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CFT Previews: Your Dec. 16 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

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Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 16 bowl menu, which on opening weekend features five FBS bowl games as the 2017 postseason officially kicks off.  The featured teams include the first Power Five squad to make its 2017 postseason debut, the first Group of Five member ranked in the College Football Playoff Top 25 and one of the two Sun Belt Conference co-champions.

WHO: Troy (10-2) vs. North Texas (9-4)
WHAT: The 17th R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, New Orleans, Louisiana
WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: The first of three Conference USA-Sun Belt Conference tilts on the day kicks off opening weekend, and also marks the 10th-ever meeting between the two teams — the Trojans lead 8-2 — and the first in the postseason.  With a win, the Mean Green would reach double digits for the first time in the 65-year history of the program; the Trojans, meanwhile, have won 10 games in back-to-back seasons and would set its own school record by defeating the former SBC program.  One of those 10 wins for Troy came against LSU in Death Valley while one of the losses came on the road to Mountain West champion Boise State in the opener.  The other loss?  An inexplicable one to 4-8 South Alabama… at home, no less.  Three of UNT’s losses came to Florida Atlantic (twice, the second of which came in the conference championship game) and Iowa in Iowa City.  One data point of note: the Mean Green is 20th nationally in scoring offense at 35.9 points per game, the Trojans are 11th in the country in scoring defense at 17.5 points per game.  If defenses can win championships, they can also win bowl games.
THE LINE: North Texas, +6½
THE PREDICTION: Troy 34, North Texas 23

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WHO: Western Kentucky (6-6) vs. Georgia State (6-5)
WHAT: The 3rd AutoNation Cure Bowl
WHERE: Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network
THE SKINNY: This is one of my favorite stats of the postseason: Georgia State is 5-1 on the road this season… and 1-4 at home.  As Orlando is nearly 450 miles from GSU’s Atlanta campus, the Panthers should feel right at home six hours away from home.  One thing that might make them feel a little queasy and a bit uneasy?  Mike White.  The senior quarterback from Western Kentucky has thrown for over 3,800 yards this season after putting up nearly 4,400 last year.  To make matters worse, GSU is 91st in the country in allowing 242.4 yards per game through the air.  In its fifth year of existence, the Panthers have never finished a season with a record above .500 — the closest they came was 6-7 in 2015 — something they could do with a win.  A loss, on the other, hand, would give the Hilltoppers their worst season since going 2-10 in 2010.  WKU had put up back-to-back 10-win seasons under Jeff Brohm, now at Purdue, before slipping in Mike Sanford‘s first year.  Neither team comes in on much of a winning roll, with WKU losing four of its last five while GSU lost its last two by a combined 38 points.  Both of those losses, of course, came at home.
THE LINE: Georgia State, +6½
THE PREDICTION: Western Kentucky 38, Georgia State 35

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WHO: No. 25 Boise State (10-3) vs. Oregon (7-5)
WHAT: The 26th Las Vegas Bowl
WHERE: Sam Boyd Stadium, Whitney, Nevada
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
THE LINE: Boise State, +7½
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: Marshall (7-5) vs. Colorado State (7-5)
WHAT: The 12th Gildan New Mexico Bowl
WHERE: Dreamstyle Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
WHEN: 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Pay attention, America, and introduce yourself, if you haven’t already, to one of the best wide receivers in the country that not enough people talk about.  Colorado State’s Michael Gallup is currently tied for third in the FBS with 94 receptions and fifth in receiving yards with 1,345.  Gallup is part of an offense that averages just north of 500 yards per game; Marshall, though, is stingy defensively, finishing the regular season second in Conference USA and 17th nationally by giving up 19.3 points per game.  If you’re a fan of streaks, here’s one: the Thundering Herd has won five straight bowl games, while the Rams have dropped three straight in the postseason.  CSU’s last win, though?  The 2013 New Mexico Bowl.  The two teams, which will be facing each other in football for the first time ever, come stumbling into this matchup as Marshall has lost four of five while Colorado State has dropped three of four.
THE LINE: Marshall, +5½
THE PREDICTION: Colorado State 44, Marshall 27

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WHO: Middle Tennessee State (6-6) vs. Arkansas State (7-4)
WHAT: The 4th Raycom Media Camellia Bowl
WHERE: Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama
WHEN: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: The final Conference USA-Sun Belt matchup of the day, history suggests that the day’s nightcap could be the closest of the five played opening weekend.  Three Camellia Bowls have been played, with that trio of games being decided by a combined 10 points.  MTSU and ASU have met 12 times previously as members of the SBC, the last coming in 2012.  The Blue Raiders, who have lost four straight bowl games and haven’t won one since 2009, come into their matchup with their former conference rivals on a mini-roll with three wins in their last four to squeeze into a bowl slot.  The Red Wolves are playing in their seventh consecutive bowl game after playing in just one in the program’s history prior to the streak kicking off in 2011 under head coach Hugh Freeze.  After losses to Nebraska and SMU sandwiched between a win over an FCS team, ASU went 6-2 the rest of the way in nearly claiming at least a share of its third straight SBC championship and sixth in seven seasons.  Quarterback Brent Stockstill is expected to be back close to 100-percent health after battling injuries throughout the season, and MTSU’s late-season roll not so coincidentally coincided with his return.  In that vein, and while acknowledging ASU’s own threat at QB in Justice Hansen, Stockstill’s healthy presence should be enough to tip the scales in favor of the Blue Raiders’ hopes of snapping their bowl-win drought.
THE LINE: Middle Tennessee State, +3½
THE PREDICTION: Middle Tennessee State 41, Arkansas State 38

Part-time starting DB Cameron Watkins leaving Illinois

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For the fourth time this offseason, Lovie Smith has lost a scholarship player to transfer — and that’s not including a wide receiver who signed with the school but opted to return to Miami.

