The 2018 version of the Military Bowl is an odd match-up. For one, there’s no service academy playing in this year’s game. Secondly, it’s one of the most lopsided pairings of the bowl season. And it’s tucked into a marquee national spot, opposite of the teams it features.
But that only adds to the drama of an increasingly odd bowl season. The Cincinnati Bearcats come in underrated on the national scene. They have ten wins in a competitive conference (AAC), with an overtime loss to Temple and a loss to undefeated UCF.
Virginia Tech, however, barely made it to bowl season. The Hokies own the nation’s longest active bowl streak at 26 consecutive post-season games. But they snuck in this season in a very down ACC. The odds will be against them in an odd match-up.
Military Bowl Preview: Overwhelming Odds
What: Military Bowl Presented By Northrop Grumman
Where: Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, Annapolis, MD
When: 12:00 EST, Monday, December 31st, 2018
Line: Cincinnati -5.5, O/U: 53.5 (Vegas Insider)
Cincinnati is one of the surprise teams in the nation. In Luke Fickell’s second season, the Bearcats won two more games (10) than they managed in the previous two seasons (8).
The strength of the Cincinnati season is the defense. The Bearcats defense allowed just 16.1 points per game this season. And they were great in almost every situational scenario as well. Opponents converted only 27% of third downs. Teams scored fewer points as the game went along by quarter. They gave up less than five yards per play and won the time of possession battle as well.
Cincinnati’s defense did it the old fashion way: up front. The defense was led by defensive linemen Cortez Broughton and Marquis Copeland and linebacker Perry Young. Broughton had 16.5 tackles-for-loss (TFLs) and 5.5 sacks. That landed Broughton, along with Young, on the American Athletic Conference First Team. Copeland was on the preseason watch list for both the Nagurski and Outland after a stellar 2017 campaign. Broughton was the beneficiary of opposing team’s focus on Copeland all season. Perry had over 100 tackles last season and 9 TFLs. He’s the leader of the Bearcats defense.
Look for the Cincinnati 4-3 defensive front to pressure and create havoc in the Hokie backfield all day.
Fickell brought the Urban Meyer offense with him to Cincinnati and it started to show this season. AAC Freshman of the Year Desmond Ridder was the guy the Bearcats needed to run the read-option system. Ridder had 2,359 yards passing with 19 touchdowns against five interceptions. He added 563 rushing yards; 19% of his rushes resulted in first downs.
Sophomore Michael Warren II was the Bearcats leading rusher with 1,163 yards and 17 touchdowns. He added 222 yards on 24 receptions as well. Cincinnati has two more freshman behind Ridder that have over 450 yards as well with Tavion Thomas and Charles McClelland.
The receiving corps is led by senior Kahlil Lewis, although its a deep unit with six players averaging over two receptions per game. Offensive tackle Dino Boyd was the fourth Bearcats player elected to the AAC 2018 First Team.
While a lot of Cincinnati fans are looking forward to this game, many national media types are looking forward to 2019. With all this freshman talent, Cincinnati could challenge the UCF’s AAC hegemony next season.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, was the opposite of Cincinnati this season. In Justin Fuente’s third season, the Hokies regressed. Playing in a weakened ACC, the Hokies struggled to get to six wins. Uncharacteristically, it was Bud Foster’s defense that was the weakness. The season was marred by blow-out losses to Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Georgia Tech and a odd and disappointing loss to Old Dominion.
The Hokies gave up 30 points per game this season with one of the easiest schedules in the nation. The allowed 206 yards rushing and 230 yards passing. There’s no doubt that Hokie fans are anxious about facing the dynamic and versatile Bearcats defense. Senior Ricky Walker led this defense from the defense line, but didn’t have much help this season. No one else on the Hokie defense had more than 3.5 sacks this season. For the Hokies to challenge the odds of this game, linebackers Rayshard Ashby and Dax Hollifield must have big days.
It’s odd to see a Bud Foster defense this porous.
Quarterback Ryan Willis leads the Virginia Tech offense. Willis passed for 2,497 yards after starting the last nine games of the season. Willis replaced Josh Jackson in the starting spot in week four. The Hokies, however, couldn’t find an effective rushing attack. Senior running back Steven Peoples leads the team with only 760 rushing yards on the season. The rest of the entire running back corps has less than that total combined. Fuente, known for his offensive attack at Memphis, struggled to find any weapons outside of Willis’ arm this season. Six of the top ten rushers on the team are either wide receivers or quarterbacks.
It’s an odd statistic. And it’s not good.
There’s no doubt, the odds are against Virginia Tech. Fickell’s offense is clicking and the Bearcats defense is tough. They’re a team on an unquestionably upward trajectory. The Hokies have regressed in Fuente’s third season. But they’ve still got a lot of talent on that roster. Cincinnati’s biggest test will be one of focus. Can the Bearcats handle the pressure and expectation of being the favorites? Can they do what they’re supposed to do against a Power Five program?
It’s the Military Bowl, after all; the odds might favor one side but the battle will determine the victor.
It’ll be another litmus test for the American Athletic Conference, as well. If they want to be known as a Power Six, they’ve got to win games like this. After Duke smoked Temple last week, it’s important for the conference index rankings for Cincinnati to beat Virginia Tech.
Look for Cincinnati to turn odd into ordinary. The Bearcats will get the win in comfortable fashion, and what looks odd today might look ordinary in the future.