Akron has taken a major step forward in building a contender out of a program that was once a firmly entrenched cellar dweller. Now the Zips get to face a team in Utah State that successfully traveled this path before them.
The two teams meet for the first time in the 2015 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. If Akron is looking for a template for program building, the Aggies offer a perfect role model.
Utah State entered the 2015 season as one of just four FBS programs to win at least 30 games and record three bowl victories in the past three years, joining Clemson, Michigan State and Oregon. The Aggies are playing in a school record fifth consecutive bowl game after finishing tied for second in the Mountain West Mountain Division. Utah State has a shot at notching a fifth straight winning season for the first time since finishing above .500 from 1971-75.
Akron is playing in just its second bowl game in program history after finishing second in the MAC East and winning seven games for the first time since 2005. If the Zips win, it would give them an eight-win season for the first time since moving up to FBS in 1987 and also give the team its first-ever bowl victory.
Akron vs. Utah State (Boise)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Tuesday, Dec. 22)
Spread: Utah State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Sharp vs. Scott
One of the fun individual battles in this game will be contested between Utah State wide receiver Hunter Sharp and Akron cornerback DeAndre Scott. Sharp is arguably the most dynamic playmaker on offense for the Aggies. He led Utah State with 746 yards and eight touchdowns on 60 receptions during the regular season. Sharp tallied two 100-yard receiving games against Air Force (193 yards) and BYU (100 yards). Scott has the ability to keep the Utah State senior in check. He ranks fifth among FBS players in total interceptions (6) and ninth in interceptions per game (0.5). Scott has helped Akron produce 12 takeaways in its last four games.
2. Utah State Quarterback Battle
Keeping quarterbacks healthy has been a problem for Utah State this season. Senior QB Chuckie Keeton missed most of the season after suffering a knee injury against Washington in the third game of the season. Sophomore Kent Myers stepped up in his place until suffering a shoulder injury against Nevada. Keeton took over the starting job again in the regular season finale against BYU. Myers has thrown for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns on 107-of-179 passing in eight games this season. Keeton has thrown for 352 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his last two games. Utah State head coach Matt Wells said both players will get snaps against Akron, but he has not named a starter yet.
3. Defensive Juggernauts
Moving the chains might be a chore for both teams. Akron and Utah State each feature strong defenses that can make big plays and get consistent stops. The Aggies limited opponents to just 180.4 passing yards per game and 336.7 total yards per contest. They have recovered 12 fumbles this season, which ranks 10th nationally. Linebacker Nick Vigil leads the nation with five fumble recoveries. Akron allows 89.8 rushing yards and 328.5 total yards per game. Zips linebacker Jatavis Brown is the team's top defender. Brown has tallied 108 tackles and leads Akron with 17.5 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks.
Akron ended the season on a hot streak, winning four straight games to get bowl eligible. The Zips will be at a disadvantage going against a Utah State team that is more talented than many teams they dealt with in conference play. Utah State will have a home crowd advantage in Boise and the Aggies are used to preparing for and playing in bowl games. Utah State is 9-2 all-time versus MAC teams and 3-1 in bowl games. The Aggies shouldn't have trouble winning a fourth straight bowl game.
Prediction: Utah State 27, Akron 17
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.