Washington vs Boise State
The Chris Petersen Send Off Bowl!
Okay, that’s not the official name of the bowl, but for anyone who follows college football closely, that’s exactly what this game is. Petersen created a dynasty at Boise State before stepping up to the FBS to make Washington one of the Pac-12’s best programs for a half-decade. With Petersen announcing he will be stepping away from Washington after this season, this is a fitting farewell for the coach.
In the middle of the Chris Petersen Send Off Bowl lies a battle between two potential top-100 picks. Washington QB Jacob Eason will have to show up as a passer while Boise State’s Curtis Weaver flies off the edge to terrorize him.
Weaver is the prized prospect of the two, at least with respect to where they rank among the peers at their position. Though he trailed off toward the end of the regular season, Weaver racked up 13.5 sacks over 13 games in 2019, making him one of just seven players to average at least one sack per appearance. Weaver shares his company in that accomplishment with future top-5 pick Chase Young (Ohio State) and freshman star Gregory Rousseau (Miami), among a few others.
What’s amusing about Weaver is that the thick 6-foot-3, 265-pound edge defender often plays from wide alignments, and even stand-up positions, and wins primarily through speed. If one were to just look at Weaver’s build, they might assume him to be a stronger, craftier strong-side defensive end along the line of Za’Darius Smith of the Green Bay Packers. That’s not Weaver at all, though. Someone like Dee Ford of the San Francisco 49ers, who measures in about 6-foot-2 and 243-pounds, is a more apt stylistic comparison for Weaver.
In all of these clips, Weaver works to the edge, dips around the corner, and fires toward the quarterback. Of course, being that these offensive linemen are low-level MWC talent, Weaver is not being challenged to bend as much as he will need to in the NFL, but the initial burst and finishing speed are clear. Weaver has the raw speed to make plays happen, he just needs to prove he can be bendier once he gets to the NFL.
Thankfully for Weaver, he will not have to square off against left tackle Trey Adams in this one. Adams is a potential top-50 pick who has been excellent in 2019 after missing the 2018 season with a back injury. At 6-foot-8, 314-pounds, Adams’ strength and length could have been an issue for Weaver. Alas, Weaver won’t have to worry about that and will instead be able to focus his attention on how he will finish plays to bring down Eason.
Despite an up-and-down junior season, Eason may still end up declaring for the NFL Draft. Many players have already declared and bowed out of the bowl game, but Eason has decided he’s going to finish out the rest of this season in full, even just for a mid-tier bowl game.
Eason has a handful of flaws ranging from down-to-down accuracy to his spotty decision making, but the 6-foot-6, 227-pound junior is always tough to bring down. Though not the best straight-line athlete, Eason has plenty of requisite quickness to buy himself time in the pocket and slip by a few defenders per game. He can rollout of the pocket and make throws while separating himself from pass-rushers on the move. Eason is purely a “run to be able to throw” kind of athlete, but he’s a dang good one.
As such, Weaver may have a tough time getting to Eason despite his own impressive speed and quickness. Weaver has failed to find a sack in three of his past four games, with two of those games coming versus athletic QBs in Tevaka Tuioti (New Mexico) and Cole McDonald (Hawaii). Granted, Weaver was also nursing a minor foot injury over that period, so maybe he will be right for the bowl game. An impressive multi-sack performance against Eason would be the perfect final impression for Weaver to leave, assuming he declares for the draft.
Liberty vs Georgia Southern
Three players in the country earned at least 1,300 receiving yards this season. Liberty WR Antonio Gandy-Golden is among that prestigious trio alongside Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase (LSU) and fellow standout G5 WR Omar Bayless (Arkansas State). If nothing else, Gandy-Golden can put up numbers like the nation’s best.
Part of Gandy-Golden’s production can be credited to Liberty’s offense system. Head coach Hugh Freeze runs an offense that resembles the Briles-era Baylor offenses. Full spread, RPOs, limited route trees for receivers from wide splits — you get the gist. At the lower levels of FBS, that style of offense is conducive to wild wide receiver production and Gandy-Golden has been the beneficiary of that.
