San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, Thursday, 9:30 pm ET, ESPN
Suggested slogan: The longest bowl name for eight years running
The teams: Utah St. Aggies vs. Northern Illinois Huskies
How Utah State got here: With a solid debut in the Mountain West Conference. The Aggies didn't blow the doors off the conference, but they played in the inaugural Mountain West Conference Championship Game and lost narrowly to Fresno State. (One of those teams won the Mountain Division and the other won the West Division, and I dare you to tell me which was which without looking it up.) Three of their five losses came by a touchdown or less, and another came by 11. Utah State plays what used to be considered SEC football: solid defense combined with a good enough offense. Three Aggies are in double digits in tackles for loss (Jake Doughty, Zach Vigil and Kyle Fackrell). That allowed a team which lost its starter for the year in early October to go 5-2 down the stretch to capture the division title.
How Northern Illinois got here: To the great relief of Sugar Bowl officials. The Huskies were in line for an automatic at-large berth in the BCS, a scenario that like would have sent Central Florida to New Orleans to face Alabama, until they lost the MAC Championship Game to Bowling Green. By 20. In any case, everything you've heard about Jordan Lynch is true when he's running the ball: He is nearly unstoppable. Lynch had 274 carries for 1,881 yards and 22 touchdowns this season, including conference highs in rushing yards in a game (321) and rushing touchdowns in a game (four). But NIU seemed to struggle to put away bad teams, winning by just 10 at Idaho, four against Eastern Illinois and seven against Akron. With the exceptions of Iowa and, of course, Bowling Green, the Huskies blew everyone else out of the water.
College football fans care because: It's an opportunity to watch Utah State play in a bowl for a third consecutive year, and you don't get to say that very often. Besides, Northern Illinois is actually a ranked team.
SEC fans care because: Because watching Utah State will remind you of what SEC football used to look like.
Bottom line: Utah State's rushing defense is one of the best in the country statistically, and Northern Illinois strikes me as a bit of a paper tiger this year. But the Huskies are probably still better than the Aggies, and they should win a narrow one here. Northern Illinois 27, Utah State 24
Line: Northern Illinois by 1.5