Bowl previews and picks against the spread: Everything you need to know for Monday's games

Nick Bromberg and Sam Cooper
Western Michigan RB LeVante Bellamy has 23 rushing TDs. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Western Michigan RB LeVante Bellamy has 23 rushing TDs. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

First Responder Bowl: Western Kentucky (8-4) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)

Location: Fort Worth | When: Dec. 30 (12:30 p.m. ET) | TV: ESPN | Line: WKU -3.5

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers have bounced back from a Week 1 loss that could have derailed the season. WKU fell 35-28 to FCS Central Arkansas in Week 1 and then lost 38-21 to Louisville in Week 3.

Things have gotten a lot better since. WKU finished the season 7-2. Those seven wins included victories over Army and Arkansas. The Hilltoppers drubbed the Razorbacks 25-19 on Nov. 9 and helped lead to Chad Morris’ firing.

Western Michigan: The Broncos were rolling along in November. After a loss to Eastern Michigan on Oct. 19, WMU was 4-4 and bowl eligibility looked like it could be in jeopardy.

The Broncos then reeled off three consecutive wins and were in position to make the MAC title game with a win over Northern Illinois.

That win didn’t happen. NIU won 17-14.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH

To see who becomes the first-ever First Responder Bowl winner. Last year’s game between Boise State and Boston College officially never happened after the game got called in the first quarter because of thunderstorms. Boston College was leading 7-0 at the time.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Western Kentucky DL DeAngelo Malone: Malone leas the team with 11 sacks and has 20.5 tackles for loss. He’s also the team’s second-leading tackler with 90 stops and helps anchor a defense that gives up just over 20 points per game.

Western Michigan WR Skyy Moore: Moore is one of three WMU receivers with at least 47 catches and he leads the team in yardage with 734 yards on his 47 catches. The freshman has 20 catches over his last four games for 377 yards as he’s emerged as a playmaker for QB Jon Wassink.

NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

Western Michigan RB LeVante Bellamy: The redshirt senior back has been one of the best statistical performers in the entire 2019 college football season with 23 rushing touchdowns and 1,412 rush yards. Since the loss to Michigan State, the 5-9, 190-pound Bellamy has averaged 131.5 yards and 2.2 touchdowns per game, plus 6.1 yards per carry. The former wide receiver hasn’t been a big part of the passing game, however, so we wouldn’t mind seeing this facet of his game against a tough WKU pass defense that allows only 200.5 yards per game through the air. Bellamy projects to be an early Day 3 pick, but he is expected to test through the roof at the NFL scouting combine.

— Eric Edholm

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Western Kentucky: A win would give WKU its first bowl win since a victory in the 2016 Boca Raton Bowl. It would also make first-year coach Tyson Helton just the third coach in school history to win a bowl game.

Western Michigan: The Broncos last won a bowl game in 2015 at the Bahamas Bowl. That remains WMU’s only bowl win in school history.

PICKS

Nick Bromberg: WKU -3.5

Sam Cooper: WKU -3.5

Picks from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast

Pat Forde: WKU -3.5

Pete Thamel: WMU +3.5

Dan Wetzel: WMU +3.5

Sean Sullivan: WKU -3.5

Can Mississippi State and RB Kylin Hill finish the season with a winning record? (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Can Mississippi State and RB Kylin Hill finish the season with a winning record? (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Music City Bowl: Mississippi State (6-6) vs. Louisville (7-5)

Location: Nashville | When: Dec. 30 (4 p.m.) | TV: ESPN | Line: MSU -4.5

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have been mediocre in two seasons under Joe Moorhead and endured a span this season where they lost five of six games, including four consecutive SEC games. That losing streak dropped MSU to 3-5, but Moorhead’s team managed to rally by winning three of their final four games to get to a bowl game. The finale was a doozy. MSU held on to beat rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl 21-20 thanks to the now-infamous Ole Miss dog pee penalty.

Louisville: After a disastrous 2-10 season in 2018 under Bobby Petrino, UL brought in Scott Satterfield to revitalized the program. It looks like he has the Cardinals back on the right track after surprising folks with a 7-5 record in 2019. Louisville started the season 4-2 and had impressive wins over Wake Forest and Virginia along the way. The Cardinals clinched bowl eligibility by beating NC State and then sealed a winning season by knocking off Syracuse.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH

If you like running the ball, this is the game for you. Between Louisville’s Javian Hawkins and Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill, you’ve got two stellar running backs who combined for 2,767 yards and 18 touchdowns. Those two are the stars of two top 25 rushing offenses in the country. MSU ranks No. 18 while Louisville ranks No. 23, and the two teams have combined for a whopping 183 rushing plays of 10-plus yards. You could see a few long TD runs in this one.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Mississippi State LB Erroll Thompson: Erroll Thompson is in his third season as the starting middle linebacker for the Mississippi State defense. Thompson trailed only first-round pick Johnathan Abram in tackles a year ago. This year, he led the way, compiling 84 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss. For his career, Thompson has totaled 217 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He’ll be relied upon to keep the Louisville running attack in check.

