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Bowl Picks 2021-22: Quick Lane Bowl - Guaranteed Rate Bowl (Dec. 27 - Dec. 28)


Tanner Morgan, Minnesota (Guaranteed Rate Bowl)

Quick Lane Bowl (December 27)

Western Michigan Broncos (7-5) vs. Nevada Wolf Pack (8-4)

A pair of quality Group of Five teams clash in Detroit with one looking to end the year on a high note. Western Michigan went 7-5 and beat ACC Champion Pittsburgh, while Nevada finished 8-4 and also beat a Power Five program in California. 

Western Michigan has gone through a rough stretch over the past month-and-a-half, but they still have enough pieces to cause Nevada real problems. Quarterback Kaleb Eleby has had an impressive sophomore campaign and is also coming off a highlight-reel performance against Northern Illinois, when he went for 338 yards and five touchdowns. Eleby is blessed with a dangerous group of receivers, led by one of the nation's most underrated in Skyy Moore, who recorded 91 catches and 1,256 yards on the regular season. The Wolf Pack will undoubtedly key in on Moore, so expect fellow pass-catchers Jaylen Hall and Corey Crooms to also feature in. In the backfield, Eleby is joined by tailbacks Sean Tyler and La'Darius Jefferson, a former Michigan State transfer. Tyler is the big-play threat of the pair, an elusive runner who went over 1,000 yards this fall, while Jefferson led the team in attempts and has been very effective over the last few weeks. They present a stiff challenge to a Nevada defense that has been a fascinating watch all season. The Wolf Pack fit the mold of a "bend not break" unit, letting up a decent amount of yardage all season, but surrendering just 24.4 PPG. Whether they can keep that up against a Western Michigan group that has been consistent all year long remains to be seen.

The Wolf Pack as a whole are undergoing a transition, as they move on from the Jay Norvell and Carson Strong era. Norvell took the head coaching job at Colorado State, while Strong, the team's star quarterback, has announced his intentions to go pro and forego the bowl game. Backup Nate Cox is the likely starter at quarterback, a former junior college product who has played sparingly behind Strong. Cox should benefit from the fact that Nevada should still have their entire supporting cast playing, and it's one heck of a supporting cast. Receivers Romeo Doubs and Tory Horton are elite playmakers, while tight end Cole Turner is one of the best in the nation at his position. Out of the backfield is Toa Taua, a workhorse who has notched 704 yards in this pass-first offense. Backup Devonte Lee has had a quiet 2021 but in the past has proven he can make things happen. I'm curious to see how aggressive the Wolf Pack offense is in general; new head coach Ken Wilson is a defensive guy who will probably look to establish the run, but the offense still has the tools to put up a lot of points. 

The fact that Strong is not playing and Norvell is gone makes this is a difficult one to pick. I would have had no reservations picking Nevada previously, even though WMU is a quality team, but we aren't completely sure what Wolf Pack team is coming out on the field. Even so, Western Michigan's recent rough stretch and the fact that Nevada should still have most of their supporting cast playing makes them my selection.

The Pick: Nevada, 27 Western Michigan, 23

Birmingham Bowl (December 28)

Houston Cougars (11-2) vs. Auburn Tigers (6-6)

Although they were overshadowed by Cincinnati in the American Athletic, Houston put together a special 2021 under Dana Holgorsen. They are hoping to add one more line item to the resume they've built by taking down an SEC team, Auburn, who was struggled down the stretch. 

Offensively, this is not the most prolific group Holgorsen has coached, but it has been effective, putting up over 37 points per game. Quarterback Clayton Tune has been the perfect catalyst for the unit; although he hasn't put jaw-dropping numbers, he has been productive all season and takes care of the football. It helps that there is a nice collection of pass-catchers to throw the ball to, punctuated by Nathaniel Dell, who went over 1,000 yards on the year during the AAC Championship Game. Dell has not only had a special season, but he's done so against strong defenses, including going for 152 against Cincinnati, which should test the athletic Auburn secondary. Jeremy Singleton and the ultra-versatile KeSean Carter will also provide plenty of reason for the Tiger defense and coordinator Derek Mason to worry. On the ground, the Cougars can turn to any one of the trio of Alton McCaskill, Ta'Zhawn Henry, and Mulbah Carr. McCaskill has been a touchdown machine as a freshman, but Henry and Carr are two veterans who have proven they can move the chains when given the opportunity. It will be an interesting battle in the trenches between these two teams; Houston is a lot bigger up front than most Group of Five teams, but this is an SEC defensive line that will look to bring the physicality for the entire sixty. One other note: do-it-all corner Marcus Jones will not be playing for Houston, robbing them of not only a quality corner, but their star special teams player. Jones' ability to put them in great field position regularly wasn't always given the appreciation it deserved and we will see how it impacts the Cougars in this one.

