The opening slate of college football bowl season features five matchups, and we’ll be keeping a watchful eye on a specific group of players.
Fresno State’s clash with Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl is the most intriguing, given the chance for a top Group of Five school to upset a Pac-12 program. The quarterbacks will be on display for very different reasons.
While a focus on quarterbacks is the overarching theme, a couple of running backs will also provide major impacts.
You might not be familiar with most of these talents, but their performances are set to shape Saturday’s results.
Andre Nunez, QB, Louisiana
The story of Louisiana’s season is quite simple: Did Andre Nunez have a productive game? Part of the good news is he guided the Ragin’ Cajuns to the Sun Belt Championship Game. But there’s some bad news, too. While the number itself is arbitrary, Louisiana posted a 7-1 record when Nunez threw for at least 140 yards but went 0-5 otherwise. Cresting the mark doesn’t guarantee a win over Tulane in the Cure Bowl, yet it’s a clear indication of how Nunez is the key to a Louisiana victory. Proper management of this two-QB system is critical.
Mason Fine, QB, North Texas
Mason Fine is a first-half dynamo. This year, he’s amassed 2,374 yards and 20 touchdowns before the break. However, the Mean Green often struggled after halftime, coughing up double-digit leads to UAB and Old Dominion. That was in addition to blowing a 15-point second-quarter advantage over Louisiana Tech earlier in the year. Put simply, Fine must be excellent for all 60 minutes for North Texas to overcome a major challenge from Utah State. And if he is, Fine has a chance to break his own single-season school records.
Darwin Thompson, RB, Utah State
If the Mean Green can limit Darwin Thompson’s big-play ability, they could spring the upset in this appealing New Mexico Bowl clash. Because when the junior is having an explosive day, Utah State’s opponents have rarely even been close. He tallied more than 10 yards per touch in five games, and the team’s average margin of victory was 45.4 points. However, North Texas ranks 101st nationally with 33 gains of 30-plus yards allowed. Thompson will be a pivotal piece in the Aggies overcoming the departure of head coach Matt Wells, who left for Texas Tech.
Marcus McMaryion, QB, Fresno State
The interesting college career of Marcus McMaryion will end in the Las Vegas Bowl. Despite playing at Oregon State for two years, he never met fellow Pac-12 school Arizona State. That will change Saturday, but Fresno State’s reliance on the senior will not. McMaryion has accounted for at least 200 yards of offense in every game and reached 280-plus nine times. Arizona State ranks 88th in the country with 7.6 yards allowed per pass attempt and has only 10 interception to 20 touchdowns allowed. There’s a clear path to a massive day from McMaryion.
Manny Wilkins, QB, Arizona State
Arizona State will be without an enormous contributor. Star wideout N’Keal Harry declared for the NFL draft and understandably decided to skip the bowl. While leading the Sun Devils in every receiving category, he posted 80-plus yards in nine games. That’s a consistent go-to option Manny Wilkins cannot target Saturday. Instead, he’ll be throwing to one of three receivers who collected between 413-432 yards and looking for breakout back Eno Benjamin to catch a few passes, too. Opposite the nation’s 18th-most efficient defense, there’s isn’t much margin for error.
Shai Werts, QB, Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern has received a tremendous year from the sophomore who engineers the option-based offense. In addition to 822 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, Shai Werts has thrown for 954 yards and 10 scores with zero interceptions. Eastern Michigan’s pass defense was solid all year, snagging more picks than touchdowns allowed. But if everything goes according to plan for Georgia Southern, it’ll hardly even call a passing play. Werts’ ability to dissect defenses on the ground could prevent EMU’s key strength from impacting the Camellia Bowl.
Brent Stockstill, QB, Middle Tennessee
Despite earning a trip to the Conference USA Championship Game, Middle Tennessee has a mediocre rush offense. The Blue Raiders mustered just 3.8 yards per carry — tied for 99th nationally — leaning on senior quarterback Brent Stockstill to carry the offense. The senior completed 70.5 percent of his passes for 3,214 yards and 28 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. Five of those eight picks, though, happened in losses. Already a touchdown underdog in the New Orleans Bowl, MTSU cannot afford to have mistakes from its cornerstone.
Darrynton Evans, RB, Appalachian State
Jalin Moore opened the season as the featured back, but a right ankle injury ended his campaign in early October. From that point on, Darrynton Evans occupied the lead role and thrived. During the last eight games, he averaged 119 rushing yards while scoring seven times. Evans handled at least 15 carries and accounted for 100-plus yards from scrimmage in all but one of those appearances. While the fourth-ranked defense is App State’s overall strength, Evans should be able to find running lanes against a decent, yet vulnerable, Middle Tennessee front.