Motel 6 Cactus Bowl: West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Arizona State Sun Devils
Date: Jan. 2, 10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN
Location: Phoenix | Chase Field
Best moment: The Mountaineers’ 31-26 victory over Texas Tech to open November showed they weren’t going to let a brutal October define their season. The win over the Red Raiders sparked a 3-0 start to November after a 0-4 stretch in October. It would have been easy to mail in the rest of the season, but the victory over the Red Raiders proved mailing it in wasn’t in West Virginia’s DNA.
Lowest moment: West Virginia likely looks back at its 33-26 overtime loss to Oklahoma State on Oct. 10 as a missed opportunity. The Mountaineers battled back to force overtime against the Cowboys but couldn’t secure a win in the only game during their winless October they lost by less than double digits.
Key player: Running back Wendell Smallwood was one of the Big 12’s top threats (1,447 rushing yards, 23 receptions) as the centerpiece of Dana Holgorsen’s offensive attack. The veteran offensive coach shunned the normal expectation of a pass-happy, Air Raid-style attack for a productive running game with Smallwood carrying the load along with Rushel Shell.
Motivational level: A strong senior class sat down after the winless October stretch to decide what legacy they wanted to leave. The answer was resiliency, as they finished strong, resulting in a terrific November and victories in four of its final five games. That motivation should carry on into the bowl game, particularly after a disappointing loss to Kansas State in the regular-season finale. -- Brandon Chatmon
Best moment: No matter how up and down a season gets, beating your rival is always rewarding. The Sun Devils had some key wins – including a blowout over UCLA and a fantastic second-half comeback over Washington. But a 52-37 victory over Arizona in the Territorial Cup takes the cake. As Arizona State coach Todd Graham said after the victory, it’s “worth about five wins.”
Lowest moment: It might not just be one … but a series of missed opportunities and blown leads. That was never more evident than in the season finale when, coming off the momentum of the Territorial Cup win, the Sun Devils let a 24-3 lead slip away at Cal and they lost 48-46. A triple-overtime loss to Oregon didn’t sit well, either.
Key player: Wide receiver Devin Lucien closed out the season as hot as any receiver in the country. During the final three games, he caught 21 passes for 453 yards with five touchdowns. He's hauled in 57 passes for 930 yards with seven scores this season.
Motivation level: At this point it’s simply a matter of salvaging some positives from what’s been a season of failed expectations. Before the season, Graham called this the best team he’s had at Arizona State – which set a high bar since they won the South Division in 2013 and almost won it 2014. But they closed the year by winning just two of their final six games, so any victory gives them some offseason momentum. -- Kevin Gemmell