Fresno State vs. SMU, 2012 Hawaii Bowl preview: Take your whoopin', Mustangs

Kevin Casey

June Jones returns once again to his former island home, where a very good Fresno State team awaits. Can SMU keep it competitive? Picks and more below.

5 Players To Watch

Kenneth Acker (CB, SMU, Jr.). SMU is, on paper, pretty overmatched in this game. But the Mustangs will have a chance if they can force some turnovers, which might only happen if Acker (three interceptions, 12 passes broken up, 2.0 tackles for loss), a very talented corner from Portland, can win a one-on-one matchup with Fresno's young, exciting receiver, Davante Adams. If SMU can neutralize Fresno State's passing game to some extent, it can rely on its stout run defense and the field position game to keep things close. But if Adams (1,168 yards, 9.3 per target, 71 percent catch rate) has a big day, it is very, very difficult to figure out how this game stays close.

Derek Carr (QB, Fresno State, Jr.). Mostly known for being David Carr's younger brother, the Fresno State legacy trumped his solid 2011 performance (3,500 yards, 26 touchdowns, nine interceptions) with an absolutely spectacular 2012. He threw for 3,742 yards, completed 68 percent of his passes, and threw 36 touchdowns to just five picks. And in the last five games, he was nearly flawless: 123-for-182, 1,660 yards, 17 touchdowns, one interception. SMU's is probably the best defense Carr has faced since Boise State, but it bears mentioning that the Mustangs are better against the run than the pass.

Zach Line (RB, SMU, Sr.). It only feels like Line was a backup for Eric Dickerson and Craig James in the 1980s. (I'm pretty sure I erroneously called him a senior in both my 2011 and 2012 SMU team previews.) But Line will be playing his last game for SMU -- I think -- on Christmas Eve. He deserves to be celebrated for his extreme consistency. He has carried between 15 and 30 times in 26 straight games (sans the three he missed at the end of last season with a knee injury), and he has been by far SMU's biggest offensive bright spot, rushing for 1,207 yards and 12 touchdowns despite little help from his passing game.

Robbie Rouse (RB, Fresno State, Sr.). This game features two interesting running backs who could not possibly be built any differently. Line is 6'1, 230; Robbie Rouse: 5'9, 190. Rouse had the better 2012 of the two (it's amazing what a good passing game can do to your running lanes), rushing for 1,468 yards and going over 100 yards nine times. He is shifty and explosive, but he might find the going pretty tough against SMU, however. For all of the Mustangs' offensive deficiencies, SMU ranks 19th in the country in Rushing S&P+, better than either Boise State or San Diego State, the only two teams to hold Rouse under 90 rushing yards this season. If Rouse gets rolling, SMU is in serious trouble. (Oh yeah, and Rouse is also Fresno's No. 2 receiver, with 58 receptions.)

Phillip Thomas (S, Fresno State, Sr.). Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter was, until 2012, Texas A&M's defensive coordinator, known for an aggressive 3-4 defense that made full use of its DE/OLB hybrid position. DeRuyter did not inherit a Von Miller or Damontre Moore in Fresno, but he does have Thomas, and that's pretty great. Thomas has made plays all over the field, leading his team in tackles (73.0), tackles for loss (12), interceptions (eight), and forced fumbles (four) and coming in second in sacks (four). Again, he did this as a safety. That is both odd and fantastic, and Fresno State has benefited greatly because of it. The Bulldogs rank 20th in Def. F/+, 13th in Rushing S&P+ and seventh in Passing S&P+. They are well-rounded and explosive, which is bad for an SMU offense that is neither.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. Fresno State is very good. You watch bowls for one of three reasons: to watch a great matchup, to watch a great team/player you haven't seen very much (or want to see one last time), or to watch bonus football. While the latter of the three always applies, the Hawaii Bowl should fit squarely into the middle category, as well. The Bulldogs are an excellent team, and you quite possibly haven't seen them play even once this season. Fresno State's defense is good enough to win games by itself (a la BYU), but the offense is pretty fun and explosive, too, even if it is a bit on the inconsistent side.

2. Fresno State could be even better in 2013. Yes, Robbie Rouse and Phillip Thomas are seniors. But Derek Carr is a junior, Davante Adams is a redshirt freshman, No. 2 wideout Isaiah Burse (762 yards, 10.4 per target, 73 percent catch rate) is a junior, and the defense should return eight starters next year, including safety Derron Smith (six interceptions), corners L.J. Jones and Sean Alston (combined: four interceptions, 19 passes broken up) and end Andy Jennings (11 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles). Get to know these players now because Fresno State could be a legitimate Top 20 team next year and a threat to win the Mountain West and reach a BCS bowl.

3. The blowing garbage is a Christmas tradition. See Shutdown Fullback below.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. How will SMU move the ball? Poor Garrett Gilbert. The former five-star recruit transferred from Texas to SMU, but has not found the going any easier. SMU ranks 112th in Passing S&P+; Gilbert has completed 53 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. None of Gilbert's most frequent targets average better than 6.7 yards per target (that's terrible), and only two of the six have a catch rate better than 51 percent (Jeremy Johnson and Zach Line). Meanwhile, the secondary of Thomas, Derron Smith, Sean Alston and L.J. Jones is one of the best, and most aggressive, he will have faced this year. Unless Zach Line is averaging about 6 or 7 yards per carry, Gilbert is going to face a lot of third-and-longs, and the odds are not very good that he fares well.

2. Field position. The one thing SMU has done well this year, other than stopping the run, is play the field position game. Zach Line can usually get the Mustangs a couple of first downs, Mike Loftus averages 42.5 yards per punt, and SMU can flip the field pretty well. This will be an absolute necessity against a Fresno State team that is also good at the field position game. SMU ranks 33rd in Field Position Advantage, but Fresno ranks 16th. On Thursday night, BYU showed how you can serve your opponent a slow death when you are dominating in field position. SMU will need to approximate the same to have a chance.

3. No, seriously, can SMU move the ball at all? There is a decent chance that SMU's defense and the field position battle will give the Mustangs a chance to win. But at some point, the SMU offense will need to make some plays, and I just don't know if it can.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Fresno State by 21.8.
Bill's Pick: Fresno State by 27. On paper, this game has the highest Steiner-vs-Holyfield potential of any bowl. I like June Jones, and I want this to be a game. But I don't see it. Prove me wrong, 'Stangs.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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