Las Vegas Bowl: Boise State 38, Oregon 28
It's a strange time to be a Boise State fan. Your school is unquestionably still the blue blood of the Group of Five. You have won at least 11 games in 11 of the last 16 seasons, and you're going to finish ranked for the 11th time in that span as well. For a former community college in Idaho, this remains an unbelievable story.
Since losing your greatest coach ever (Chris Petersen, who has since gone on to build a juggernaut at Washington), you are still averaging 10.5 wins per year. You are, for all intents and purposes, still Boise State.
Still, because of the bar that was set at the turn of this decade, there seems to be something missing at times. And there are only a couple of opportunities per year to fill that void.
Most mid-major programs are judged first by how they do in conference play. And to be sure, BSU's just fine there — the Broncos just won their third Mountain West title in seven years, which pairs nicely with the eight WAC titles they won in their nine-year residence there.
By both fans and outsiders, though, Boise State is judged by how it does against the big boys. From 2008-11, the Broncos went 8-2 against teams that are now in power conferences. Seven of those 10 opponents finished with at least 10 wins. They were a legitimate college football powerhouse, no matter the conference affiliation.
Conference realignment wasn't kind to BSU, though. Unlike Utah and TCU (against whom they are 6-2 since joining FBS), the Broncos were a little too isolated to receive a power conference invitation. Their options were remaining in the Mountain West (which they had just joined in 2011) or moving to the AAC, a geographical mismatch.
The MWC is a tricky conference in its own right. You've got to deal with basically every style of offense under the sun, and if you're BSU, you've got to deal with getting everyone's home run swing, too. But the Broncos are still judged primarily by the two or three shots they get at a power conference team each year.
They went just 1-3 against such foes in Petersen's last two years in charge (2012-13) but won five of their first six under Bryan Harsin. They won their third Fiesta Bowl in 2014, then went 4-1 against P5 teams in 2015-16. But they finished 2016 with a confusing blowout loss to Baylor, and after a narrow defeat at Washington State early this season, they got smoked at home by Virginia. Even if you're dealing with a crazy number of early injuries (and BSU was), that's simply not supposed to happen. Anxiety in Boise reached a level unseen in quite a while. Were the Broncos simply just another mid-major program now? Are the glory days officially over?
Since the UVA loss, BSU has been BSU again. They won seven games in a row, including a 31-14 manhandling of No. 19 San Diego State. And after dropping an end-of-year check-up against a good Fresno State, the Broncos turned around and beat the Bulldogs a week later in the MWC title game. And then they got a shot to officially exorcise the Virginia/P5 demon by facing Oregon in the Vegas Bowl on Saturday.
Saturday, we saw the best version of Boise State. The Broncos had fun, having receivers do pirouettes for some reason and attempting yet another bowl game Statue of Liberty play (evidently they only work in the Fiesta Bowl). And despite some red zone disasters — a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, an interception that was returned for a touchdown, another regular old interception, and a missed field goal — they were never seriously in danger.
Their defense also did things that seemingly only BSU can do to Oregon. The Ducks averaged just 1.7 yards per carry, their first time under 2 since the last time they played the Broncos in 2009. Without Royce Freeman, Oregon was immediately rendered one-dimensional, and BSU was able to tee off on quarterback Justin Herbert, picking him off twice and sacking him four times. Oregon didn’t cross the 200-yard mark in total offense until well into the fourth quarter, and BSU cruised.
BSU has just one senior starter, by the way. The Broncos entered the game ranked 34th in Def. S&P+ and could enter the top 30 after Saturday’s awesome performance. They will be expected to improve on that a decent amount next year.
This game was a statement opportunity for Boise State, and the Broncos took full advantage. It was a disappointing showing, meanwhile, for the Ducks, who were underwhelming from the opening kickoff in Mario Cristobal’s first game as full-time head coach.
Because we overreact, by a power of about 10, to bowl games, there will be a pocket of Duck fans that treats this as an indictment of the Cristobal hire, and ... whatever. The guy pulled off one of the best coaching performances of the 2000s in dragging moribund FIU to a couple of bowl games, then spent four seasons under Nick Saban and one in Eugene under Willie Taggart. He’ll have a very good chance to succeed at Oregon, and Saturday’s game meant nothing in the long-term.
New Mexico Bowl: Marshall 31, Colorado State 28
I liked BSU as a potential top-30 team heading into the season, and I would say that belief was backed up (eventually). But I had one MWC team ranked higher than the Broncos in my preseason power rankings: Mike Bobo’s CSU Rams.
Two months into the season, they had mostly lived up to my expectations. They blew approximately 28 scoring chances (give or take) in a loss to Colorado, but they were 6-2 overall and began conference play 4-0.
They then proceeded to lose three of four to end the regular season. And for the second year in a row, they had to get knocked to the mat in a bowl game before attempting a rally.
