WHO: Fresno State (9-4) vs. Houston (7-4)
WHAT: The 15th Hawai’i Bowl
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: Aloha Stadium in Honolulu
THE SKINNY: While he hasn’t taken any trophies home this month, one could make a good case that Jeff Tedford is the college football coach of the year in 2017 for the work he’s done at Fresno State. After all, the former Bulldogs quarterback has sparked one of the great turnarounds in the sport this season, taking over a 1-11 team from a year ago and leading them to the doorstep of a Mountain West title and a spot in the Selection Committee’s top 25 in late November.
While optimism and good football have returned to California’s Central Valley, the dream season isn’t over yet as Fresno State aims for a 10th win — as many as the program had in the three years prior — and a bowl victory for the first time in a decade on Christmas Eve.
Leading the resurgence has been the tandem of quarterback Marcus McMaryion and wideout KeeSean Johnson. The two have hooked up for eight touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards through the air as the Oregon State transfer under center has helped inject some life into an offense that looks completely different from the same unit a year ago. Fresno’s defense also isn’t anything to gloss over either, leading the conference in scoring at just 17.2 points a game allowed.
Their opponent, Houston, knows all too well what a good defense can do for you as the Cougars sport perhaps the best defensive player in all of college football. That would be defensive tackle Ed Oliver, the Outland Trophy Award winner this season after another incredible campaign that saw him record 14.5 TFL’s and 5.5 sacks despite being double (and often triple) teamed on every snap. To say he is a disruptive force goes without saying and he’s reason enough to tune in for this game amid the holiday season.
Offensively, the Cougars have been a bit up and down in 2017 under new coach and former offensive coordinator Major Applewhite but did score some big wins over Arizona early and USF late. Part time receiver D’Eriq King has seemingly taken hold of the job behind center during the team’s last four games and, despite being the third quarterback to take snaps this year, brings plenty to the table as both a passer (832 yards, 73% passing in three starts) and a runner (seven scores on the ground).
The question is though, can Fresno State stop Oliver from wreaking havoc on every play? That’s really what this game will come down to and the Bulldogs do have experience against superstars in the trenches having played Alabama and Washington earlier in the season. While offensive linemen Aaron Mitchell and Netane Muti are a big reason why the team has only allowed nine sacks all year (fifth in FBS), something says that won’t quite hold up in Honolulu as the Cougars sneak out with a close victory in what should be a pretty competitive bowl game.
THE PICK: Houston 28, Fresno State 23