It's going to be a weird game for Auburn, as they've seen numerous offensive contributors hit the transfer portal in recent weeks. Legacy quarterback Bo Nix has already announced he will be transferring to Oregon, meaning that former LSU transfer T.J. Finley is the likely starter. Finley has all the tools and makeup you look for in a quarterback, but the production just hasn't been there yet. It would help him if one or two receivers were to break out of the pack and emerge, but nobody has been able to do consistently. Kobe Hudson, Demetris Robertson, and Shedrick Jackson have all had their moments, but nobody has stepped up to be the true No. 1. Robertson is the big name, a former Georgia transfer who was a Freshman All-American all the way back in 2016, but he's been fairly quiet down the stretch. The running back situation is an interesting one, as Tank Bigsby also hit the portal before announcing he was coming back. Auburn will lean on Bigsby, but he hasn't been 100 percent healthy for most of the year and the huge sophomore breakout many saw coming hasn't completely materialized. It's been helpful that backfield Jarquez Hunter has come out of seemingly nowhere to have such a grand season, but the big-play threat has been completely shut down over the last several weeks. Additionally, the transfer of Nix and situational back Shaun Shivers has depleted the Auburn ground game significantly, putting more pressure on Finley.

The SEC has opened bowl season 0-2 and there seems to be a good chance they could stay winless after the Birmingham Bowl. Although not having Jones make things tougher, Houston has a legit football team that has the talent to compete with the Tigers. Tune could be in store for his toughest matchup of the year against a good Auburn secondary, but he should be ready for the moment, and help deliver UH their 12th win of 2021.

The Pick: Houston, 33 Auburn, 24

First Responder Bowl (December 28)

Air Force Falcons (9-3) vs. Louisville Cardinals (6-6)

Air Force tends to get lost in the shuffle when discussing triple-option teams, but Troy Calhoun's team once again delivered a strong season, going 9-3 and nearly playing for a Mountain West Championship. They square off in the First Responder Bowl against Louisville, who has been a team full of ups-and-downs but did enough to reach a bowl at 6-6.

As a triple-option offense, it's all about the ground game for the Falcons. They average over 340 yards per game on the ground and have an abundance of different backs that can hurt you. Junior Brad Roberts led the team with 1,279 yards and 13 scores, but this is a deep backfield. Quarterback Haaziq Daniels runs the option to perfection and is a magician with the pitch, while totaling over 700 yards with his legs this fall. Additionally, fullbacks Emmanuel Michel and Omar Fattah, as well as receiver DeAndre Hughes will also get in on the action. Obviously, Air Force will not throw too much, but wide out Brandon Lewis has proven he is their top target when they do so, and he's averaging 28 yards per catch. Up front, Air Force doesn't have a ton of size, but it's an athletic group that plays hard. It won't be the toughest O-Line the Cardinals have seen this season, but won't be a breeze either.

It's always a mystery what you are getting from Louisville game-in, game-out. After going for 41 and 62 against Syracuse and Duke in back-to-back weeks, the Cardinals were held in check by Kentucky in their final game of the regular season. Quarterback Malik Cunningham has already announced he will be returning in 2021 and is the team's top passer and rusher, but he desperately needs others to step up alongside him. Young tailback Jalen Mitchell has been the team's most consistent weapon beyond Cunningham, while tight end Marshon Ford and wideout Jordan Watkins are the top playmakers on the perimeter. Cunningham and Ford will present difficult challenges for this Air Force defense; Cunningham is a true dual threat averaging six yards per rush, while Ford is a tough matchup. At 6'2", 240 pounds with good speed and soft hands, he's the perfect blend between receiver and tight end. One name I'm surprised Louisville has not used more in 2021 is Georgia Southern transplant Shai Werts. Werts was a triple-option QB who switched to wide out when he came to Louisville, but just hasn't seen much action. Bowl games are the perfect time to dig deep in the playbook and try some trick plays, which could feature Werts in some way.

As I said in my prediction for the Army-Missouri Armed Forces Bowl, picking triple-option teams in bowl games is an imperfect science. You can never be sure how a team prepares for it or how effective it will be in defending it in a one-game setting. The Cardinals have improved defensively, but this is still a group that can occasionally have bad stretches. Air Force is a unique team and with Daniels and Roberts leading the way, I like their chances to upset a Power Five program.

