While most of the continental U.S. will more than likely be coping with pre-Christmas winter weather conditions, the warm and sunny Caribbean will be playing host to the third annual Popeye’s Bahama’s Bowl December 23rd at Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium in Nassau, Bahamas between Old Dominion (7-1 9-3) of Conference USA and Eastern Michigan (4-4 7-5) of the Mid-American Conference. This will be ODU’s very first postseason bowl appearance while EMU’s last bowl appearance was nearly three decades ago (1987). The two schools have a recent history however, having played during the 2014 and 2015 regular seasons, with the Norfolk, Va. based Monarchs winning both. The early betting odds favor ODU by -3.5 to 4 points. Check out more free college football picks from myself and the rest of our handicappers here at Betfirm.
Chris Creighton, now in his third season in charge on the Ypsilanti, Mich. campus, has taken EMU from 2-10 and 1-11 seasons to this year’s 7-5, confounding nearly all of the preseason predictions made for the 2016 Eagles. Fairly conservative on offense, the Eagles nonetheless used a balanced, turnover-avoiding attack to put up 30.4 ppg, in part due to the steady maturity and improvement of QB Brogan Roback who completed 59.2% of his passes for 2,394 yards and 16 TDs. Ian Eriksen (741 yards, 9 TDs) paced EMU’s ground game, but due to an unspecified injury, his availability on Dec. 23 is listed as questionable at best. If sophomore Eriksen can’t suit up, Breck Turner (369 yards, 4 TDs) will get the brunt of the carries. Talented wideouts Sergio Bailey (55 catches for 799 yards and 6 TDs) and Antoine Porter (44, 491 and 4 TDs) provide Roback with a pair of productive targets when the Eagles go to the air.
If not for a young and still-developing defense that suffered several late-game breakdowns that surrendered big leads, EMU could easily have won at least two more contests. Still, the 1-2 punch of LB Kyle Rachwal and CB/S Jason Beck (just under 200 combined tackles) are athletic and formidable, and although not nearly as deep or talented as their counterparts on the ODU defense, the Eagles are a scrappy, swarming bunch that covers up their shortcomings effectively.
Check out our bowl predictions where we pick the straight up winner of all 40 games. According to the latest bowl odds, Old Dominion is a 3.5 -point favorite over Eastern Michigan with a total set of 60 points.
Wrapping up his eighth season at ODU, head coach Bobby Wilder’s impressive record (66-30, with just one losing season) has drawn the attention of bigger schools, but he remains committed to the program he’s largely responsible for building and maintaining. Featuring an explosive offense (36.0 ppg), led by talented QB David Washington (2,649 yards, 28 TDs, 4 INTs), the Monarchs are loaded with talent at the skill positions. An experienced offensive line helps free up hard-running RB Ray Lawry (1,143 yards, 11 TDs), while All C-USA WR Zack Pascal (63 catches, 893 yards, 8 TDs) is a constant threat down the field. A minor knee injury has limited Washington’s participation in practice, but ODU’s coaching and medical staff are certain he’ll be ready to go by Dec. 23.
On the defensive side of the football, the Monarchs have talent at all three levels, with pass rushers Oshane Ximines and Bunmi Rotimi (14.5 sacks combined), LBs T.J. Ricks and Anthony Wilson (183 combined tackles), and ball-hawking CB Aaron Young leading the way.
Old Dominion comes in having won five straight, with their last defeat being at Western Kentucky on October 22, while Eastern Michigan closed out their regular season with a comeback win (behind a sterling performance from junior signal-caller Roback) over rival Central Michigan. Both the Eagles and Monarchs faced one common opponent during the 2016 regular season in ODU’s Conference USA foe Charlotte, with both EMU and ODU winning handily.
Injuries, depth, coaching and momentum are all key variables in making predictions regarding the Bahama’s Bowl. Another factor not to be overlooked is the relative ‘newness’ of both schools onto the college football bowl scene, making this rare appearance an undeniable ‘big deal’ for a pair of schools not normally associated with postseason play. Expect all out effort from both teams as they’ll be eager to display their abilities before a national audience.
If EMU’s Eriksen is unable to go, the Eagles may have difficulty keeping the chains moving against ODU’s stout defense, putting more pressure on Roback to spur the offense. Overall, and despite the relatively close betting odds, the size, speed and depth of Old Dominion should give the Monarchs a decided advantage, especially on the defensive side of the football. Combine that with the motivation provided by their very first bowl appearance, leads to the guess that the Monarchs should cover the spread easily. The upstart Eagles won’t go down without a fight however, and if they happen to be the beneficiary of some lucky breaks or bounces, the 2016 Popeye’s Bahama’s Bowl could turn into an entertaining, down-to-the-last-play thriller.
Prediction: Old Dominion 41 Eastern Michigan 24.