WESTERN MICHIGAN BRONCOS (8-4) vs. AIR FORCE FALCONS (9-3)
DEC. 20, 5:45 P.M. ET, ALBERTSONS STADIUM, BOISE, IDAHO (ESPN)
WESTERN MICHIGAN BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: Most of the year was a highlight for Western Michigan, which had the biggest turnaround of any FBS program in the country this year. P.J. Fleck’s team went 1-11 in his debut season but followed that up with an 8-4 record this year and narrowly missed the MAC championship game. A 26-14 win over Bowling Green in mid-October removed any doubt that the Broncos could play with the top teams in their conference. Big wins over Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan in November established WMU as the top directional school in the Mitten State.
Season lowlights: A missed extra point in overtime ended a heartbreaking loss against Toledo in October. The Rockets tied the game on a field goal with no time left. Each team scored two touchdowns in overtime, but the failed kick stopped what would have been an early-season confidence boost for Western Michigan. The team rebounded well by winning its next six games.
Player to watch: Jarvion Franklin, the Broncos’ star freshman running back, had a lot to do with the turnaround in Kalamazoo. He ranks ninth nationally with 1,525 rushing yards this season. The MAC Offensive Player of the Year, he also has 24 of the Broncos’ 28 rushing touchdowns. Only Heisman candidate Melvin Gordon has run for more scores this year.
Motivation factor: Keep rowing the boat, as Fleck would say. The 34-year-old coach and his self-made slogan have Western Michigan pointed in the right direction. The Broncos narrowly missed a chance to play for a conference title after losing to Northern Illinois in the regular-season finale. Win or lose, a bowl trip should be a chance to celebrate a successful year.
-- Dan Murphy
AIR FORCE BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: This was a resurgent year for the Falcons coming off a 2-10 campaign (0-8 in Mountain West play) in 2013. Air Force racked up nine regular-season wins, securing victories in five of its last six. Wins over fellow service academies Navy and Army were both certainly critical, but two other triumphs were more impressive in the football realm: The Falcons stunned two-touchdown favorite Boise State in September before derailing high-powered Colorado State’s nine-game win streak to close the regular season. Impressive side note: Air Force amassed seven takeaways in the win over Boise State.
Season lowlights: All three of the Falcons’ losses have come on the road. The first came late in a 17-13 decision at Wyoming, while the other two happened at Utah State (a poor defensive performance in a 34-16 loss) and at San Diego State (a 30-14 setback). Still, considering the brutality of the 2-10 season a year prior, this bounce-back campaign was magnificent and the Falcons did not lose consecutive games.
Players to watch: The Falcons feature a trio of players who have put up sturdy offensive numbers. Running back Jacobi Owens is a consistent 100-yard-per-game threat, and he has racked up 5.2 yards per carry in his 1,000-yard campaign. Receiver Jalen Robinette is explosive, averaging 18.6 yards per catch over his 41 receptions. Kale Pearson has delivered as a dual-threat at quarterback (14 pass TDs, 646 rushing yards).
Motivation factor: Like any resurgent team, the Falcons should be thrilled about the chance to play in the postseason. Considering the immense difficulties this team faced in 2013, it’s reasonable to expect that Air Force will be motivated to add an exclamation point -- and a 10th win -- to its 2014 résumé. These guys have won as underdogs this year, so expect them to fully embrace any December opportunity.
-- David Lombardi