Fresno State vs. SMU: Hawaii Bowl Breakdown
Fresno State (9-3) vs. Southern Methodist (6-6)
Dec. 24, 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: For the second time in four years, June Jones will take Southern Methodist bowling in Hawaii, where he coached for nine seasons. The Mustangs' first island trip resulted in a 35-point victory, but this excursion might not be as fruitful. SMU will meet Fresno State, which can cap its winningest season in 11 years with a victory in Honolulu. Jones is known for his aerial attacks, but the Bulldogs were the ones who owned the air this season, boasting the nation's 12th-best passing offense and fourth-best passing defense. They also field a solid ground behind Robbie "Mighty Mouse" Rouse, who rushed for 1,468 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
• Keep an eye on: Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, who gave the team an early Christmas present when he announced after the regular-season finale that he would return for his senior year. The Mountain West offensive player of the year completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 3,742 yards, 36 touchdowns and just five interceptions this season. The quarterback delivered six games with at least four touchdown passes this season, including a five-touchdown, 536-yard effort against San Diego State. It's only a matter of time until Carr follows in the footsteps of his older brother David into the NFL. Luckily for Fresno State, that time isn't now.
• Did you know: Tim DeRuyter has a history of hardening the bellies of soft defenses, having turned around Ohio, Nevada, Air Force and Texas A&M when he served as their defensive coordinator. As the first-year head coach at Fresno State, he's living up to his reputation. The Bulldogs went from allowing 35.2 points per game in 2011 to just 22.2 this season and are also giving up 100 fewer yards per game. Much of that success can be attributed to the team's increased emphasis on pressuring the quarterback, leading to the fourth-most interceptions (20) in the nation and 13th-most sacks (34). Safety Phillip Thomas has particularly thrived in the new defense, earning All-America status after intercepting an FBS-best eight passes and forcing four fumbles.
• Final analysis: While Fresno State's offense will be difficult for SMU to stop, this clash could ultimately be decided by ball protection. Both teams ranked in the top 12 in turnover margin this season and were tied for third nationally with 33 forced turnovers. But the edge goes to the Bulldogs, whose stout defense will get the opportunity to tee off on the Mustangs' turnover-prone quarterback, Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert. The former Longhorn has thrown more career interceptions (36) than touchdowns (26) and will need to be at his best to keep SMU afloat. Gilbert showed signs of maturity at the end of the year, avoiding throwing an interception in his last 166 attempts. But even if SMU avoids mistakes, Fresno State's talent could be too daunting to allow Jones and Co. to pick up another win in the Aloha State.
• The pick: Fresno State: 31, SMU 24