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Frisco Bowl Prediction and Preview: San Diego State vs. UTSA

Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl Prediction and Preview: San Diego State Aztecs vs. UTSA Roadrunners

Two of the top Group of 5 teams will meet in Frisco on Tuesday

The Frisco Bowl drew one of the more intriguing postseason matchups outside of the New Year's Six, with San Diego State and UTSA squaring off on Tuesday night in Toyota Stadium. The Roadrunners and Aztecs were two of the top Group of 5 teams in college football this season. The two programs combined for a 23-3 record, played in their respective conference title games, and spent time in the top 25. 

Related: College Football Picks for Every Bowl Game in 2021-22

UTSA is on a fast rise under coach Jeff Traylor. The former high school coach took control in 2020, guiding the Roadrunners to a three-game improvement in the win column and a postseason trip to the First Responder Bowl. The program took another step forward this fall. Behind a standout defense and the one-two punch of quarterback Frank Harris and running back Sincere McCormick, UTSA picked up wins against Illinois, Memphis, WKU, and UAB en route to an 11-0 mark. The Roadrunners stumbled against North Texas (45-23) to end the perfect season but rebounded to win the Conference USA title with a 49-41 victory over WKU. UTSA has only played at the FBS level since 2012, but a 12-1 record with a conference title is a testament to how fast this program has developed at the highest level of college football.

Brady Hoke's first stint at San Diego State lasted only two years (2009-10) but resulted in the program earning its first winning record and bowl since 1998. That foundation set the stage for a run of success by the Aztecs under former coach Rocky Long. After Long chose to step down as head coach, Hoke was hired again and is off to a good start in elevating the program in his return. San Diego State went 4-4 in last year's abbreviated campaign but improved to an 11-2 mark this fall. The Aztecs used a formula of timely offense, strong special teams, and a standout defense to pick off non-conference victories against Utah and Arizona, along with wins versus Boise State, Nevada, and Air Force in league play. Hoke's team fell short of a conference title with a loss to Utah State (46-13) in the conference championship game. However, a win against UTSA would give San Diego State its best single-season victory total (12) in school history.

The Frisco Bowl marks the first time San Diego State and UTSA have met on the gridiron. The Roadrunners are 0-2 in previous bowl trips. This game marks the 19th postseason game for the Aztecs. The program holds a 9-9 mark in those matchups.

Frisco Bowl: San Diego State (11-2) vs. UTSA (12-1)

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
TV: ESPN
Spread: San Diego State -2.5

When San Diego State Has the Ball

The Aztecs aren't the most prolific offense in college football, but it's a cog in the successful formula this team has used to win 11 games this year. This unit ranks 11th in the Mountain West in yards per play (5.02) and seventh in scoring (26.5 a game). However, Hoke's group uses its ground game to control the time of possession (31:38 a game) and doesn't make many mistakes (just 14 turnovers all season). While big plays are unlikely, San Diego State finds ways to piece together drives and can capitalize on good field position from turnovers on defense or plays on special teams.

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The ground attack is the focal point of the San Diego State offense. The Aztecs rank third in the Mountain West by averaging 40.9 carries a game and record 4.3 yards a rush. However, the production on the ground has slipped since recording 200 or more yards in the first five games this year. The Aztecs are averaging only 121.3 rushing yards a game over the last three contests, and it's crucial this unit finds ways to get back on track against a UTSA defense giving up only 111.5 rushing yards a contest. Greg Bell (990 yards) is the team's go-to back, but he's not the only option in the backfield. Chance Bell (312 yards), Kaegun Williams (256), and Jordan Byrd (229) could all see time on Tuesday night. Left tackle Zachary Thomas and guard William Dunkle are two standouts up front, but this unit took a hit when starting guard Chris Martinez entered the transfer portal.

The quarterback position has been a source of inconsistency and a bit of a revolving door for the Aztecs. Jordon Brookshire opened '21 as the starter but gave way to Lucas Johnson for the next two games. Brookshire proceeded to start the next two contests, with Johnson taking the next six before the job changed hands back to Brookshire for the Mountain West title game. Johnson and Brookshire have combined for 12 touchdowns and five interceptions but completed only 57 percent of their passes and provided little in the way of big plays downfield. Both quarterbacks could see time on Tuesday night. Whichever player is under center doesn't lack for options outside. Jesse Matthews (46 catches) has finished the year on a high note, and tight end Daniel Bellinger (29 catches) is another valuable weapon.

UTSA's defense is holding teams to just 23.6 points a game but is allowing 5.6 yards per play and gave up over 30 points in each of the last three contests. The Roadrunners will be without a couple of key players on Tuesday night. End Lorenzo Dantzler and cornerback Tariq Woolen won't play, and there's some uncertainty surrounding the status of other players.

When UTSA Has the Ball

UTSA's offense won't be at full strength on Tuesday night, but this group still has plenty of firepower coming to Frisco. Behind Harris and McCormick, the Roadrunners ranked second in Conference USA in scoring (37.8 points a game) and fourth in yards per play (6.1). This group has also thrived at the margins (third down and red zone efficiency) and doesn't give the ball away often (12 lost turnovers in '21).

As mentioned previously, McCormick is a key piece of the offensive puzzle for Traylor. However, McCormick is headed to the NFL and won't play on Tuesday night. McCormick ran for 1,479 yards and 15 touchdowns over 299 attempts this season and will be missed. Brenden Brady (232 yards) and B.J. Daniels (161) will be the primary ball-carriers for the Roadrunners in this game. Also, Harris' mobility (560 yards) is another option to replace McCormick's production. San Diego State's defense has been tough to run on all year, ranking first in the Mountain West by holding teams to just 2.7 yards per rush and 79.5 yards per game.

With McCormick off to the next level, UTSA's victory hopes are likely to rest on Harris' shoulders on Tuesday night. The senior had a strong regular season, throwing for 2,906 yards and 25 touchdowns to just five picks. He also ranks third in Conference USA in total offense per game (266.6) and quarterback rating (153.6). Zakhari Franklin (73 catches), DeCorian Clark (46) Joshua Cephus (69) are the top weapons on the outside for Harris, but the Roadrunner passing game will be tested against a San Diego State secondary that ranks first in the Mountain West. Also, the Aztecs excel at getting pressure (39 sacks). While San Diego State's pass defense has been tough all season, this unit did show some vulnerability late in the year by allowing three of its last four opponents to eclipse more than 300 yards.

San Diego State's defense is giving up only 4.65 yards per snap and 19.5 points a game this year and is arguably the best defense UTSA has faced this year. Also, this group often has help in the form of favorable field position. Punter Matt Araiza averages 51.4 yards per kick and placed 36 punts inside of the 20. With a close game expected, the Ray Guy Award winner could be a valuable weapon in a matchup where field position could play a huge role in the outcome.

Final Analysis

The absence of McCormick and potentially a few defenders for UTSA adds uncertainty to a matchup that's relatively even on paper. The Roadrunners have the edge at quarterback with Harris, but San Diego State's defense will make things difficult for the senior. Also, if the Aztecs defense keeps UTSA in check, the field position edge should tip in their favor with enough timely offense and Araiza's bombs on punts. In addition to special teams, turnovers and a couple of big plays on offense could decide this one. UTSA has the better quarterback and an edge in crowd with this game in Frisco. This one is a toss-up.

Prediction: San Diego State 27, UTSA 24