Not to be forgotten amongst the bigger bowl games is the 2018 Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl between the Arkansas State Red Wolves of the Sun Belt and the Nevada Wolf Pack of the Mountain West. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:15 EST on Saturday, December 29, at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. Fans can catch all the action on CBS Sports Network.
According to this year’s bowl game betting odds, this game is a straight-up PK. The over/under for the game is set at 59.5 points.
For Arkansas State, the Arizona Bowl marks eight straight seasons in a bowl game, including five in a row under current coach Blake Anderson. For what it’s worth, the Red Wolves are just 3-4 in those bowl games. However, they have shown remarkable consistency for a group-of-five program, and this year was no different. After an uneven start to the 2018 campaign, the Red Wolves won five of their last six games to finish 8-4 and earn a share of first place in the Sun Belt south division. With a win in the Arizona bowl, they can match their season-high of nine wins during Anderson’s tenure in Jonesboro.
As for Nevada, this is their first bowl game since winning 2015 Arizona Bowl, as well as the first of the Jay Norvell era. The Wolf Pack were just 3-9 a season ago but improved by four wins this season. Nevada couldn’t quite keep pace with the top teams in the Mountain West. But they were able to hang their hat on a non-conference win over Oregon State early in the year. The Wolf Pack also won four of their last five games, securing a bowl spot despite being 3-4 in mid-October.
This will be the first time these two schools have met since both made the move to the FBS level. The last time Nevada played Arkansas State was in 1999 when both were members of the Big West conference. Arkansas State won that game 44-28.
In a PK game with no line to worry about, I’m going to lean toward Arkansas State. I’m a little hesitant with this pick because none of ASU’s eight wins came against bowl teams. Also, Nevada played in a better conference and faced a more challenging schedule. However, I’m choosing to buy Arkansas State’s undefeated November as a sign of things to come, so I’ll give the Red Wolves the benefit of the doubt in this bowl game.
The thing that stood out the most about the Red Wolves in November is the play of senior quarterback Justice Hansen. He’s been remarkably steady and reliable since becoming the starter in 2016, but he really took things to another level the last four games of the season. Admittedly, Arkansas State played some bad teams during that stretch. But Hansen completed 77% of his passes with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions during that span. I think he’ll keep it going one more game and be at his best against Nevada.
Meanwhile, I don’t think that highly of the Nevada defense. They gave up 28 points per game this season, which is solid but not that impressive. To be fair, they played the likes of Fresno State, Boise State, and Vanderbilt, so they faced some quality quarterbacks. But they only faced six bowl teams this season and gave up close to 34 points per game in those games, so they can be vulnerable against good teams. Also, the Arkansas State offense is more than just Hansen. The Red Wolves also have a pair of capable running backs in Marcel Murray and Warren Wand, so they’ll stay balanced and create problems for the Wolf Pack.
On the other side of the ball, I like what I’ve seen from the Arkansas State defense this year. Again, they didn’t play a difficult schedule, only facing four bowl teams and losing to all of them. But much like Hansen and the offense, the Red Wolves stepped up on defense down the stretch. They gave up 17 points or less in each of their last four games. Even against subpar competition, that’s impressive consistency that I think will carry over into their bowl game.
As for the Nevada offense, they proved that they’re capable of putting points on the board. The Wolf Pack also have a senior quarterback in Ty Gangi who was consistent throughout his career. However, he was a little more turnover-prone than Hansen. He also doesn’t have quite the same caliber of running game to support him. Finally, some of Nevada’s offensive numbers were inflated by playing some bad teams. Against some of the better teams on their schedule, the Nevada offense was largely ineffective.
Ultimately, I think Arkansas State is the more balanced team. The Red Wolves also have more experience playing in bowl games, which shouldn’t be overlooked in a PK. This game should be competitive and a lot more entertaining than most people realize. But I think Arkansas State will find a way to pull out a win.