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One matchup + one storyline to watch for in every MAC bowl game

Analyzing a key storyline and a key matchup in all seven MAC bowl games, from Boise to Alabama to the Bahamas.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Central Michigan at Buffalo Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bowl season is upon us. It’s the best time of the college football season with 39 unique matchups to analyze before the National Championship Game wraps it all up in mid-January. Seven MAC teams await their postseason battle, and each one comes with different key matchups and interesting storylines to watch for.

Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl

Buffalo vs. Charlotte — December 20, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN

The matchup: Buffalo’s offensive line vs. Alex Highsmith

Buffalo enters the Bahamas Bowl with one of the sturdiest set of blockers in the country. The Bulls have allowed eight sacks this season, allowing 0.67 per game, an impressive mark which only trails the number of sacks allowed by Air Force’s option-based offense. Buffalo’s trenches feature a load of star talent, including two-time All-MAC left tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk and 2019 All-MAC selections Kayode Awosika and Paul Nosworthy. Since Kyle Vantrease took over as the starting quarterback role on October 5, the offensive line has allowed one sack and the line’s success has translated to team success — a 5-2 record over the time span. The run blocking has excelled nicely, as Buffalo averages the ninth-most rushing yards in the FBS and is the only team to feature a pair of 1,000 yard rushers.

On the other side of Buffalo’s offensive line in Nassau is one of the most aggressive pass rushers in the country. Charlotte led the C-USA in sacks registered with 3.0 per contest. Defensive end Alex Highsmith only trails Heisman finalist Chase Young in sacks this year, racking up 15.0 in opposing backfields. Highsmith is one of the nation’s top run stoppers with 21.5 tackles for loss. If he’s not already a handful for Buffalo’s offensive line, the unit must deal with fellow edge rusher Markees Watts. The sophomore has 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks to his name this season. Whichever unit wins the battle in the trenches determines plenty in this year’s Bahamas Bowl.

The storyline: Which program earns its biggest win in program history?

Only 11 FBS teams still have a zero in their bowl win column and two are meeting in international territory to kick off the postseason. Buffalo lost a shootout to Troy in the 2018 Dollar General Bowl but has a chance to make amends after qualifying for bowl season in back-to-back years — also a program first for the Bulls. Charlotte is in its fifth season as an FBS program but is bowling for the first time. Rookie head coach Will Healy won each of his final five games to qualify for this matchup and his team is hungry to finally claim a trophy in the Bahamas.

Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl

Kent State vs. Utah State — December 20, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

The matchup: Kent State’s secondary vs. Jordan Love

Jordan Love announced last week that the Frisco Bowl will be his final collegiate game before he declares for the draft. After showing out in 2018 with 3,567 yards, 32 touchdown passes, and only six interceptions, the Utah State quarterback’s hopeful Heisman campaign didn’t go as planned in 2019. Utah State experienced a roller coaster season as a result, but Love can end his Aggie career on a high note with a victory in Frisco. On a national stage with professional scouts on notice, he’s guaranteed to deliver his all this game.

Kent State features one of the better secondaries in the MAC, allowing a hair over 220 passing yards per game. The cornerback pairing of Jamal Parker (3 interceptions) and Elvis Hines is one of the top duos in the MAC, combining for 16 passes defended. If the Golden Flashes can force interceptions and blanket Love’s targets, Kent State’s offense is powerful enough to do copious amounts of damage at Toyota Stadium.

The storyline: After long drought, Kent State aims for its first bowl win

Kent State has only qualified for one bowl game since the bicentennial, a 2012 Bowl loss to Arkansas State. The Golden Flashes are one of college football’s longest suffering programs, but Sean Lewis only needed two seasons to bring the university to a rare bowl appearance. Now that Kent State is rolling on a 3-game win streak, the Golden Flashes are presented with a chance to upset Utah State and earn their first bowl win ever.

New Mexico Bowl

Central Michigan vs. San Diego State — December 21, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN

The matchup: Kalil Pimpleton vs. Luq Barcoo

Pimpleton led all MAC receivers in receptions this year... by a mile. Pimpleton’s 79 catches were 18 more than the next closest challenge. The All-MAC product registered 823 receiving yards, six touchdowns, and was instrumental in reviving Central Michigan into a national top 40 aerial offense. San Diego State’s defense has dominated opponents all season, suffocating foes to 12.8 points per game, good for fourth in the country. Teams struggle passing on the Aztecs, especially due to the presence of cornerback Luq Barcoo in the secondary. Barcoo is second in the FBS with eight interceptions and first overall with 16 pass breakups. San Diego State prefers to keep games on the lower-scoring end, but Pimpleton must succeed against the shutdown corner in order to power his team’s offense and swing things in favor of Central Michigan.

MAC Championship - Central Michigan v Miami Ohio Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The storyline: Mountain West head coaches reunite

McElwain and Long are, perhaps, two of the most underrated coaches in the sport. The former of the two now has Coach of the Year honors in three different conferences — MAC, SEC, and his starting point, the Mountain West. Central Michigan’s first-year head coach turned around Colorado State, led Florida to two SEC Championship Games in his first two seasons, and improved Central Michigan by seven wins in his initial year in Mt. Pleasant. Long’s career is more stable, remaining on the San Diego State sidelines as the head man since 2011. Just 11 FBS teams have more wins than Long’s Aztecs in the College Football Playoff era, and he’ll have an opportunity to add one more to it against the Chippewas. Long and McElwain face off on the same field for the first time since 2012, when San Diego State thrashed Colorado State 38-14. Now the old Mountain West coaches are back at it again in Mountain West country.

