It is the most wonderful time of the year! It’s time for the College Football bowl season! There are 40 bowl games (plus the National Championship game) to look forward to. In this series, I will be looking at all 80 teams who qualified for the postseason and breaking down their matchups. Each installment will focus on teams from a respective conference. This year, two teams will be making their bowl debut, one bowl-eligible team was left home, and there are 14 instances where the teams are facing for the first time in history! Let’s take a look at the 2019 AAC Bowls.
2019 AAC Bowls Preview
Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl
SMU vs Florida Atlantic
The first matchup of the 2019 AAC bowls slate will be the Boca Raton Bowl when SMU takes on Florida Atlantic for the first time ever. This 10-2 SMU Mustangs team is quietly a very good team. After starting 8-0 and beating TCU, the Mustangs split their final four games to finish 6-2 in the AAC. If they would have been able to steal either of those losses, they would have had the chance to play for the AAC title.
Former Texas quarterback, Shane Buechele leads SMU on the field. It is thanks to Buechele’s play that the Mustangs are the 2nd ranked passing offense in the AAC, as well as 2nd ranked total offense. He has thrown for an AAC-best 3,626 yards and an AAC-best 33 touchdowns. Those 33 touchdowns are also good for 6th in the nation. Buechele is doing a lot, but this offense has two more weapons: senior running back Xavier Jones and senior receiver James Proche. Jones has gashed defenses for 1,249 yards on the ground and an AAC-best 21 touchdowns. He ran for more than 100 yards eight times and scored multiple touchdowns seven times. Out wide, Proche has tallied 1,149 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. He averages 8.5 catches per game, so Buechele trusts him enough to allow the passing game to go through him.
The defense that SMU has had has been interesting. On one hand, they are 99th in the country due to their nearly 32 points and 440 yards allowed per game. On the other, they lead the AAC in sacks with 50! 12.5 of those sacks came from senior safety, Patrick Nelson. It is not often that a defensive back leads a team in safeties, but Nelson has done it. He also has 17.5 tackles for loss, which is good for 2nd-best in the AAC. This relatively porous defense will be the reason that SMU falls to FAU. Even with a coaching change, the Owls are very good on offense. It doesn’t help that the game is being played on Florida Atlantic’s campus.
Central Florida will take on Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl. The former MAC rivals will face off for the 12th time where UCF will look to improve on their 8-3 record. Even though there won’t be a national championship claimed this year, UCF fielded a very good football team. In all honesty, the Knights were a total of seven points away from another undefeated season.
At the beginning of the season, everyone thought that Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush would be the starting quarterback. Enter, freshman Dillon Gabriel. Gabriel has led the 7th best scoring offense to the tune of 3,393 passing yards and 27 touchdowns. In 12 matches, Gabriel was never denied. The passed for at least one score in each game. His favorite target? Another Gabriel: junior Gabriel Davis. Just this season, Davis had more than doubled both his receiving yards (1,241 vs 1,206 in his first two seasons) and touchdowns (12 vs 11). As of now, Davis plans on playing in this game. The offense will certainly miss him should he decide to sit out.
The Knights have the 2nd-best defense in terms of points allowed per game (22.8) and total yards allowed per game (344.8). Honestly, Marshall will have their work cut out for them whether they choose to attack via the air or the ground. The fact UCF has some of the best alternate uniforms in the game notwithstanding, I will side with the Knights here. As stated before, this game should be competitive early, but look for UCF to pull away late.
Military Bowl Presented By Northrop Grumman
Temple vs North Carolina
The Temple Owls take on the North Carolina Tar Heels in this year’s Military Bowl. Since this is the first time that these two programs will meet on the gridiron, each will be looking to solidify themselves in history. Temple went 8-4 overall and took down both Power 5 opponents in Maryland and Georgia Tech. Those four losses were thanks to facing three of the best teams in the AAC and a bowl-eligible Buffalo squad out of the MAC.