Saturday’s loss to Marshall was not nearly as bad as last year’s bowl performance, in which they trailed Idaho 41-7 late in the third quarter before rallying to lose by 11. But there were some familiar moments all the same.
The score was 14-14 late in the second quarter, but Marshall went on a 17-0 run to open up a commanding lead heading into the fourth quarter. CSU scored twice and got the ball back with a chance to tie or take the lead, but they could only drive to around midfield before turning the ball over on downs.
It was an admirable rally, but once again, pre-Q4 failings doomed them.
Bobo is recruiting well and has engineered three consecutive bowl bids for a program that had bowled only three times in nine years before his arrival. Still, he hasn’t really built the program beyond where it appeared to be headed under predecessor Jim McElwain, and, to me at least, the 2017 campaign was undoubtedly disappointing. And now they’ll have to replace a pretty impressive senior class.
Kudos to Marshall, by the way. The Herd fell off a cliff in 2016, and after a 6-1 start in 2017, they dealt with a series of disappointing results down the stretch — 30-25 to FAU, 9-7 to UTSA, 28-27 to Southern Miss. They took full advantage of one last opportunity to make something of their season, however, and with very few key senior contributors, they’ll head into 2018 with pre-collapse expectations once again.
New Orleans Bowl: Troy 50, North Texas 30
The coaching carousel isn’t finished just yet, so Troy isn’t totally safe just yet, but as of now, it appears that the Trojans might have Neal Brown around for a fourth season. That’s awfully exciting considering what they’ve accomplished in his tenure.
Brown’s Trojans have gone 21-5 in the last two seasons, beating LSU this fall and scaring the hell out of eventual national champion Clemson last year. They capped an 11-win campaign with a decisive victory over C-USA West champ UNT in the Superdome early on Saturday, and they will finish the season in the S&P+ top 40.
Troy held an excellent Mean Green offense to just 295 total yards and, including sacks, minus-8 yards rushing. The Trojans logged 11 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, and eight passes defensed, good for a 29 percent havoc rate that could easily end up the highest of bowl season.
UNT rallied after a miserable start, turning an early 22-7 deficit into a 22-20 game at halftime. But Troy went on a 28-3 run to start the second half, and that was that.
Cure Bowl: Georgia State 27, Western Kentucky 17
The current bowl ties do not allow for many P5 vs. G5 opportunities. Instead, it’s a lot of the two groups fighting amongst themselves. There were three Conference USA vs. Sun Belt battles on Saturday, and while C-USA held a slight advantage in terms of average S&P+ during the year, the SBC went 2-1 in these games.
Georgia State was a hard team to figure out in 2017. Shawn Elliott’s first Panther team thrived in close games, beating Coastal Carolina, South Alabama, Georgia Southern, and Texas State each by one possession and eking out bowl eligibility despite playing only 11 games. But four of their five losses were by at least 14 points, and the fifth was a gross 17-10 loss to Tennessee State, a mediocre FCS squad.
Good GSU showed up in Orlando. Against a WKU team that disappointed a bit in Mike Sanford’s first year replacing Jeff Brohm, the Panthers outscored the Hilltoppers 24-3 from the middle of the first quarter through the middle of the fourth. They picked off two passes, recorded six sacks, and connected on just enough big passes to keep WKU at bay. Conner Manning completed 20 of 28 passes for 276 yards, and despite stinking for half the season, the Panthers finished with seven wins for the first time at the FBS level.
Camellia Bowl: MTSU 35, Arkansas State 30
The first day of bowl season finished in wacky fashion. The Camellia Bowl featured six turnovers and one of the strangest college football plays you’ll ever see. It also saw MTSU take full advantage of an opportunity it didn’t think it would get.
The Blue Raiders thought they had been locked out of bowl festivities when they scored a Camellia bid at the last minute.
The hardest part was saying goodbye to the seniors.
"Me and (senior wide receiver Shane Tucker) embraced and hugged, told him how much I loved him, that kind of thing," [MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill] said. "I did the same with some other guys. We thought it was over."
The two then went to Firehouse Subs. Stockstill got the call from his father right after he placed his order.
"I'm outside, fist pumping back inside to Chase, telling him that we're in," Brent Stockstill said. "It was a pretty awesome moment. We've got one more game with our seniors."
The good news was made even sweeter, Tucker said, by the bad news that preceded it.
Stockstill completed four passes to Tucker for 63 yards, and their 30-yard touchdown connection early in the fourth quarter all but put away the Blue Raiders’ seventh win of the year. This was a bit of a disappointing, injury-plagued season in Murfreesboro — star receiver Richie James played in only five games, and MTSU lost four of six games that Stockstill missed midseason — but it ended with four wins in five tries.
It was a disappointing finish for ASU, though. The Red Wolves began SBC play 4-0 and had a chance to lock up another conference title before a 32-25 loss to Troy ruined those plans. And with a chance to win at least eight games for the third straight year, they let one get away. They outgained MTSU by 110 yards and picked Stockstill off three times but still couldn’t quite get the job done.