Nevada (8-4) vs. SMU (7-5)Dec. 24, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Reason to watch: The Mustangs are back from the dead, and they're heading to the gun show. SMU had gone just 58-153-3 since the NCAA slapped it with the death penalty in 1987, but that was before June Jones and his pass-happy mentality matriculated from Hawaii. The second-year coach sparked the biggest turnaround in the FBS this season, improving on SMU's 1-11 2008 mark by notching seven wins and securing the program's first bowl berth since 1984. Now, Jones will pit his run-and-shoot offense against Nevada's pistol attack, which produced three 1,000 yard rushers (the first team in history to do so), 521.6 yards (second nationally) and 40.6 points per game (seventh). The Mustangs don't put up those eye-popping stats, but they still average 379.9 yards (61st) and 27.9 points per game (59th) behind freshman and six-game starter Kyle Padron and Emmanuel Sanders, SMU's all-time leading receiver.
Keep an eye on: Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick. The pistol's triggerman can do it all -- and in this one, he's going to have to. Nevada fielded the nation's most potent rushing attack this season (362.3 ypg), but two of the noggins on that three-headed monster won't be suiting up in Hawaii. Vai Taua, who recorded a team-best 1,345 rushing yards, has been ruled academically ineligible, while Luke Lippincott, who produced 1,034 rush yards and nine scores, will be sidelined by a bum toe. Nevada's pistol relies on misdirection and motion, which means Kaepernick can't do it all himself -- plus, coach Chris Ault maintains the play calling won't change and the backups will have to pick up the slack -- but the fact remains it's not easy replacing the production two 1,000-yard rushers generated. The onus to do so will fall on Nevada's dual-threat signal-caller, who himself ran for 1,160 yards and 16 touchdowns and passed from 1,875 and 19 (to just five interceptions).
Did you know: SMU began the season with its sights set on Honolulu. Most teams start off dreaming of BCS berths, but the 2009 Mustangs harbored a less ambitious, more specific goal. During the first practice of the season, Jones told his team he wanted to reach the Hawaii Bowl as a tribute to recently deceased special teams coach Frank Gansz, and he continued to remind the Mustangs of that objective "every three or four weeks" throughout the year. Now, Jones returns to his old stomping grounds, where he made Hawaii nationally relevant (and Sugar Bowl-bound) in nine seasons as head coach and is 15-1 since 2006, and SMU returns to the site of its last bowl appearance.
Final analysis: A week ago, it looked like SMU's storybook turnaround would end with a 20-plus point loss to a Nevada team capable of generating points at will. But that was before the Pack lost Taua and Lippincott. Nevada can do damage through the air, but its bread is buttered on the ground, and it won't be able to generate its typical yardage down two. SMU, meanwhile, relies on the pass, and should have no trouble against a Nevada secondary that ranks 119th out of 120. The run vs. pass battle has turned into a contest between two efficient air attacks, and Nevada's edge there is slighter indeed. Plus, Jones and Co. are amped up over meeting their goal and ending the program's 25-year bowl drought. A deeper, more experienced Nevada team should pull it out, but don't discount the edge SMU's motivation could provide.
The pick: Nevada 35, SMU 33.
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