The Marshall Thundering Herd will look to win the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl for the second straight season when they take on the Central Florida Knights. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 EST on Monday, December 23 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
Current odds list the Knights as 17-point favorites in what should feel like a home game. The over/under for the game is set at 61 points. Click here for a full list of this year’s bowl games and betting odds for each game.
Marshall is coming off another winning season under longtime coach Doc Holliday. The Thundering Herd shook off a sluggish start to the season, ultimately winning six of their final seven games to finish 8-4 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA. The Herd is now going to a bowl for the seventh time in the last nine seasons under Holliday. Marshall is a perfect 6-0 in bowl games under Holliday. In fact, the Thundering Herd is 12-1 in bowl games dating back to 1998. That includes a 38-20 win over South Florida in last year’s Gasparilla Bowl despite playing on USF’s home field.
As for Central Florida, this year’s 9-3 season qualifies as a disappointment after the Knights went 25-1 over the previous two seasons. UCF stumbles against the likes of Pitt, Cincinnati, and Tulsa during the season, ultimately settling for second place in the AAC East Division after winning back-to-back conference championships. On the bright side, the Knights are heading to a bowl game for the fourth straight year and still have a chance to win 10 games. However, the Gasparilla Bowl is no doubt a step down for them after playing in the Peach Bowl and First Bowl the past two seasons.
While they haven’t met recently, there is some history between Marshall and Central Florida. The two schools met every year from 2002 to 2012 when they were both members of the MAC before moving together to Conference USA. The Knights won eight in a row over the Herd from 2005 to 2012, so this bowl game will put that winning streak against Marshall on the line. Holliday was actually around for the last three meetings between the teams, so he’s never beaten Central Florida as a head coach.
On paper, Central Florida appears to be a level above the Thundering Herd. However, there’s something to be said about Marshall’s bowl history. I also think motivation could be an issue with UCF after playing in major bowl games the past two seasons. While I don’t doubt that Knights are capable of covering the spread, there are enough factors working against them to lean toward Marshall beating the spread.
Obviously, the UCF offense was one of the most potent in the country once again. Freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel stepped in right away, throwing for nearly 3,400 yards and 27 touchdowns. However, despite all of the big plays, he did have some typical freshman struggles. Even late in the season, Gabriel was up and down with his accuracy, which is part of the reason the Knights were 1-3 in games decided by a field goal or less. When the pressure was on, Gabriel wasn’t always able to carry the Knights over the finish line.
Of course, the Marshall defense will still have its hands full trying to contain Gabriel and the Knights. But the Herd has faced plenty of quality offensive teams this season and usually held up well. They gave up a reasonable 26.5 points per game in their eight games against bowl-eligible teams. The Marshall defense also played some of their best games late in the year and had one of the best pass rushes in Conference USA. I think they can put up some resistance against the UCF offense.
On the other side of the ball, the Thundering Herd can be a handful offensively. Behind sophomore running back Brenden Knox, Marshall averaged close to 200 yards rushing per game. Knox alone averaged over 100 yards per game. Sophomore quarterback Isaiah Green also brings a lot to the table with two full years of starting experience under his belt. His accuracy is also an issue at times, but he’s not afraid to push the ball downfield and challenge defenses when given a chance.
Meanwhile, the UCF defense wasn’t quite at the same level as the past couple of seasons. The Knights gave up at least 27 points in seven of their 12 games, and that’s against a schedule that only included five bowl teams. Throughout the season, the Knights were the most vulnerable on the ground, which could be problematic for them against the Marshall rushing attack.
All things considered, the 17-point spread is just a little too rich for my blood. For whatever reason, Holliday always seems to have his team well-prepared for bowl games. I also think the Marshall running game can cause trouble for Central Florida, keeping the potent UCF offense off the field and shortening the game. For me, that’s enough reasonable doubt to side with the underdog in this game.