Date: Saturday, December 15th, 2018
Kickoff Time: 2 p.m. EST, 1 p.m. CST
Location: Dreamstyle Stadium, Albuquerque, NM
TV / Streaming: ESPN
Line: Utah State -7.5, O/U 68
Series Record: Utah State leads, 4-3
Last Meeting: North Texas won 31-23 on October 9, 2004
Getting to Know... the Utah State Aggies
The Mountain West is covered by its own site here at SBNation, but as fans of the underdog we often check in with how they’re doing, particularly any members that used to share a footprint with current Conference USA schools.
Utah State and North Texas are many years removed from the Sun Belt (and even more from the Big West), but Utah State has done extremely well for itself, netting an improved conference affiliation a dozen years ago, and culminating in a 10-win season this year and a spot in the Coaches Poll, where they still currently reside.
This is thanks in no small part to Matt Wells, who just finished up his fifth year as head coach of the program. Two weeks ago, Wells was announced as the new head coach at Texas Tech, so the Aggies will have to do without him in the bowl game, but what he’s built will no doubt keep steamrolling right ahead, despite the simultaneous departure of Offensive Coordinator David Yost.
A group that will definitely be coming back for the bowl game are, of course, the players. First and foremost, that means quarterback Jordan Love, who was the terror of the Mountain West this year: 246 of 374 completions, throwing for 3,208 yards on the season. That includes 28 touchdowns and only five interceptions, and a QB rating of 159.9, good for second best in the conference— all of which draws parallels to North Texas QB Mason Fine (see below).
Assisting Love will be a strong corps of running backs, drawing from a bench deeper and more experienced than that of North Texas. Darwin Thompson is far and away the standout with his 951 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns this season, but right at his heels you’ve got Gerold Bright (785 yards rushing, eight touchdowns), and solid role players in Justen Hervey (122 yards, 31 carries and a touchdown) and Eltoro Allen (120 yards, 35 carries and a touchdown).
The Aggies didn’t just get to ten wins by accident. Top receiving targets Ron’quavion Tarver and Jalen Greene will also see their talent on display, after a regular season of 676 yards receiving and seven touchdowns, and 538 yards and five touchdowns, respectively.
Ten wins is impressive no matter what conference you play in, but looking over the Aggies’ schedule this year, none of the wins really stand out as a “best” win. After dropping their season opener to nationally ranked Michigan State, 38-31, Utah State rattled off ten consecutive wins, yes, but only one of those teams finished the season with a record above .500: Hawaii at 8-5.
The pros here are that even if Utah State didn’t exactly face a strong schedule, they put up big numbers in those wins, accumulating more points this season than Boise State, and not just beating Hawaii but dominating them, obliterating the Warriors 56-17, particularly impressive considering it was at Hawaii and therefore one of the lengthiest road trips in college football.
Getting to Know... the North Texas Mean Green
If you’re reading this, there’s a chance you’re just a huge fan of North Texas, but there’s also the chance you’re a serious gambler, looking for insight into the line. Or maybe you’re just a completist who wants to watch every bowl game, in which case, good for you.
In any event, there’s a lot to love about this game. One cannot write anything on North Texas without mentioning Mason Fine, who has put up even more impressive numbers than Jordan Love, finishing his 12-game regular season with 295 completions in 457 attempts, 3,734 yards passing, 27 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
If those numbers look eerily similar to Love’s, that’s not the end of it. Love is a sophomore, Fine is a junior, and the team’s records would be identical as well if not for UNT’s late defensive collapse against Old Dominion. Not only that, but both teams effectively finished third in their conference, or at least with the best overall record for a team not appearing in their conference’s title game.
Taking it further, North Texas leading rusher DeAndre Torrey has amassed 942 yards and 14 touchdowns on 161 carries, after taking over from injured Loren Easly in early October. Again, a great match-up with USU’s Thompson, though North Texas’ next active RB on the depth chart is Nic Smith, a solid contributor who nonetheless finished the regular season with “only” 315 yards on 62 carries, and two touchdowns, impressive, but a sharp drop-off from what the Aggies are rolling with.
Luckily for the Mean Green, and for the fans, UNT has WR Rico Bussey Jr., the top receiver on the field Saturday. Bussey Jr. enters the game with 1,017 receiving yards on the season on just 68 receptions, and 12 touchdowns. Other favorite Fine targets to watch out for are Jalen Guyton (50 receptions, 702 yards, five touchdowns), Jaelon Darden (46 receptions, 567 yards, four touchdowns), and Michael Lawrence (31 receptions, 426 yards, two touchdowns).
If that’s too many numbers to throw at you with the weekend incoming, the lowest yards-per-catch among the four is Darden, with 12.3 yards to every reception. Where the Aggies spread out the ball a little more when it comes to their passing game, North Texas has made bigger plays and amassed huge numbers doing it, promising an excellent match-up this weekend.
If you looked at the stat lines alone for both these teams, you might not be able to tell which was C-USA and which was Mountain West. The former got a bad rap this year for not looking great as a whole, but ultimately each conference had both its above average performers, and its absolute dumpster fires this year. Utah State and North Texas were both firmly in the “above average” category, and both did it while showcasing a solid defense, which never gets a big enough shout-out when it comes to rattling off such impressive win-streaks.
North Texas technically defeated more teams with a winning record than the Aggies, but the Mean Green shouldn’t get a big head about it— they had two to USU’s one, and those two wins were against Southern Miss (6-5, with a game canceled due to hurricane), and FCS Incarnate Word.
For any fan of either team, 2018 was an impressive season to remember, no question. Both teams put up huge numbers and finished near the top of their respective conference, which is always a plus. But on paper, there’s a reason neither team won their conference, and despite their impressive records, they still have some work to do before either can win a conference title.
But first, we have one more game in 2018, and it’s going to be a good one. As much as we’d love to leave the prediction there, and go on about how much fun these teams will be to watch, alas, the very nature of sport dictates that there must be a winner. No matter the final score, we’re all winners here.
Final Score: Utah State 28, North Texas 24