WHO WHO WHO is the quarterback for the Owls? Junior Anthony Russo is the second-year starter for this Temple offense. His 21 touchdowns off of 2,733 passing yards are easily career bests, but he has also thrown an AAC-worst 11 interceptions. That mark is just like last year when he finished the year with 14 interceptions…also most in the AAC. His nearly 260 yards passing per game is usually dispersed between receivers Jadan Blue and Branden Mack. Blue, a sophomore, burst onto the scene in Temple’s first two games. Against FCS Bucknell and Maryland, Blue went for a total of 15 receptions, 249 yards, and two touchdowns. He finished the regular season with 975 yards and only four touchdowns, but look for him to become the go-to guy in the near future. Mack finished the year with 886 yards and seven touchdowns off of 56 receptions.
The number three total defense in the AAC is led by the conference’s defensive player of the year, Quincy Roche. Roche terrorized offenses all year and is rolling into this matchup with 18 tackles for loss (AAC-best) and 13 sacks (also AAC-best). The Owls give up 23.5 points per game, so I will have to pick Temple to win this game. They do share a common opponent, though. Temple beat Georgia Tech 24-2 while UNC won 38-22. Either way, this is going to be a fun game to watch.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl
Memphis vs Penn State
The AAC champion Memphis was chosen to represent the entire Group of 5 in this year’s New Year’s Six Goodyear Cotton Bowl. The Tiger’s lone loss was within the AAC slate against Temple by two, but they closed off the regular season by beating Cincinnati in back to back weeks. If there is anyone who is looking at this matchup and is thinking that Penn State will roll, let me be the first to tell you that this one is going to be good.
The offense is a legitimate three-headed monster. At quarterback is the Arizona State transfer, second-year starter Brady White. Last year, White put up great numbers, but this year was even better. 3,560 passing yards and 33 touchdowns are good for 2nd-best and AAC-best, respectively. Head number two is redshirt freshman Kenny Gainwell. As the workhorse, Gainwell plowed for 1,425 yards on the ground and found the endzone 12 times. The freshman averages 6.4 yards per carry, so he will certainly test the highly-rated rush defense of the Nittany Lions.
Finally, junior Damonte Coxie is the weapon out wide. It is business as usual for Coxie as he tallied 1,144 yards and nine touchdowns, very similar to last year. If Memphis retains all three of these playmakers, watch out. They are the 8th best scoring offense in the nation, imagine what they’d do with another year under their belt.
While I don’t think that this game will be a shootout, Memphis would be ready and able if it were. This defense gave up more than 40 points twice and they still walked away with wins. In terms of the AAC, the Owls’ defense is solid. In terms of the rest of the nation, not so much. While I love this Memphis offense and would love to see a game like the Penn State vs USC Rose Bowl of 2017, I think that the Nittany Lions will be too much. PSU has a legitimately elite defense. They hold the distinction of holding Ohio State to the fewest points all season (28). I’d love nothing more than to see Memphis win this game, but my instincts are telling me to go with Penn State.
Autozone Liberty Bowl
Navy vs Kansas State
The Liberty Bowl features Navy and Kansas State this year. The 2019 AAC bowls pride is safe with Memphis, Navy, and Cincinnati this season. After breaking their three-year losing streak to Army, Navy finished this season an impressive 10-2. As I said in the previous iteration, college football is just better when the service academies are good.
The Midshipmen boast the number one rushing attack in the nation at 363 yards per game. What else is new? The rate at which they experience success was actually impressive considering the next closest (Army) averaged about 66 fewer yards. They are led by their senior quarterback Malcolm Perry. Considering the recent explosiveness of the AAC, it is telling that the three-year starter has the most career rushing yards since 2013. He has also amassed the most rushing yards in the AAC with his 1,804 yards and 21 touchdowns. Fullback Nelson Smith was responsible for 570 yards and seven touchdowns. It is always amazing when a fullback is able to average five yards per carry. Finally, the other fullback is Jamale Carothers. His 714 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns continue to give defenses nightmares. He leads the AAC with over seven yards per carry this year.
The always-stout Navy defense is led by linebackers Jake Springer and Diego Fagot. Springer, a junior, managed 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks this year. Those totals are good for 4th and 5th in the AAC, respectively. Sophomore Fagot has made his presence known all year. He added on 10 tackles for loss and three and a half sacks. This defense held the 2nd best rushing attack in Army to only 123 yards. The Knights averaged nearly 300 yards per game, so that’s impressive. Kansas State has a better-than-average defense, but I think that the insane triple-option and aggressive defense will allow Navy to get the win.
