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Popeye's Bahamas Bowl Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

It's the second-ever meeting between these two teams, as they both meet in the first-ever Bahamas Bowl.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Central Michigan Chippewas (7-5, 5-3 MAC) will face the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (7-5, 4-4 C*USA) in the inaugural Popeye's Bahamas Bowl in Nassau at noon on Christmas Eve.

The game features two teams that finished 4th in their respective divisions this season, with both teams riding positive momentum into this matchup at Thomas A. Robinson Memorial Stadium. Coming into this match, the Chippewas have won three out of their last four games, suffering a loss to hated rival Western Michigan on the last game of the season. Western Kentucky, meanwhile, won their final four games to make it into bowl-eligibility, culminating in a shootout that resulted in a 67-66 overtime victory over a then-ranked Marshall in the final week of the season. The teams have met once before, with Dan Enos leading the Chippewas to a 24-21 victory over the Hilltoppers in the 2012 Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl. Neither team was selected to a bowl last season, with both teams having each other for their last bowl game played. Central Michigan is 3-4 in bowls all-time, while Western Kentucky is 0-1.

Western Kentucky surprised many with their dismantling of then-projected/defending MAC champions Bowling Green 59-31 on national television in the first game of the season, with Brandon Doughty shredding the Falcons for a school-record 569 yards and 6 TD's. The Hilltoppers then nearly pulled off a B1G upset  the next week vs. Illinois, following that up with an early conference loss to Middle Tennessee in 3OT's. WKU  cooled off in the middle of the season and quickly found themselves in a 1-4 conference hole after a blowout loss to Louisiana Tech. They then went on a four game winning streak, knocking off Marshall in the last week of the season.

The Hilltoppers are a dymano on offense, ranking 6th in the nation with points for, averaging 44 points a game,while  averaging 365 yards a game (3rd in the nation,) Doughty was statistically among the best quarterbacks in the nation, with 4,344 yards and 44 TD's over the season. No surprise there, considering he has a dymanic duo at wide receiver, with Taywan Tyler (44 rec., 739 yards, 7 TD's,) and Jared Dangerfield (64 rec., 738 yards, 10 TD's,) and a 1400+ yard rusher in Leon Allen, who also boasts 12 TD's.

However, the 'Toppers aren't unstoppable. Teams that can stop the pass are able to stop the Hilltopper offense, as in their five losses, they only gained 12 passing TD's and 7 rushing TD's. gaining 1000+ less yards than in their 7 losses. If there is one Achille's Heel in this Hilltopper team, it is defense. Despite being the only team on the FBS level this season to return four defensive touchdowns over 80+ yards, they give up a lot of points, ranking 122nd in the nation in overall defense, with a 39.5 average of points allowed. In losses, the defense has allowed 42 (twice,) 50, 45, and 59. In wins against Old Dominion and Marshall, the defense gave up 51 and 66, respectively.

While WKU boasted C*USA's top offense, CMU boasted the MAC's top defense. The Chippewas defense runs a 4-2-5 defense and loves to rely on a monster front six, with Justin Cherroci (first-team All-MAC,) Jabari Dean, Blake Serpa, and Joel Ostman (third-team All-MAC) wreaking havoc on the back field this season; the Chips have only allowed one 100+ yard rusher this season (Syracuse RB Adonis Ameen-Moore.) With 5 base defensive backs, the Chippewas look to cause turnovers, and do. They have forced 20 turnovers (14 INT's, 6 fumbles) in their twelve games this season, and boast nine players with at least one turnover, including Brandon Greer (3 INT's, 1 forced fumble,) Tony Annesse (3 INT's,) and Kevin King (2 INT's, 1 forced fumble.) The Chippewas' defense is also top 50 in the nation in points against, allowing only 23.2 PPG (32nd in the nation.)

As a unit, the Chippewas offense has done the job this season, and that's about it. CMU averages 222 passing yards and 158.7 rushing yards, while scoring around 25 points a game, all middling or below-average in the FBS. Despite these struggles, the Chippewas were on fire in the red zone this season, going 37-42 in the last 11 games after a bloop 2-5 in the red zone vs. FCS semi-finalist Tennessee-Chattanooga. On an individual level, however, there are some pieces to look out for. Redshirt sophomore QB Cooper Rush has much improved this season, throwing for 20 TD's and 15 INT's while gaining 2, 664 yards as a full-time starter. Rush has completed nearly 64% of his passes, a 7 point improvement over last season, and has improved his QBR by 14 points. Titus Davis is easily the best player on the roster for Cenbtral Michigan, and set NCAA history earlier this season, becoming the only receiver to have  8+ TD's a season in a four year career. Davis created a new school record for all-time TD's for CMU, with 33 touchdowns. Despite missing most of the non-con season with a knee injury, Davis still corralled 9 receiving TD's and 843 yards, averaging an astounding 15.6 yards per catch.

Thomas Rawls, a transfer running back from Michigan, ran for 1103 yards and 10 TD's this season, but has struggled with injuries and legal troubles after a hot start to the season. Once again, Rawls will not be available for the game Wednesday due to "an academic issue," which means that Devon Spalding and Saylor Lavallii will most likely split carries, with Maurice Showmaker-Gilmore as a change of pace back. Spalding has ran for 359 yards and 4 TD's, while averaging 5.5 yards per rush in spot starts and relief work in place of Rawls. Lavallii is more of a protection back, but had a solid season last year as Central's starter after injuries to Zurlon Tipton, now of the Indianapolis Colts.

Western Kentucky is currently the favorite in this bowl, thanks in part to their air-raid offense and a resume-boosting win over Marshall. The Hilltoppers must lean on Leon Allen being able to get through a tough defensive line in order to be able to open up their offensive playbook. WKU must also find a way to stop Titus Davis from running loose and impose pressure on a shaken backfield, with Rawls being out and with Rush not great on 3rd downs, converting only 54% on the season.

Meanwhile, Central Michigan must be on their ball-hawking instinct on defense, as Doughty likes to toss the ball around, not only to Dangerfield and Tyler, but also to seven other players that each have 20+ receptions have the year. The Chips must get Spalding or Lavallii going early and often, as in their seven wins, they average 203.3 rushing yards. In losses, they only average 96.2 yards.

The Bahamas Bowl will certainly be the classic clash between unstoppable force and immovable object. Considering the bevy of emotions that both teams have gone through, a win here in paradise will certainly be the best Christmas present one that the players and fans can ask for.


The game can be seen on ESPN, ESPN3, and the WatchESPN app at noon EST. Steve Levy, Lou Holtz, Mark May, and Laura Rutledge will be on the call.

SB Nation 2014 College Football Guide