SERVPRO First Responder Bowl: Texas State vs Rice
By Rory Daniels
Bowl Season continues! 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 SERVPRO First Responder Bowl:
Where and When
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl
Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas, TX
Date: 26th December 2023
Time: 5:30pm (ET)
Story so far…
Texas State welcomed a new head coach in 2023. GJ Kinne arrived from Incarnate Ward, having led them to an FCS Semi-Final appearance. He took over from Jake Spavital, after the Bobcats finished the 2022 season 4-8. Kinne earned plenty of plaudits, and there was even speculation about him moving on to higher-profile positions after helping the team to a 7-5 record and a 2nd-placed finish in the Sun Belt West. The highlight of the season was a road victory on opening day against in-state rival Baylor.
The turnaround has been slower at Rice under Mike Bloomgren. Now in his fifth season, it was the Owls’ first non-losing regular season during Bloomgren’s tenure. However, it is still an achievement, considering Rice had finished 2-11 the season before he took the reins. It will be Rice’s second bowl appearance in as many years, having lost out in the LendingTree Bowl in 2022. After being fodder for the Texas Longhorns in Week 1, the Owls took down Houston at home in a 43-41 overtime victory. It was up-and-down from there, but wins over Charlotte and FAU at the end of the season secured a bowl spot.
The Bobcats brought in two SEC transfers at the QB spot—Malik Hornsby from Arkansas and eventual starter TJ Finley, who had been at LSU and Auburn. Finley has prototypical size at 6’7, 246lbs and substantial arm talent. However, his performances were scatter-gun at Auburn. For the Bobcats, he found his groove, throwing for 3,287 yards, 24 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. Former QB Kinne certainly helped mould a ball of clay into a high-functioning pocket passer.
JT Daniels was quite the get for Rice in the transfer portal. The former five-star recruit was in his sixth season and on his fourth team coming into 2023. After a decent 10-game stretch, Daniels took a blow to the head vs SMU. He went on to throw a touchdown before telling medics he couldn’t remember doing so. Unfortunately, that proved to be the last snap of his career. Doctors advised him to retire due to multiple concussions. That means sophomore AJ Padgett will assume the starting role. He threw three touchdowns in the final game vs FAU and will appreciate the extra reps he has received in bowl practices.
Prospects to watch…
Ismail Mahdi, Running Back – The 5’9, 180lbs running back led the FBS in all-purpose yards. He had 1,209 yards rushing and 276 receiving. Add to that 529 yards from kickoff returns, including a 102-yard return from a kickoff, and the type of threat Mahdi represents is clear. Finley will get a lot of attention, but Rice must be wary of Mahdi in the backfield.
Ben Bell, Edge Rusher – Bell leads this pass-rushing group with 8 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. Now in his fourth season, having transferred from LA Tech in 2022, he has had his most productive year to date. Brother Levi has already left for the NFL and made the Seahawks roster for 2023. You can’t miss Ben though, with his trademark red locks flowing beneath his helmet.
Luke McCaffrey, Wide Receiver – Another player with heavy NFL bloodlines is Rice receiver Luke McCaffrey. Son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey, Luke is the youngest of four boys who have all played football to a high level, most notably Christian at the 49ers. The current Rice receiver, Luke, transferred from Nebraska and hopes to pass the 1,000-yard receiving mark (currently on 963) in the bowl game. He will be the biggest threat on this offense.
Tre’Shon Devones, Cornerback – Devones is an experienced corner now in his fifth year of college football. He has two interceptions and eleven pass breakups in 2023. That earned him an 80.0 grade in coverage from PFF. He will look to keep TJ Finley in check and force the Bobcats to lean on the running game.
The fact that Padgett is the more inexperienced QB in this battle gives Texas State the edge. TJ Finley will be looking to crown a solid season with a bowl victory. The combo of him and Ismail Mahdi should be enough for the Bobcats to overcome their in-state rivals.
Texas State 38-26 Rice
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