Louisville WR Tutu Atwell: Atwell had a big year as a sophomore for Louisville. The 5-foot-9, 153-pound speedster earned first-team All-ACC honors by accumulating 60 catches for 1,125 yards and 12 touchdowns. His receiving yardage leads the ACC while his touchdowns rank second and his receiving average (18.75 yards per catch) rank fourth.

NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

Mississippi State RB Kylin Hill: With Bulldogs CB Cam Dantzler and Cardinals OT Mekhi Becton sitting out this game to prep for the NFL draft, the pro-caliber talent has been thinned out noticeably. But Hill has said he’s in for this game, and it’s one more chance for him to display his exceptional contact balance and angry running style. The SEC’s leading rusher this season also is a threat on screen passes and can be a tough player to bring down at a rocked-up 5-11 and 215 pounds. He could get pushed down in the draft in a well-stocked RB class, but Hill might end up an exceptional steal either late on Day 2 or early in Day 3 next spring. He’s one of our favorite players to watch.

- Eric Edholm

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Mississippi State: Mississippi State could use some positive vibes going into the offseason. Dan Mullen left behind a talented team, but MSU underperformed in Moorhead’s first season. There were more struggles in 2019, and Moorhead was dangerously close to losing his job after just two seasons. But the Egg Bowl changed things, and a bowl win to lock up a winning season would give MSU some good feelings entering the offseason. MSU has won three of its last four bowl games.

Louisville: A win in a bowl game would be a tremendous way to cap off Satterfield’s first season with the program. Expectations weren’t very high for the Cardinals entering the year, so possibly getting up to eight wins would be a nice accomplishment. It would also end a streak of three straight seasons without a bowl win. UL lost the Citrus Bowl in 2016 and the TaxSlayer Bowl in 2017.

PICKS

Nick Bromberg: Louisville +4.5

Sam Cooper: Louisville +4.5

Picks from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast

Pat Forde: MSU -4

Pete Thamel: Louisville +4

Dan Wetzel: MSU -4

Sean Sullivan: MSU -4

Cal LB Evan Weaver has over 170 tackles in 2019. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Cal LB Evan Weaver has over 170 tackles in 2019. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Redbox Bowl: Cal (7-5) vs. Illinois (6-6)

Location: Santa Clara, California | When: Dec. 30 (4 p.m. ET) | TV: Fox | Line: Cal -5.5

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Cal: The Bears started 4-0 with wins over Washington and Ole Miss in the season’s first four weeks. Then Cal fell to 4-4 with losses to Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State and Utah in its next four games.

No, Cal didn’t follow that up with another four-game win streak. The Bears beat Washington State to stop the losing streak and then got blown out by USC. A winning season was secured, however, with victories over Stanford and UCLA in the final two weeks.

Illinois: The Illini opened the season with wins over two of the worst programs at the top level of college football in Akron and UConn. Four losses followed, including a defeat to Eastern Michigan in Week 3.

Things got a lot better on Oct. 19. That’s the day Illinois took down then-No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 in one of the biggest upsets of the season. That game spurred a four-game win streak that also included a win over Michigan State. That victory put Illinois at six wins and bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Cal QB Chase Garbers: Cal’s four-game losing streak was not-so-coincidentally timed with Garbers’ absence as he suffered a shoulder injury in the Arizona State loss on Sept. 27. Cal was 6-2 (counting the Arizona State game) when Garbers saw the field and 1-3 without him.

Garbers is 109-of-184 passing for 1,500 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions this season. Cal’s other quarterbacks have combined to throw for under 800 yards with five touchdowns and six interceptions.

Illinois WR Josh Imatorbhebhe: This is a bit of a risky pick as the USC transfer is a game-time decision after he missed the season-ending loss to Northwestern with an injury. His participation will be a huge boost to an Illinois offense that doesn’t have much explosively. Imatorbhebhe is the team’s leading receiver with 33 catches for 634 yards and nine scores. No other Illinois wide receiver has more than 24 catches or 268 receiving yards.

NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

Cal LB Evan Weaver: Cal’s best 2020 prospect, redshirt senior S Ashtyn Davis, will not play in the game after undergoing a minor surgical procedure. So we’ll go with a more tricky study in Weaver, who has gained national notoriety for his brash style and high tackle totals. He has 177 tackles and has notched at least 21 tackles in three different games.

