Nevada-Colorado St. Preview
Nevada went .500 and limped into bowl season with consecutive losses, yet feels slighted by its postseason assignment. Someone had Disney World in mind.
Colorado State, its cross-Mountain West foe, is rumored to have had a choice in the Wolf Pack's placement in the Arizona Bowl - essentially an in-conference sabotage.
As storylines go, the inaugural game's buildup has sounded more pre-bout than pre-bowl. Weigh-ins are over. Words were said that can't be taken back. It's time now to see whether either team is even capable of landing much of a punch.
The teams didn't meet in the regular season, but the ever-evolving bowl system has paired the league opponents for a Tuesday matchup in the desert. While Nevada (6-6, 4-4 MWC West) and Colorado State (7-5, 5-3 MWC Mountain) don't have much of a leg to stand on with any complaints after mediocre seasons, the conference might have more of a case. Might.
Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson lashed out after the pairings were announced, but this was after the conference pushed for the bowl's creation in the first place to ensure more of its schools would have postseason football opportunities.
"It is a travesty the Mountain West has been forced into this situation. Clearly, the system is broken," Thompson said in a statement on the Mountain West's official website. "There is an excess of bowl games due in part to a disparate allocation of openings vs. conference bowl histories. The result is teams with sub-.500 records participating in bowl games. There is consensus change is needed and this year's outcome must not be repeated."
Nevada has other reasons for speaking out against the matchup. San Jose State, which went 6-7 and lost to Nevada on Nov. 14, was chosen to play Georgia State in the Cure Bowl, the Wolf Pack's preferred postseason destination.
Also, Tuscon apparently is not sunny enough for Lenny Jones.
"We do feel disrespected," the Nevada defensive end said. "… We've definitely got a little chip on our shoulder for playing against an in-conference team and letting another team that we beat, without six wins, go to Orlando in the sun on Dec. 19.
"So, yeah, I'm not too happy about that. Colorado State's going to get a little bit extra from me."
The Rams seem less concerned with how everything shook out.
"It's in our conference, but I haven't played Nevada, so I'm excited about it," first-year coach Mike Bobo said. "... It's not up to me. I don't make those decisions."
On the field, they might not be so different, especially on the defensive side. Both teams gave up 27.2 points per game, and Colorado State allowed 394.3 yards of total offense while Nevada was at 394.8. The Rams, however, were the team trending upward by season's end.
They won their last four games - three on the road - while holding teams to 23.5 points and 366.3 yards per game. Things also came together offensively, in large part because they committed four turnovers for a plus-3 differential after having 22 for a minus-14 mark over their 3-5 start.
"We were 2-4 and won five out of the last six, and have a chance to win six out of seven, and I don't even think we're near the potential we can be," Bobo said. "But we're finding a way to win."
The last four also happened to be Colorado State's top four rushing games of the season, averaging 258.8 yards and 5.56 per rush. Three backs ran for at least 500 yards, with Dalyn Dawkins leading the way at 805.
The switch to the ground this season made things more difficult on Rashard Higgins, who led the nation in receiving a year ago as a sophomore with 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns on 96 catches, including 10 for a career-high 194 yards and two TDs against Nevada. He dropped off to 933 with eight TDs on 66 grabs this season.
Colorado State won last season's meeting 31-24 at Nevada for its second straight victory in the series and 11th in 13 all-time matchups. The Rams are making their third straight bowl appearance, though the last one ended in a 45-10 loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Nevada lost 16-3 to Louisiana Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl after 2013's 4-8 season ended a span of eight straight bowl appearances.
Nevada dropped consecutive road games to Utah State and eventual conference champion San Diego State to end the season. The Wolf Pack also leaned heavily on their rushing attack - James Butler and Don Jackson each rushed for over 1,000 yards and combined for 2,182.
But even coach Brian Polian knew what people wanted to hear about in his Dec. 16 press conference.
"Look, everybody wants me to comment on the fact that we're playing Colorado State," Polian said. "Obviously, it's a very unique situation, but ... we cannot get annoyed by things that we cannot control.
"The head coaches are not involved in the bowl pairings. The athletic directors and university presidents are involved in conversations, but even then, I'm not sure how much control we actually have, so there's no sense in getting upset about something we have absolutely nothing to do with. The reality is we're very excited to play a 13th game. We have earned the right to be in a bowl. If people don't like that, I'm sorry."