Stephen Vilardo’s Mtn West Bowl Previews for Dec 23-26

The Conference went 1-1 in postseason last week and will have four teams in action this weekend

Posted on December 21, 2023

  By Stephen Vilardo, SuperWest Sports

The Mountain West opened its bowl season last week with a 1-1 mark. This weekend four more of the conference’s teams will be in action.

Air Force will look to break their four-game losing streak in the Armed Forces Bowl. Utah State will meet a sliding Georgia State squad on the Blue Turf in Boise in a game that could see a lot of points put on the board.

The Hawai’i Bowl sees a San Jose State team streaking in the right direction face a Coastal Carolina club that closed out the last half of the season hot despite falling in their last two.

UNLV looks for its 10th win of the season, a feat the Rebels have not accomplished since 1984. To get that done Barry Odom’s bunch will need to make it two wins over Power Five opponents in 2023.

I preview all four games and make my game picks below.

Air Force vs James Madison

Saturday, December 23
12:30 pm PT, ABC
Fort Worth, TX

The Armed Forces bowl brings us a couple of teams with some uncertainties.

James Madison enters the game following a historic season in which they opened things up 10-0 before falling to App State in overtime. Air Force opened the season 8-0 before falling in their last four games.

The Dukes are still in their transition period to the FBS and were not eligible for the Sun Belt championship or a bowl game for that matter.

But earned the trip to Fort Worth nonetheless, simply because there were not enough bowl-eligible teams to fill the 42 postseason games.

Which brings up another issue: I love bowl season—perhaps more than March Madness—but should 63.1% of the FBS be in the postseason? But I digress.

The success JMU has experienced in their two transition years, going 19-4, has led to their head coach Curt Cignetti getting poached by Indiana.

Cignetti has taken most of his staff with him. Damian Wroblewski will coach the bowl game, but they have already hired Bob Chesney to be the next head coach. This is an interesting dynamic, to say the least.

This is also an interesting dynamic in the fact that JMU leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 61.5 yards per game and a minuscule 2.09 yards per carry.

Air Force is second in the nation running the ball with 275.8 yards per game and an average of 5.04 per tote. James Madison is third in the nation with 3.75 sacks per game for an average of 26.3 yards per game.

QB Zac Larrier and RB Emmanuel Michel | Michael Madrid/USA TODAY Sports

That nullifies things a bit because the Falcons do not throw the ball a ton.

So, if you add in that 26.3 to the run total allowed the Dukes are allowing 87.8 yards per game, which drops them to seventh in the nation, just behind Michigan…Still pretty darn good.

The point is, James Madison will get after it on the defensive side of the ball. Facing a triple-option team is always a challenge for a team not used to seeing it.

One thing this new/temporary coaching staff assembled by Wroblewski has is experience with the triple option.

Five members of the staff who are in their first game with the Dukes have extensive experience with the triple option. Either running it as a player or coaching it.

The biggest issue for Air Force during their losing streak has been turnovers. In the first eight games of the season, the Falcons turned it over five times and had a turnover margin of minus 0.125.

In the last four games, the Falcons gave it away 12 times with a margin of minus two per game. You cannot average three turnovers per game and expect to win many games.

Air Force is playing in its 30th bowl game overall. The Falcons are 15-13-1 all-time with wins in each of their last four. This is James Madison’s first bowl game.

The Falcons have had time to get things shored up; the Dukes have had a lot of turmoil since the start of December. Air Force will head into 2024 on a high note.

My Pick: Air Force 21, JMU 20

(Air Force +2 & Under 42)

Utah State vs Georgia State

Saturday, December 23
12:30 pm PT, ESPN
Boise, ID

Georgia State will play in only their sixth bowl game all-time, with all five prior appearances coming since 2015. The Panthers are 3-2 in those postseason games.

Utah State is bowling for the 11th time in the last 13 seasons and their 17th all-time. The Aggies are 6-10 in their 16 bowl appearances.

Georgia State opened the season 6-1 only to end the season on a five-game losing streak, tied for the sixth-longest active losing streak in the nation. The Panthers have allowed 41.8 points per game during their losing streak.

This game will feature some of the most prolific pass catchers in the nation.

Utah State’s Terrell Vaughn has 81 receptions and Jalen Royals has 68 to go with Georgia State’s Robbert Lewis and his 70. All rank in the top 32 in the nation this season in receptions.

USU is one of two teams in the nation, LSU is the other, with two players with at least 10 TD receptions this season. Royals is second in the nation with 14 while Vaughn has caught 10 TD passes.

Aggies QB Levi Williams | Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Levi Williams led Utah State to its bowl-clinching win over New Mexico in the season finale due to an injury to Cooper Legas.

As a freshman, Williams was the quarterback at Wyoming when the Cowboys defeated Georgia State in the 2019 NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl. That was the last bowl game GSU lost.

Williams is 2-0 in his career as a starter in bowl games.

Utah State enters the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl with the 21st-best offense in the nation, going for 446.3 yards per game.

Georgia State’s defense is 118th in the nation, allowing 431.9 yards per game. The Panthers are not a bend but don’t break defense either—they have broken a lot, giving up 30.8 points per game to rank 105th in the nation.

The Aggies rank 117th in the nation, allowing 33.8 points per outing. Defense might be optional in this game, but the Aggies have a much more potent offense.

USU also has MJ Tifisi, and he can provide more than a few plays on that side of the ball for the Aggies.

Utah State picks up a win and Georgia State will enter next season on a six-game slide.

