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Quick Lane Bowl Prediction and Preview: Western Michigan vs. Nevada

Quick Lane Bowl Prediction and Preview: Western Michigan Broncos vs. Nevada Wolf Pack

Nevada went from touchdown favorite to heavy underdog when Carson Strong declared for the NFL Draft

His draft stock is quite strong. That's why Carson Strong is opting out of the Quick Lane Bowl when his Nevada Wolf Pack lines up against the Western Michigan Broncos.

And the quarterback's absence makes for quite a different scene when the teams take to the turf at Ford Field in Detroit.

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

After opening up as 6.5-point favorites, Nevada is now a six-point underdog. That's a strong swing.

"As much as I would like to play one more season or even one more game in my Nevada uniform, after a lot of thought and consideration, I have decided that it is best for me to begin my preparation for the 2022 NFL Draft," Strong wrote on Twitter a few weeks back.

Strong, the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, is a potential first-round NFL pick after a sparkling season that saw him complete 70.2 percent of his passes for 4,186 yards and 36 touchdowns against eight interceptions and lead his team to an 8-4 overall record.

Add to that the departure of head coach Jay Norvell to the rival Colorado State Rams a week ago and the Wolf Pack aren't exactly themselves heading into Motown.

On the other side of the field, the MAC's Western Michigan is expected to field much the same roster that saw it put up a 7-5 mark on the year.

"We've got a chance to win our second bowl game in the history of the school," Broncos head coach Tim Lester told reporters. "Great opportunity for all of our guys for a bunch of different reasons."

The only other bowl victory for Western Michigan came over Middle Tennessee State in the 2015 Bahamas Bowl. Since then, the Broncos have gone 0-3 in bowl affairs, moving their all-time record to 1-8 in the post-season exhibitions.

Quick Lane Bowl: Western Michigan (7-5) vs. Nevada (8-4)

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 27, at 11 a.m. ET
Where: Ford Field (Detroit)
TV: ESPN
Spread: Western Michigan -6

When Western Michigan Has the Ball

A bowl victory also represents a chance for the Broncos to put behind a coulda-woulda-shoulda season.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda won the MAC?  Yeah. Could, would, should win the Quick Lane Bowl? Sure, especially against a porous Nevada defense that's allowed nearly 400 yards per game. 

Without Strong in place to offset the defensive shortcomings, the Wolf Pack need a big day from the unit without the ball. And once again, they'll have to step up without their leader, as defensive coordinator Brian Ward took his trade to Washington State in another sudden move disrupting the program.

So it's a chance for Western Michigan's sophomore QB Kaleb Eleby, a second-team All-MAC performer, to continue his rise in the college football world. He's been productive in 2021, throwing for 3,115 yards on a 63.8 percent completion rate. Most impressive, however, is Eleby's TD-to-INT ratio — a 21-to-5 stat.

Nice job, Kaleb.

He's got a first-team all-conference standout in wide receiver Skyy Moore, who leads the MAC with 91 grabs and 10 touchdowns. Junior Jaylen Hall and sophomore Corey Crooms were also at the other end of a lot of Eleby throws, catching 46 and 43 passes for 752 and 694 yards, respectively. With Hall entering the transfer portal and not expected to play, Crooms should see more passes in his direction.

But there's certainly more to this Broncos than an effective passing game. They know how to run with a fairly balanced attack that saw them put up 261.3 passing yards and 202.6 rushing yards per contest.

The main running man, of course, is sophomore Sean Tyler, who's already cracked the millennium mark with 1,004 rushing yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, with 11 touchdowns. He can decide the game with his ability.

But what about the positive takeaways for the Nevada defense from the season? Well … that would be takeaways, as the Wolf Pack were eighth in the FBS with 25 turnovers and 13 interceptions. Plus all-conference first-teamer Tristan Nichols, a senior defensive tackle, had 10 sacks to help Nevada's pass-rush to the seventh-highest total — with 40 — on the season.

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When Nevada Has the Ball

Without Strong at the helm, it means inexperience leading the Wolf Pack offense.

When it wasn't Strong under center, Nevada QBs attempted only 24 passes, with senior Nate Cox getting most of that second-string work. And in just two years with the Wolf Pack, Cox is relatively green, going 15-of-22 for 168 passing yards and a TD. He's also carried the ball five times for 26 yards.

"Their backup's 6-foot-9 (and 225 lbs.) — big, long kid who's athletic and runs the ball," Lester told reporters. "So he does create some things that Carson didn't create. But Carson creates a lot of problems … can throw it all over the yard."

At least with Carson at the controls, Western Michigan knew the game plan. Now?

"It forces you to a point where you just have to be ready to play," Lester told reporters. "Western Michigan needs to show up ready to play football because we don't know a ton about what we're going to get.

"Are they still going to run the Air Raid? Are they going to run the ball a little bit more?"

Through the air, there's always reliable Romeo Doubs on the other end. The senior wide receiver — a two-time first-team All-Mountain West honoree, has team highs of 80 catches and 11 touchdowns. He also sets them up as a conference first-teamer on punt returns after racking up a Mountain West-best 14.2 yards per return.

Senior tight end Cole Turner would be a terrific target, too, but he's opting out, as well, to get ready for the NFL draft after a 62-catch, 10-TD campaign.

Perhaps, then, the workload falls on senior running back Toa Taua. He has proven he can handle the job, with 704 rushing yards on the season. That's pretty strong for a team that relied heavily on the passing game (365.8 yards compared to 73.8 on the ground per game).

Making it tougher for Cox & Co. is a Western Michigan defense that's proved solid throughout the season. The unit allowed a MAC-stingiest 339.3 yards per outing. And leading that charge was senior defensive lineman Ali Fayad, the MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Fayad had a conference-best 11.5 sacks, which ranked him seventh nationally, and another 9.5 tackles for a loss.

Final Analysis

To make things even more strange for Nevada, it'll be running backs coach Vai Taua leading the team in Detroit.

Norvell's departure means the new head coach is Ken Wilson, a former defensive assistant coach and athletic administrative guy with Nevada from 1989-2012. But Wilson, who got the job Dec. 10, is sticking with the Oregon Ducks in his role of co-defensive coordinator through the Alamo Bowl and then taking control of the Wolf Pack after that.

So Taua, a former Wolf Pack running back himself, gets a one-game head coaching cameo.

"I'm excited to be able to stay home with the Pack and to be able to work with Coach Wilson," Taua said in a news release. "We're ready to take the next step and win some championships. Right now, I'm motivated to go win a bowl ring."

On the other side, the excitement for Western Michigan is playing so close to home — just two hours due east of the campus in Kalamazoo.

"Having (a bowl game) right in our backyard that every single (alumnus) two days after Christmas can come over to Ford Field — inside — and watch their team play is such a unique opportunity," Lester said. "And it's an awesome opportunity for our fans to be there."

Really, it's home-field advantage … One that tilts this game — strongly — in favor of the Broncos.

Prediction: Western Michigan 43, Nevada 24

Podcast: Early Signing Day, Coaching News, QB Transfers, and Early Bowl Previews

– Written by Todd Saelhof, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports editor/writer for Postmedia in Canada. Follow him on @ToddSaelhofPM at #CollegeFootballFrenzy.