Broncos and Ducks face off in Las Vegas
This is the matchup the Las Vegas Bowl wanted. Boise State and Oregon will tangle in Sam Boyd Stadium on the opening day of the 2017 college football bowl season. It's sure to produce plenty of fireworks on the field and, maybe, some off the field as well.
Boise State is 2-0 all-time against Oregon after sweeping a home-and-home series in 2008 and '09. Both games are memorable for contentious moments. The second one featured Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount punching Boise State tight end Byron Hout in the jaw after the final whistle.
Oregon is making its third Las Vegas Bowl appearance. The Ducks (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) played in the 1997 Las Vegas Bowl and defeated Air Force 41-13. They returned a decade later to face BYU in the 2006 Las Vegas Bowl. That turned out to be a disaster for Oregon, who lost to the Cougars 38-8 after being shut out until the fourth quarter.
Boise State (10-3, 7-1 Mountain West) returns to the Las Vegas Bowl for a fourth time. This is the first time in the bowl game for the Broncos since they played in Las Vegas three straight years from 2010-12. Boise State won all three previous games, beating Utah 26-3 in 2010, Arizona State 56-24 in '11 and Washington 28-26 in '12.
Las Vegas Bowl: Boise State vs. Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 16 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (Las Vegas)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Oregon –7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Boise State's defense slow down Oregon's offense?
Defense is a major reason why the Broncos won another Mountain West Conference championship. Boise State knows how to make life tough for opponents. The Broncos are allowing just 22.5 points per game and have forced 26 turnovers this season. Against fellow Mountain West teams, they allowed just 4.9 yards per play.
Leighton Vander Esch is the heart and soul of this stout defense. Vander Esch earned Mountain West defensive player of the year honors after registering a team-high 129 tackles. The junior linebacker's 6.2 solo tackles per game ranks him in the top 10 in that category among FBS players.
Boise State will need its defense to rise to the occasion against a powerful Oregon offense. The Ducks are 6-1 with quarterback Justin Herbert at the controls this season. Herbert has thrown for 1,750 yards and 13 touchdowns while completing 66.5 percent of his passes. In Herbert's seven games, Oregon has averaged 52.1 points per contest.
The good news is that the Broncos can limit the damage Oregon does on the ground. Boise State has allowed more than 200 rushing yards just once this season and yields just 125.8 yards per game on the ground — ranking in the top 20 nationally in that category.
2. Running back duel on hold
Oregon and Boise State feature two of the nation's top running backs. Both Royce Freeman and Alexander Mattison can claim a spot among the nation's top rushers. Watching them tear up the backfield for their respective offenses would alone make this one of the better December bowl games.
Unfortunately, this head-to-head marquee matchup won't materialize on the field in Las Vegas on Saturday.
On Thursday, recently minted Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal announced that Freeman, who ranks sixth all-time among FBS players in career rushing yardage with 5,621 yards, will sit out the game. The Oregon senior seems to be a lock as an early-round selection in next year's NFL draft after posting his third 1,000-yard season in four years. Freeman rushed for 1,475 yards and 16 touchdowns during the regular season. Without him, the Ducks will lose some punch from a rushing attack that ranks in the top 10 nationally in yards (268.0) and touchdowns (40).
Mattison also may be unavailable after suffering a lower leg injury in Boise State's Mountain West Championship Game win over Fresno State. If he is unable to go, it would be a huge blow to the Bronco offense. Mattison is averaging a team-high 82.6 yards per game. The sophomore totaled 1,074 yards and 12 touchdowns before getting injured.
3. How will head coaching change impact Oregon?
Cristobal will make his debut as Oregon's new head coach in the Las Vegas Bowl. Cristobal moved up from offensive coordinator when Willie Taggart departed from the program after just 12 games to become Florida State's new head coach. The Ducks also will replace defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who elected to join Taggart on the Seminoles' staff.
This is not Cristobal's first rodeo by any means. He had a previous stint as a head coach at Florida International from 2007-12. Cristobal posted a 27-47 record with FIU and he led the Panthers to a share of the Sun Belt Conference title in 2010.
Still, making a debut against a team as talented as Boise State will not be easy. The last coach to make his debut at Oregon against the Broncos was Chip Kelly. It did not end well for Kelly. He kicked off an otherwise highly successful tenure with a 19-8 loss to Boise State.
Boise State has a good track record against Pac-12 teams in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Broncos are 3-0 all-time in previous trips to this bowl game and all three wins came over current Pac-12 opponents. Oregon offers a stiff challenge with Justin Herbert at quarterback. The Ducks won't have running back Royce Freeman, but they have more than enough weapons elsewhere to compensate for his absence. The same can't be said for the Broncos. If running back Alexander Mattison is unable to go, it may be too much to expect Brett Rypien (above, right) and crew to keep up with Oregon for four quarters.
Prediction: Oregon 42, Boise State 28
— 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.