Two programs that appear to be on the rise will meet up in this year’s Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl as the Wyoming Cowboys of the Mountain West face the Georgia State Panthers of the Sun Belt. Kickoff is set for 4:30 EST on Tuesday, December 31 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. Fans can catch all of the action on CBS Sports Network.
According to this year’s college bowl game odds, the Cowboys are 7-point favorites over Georgia State. The game also has an over/under set at 48 points.
Six years into his tenure at Wyoming, Craig Bowl is starting to find some consistency. The Cowboys have been bowl-eligible in four straight seasons, although they didn’t receive an invitation last year. Wyoming also scored a win in their last bowl, beating Central Michigan 37-14 two years ago in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
This year, Wyoming actually looked like a contender in the MW Mountain Division for a little while. The Cowboys started the season with an upset win over Missouri and proceeded to go 6-2 through the first two months of the season. However, Wyoming had a difficult November, losing three of their final four games of the season after starting quarterback Sean Chambers went down with an injury. Ultimately, the Cowboys finished the regular season 7-5 overall and 4-4 in Mountain West play.
In a lot of ways, Georgia State’s season mirrors Wyoming’s season. The Panthers shocked Tennessee in their season opener and proceeded to start the season 6-2, putting them in a position to win the Sun Belt East Division. But when it came time to play the top teams in the Sun Belt, the Panthers struggled, losing three of their last four games to finish 7-5 and 4-4 in league play.
Alas, Shawn Elliott has Georgia State in a bowl game for the second time in his three years as head coach. This will also be just the third bowl game in program history. Of course, it’s important to remember the Panthers only started playing in 2010 and only joined the Sun Belt in 2013. Georgia State beat Western Kentucky in the Cure Bowl two years ago and will now look to improve upon their 1-1 all-time bowl record.
This game feels like more of a tossup than the spread would suggest. Wyoming was just 2-4 against bowl-eligible teams and struggled offensively after Chambers was hurt late in the season. The Cowboys, in fairness, excel in other areas. However, covering a touchdown against a Georgia State team that has plenty of strengths as well could be difficult. I feel more comfortable leaning toward the Panthers to at least beat the spread.
Even before Chambers was lost to injury, the Wyoming offense was a little underwhelming. Chambers struggled as a passer, completing just 43% of his passes before the injury. The Cowboys had to rely on their running game, which was led by Xazavian Valladay. But Chambers was also a huge part of the rushing attack, as he averaged over six yards per carry while Valladay’s average was a little more modest.
With Tyler Vander Waal taking over at quarterback late in the year, Wyoming’s passing game didn’t improve that much. Vander Waal saw plenty of action last year, so playing experience wasn’t an issue. However, he threw four interceptions and no touchdown passes in his four starts late in the year, completing only 57% of his passes. He also took 10 sacks in those four games whereas Chambers took only seven in eight games. With Vander Waal, the Cowboys don’t have a mobile quarterback, which was key to their offense the first part of the season.
Of course, the Wyoming defense was the catalyst for the team’s success all season. The Cowboys gave up less than 18 points per game with only four teams eclipsing the 20-point mark all year. Even when the Cowboys struggled offensively, particularly late in the season, the Wyoming defense was able to keep them in games and give them a chance to win. They were particularly stout against the run, although they had trouble with some of the better quarterbacks in the Mountain West.
That being said, the Wyoming defense will be challenged against the Georgia State offense. The Panthers are also a strong running team, with senior Tra Barnett nearly reaching 1,400 yards on the season while averaging six yards per carry. Quarterback Dan Ellington is also a threat in the running game, gaining nearly 600 yards on the ground this year. But the difference between Wyoming and Georgia State is that Ellington is also a proficient passer. The senior has two years of starting experience under his belt and completed 65% of his passes this year, throwing 21 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions.
I’ll admit that Georgia State’s lackluster defense is a little bit of a concern in this game. However, I don’t think Wyoming’s offense can take full advantage of that weakness. Meanwhile, even in the games that the Panthers lost to top Sun Belt teams, their offense was still able to score points. I think Georgia State can score enough points to put all of the pressure on the Wyoming offense. In the end, the Cowboys might score enough points to win, but I don’t like them to cover the 7-point spread.