FRESNO STATE BULLDOGS (6-7) vs. RICE OWLS (7-5)
DEC. 24, 8 P.M. ET, ALOHA STADIUM, HONOLULU (ESPN)
FRESNO STATE BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: Sitting at 3-6, Fresno State strung together three solid wins at the end of the season to become bowl eligible, win the Mountain West Conference Western Division and advance to the MWC championship game. The Bulldogs became the first team in school history to start the year 0-3 and still reach six wins. Among the trio of wins late in the season was a 40-20 victory at Nevada -- a team eyeballing the division title. Brian Burrell tossed four touchdowns and the defense forced four turnovers in one of Fresno State’s marquee wins of the season.
Season lowlights: The Bulldogs hit a midseason skid of losses at UNLV and Boise State and a home defeat to Wyoming -- their first Mountain West home loss under Tim DeRuyter. They trailed UNLV 17-0 at halftime, only to come back and lose in overtime, and they wasted a career day from running back Marteze Waller (164 rushing yards, two touchdowns) in the loss to Boise State. Of course, losing the conference title game, which they did Saturday, is never fun either. That loss was Fresno State’s 19th straight against a ranked opponent.
Player to watch: Josh Harper has had quite the career. He broke the 1,000-yard threshold for the season in the loss to Boise State in the conference title game (10 catches, 131 yards), but he ranks among the nation’s top receivers when it comes to touchdowns per game. In 40 career games, he has hauled in 29 touchdowns. Only three active players (with a minimum of 25 touchdown receptions) rank higher.
Motivation factor: Since missing the postseason in 2011, the Bulldogs will be going to their third consecutive bowl game. But they have lost the last two in ugly fashion. They were throttled by SMU in the Hawai'i Bowl in 2012 and blown out by USC last season in the Las Vegas Bowl. Their last bowl win came in 2007, so there is plenty of motivation to get off the mat.
-- Kevin Gemmell
Season highlights: After starting the season with three straight losses, including their Conference USA opener, the Owls reeled off six consecutive wins from late September to early November to earn bowl eligibility. This will be the third straight bowl for Rice, a first in program history. The Owls are the 19th team out of 509 since 1980 to start 0-3 and still make a bowl game. David Bailiff continues to do a solid job guiding the Owls program in his eighth season and had Rice in position for the C-USA West Division title heading into the regular-season finale.
Season lowlights: Rice had a chance to win its division, but the Owls were crushed by Louisiana Tech 76-31. The Bulldogs reeled off 41 unanswered points in the second half, turning a 28-24 early third-quarter lead into a 69-24 advantage by the 9:31 mark of the fourth. It was the third-most points allowed in Rice history. The Owls also suffered a heartbreaker to open conference play, losing to Old Dominion 45-42 on Sept. 20 via a last-second field goal on a night when the Owls had five starters out because of injuries.
Player to watch: Senior receiver Jordan Taylor is the star of the Owls offense, but one of the most eye-opening seasons has come from junior defensive end Brian Nordstrom. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder came out of nowhere to have one of the best seasons for a defensive end in Rice history. He leads Conference USA with 18.5 tackles for loss and is fifth in the league with 7.5 sacks. His tackle-for-loss total this season is second in Rice history. His average of 1.5 tackles for loss per game is 11th-best in the country.
Motivation factor: Winning eight games is still a big deal at Rice. It has happened only 10 times in school history, and the Owls are gradually building positive momentum with consistent winning; this is the third straight season they have won at least seven games. The Owls matched their best three-year mark for wins in program history with 24. They are in the process of becoming an annual C-USA title contender, winning it in 2013 and finishing a game away from winning the West Division this season.
-- Sam Khan Jr.