Former conference foes renew acquaintances in Montgomery's historic Cramton Bowl
The Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, has long been synonymous with college football. From once hosting the annual Blue-Gray All-Star game to serving as host site for the Alabama Crimson Tide, it resurfaced again in 2014 with the inaugural Raycom Media Camellia Bowl.
Middle Tennessee (6-6, 4-4) finished fifth in the Conference USA East Division and concluded its regular season with a 41-10 home win against Old Dominion to cap a November run that saw the Blue Raiders go 3-1. Saturday's Camellia Bowl marks the 11th bowl appearance for Middle Tennessee in school history and its third in a row. But the Blue Raiders haven't won a bowl game since 2009 when they defeated Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl.
Arkansas State (7-4, 6-2) failed to capture a share of the Sun Belt Conference crown with its 32-25 loss to Troy on Dec. 2, but was one of its conference's hottest and most consistent teams during the regular season. The Red Wolves strung together a four-game winning streak in October and have won two of their last three games entering this contest. Arkansas is appearing in its seventh consecutive bowl game. Last year, the Red Wolves defeated UCF 31-13 in the AutoNation Cure Bowl.
Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee have met 14 times since 1948, and Middle Tennessee holds a 9-5 series advantage. The Red Wolves earned a 45-0 victory in their last meeting in 2012 and have won their last three games against the Blue Raiders. Both teams were members of the Sun Belt from 2001-12.
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl: Middle Tennessee vs. Arkansas State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 16 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Cramton Bowl (Montgomery, Ala.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Arkansas State -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill
Stockstill, the son of Blue Raiders' head coach Rick Stockstill, was one of Conference USA's best stories in 2016 when he threw for 3,233 yards and 31 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.
This season has been one plagued by injuries, starting when he suffered a cracked sternum and hurt his collarbone injury against Syracuse in the second game back on Sept. 9. Stockstill finally returned against UTEP on Nov. 4 with a three-touchdown game and he has been making plays for Middle Tennessee since. Over his last three games, Stockstill has averaged 271.7 yards per contest with a total of seven touchdowns and just two picks. Not surprisingly, the Blue Raiders are 4-2 when Stockstill starts and 2-4 when he hasn't played.
Even with the missed time, Stockstill already holds school records for touchdown passes (75), completions (710) and passing yards per game (290.6), and he's just a junior. Arkansas State's pass defense finished seventh in the Sun Belt, giving up 242.3 yards per game, although the Red Wolves limited opposing quarterbacks to a completion rate of 51.1 percent.
If Stockstill is able to settle in the pocket and find his rhythm early it could be a long night for Arkansas State's defense.
2. Arkansas State defensive end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones
The key to the Red Wolves' efforts in slowing down Stockstill and Middle Tennessee's offense start and end with Rolland-Jones. For the second straight season, Rolland-Jones (above, right) was named the Sun Belt's Player of the Year after tallying 51 tackles, 18.5 tackles for a loss, 13 sacks and three forced fumbles in 11 games. Even though, Arkansas State had one game canceled due to Hurricane Irma, Rolland-Jones is second in the country in sacks and tied for ninth in tackles for a loss.
The senior has made a habit of menacing opposing offenses, and he no doubt would love to wrap up his collegiate career with another big game. He needs just one sack to become the FBS' career leader, a record that currently belongs to former Arizona State standout and current Baltimore Raven Terrell Suggs (44 sacks). Rolland-Jones also is 1.5 sacks away from setting the school's single-season mark.
With Rolland-Jones leading the way, the Red Wolves are 10th in the nation in sacks per game (3.09), while Middle Tennessee is giving up just two per contest. For the Blue Raiders' offense to be effective, Stockstill must have time to throw. Will Rolland-Jones make history on Saturday night?
3. Middle Tennessee running back Terelle West
Making his first career start against Old Dominion in the Blue Raiders' last outing, West, a sophomore, showcased why he was Middle Tennessee's No. 1 running back to enter the season. West shredded the Monarchs for 170 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. He also hauled in three catches for 25 yards. He'll look to replicate that performance Saturday.
West's hopes of entering the season as the starter were dashed when he was injured in preseason camp and had arthroscopic knee surgery in August. West returned against FIU on Oct. 7 and had five carries for 11 yards. He had four carries during Middle Tennessee's next three games, but didn't play at Charlotte.
West's workload increased against Western Kentucky, a game in which he ran for 47 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, resulting in him being named the starter the following week against Old Dominion.
West finally appears to be healthy and his production out of the backfield will help make Stockstill's job easier. Arkansas State has done a good job against the run (137.6 ypg, 3.5 ypc) all season, so if West is able to find running room early that would be a great sign as it relates to the Blue Raiders' chances.
On paper, Arkansas State boasts a better overall and conference record. And with talented quarterback Justice Hansen, the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, and running back Warren Wand on one side of the ball and Ja'Von Rolland-Jones on the other, it's easy to see how the Red Wolves were one win away from claiming a share of the conference title.
Middle Tennessee, however, is a different team with a fully healthy Brent Stockstill at quarterback, as his numbers and the Blue Raiders' record since his return indicates. Add a healthy Terelle West to the mix, and fans and viewers are in for a treat for the nightcap to the bowl season's opening day of action.
Middle Tennessee gets the better of its former conference rival, winning its first bowl game since 2009 in the process.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 28, Arkansas State 24
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.