The Early Glimpse: Cougs play Miami for the first time ever in Sun Bowl

WHEN THE NATIONAL MEDIA does its predictable bowl rankings in terms of fan interest, this year's Sun Bowl matchup of Washington State vs. Miami (11 a.m. Dec. 26; Cougars by 3) gets a yawn from most. For those on the outside, it's a WSU program making just its second bowl trip since 2003, vs. a team that has already fired its coach.

But for Cougar fans, it's a game that not only can put a bow on what's been a nice season, but perhaps provide a springboard to what could be a special year in 2016.

Mike Price, WSU"s coach in 2001 when the Cougars beat Purdue 33-27 in the Sun Bowl, recently told the Seattle Times that Washington State's Sun Bowl teams are comparable.

“I feel there a lot of similarities between this year’s Cougar team and the Cougar team we had then. That was a team that was pretty good, we were 9-2 coming in (to El Paso) and led single-handedly by (quarterback) Jason Gesser and a real strong defense," Price said.

Price isn't far off. And let's expand.

The seasons prior to the Sun Bowls are worth a look. In 2000, Washington State went 4-7, a season that included several heartbreaking defeats that, had a couple gone the other way, could have landed the Cougars into a bowl. Fast forward to 2014, when WSU went 3-9, a season that fell apart after the Cougars suffered three close losses during the first six games.

Now, the Sun Bowl seasons. As Price said, the Cougars went 9-2 in 2001, while this year's team was 8-4. Both teams improved by five wins during the regular season. Each team had a quarterback going through a breakout season in Gesser (2001) and Luke Falk (2015). The defenses of each team were memorable. Both the 2001 and 2015 teams had reasons to get after it in the Sun Bowl after losing the Apple Cup to Washington.

And the following season? It's TBD for the 2016 Cougars, but there are some comparables to WSU's first Sun Bowl team. Both return star quarterbacks and a lot of starters; next year's Cougars return eight starters on offense, and the backups where seniors depart have some experience. Like the 2002 team, the Cougars play seven of their 12 games at home. Preseason expectations were high in 2002, as WSU was the preseason Pac-10 favorite. Expectations will be great in 2016, too; the Cougars should be among the Pac-12 North favorites.

The 2002 Cougars delivered, winning the Pac-10 and representing the league in the Rose Bowl. Can the 2015-turned-2016 Cougars do something similar? Winning Saturday's Sun Bowl would be a good start.

About Miami: This is a first, the Cougars facing a bowl opponent that has long since fired its coach, as the Hurricanes (8-4, 5-3 ACC) showed Al Golden the door on Oct. 25 after an embarrassing 58-0 loss to Clemson. Miami has since hired its man in former Georgia coach Mark Richt, who won't be in El Paso to watch the game. Instead, it's interim coach Larry Scott running the team.

The Cougars won't be catching the Golden-coached Hurricanes, because since losing to Clemson, they finished the season winning four of their final five games. Some might say three of five, because the streak included the improbable 30-27 win over Duke where Miami's kickoff return for a touchdown on the game's final play was the result of multiple officiating mistakes.

This will not be a pushover for Washington State. Of Miami's four losses, three came to Top 25 foes in Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina. The Canes finished the season with a 38-21 win over Georgia Tech and a 29-24 victory over Pitt.

Washington State and Miami didn't have a common foe in 2015.

Statistically, Miami's offense is a little like Washington State in that it leads with the passing game. The Hurricanes rank 116th in the country in rushing offense (119.5 ypg), but 27th in passing yards, at 281.9 yards per game. Defensively, Miami is one-sided as well, as the 'Canes can't stop the run (107th nationally, 210.5 ypg), but rank 29th in pass defense and 39th in pass efficiency defense.

One reason Miami is 8-4 is that it does something winning teams are good at: turnovers. The Hurricanes have a plus-1.08 turnover margin, sixth best in the country.

A few other statistical notes: Miami is the country's most penalized team, at 9.33 flags and 82.4 yards per game. The Hurricanes are also among the country's worst teams in kickoff returns and red zone defense, two stats that ought to put a smile on the faces of Cougar fans.

Falk will have a serious counterpart in Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, who has back-to-back 3,000 yard passing yardage seasons. Only a sophomore, Kaaya has passed for 6,217 yards and 41 touchdowns in two college seasons. Kaaya was sidelined against Duke after sustaining a concussion against Clemson, but in the Hurricanes' final four games, Kaaya passed for nearly 1,200 yards and completed 63 percent of his passes.

Like Washington State, Kaaya spreads it out. Miami has three receivers with more than 600 yards in senior Rashawn Scott (47-620, 5 TD), junior Stacy Coley (44-645, 3 TD) and senior Herb Waters (38-607, 1 TD). Ten 'Canes have caught a touchdown pass this season.

Miami's top running threat is sophomore Joe Yearby, who has 939 yards and six touchdowns this season. Yearby ran for more than 100 yards in three of Miami's first four games, but hasn't had a 100-yard game since.

Defensively, Miami plays a 3-4 alignment. Junior linebacker Jermaine Grace is far and away the Hurricanes' leading tackler, with 76 stops.

As for causing havoc in the backfield, sophomore OLB Al-Quadin Muhammad leads the way with 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.

Miami has 15 interceptions this season, led by six from junior cornerback Artie Burns.

The series: This is the first time Miami and Washington State have played a football game.

Familiar faces: There are no Washingtonians on Miami's roster, or Cougar coaching connections. Washington State has five players with ties to the state of Florida in Peyton BenderKeith HarringtonTavares MartinKyrin Priester and Paris Taylor.

Notable note: The Sun Bowl has a reputation for having a traditional Dec. 31 date, as it has for much of its long-time relationship with the Pac-10/12. From 2001-2013, all but two Sun Bowls were played on New Year's Eve. But historically, the Sun Bowl's playing date has been all over the map. Last year, the game was played on Saturday, Dec. 27. This year's game is the fourth time the Sun Bowl has been played on Dec. 26, but first time since 1981. The Sun Bowl has been played as early as Dec. 18, and in 1986 and 1987, it was played on Christmas.

Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel

RELATED: Sun Bowl notebook: Falk on the verge

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