The participants in the Armed Forces Bowl have plenty in common - potent running attacks, high-scoring offenses, suspect defenses and .500 records.
But there’s one big difference that could play a role in the outcome.
While a 6-6 record isn’t anything to get overly excited about, Rice has every reason to feel good about itself heading into its first bowl game since 2008.
Ending that drought seemed very unlikely after the Owls lost five of their first six games, but they rebounded to win five of six, including their final four contests. They became bowl eligible with a 33-24 victory at UTEP on Nov. 24.
Air Force, meanwhile, enters its sixth straight bowl wondering what could’ve been. It won five of its first eight games - including a 4-1 start in Mountain West play - before dropping three of its last four, including a regular season-ending 48-15 loss at Fresno State.
The Falcons looked like a tired team down the stretch while playing 10 consecutive weeks, but having more than a month off should have them refreshed for the postseason.
“I think it’s really going to help us here,” coach Troy Calhoun said of the layoff. “Whenever you get to go home and even if it’s only three nights rest, those are three good soldiers’ nights rest and it tends to really revive your guys so I think it’s a plus, a huge, huge plus.”
Although the Owls struggled early this season, it’s not surprising that the second-youngest team in the FBS showed improvement in the latter half. Three of their six losses were by four points or fewer, including a double-overtime defeat to Marshall and a 28-24 loss at Tulsa during which they held four different leads.
“We were a good football team. We were competitive in every game,” coach David Bailiff said. “Very resilient group of young men that showed up, even when we back ourselves into the corner and knew we had to win out to become bowl eligible.”
Rice’s balanced offense keyed the four-game streak, averaging 40.5 points and 432.0 yards. Junior quarterback Taylor McHargue completed 64 of 98 passes for 843 yards with three touchdowns and one interception during that span.
He’s the main piece in the second-most productive offense in school history. The Owls’ 381 points and 5,053 yards of total offense - 2,415 on the ground - are bettered only by the 2008 team that went 10-3.
Senior tailback Charles Ross should see plenty of touches in this game as he tries to build off a career-high 154-yard, two-touchdown effort in the regular-season finale. He’s a big reason why the Owls led Conference USA in time of possession.
Rice certainly has the more balanced offense in this matchup, but perhaps no team in the nation boasts a better running game than Air Force. The Falcons feature the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense (328.8 yards per game) and have finished in the top 10 every year since 1986.
Air Force isn’t shy about being one-dimensional with the ball, becoming the first FBS team in three years to have no pass attempts in a game - a 21-7 win over Hawaii on Nov. 16.
The main cog in the Falcons’ dynamic ground game is Cody Getz, who rushed for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns this season despite missing two games with an ankle injury. The 5-foot-7 senior - the first player in school history with three 200-yard rushing games in a season - could be in for a big performance against a Rice run defense that allowed 193.2 yards per game to rank 94th in the nation.
“Cody is a great, great story,” Calhoun said. “A guy that has not played a whole lot, at least here at the academy, until his senior year. He’s only 162 pounds and probably the tiniest back in the country. But has good feet and he cuts well, loves to play, and he’ll be one of those guys I think that will be a lot of fun to watch on December 29.”
Getz and quarterback Connor Dietz have the luxury of lining up behind an offensive line that didn’t allow a sack through the first nine games despite losing starting center Michael Husar in the opener.
Dietz isn’t usually asked to do more than run the triple-option attack, but the fifth-year senior can be effective when called upon to throw. He passed for 1,127 yards and eight touchdowns with only three interceptions - none on 76 attempts through the first eight games.
Air Force has won five of six meetings with Rice, taking the most recent matchup in 1998. Three of those contests were played as conference games when both teams were members of the WAC in the late 1990s.
Rice has split two bowl games since a postseason drought from 1962 to 2005.