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Sun Bowl Prediction and Preview: Washington State vs. Central Michigan

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl Prediction and Preview: Washington State Cougars vs. Central Michigan Chippewas

Cougars and Chippewas meet for the first time ever in El Paso following Miami's withdrawal

When El Paso's proximity to Tucson becomes one of its biggest stories, you know it's an unusual bowl season.

Central Michigan was four hours west when news of Miami being unable to participate in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl came down. Not long after, Boise State had to pull out of the Arizona Bowl.

Two teams in need of an opponent and a short bus ride between them brought this unique installment to the 86-year history of the Sun Bowl. The circumstances making this matchup between Washington State and Central Michigan possible resemble the quickly arranged BYU-Coastal Carolina game a season ago — and all that did was produce the best game of the 2020 campaign.

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

While that standard may be a lot to ask the Chippewas and Cougars to meet, it's a fascinating and historic matchup all the same. For Central Michigan, the Sun Bowl is the most high-profile postseason contest in program history. 

Its appearance marks the first in the Sun Bowl for a MAC program since Ohio University faced West Texas State in 1962. The Chips also join MAC brethren Miami and Cincinnati, both coached by the legendary Sid Gillman, etching their names in the game's illustrious history. 

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl: Washington State (7-5) vs. Central Michigan (8-4)

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 31 at 12 p.m. ET 
Where: Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas)
Spread: Washington State -7

When Washington State Has the Ball

Jake Dickert inherited the head-coaching job under difficult circumstances but performed admirably. The Cougars were in the hunt for the Pac-12 Championship Game during the final week of the regular season after winning three of their last four by double-digit margins.

Quarterback Jayden de Laura had two of his best passing performances in the last two games of the regular season, throwing for four touchdowns against Arizona and completing 27-of-32 to cook a Washington defense that came into the Apple Cup ranked among the nation's best against the pass.

De Laura's mobility contributes to the explosiveness of a diverse and multifaceted run game. Max Borghi will finish the season with 1,000 yards if he can go for 120 in the Sun Bowl. But the Cougars face a tough Central Michigan rushing defense that limited opponents to 3.5 yards per carry.

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The Chips have a standout on the line in Troy Hairston II but will be without Amir Siddiq, who entered the transfer portal.

When Central Michigan Has the Ball

Jim McElwain-coached teams have typically been predicated on balance between run and pass. Reuniting with former Florida assistant Kevin Barbay, who sharpened his play-calling skills in a stint at FCS Stephen F. Austin, the 2021 Chips have held firm to that identity. It's worked out well, producing 33 points per game.

Despite having to make a quarterback change a month into the regular season, Central Michigan ended with a top-30 nationally ranked passing offense. McElwain turned to Daniel Richardson, who finished with 23 touchdown passes and five interceptions.

The star of the Chips' offense, however, is Lew Nichols III. The dynamic running back enters this game with 1,710 rushing yards, best in the nation, and he has scored 15 touchdowns on the ground.

Washington State gave up 4.7 yards per carry and 162.2 yards per game in the regular season, so the Cougars showed some vulnerability against the run. However, they boast a talented end with a knack for getting into the backfield with Ron Stone Jr. The edge rusher racked up 11.5 tackles for a loss in the regular season.

Final Analysis

The impromptu nature of this matchup makes for an intriguing pairing. Neither team is at an advantage as far as prep opportunities; both dove in immediately upon the finalization of the contest.

Both sides finished the campaign on an upswing, which they can take into the Sun Bowl. The offensive firepower on both sides should make for a fun and exciting installment in one of college football's most historic postseason traditions.

Prediction: Washington State 38, Central Michigan 31 

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— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45 and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break.