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Arizona Bowl Preview and Prediction: South Alabama vs. Air Force

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While Navy garnered much national attention for a large portion of the regular season, Air Force (9-3, 5-3 Mountain West) quietly put together its own noteworthy campaign, beating the Midshipmen and Army to win this year’s Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. The Falcons enter this game having won five in a row, including a 27-20 win over Boise State in their regular-season finale.

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South Alabama opened its 2016 season by stunning SEC member Mississippi State 21-20 in Starkville, but the Jaguars never fully capitalized on the momentum from that signature win. South Alabama lost its next two games, both to Sun Belt foes, before bouncing back with two straight victories, including one over eventual Mountain West champion San Diego State, but then proceeded to drop its next two games.

From there the Jaguars alternated wins and losses, needing a home victory over New Mexico State in their regular season finale to gain bowl eligibility. So while South Alabama finished at 6-6, including wins over a pair of bowl teams, one of them being a conference champion, it struggled in its own conference, managing just a 2-6 showing in Sun Belt play.

But the Jaguars did what they needed to earn a berth to the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl, their second since making the move from the FCS ranks to the Sun Belt in 2012. South Alabama’s inaugural bowl appearance was two seasons ago in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, a 33-28 loss to Bowling Green.

Air Force, meanwhile, is playing in its third consecutive bowl game, and its 26th in its history. The Falcons’ last bowl win was in the 2014 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, a 38-24 victory over Western Michigan. Since 2003, Air Force is 3-0 against teams from the Sun Belt, beating North Texas and Georgia State twice.

Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl: South Alabama vs. Air Force (Tucson, Ariz.)

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 30 at 5:30 p.m. ET

Where: Arizona Stadium (Tucson, Ariz.)

TV Channel: American Sports Network

Spread: Air Force -13.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Air Force quarterback Arion Worthman

The sophomore made his debut in the Oct. 28 game against Fresno State following an injury to starter Nate Romine. Worthman made a fine first impression, leading the Falcons to a 31-21 come-from-behind victory that sparked their current five-game winning streak. Against the Bulldogs, he ran for team-high 120 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

Worthman hasn’t looked back, guiding his team to a 4-0 record as the starter. He’s fourth on the team with 603 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Air Force’s run-first offense has produced just 339 passing yards and three touchdowns on 29 attempts, but he’s a legitimate threat on the ground. He had 143 yards and a touchdown against Colorado State and then piled up 215 yards and two scores on the ground against San Jose State in back-to-back games in November.

Teams have been able to run against South Alabama this season, to the tune of 212 rushing yards per game. It’s no secret what the Falcons do on offense, so the Jaguars should expect to see plenty of Worthman and other Falcon ball carriers looking to run around, over and through them.

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2. South Alabama tight end Gerald Everett

Everett transferred to South Alabama prior to the start of last season from UAB after the school shut down its football program and became an immediate contributor on offense. In 2015, he recorded 41 receptions for 575 yards and eight touchdowns, putting himself on NFL scouts’ radars and setting himself up for a big 2016.

And the athletic tight end hasn’t disappointed, as he was named John Mackey Award semifinalist in November and was a bright spot on an otherwise inconsistent Jaguars offense. His 717 yards and four touchdowns both lead the team and he’s had two 100-yard games. A first-team All-Sun Belt selection, Everett has recorded a catch in all 24 of his games at South Alabama and he’s seventh in school history in scoring (96 points) and fourth in receiving (1,292 yards).

While Air Force’s defense ranks second in the Mountain West in total and rushing defense, the Falcons are dead last against the pass (251.2 ypg). So if the Jaguars are successful moving the ball in this game expect Everett to be a big part of it.

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3. Air Force safety Weston Steelhammer

While many accolades have been given to Air Force’s rushing attack, Steelhammer has anchored a talented Falcons defensive backfield. A senior, the appropriately named safety landed on a number of award watch lists earlier this season. He was one of 16 semifinalists for the 2016 Jim Thorpe Award, in part because of his six interceptions this season, which led the Mountain West and place him sixth nationally. His 17 career interceptions are tied for first in school history, and also make him the active leader in the NCAA.

But Steelhammer is more than just a ball hawk, leading the team in tackles with 75. He’s recorded double-digit stops in two separate games and also has a sack to his credit.

South Alabama’s offense is a middle of the pack attack in the national rankings, but the Jaguars could run into trouble moving the ball if Steelhammer is at the top of his game.

Final Analysis

When Air Force hired head coach Troy Calhoun to succeed the legendary Fisher DeBerry, many knew the academy graduate would face lofty expectations. Now in his 10th season, Calhoun has carved his own legacy with 76 wins and a Mountain West Mountain Division championship (2015) on his resume. A win against South Alabama would give Calhoun his second 10-win season (2014) leading the Falcons.

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Despite an up-and-down regular season, South Alabama can take solace in knowing it is in its second bowl game in the program’s short FBS history. The Jaguars draw a tough matchup against Air Force, but have shown — see Mississippi State, San Diego State — they are capable of playing with the so-called big boys.

However, look for Air Force to be the team flying high in Tucson by game’s end.

Prediction: Air Force 35, South Alabama 21

— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.

(Gerald Everett photo courtesy of usajaguars.com)