BOISE, ID - NOVEMBER 26: Brett Smith #16 of the Wyoming Cowboys passes against the Boise State Broncos at Bronco Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Boise, Idaho. (Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images)
The bowl season poses new challenges for the intrepid independent college football fan. In a battle of two teams you've clearly never heard of, and can't even pretend to have the slightest bit of knowledge on, who do you support?
As always, we are here to clarify the matter. All games listed below are on December 17th, also known as Bowlmas. Like most of the gifts you open first on Christmas morning, you will forget you ever saw them.
GILDAN NEW MEXICO BOWL: WYOMING VS. TEMPLE (2:00 p.m., ESPN)
Steve Addazio knows how to make New Mexico bowls: lace your schedule with some horrendous teams, break even with the decent ones, and then relax at Albuquerque Hilton while pondering the travesty of their skinflint internet policies. (Welcome to the Hilton, we ask you to pay for something Starbucks even offers for free now.) This is fiction because Steve Addazio is like a shark in that he a.) must move at all times to keep from dying, and b.) enjoys a good dive like everyone else.
This is in reference to his dive-first offense spread run attack, a stubborn approach to attacking the opponent that works well enough when you have Bernard Pierce (1,381 yards, 25 TDs) thumping away from the backfield, but could catch fiery jalapeno-scented fire against Wyoming's pioneer-spirit rush defense. (They're libertarian. Go ahead and run. It's your life, man.) Temple gains around 257 yards a game on the ground, Wyoming coughs up 230 yards in rushing a game, and these two should get along famously.
Stats and Wyoming's outstanding Brett Smith ("Hey! This guy looks really great while losing this bowl game!") aside, there are tons of mercenary factors pushing you towards a strong Wyoming lean. They play at altitude, for one, and you'll want to make friends with them just in case you need a blood transfusion from their platelet-rich veins during a game. They're the home team Westerners in a cowboy-hat compatible bowl, and their mascot somehow makes even prancing look grizzled.
No really, look:
That's some grizzled prancing. Throw in Wyoming's superior turnover margin (fourth in the nation) and you should join us up here on the Cowboys' horse. It's nice up here, and there is zero chance of Bill Cosby showing up and reminding you how mad you are at him for never producing Leonards Parts One Through Five. (Cosby is Temple's celebrity show pony, and all too fond of showing up on random Temple broadcasts and reminding everyone how little he's done since 1990 because he's HAHAHAHA SO WEALTHY IT HURTS DESPITE DOING NOTHING FOR TWENTY YEARS.)
LEAN: WYOMING. They had us at "Grizzled prancing."
FAMOUS IDAHO POTATO BOWL: OHIO VS. UTAH STATE (5:30 p.m. ESPN)
A testament of Boise's ascent to the national consciousness will be the lack of obvious intros to the city and its stadium. The old Humanitarian Bowls always led with "Hey look at that blue turf! It's crazy, because grass isn't blue no matter what those crazy Kentuckians say!" And then you'd think about your crazy uncle who believed grass was blue, and that small elves living in his truck dashboard were the ones telling him to go take strangers' clothes out of random dryers at the laundromat.Your crazy uncle probably had a brain tumor, and that makes laughing about the time he ate an entire lit roman candle at the table much less funny than it was at the time.
Boise can just be comfortable in its own skin now, and that's good because Ohio vs. Utah State is definitely the comfy sweatpant of early bowl games. Ohio leads in every relevant statistical category, but sorely lacks motivation after being bounced from the MAC's crown jewel (the GoDaddy.com Bowl in festive Mobile) for Boise.
Yes, that is a psychological factor, the kind we are loathe to cite when evaluating the relative smashiness of two football teams in a matchup. This one may be extreme enough to factor into the proceedings: Ohio held a 20-0 lead at one point in the MAC title game before collapsing and losing the game on a last minute Northern Illinois field goal. How bad was the loss? It even made the punter sad, and that's really bad because punters a.) typically don't even know what the score is, and b.) are naturally ebullient, cheerful people even in the worst circumstances.
Crying punters are what's at the bottom of sorrow's well.
Still, Ohio has a lot to offer: a productive offense (31 ppg,) a game defense, and a compelling chance to rebound and reach 10 wins for the first time in Frank Solich's tenure at the school. Standing in the way: Utah State, a team for whom a bowl trip is so rare their coach Gary Andersen commemorated it with a tattoo of the Utah State logo on his body. Motivation and scoring won't be a problem for the Aggies, but containing Tyler Tettleton and the effective Ohio passing game will, and that's why Andersen will likely not have to double down with a tattoo of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl's amazing carbo-mountain logo.
LEAN: UTAH STATE. They don't get to do this often, so root for the underdog and hope something entertaining happens, you heartless bastard, you.
R+L CARRIERS NEW ORLEANS BOWL: UNIVERSITY OF LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE VS. SAN DIEGO STATE (ESPN, 9:00 p.m.)
The instant rootability lean here is too obvious even for our plebeian tastes. The Ragin' Cajuns are after all named "The Ragin' Cajuns," a name that already implies ruining airboats by driving them on dry land in drunken Saturday night rampages of dubious rationale and definite cause. They sport a flaming pepper as their logo. The program itself has has never been to a real bowl game as "The University of Louisiana-Lafayette," and has celebrated this by driving to New Orleans in force and actually purchasing their tickets to a bowl game. (The bowl system works really well for the ticket market if every team gets to go to a bowl exactly once every 50 years.)
*They did attend the "Grantland Rice Bowl" in 1970 before we even had the D-1/2/3 nomenclature, and you should assume it was the "flowery, unedited stream of language that later became the cliched parlance of a thousand sportswriters" of bowl games.
And of course their quarterback is named "Gautier," and of course he'll be drafted to sit on the bench by the Saints after a career as a productive and occasionally very exciting quarterback for the Ragin' Cajuns. Of course their leading receiver is named "Harry Peoples," and is actually pretty good to back up the insane name. Of course they play an entertaining brand of football unavailable when I was assigned them randomly in an online NCAA 2011 league, and had to struggle with their popgun offense in a 5-7 campaign where I missed bowl eligibility on a field goal.* They're the Ragin' Cajuns: they should, by definition, be this interesting every year.
*Still bitter about this.
San Diego State isn't without their charms, mind you. They are the slightly better team on paper, and three of their losses came to TCU, Michigan, and Boise State. (The other? To the New Mexico Bowl's own Wyoming Cowboys, another bowl-eligible team.) Virtuous losses aside, they also have the lead in NFL-ready backfield talent with Ronnie Hillman on the offensive side (138 ypg) and Larry Parker in the defensive perimeter (7 INTs on the year.)
The Aztecs should win the game, but the party and any subsequent oyster-eating contests will result in abject losses for SDSU. (And in the NOLA bowl, this is the only real contest.)
LEAN: UNIVERSITY OF LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE