College football’s 2011-12 bowl season kicks off Saturday with three matchups — all of which are intriguing.
Let’s take a look at these three contests a little more closely…
New Mexico Bowl: Wyoming (8-4) vs. Temple (8-4)
Dave Christensen quietly led the Cowboys to one of the more impressive campaigns in his third season in Laramie. With 2009 conference freshman of the year Austyn Carta-Samuels gone via transfer, the expectations for Wyoming weren't very high. But freshman quarterback Brett Smith stepped in and helped the Cowboys bounce back from a 3-9 mark and record eight wins, highlighted by road victories over San Diego State and Air Force. Smith completed over 60 percent of his passes for nearly 2,500 yards with 18 touchdowns against just 8 interceptions. The 6-3, 195-pounder was only sacked 10 times and managed to get past the fact that the team lost top receiver Chris McNeill to a season-ending arm injury against the Falcons.
ICONBernard Pierce paces the Temple rushing attack.
The main concern for the Cowboys in this game against Temple is their rushing defense. Overall the unit gives up 432.3 yards per game, but it ranks 115th nationally in rush defense, giving up over 230 yards per contest on the ground. And the Owls have Bernard Pierce, the nation's sixth-leading rusher at over 125 yards per game. Steve Addazio has done a wonderful job in his first season at Temple, which is looking for its first bowl win since the Garden State Bowl in 1979 — the only bowl win in school history.
Keep an eye on: The turnover margin. The Cowboys rank fifth nationally in turnover margin at plus-15, but Temple is tied for third nationally in fewest turnovers lost with 12.
Idaho Potato Bowl: Utah State (7-5) vs. Ohio (9-4)
Do you remember the team that nearly beat Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium on the opening weekend of the season? If you answered Utah State, you are correct. The WAC school is bowling for the first time since 1997 when it suffered a loss in the Humanitarian Bowl.
The Aggies are looking to close the year on a six-game winning streak, and they'll need WAC offensive player of the year Robert Turbin to continue to play well. He is 10th in the nation in rushing, averaging nearly 120 yards per game, and his 19 touchdowns are tied for sixth-most in the nation.
Meanwhile, Ohio is coming off of a heartbreaking loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC title game, but the Bobcats are attempting to win 10 games in a season for the first time since 1968 in their third straight postseason appearance. However, they are 0-5 all-time in bowl games.
Frank Solich's squad is highlighted by dual-threat quarterback Tyler Tettleton, the son of former major league baseball player Mickey Tettleton. The sophomore signal-caller became the first player in school history to pass for 3,000 yards in a season, and he added 627 yards and nine scores on the ground.
Keep an eye on: The Utah State quarterback situation. Freshman Chuckie Keeton was playing like a veteran before an injury forced him to miss the final four regular season games. Adam Kennedy took over and threw for 700 yards and eight touchdowns in the final four contests. Keeton will be available to play, but Kennedy will start. How much will we see of the former starter?
New Orleans Bowl: Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4) vs. San Diego State (8-4)
The Ragin Cajuns will be playing in their first-ever bowl game, so expect a huge contingent of their fans to invade the Superdome and watch first-year head coach Mark Hudspeth's squad. The Aztecs, meanwhile, are in the postseason once again after former New Mexico head coach and San Diego State defensive coordinator Rocky Long took over for Brady Hoke.
Ryan Lindley leads the Aztecs offense at quarterback, but it's running back Ronnie Hillman who is the player to watch. The sophomore is the No. 3 rusher in the country, averaging nearly 140 yards per game. He has scored 19 rushing touchdowns and is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield as well.
The Aztecs' 3-3-5 defense will have its hands full with Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Blaine Gautier, who has a 4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and is second on the team in rushing yards with 630. His favorite target is 6-6, 230-pound tight end Ladarius Green, who has 485 yards and seven touchdowns. How the Ragin Cajuns handle the unique defense is something to watch closely.
Keep an eye on: The Ragin' Cajuns' pass rush. They are tied for 30th nationally in sacks, but Lindley has been protected well all season. If Lindley is able to get into a good rhythm, it might be tough to stop this Aztecs offense.
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