Talk about being overshadowed. The 2018 NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl is on December 29. It is one of five games on that Saturday and it will feature the Arkansas State Red Wolves and the Nevada Wolf Pack. The other eight teams in action that day are Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, Virginia, Notre Dame, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Alabama. This game will also start at 11:15 a.m. local time. Poor guys.
Maybe some people believe that there are too many bowl games, but not this author and not you if you are reading this preview. The Red Wolves are a one-point favorite for this bowl in Tucson on the home field of the Arizona Wildcats. With balanced offenses in town, the total is 59.5.
Arkansas State was a bit of a disappoint this season, all things considered. The Red Wolves are on the weaker side of the Sun Belt Conference and still couldn’t make it to the first-ever Sun Belt Championship Game. An 8-4 season shouldn’t be viewed in that light, but the Red Wolves had higher hopes and certainly had higher hopes for their offense. Oddsmakers did, too, as Arkansas State went 8-3-1 to the under in the regular season.
Nevada has actually exceeded expectations, despite the 6-6 ATS record. The Wolf Pack went 7-5 in the regular season and are back in a bowl game for the first time since 2015. Nevada went just 3-9 last season under Jay Norvell, so an 8-5 season would represent one of the biggest turnarounds in college football this year.
These two teams have only played five times in their respective program histories and the last meeting came all the way back in 1999. That was a 44-28 win for Arkansas State in Jonesboro. This is the fifth straight bowl appearance for Arkansas State and head coach Blake Anderson. The Red Wolves are 1-3 both straight up and against the spread in those four games.
Justice Hansen put together a fine season for Arkansas State, but, again, it felt like more was expected. Hansen had 37 touchdown passes and 3,967 yards last season. He only has 3,172 yards and 27 touchdown passes heading into this game. The Red Wolves actually did improve on a yards per play standpoint from 6.1 to 6.3, but averaged 37.8 points per game last season. That number, at least for now, is down over six points per game. What was the problem? It wasn’t turnovers, as Arkansas State only had 13 of those. It wasn’t turnover margin, as Arkansas State was +5.
It wasn’t the red zone. The Red Wolves were 97th in TD% last season at 54.7 percent. They were 50th this season in TD% at 64.4 percent. It wasn’t the ground game, which went from 4.0 yards per carry to 4.8 yards per carry. It was the defense. Arkansas State’s defense allowed nearly a half-yard more per play this season and went from 3.6 yards per carry allowed to five yards per carry allowed. Fortunately, the pass defense, which is what matters the most in this game, was really good with a 57.4 percent completion percentage against and 45th in yards per pass attempt. That will be the unit tested against this Nevada Air Raid attack.
Ty Gangi seems to have a grasp on the offense in Year Two, but this will be it for the senior gunslinger. Gangi completed 61.1 percent of his tosses for 3,131 yards and a 23/11 TD/INT ratio. Backup Cristian Solano was awful in his 45 pass attempts, so we have plenty of reasons to be worried about Nevada next year. For now, the focus is on Gangi and stud sophomore McLane Mannix, who had 50 catches for 875 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season.
Nevada’s ground game also took a big leap this season. Toa Taua probably won’t get there, but the true freshman needs 184 yards to get to 1,000, as he leads the team with 5.2 yards per carry. Nevada’s rush attack only managed 4.2 yards per carry last season and heads into this finale with 4.8 ypc.
The biggest reason why Nevada is in this position is the defense. After allowing 6.1 yards per carry in 2015, Norvell and Jay Casteel put together a top-notch 3-3-5 stack defense that has really elevated the Wolf Pack against the run. Nevada allowed just 4.4 yards per carry last season and actually enters this game with a top-20 unit against the run. The Nevada defense is actually 39th in yards per play against with 5.24 and 20th in yards per carry allowed with 3.5. Nevada, though, was noticeably worse against the pass with 28 touchdowns allowed, which ranked 120th.
There is one big equalizer in this game. Tucson is at elevation. It isn’t as high as Reno, but it is certainly much higher than Arkansas State is accustomed to in Jonesboro, AR. The Wolf Pack players are better equipped for that type of atmosphere.
Arizona Bowl Free Pick: Nevada +1
This is my biggest power ratings overlay of the bowl season. The elevation is a big factor as well, as it stands to reason that Arkansas State will get tired as the game goes along. Both teams have pretty balanced offenses in terms of play selection, but Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson has to know that he needs to throw to win. The Wolf Pack should know that, too. The Red Wolves haven’t had much luck in bowl games. Nevada has played a tougher schedule, even though Arkansas State played Alabama.
The Red Wolves played Alabama and still rank 126th in Sagarin in terms of strength of schedule. Given how Nevada has turned things around in short order, they would appear to have the coaching advantage and also the advantage of playing in altitude. This is one of my favorite bowl bets of 2018.