Two of the nation's most consistently strong Group of 5 programs square off in paradise on Christmas Eve, as San Diego State meets Cincinnati in the Hawai'i Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Aztecs have flown under the radar all season long, but the Mountain West Conference champions are riding a nine-game winning streak into this contest against a Bearcats team that has had a somewhat uneven campaign.
As 10-3 SDSU looks for its first 10-game winning streak in 39 years, and as 7-5 Cincinnati looks to reach the eight-win mark for the ninth time in the past 10 seasons, here are three reasons to spend your Thursday night watching this contest in Honolulu before Santa pays you a visit a few hours later:
1. SDSU's defense is terrific. The Aztecs' defense has been flat-out dominant this season, ranking first or second in the MWC in 13 different categories. SDSU ranks fifth nationally in total defense (287.9 yards per game), sixth in rushing D (111.15 ypg) and 10th in scoring D (17.2 ppg). The Aztecs closed the regular season by holding eight straight opponents to 17 points or fewer before beating Air Force 27-24 in the league title game. The Aztecs lead the nation in turnover margin (+1.46), and their 31 takeaways are tied for third-best nationally. They boast a trio of first-team all-league defenders, including MWC defensive player of the year Damontae Kazee, a redshirt junior corner who tallied a league-best seven picks this season.
2. Donnel Pumphrey is a game-wrecker. Joining Kazee on the MWC's honor roll was Pumphrey, who won the league's Offensive Player of the Year Award. SDSU was the only team in the nation to sweep all three league player of the year honors, as Rashaad Penny was named the MWC's top specialist as well (and Rocky Long took home coach of the year honors). Pumphrey has rushed for 1,554 yards, good for 10th nationally. The junior has 19 total touchdowns, and he is one of only four players in the nation to lead his team in both rushing yards and receptions (27). The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder trails only Marshall Faulk on most of the school's rushing-related career marks.
3. How will Hayden Moore look in place of Gunner Kiel? Kiel, the Bearcats' starting quarterback, missed the trip for undisclosed personal reasons. Moore started two games in place of an injured Kiel this year, going 1-1 with a signature prime-time home win over Miami (FL) on Oct. 1 and a loss at BYU the next week. Before that, he threw for a school-record 557 yards in relief in a loss at Memphis. For the season, Moore, a redshirt freshman, completed 58.5 percent of his passes in eight games for 1,683 yards with nine touchdowns and eight picks. He added 50 rushing yards and two scores on the ground.