The first weekend of the bowl season includes an intriguing matchup between the Arkansas State Red Wolves of the Sun Belt and the Florida International Panthers of Conference USA in the Camellia Bowl. Game time is set for 5:30 EST on Saturday, December 21 at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama. Fans can catch all of the action on ESPN.
According to this year’s college bowl game odds, the Red Wolves are favored by 2.5 points. There is also an over/under of 63 points.
Over the last decade, Arkansas State has become one of the most consistent programs in the Sun Belt. The Red Wolves used a four-game winning streak late in the season to finish second in the Sun Belt West Division at 7-5 and 5-3 in league play. As a result, this is the ninth consecutive year that the Red Wolves are going to a bowl game. Unfortunately for Arkansas State, they are just 3-5 in those bowl games. That includes a loss to Nevada in the Arizona Bowl last year and a loss to Middle Tennessee when they were invited to the Camellia Bowl two years ago.
Florida International had a slightly less impressive campaign, barely sneaking into a bowl game at 6-6. Oddly enough, the Panthers had a losing record in conference play, going 3-5 in C-USA play. However, a shocking win over the Miami Hurricanes late in the season gave FIU their sixth win of the season and a statement win over a power conference opponent and one of their regional rivals. With that win, Butch Davis has now taken the Panthers to a bowl game in all three of his seasons at FIU, including a Bahamas Bowl win last year over Toledo.
It’s worth noting that these two programs used to play each other every year when Florida International was a member of the Sun Belt from 2005 to 2012. During that time, Arkansas State won six of the eight head-to-head meetings. Of course, both programs have seen plenty of turnover since their last game against one another in 2012.
That win against Miami aside, there’s nothing all that impressive about FIU’s season. Statistically, they were dominated by Miami despite getting the win, so I’m not going to overreact too much to what happened in a crazy rivalry game. With that in mind, I think the Panthers will be a little overmatched in this game. I don’t think Arkansas State will run away with the game, but I feel comfortable leaning toward the Red Wolves to win by at least a field goal and cover.
While Arkansas State had some issues on defense this year, their offense was able to compensate more times than not. Redshirt freshman quarterback Layne Hatcher, who started his career at Alabama, was one of the best quarterbacks in the Sun Belt this year. Despite not taking over as the starter until late September, Hatcher finished the season with over 2,500 passing yards and 23 touchdowns.
More importantly, it was far from a one-man show for the ASU offense. Omar Bayless is one of the best Group of Five wide receivers, amassing close to 1,500 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. Jonathan Adams and Kirk Merritt are also good enough to do some damage when teams focus too much on Bayless. Each had over 700 yards receiving with Merritt catching 11 touchdown passes. Even running back Marcel Murray turned in a nice season, helping the Red Wolves average close to 37 points per game.
On paper, the FIU defense had a decent season. But they had a tendency to struggle against some of the better offensive teams on their schedule. The Panthers gave up 40 or more points on three occasions. FIU gave up an average of 31 points per game against bowl-eligible teams, going just 2-5 in those games. That doesn’t fill me with confidence against a team that can score points the way the Red Wolves did during the regular season.
To be fair, the Arkansas State defense was atrocious at times, giving up nearly 35 points per game. In a way, their offense was forced to score so many points because the Red Wolves couldn’t stop anybody. During conference play, Arkansas State was only able to hold two teams below 30 points. That’s a troubling number for a team that’s expected to cover points, even if the spread is less than a field goal.
Having said that, I’m not sure the FIU offense is dynamic enough to take full advantage of the holes in the ASU defense. Senior quarterback James Morgan had a disappointing season, throwing just 13 touchdown passes after tossing 26 TDs last season. His completion percentage took a significant drop down to 58%. The Panthers, as a whole, lack dynamic playmakers, which is why they averaged a modest 26.5 points per game against a lackluster schedule.
Ultimately, both teams will have an opportunity to score points, primarily because Arkansas State excels on offense and has serious issues on defense. However, I don’t think the Panthers have the playmakers on offense to keep up in a shootout. Eventually, the Red Wolves will be able to pull away and win by a comfortable margin.