Rocky Long is a 20-year veteran when it comes to being a college football head coach. Several of those seasons took place in Albuquerque. The legendary coach is back in the Land of Enchantment for this year’s New Mexico Bowl, as his San Diego State Aztecs take on the Central Michigan Chippewas from the MAC.
What a season it has been for the Chips. Jim McElwain returned to the headset after a one-season hiatus and took Central Michigan to the MAC Championship Game. After serving as Michigan’s wide receivers coach in 2018, McElwain took a 1-11 team and turned them into a bowl team with the help of some nice transfers and a dramatically improved offense.
The Chippewas had 3.8 yards per play in John Bonamego’s final season. CMU goes into the bowl game averaging 6.15 yards per play this season. Furthermore, though some of the point totals don’t show it, Central Michigan’s defense comes into this game ranked 42nd with 5.3 yards per play allowed. This was the strength of the team last season, so it was expected to be the better unit, but the offense improved by leaps and bounds. And probably jumps and skips, too.
Some key losses in the secondary to the NFL played a role. Central Michigan stopped the run at a tremendous clip. The Chips did allow 18 rushing touchdowns, but only allowed 3.34 yards per carry. They also had a decent pass rush. They just couldn’t cover.
Unfortunately for San Diego State, their running game is generally what moves the chains. Not this season, though. San Diego State felt the losses of Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny a couple years later. The 3.27 yards per carry during the regular season was one of the worst outputs in program history and certainly one of the worst of Long’s career. Overall, SDSU ranked 123rd in yards per play with 4.61.
That means that Ryan Agnew has to be good for the Aztecs if they want to consistently move the football down the field. He’s been serviceable this season with 2,175 yards passing on 340 attempts with a 63.5 completion rate, and an 11/5 TD/INT ratio. Juwan Washington should be healthier for the bowl game, so hopefully that will help, as he has been limited to 3.3 yards per carry. San Diego State had one play longer than 50 yards this season. That was tied for last with Duke and Michigan State. SDSU’s eight plays of 30 or more yards were the fewest in the country.
The Mountain West is better than the MAC, but the MWC isn’t exactly known for defense. Central Michigan tied for 52nd with 28 plays of 30+ yards.
There are a lot of reasons to sing McElwain’s praises. It helped to get Tennessee transfer Quinten Dormady in the mix, but McElwain was also able to unleash battering ram back Jonathan Ward for a 1,000-yard season. Virginia Tech transfer Kalil Pimpleton led the team in receiving yards. True sophomore Kobe Lewis needs 23 yards to give CMU two 1,000-yard rushers. This is an incredible turnaround from Central Michigan’s offense. Credit also goes to former Akron quarterback Charlie Frye who worked with McElwain at Florida and made a stop at Ashland University last season.
This is one of my favorite plays of the bowl season. Central Michigan +4.5 is the play. My line has this game with San Diego State -0.5, so that is a start. Furthermore, Central Michigan stands out quite a bit in every statistical category and the coaching staff, including former head coach Robb Akey at DC, has been terrific this season.
One other little hidden side note here. McElwain used to coach at Colorado State from 2012-14. He saw Rocky Long’s Aztecs. The 3-3-5 defense is a unique scheme that typically trips up the opposition in games against SDSU. That shouldn’t bother McElwain and he can plan for it.
The only thing that really favors San Diego State here is that the game is in Albuquerque and they have a lot more experience with the setting and the altitude. You could also make a case about Long going back to UNM. The perception of the MAC and the MAC’s bowl success could be the reason why this line is so high, but this game feels mispriced to me and I even gave SDSU a point for “home field advantage” because of the familiarity.
Pick: Central Michigan +4.5