One of the most attractive bowl destinations is the Bahamas and it will be the FIU Panthers and the Toledo Rockets that have the opportunity to go to Nassau and play on December 21 in the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl. The goal for Group of Five bowl teams is to either win a conference title or go somewhere warm for a bowl game. By comparison, Toledo can laugh at Western Michigan, who has to play in the cold weather of Boise later that day.
The FIU side is the preferred side in early betting. The line opened 6.5 with a total of 67. The total has inched up one point to 68, but the side has been met with a fair amount of FIU betting early in the process. The Panthers are as low as 5.5 at some places out there and that move happens to make a lot of sense to this author (spoiler alert).
This is the first bowl game outside of the state for the FIU program since a 2010 trip to Detroit and just the fourth bowl game in program history. Last year’s bowl game was not a success, as Temple won 28-3 over the Panthers in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. That should add a little bit of extra motivation to the FIU side.
The turnaround by Butch Davis has been equal parts stunning and impressive. Davis had been out of the coaching game for several seasons after leaving Miami, but he’s turned FIU into a very consistent program with back-to-back eight-win seasons and a shot at the program’s first nine-win season as an FBS member.
This season Davis did it with Bowling Green transfer James Morgan and a running back by committee approach to replace all-time leading rusher Alex Gardner. Morgan posted a strong 26/7 TD/INT ratio and completed 65.3 percent of his throws during the regular season. This is a much more explosive FIU offense this season as well, as the Panthers went from 5.7 yards per play in 2017 to 6.34 yards in 2018. That leap put FIU 21st nationally in that department. Second-year offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky is working on getting an FBS head coaching job real soon after what he did at Elon and what he’s doing in Miami with the Panthers.
The defense improved as well. The Panthers allowed 5.64 yards per play, their lowest since 2011 under now Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal. The Panthers head into the bowl game +9 in turnover margin and 12th nationally. The simplest way to be a good team is to have a really good turnover margin and FIU has accomplished that.
On the surface, it really does look like Toledo had a down season. In some respects, the Rockets have. The combo of Eli Peters and Mitchell Guadagni did post a 28/10 TD/INT ratio, but only completed 183 of 347 passes. That was a huge departure from last year’s starter, Logan Woodside, who posted a 64.2 percent rate with a 28/8 TD/INT ratio. His 2016 numbers were even better. The Rockets seem to have plateaued a bit offensively, yet they still ran for 5.3 yards per carry, which is the most since 2014. Toledo was still 27th in yards per play, but that was a noticeable drop from finishing eighth last season.
The Rockets regressed a little bit defensively this season with 5.8 yards per play allowed. The 430 yards allowed per game is the most since 2012. The problem for Toledo is games against comparable or better competition did not go particularly well. Aside from the win over Nevada, the Rockets beat VMI, Bowling Green, Western Michigan, Ball State, Kent State, and Central Michigan. The Rockets lost to Miami FL, Fresno State, Eastern Michigan, Buffalo, and Northern Illinois and only the EMU loss was close. The Rockets padded their stats against inferior foes and lost to equal or better competition.
Jason Candle is just 1-2 in bowl games with the Rockets and the MAC has been the worst conference in bowl games over the last several seasons.
Bahamas Bowl Free Pick: FIU Panthers +6
Grab this while you can because this line should keep going down. While going to the Bahamas is something out of the norm, think about the locations of these two campuses. FIU is in Miami. That doesn’t suck. Toledo is in Northwest Ohio, where the sun hasn’t been seen in a month and leaves have been off of trees for two months. The Bahamas has to feel like a vacation.
Furthermore, Toledo’s last two bowl game appearances have been the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile and the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery. It seems easier to focus on business in those locales than it does in the Bahamas. FIU may not be the better team, but the spot is better and judging from what we’ve seen the last two seasons, the Panthers probably have a coaching edge as well.