NFL scouts are not enamored with his pro fit, as he can struggle in space and might not be a top-shelf blitzer (despite transitioning from defensive end). But against a run-heavy team such as the Illini, Weaver could put some more positive tape into scouts’ hands

— Eric Edholm

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Cal: A victory for the Bears would be the first Cal bowl win since the 2015 Armed Forces Bowl and just the second in the last 11 years. Yeah, Cal has only won one bowl game since the 2008 Emerald Bowl. Though, to be fair to the Bears, this is just the fourth bowl appearance since that game.

Illinois: A win for the Illini gives Illinois its first winning season since a 7-6 campaign in 2011 that ended in the Fight Hunger Bowl. That was also Illinois’ last bowl win and it came under the watch of interim coach Vic Koenning. He was the team’s coach for the bowl game after Ron Zook got fired.

PICKS

Nick Bromberg: Cal -5.5

Sam Cooper: Illinois +5.5

Picks from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast

Pat Forde: Cal -6.5

Pete Thamel: Cal -6.5

Dan Wetzel: Cal -6.5

Sean Sullivan: Cal -6.5

Florida didn't miss a beat when Kyle Trask was forced to start after Feleipe Franks' injury. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Florida didn't miss a beat when Kyle Trask was forced to start after Feleipe Franks' injury. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Orange Bowl: No. 9 Florida (10-2) vs. No. 24 Virginia (9-4)

Location: Miami | When: Dec. 30 (8 p.m.) | TV: ESPN | Line: Florida -14.5

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Florida: Florida has reached 10 wins in its first two seasons under Dan Mullen. This year, the Gators started the season 6-0, including a 24-13 win over Auburn. Florida would then lose two of its next three games, dropping a road game to LSU and then losing to Georgia in Jacksonville. From there, the Gators closed out the season with three straight wins, including a 40-17 blowout over Florida State.

Virginia: After a 4-0 start, Virginia endured a rough stretch where it lost three of four games to drop to 5-3 on the year. But the Cavaliers, now in their fourth year under Bronco Mendenhall, rallied down the stretch and won their final four regular season games. The biggest was the finale against rival Virginia Tech, a 39-30 win. The victory clinched the ACC Coastal title and snapped a 15-game losing streak against the Hokies. The Cavs were then blown out by Clemson in the ACC title game.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH

Florida has had back-to-back very strong seasons under Dan Mullen and now has the chance to close out the year on a high note in its home state. But Virginia, despite being a two-touchdown underdog, won’t just roll over. The Cavaliers have really elevated their level of play as a program under Bronco Mendenhall and now have the opportunity to play on a big stage. Mendenhall will have his team, led by QB Bryce Perkins, motivated to play in a big bowl game.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Florida TE Kyle Pitts: Pitts has been a matchup problem for SEC defenses all season. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound redshirt sophomore, Pitts led the Gators in receiving this season, becoming one of many reliable targets for quarterback Kyle Trask, who thrived as the starter after an injury to Feleipe Franks. Eight different UF players caught 20 or more passes on the year, but Pitts led the way with 51 catches for 610 yards. He was third on the team with five TDs.

Virginia QB Bryce Perkins: Virginia’s rise to the top of the ACC Coastal has coincided directly with the arrival of Bryce Perkins. Perkins landed at UVA last year as a junior college transfer and has been a true dual-threat for the Cavaliers. Perkins threw for 2,680 yards, rushed for 923 yards and combined for 34 touchdowns as a junior. This year as a senior, Perkins enters the bowl game with 3,215 yards and 18 TDs through the air with 745 yards and 11 scores rushing.

NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

Florida EDGE Jonathan Greenard: CB CJ Henderson is skipping this game, but Pro Football Focus’ top-rated Gators defender is not. Greenard transferred in from Louisville for his final college season and elevated his play and draft stock with 52 tackles (second on the team), 15 tackles for loss, nine sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery he ran back for a TD — all despite an ankle injury against LSU that cost him parts of two games. He’s been scorching hot down the stretch and could be a handful for Virginia OTs Bobby Haskins and Dillon Reinkensmeyer. Greenard can rush, drop, set the edge and impact games in a number of ways. We think the top-60 prospect could put up a massive performance here before playing in the Senior Bowl next month.

- Eric Edholm

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Florida: Florida already got to 10 wins in Dan Mullen’s first season and now can get to 11 wins — something the program hasn’t done since 2012 — in his second season. A win would also be Florida’s third straight in bowl games and would give the Gators a 4-0 all-time record in the Orange Bowl. UF also won the Orange in 1966, 1998 and 2001.

Virginia: Virginia is playing in the Orange Bowl for the first time in program history. The Cavaliers also have the chance to reach the 10-win mark for just the second time ever. The program went 10-3 back in 1989, the year UVA won one of its two ACC championships.

PICKS

Nick Bromberg: Virginia +14.5

Sam Cooper: Florida -14.5

Picks from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast

Pat Forde: Florida -14.5

Pete Thamel: Florida -14.5

Dan Wetzel: Florida -14.5

Sean Sullivan: Florida -14.5