Western Michigan (8-4) vs. Air Force (9-3)
Dec. 20, 5:45 p.m. ET (ESPN)
- Reason to watch: Air Force and Western Michigan both improved by seven wins from last season, tied with TCU for the largest margin in the FBS. Neither team knocked off any heavyweights in nonconference play, but they did score significant victories against tough league competition. The Broncos took down MAC East champion Bowling Green, while the Falcons upset Mountain West king No. 20 Boise State.
Western Michigan posted the MAC’s top scoring offense at 34.6 points per game and ripped off an impressive three-game stretch in which it recorded 134 combined points, picking up three wins as well. However, the Broncos could have trouble slowing Air Force on the ground. Coach Troy Calhoun boasts the nation’s eighth-best rushing attack in his triple-option scheme.
- Keep an eye on: The only two players who have rushed for more touchdowns this season than Western Michigan true freshman Jarvion Franklin -- Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Boise State’s Jay Ajayi -- had the advantage of playing in conference championship games. Over 12 games this season, the 6-foot, 220-pound Franklin racked up a MAC freshman-record 1,525 rushing yards on 5.19 yards per carry en route to winning the conference offensive player of the year and freshman of the year awards.
Air Force ranked third in the Mountain West in rushing defense and limited Ayaji to 63 yards in a September meeting, but the Falcons could struggle to limit Franklin, even though he failed to crack the 100-yard barrier in his final three games.
- Did you know: Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck is the youngest coach in the FBS. The Broncos hired the 34-year-old as their head coach in December 2012. After a 1-11 campaign last season, Fleck led Western Michigan to an 8-4 record and 6-2 mark in conference play and was named the MAC coach of the year.
Fleck, who is reportedly close to reaching a contract extension with Western Michigan, has been floated as a potential candidate for job openings at Power Five programs. He is known for his enthusiasm and energy and has championed “row the boat” as a mantra for building the program.
- Final analysis: Air Force enters the Idaho Potato Bowl with significant momentum after winning five of its last six games in the regular season. Though the Falcons are known for their strong rushing attack, don’t overlook dual-threat quarterback Kale Pearson (14 touchdowns, three interceptions) and explosive wideout Jalen Robinette (18.6 yards per reception).
Still, look for Western Michigan to keep pace with Air Force behind strong performances from Franklin and quarterback Zach Terrell (70-percent completion rate, 9.5 yards per attempt). The Broncos have never won a bowl game, so notching the program’s first postseason win would be an excellent way to cap a resurgent season. Last year was the only time since 2006 that Air Force had not played in a bowl.
- The pick: Western Michigan 37, Air Force 27