Ticketsmarter Birmingham Bowl
Cincinnati vs Boston College
The Birmingham Bowl will feature Cincinnati and Boston College. Fans of the 10-3 Bearcats found this pairing to be quite disrespectful. Why should a 10-win team that was a game away from a New Year’s Six game have to play a 6-6 ACC team? All year, Cincinnati was tabbed as the team to represent the Group of Five. That was until they dropped their final two games to the eventual AAC champion.
Statistically, this year was not as spectacular for sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder. It should be noted that he did miss some time due to injury. So, he finished the regular season with 2,069 passing yards and 17 touchdowns. Ridder is certainly the leader of this offense, but running back Michael Warren II has been the money maker. Like Ridder, Warren took a statistical step back this year. He still accrued 1,160 yards and 14 touchdowns, so we are just splitting hairs at this point. Cincinnati fans may tell you that this offense was anemic at best. That is fair, but they did score more than 30 points five times. Two of those instances were directly following their 42-0 loss at Ohio State.
Considering head coach Luke Fickell was a defensive coach for Ohio State for 12 years, we should expect his Cincinnati defense to be good. The Bearcats’ scoring defense at 21.7 points per game was the AAC’s best all year. Take away the 42-0 beatdown, that number drops to an even 20 points allowed. Even when the offense could not get it going, the defense took care of business. They actually helped out by scoring three defensive touchdowns. Boston College will be without their stud running back, AJ Dillon for this game. Even with Dillon, I would side with the Bearcats. Without him, Cincinnati should win this game convincingly. With an easy non-conference schedule, don’t expect this team to go away. Cincinnati will win and even the all-time series with the Eagles at 4-4.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Tulane vs Southern Miss
The final game on the 2019 AAC bowls docket will be the Armed Forces Bowl between Tulane and Southern Mississippi. The 6-6 Green Wave played seven bowl-eligible teams. They lost six of those matchups and their only win came against Florida International. They started off hot by going 5-1. I bet you can guess how they did in their remaining six games. If there’s any team that backed into their bowl game, it would be this team.
Tulane has established itself as a run-first offense. Their leading rusher in terms of yards and touchdowns is their redshirt senior LSU transfer quarterback, Justin McMillan. On the ground, McMillan accounted for 704 yards and 12 touchdowns. Through the air, he amassed 2,229 yards and 14 touchdowns. This offense is always dangerous when number 12 is out on the field. Darius Bradwell was initially a quarterback but transitioned to running back. He is second on the team in terms of rushing attempts with 101. He added 448 yards and two touchdowns, but senior Corey Dauphine outgained him with 569 yards and seven touchdowns. Unfortunately, both of these athletes are dealing with injuries, so their status is still up in the air for this showdown.
While the Tulane defense may not be able to shut anyone out, they are certainly able to get turnovers. This year, they have forced 10 interceptions and five fumbles. Ultimately, the injuries to their top running backs and the overall talent disparity, I have to side with the Golden Eagles of Southern Miss. The only way that the Green Wave can steal this game is if they win the turnover battle and find a gem deep within their depth chart.
2019 AAC Bowls Results
The idea of “Power 6,” as touted by the members of this conference, will be solidified after this bowl season. Once it’s all said and done, I expect the 2019 AAC bowls record to stand at 5-2. SMU currently sits at 7-8-1 all-time in bowls, but I have to think that they will have to wait a little while longer in order to get over the .500 hump. UCF and Temple will be able to improve upon their 4-6 and 3-5 bowl records this year.
If Memphis is able to win and get their record to 5-7, college football will not have seen an upset like this since Boise State over Oklahoma or Utah over Alabama during the BCS era. At 11-11-1, Navy is going to be able to add a curve letter to their record after taking down Kansas State. Finally, Cincinnati will be able to build to 9-9 all-time while Tulane, unfortunately, will fall to 5-7.
That’s a wrap for the “Group of 5” conferences. Up next will be the Pac 12!
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