopkins was expected to be a backup this year, but a season-ending injury to Tyler Johnston III forced the Blazers to turn to Hopkins. He's been very impressive for a backup forced into the starting role, but consistency has been a problem. Hopkins is playing well down the stretch, but faces a major challenge against the Cougars. This has long been a physical program that is extremely disciplined with what they do on the defensive side of the ball. They will force UAB to play uncomfortable for the entire sixty minutes, which should certainly test what this team is made of.

BYU hasn't had quite as explosive of an offense as they did in 2020, but they're significantly more balanced. Tailback Tyler Allgeier has quietly had one of the most impressive seasons of any back in the country this season. He's totaled 1,414 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season and had a primetime performance when he went for 266 and five scores against Virginia. The Cougars will obviously rely on him, but the passing game can still open things up too. Jaren Hall might not be Zach Wilson, but he's been awfully reliable and doesn't turn the ball over. At times, Hall has struggled with his consistency and efficiency but he's regularly showed up in the biggest games and won't shy away in this one. It also helps that BYU has one of the nation's most underrated receiver corps, headlined by the trio of Puka Nacua, Neil Pau'u, and Gunner Romney. It's not an aerial attack that will take a ton of chances deep, but that trio has proven they can consistently make things happen after the catch. 

Even though the Cougars have beaten numerous Power Five programs on the year, UAB might end up being one of their tougher challenges. This is a well-coached team that has proven they can consistently battle through adversity. They'll give BYU a game, but I'm not sure if they have an answer to all the weapons the Cougar offense can throw at you. Beyond Allgeier, Hall and the trio of weapons, plus a quality O-Line, should put them over the top.

The Pick: BYU, 28 UAB, 23

LendingTree Bowl (December 18)

Eastern Michigan Eagles (7-5) vs. Liberty Flames (7-5)

After not playing in a single bowl game from 1987-2015, Eastern Michigan is playing in their fourth since the 2016 season. They hope to finish the year strong against a Liberty team that has slightly disappointed, but still has one of the game's most exciting players in QB Malik Willis.

The key for Eastern Michigan will undoubtedly be slowing down Willis, who is looking to have one more big performance before taking his talents to the NFL. Willis hasn't been quite as dominant in 2021 as last year, as he has been forced to shoulder more of the offensive responsibilities this fall. He's seen slight dips in his completion percentage and has thrown more interceptions, but still offers loads of problems for opposing defenses with his speed and huge arm. It would be helpful if Liberty could get more production elsewhere on the offense, particularly a ground game that has been nearly nonexistent beyond Willis. Veteran Joshua Mack had two straight seasons rushing for over 700 yards, but has been held in check all year, averaging just four yards per carry. Former Utah transfer T.J. Green is the more explosive option in the backfield that could challenge this EMU defense, but he's been unable to make a super consistent impact all season. It doesn't help that the Eagles have one of the best rush defenses in the Group of Five this year and will be ready to stack the box against Willis.

Eastern Michigan doesn't have a star like Willis on their offense, but has nice balance throughout the roster. Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant has been rock-solid at quarterback, finishing the regular season with 2,921 yards and 14 touchdowns. Bryant doesn't have a crazy huge arm, but he's a consistent, accurate signal-caller who puts the team in position to win. The rush offense operates in much the same way; it won't dial up many big plays, but has been an efficient group. At receiver, EMU has primarily relied on a pair of pass-catchers to move the ball in Hassan Beydoun and Dylan Drummond, but I'm curious to see how they choose to attack the Liberty secondary. It's a deep and experienced defensive backfield that has put up strong numbers this season, but there's not much size. We've seen Eastern Michigan feature their tight ends quite a bit in 2021 and I suspect we'll see a lot of two tight end sets to maximize matchup problems.

It's a tough matchup choosing between these two 7-5 teams. I think Eastern Michigan is the better all-around team this year, but Liberty has Willis and the defense has generally been a quality group for most of the campaign. I lean the Flames here, a team that was in my preseason Top 25 but hasn't quite lived up to those expectations. Finishing off a solid EMU in the bowl game to finish 8-5 might not be exactly what they imagined, but is still a good consolation.

The Pick: Liberty, 27 Eastern Michigan, 20

LA Bowl (December 18)

Utah State Aggies (10-3) vs. Oregon State Beavers (7-5)

Another underrated bowl game early on in the postseason, don't let the inaugural "LA Bowl" get lost in the shuffle. This game features two teams that had very surprising 2021 seasons; Utah State completely turned things around in 2021 and won the Mountain West under new head man Blake Anderson, while Oregon State was a factor in the Pac-12 North race and is playing in their first bowl since 2013.

