Fresno State (6-7) vs. Rice (7-5)
Dec. 24, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: Should you find yourself stuck conversing with inebriated Uncle Milton at the Christmas Eve family gathering or cooped up inside from the frigid winter bluster, the Hawaii Bowl’s magnificent B-roll film could temporarily extricate you from any holiday gloom with its footage of leis, palms and hula girls from the distant island in the sun. That doesn’t offer much about either Fresno State or Rice -- a losing team playing a middling Conference USA squad -- but both teams rank lower than 90th in total defense and there won’t be any winter weather to combat. If we’re lucky, points will come aplenty before Christmas morning.
• Keep an eye on: Wide receiver Josh Harper -- Fresno State. Harper logged his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and will be carefully evaluated at the NFL combine. Remember the Bulldogs produced Davante Adams, a 2014 second-round pick and budding star in Green Bay, and Harper appears to be next in line. The senior led the offense with seven touchdowns and will finish his collegiate career with at least eight games of at least 100 yards receiving. Given Rice’s occasionally porous defense, Harper could log No. 9. Running back Marteze Waller finished the regular season with seven 100-yard rushing games and 11 touchdowns. If the Bulldogs can find consistency from erratic quarterback Brian Burrell (who finished the season with 16 INTs), Fresno State could outrace Rice early.
• Did you know: Rice completed its third consecutive winning season for the first time since 1949. Coach David Bailiff has performed an admirable turnaround at a notoriously downtrodden program and he’ll finish another season with a winning record regardless of the Hawaii Bowl outcome. The Owls may still be licking their wounds after enduring a 76-31 thrashing by Louisiana Tech to end the season, but they aren’t the laughingstock that they were for the last five decades.
• Final analysis: It has the looks of a track meet from the outside and both coaches may be playing for some visibility with the coaching carousel still (slowly) moving. Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter was considered a hot commodity last season and was widely expected to leave the Bulldogs, but he didn’t receive any significant offers and suffered from a poor performance against USC at last year’s Las Vegas Bowl. Bailiff has received surprisingly little attention despite his success at a school with a bad football reputation and extremely difficult admission standards. With both teams coming off of blowouts in their final games (Fresno State was killed by Boise State in the Mountain West Championship game), the two teams will at least be playing for pride.
• The pick: Fresno State 41, Rice 31