They say that if somebody has to tell you how famous or historic something is, it’s not really famous or historic. John Feinstein once gently satirized the PGA Tour by selectively-quoting a garden variety links sponsor: “We’d like to welcome all of you to this historic event, the Shell Houston Open.”
So even though BetFirm is designed to get people buzzed about speculating on pigskin, I can’t lie to you and say the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is anything famous, or even a big bag of potato chips.
However, the venue is pretty well-known. Albertsons Stadium is a brand all its own, easily the most-influential “gimmick” field in college football. Instead of Boise State, it will be another Mountain West team, Nevada, “defending” the iconic blue turf against the green glow of the Ohio Bobcats in 2020.
Nevada is perhaps the most curious of all FBS bowl bids. The Wolf Pack has had weekends this season in which it looked like a fringe contender, then had turns of such hapless football that Nevada could have been handicapped last in the MWC in gambling value. That kind of inconsistency will be matched against a model of consistency when felines and canines meet in Idaho on Friday.
Who: Ohio Bobcats vs University of Nevada Wolf Pack
When: Friday, January 3rd, 3:30 PM EST
Where: Albertsons Stadium, Boise, ID
Lines: Ohio (-8) vs Nevada (+8) / O/U Total: (59)
Frank Solich is at least 300 years old, and has coached at Ohio for about 100 years. In that nearly-infinite span of time, his teams have suffered from a few foibles. The team usually runs into a wall in the MAC division race, and has gone 0-4 in MAC Championship Games under Solich. Ohio’s defenses are not athletic enough to execute complex schemes against fine FBS running and passing games, but sitting in a base formation usually means giving up lots of 1st downs. The Bobcats run a sound offense with dual-threat QBs, but can look methodical, almost sleepy with the ball on bad days.
Yet for all of that, Ohio doesn’t have many losing seasons. Solich’s teams have won at least 6 regular-season games for 11 years running and have highly improved their postseason form since 2017. Ohio shut-out Rocky Long’s San Diego State Aztecs 27-0 in the Frisco Bowl last season as QB Nathan Rourke and RB A.J. Ouellette shined. Rourke has returned to post solid passing stats and lead the Bobcats in rushing TDs in 2019, but he’s got a new top rusher in O’Shaan Allison.
Still, the Bobcats are only a .500 team right now, and when the offense slumps there’s no dominant defense or return-game to fall back on. Western Michigan patiently built a lead over Ohio in a MAC game on 11/12, taking advantage while the Bobcats blundered-away turns and failed to pressure WMU’s Jon Wessink. By the 2nd half, Rourke got it together and rallied Ohio to force OT, but WMU prevailed anyway.
Nevada experienced a heartening November after hitting rock-bottom in mid-season. Wolf Pack boosters jeered as the visiting Hawaii blistered Jay Norvell’s team by 51 points, then shuddered to see Nevada get out-scored 67-13 on a road trip to Utah State and Wyoming. Led by QB Carson Strong and a dangerous pass rush, the Wolf Pack won 3 late-autumn games in a row to become bowl-eligible.
So why are the MWC representatives taking (+8) points at the Potato Bowl? Probably because Nevada is racked with injuries, suspensions, and coaching instability as the date approaches:
The Nevada team that will line up on the blue turf on Friday is different in many ways than the one that began fall camp at Wolf Pack Park in August. That’s particularly true on the defensive side, where Nevada will be without defensive backs Daniel Brown and Austin Arnold, and lineman Hausia Sekona (all suspended), and will also be without linebacker Gabriel Sewell for the first half. Those four were sanctioned by the Mountain West for the roles in the postgame melee that followed Nevada’s overtime loss to UNLV on Nov. 30. Sixth-year linebacker Lucas Weber (McQueen) is questionable for the bowl game. He’s been out for the second half of the season with a broken ankle. “We’re hopeful for it,” Weber said earlier this month, referring to fellow senior Jake Nelson, an offensive lineman who is also rehabbing in hopes of playing Friday. “We both obviously want to do it, so we’re just taking it day by day and we’ll see how we feel when the day comes.”
The Pack will also be getting defensive help from interim coaches Jody Sears, Josh Brown and former Nevada assistant John Landwehr, who will join the staff for the Potato Bowl. They will serve as replacements for the three defensive coaches, including former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who were not retained in a decision announced earlier this month.
Ohio should probably be the 1-to-3 moneyline favorite it is. But the Bobcats are just not built to blow-out any but the worst FBS programs. They have been guilty of playing down to the competition throughout Solich’s tenure.
1st-string MAC players aren’t that much better than 2nd-string MWC players. I can see Ohio blowing the chance to run away in the 1st half, then finding a way to win by a slim single-digit margin while Solich produces double-digit frown lines on the sideline.
Take Nevada and (+8) points.