Motel 6 Cactus Bowl: Boise State Broncos vs. Baylor Bears
Date: Dec. 27, 10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN
Location: Chase Field | Phoenix
Best moment: In retrospect, it might have been a Week 2 win over Washington State -- the Cougars won eight in a row following a 31-28 loss to the Broncos on Sept. 10 and came within one victory of playing in the Pac-12 title game. But in the larger picture, starting 7-0 -- the Broncos’ best start to a season since 2011 -- kept Boise State in the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl until late in the season.
Lowest moment: The Broncos lost to Air Force in the regular-season finale after being denied at the 1-yard line while trying to tie the game in the final minutes. It was Boise State’s second loss of the season and meant Wyoming would go on to the play in the Mountain West title game. Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said there was “a lot of disappointment” in the locker room afterward.
Key player: Jeremy McNichols. The junior finished the regular season with the fifth-most rushing yards of any FBS running back (1,663), and his 23 rushing touchdowns led all FBS running backs (not including conference championships). The two-time All-Mountain West second-team selection posted his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and ended the regular season with nine 100-plus-yard games, including three of more than 200 yards.
Motivation level: High. After narrowly missing out on the Mountain West title game, Boise State will be eager to prove its caliber as a 10-win team and assert itself as the class of the Group of 5. A strong showing against a Power 5 team could help ease the sting of a late-season slip-up. -- Chantel Jennings
Best moment: Baylor played its best football early in the season, and the highlight of its 6-0 start was a 35-24 win over Oklahoma State on Sept. 24. Knocking off one of the Big 12’s two best teams to start off conference play offered hope Baylor could put another big run together under interim coach Jim Grobe.
Lowest moment: November was a brutal month for the Bears, and the low point came Nov. 5 when rival TCU came to Waco and handed Baylor a 62-22 thrashing. A week later, the Bears lost senior quarterback Seth Russell to a season-ending ankle injury and fell 45-24 at Oklahoma. Those losses killed any hopes Baylor had of competing for a Big 12 title.
Key player: QB Zach Smith. Smith's continued development will be critical for the long-term future of the Bears, since he’s their only scholarship quarterback set to return in 2017. Smith took over when Russell went down with the injury and showed promise down the stretch.
Motivation level: Questionable. Baylor players wanted this bowl game for their seniors. They earned it by winning six games. But with a coaching staff ready to depart and a terrible second-half finish, it’s hard to know what the vibe will be when this Baylor team takes the field one final time. -- Max Olson