TEAMS: SMU Mustangs (6-6, 5-3 Conference USA) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (9-3, 7-1 Mountain West Conference)
TIME: 8 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: Fresno State -12; Over/Under 591/2
College football wishes its fans Mele Kalikimaka with this Christmas Eve tradition. The 2012 edition welcomes June Jones back to Hawai’i, where the coach led the UH football program to program-best heights in the mid-2000s. This is also Jones’ second time here as head coach at SMU.
The Mustangs overcame some hiccups in a trying 2012 to reach the program’s fourth consecutive bowl game. Jones was reportedly offered the head coaching vacancy at Arizona State last December, but the offer was quickly rescinded in one of the more bizarre turns of last year’s coaching carousel.
Jones’ false start seemingly carried over into the 2012 campaign. SMU opened the campaign 2-4 with losses of 35 to Baylor, 45 to Texas A&M and a one-point defeat at C-USA cellar dweller Tulane. The ship was righted down the stretch, though, and SMU squeaked into the postseason to maintain its streak.
At just 6-6, the Mustangs are sizable underdogs against co-Mountain West champion Fresno State. However, it’s worth noting that SMU’s last time in the Hawai’i Bowl, it was a 121/2-point underdog against a Nevada team it walloped 45-10.
In addition to Jones’ flirtation with Arizona State, another unexpected development of last season’s coaching changes was Fresno State firing highly successful Pat Hill. The Bulldogs struggled to a 4-9 finish in 2011, just the second time Fresno State had finished out of the bowl picture since 1999. Despite Fresno State’s sub-par campaign, the pieces for excellence in 2012 were there.
New hire Tim DeRuyter capitalized with the remaining parts, overseeing an offense that ranked No. 12 in both scoring and passing offense to power the program to a share of its first conference championship since 2005.
This season marks the 10-year anniversary of the Hawai’i Bowl, contrary to some belief. Honolulu formerly hosted the Aloha Bowl from 1982 through 2000, often played on Christmas Day and featuring power conference participants. The Oahu Bowl was introduced in the late 1990s, but both it and the Aloha Bowl went defunct after the 2000 season.
The Hawai’i Bowl brought postseason college football back to the Island in 2002 when Tulane faced Hawai’i. Host UH has the most appearances with six. SMU joins UH and Nevada as the bowl’s only repeat invitees.
SMU earned its invitation on the final week of its season. The Mustangs topped C-USA champion Tulsa, though a Hail Mary on the game’s final play nearly denied SMU its bowl bid.
In Tulsa, these teams share a common opponent. Fresno State visited the Golden Hurricane on Sept. 22 and lost 27-26, despite a 20-7 first quarter lead.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr was among the nation’s most prolific passers this season with 36 touchdowns, 68 percent completions, 3742 yards and just five interceptions. The Detmer Award finalist and Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year spread the ball among seven receivers with at least 19 catches. Davante Adams emerged as the Bulldogs’ top target, filling the void Jalen Saunders left.
That’s an interesting sub-plot to the Bulldogs’ successful, uptempo passing game. The program’s leading receiver from 2011 — and one of the top pass catchers in college football — transferred to Oklahoma. Saunders has emerged as a playmaker in the Sooners’ offense, but Fresno State hasn’t missed a beat without him.
Isaiah Burse supplements the Bulldogs’ passing attack as Carr’s No. 2 option. He has 53 receptions and six touchdowns, including seven catches for 158 yards in the season finale against Air Force.
Carr also passes to running back Robbie Rouse; Rouse’s 58 receptions are actually second most among all Bulldogs. That added element to the passing game is just a fraction of what the fourth year player brings to Fresno State, though.
The Bulldogs’ Mighty Mouse has been a contributor all four seasons, and in his senior year really emerged as a star. Rouse ranks No. 13 in the FBS for yards per game, accruing 1468 in 12 games. He’s scored 12 touchdowns to give the Bulldogs a dangerous, additional dimension to the offense.
Rouse has some competition on the opposite side of the ball, though. SMU running back Zach Line won C-USA Offensive Player of the Year for his 1207 yards and 12 touchdowns. Like Rouse, Line is also an integral cog in the passing game with 38 receptions on the season.
The top three targets of SMU quarterback and Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert are Darius Johnson, Jeremy Johnson and Der’rikk Thompson. The trio accounts for 11 of the Mustangs’ 15 passing scores this season.
Fifteen might seem a paltry number for a Jones-coached team. Indeed, the revolving door that has existed behind center in Jones’ time at SMU has kept his Run & Shoot offense from taking off in the same fashion it did at Hawai’i. Gilbert is three years removed from spelling an injured Colt McCoy in the BCS championship game, but that experience hasn’t translated into vast success after his transfer.
Gilbert’s thrown nearly as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns (14) and completed just 53.1 percent of his 478 pass attempts. Carelessness with the ball costs quarterbacks dearly against Fresno State — Bulldog safety Phillip Thomas leads the nation with eight interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns.
SMU is willing to play a defensive game itself. The Mustangs feature a talented front, anchored by Estonian end Margus Hunt. Hunt’s six sacks lead SMU, but he’s also an impact player on special teams. At 6-foot-8, Hunt has a knack for blocking kicks, adding to the many talents this track athlete and piano players boasts.