The Pick: Air Force, 23 Louisville, 17

Liberty Bowl (December 28)

Mississippi State Bulldogs (7-5) vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders (6-6)

Even though they fired their head coach mid-season, Texas Tech found their way to a bowl game. They will hope to impress the new staff as they square off against Mississippi State, who went 7-5, but beat a handful of ranked teams on the year.

This is a Mike Leach-coached Mississippi State program, so it's no surprise that they love to air the ball out. They have the nation's third-ranked pass offense, led by a budding star at quarterback in sophomore Will Rogers. Many people saw a breakout coming for Rogers, but I'm not sure how many expected the type of growth we've seen from him, as he's flashed seriously improved decision-making and has played with a lot of confidence. He's supported by a plethora of talented pass-catchers, which also includes backs Dillon Johnson and Jo'quavious Marks. Makai Polk has emerged as the leading target on the season, but he's far from the only Bulldog that can hurt you. Jaden Walley, Austin Williams, and Malik Heath have proven their worth time and time again and should look to test the Red Raider secondary vertically. I am curious to see how Texas Tech handles the Air Raid and Mississippi State as a whole. In the old Big 12, Texas Tech saw these types of offenses regularly, but the league has become much more defense and rush offense-oriented. It will actually end up being a change of pace seeing such a wide-open, aggressive passing offense.

The Red Raiders are a fairly balanced offense, but they may choose to lean more on the ground than usual thanks to the opt-out of star receiver Erik Ezukanma. Ezukanma is a major loss; although his numbers aren't exactly gaudy, he was the security blanket of the offense, a player who they could always throw it up to when they needed a play or conversion. His absence puts more pressure on a young, but talented, receiver corps that includes names like Kaylon Geiger and Myles Price. An even larger question than Ezukanma's absence is who the starting QB will be. Texas Tech has switched between a trio of signal-callers this season, which includes Oregon transfer Tyler Shough. Shough doesn't sound like he will be playing in this game, leaving Donovan Smith or Henry Colombi as the likely starters. Colombi began the year as the starter but lost his job and gave way to Smith, who has been solid but not spectacular. Heck, we may even see freshman Behren Morton, a highly prized recruit who has only thrown three passes in his first year on campus. Tech will probably try to establish the run, turning to either Tahj Brooks or SaRodorick Thompson. Brooks is more of the big-play threat, while Thompson is the every-down tailback, but they're in for a challenge against a tough Mississippi State front that likely includes numerous future NFL players.

The Red Raiders deserve a lot of credit for getting to a bowl game and not mailing in the season, but they are likely to be overmatched. They don't have the secondary to compete with the Bulldogs the whole way and the offense is full of questions right now. There's also some extra motivation for Leach, who is looking for some form of redemption against the program that he once ran.

The Pick: Mississippi State, 41 Texas Tech, 24

Holiday Bowl (December 28)

UCLA Bruins (8-4) vs. NC State Wolfpack (9-3)

The Holiday Bowl is traditionally one of the best non-New Year's bowls of the entire cycle and it should be a good one in 2021 as well. 8-4 UCLA is playing in their first bowl under Chip Kelly, while NC State is a respectable 9-3 and came up just short of playing for the ACC Title. 

This isn't a UCLA team that plays exactly like the Chip Kelly Oregon teams of old, but they do love to run the ball and can play up-tempo. The 1-2 punch of Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown in the backfield has been a load for opponents to handle. Both are powerful runners who have been efficient all season, and have had success even against quality defenses. They're joined by QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who can still be a frustrating watch at times, but has proven himself as a game-changer. Thompson-Robinson has shown steady progress as a passer, but the most dangerous aspect of his game remains his legs, as he finished just behind Brown with 609 yards of rushing. The receiver corps is full of unsung heroes, including Kyle Phillips, tight end Greg Dulcich, and do-it-all Kaz Allen. Phillips is a reception machine who has shown he can test defenses over-the-top, while Dulcich is a matchup problem at tight end. Allen will get his touches as both a running back and receiver, but is still looking for his true coming out party on the season. NC State's defense has put together a strong 2021, so it should be a fun battle between the two on that side of the ball. The Wolfpack are especially strong at linebacker, so the in-game duel of the rush offense versus rush defense will be intriguing.

