The Vandals are making the short trip to Boise for their first bowl game since the 2009 season
Idaho has a chance to end its penultimate FBS season in style. The Vandals (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) are headed to just their third bowl game in school history after closing out the regular season with four consecutive victories. For a team that won just six games over the previous three seasons, and is moving to the FCS ranks in 2018, it marks a tremendous turnaround in fortune.
Colorado State mirrored Idaho's strong finish in many ways. The Rams (7-5, 5-3 Mountain West) won their final two regular season games over New Mexico and Mountain West champion San Diego State to get bowl eligible. This is the fourth straight season Colorado State has played in a bowl game – the longest streak for the program since going to five consecutive under former head coach Sonny Lubick from 1999-2003.
Idaho is undefeated in bowl games, winning the 1998 Humanitarian Bowl and the 2009 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Colorado State is 6-9 in 15 previous bowl game appearances. The Rams are seeking their first bowl victory since rallying to beat Washington State 48-45 in the final minutes of the 2013 New Mexico Bowl.
Colorado State holds a 4-3 lead in the all-time series with Idaho. The Rams defeated the Vandals 36-34 in 2010 in the most recent game between the two teams.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Idaho vs. Colorado State (Boise, Idaho)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 22 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Albertsons Stadium (Boise, Idaho)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Colorado State -13.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Nick Stevens exploit Idaho's pass defense?
Since reclaiming the starting job midway through the season, Nick Stevens has been a model of efficiency at quarterback for Colorado State. The junior has completed 98 of 137 passes for 1,414 yards and 14 touchdowns with just one interception during that six-game stretch.
His favorite target has been wide receiver Michael Gallup. The junior college transfer has totaled 1,164 yards and 11 touchdowns on 70 catches. Gallup ranks fifth all-time at Colorado State for receiving yards in a season. His 11 touchdown catches also lead the Mountain West Conference and he ranks in the top 20 nationally in receiving yards, yards per game and touchdowns.
Stevens began the season as the starting quarterback, but gave way to Collin Hill after a dismal outing in a 44-7 opening loss to Colorado. He threw for 31 yards on just 6-of-20 passing against the Buffaloes. Stevens earned a second chance when Hill went down with a season-ending knee injury a few weeks later.
Can Idaho do anything to slow Stevens down? The odds don't look favorable for the Vandals. Idaho owns one of the worst pass defenses in the nation, giving up 270 yards per game through the air to rank 112th overall among FBS teams. It's a key reason why the Vandals' defense allows 29.8 points per game.
2. Will Idaho win the turnover battle?
Turnovers are a major reason why Idaho posted its first winning season since 2009. The Vandals were good at getting takeaways against their Sun Belt opponents. Idaho is tied for 14th among FBS teams with a plus-8 turnover margin and also is tied for 14th in interceptions gained (15). The Vandals have gained an average of two turnovers over their last seven games with the margin split equally between fumbles and interceptions.
Linebacker Kaden Elliss and cornerback Jayshawn Jordan have done the most damage in forcing turnovers. Jordan and Elliss tallied five interceptions apiece during the regular season. Elliss also has a knack for creating fumbles. He has forced three fumbles and recovered a pair this season.
Colorado State won't make it easy to take the ball away. The Rams have committed just five turnovers in their last eight games and have totaled only five turnovers against non-Power Five teams. In that same eight-game stretch, Colorado State has forced nine turnovers.
3. Can Colorado State continue to dominate on the ground?
Stopping the Rams’ running backs has become a major chore for opponents. Colorado State has had five players rush for at least 100 yards over their past two games.
Izzy Matthews has accounted for two of those 100-yard rushing performances. He totaled a season-high 107 yards on 14 carries against New Mexico and followed up with 104 yards on 14 attempts against San Diego State. Matthews also has a knack for finding the end zone, totaling 11 touchdowns in his last seven games.
An improved running game has equaled a massive jump in offensive production. Over their last five games alone, the Rams have averaged 47.4 points and 520.6 yards per contest. Colorado State has proven to be especially lethal in the red zone. The Rams are 47-of-50 (.940) in red zone conversions this season, with 39 touchdowns and eight field goals. That’s good enough or seventh in the FBS in red zone conversions and is third among all teams in red zone touchdowns.
Idaho won both times it previously played bowl games in Boise. The Vandals took down Southern Miss in 1998 and edged Bowling Green on a last-second touchdown in 2009. Getting a third straight postseason win in their home state could prove challenging, however. Colorado State presents too many weapons in a balanced offense for Idaho's defense to handle. The Rams are in peak form after finishing strong in Mountain West Conference play with wins over fellow bowl teams San Diego State and New Mexico. The odds don't favor the Vandals for staying undefeated in bowl games played on Boise State’s well-known and easy recognizable “Smurf Turf.”
Prediction: Colorado State 35, Idaho 31
— 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.
(Top photo by Eric Paull, courtesy of www.govandals.com)