My Pick: Utah State 37, Georgia State 31

(Utah State –3 & Over 62)

San Jose State vs Coastal Carolina

Saturday, December 23
7:30 pm PT, ESPN
Honolulu, HI

The Hawai’i Bowl features two of the hottest teams in the country.

The Chanticleers won five of their last seven games and won five straight Sun Belt for the first time in three seasons.

The Spartans enter the game on a six-game win streak which is tied for the ninth-longest streak in the nation. Coastal did drop the final two of the regular season.

The Chants have a ball-hawking defense that created 21 takeaways on the season, the 17th most in the nation during the regular season.

SJSU only turned the ball over seven times all season, tied for the third-fewest in the nation.

CCU was one of the best teams in the nation against the pass with 14 interceptions on the season. Chevan Cordeiro only threw four interceptions all season, the fifth-fewest in the country.

As good as Cordeiro is and has been this season, the Spartans offense has been balanced and Kairee Robinson has run the ball as well as any back in the nation.

Robinson’s 7.13 yards per carry ranked as the fourth-best in the nation. San Jose State has run for at least 150 yards in all six games during their win streak and reached that total eight times this season.

SJSU quarterback Chevan Cordeiro | Wade Vandervort/Las Vegas Sun

In their five losses this season, the Chanticleers allowed 35.8 points per game while limiting opponents to just 16.7 points per game in the seven wins.

San Jose State averaged 41.6 points per outing in their seven wins and the total fell to 21.8 in the five losses.

The Spartans are playing in consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1986-87. The Chanticleers have advanced to a bowl game in four of their seven seasons at the FBS level.

SJSU has gone 7-5 in their 13 all-time bowl games while CCU has a 1-2 record in their three bowl games.

The Spartans have been playing exceptionally good football in the last half of the season. They have outscored opponents 232-107 during the six-game win streak including 125-46 in the second half of those games.

Coastal dropped their last two games by a combined 84-35.

San Jose State is playing too well at the moment and will keep the win streak going into next season.

My Pick: San Jose State 33, Coastal Carolina 22

(SJSU –9 & over 54)

UNLV vs Kansas

Tuesday, December 26
6:00 pm PT, ESPN
Phoenix, AZ

UNLV and Kansas will meet in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl the day after Christmas.

This will be the fifth time the Rebels have played in a bowl game at the FBS level. This is the first time UNLV has played a postseason game since the 2013 season. UNLV is 3-1 all-time in their four bowl games.

Kansas is 6-7 in bowl games throughout the years and has won three of their last four.

Last season the Jayhawks met Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl and fell to the Razorbacks 55-53 in what may have been the most entertaining game of the 2022 bowl season.

Will we see 108 points scored at Chase Field? Probably not, but the scoreboard operator could be in for a busy night. Both offenses are potent.

The Rebels are 22nd in the nation scoring 34.3 per game while the Jayhawks are 28th with 33.6 points scored per outing.

Defensively, neither team is in the top 60 nationally in scoring defense. KU is allowing 25.8 per game while UNLV is giving up 27.0 per contest.

Both teams opened the season with different players behind center. For Kansas, the switch was made to Jason Bean after an injury to Jalon Daniels.

The Jayhawks only attempted 15.5 passes per game with Bean at QB compared to 25 with Daniels healthy, but Bean managed things well throwing an interception on just 2.3% of his pass attempts.

For UNLV, the switch from Doug Brumfield to Jayden Maiava produced the Mountain West Freshman of the Year.

Maiava averaged 241.6 passing yards per game over the last 11 contests with 14 TD passes and an interception rate of just 2.5%.

The key piece of the puzzle in the UNLV passing game is Ricky White. White put up All-American numbers for the Rebels with a school record 1,386 receiving yards, fourth-most in the nation, on 81 receptions this season.

QB Jayden Maiava is expected to play | Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

The strength of the Rebels’ offense was the run game, and they were successful when they were able to move the ball on the ground.

UNLV averaged 206 rushing yards per game in their nine wins while they only ran the ball for 120 yards per game in the four losses this season.

Kansas was not good against the run this season, ranking 97th in the nation allowing 167.1 yards per game on the ground.

Like the Rebels, they were more successful when they were able to contain opponents on the ground. In their eight wins, the Jayhawks surrendered 143.6 rushing yards per game while allowing 214 per outing in the four losses.

When the Jayhawks had the ball, they averaged 7.01 yards per play, the eighth-best mark in the nation. Kansas was ninth in the nation in rushing yards with 211.3 per game.

The Jayhawks offense was even more reliant on the run than UNLV’s. In the eight wins, KU ran for 235.1 compared to 163.8 in the four games the Jayhawks lost.

While Kansas is a little better at running it than UNLV, the Rebels are slightly better at slowing down opponents on the ground. UNLV has allowed 163.3 per game.

The win/loss splits are less dramatic as well at 150.4 vs 192.3.

That matchup will be the key to this game. Both offenses will have an advantage over the defenses in the run game, but the team that is more effective at slowing down the opposition will have the edge.

Individually, the Jayhawks have Devin Neal as their workhorse back ranking 15th in the nation with 100.8 rushing yards per game.

Kansas was incredibly good on third downs this season, ranking 12th in the nation with a conversion rate of 48.1%. If UNLV can keep the Jayhawks off schedule, they will be in decent shape.

Kansas converted on just 33% of their third downs when needing to gain seven yards or more. When the distance was six or less the conversion rate jumps to 55.8%.

This game should be close, but Kansas has more talent and should leave the desert with a win.

My Pick: Kansas 36, UNLV 32

(UNLV +11.5 & Over 64.5)

—More from Stephen Vilardo—