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Russell Athletic Bowl

West Virginia

vs.

Miami Florida

12/28/16

Getting closer to the end of the year, the bowl games start to pick up and it begins with the Russell Athletic Bowl, pitting two hopeful ACC and Big 12 schools against each other. Both West Virginia and Miami (FL) had a few missteps throughout the year, but will be looking to end the season on a high note. The Hurricanes are currently -2.5 point favorites.

Miami has the proximity edge, but that shouldn't matter all too much. They were there back in 2013 and lost by 27 points to Louisville and have a 2-2 overall record in the bowl. West Virginia is 0-3 in this bowl, but hasn't been there since 2010 and back in the 1990s prior to that.

The Hurricanes had an up-and-down season down to the dot, winning their first four games, losing the next four, then closing with four-straight wins. Of course, a lot of that has to do with schedule. They were impressive in the early going, but then faced top competition in the ACC and couldn't pull out wins, while they also dropped one at Notre Dame. They dominated in the final four games, winning all by double digits, but only Pittsburgh had a winning record of those teams.

West Virginia was a bit different, with their two losses scattered in the schedule against two teams that finished above them in the Big 12 standings, the Oklahoma schools. The Mountaineers had a nice stretch toward the beginning of the year with big wins over Texas Tech and TCU, but had to eke out wins over Texas and Baylor in their only remaining difficult matchups.

This game should be neck-and-neck. Miami has the better overall numbers, but that has a lot to do with the early-season schedule. The 'Canes held their first three non-conference opponents to 23 points total. They did well against Florida State, but that was in one of those muddy games after the hurricane.

But there's no denying that Miami showed improvement late in the year, part of the reason why the spread jumped a little. Quarterback Brad Kaaya is at the head of that and he could be on his way to the NFL if he wants after this game. Kaaya closed the season with 10 TDs and only one INT in the last four games, finishing with 23 TDs and 7 INTs. That said, his overall numbers aren't much improved from his freshman season, as he's still completing 61.2% of his passes. And the consistency still isn't there, completing less than 50% of his passes at Virginia a couple games ago, a two-win team. But that's where Mark Walton and the running game comes in as he's gone for at least 100 yards in three of the last four games.

But this will arguably be the best defense that Miami has seen since Virginia Tech, or maybe all season. The Mountaineers have held high-flying offenses like Texas Tech to 17 points and while Oklahoma scored a bunch on them, that's to be expected no matter the defense.

On the other side is where West Virginia may have some questions. There really wasn't any consistency later in the season and that starts with quarterback Skyler Howard. Unlike Kaaya, he has improved this season with 26 TDs and 10 INTs, but he's been questionable in the second half of the year. Three interceptions at Texas almost cost them and the two picks at OK State did cost them. In the finale against Baylor, he was just 10-of-26 for 111 yards. Luckily, running back Justin Crawford has been great, going for at least 200 yards in two of the last three games and he'll likely get a heavy dose here.

Miami's strength is in the front seven, so it may come down to Howard, which is an unknown at this point for West Virginia.

The Mountaineers are 1-6 ATS in their last seven bowl games and 6-14 ATS in their last 20 vs. the ACC. The Hurricanes haven't covered in five straight bowl games, but have covered in their last four overall. Miami has dominated this matchup, but all of those wins came in the glory days and the last time they played was back in 2003.

Our Pick - West Virginia +2.5

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