Utah State has one of the nation's most exciting passing attacks, as Logan Bonner followed Anderson to Logan and has put together a tremendous season. He notched 3,560 yards and 36 touchdowns through the air and was fairly efficient, despite throwing the ball so much. He is helped by a quality receiver corps that includes superstar Deven Thompkins, as well as several other contributors. The rush offense has taken a backseat all year, for good reason, but don't underestimate Calvin Tyler Jr. Although he has slowed down in the season's second half after a great start, he's still going to be a factor. Tyler may also have extra motivation in this one, as he's playing his former team. The Aggie offense has proven to be difficult to stop all year and has done it against strong defenses, fresh off a beatdown of San Diego State. They match up extremely well against an Oregon State defense that has not had a good year. The Beavers are physical up front and will apply pressure, but the pass defense has been suspect all season. Additionally, they've been terrible on third downs, which puts them in a precarious position against the Aggies.

The Beavers are nearly the complete opposite offensively, instead leaning on their ground game. Tailback B.J. Baylor has had a monster season, finishing with over 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns. He's had good luck against Mountain West teams on the year, as he ran all over Hawai'i earlier on in this fall. Fellow backs Deshaun Fenwick and Trey Lowe offer nice change-of-pace options as well, even if they won't see a heavy dosage of action here. Quarterback Chance Nolan beat out Sam Noyer and Tristan Gebbia in camp and has been a steady quarterback, if rather unexciting. He's put up decent numbers and has been fairly efficient, but isn't the type of QB that will help push an offense over the top, especially considering the Beavers aren't exactly loaded at receiver. I am curious to see whether Oregon State chooses to throw more often in this game than usual. Utah State has been very strong against the run all year long, but the pass defense has been merely okay. I don't expect Nolan to be slinging the ball 40-50 times, but the Beavers could choose to be slightly more aggressive.

There's some form of bragging rights on the line, as the Mountain West is always looking to prove itself against the Pac-12. Oregon State has been a great story and has a quality team, but I like the Aggies, who are a touchdown underdog. Their strengths perfectly align with Oregon State's weaknesses, and the culture and attitude Anderson has quickly built should help put them over the top.

The Pick: Utah State, 42 Oregon State, 31

New Orleans Bowl (December 18)

Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns (12-1) vs. Marshall Thundering Herd (7-5)

Following a season-opening loss to Texas, Louisiana has won 12 straight and enters bowl season raging hot. However, they will play in the New Orleans Bowl without head man Billy Napier, who coached his last game in the Sun Belt Championship before heading to Florida, while facing a Marshall team with a dangerous offense.

The Ragin' Cajuns have a fairly balanced offensive attack, with veteran Levi Lewis at QB and a deep group of tailbacks. Lewis has put together an impressive final season in Lafayette, with 2,647 yards and 19 touchdowns through the air, compared to just four interceptions. He's also a capable runner, which has proven to give defenses fits for much of his career. The Cajuns feature a trio of backs with varying strengths in Chris Smith, Montrell Johnson, and Emani Bailey. Smith is the every-down workhorse, Johnson is the short-yardage and goal-line option, and Bailey is the big-play threat. The luxury of having three quality backs has allowed ULL to ground down opponents, particularly in the second half of games. Even though Marshall has been a tough team with a fairly stingy defense, they'll look to do much the same here. As for the receivers, it's a group without a clear star, but several options that should test the Thundering Herd. Peter LeBlanc is the leading receiver, but Michael Jefferson and Kyren Lacy are the big-play, "home run" threats. Don't expect Lewis to take a lot of shots downfield, but he'll look to stretch Marshall occasionally to open up the ground game underneath.

Marshall has been bombing it all over the field offensively in 2021, reminiscent of the Rakeem Cato days. They currently have the 12th-ranked pass offense nationally and have not been afraid to take their chances down the field. Second-year signal-caller Grant Wells has put up lofty yardage numbers and has improved his completion percentage, but a 16-12 TD-INT ratio leaves something to be desired. With how much the Herd throw it's not surprising to see the turnover numbers be somewhat high, but he won't be able to get away with much against the Cajuns. Wells has plenty of options to work with in the passing game, with a wide variety of skill sets. Corey Gammage has been his most consistent target on the perimeter, but tight end Xavier Gaines is one of the nation's best at his position and operates as the security blanket for the offense. Rasheen Ali leads a ground attack that often gets overshadowed by the passing game, but he ran for over 1,200 yards this year and is a touchdown machine, tallying 20. Ali is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield, which could give Louisiana some difficulties. In general though, this Cajun defense has been stout all season, with the only real exception being that performance against Texas. There may be some growing pains as they move forward without coordinator Patrick Toney, who followed Napier to Gainesville. Even so, this is a defense with a lot of experience and has the type of athletes who often don't see at Sun Belt schools.

Louisiana enters this game as the better team and has all the momentum, but I'll be curious if not having Napier and several other pieces from the former staff comes back to bite them. It may be a factor, but this roster is too deep and experienced to go out with a loss, even to a potentially dangerous team like Marshall.

The Pick: Louisiana, 38 Marshall, 31

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