1. Who wants to be here?
The Sun Bowl has an odd history of either being the most or least interesting bowl.
In 2005, UCLA erased an early deficit and returned two onside kicks for touchdowns in a 12-point win. In 2006, Oregon State went for two in the final seconds to take down Missouri in a back-and-forth affair. In 2009, Oklahoma outlasted Toby Gerhart and Stanford by four. In 2011, Utah eased past Georgia Tech in overtime. In 2014, Duke engineered a big comeback over Arizona State, then lost by five anyway. (And technically, Oregon State's 3-0 win over Pitt in 2008 was interesting.)
On the flipside, Oregon smoked South Florida in 2007, Notre Dame went up 24 points on Miami at halftime and coasted in 2010, UCLA smoked Virginia Tech in 2013, and a pretty bad Georgia Tech beat a completely uninterested USC by two touchdowns in 2012.
If both Miami and Washington State are interested and engaged, this year's battle in El Paso could be even and full of fun contrasts. And if not, well, there are two other bowl games kicking off around the same time on Saturday.
Any team can lay an egg at any time, but if you're reading the tea leaves, you might be a little bit worried about Miami in this game, and not only because the Hurricanes got rocked by Notre Dame here in 2010. Miami is playing under interim coach Larry Scott for the last time before Scott hands the reins to Mark Richt. Plus, when things have gone poorly for the Hurricanes, they've gone poorly. Since losing to Florida State on October 10, Miami finished 5-2 ... but the two losses were by a combined 117-21. They lost 58-0 at home to Clemson in the game that got Al Golden fired, then they lost 59-21 at UNC three weeks later.
Miami has been a bit fragile; if things are going well, the Hurricanes have proven they can keep good times rolling. But then things take a dark turn.
This is our last opportunity for a while to watch what could be a really fun Miami offense in 2016. Two juniors to be -- quarterback Brad Kaaya (3,019 yards, 15 touchdowns, four interceptions) and running back Joe Yearby (939 rushing yards, 273 receiving yards, eight combined touchdowns) -- will give Richt a proven backfield, and junior Stacy Coley (645 receiving yards) bounced back from a disappointing 2014. If Miami takes a devil-may-care attitude, this trio could do some pretty fun things.
2. Remember three months ago, when we thought Mike Leach might get fired?
They lost to Portland State, then beat Oregon. They beat UCLA and nearly beat Stanford, then lost by 35 points to Washington. That Leach didn't change a damn thing and still led Wazzu to its best season since 2003 -- the Cougars went 8-4 after topping 4-8 just once in seven years -- was remarkable.
But it was still a season built around diverse impressions. Leach's Cougars played well and won games, played poorly and lost them, and, more than anything else, remained true to themselves.
There's reason to be excited about Wazzu's future, and that's an amazing thing to say considering what we were thinking following the Portland State loss. Quarterback Luke Falk, who threw for 4,266 yards, 36 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions (and missed the Apple Cup with a head injury) is just a sophomore. So are running backs Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow, who gave Wazzu's running game a level of efficiency for the first time in the Leach era (albeit on only about four carries per quarter).
The leaders in the receiving corps are experienced, but the nature of the passing game has ensured that youngsters like Robert Lewis (481 yards) and Keith Harrington (312) have gotten reps despite Gabe Marks' and Dom Williams' gaudy numbers.
Meanwhile, though the defense is still flawed, coordinator Alex Grinch discovered a unique identity -- a bend-don't-break unit with major attacking potential at linebacker -- and will return six of his top nine tacklers next year.
Wazzu has been a pleasant surprise no matter what happens in El Paso, but a ninth win would be a remarkable feat for such a young team.
3. Key Stat: What the hell happens when Wazzu has the ball?
Spread: Washington State -2.5
S&P+ Projection: Miami 32.6, Washington State 28.8
Team Sites: State Of The U, CougCenter
|Category||Washington State offense||Miami defense|
|EXPLOSIVENESS||1.15 (117)||1.13 (12)|
|EFFICIENCY||49.4% (9)||47.2% (117)|
Washington State's offense and Miami's defense are perfect opposites. The Hurricanes were the ultimate bend-don't-break unit, with the 12th-worst efficiency rating in the country and the 12th-best explosiveness rating. They allow you five yards anytime you want, but they aren't inclined to giving up home runs. In aiming to prevent big plays, they hope you will screw up before you reach the end zone, and they are often right.
Wazzu is content to take your five yards. Of the 12 Wazzu players to catch at least 12 passes in 2015, only one (Williams) averaged better than 11.7 yards per catch, and six averaged nine per catch or lower. This is a dink-and-dunk attack, one that hopes you'll lose patience and take chances.
So yeah, expect about 50 short passes from Falk. If those passes gain 250 yards, Miami wins. If they gain 400, Wazzu wins.
If Miami's defenders tackle well and keep the play in front of them, Wazzu might struggle to sustain drives with anything less than perfect execution. But if the Hurricanes over-pursue, it could be a long afternoon in El Paso. If Miami isn't really interested in being there, this is the exact type of attack that might have the Hurricanes knocked out by halftime.