Quick Lane Bowl

Eastern Michigan vs. Pittsburgh — December 26, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

The matchup: Kevin McGill vs. Maurice Ffrench

Pitt wide receiver Maurice Ffrench suffered a broken jaw late in the season, but he returned to haul in nine receptions in the regular season finale against Boston College. Ffrench leads all Panthers with 84 receptions, attaining at least six in all 10 of his games. The electric receiver faces an All-MAC cornerback in Kevin McGill. The Eastern Michigan star consistently produces at a high level. With five interceptions and 19 pass breakups in his past three seasons, he can end his college career on good footing in Detroit.

The storyline: Which version of Pitt shows up and which Eastern Michigan shows up?

Pitt involved itself in eight one-score games this year, while Eastern Michigan ended up in seven. These programs are frequenters of close games and combine for 10 overtime games since 2016, but both teams also operate as random number generators. For instance, Pitt barely skated by Delaware of the FCS but defeated UCF and was yards away from upsetting Penn State on the road. Eastern Michigan also struggled with an FCS squad, finished last place in the MAC East, but defeated a Big Ten foe for the third-straight year. Any result seems possible when these teams step on the field, so the projected result of a Pitt blowout might not necessarily happen given these teams’ recent unpredictable histories.

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl

Western Michigan vs. WKU — December 26, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

The matchup: LeVante Bellamy vs. the end zone

It will be an emotional final game in Dallas for LeVante Bellamy, who hopes to put the finishing touches on a historic season. No FBS player has more rushing touchdowns than Western Michigan’s All-MAC senior running back, and he can add to that number against the WKU defense. Nine of Bellamy’s 23 rushing scores have come from more than 35 yards, as his speed can strike from anywhere if he finds daylight. Also, he has pulled off four touchdown hat tricks this season, and can cement himself as third in Western Michigan history with four more rushing touchdowns. It seems like a feasible goal, considering the NCAA 14-esque numbers he generated all year long.

The storyline: Can the Broncos finish the job in Dallas this time?

Western Michigan is back in the Dallas metroplex. This time, the Broncos are across the street in Dallas at the First Responder Bowl, three years after competing for a coveted Cotton Bowl victory in Arlington, TX. Western Michigan squandered its undefeated record that season with a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin, and the Broncos have yet to win a bowl game since. Back in a familiar area, with a star-studded senior class of Cotton Bowl participants, Western Michigan earns a valuable opportunity to end its bowl skid and end up victorious in North Texas.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Ohio vs. Nevada — December 26, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

The matchup: Ohio’s rushing attack vs. Nevada’s defense

Nevada will have its hands full when Frank Solich’s offense rolls into town at Albertsons Stadium. Ohio’s rushing offense wasn’t as strong as it was in 2018, due to the loss of star running back A.J. Ouellette, but the Bobcats greatly improved as the season progressed. In its last two outings, Ohio registered 593 combined rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Nathan Rourke totaled 780 yards on the ground this year while running backs O’Shaan Allison and DeMontre Tuggle generated 823 and 547, respectively. Both tailbacks average more than 6.0 yards per carry and are facing the nation’s 44th ranked run defense. Nevada’s run-stopping brigade also improves week-by-week, allowing under 120 rushing yards against three of its four most recent opponents.

The storyline: Nathan Rourke finishes storied college career

There’s one last ride for Nathan Rourke. “Air Canada” has dazzled his way into the highlight reels, guiding Ohio to one of the premier rushing attacks in the country in his three seasons as the Bobcats’ signal caller. The dual threat quarterback has already broken his career-best in passing yards this season and can add to his 110 combined passing, rushing, and receiving touchdowns with a stellar performance on the blue turf in Boise. Watching the three-time All-MAC selection suit up in green and white one last time is a spectacle in itself... and who knows, perhaps his next successor at Ohio is his brother, Kurtis Rourke.

LendingTree Bowl

Miami (OH) vs. Louisiana — December 26, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

The matchup: Miami’s run defense vs. the Louisiana trio

Buffalo has the most prolific running back tandem in college football, but Louisiana might have the best three-deep rushing attack in the FBS. The Ragin’ Cajuns backfield mixes it up with Elijah Mitchell (1,092 rushing yards), Raymond Calais (882), and Trey Ragas (781), and the three stars combine for 32 rushing touchdowns this year. Miami counters with a strong run defense which permits 159.8 yards per game. Defensive tackle Doug Costin causes havoc on the defensive line and strong safety Sterling Weatherford hits hard from the secondary with 5.5 tackles for loss. Miami is one game removed from allowing Central Michigan’s typically-prolific rushing offense to account for just 99 yards in the MAC Championship Game. Does that production continue against the Sun Belt runner-up?

The storyline: Does the MAC champion bowl drought come to a close?

What do 2012 Northern Illinois, 2013 Bowling Green, 2014 Northern Illinois, 2015 Bowling Green, 2016 Western Michigan, 2017 Toledo, and 2018 Northern Illinois all have in common? While all seven teams won MAC titles, they all failed to secure a second trophy in bowl season. The RedHawks hope to end the MAC champion curse against the Ragin’ Cajuns. The last time Miami won the MAC crown in 2010, it also emerged on top in its bowl game — a 35-21 win over Middle Tennessee in the same venue of the 2019 LendingTree Bowl.