PULLMAN – It may not carry the same appeal or prestige as last year’s Alamo Bowl against Iowa State, or even the prior two Holiday Bowl appearances versus Big Ten opposition, but Washington State’s Friday matchup with Air Force in the Cheez-It Bowl should still be more than palatable for Cougars fans.
Many national media outlets also suspect it could be one of the more riveting bowls not on the New Year’s Six slate.
The Cheez-It Bowl, which kicks off at 7:15 p.m. at Chase Field in Phoenix, will be one of the final appetizers before bowl season serves up its two main courses less than 24 hours later – national semifinal games that pit No. 1 LSU against No. 4 Oklahoma, and No. 2 Ohio State against No. 3 Clemson.
“We’re all going to be a little sleep deprived on Semifinal Saturday because Mike Leach has a 10:15 p.m. ET kickoff the night before, and his quarterback, Anthony Gordon, averages 54 attempts per game. #CheezItAfterDark,” wrote The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel, who ranks the Cheez-It Bowl No. 18 among all bowl games and No. 12 among non-NY6 games.
The game’s intrigue mostly surrounds the contrasting offenses fans will see – Leach’s Air Raid, which has put up 39.2 points per game this season, and Troy Calhoun’s triple-option, also scoring at a high clip (34.3 ppg).
“There’s a high intrigue factor here with the contrast in styles,” wrote USA Today’s Eddie Timanus, listing the game at No. 14 on his bowl watchability rankings. “The Falcons will look to possess the ball with their punishing option game and keep Anthony Gordon and the Cougars’ (Air Raid) attack off the field.”
The 2019 Cheez-It Bowl may piggyback on the success of last year’s game, which was low on offense but high on entertainment. TCU and Cal needed four quarters and an overtime period to score just 17 total points. The Horned Frogs won 10-7.
“What a delightful clash of contrasts. Air Force (10-2) ranks third in the country in rushing offense, while Washington State leads the nation in passing,” Patrick Stevens of the Washington Post wrote. “Both teams have quirky coaches (the Falcons’ Troy Calhoun and the Cougars’ Mike Leach), and last year’s edition of this game was a glorious absurdity, with Cal and TCU combining for nine interceptions in the Horned Frogs’ 10-7 overtime win. It’s all enough to help you ignore Wazzu’s 6-6 record.”
“Watch it because … of last year’s game (and this particular matchup),” Dellenger wrote. “Who can forget last year’s instant classic, a 10-7 TCU win over Cal in overtime? Expect more points this year. Mike Leach and his Air Raid meet Troy Calhoun and his spread triple-option attack.”
The Falcons (10-2) are favored to beat the Cougars (6-6) by three points. But national pundits are largely split on the game – some figuring Leach, Gordon and the Air Raid will have the firepower to outscore Air Force, and others presuming WSU’s defense will splinter against Calhoun’s unique offense.
“Last year’s Cheez-It Bowl was a glorious 10-7 OT debacle between Cal and TCU. So bad it was great,” wrote Ralph Russo, a national college football writer for the Associated Press. “This year features the yin and yang of college football. Air Force’s triple-option averages 57 rushes per game. Wazzu’s Air Raid attack averages 56 passes per game.”
Russo is picking Air Force to win 31-27. Two of the three writers from Athlon Sports who predicted every bowl game chose the Cougars.
Mandel also thinks Air Force will win, pointing out “Mike Leach is 1-8 against the spread in his last nine bowl games, per ESPN’s Chris Fallica. One could easily see the Cougs laying an egg here.”
Jon Wilner, who runs the “Pac-12 Hotline” for the Mercury News in San Jose, California, likes Air Force in the Cheez-It Bowl.
“We’re unsure of WSU’s focus following a letdown season,” he wrote. “We’re wary of WSU’s offense operating efficiently (Anthony Gordon: nine interceptions in his past five games). And we’re deeply skeptical of WSU’s defense rising to the moment against the triple-option.”
The Loop, an off-shoot of Golf Digest, compiled “Our favorite bet for all 40 college football bowl games” on Friday. Regarding WSU-Air Force, the website chose to focus on the likelihood of a high-scoring shootout. Vegas odds anticipate that more than 67 points will be scored between the teams.
“A total of 67.5 is nothing to bat your eyes at, but Air Force and Washington State can handle it, with the latter stretching games out by throwing the ball more than any other team in the nation. Let games like Washington State’s 67-63 loss to UCLA and Air Force’s 56-25 victory over Hawaii give you faith.”
ESPN.com selected a “key player” from each team, going with a QB from each team: WSU’s Gordon and Air Force’s Donald Hammond III.
On Hammond III: “The junior from Georgia distributes the ball perfectly in Air Force’s attack, and about four times per game he hits a deep ball. This offense is dynamite under his command.”
On Gordon: “(He) enters the game with 5,228 yards passing and needs 605 to break the single-season FBS record (5,833) that B.J. Symons set while playing for Mike Leach at Texas Tech in 2003.”
ESPN also came up with a “storyline to watch” for both teams.
For Air Force: “Seven of the past eight Air Force seasons have produced either 10 wins or a losing record. All or nothing! But a bowl win would provide something new: the first 11-win season of Troy Calhoun’s tenure.”
And WSU: “A win would make for some interesting history. Despite having existed since 1894, the Washington State football team has never won bowl games in back-to-back seasons.”
On a lighter note, Fansided ranked all 39 games by their name/sponsor, placing teams in six categories: “F tier,” “D tier,” “C tier,” “B tier,” “A tier” and “God tier.” The Cheez-It Bowl graded out in the “God tier” along with two other peculiarly named bowls: the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl and the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.
“Even with just one game under its belt – one which quickly became legendary as the ‘Cheez-Int Bowl’ – this has the feel of a bowl/sponsor match that is going to go down in the annals of college football history,” writer Rob Wolkenbrod wrote. “Or at least social media history, and that’s probably almost as good as we head further into the 21st century.”
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