Central Michigan (7-5) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)
Dec. 24, Noon ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: Did you see the name of the bowl? It’s the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl. This means Big Red, Western Kentucky’s incredible fever dream of a mascot, gets to take photos on the beach with boxes of delicious spicy chicken. Oh, and from a pure football standpoint, there’s always the fact that the Hilltoppers’ explosive offense (44.0 points per game) will face a veteran Central Michigan defense. The Chippewas finished 57th in Defensive S&P+, ahead of teams like Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State, Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
• Keep an eye on: Quarterback Brandon Doughty was just granted a sixth year of eligibility for the Hilltoppers, and that’s bad news for just about every other team in Conference USA. Doughty threw for 4,344 yards with 44 touchdowns in Western Kentucky’s pass-heavy offense, as the team showed no signs of slowing down under first-year coach Jeff Brohm. Doughty tossed eight touchdown passes in the team’s 67-66 overtime win at Marshall on Nov. 28, giving the Thundering Herd their first (and only) loss of the season.
• Did you know: This is a rematch of the 2012 Little Caesars Bowl. That was also the last time either team was in a bowl game. The Chippewas missed out on a bowl last winter despite finishing 6-6, while the Hilltoppers were left at home even though they went 8-4. Central Michigan won the prior meeting 24-21 after stopping Western Kentucky on a short fourth-down attempt as they were trying to get into field goal range in the final minute.
• Final analysis: If the Chippewas are to beat the Hilltoppers again, they’ll have to slow them first. Western Kentucky was held below 30 points only once this season, in a 59-10 loss to Louisiana Tech on Nov. 1. The problem for the Hilltoppers -- and the primary reason they went 7-5 -- is they have trouble stopping the other team from scoring, too. They allowed an average of 47.6 points in their five losses. If Central Michigan can get Thomas Rawls (1,103 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns) going, that would take pressure off sophomore quarterback Cooper Rush. If too many of its drives stall, Western Kentucky could run away with this one.
• The pick: Western Kentucky 38, Central Michigan 31