Camellia Bowl: Arkansas State vs Northern Illinois
By Simon Carroll
Welcome to Bowl Season! 84 teams, 42 matchups, 35 different cities; if you thought the College Football postseason was restricted to the four teams in the playoffs, think again. In this game preview, we turn our attention to the Camellia Bowl, with Arkansas State taking on Northern Illinois:
Where and When
Location: Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, AL
Date: 23rd December 2023
Time: 12:00pm (ET)
The Story So Far...
For long-standing followers of College Football, the name ‘Camellia Bowl’ will be familiar. Despite it’s current iteration heading into only it’s tenth year, the name has been used for postseason contests for much longer. Back in 1948, the Hardin-Simmons Cowboys beat the Wichita Shockers 49-12 in the first ever Camellia Bowl in Lafayette, LA. It popped up again in Sacramento – known as the Camellia City – from 1961 to 1975, before finally making it’s way to the Camellia State and finding it’s forever home in Montgomery, AL in 2014. Since then, it has been competed for by teams from the Sun Belt and MAC – with the former conference holding a 6-3 all-time lead in the series.
This will be the third time that Arkansas State have made the 400-mile trip from Jonesboro to Montgomery, the most Camellia Bowl appearances of any team. They last lifted the trophy in 2019. Head Coach Butch Jones has overseen a modest turnaround with the Red Wolves – the former Tennessee head coach went to Centennial Bank Stadium to rebuild his reputation, and won 5 games his first two years there. 2023 started auspiciously, with a pair of losses that brought a points differential of 3-110. Since then they have been much more robust, and a 77-31 win over Texas State saw them make bowl eligibility for the first time since that 2019 win – in the very city they head to on Saturday.
2023 was no easier for Northern Illinois, who also had to battle to a 6-6 record. After winning the MAC in 2021, Thomas Hammock’s Huskies fell to a 3-9 record a year later, making this season seem like the program has found some sort of equilibrium. They started 1-4, inexplicably beating Power 5 Boston College to start the campaign then duly falling to FCS opponent Southern Illinois a week later. Postseason veterans, Northern Illinois will be playing in their 14th bowl game in 19 seasons in the MAC – although their last bowl win was back in 2011.
The Camellia Bowl will be Northern Illinois QB Rocky Lombardi’s last college football game. Transferring over from Michigan State in 2021 where he couldn’t lock down the starting job, Lombardi immediately led the Huskies to the MAC title. 2022 was a washout due to injury, but Rocky was back to his best in 2023, throwing for more than 2,000 yards and accounting for 16 total touchdowns. Whilst he wasn’t missed in East Lansing, Lombardi found a home in DeKalb where he was a valued leader. He’ll want to go out on a high, but he’ll have to do it without versatile receiver Trayvon Rudolph, who hit the transfer portal earlier this month.
When JT Shrout joined Arkansas State via the transfer portal last offseason, many thought he was the QB to lead Butch Jones’ high powered offense. He was, after all, reuniting with the head coach that signed him out of high school at Tennessee. He lasted two games, where he put up 227 yards, two interceptions and zero touchdowns. Instead, the Red Wolves turned to freshman Jaylen Raynor, a dual-threat unranked prospect who had offers mostly from the military academies. Raynor outplayed his recruiting status, being a steady hand under center for Arkansas State, and put up 2,600 all-purpose yards and 20 touchdowns in just 10 games. Hopes are high that Raynor will take big leap in 2024.
Prospects To Watch
It might have taken Eddie Smith some time to find his true home at the college level, but since arriving in Jonesboro, the versatile defensive back has been productive. Initially starting out at Alabama as a three-star safety after receiving 25 offers, Smith didn’t play a defensive snap in Tuscaloosa. After one year in Illinois with much the same gametime, he headed to Arkansas State. And in two years as a Red Wolf, Smith racked up an incredible 93 tackles, 7 pass breakups, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Mostly used as a free safety in Rob Harley’s classic 4-3 scheme, Smith excels with the field in front of him and the opportunity to close on the football. We got to see his speed trouble Sun Belt opponents the last two seasons.
Fans of Northern Illinois might be praying that running back Antario Brown returns to the Huskies for one more year in 2024. But Junior ball carriers that put up 1,164 yards at 6.2 yards a click don’t often waste time declaring for the NFL Draft. Undoubtedly aided by a beefy o-line, Brown has deadly change of direction speed, and his cuts in tight quarters can break plays open. Only 5’10” yet 214lb, Brown has a low center of gravity and a frame that looks durable enough for the rigours of the next level. Oh, and good luck catching him in the open field – this kid has rocket boosters on his cleats.
This might be the hardest of the bowl games to predict that I have previewed so far. Both teams fought hard to get here through challenging seasons, and whilst I think Arkansas State have the edge in terms of quality, they also have a handful of pieces opting out. In close contests like this, give me the team with the better run game – and no disrespect to Ja’Quez Cross, but Antario Brown is the true star on offense in this one. I’ll take the Huskies to squeak a close battle and break their twelve-year bowl win drought.
Arkansas State 17 – 20 Northern Illinois
PREVIOUSLY THE FOUNDER OF NFL DRAFT UK, SIMON HAS BEEN COVERING COLLEGE FOOTBALL AND THE NFL DRAFT SINCE 2009. BASED IN MANCHESTER, SIMON IS ALSO CO-CREATOR & WEEKLY GUEST OF THE COLLAPSING POCKET PODCAST.