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The Hawaii Bowl should be San Diego State's victory lap, unless Cincinnati has a surprise

It's been a rough fall for Tommy Tuberville and CIncinnati. Can the Bearcats finish the season on a brighter note, or is San Diego State, winner of nine straight, destined for an 11-win finish? Dec. 24, 8 ET, ESPN.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

How much does momentum matter after a three-week bowl break? Because one Hawaii Bowl participant had a lot of it when the regular season ended, and the other had almost none.

1. What a year for Rocky Long

Long might be the most underrated coach in college football. At New Mexico, he inherited from Dennis Franchione a program that had just barely gotten off the ground; the Lobos had gone 9-4 in Franchione's last season but before that had won more than six games just once in 18 years. He did so four times in his last seven years and took the Lobos to five bowls.

At San Diego State, he has done an even more impressive job. The Aztecs went 9-4 in Brady Hoke's last year before taking the Michigan job, but before that, they had won more than six games just once in 13 years. They've done it for each of Long's five years. He inherited a nice group from Hoke, but in his fifth year, free of Hoke recruits, he's pulled off his most impressive performance.

In my 2015 preview, I said that now was the time for Long to turn infrastructure into wins. Out of the gates, that looked like a miscalculation. The Aztecs started the year 1-3, losing by a combined 44 points at Cal and Penn State and losing at home to South Alabama. But when the calendar flipped to October, the Aztecs became a different team.

In nine Mountain West games, SDSU went 9-0 with an average score of 35-13. The only time the Aztecs won by fewer than 14 was in the MWC title game against Air Force. The best opponent on the conference slate (per S&P+) was Utah State, and the Aggies left San Diego the recipients of a 48-14 beating.

The offense has come around, but the defense has carried the Aztecs. Long's patented 3-3-5 has been particularly aggressive, risking big plays in the name of three-and-outs and turnovers. That could make for an interesting matchup against a Cincinnati offense that is efficient but not particularly explosive.

The Hawaii Bowl is a victory lap of sorts. The opportunity for a win is clear, especially with Cincinnati appearing to be in a state of flux, but this season has already brought to SDSU its first outright conference title since 1986 and its first 10-win season since 1977. This has been a rejuvenating season, and it's taken place with quite a few underclassmen in the starting lineup.

2. What does Cincinnati have in the tank?

Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran is rumored to be leaving for Kentucky. Recent Cincinnati recruiting news has been mostly set around "[Recruit] decommits from Cincinnati." "Tuberville to retire" rumors have been drifting for a few weeks. Quarterback Gunner Kiel is out.

This has been a dreadful month for Bearcats football. Hell, it's been a dreadful season. Cincy was an AAC favorite, but while teams like Houston, Temple, and Navy surged, the Bearcats regressed, going 1-5 against teams in the S&P+ top 50 and finishing 7-5 overall.

A program can overcome such a time; Cincinnati will still sign a recruiting class, Tuberville hasn't retired yet, and in theory, an exciting young quarterback (Hayden Moore) and young defense will return.

Still, this is a bad time to have to play a game. That the Bearcats held on to win by three at ECU in the regular season finale showed that there might still be some fight left, but if momentum is a thing, San Diego State had all sorts of it when the regular season ended, and Cincinnati had none.

A bowl break can douse momentum. Plus, Tuberville teams never do what you expect them to, for better or worse. If the decent version of Cincinnati shows up, the Bearcats could overtake the Aztecs with sheer efficiency. Moore wasn't as efficient as Kiel, but his good moments were awfully good; he threw at least 15 passes in five different games, and he produced a passer rating of at least 151 in three. Against Memphis and Miami, he threw for a combined 836 yards with six touchdowns and three picks. He's a bit of a risk-taker -- he's young -- but he and an experienced receiving corps (the top six targets are all seniors, led by Shaq Washington, who's 29 yards from 1,000 for the season) have had their moments.

More good news: while Cincinnati's defense has been pretty poor, it's not clear that SDSU can take advantage. The Bearcat D is wretched on standard downs (108th in Standard Downs S&P+), but so is the Aztec O (95th). Cincinnati might not need that many great drives to take the win, and if the Cats are dialed in, they could get it.

3. Key Stat: Turnovers

Check out the monstrous stat preview here.

Spread: Cincinnati -1
S&P+ Projection: San Diego State 32.6, Cincinnati 26.6
Team Sites: MWC Connection (SDSU), Down The Drive
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED:
San Diego State 12.95 (1)
Cincinnati -3.95 (105)
ACTUAL
San Diego State 19 (1)
Cincinnati -16 (124)

Turnovers are one part luck and one part intent. You can force more by attacking the quarterback and playing tighter coverage in secondary. You can avoid turnovers with conservative passing and, perhaps, less option rushing. What happens when the ball hits the ground or a defender gets his hand on the ball is mostly random. But you still have some control.

SDSU and Cincinnati are proof of that dichotomy.

  • Skill/style: Cincinnati's defense "defensed" (intercepted or broke up) only 13 percent of its opponents' passes in 2015, while the riskier SDSU defense defensed 20 percent.
  • Luck: Of those defensed passes, SDSU intercepted 28 percent. Cincinnati intercepted only 17 percent. (The national average is around 21-23 percent.) And on offense, 30 percent of Cincy's defensed passes were picked off, compared to only nine percent of SDSU's.

Fumbles luck was not a friend of either (SDSU recovered 44 percent of all fumbles, and Cincy recovered 37 percent), but very different things happened when the ball went into the air. Because of style, SDSU was destined to have a good turnover margin, and Cincinnati was probably destined to have a negative one.

But SDSU's also been a little bit lucky, and Cincy's been unlucky. Will Lady Luck reverse course on the islands?

Moore has a really nice arm, but he did seem to take risks with the ball, and he evidently throws particularly catchable interceptions. He threw eight interceptions in 195 passes this year, and it slapped down his passer rating. Meanwhile, SDSU freshman Christian Chapman, likely to start because of Maxwell Smith's torn ACL (he's been attempting to make a go of it for his last collegiate game), has thrown one pick in 39 passes, but we don't know much about his tendencies yet. He did a hell of a job in the MWC title game, however, completing nine of 14 passes for 203 yards, a touchdown, and no picks.