Even though they have two very capable tailbacks in Ricky Person and Zonovan "Bam" Knight, NC State leans on their aerial attack quite a bit. Quarterback Devin Leary, who missed most of 2020, has come back with a vengeance this fall. He's thrown for 3,433 yards and 35 touchdowns on the season and while he's not known as a dual threat, he moves pretty well in the pocket. Leary is also fresh off a big-time showing in the victory over arch-rival UNC, in which he finished with four touchdowns against a defense full of future NFL guys. NC State has numerous receivers that will test a UCLA defense that has been streaky all year long. The top name is Emeka Emezie, but possession receiver Thayer Thomas also plays a massive role. Devin Carter and talented youngster Porter Rooks are also going to get their targets; Carter had a huge game against Wake Forest but has been held in check the last two weeks, so he will be eager to make things happen. Then there's Knight and Person, who split time very evenly. Knight finished with slightly more attempts and yardage, but Person is a veteran who has played a lot of football and will be looking for a grand finale to cap off 2021.

A pretty evenly matched game between two quality Power Five programs, I'm leaning UCLA here. Sure, you can never quite be sure what you're getting from Thompson-Robinson but I still love the offense and they've been particularly hot over the last month, dominating their final three opponents. Sure, beating Cal, Colorado and USC is different than NC State, but I still think the Bruins get the job done in a close game.

The Pick: UCLA, 34 NC State, 30

Guaranteed Rate Bowl (December 28)

West Virginia Mountaineers (6-6) vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4)

The Big 12 and Big Ten collide in the new Guaranteed Rate Bowl, which pits a .500 West Virginia team against Minnesota, who went 8-4 and beat arch-rival Wisconsin but for some reason was passed over for several most prestigious bowl games.

West Virginia has been streaky offensively all season long. They've had a mix of very impressive performances and truly putrid showings, which means we can never quite be sure what edition is coming out every week. They throw the ball more than they run, but star back Leddie Brown put together a strong 2021, finishing with 1,065 yards and 13 scores. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, Brown is going pro and has already announced he will opt out of this game, leaving them without their best playmaker. That puts more pressure on the shoulders of veteran QB Jarret Doege, who epitomizes West Virginia's inconsistency. Doege has a big arm and is fairly accurate, but his decision-making has always been a problem and he faces a hungry Minnesota secondary that includes a mix of veterans and young talent, such as Freshman All-American Justin Walley. Doege's top weapon in the passing game is Winston Wright Jr., who has 60 receptions and 672 yards on the season. Expect Sam James and Sean Ryan to also feature heavily in the attack and keep an eye on Kaden Prather, a young wide out who I expect to have a breakout season in 2022. Up front, the O-Line has also been inconsistent but has been generally solid on the year. They face a Minnesota pass rush that has improved tremendously in 2021 after a bad 2020, thanks in large part to the addition of Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney and the breakout of end Boye Mafe.

Even though Minnesota has suffered through a rash of injuries in their backfield, as well as vanilla play-calling from the now-fired OC Mike Sanford Jr., they've put up solid numbers in 2021. That can be credited to numerous things; for one, the offensive line is one of the most veteran-laden groups in college football. Just as importantly has been the surprising success of young running backs Mar'Keise "Bucky" Irving and Ky Thomas. Thomas and Irving have watched as numerous players in front of them have gone down with season-ending injuries, including reigning Big Ten RB of the Year Mo Ibrahim. They've made the most of their opportunity, as Thomas finished as the team's leading rusher and has finished the year in a big way. Although Matt Simon, the co-OC who is calling plays in this game, will try to open up this offense more than Sanford, Irving and Thomas will get a healthy dosage of action. As for the passing game, QB Tanner Morgan has had some struggles, but is the type of steadying presence at the position plenty of teams would love to have. It hasn't been smooth sailing for Morgan, as he lost his dad in the off-season and has seen his receiver corps crippled by injury, but the veteran has handled it well. It sounds like Chris Autman-Bell, who has been dominant when healthy but has been beat up a ton this fall, is 100 percent and ready to build momentum for a huge 2022 (he's announced he will be returning for a sixth year). The Gophers are still waiting on another one of their young wide outs to consistently show up, whether it be Dylan Wright, Daniel Jackson, or someone new. Wright had a strong start to 2021 but has faded down the stretch, but he could be in store for a big day against a mediocre West Virginia pass defense. One other note to make: Kirk Ciarrocca, who was OC for Minnesota in 2019, will be returning to the same role in 2022 after spending this season on the WVU staff as an analyst. Ciarrocca will not be coaching at all in this game, but he should provide Minnesota with nice insight for this game.

I'll admit some bias in picking this bowl game considering I've been a lifelong Gopher fan, but they are the smarter pick at this point. They haven't lost any key pieces to opt-outs like the Mountaineers have, and P.J. Fleck has had plenty of postseason success with the program. 

The Pick: Minnesota, 31 West Virginia, 20

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