The New Year’s Eve bowl schedule gets started with an intriguing game between the Virginia Tech Hokies of the ACC and the Cincinnati Bearcats of the AAC in the Military Bowl. Kickoff is set for noon EST on Monday, December 31, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
According to this year’s bowl game betting odds, the Bearcats are 6-point favorites over Virginia Tech. The over/under for the game is set for 53.5 points.
The Hokies should consider themselves fortunate just to be in a bowl game. Virginia Tech suffered a four-game losing streak late in the season, putting them at 4-6 in late November. However, the Hokies forged a late comeback and overtime victory against rival Virginia and the beat Marshall in their season finale to become bowl eligible at 6-6. Those two wins kept intact what is now the longest running bowl streak in the country, one that dates back all the way to the 1993 season. Of course, now the Hokies have to win the Military Bowl in order to avoid their first losing season since 1992.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati is thrilled with their 10-2 campaign that will end with their first bowl game since 2015. The Bearcats were just 4-8 a year ago in Luke Fickell’s first season at the helm. However, Fickell has led them to a 6-win improvement this season in a quick and remarkable turnaround. It was the program’s first 10-win season since 2011. With a win in the Military Bowl, the Bearcats will have a chance to finish the season in the top-25 for the first time since 2012.
This will actually be the third time these two teams have met in a bowl game in the last decade. Virginia Tech won both previous bowl games, including the Orange Bowl following the 2008 season and the 2014 Military Bowl. For what it’s worth, Cincinnati knocked off the Hokies in a neutral site game in September 2012.
I don’t want to discount what Cincinnati accomplished this season, but there is a difference between facing a power conference team and facing teams from the AAC. Granted, the Bearcats are one of the better group-of-five teams. But I’m still hesitant to eat the points in this game. The Hokies played with urgency late in the year and I think that will continue in their bowl. I think Virginia Tech will at least force a close game and beat the spread.
On paper, Cincinnati had one of the best defenses in the country. The Bearcats conceded just 16 points per game. However, they only faced one power conference team, and that came against a rebuilding UCLA team in the season opener. In the five games Cincinnati played against bowl teams, they gave up an average of 27 points. To be fair, they went 3-2 in those games. But they didn’t exactly play lights-out defense when the competition level was raised.
Of course, Virginia Tech doesn’t have the most potent offense. But they managed to average close to 30 points per game against a schedule that included eight bowl teams. The Hokies also spent most of the season with backup quarterback Ryan Willis under center. Willis will remain the starter against Cincinnati with Josh Jackson still not ready to return.
Willis had plenty of ups and downs, but he did throw 22 touchdown passes to eight interceptions, which is a good ratio. He also has nine starts under his belt and some extra practice time, so he should be at his best against the Bearcats. Also, keep in mind he faced a lot of good defensive teams this year. Facing the Cincinnati won’t seem that daunting after playing the last six games of the season against teams playing in a bowl.
On the other side of the ball, I have some questions about how the Cincinnati offense will fare against a power conference opponent. The Bearcats averaged over 38 points per game on the season, but again, that number dropped to 27 points against bowl teams. The Cincinnati offense, specifically freshman quarterback Desmond Ridder, saw a sharp drop in performance and productivity against quality competition. The Bearcats pushed around a lot of AAC teams, but they can’t rely on doing the same against Virginia Tech.
The Hokies, as you’d expect from a 6-6 team, didn’t have a great season defensively. They had consistent trouble when it came to stopping the run, getting routinely gashed on the ground. However, they should have a little more athleticism on defense than Cincinnati is used to facing. After all, the Hokies were good enough on that side of the ball to go 4-4 in the ACC this season. I think the Virginia Tech defense will do enough to keep the Bearcats to a reasonable point total.
All things considered, I think this game should be a fair fight. Cincinnati is good, but I’m still not sure they have the same caliber of athletes as Virginia Tech at every position. If the Hokies play with the same urgency that helped them become bowl eligible late in the season, they should at least beat the spread and perhaps get the win they need to avoid a losing season.