As we head into bowl season, MTS’ cadre of experts will be previewing the best matchups on tap for college football’s postseason. We’ll also look at the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl because it exists and you can bet on it. So stick with us all the way from the AFR Celebration Bowl on Dec. 17 to the national championship game on Jan. 9.
Let’s take a closer look at …
The Russell Athletic Bowl: No. 16 West Virginia vs. Miami (-1)
Wed. Dec. 28, 2016 (5:30 PM ET) at Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL.
Philip Rivers was named MVP of the Russell Athletic Bowl twice, three years apart (2000 and 2003). He’s the only player with multiple “Russell Tussle” MVPs in the 26-year history of the game. That should put him at peace when he’s forced to retire without a Super Bowl ring.
Bonus fun fact: this game isn’t actually nicknamed the “Russell Tussle.” I just made that up.
A Closer Look at Miami (8-4 SU, 8-4 ATS)
You win some; you lose some. For Miami, that familiar phrase should read, “You win four; you lose four.” The team started its first season under Mark Richt on a four-game win streak, then came crashing back to Earth by dropping four straight and falling out of the top-25. Now they roll into bowl season hot with another four-game win streak on the go.
The offense finally started living up to its potential down the stretch with QB Brad Kaaya (3,250 passing yards, 23:7 TD:INT) leading the Canes to 38 PPG during the current win streak. The defense is young and doesn’t have a lot of stars but it’s been solid all year (18.9 PPG; 13th overall). Even during the losing streak, it held Florida State and UNC to 20 points apiece.
I was going to finish this section by saying, “the game is basically in Miami.” Then I actually looked at a map of Florida and noticed how far away Orlando is from Miami. But still, the Canes will have the crowd on their side.
A Closer Look at West Virginia (10-2 SU, 5-7 ATS)
They’re ranked, so they must be better right?
Maybe, maybe not. While that 10-2 record of theirs is awfully shiny, the Mountaineers lost badly to the other big dogs in the Big 12: 37-20 at Oklahoma State and 56-28 at home to the Sooners. There’s no game on their resume that screams top-tier team. Their gaudiest offensive performances all came against the conference’s cellar-dwellers (Texas Tech, Kansas, and Iowa State). Other than that, they never hit 40.
That said, they have a great offensive line and their bell-cow back, Justin Crawford (1,168 rushing yards, 7.4 yards per carry), will be healed up and ready to romp. Add in the experience of senior QB Skyler Howard (3,194 pass yards, 60.8 completion percentage) and you have an offense that can pounce on any of its opponent’s perceived weaknesses.
Who Should You Back?
Miami has de facto homefield, but the Canes are just 2-2 in four previous appearances in the Russell Athletic Bowl and 0-2 since the venue moved from Miami to Tampa. If you think the Mountaineers are the better team, don’t be scared off by the location.
The Mountaineers want to be a run-first team and they have the offensive line to make that work. Unfortunately for Dana Holgorsen, Miami has a stout front-seven that’s held opponents to just 3.5 yards per carry. I see Crawford getting bottled up a lot more than usual, which is going to put more pressure on Howard than he’s used to.
Kaaya isn’t going to torch the Mountaineers the way Baker Mayfield and the Sooners did, but he’s got the offense humming and is getting nice production from the backfield duo of Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby. The streaky Canes will get their points at some point in this one, putting a nice bow on a decent first season for Richt.
Photo credit: Kasey Moody [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.