Marshall (12-1) vs. Northern Illinois (11-2)
Dec. 23, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: There are three bowl games this season featuring teams with at least 23 combined wins between them. Two are playoff matchups (the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl). The other is the Boca Raton Bowl. Marshall and Northern Illinois are league champions that, despite missing out on the Group of Five’s automatic access bid, have a lot to be proud of this fall. As inaugural editions of bowls go, ESPN couldn’t have asked for a better pairing.
• Keep an eye on: Thundering Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato was a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate entering the season, and although he threw four interceptions in Marshall’s 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky on Nov. 28, he still finished with numbers that rank among the best in the country. He had 3,622 passing yards, 457 rushing yards and 43 total touchdowns. He also holds program records in just about every passing category. Cato has a chance to go out on a high note as one of the best players in Marshall history.
• Did you know: Northern Illinois has won at least 11 games in five straight seasons. Four different coaches have led the Huskies to wins over that span, including current Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, current Southeast Missouri State coach Tom Matukewicz, current NC State coach Dave Doeren and current Huskies coach Rod Carey, who has a 23-5 record in two-plus seasons at the helm. Carey is looking for his first bowl win in three tries, as Northern Illinois lost to Florida State 31-10 in the Orange Bowl following the 2012 season (while he was interim head coach) and dropped last season’s Poinsettia Bowl to Utah State 21-14.
• Final analysis: Looking at the campaign the Huskies had, it’s hard to tell they lost a Heisman finalist at quarterback (Jordan Lynch) and a first-round NFL draft pick at safety (Jimmie Ward) during the offseason. Northern Illinois has not lost since Oct. 11 and won the MAC for the third time in four years. Marshall will pose a significant challenge with Cato throwing to receivers Davonte Allen and childhood friend Tommy Shuler (74 catches, 953 yards, eight touchdowns). Yet the Herd are equally dangerous on the ground. As a team they averaged 6.9 yards per carry and amassed 3,583 yards. The Huskies can score, but they might struggle to keep up.
• The pick: Marshall 35, Northern Illinois 31