Date: Dec. 23, 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Location: San Diego | Qualcomm Stadium
Boise State Broncos
Best moment: There were a lot of emotions when former coach Chris Petersen returned to Boise State and stood on the visitors sideline, leading Washington on the blue turf. If the Broncos lost, the narrative was Petersen was off to the big time and the Broncos’ future as a national power was in doubt. But, instead, the Broncos jumped ahead early and desperately held on for an emotional 16-13 victory.
Lowest moment: The 37-30 loss to Air Force not only ended the Broncos’ hopes of defending their Mountain West Conference crown, it also was the first time the program had lost consecutive home games since 1997, when many of the current players were still in cribs. Boise State lost despite winning the turnover battle 4-0, something that is difficult to accomplish, though yielding 607 yards to the Falcons was pretty embarrassing.
Key player: Running back Jeremy McNichols is the engine of the Broncos’ offense. He has rushed for 1,244 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per carry, but his biggest number is his TDs. He has rushed for 18 of those, tied for fourth in the nation with guys named Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook.
Motivation level: Depends how you look at it. Are the Broncos highly motivated to end a disappointing season on a high note? Or are they just disappointed? An 8-4 record, a lack of a national ranking and not winning its conference is not typical of the program, which began the year with high hopes and a marquee win over its former coach.
-- Ted Miller
Northern Illinois Huskies
Best moment: Conjuring images of the Jordan Lynch era, the Huskies marched into Toledo and beat the unbeaten, 24th-ranked Rockets 32-27 on Nov. 3. Starting quarterback Drew Hare went down with a season-ending Achilles injury in the third quarter, but NIU rallied from eight points down behind redshirt freshman Ryan Graham. The Huskies scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and got a clinching interception from linebacker Boomer Mays with less than two minutes to play.
Lowest moment: Yes, the Huskies had possession of the football three times in the fourth quarter, down seven points to No. 1 Ohio State on Sept. 12, then lost at Boston College a week later. More disappointing, though, was the four-turnover performance to open league play in a 29-19 loss at Central Michigan. The Huskies surrendered two touchdowns in a 90-second stretch of the third quarter to seal their fate.
Key player: First-team All-MAC running back Joel Bouagnon led the league in rushing yardage and touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound junior is a load to tackle. He went over 130 yards four times during the Huskies’ six-game winning streak in October and November. And with a pair of freshmen in Graham and QB Tommy Fiedler, Bouagnon’s importance is magnified.
Motivation level: The Huskies are accustomed to the taste of success. The accomplishments of this year have not matched the past few seasons, but NIU is a dangerous and experienced foe in the postseason under third-year coach Rod Carey. The Huskies will be hungry for their first bowl win since 2011 over Arkansas State.
-- Mitch Sherman