Had you heard at the beginning of the season that Baylor and Boise State would meet in a bowl game in Arizona, most college football fans would have expected the Bears and Broncos to cap off successful campaigns in the prestigious Fiesta Bowl. Instead, thanks to late-season struggles for both, 6-6 Baylor will face 10-2 Boise State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl at Chase Field in Phoenix.
It’s been a rough season for Baylor. Jim Grobe stepped in following the firing of head coach Art Briles in May and led the Bears to a 6-0 start. But they have dropped their last six and are now in danger of their first losing season since 2009. Following the bowl game, former Temple head coach Matt Rhule will replace Grobe, ushering in a new era of Baylor football.
Most college football programs would love a 10-win season, but disappointing losses to Wyoming and Air Force in the second half of the season cost Boise State an opportunity to play for a conference title and a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Nevertheless, the Broncos can improve to 3-0 all-time against Big 12 opponents and carry momentum into the offseason with their third victory over a Power Five opponent this season.
Motel 6 Cactus Bowl: Boise State vs. Baylor (Phoenix)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 27 at 10:15 p.m. ET
Where: Chase Field (Phoenix)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Boise State -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. A Balanced Boise State Offense
Boise State has a rare combination in college football: a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,600-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers. Quarterback Brett Rypien led the Mountain West with 3,025 passing yards, as well as 3,325 yards of total offense. Rypien finished second in the conference with 23 touchdown passes.
Rypien’s top target, Thomas Sperbeck was the Mountain West leader with 72 receptions and 1,193 receiving yards. He also caught nine touchdown passes. Sperbeck now has a school-record 3,522 receiving yards in his career. Fellow receiver Cedrick Wilson caught 50 passes for 1,041 yards (an impressive 20.8 ypr) and 10 TDs. Sperbeck and Wilson became the first Boise State teammates to record 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.
Rounding out the Broncos’ playmakers, running back Jeremy McNichols ranked fifth nationally with 1,663 rushing yards and 2,185 all-purpose yards during the regular season. McNichols ran for 23 touchdowns, making him the first Bronco to score 20-plus rushing TDs in two different seasons, and also caught 32 passes for 450 yards and four more scores.
2. Unfamiliar Territory for Baylor
Unlike Boise State, no Baylor player has 3,000 passing yards, 1,000 rushing yards, or 1,000 receiving yards this season. Under former head coach Art Briles, those figures were almost a guarantee. Baylor featured a 3,000-yard passer from 2010-14. From 2010-15, seven players recorded 1,000 or more rushing, including two – Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson – last season. The Bears have fielded at least one 1,000-yard receiver every season since 2011.
This year, Seth Russell leads the Bears with 2,126 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, but missed the final three games of the regular season due to injury. Freshman Zach Smith is set to make his fourth start, and he has thrown for 1,151 yards, 10 TDs and six interceptions.
Terence Williams has a good shot to extend the Bears’ streak of 1,000-yard rushers. He enters the bowl game leading the way with 945 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Linwood ranks second with 751 yards and has run for two scores. However, Linwood will not play against Boise State after choosing to sit out in anticipation of the 2017 NFL Draft. Like Williams, KD Cannon can hit 1,000 yards against Boise State. Cannon leads the Bears with 73 receptions for 989 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Overall, Baylor is averaging 34.9 points and 523.3 yards of total offense per game. As impressive as those numbers may seem, both are the lowest for the program since 2010.
3. The Turnover Battle
On paper, Boise State holds a distinct defensive advantage over Baylor. The Broncos have held opponents to 379.3 yards of total offense this season, and have surrendered 5.1 yards per play. Meanwhile, Baylor surrendered 434.4 total yards per contest, as well as 5.5 yards per play. Boise State has allowed 179.8 rushing yards per game this season, while opponents have gained 210.5 yards on the ground against Baylor.
However, it’s worth noting that Baylor has played six teams that rank among the top 25 nationally in total offense while the Broncos have faced only one. Also, the Bears held four opponents to 13 points or fewer, while all but two teams scored at least 16 points against Boise State.
Therefore, the defensive statistics of the two squads aren’t entirely reliable, with the possible exception of turnovers. Both Boise State and Baylor rank No. 107 in the country with a minus-7 turnover margin.
The Boise State defense has forced just eight turnovers all season, which is tied with East Carolina for the fewest in the nation. Fortunately, the Boise State offense has done a good job holding onto the football, and ranks No. 23 nationally with 15 turnovers.
Baylor has done a better job taking the ball away, and ranks 61st nationally with 19 takeaways. However, the Bears have turned the ball over 26 times, which ranks them the bottom (No. 120) of the FBS.
Boise State has a tremendous offense, and despite a drop in points and yards, Baylor also is very capable of lighting up the scoreboard. The Broncos and Bears each have bright spots defensively, though both units are also quite vulnerable.
In the end, the outcome will likely be decided by which team is more disciplined. Since Boise State has been the more stable program over the course of the season, both on and off the field, and has done a better job taking care of the football, expect the Broncos to come out on top.
Prediction: Boise State 35, Baylor 31
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of www.broncosports.com)