Can the Boise State Broncos reach another New Year's Six Bowl? Or will the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors spoil the Broncos' dream by claiming its first Mountain West Conference title? Plenty is at stake for both teams in the Mountain West Conference Football Championship Game on Saturday.
The No. 19 Broncos (11-1, 8-0 MWC) are the second-highest ranked Group of 5 team in the College Football Playoff rankings after going unbeaten against conference opponents. It marks the first time that Boise State went unbeaten in Mountain West play. The Broncos are making their fourth appearance in the conference title game and are hosting it for the third consecutive year. They have won three Mountain West titles since joining the league in 2011.
The Rainbow Warriors (9-4, 5-3) clinched a spot in the league title game for the first time after edging San Diego State 14-11 two weeks ago. Hawaii has won four straight games and is gunning for its first 10-win season since 2010 when the Rainbow Warriors captured their final of four WAC titles. It would also mark just the seventh 10-win season in school history.
Boise State holds a 13-3 lead in the all-time series with Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors have dropped seven straight games to the Broncos since winning 39-27 in 2007 on their way to busting the BCS and playing in the 2008 Sugar Bowl. Their most recent setback in the series was a 59-37 road loss to Boise State on Oct. 12.
Mountain West Championship: Hawaii at Boise State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 7 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Boise State –14
When Hawaii Has the Ball
Hawaii loves to throw all over the field. It's one of the worst kept secrets in college football. That doesn't mean defenses are able to stop it with much success though; the Rainbow Warriors operate the run-and-shoot to near perfection. Boise State gives up 233.8 passing yards per game (82nd nationally), so the door will be open to attack the Broncos through the air.
Cole McDonald is the trigger man for the aerial attack. McDonald has thrown for 3,401 yards and 29 touchdowns. Among Mountain West quarterbacks, he trails only San Jose State's Josh Love in passing yards. McDonald has a pair of 300- and 400-yard passing games to his credit this season. He threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns against Boise State in October, although the Broncos allowed McDonald to only complete 56 percent of his passes.
Cedric Byrd II is the top threat that Boise State needs to worry about. Byrd has piled up 1,049 yards and 10 touchdowns on 91 catches this season. He is far from the only playmaking threat among the Hawaii receivers though. Jared Smart and JoJo Ward are both closing in on 1,000 yard receiving seasons. Smart has 915 yards on 76 catches, and Ward has 906 yards on 55 catches. If both receivers can get going against Boise State, it will draw some attention from Byrd and make it easier for Hawaii to strike quickly and strike often on offense.
When Boise State Has the Ball
Injuries at quarterback have not slowed down the Broncos on offense. Boise State averages 448.0 total yards per game — trailing only Hawaii (480.8 ypg) among Mountain West teams. The Broncos are scoring a league-best 37.3 points per game. On the other side, a tough defense is making the offense feel even more potent. The Broncos allow 348.9 yards and 21.5 points per game.
Jaylon Henderson will make his third straight start at quarterback. The former third-stringer got the nod after totaling 732 passing yards and eight touchdowns in the last three games. Henderson completed 72 percent of his passes in a 31-24 victory over Colorado State last week. He earned a chance to direct the offense after injuries to Hank Bachmeier and Chase Cord. The senior has taken that opportunity and run with it.
George Holani's continued progression in the backfield has made it easier for Henderson to make his mark. Holani is not playing like an ordinary freshman. He has rushed for 912 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Holani's production has grown as the regular season wound down too, culminating in a season-high 178 rushing yards in a 56-21 victory over Utah State on Nov. 23.
Holani gained 64 yards on only nine carries against Hawaii in October. He needs just 88 more yards to give Boise State a 1,000-yard rusher for an 11th straight season — extending the nation's longest active streak and tying the Broncos with Texas for the second-longest such streak in NCAA history. Holani would be the first true freshman in school history to achieve that feat.
Boise State is on a roll since suffering a close loss to BYU on Oct. 19. The Broncos are hungry to avenge last year's title game loss on their home turf and position themselves to claim another NY6 Bowl bid. Hawaii has a good enough offense to hang with Boise State. Still, the Rainbow Warriors had trouble stopping the Broncos when necessary during their first matchup earlier this year. There's little reason to believe the outcome will be different this time around.
Prediction: Boise State 42, Hawaii 24
— 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.