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Sun Bowl preview: Washington State enters game favored over Central Michigan

EL PASO, Texas - The story leading up to Friday's Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl was the excitement about the game's survival! But with Washington State and Central Michigan now both in El Paso, the winner is to be determined.

Washington State (7-5) enters as a 7-point favorite over the Chippewas, largely based on the Cougars stance as a Power Five conference team. But the Cougars' rollercoaster season from start-to-finish is one of the biggest stories in college football.

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After starting the season 1-3, the Cougars rebounded to win their next three games. But with the team sitting at 4-3, Head Coach Nick Rolovich was let go after refusing to get mandated COVID-19 vaccination. Rolovich was given time to receive the vaccine and was denied a religious exemption.

On Oct. 18, Rolovich was fired with cause for refusing to get vaccinated. Defensive Coordinator Jake Dickert was elevated to interim head coach.

Washington State proceeded to finish the season with a 7-5 record, including an upset win at Arizona State in which the Cougars led 28-0 in the first half.

Dickert's impressive showing earned the full-time head coaching role, as he now comes into El Paso secure about his future.

On the field the Cougars are led by sophomore QB Jayden de Laura, a two-year starter, who led the Pac-12 in both passing yards per game (250) and passing touchdowns (23).

The Cougars did have three starters opt out of the game due to prepare for the NFL Draft, including starting tailback Max Borghi, but Washington's pass-heavy scheme could open new doors for new players.

Central Michigan (8-4) might have a tough time containing the Cougars' uptempo offense, but will hope to counter with points of their own.

The Chippewas rank 31st in FBS in points per game (31.9) led by the nation's leading rusher in freshman Lew Nichols III.

Central Michigan closed the season on a four-game winning streak in which they averaged a whopping 41 points per contest.

Despite coming from the mid-major Mid-American Conference, the Chippewas did play non-conference road games at SEC opponents Missouri (24-34 L) and LSU (21-49 L).

Coach Jim McElwain is no stranger to big games. He came to Central Michigan following a three-year stint as head coach at the University of Florida, in which he won SEC Coach of the Year in 2015.

But after the Gators' offense sputtered in 2017, ranking just 96th in FBS in total yards, the Gators fired McElwain.

Yet McElwain has found resurgence with the Chippewas, winning the MAC West in 2019 followed by another 8-win season in 2021.

McElwain is no stranger to big games and with his team getting a golden opportunity to beat a Power Five team on national television, the Chippewas are essentially playing with house money.

If Friday morning's kickoff conditions (90% chance of rain) hold, Central Michigan could try and shorten the game on the ground.

However, the Chippewas rank near the bottom of the country in allowing 285 pass yards per game. Plus, Central Michigan's long week of travel and uncertainty combined with shortened practice time could prove to a factor.

Kickoff is set for 10 a.m. MT Friday at Sun Bowl Stadium, with the game televised nationally on CBS.

Nate Ryan

Nate Ryan is an ABC-7 sports anchor/reporter.

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