Why San Diego State Has an Advantage Over Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl

The Aztecs have been an under-the-radar team all year. Why are they being overlooked?

Candy canes. Mistletoes. Gingerbread houses. Frosty the Snowman.

The list of holiday costumes this time of year is as long as a string of Christmas lights.

For college football fanatics, you can add one other tradition to that list: the annual Hawaii Bowl and its penchant for delivering holiday cheer. “When we were in desperate need of entertainment or distraction, the Hawaii Bowl came through for us,” SB Nation’s Bill Connelly surmised on his weekly podcast.

This year, in primetime on December 24, diehards will be treated to the Cincinnati Bearcats and, perhaps college football’s best kept secret, the San Diego State Aztecs.

San Diego State is the winner of nine consecutive games, going undefeated in Mountain West play to capture the conference title. This includes going 7-1-1 against the Vegas spread.

Cincinnati -- the media’s preseason pick to win the American Athletic Conference, earning 22 of the 30 first place votes -- struggled for much of the year and ended the 2015 regular season 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the conference.

Tom Groeschen, the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Bearcats beat writer, didn’t mince words when in early November he declared that the team had “underachieved” and that the season was a “disappointment.” Groeschen’s take was hardly warm, let alone hot.

Yet, the Bearcats opened as the consensus favorite (-2.5) over the Aztecs in the Hawaii Bowl. The advanced metrics and a series of intangibles suggest, though, that there may be some value on San Diego State, who are now favored by one point.

Inside the Numbers

From a team efficiency standpoint, our nERD metric rates Cincinnati (4.46, 57th in the nation), slightly ahead of San Diego State (2.39, 64th). Other systems give the efficiency advantage to San Diego State, the most significant of which is Bill Connelly’s S&P+, which ranks San Diego State 52nd and Cincinnati 76th.

From a pure numbers standpoint, the Vegas line doesn’t seem out of whack. But a deeper dive into the metrics indicates that the Aztecs hold some clear advantages.

The key to the game is likely to be San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey. The 180-pound junior was not the most efficient ball carrier -- 88th in the nation at 5.5 yards per carry -- but he was a workhorse, piling up 1,554 yards in his 13 games.

Expect a healthy dose of Pumphrey going against Cincinnati’s woeful run defense. Our metrics rank the Bearcats as 121st against the rush, the worst of any bowl team with the exception of Texas Tech.

San Diego State should also have an edge on the defensive side of the ball. The Aztec defense was the key to turning around their season. After starting 1-3, San Diego State gave up fewer than 13 points per game during their nine-game winning streak. According to our metrics, San Diego State features a top-10 defense in the nation.

Cincinnati will try to move the ball up and down the field quickly -- they are the fourth fastest team in the nation, according to numberFire’s pace metric. The break-neck speed of the offense allowed Cincinnati to average 376.1 yards passing per game against FBS schools. There continues, though, to be instability at the quarterback position. Cincinnati will once again be forced to go with Hayden Moore under center, with starter Gunner Kiel out due to a personal matter. 

A key for Moore will be helping the Bearcats better protect the football. According to ESPN’s Dave Purdum, Cincinnati lost 30 turnovers this season, 122nd in the nation. That will be problematic against the opportunistic San Diego State defense, which ranked second in the FBS with 31 turnovers gained.

Outside the Numbers

The location of the bowl game may be a predictive factor. Playing in Hawaii, especially in an exhibition game to end the year, has long been viewed as a significant distraction. Players have admitted as much. Cincinnati will make the 4,400-mile trek to Hawaii for what will feel like an exotic vacation. San Diego State, on the other hand, makes the trip every other year. In theory, the Aztecs may be better suited for any possible off-the-field distractions.

The Aztecs should also get a check mark in the all-important “motivation” category. San Diego State is playing for a school milestone, an 11-win season, while many, including some members of the hometown media, have already labeled Cincinnati’s 2015 campaign a letdown. Winning 10 games in a row would also give Aztecs coach Rocky Long and his program some serious momentum heading into recruiting season.

Add that to Cincinnati’s disappointing performances in their last two bowl games, and San Diego State (a one-point favorite) appears to be the pick in this year’s Hawaii Bowl.