At the same time, the limited route tree makes it tough to be impressed by the senior receiver’s route-running. Not only does Gandy-Golden run a smaller route tree than most any NFL team would ask of him, but he isn’t particularly sharp in running those handful of routes. Gandy-Golden doesn’t flash the creativity or quickness to free himself off the line of scrimmage, nor does he show the bend and burst to fire out of route breaks. Clear, consistent separation will never be the name of the game for Gandy-Golden at the NFL level.
However, Gandy-Golden has an absurd ability to find the ball in the air. He understands how to track the ball from any position, reach it at its highest point, and pluck it from the air before the defensive back can get a hand on it. With the help of his long arms, strong frame, and an impressive vertical, Gandy-Golden seldom finds himself in a contested or high-point situation where he can’t somehow come down with the ball.
Facing off against Gandy-Golden is Georgia Southern CB Kindle Vildor, who some have heralded as one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the class. Vildor earned himself a spot in the Reese’s Senior Bowl this year, which will give him another chance to square off against Gandy-Golden if this bowl game goes wrong for him.
Vildor is defined by his physicality and motor. A relentless and chippy player at 5-foot-11, 190-pounds, Vildor loves to toe the line between aggressive and illegally forceful. Many of the best defensive backs in the league do the same, but with that style of play comes a sort of coin flip nature to one’s game, in which any given game could bring a shutdown physical performance or a rainshower of yellow flags.
Against a 6-foot-4, 220-pound Gandy-Golden, Vildor may have his fair share of issues trying to toe the line of aggression. Gandy-Golden isn’t just bigger, either. With all the aforementioned traits that make Gandy-Golden a contested catch threat, Vildor will theoretically need to fight even harder to get into a proper position to make plays on the ball. This matchup leans closer to a shower of flags than a shutdown performance out of Vildor.
Florida Atlantic vs SMU
10 players in the FBS racked up at least twelve sacks this season. Players such as Chase Young, Curtis Weaver, Bradlee Anae, and Zack Baun all being in that group would not surprise anyone, but SMU’s Patrick Nelson, who is a converted safety playing linebacker, sure is a unique name to have cracked that top-10. The 6-foot, 216-pound hybrid player racked up exactly 12 sacks in 2019.
Nelson took up a role closer to the line of scrimmage in 2019. Rather than a safety position 8-12 yards off the ball, Nelson converted to an outside linebacker spot that also treated him like an “apex” defender for coverage purposes. Nelson’s relatively small frame and short-area burst make him a nasty blitzer and speed rusher off the edge.
More important for his move to linebacker, however, is that Nelson is willing to play like a linebacker with respect to his run fits. Too many safeties convert to linebacker and show some hesitancy in fighting between the hashes, but Nelson has proven himself aggressive enough to get in there when he needs to. No, he’s never going to be KJ Wright, but there is some reason to believe Nelson can survive at this position at the next level.
With all that being said, Nelson’s ability at the line of scrimmage may not outweigh his opponent’s ability to win as a pass-catcher. Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant made the Associated Press first-team All-America squad and has proven himself all year to be a deadly “move” tight end type.
As many new-age tight ends are, Bryant is a pass-catcher first. Bryant is a plus athlete who can play all around the formation from in-line, an H-back position, in the slot, or out wide. Anywhere an offensive coordinator can scheme him up to catch passes, Bryant can play it.
Once Bryant brings a pass in, he becomes the bull all coaches want their tight ends to be as ball carriers. Bryant flashes plenty of burst, agility, and flexibility in space, but it’s his knack for bouncing defenders off like a tennis ball off plexiglass that makes him the receiving threat that he is. Bryant is going to find a way to pick up all those hard-earned yards that tight ends are intended to find one way or another.
Bryant leads a Florida Atlantic offense that will need to keep up with a powerhouse of an SMU offense. If the Owls are going to stay in this game, it’s going to be by feeding Bryant — and he is sure to deliver on his end of the bargain.