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2021 Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl Preview: UTSA Roadrunners vs. San Diego State Aztecs

UTSA looks to capture its first-ever bowl win to put the finishing touches on a historic season.

NCAA Football: Conference USA Championship Game-Western Kentucky vs Texas-San Antonio Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes and Odds

  • Time and Date: Tuesday, December 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Toyota Stadium — Frisco, TX
  • Spread: UTSA (-1), per DraftKings
  • Over/under: 49.5, per DraftKings
  • UTSA moneyline: -125, per DraftKings
  • San Diego State moneyline: +105, per DraftKings
  • All-time series: No previous meetings

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.


Setting the scene

The Frisco Bowl launched in 2017 as a replacement to the now-defunct Miami Beach Bowl. And for the first time in the bowl’s young history, ranked teams are traveling to the Dallas metroplex to participate in the event. UTSA checks in at No. 24 in the AP Poll while San Diego State holds the same spot in the College Football Playoff rankings.

COVID-19 canceled 2020’s originally slated matchup between SMU and UTSA, but the Roadrunners made a return trip to Frisco after a historic 2021 season. UTSA claimed the C-USA championship and secured a program-record 12 wins with a 13th in sight, should the team capture its first bowl win since joining the FBS in 2012.

San Diego State participated in the Mountain West title game, but the Aztecs were upset by Utah State in lopsided fashion. Still, the Aztecs can claim their sixth bowl win since 2010 in Frisco, a streak which started with a 2010 Poinsettia Bowl win over Navy in Brady Hoke’s final game as head coach before leaving for Michigan. Now, Hoke is back in his former role and one win away from the winningest season San Diego State has ever witnessed.


UTSA Roadrunners outlook

UTSA couldn’t quite salvage its perfect résumé, which concluded on a dreary afternoon in Denton, TX to wrap up the regular season. But the Roadrunners displayed impressive resiliency, storming back from the defeat to topple a red-hot WKU team in the C-USA Championship. For the first time ever, UTSA can wear the crown of its league.

Head coach Jeff Traylor took this program to unforeseen heights in his second year at the helm, and now another major goal remains within reach — the first bowl win in Roadrunner history.

Unfortunately for Traylor’s squad, they’ll have to dance without one of the stars that brought them to these newfound heights. Star running back Sincere McCormick opted out of the remainder of the season to focus on the NFL Draft. That loss looms huge for the Roadrunners as McCormick currently ranks fifth in the FBS in rushing yards, one season after finishing second in the statistical category. His season-high 204 yards and three touchdowns propelled UTSA to the C-USA title game win, so the offense will move to the next line on the depth chart in hopes of replicating some of that production.

Brenden Brady is expected to shoulder most of McCormick’s load. The senior shined with 67 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the opener against Illinois and recaptured some of that magic in the regular season finale at North Texas. B.J. Daniels is the only other man in the running back room to exceed 20 rushing yards or record a touchdown this season, so he would be the preferred running mate to Brady.

There’s still plenty to like about UTSA’s offense even without its star halfback. The passing game is one of the most prolific in the C-USA, and Frank Harris will look to light it up through the air. Harris demonstrated the peak of his powers in the first meeting with WKU by generating 349 passing yards and six touchdowns. Harris’ abilities aren’t limited to his arm, as he combined for 178 rushing yards and a pair of scores in his two most recent outings.

Three receivers control the majority of UTSA’s aerial production. Zakhari Franklin, the all-time program leader in virtually every receiving category, leads the group with 938 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he’s no stranger to spectacular circus catches. San Diego State’s secondary must be on the lookout for Joshua Cephus and De’Corian Clark as well considering Cephus had four 8-reception games while Clark eclipsed the 100-yard threshold on three occasions.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 UAB at UTSA
Zakhari Franklin is on the cusp of his first 1,000-yard season with the Roadrunners. The receiver who enjoyed four 100-yard games this year is 62 yards away from the milestone.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UTSA’s offense showcases a myriad of talent, but the defense remains the underrated component of this breakout team. The Roadrunners field the 13th ranked run defense in the FBS and allow approximately 111 yards per game through rushers. UTSA’s passing defense numbers may be skewed due to facing WKU record-breaking quarterback Bailey Zappe twice, but the Roadrunner secondary has held its own by forcing teams to completing just 58.4 percent of passes.

Rashad Wisdom is the leader of the unit from the strong safety slot. The two-time First Team All-C-USA selection led the Roadrunners in tackles for the second straight season and disrupted a fair share of passes deep downfield. While Wisdom is still awaiting his first interception in 2021, his ballhawking abilities are well documented after his 4-interception campaign in 2020. Operating next to free safety Antonio Parks, UTSA is able to manufacture one of the more formidable safety tandems in the state of Texas.

The linebacking crew will be in charge of limiting San Diego State’s run-first style of offense, and UTSA contains plenty of firepower within this subunit. Inside linebackers Jamal Ligon and Trevor Harmanson have been tackle machines when facing opposing running backs, while outside linebacker Clarence Hicks routinely applies pressure in backfields. Hicks locked up First Team All-C-USA honors along with four other Roadrunners due to his 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss.


