Washington State finished the regular season with an 8-4 record, good enough for third place in the PAC-12 North, and will play home team to the 8-4 University of Miami Hurricanes in the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, on December 26th. The game kicks off at 11 AM PST and will be broadcast on CBS with Carter Blackburn on the call and Gary Danielson as the analyst, with Allie LaForce on the sideline.
Miami has had an interesting year. It started out with head coach Al Golden on the hot seat, which only got warmer despite the Canes winning their first three games against Bethune-Cookman, Nebraska, and Florida Atlantic.
Here's just before the FAU game that Miami won 44-20.
The banners kept flying, even following the team to Cincinnati where they'd lose their first game. Things eventually boiled over after suffering the worst loss in program history -- a 58-0 shellacking at the hands of No. 1 Clemson -- and Golden was let go. The Canes turned things around under interim coach Larry Scott, finishing the season strong with wins over decent Duke*, Virginia, and Georgia Tech squads, and a real good Pitt team.
Shortly after parting ways with Georgia, Mark Richt -- a former quarterback for The U -- returned to his alma mater and is currently out on the recruiting trail. Larry Scott will still be their coach for the bowl game.
*They won on a lateral-filled kick return as time expired that should not have been allowed to happen. ACC refs might have overtaken PAC-12 refs this season in officiating incompetence.
Here's a brief glimpse of the match-up using Bill Connelly's advanced metrics. You can read up on any categorical term you're unfamiliar with here.
Each table will give the raw score for WSU, as well as the difference in national rank between Miami and WSU for each category. Positive values mean that Washington State is that many ranking spots higher than Miami. Conversely, negative scores indicate how many spots Miami is ranked above WSU. Each category is compared by match-up; so it's WSU offense vs Miami defense and WSU defense vs. Miami offense.
First up, lets look at total offense and defense ranks for each team.
On it's surface, these are two extremely even teams and actually tie MSU vs. Bama for the third most even match-up of bowl season, behind only Clemson vs. Oklahoma and Notre Dame vs Ohio State.
Reading a little more into it, Miami only gave up more than three touchdowns twice in conference play, to Clemson and North Carolina who went ahead and hung 58 and 59 on them, respectively, inflating their scoring defense. The Canes scoring offense was a little more consistent throughout the season.
Both offenses have the edge over the defenses in this game, with the margin slightly on Miami's side. They'd most likely have to perform at least five points higher than their season average to keep pace with Washington State.
Kaaya and Falk are two of the best young QBs in college football. Kaaya led the ACC with 274 yards on 32 pass attempts per game. He also had a conference-high 51 passes of 20 or more yards. Air Raid volume stats skew Falk into the absurd. Falk leads the country with 173 passes over 10 yards, 387 yards per game and 53.7 attempts per game. His completion percentage trails only Brandon Doughty (71.8 pct) at Western Kentucky.
The Canes have the statistically favorable match-up in the passing game. S&P+ hasn't been impressed by WSU all season, thanks in large part to not blowing out bad competition (it's an opponent-adjusted metric), so the difference in that category isn't really a huge surprise. Miami's pass defense ranks 38th in S&P+, placing them about halfway between UW (25th) and Stanford (51st).
Where the Cougs have a huge advantage is in what has been the most important aspect of their game play, staying ahead of schedule. Wazzu ranks 12th nationally in Passing Success Rate and the Canes don't exactly limit teams until 3rd down (more on that later), ranking 77th in defending the same category.
Both WSU and Miami are excellent at defending big passing plays, the two defenses are in the Top 10 for limiting explosives, and both have only allowed 27 pass plays of 20 yards or more on the season.
Offensively, WSU holds nearly every advantage when it wants to run the ball. The Cougs only average 14.9 rush attempts from the running back position per game, but are highly successful when they do it. They rank 11th nationally in Opportunity Rate -- which is the percentage of rush attempts where the line "does its job" and the carrier gets at least five yards -- and rank 4th in Success Rate. The three WSU running backs are averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
WSU also holds significant margins in the category related to picking up short yardage gains, Power Success Rate, and not getting stopped behind the line on rush attempts. Miami is last in college football in Stuff Rate.
Defensively, Wazzu is a little better at stopping the run than Miami is at running it, but things are pretty even until the short yardage category. The Cougs again are dominant here, ranking in the Top 30 for Power Success Rate and Stuff Rate, while Miami ranks below 100th in both. A whopping 22.1 pct of Miami's rush attempts are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, and WSU ranks 9th nationally in tackles for a loss, averaging 8.0 per game.
Miami's biggest advantage comes in explosive run plays, where WSU ranks 99th and the Hurricanes are a slightly above-average 59th.
The Cougs have a decisive advantage on standard downs; all first downs, 2nd-and-7 or fewer, 3rd-and-4 or fewer, 4th-and-4 or fewer. Slightly over half of all their plays are successful. Miami has the edge in defending explosive plays, which WSU has had a little trouble (in terms of a percentage of total pass plays) generating all season.
With the Cougs on defense, the standard down match-up is fairly even. WSU is a bit better at limiting successful rush attempts, but when attempts are successful they break for big yardage. Wazzu also posts a decent sack rate (5.1 pct), but Miami is phenomenal, only allowing Kaaya to get sacked on 1.9 pct of his drop-backs.
The passing downs (anything that isn't a standard down) are pretty much the same as the pass game totals. The Cane defense is favored overall with a major advantage in limiting explosives, while WSU has the edge in moving the sticks.
Things look a little more dire defensively. Miami has a healthy S&P+ advantage on passing downs, and while their success rate isn't other-worldy at 32.4 pct, the 37.7 pct the WSU defense allows ranks 117th nationally.
When we mentioned Miami bowing up on third down, this is where you really see that. The Canes are bad on defense on first and second down, ranking 72nd and 97th, but skyrocket to 21st on third downs. It's really pretty amazing they make that jump and still rank 80th in opponent third down conversion percentage (39.9 pct).
The S&P+ rankings broken out by quarter have been interesting to keep an eye on all season. The ranks, as with any of the advanced analytics, need to be viewed more as tendencies than anything concrete. They are probabilities, rates that will hopefully increase in truthfulness as the sample size grows.
WSU starts the first half playing more strongly on offense and weaker on defense. Overall it's pretty much moot, sort of a battle of what each offense can do against an inferior defense. In the second half things get a little interesting. The WSU defense and Miami offense more or less perform evenly, While the WSU offense and Miami defense trade quarters dominating.
Wazzu has come out of the half slow all season on offense, while Miami posts a 38th ranking in defensive S&P+ in the third quarter. That falls off to 110th for the Canes in the fourth, where WSU has consistently finished strong offensively, ranking 33rd.
The numbers line up for another dramatic come from behind fourth quarter finish, which is sort of Falk's MO at this point.
We'll be back in the week before the game with a full scouting report on the Canes, and have a post introducing you to their key players.