On his personal Twitter account this week, Cameron Watkins announced that “it is now time for me to start another chapter in my life as I will be moving on from the University of Illinois after graduating in May.” As a graduate transfer, the defensive back would be eligible to play at another FBS school in 2019 if that ends up being his next move.

Watkins started 16 games the past three seasons for the Fighting Illini, including seven in 2018.

Watkins joins wide receiver Carmoni Green and offensive linemen Zeke Martin and Adam Solomon as Illini players who have left the program this offseason.

Green was one of five Illini players suspended for the 2018 opener, and then went on to catch 10 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown last season. Martin (12 games) and Solomon (11) played primarily on special teams in 2018.

At least 11 Penn State players have either transferred or placed names in NCAA database

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There are significant exoduses, and there’s what’s transpired in Happy Valley recently.

A total of five Penn State football players opted to leave eligibility on the table and make themselves available for the 2019 NFL Draft — offensive tackle Ryan Bates (HERE), defensive tackle Kevin Givens (HERE), offensive lineman Connor McGovern (HERE), defensive end Shareef Miller (HERE) and running back Miles Sanders (HERE). Additionally, the Centre Daily Times notes, a whopping 11 players (thus far) have, since the end of the regular season, either decided to transfer or put their names in the NCAA transfer database signaling a probable intent to move on.

Three of those transfers/potential transfers, tight end Danny Dalton, offensive lineman Alex Gellerstedt and safety Ayron Monroe, were the most recent additions to the list of potential player personnel attrition at the football program. The other eight with at least one foot out the door are (deep breath) linebackers Dae’lun Darien (HERE) and Brelin Faison-Walden; wide receivers Juwan Johnson (HERE) and Brandon Polk; safeties Isaiah Humphries (HERE) and Lamont Wade; cornerback Zech McPhearson; and offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins.

The biggest of the losses would be Johnson, who started seven games this past season and caught 25 passes for 352 yards and a touchdown, and Polk, who also started seven games and totaled 162 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions. Monroe (pictured) played in 33 games during his time with the Nittany Lions and was viewed as a potential starting safety in 2019, while McPherson (23 games played/12 in 2018) and Wade (24/12) saw significant action the past two seasons.

The only other transfer/potential transfer who played in more than 10 games while in Happy Valley was Darien, whose 15 appearances included eight this past season.

Texas QB Shane Buechele putting name in transfer database

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There’s little question that, for the next couple of seasons and barring injury, Texas is Sam Ehlinger‘s football team.  In that vein, another member of UT’s quarterback room is looking into the possibility of moving out.

Overnight, multiple media outlets reported that Shane Buechele has informed the football program of his intention to enter his name into the NCAA transfer database.  According to 247Sports.com, SMU is already considered the favorite to land Buechele.

Buechele, a four-star 2016 signee, started every game as a true freshman, then started seven games in 2017 while Ehlinger started six his true freshman season.  Ehlinger won the job during summer camp and was the starter for this past season as Buechele played in just two games, which seemingly served as the trigger for the transfer.

Scheduled to graduate from UT in May, Buechele would not only be eligible to play immediately at another FBS school in 2019, but he’d have another season of eligibility he could use in 2020 as well.  As Buechele played in fewer than four games this past season, he can take advantage of the new NCAA redshirt rule and save a year of eligibility.

In other UT quarterbacking news, Cameron Rising, who was one of two Longhorn signal-callers to put their names in the transfer database around Christmastime last year, has visited Utah and is expected to sign with the Utes, 247Sports.com reported.

There was a bit of good news under center for the Longhorns as Casey Thompson, the other UT quarterback in the database, will return to Austin.  Thompson, a four-star 2018 signee who is the son of former Oklahoma quarterback Charles Thompson, did not see the field as a true freshman this past season.

Butch Jones eschewing Maryland job to remain at Alabama

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It appears Butch Jones will get the opportunity to light up a second victory cigar after years of going cold turkey.

In early December, after Mike Locksley accepted a head-coaching job, it was reported that Butch Jones, the former Tennessee head coach-turned-offensive analyst for Alabama in 2018, would follow the Crimson Tide offensive coordinator and take a job on Locksley’s first Terrapins coaching staff. Between then and now, however, Nick Saban‘s offensive staff has been hit by significant attrition, with four assistants on that side of the ball (including Locksley) leaving for jobs at other schools.

In that light, multiple reports surfaced Wednesday in which it’s expected Jones will remain with the Crimson Tide in an unspecified on-field role.

When it comes to offensive roles, Saban has plenty to offer.

Locksley was hired to take the head job at Maryland and was expected to be replaced by quarterbacks coach Dan Enos; instead, Enos left to take over as the coordinator at Miami. Wide receivers coach Josh Gattis also bolted to become the coordinator at Michigan, while offensive line coach Brent Key left to take a job at Georgia Tech.

It’s been reported that Steve Sarkisian is expected to return to Tuscaloosa, presumably as offensive coordinator. In his career, Jones has coached running backs, tight ends and wide receivers; it was expected that he would coach tight ends with the Terrapins.

Now, about the defensive side of the ball