Feature graphic courtesy of Lauren Anikis
Central Michigan (6-6) vs. Tulsa (9-3)
Where: Marlins Park in Miami, Fla.
When: Monday, Dec. 19 at 2:30 ET on ESPN
How they got here:
After a 5-2 start that included a thrilling 30-27 win at then-No. 22 Oklahoma State, Central Michigan dropped four of their last five in MAC play. That win in against Oklahoma State will go down in program history: Central Michigan received a free play from their own 49 to finish the game — later determined to be mistakenly awarded by the referees — and scored the game-winning touchdown on a crazy Hail Mary-hook-and-lateral play. Jesse Kroll caught the pass a few yards short of the goal line, and as a defender brought him down from behind, he shoveled it to teammate Corey Willis who then sprinted to the far corner of the end zone.
If they hadn’t won that game, the 6-6 Chippewas might not be bowling. Although this is their third straight bowl appearance, they were overshadowed in the “Directional U” department in 2016 by conference rival Western Michigan’s undefeated regular season.
Why they can win:
Quarterback Cooper Rush leads a fairly strong passing attack; his 275 passing yards per game ranks top-20 in the nation. And although he’s more interception-prone than most top QBs — he’s thrown 13 picks compared to 23 touchdowns — Tulsa’s defense has only produced a mere seven interceptions this year. In fact, they’ve struggled defensively all year, allowing 31.5 points a game. This is a team that escaped with a 48-41 win over Fresno State, a team that went on to finish 1-11. Tulsa has only beaten two bowl-bound teams, Memphis and UCF, so it wouldn’t be that surprising for the 6-6 Chippewas to pull off the upset.
Central Michigan doesn’t have the hotter offense in this game, nor do they have the better momentum coming into it. But scrappy wins like their victories over Oklahoma State and MAC East champion Ohio show that this senior-laden team may have that intangible toughness to pull out their first bowl win in three consecutive tries.
Player to Watch: Cooper Rush, Sr., QB
The first thing this dude’s got going for him is one of the best quarterback names in recent memory. The second thing is his intellect, according to a Sports Illustrated feature written entirely on the subject. That refers to both his prowess in the classroom and his football IQ. His coaches and some pro scouts believe Rush has enough NFL talent to be an early-round draft pick and this game will be high-scoring enough for him to show off that talent on national television.
How they got here:
Tulsa’s three losses all came on the road to opponents that are nationally ranked or were at the time of their game: Ohio State, Houston and Navy. The Golden Hurricane’s nine wins, meanwhile, came against an FCS team and eight FBS opponents with a combined 2016 record of 35-61.
That being said, Tulsa cannot be written off for its lack of wins over impressive opponents. They still have a knack for putting up 40 or more points, even in their losses. They ran right through the majority of the top-heavy American Athletic Conference to finish second in the AAC West, and they’ll bring some momentum into Marlins Park, having won five of their final six regular season matchups.
Why they can win:
Tulsa’s head coach is former Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery, so it’s easy for a college football fan to tell where their offensive prowess comes from. The Golden Hurricane offense is sixth in the nation with 522.5 yards per game and ranks 11th with 41.4 points per game, despite scoring only three points against Ohio State.
The offense is guided by their rushing attack, one of the most powerful in college football. They average 261.8 yards per game, eighth-most in FBS, thanks to a two-headed monster in the backfield. Tulsa is the only team this year to have two players rush for over 1,300 yards: James Flanders (1,529 yards, 17 touchdowns) and D’Angelo Brewer (1,330 yards, seven touchdowns).
It’s a more balanced offense than you’d think, though. If wideout Josh Atkinson gains 73 receiving yards in the Miami Beach Bowl, Tulsa will become the first team in FBS history to feature a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers and two 1,000-yard receivers all in one season.
Player to Watch: James Flanders, Sr., RB
Before you Google this guy, add a modifier like “Tulsa” or “football” so you don’t mix him up with the pastor-turned-murderer of the same name. With that out of the way, this senior is listed at 5-foot-10, 203 pounds—a pinball that’s hard to bring down. Pro Football Focus reported in November that after the first 10 weeks of the college season, Flanders averaged the most yards after contact in the nation with 4.22.
Tulsa’s James Flanders averages 4.22 yards AFTER contact, the most among running backs with at least 100 carries. pic.twitter.com/81SwFIvBqT
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 10, 2016
Brewer actually has received more touches than Flanders, so the two can stay equally fresh, but Flanders is also capable of breaking out when he’s on his own. His magnum opus was a 249-yard, five-touchdown performance to carry Tulsa past 8-4 Memphis.
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