San Diego State Aztecs outlook

There aren’t too many teams in the sport’s history where the most famous player on the roster is the punter. San Diego State is an exception.

Matt Araiza is perhaps the most renowned superstar punter at the collegiate level in quite some time. The Frisco Bowl traditionally rewards separate Offensive and Defensive MVPs, so unfortunately for the unanimous All-American, the odds of becoming the first punter to win bowl MVP since Michael Dickson in 2017 seem off the table. Still, Araiza’s impact will be felt. He shattered FBS records for the most 50-yard and 60-yard punts in a season, booting 39 and 18, respectively.

The Ray Guy Award winner is currently averaging 51.37 yards per punt, and if he sustains this average in the Frisco Bowl, he’ll break former Texas A&M punter Braden Mann’s previous single season record of 50.98. But Araiza doesn’t just have a big leg — he has an accurate one. Araiza is tied for second in the FBS with 36 punts inside the 20, and pinning UTSA deep will be of utmost importance for a San Diego State team that thrives from field position advantages.

San Diego State is not necessarily an offensive juggernaut, as the Aztecs never exceeded 28 points in each of their final eight contests. But by fielding the second ranked run defense in the country and ranking in the 15th percentile in time of possession, Brady Hoke’s team has figured out how to win regularly without a glamorous style.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 Mountain West Championship Game - Utah State at San Diego State
In addition to his punting abilities, Matt Araiza serves as San Diego State’s placekicker. Araiza connected on three field goals beyond 50 yards this season.
Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Aztecs 19.5 points per game defense is one of the elite units in the country, but they aren’t immovable. The blueprint to exploiting this group wasn’t exactly established until the Mountain West Championship Game, when Utah State replaced many of the runs in the playbook with short-to-moderate passing plays. The Aggies posted 318 passing yards and four touchdowns on San Diego State’s 90th ranked secondary in the midst of a 46-point barrage, despite a lack of ground output.

Overall, the defense is one of 14 to allow fewer than 320 yards per contest. The ringleaders of this unit lurk in several areas, with Michael Thomas anchoring the defensive line and Patrick McMorris manning the secondary. Thomas ranks among the nation’s elite in the sack department with 10.5 to his name, along with an astounding 20.5 tackles for loss. It’s not typical for a defensive end to register as many as 68 tackles but Thomas and the Aztecs have been sharp about halting opponents at the line of scrimmage all season. McMorris is the only player on the roster with more tackles than Thomas and he served a vital role in crafting one of the nation’s better turnover margins with four interceptions and a forced fumble in 2021.

Offensively, San Diego State still isn’t set on a quarterback and Hoke is willing to shuffle his cards depending on the matchup. Jordon Brookshire and Lucas Johnson are the candidates to operate under center. Regardless of the starter, UTSA shouldn’t expect a fireworks show through the air as the Aztecs prefer to keep things grounded. In fact, neither quarterback amassed more than 220 passing yards in a single game this year.

Thus, UTSA’s defense likely turns its attention to San Diego State’s loaded backfield, spearheaded by Greg Bell and supported by the likes of Chance Bell, Kaegun Williams, and Jordan Byrd. From 2010-17, the Aztecs made a brand off of dominant running back play and fielded a 1,000-yard rusher each season. Greg Bell enters Frisco just three yards away from becoming the first millennium man since the streak ended four years ago. Brookshire adds an element of mobility from the quarterback position, checking in at second on the team with five rushing touchdowns on the season.

San Diego State has a litany of receivers in the mix, but Jesse Matthews monopolizes much of the production. Matthews won MVP honors of the Aztecs’ most recent 2019 New Mexico Bowl win and he won the team triple crown by leading the group in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns. Matthews’ seven receiving touchdowns were more than the six tallied by the rest of the team combined.


Prediction

Even without Sincere McCormick, UTSA’s 12th ranked offense is the more formidable unit in this intriguing Frisco Bowl matchup. The Roadrunners still have the luxury of Frank Harris as and their talented receiving corps, as well as one of the sturdier offensive lines in the FBS.

For San Diego State to pull off its 12th victory, the Aztecs must keep things on the lower scoring side as anything resembling a shootout favors Jeff Traylor’s squad. Forcing opportune turnovers and preventing UTSA from gaining any steam on the ground are the Aztecs’ keys to their second consecutive bowl win.

UTSA’s veteran defense is similarly built to San Diego State’s in terms of prowess, but the Roadrunners present the ability to generate bigger plays on a consistent basis due to a flourishing passing offense. The Aztecs showed signs of concern from an offensive perspective and as a passing defense in the Mountain West Championship Game, which bodes well for a UTSA team that can score with regularity. In the Lone Star State, the Roadrunners emerge with their first bowl victory with the backing of a sold-out crowd.

Prediction: UTSA 31, San Diego State 16