Any bowl committee with rights to the MWC champion is no slouch, and so it feels like an anticlimax that Fresno State would get paired against a mid-tier contender like the Arizona State Sun Devils in the Las Vegas Bowl on December 15th, especially after all of the challenges that the Bulldogs overcame to win a tough league.
But live-event planners from Vegas know what they’re doing (imagine that!) and usually manage to put a marquee match-up on the gridiron. A ranked Boise State team beat Washington 28-26 in 2012, and Utah beat BYU by a TD in an emotional Las Vegas Bowl played 3 years ago.
Coach Herm Edwards’ ASU squad is traveling to Sin City as a 7-5 team that needed a furious comeback to squeak past Arizona in the Duel in the Desert. Enduring belief in the Power-5 (and in ex-NFL coaching) will make certain they’re not cast as a major underdog against Fresno at any point. But house handicappers are not about to make the same mistake 2 Decembers in a row – they pegged Oregon as an easy winner last season only to watch Boise State dominate most of the battle at Sam Boyd.
Lesson learned – taking the Mountain West champs lightly is a recipe for low-risk, high-payoff underdog bettors beating the casino.
Who: Fresno State Bulldogs vs Arizona State Sun Devils
When: Saturday, December 15th, 3:30 PM EST
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, NV
Lines: Fresno (-4) vs ASU (+4) / O/U Total: (53)
It really looked for a while as if the Fresno State Bulldogs would not be able to get over the hump against Boise State. The programs have become such fierce and familiar rivals that any small advantage seems to carry the day, and the Broncos hosted the MWC title game on blue turf.
The visitors systematically ground-down the Boise Blue in foul weather, holding Brett Rypien to just 125 yards passing and eventually prevailing in OT.
Fresno State’s defense is ranked #17 overall in the FBS, and plays like crazy in the Red Zone. Marcus McMaryion is the type of quarterback that does just enough to win a lot – the 22-year-old only tossed 1 touchdown pass in a 38-14 thumping of UCLA, but dwarfed the rest of his team’s offensive production and point-scoring in a 27-3 whipping of Wyoming that set the Bulldogs alight in the MWC.
The Mountain West was a typical 3-6 against the Pac-12 this season, though a majority of the meetings were Pac-12 strongholds against MWC also-rans. Washington State beat San Jose State and Wyoming easily, but SDSU gave Stanford what-for for a little while in August.
In sum total, I’m not prepared to say that an 11-2 MWC winner that crushed Chip Kelly’s team should be handicapped as an underdog or even a pick’em against any 7-5 squad from the Pac-12. That is, unless and until there’s evidence proving otherwise.
For ASU, Exhibit A might have already fled the courtroom. Arizona State WR N’Keal Harry announced on Monday that he has hired an agent, and will prepare for the 2019 NFL Draft as opposed to playing in the Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State.
Las Vegas delivers a terrific bowl game, but its event suffers from the syndrome that affects all minor bowls. The biggest names don’t tend to play, especially if they’re from Power-5 schools that “expected” to play later in December. Ingratitude is the only sin, and Royce Freeman’s choice is the popular one.
Has ASU’s sudden loss of Harry caused any lines to shift? Surprisingly, not really, though many sports betting sites began offering bowl odds on Monday, so it could have been timed perfectly for books to avoid a big mistake on the Over/Under. The O/U total hasn’t risen at all since Harry’s announcement, that I can tell you.
A big bummer at the WR position might be the last thing the Sun Devils need right now. Manny Wilkins is a good, solid veteran presence behind center, but he’s not always the most accurate or prolific passer in the Pac-12. In a loss to Oregon on November 17th, the senior finished well below 50% through the air and was humiliated on rushing attempts.
If Wilkins can’t find open receivers among a group that collectively posted only 1 more touchdown than Harry did in 12 games, that leaves it to a pretty good defense, a quality OL and a sophomore tailback named Eno Benjamin to try to crack the steely Bulldogs.
All of the Eno Benjamins in the world can’t win bowl games for Power-5 schools so long as everyone else is about the Benjamins. The fine running back should have a great day behind ASU’s burly blockers, but when it comes time to throw, look out for the resourceful, scrappy Bulldogs to take every advantage of a skill corps missing its talisman, and potentially win the turnover battle by +2 or +3.
Meanwhile, the Fresno State offense could produce more points than expected. It’s the unit that drilled drives through the ice at Albertsons Stadium not too long ago. I’m looking for McMaryion to have at least as productive an evening as Wilkins, and probably rush for more 1st downs.
Take the MWC champs to cover.