Cheez-It Bowl (Phoenix, AZ): Cal (7-5) vs. TCU (6-6)

Going to be sad when Christmas is over? Never fear, the Cheez-It Bowl is almost here. This is the first year under the name of the overrated snack (yeah, I said it). The game was formerly known as the Cactus Bowl and the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl before that. This year presents an interesting match-up between two teams that had pretty middle of the road seasons. The game kicks off on Wednesday night at 9 PM and can be found on ESPN. #Pac&Big12AfterDark

How They Got Here: Cal

In a bad PAC 12 conference this year, Cal was pretty meh. They finished 4-5 in conference after a 3-0 non-conference record with the biggest win coming over BYU. It was an up-and-down year for the Golden Bears, with good wins over Washington and USC but brutal losses against UCLA and Arizona. Cal has a great defense and an offense that was unable to get anything going seemingly all season.

Cal’s defense is led by junior LB Evan Weaver and junior S Ashtyn Davis. Weaver led the Golden Bears with 141 tackles and Davis led the team with 4 interceptions. That stout Cal defense ranks 13th in turnovers forced (24) and 16th in total defense (319.4 YPG). They held PAC 12 champion Washington to 10 points in a win and Washington State to 19 in a loss. The defense has not been a problem for Cal.

It’s the offense that has struggled. In yards per game, the Golden Bears rank 110th out of 129 FBS teams. That’s bad. They also ranked 100th in passing yards per game at 188.1. That passing offense has been mostly led by freshman QB Chase Garbers who threw for 1,413 yards, 14 TD and 7 INT in 10 games. His favorite target, Vic Wharton III, had just 502 receiving yards. If Cal wants to win their bowl game, it’s going to have to rely on that great defense.

If I had to compare Cal to a type of Cheez-It, it would definitely be original. Not great, pretty boring, but if there’s nothing else in the cupboard, you’ll eat it. No one really wants to watch them play, but it’s the day after Christmas and you may have accumulated some gambling debt, so you’ll watch it. Also, it’s the day after Christmas scaries and football heals everything.

How They Got Here: TCU

TCU reminds me a lot of Cal. Good defense, bad offense. TCU sat at a miserable 4-6 and it looked like the season would be over. But Gary Patterson rallied the troops to wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State to send the Horned Frogs to a bowl game for a 5th straight season. TCU is 9-6 at bowl games under Patterson. Their most impressive win came over Iowa State and their only other win over a team in a bowl game was Baylor who finished 6-6. TCU failed to impress in big games, failing to show up against Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

The quarterback position has been a huge mess for TCU all season. Shawn Robinson started 7 games before requiring season-ending shoulder surgery. Robinson also announced following the season that he will be transferring to Missouri. After Robinson, sophomore Michael Collins took over before a foot injury would end his season. The ball is now in the hands of senior Grayson Muehlstein, who in his career is 28-43 for 328 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Horned Frogs haven’t had great success running the ball, but Sewo Olonilua will be relied on heavily as starting RB Darius Anderson is not listed on the bowl game roster for undisclosed reasons. Defensively, TCU is led by Ben Banogu. Banogu had 7.5 out of the Horned Frogs 30 sacks this season.

TCU is a reduced fat white cheddar Cheez-It. At first glance, it sounds good. Hey, it’s TCU they’re usually good right? Well, not really this year. There’s pieces like Jalen Reagor and Ben Banogu that make them flavorful, but at the end of the day they’re still 6-6 without a quarterback. It may taste good for a few bites, but soon you realize you should’ve bought the normal white cheddar.

Player to Watch: Jalen Reagor (TCU)

Reagor has been the biggest strength for TCU’s offense and the most consistent player on the team. He caught a touchdown pass in 9 of the 12 regular season games for the Horned Frogs. His 1,061 yards rank 23rd in the FBS and had 177 yards against Kansas and 150 against West Virginia. The sophomore has future NFL slot receiver written all over him at 5 foot 11 with a quick first step and steady hands. With the crazy quarterback carousel at TCU this season, Reagor has succeeded with each.

Gambling Lines

Cal opens as 1 point favorites with the over/under set at 38.5. Even with two low-scoring teams, 38.5 seems very low for a bowl game. Life’s too short to bet the under. As for the main line, pick your poison. TCU has the bowl game experience but is a mess at quarterback. Cal has slightly more consistent offensive play but still ranks very poorly in offensive efficiency.

Prediction

Legally, someone has to win this game. Both teams had disappointing seasons, but a bowl win could heal all wounds. I’ve gone back and forth a lot in regards to which team will show up. I like Cal’s defense slightly more than TCU, and playing the game just one state over in Arizona is another advantage for the Golden Bears. In a true pickem, I’ll take Cal 24-21.

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