Eastern Michigan and South Alabama will face off in the 68 Ventures Bowl on Saturday, December 23rd. This bowl game is a clash of two 6-6 teams, both of which needed wins at the end of the season to become bowl-eligible. The Eastern Michigan Eagles finished 4-4 in the MAC. After an up-and-down start to the season, the Eagles suffered a three-game skid. This put Eastern Michigan in danger of not making a bowl appearance this season. However, the Eagles won their final two games against Akron and Buffalo to reach 6-6 and a bowl invitation. South Alabama’s season went slightly differently than the Eagles of the MAC. The Jaguars were poised to be at the top of the Sun Belt in 2023 and handed Oklahoma State a big loss at the beginning of the season. However, two close losses followed which resulted in batch wins for South Alabama. With three games left in the regular season, South Alabama was 4-5. Not where the Jaguars thought they would be before the season started. They won two of the next three to become bowl-eligible for the fifth season in a row.
2023 68 Ventures Bowl: Just the Particulars
When: Saturday, December 23rd
Time: 7:00 PM ET
Where: Mobile, AL
Watch: ESPN/ESPN+ (Subscription needed)
Who to Watch for Eastern Michigan
As always, it’s best to start who won’t be available. For the Eagles that is starting quarterback Austin Smith. Smith entered the transfer portal at the end of the season and is not expected to suit up for Eastern Michigan in the 68 Ventures Bowl. This season Smith accounted for nine passing touchdowns and seven interceptions, tallying 1,775 passing yards. He also played in all 12 games for the Eagles. The most likely candidate to take over for Smith in this one is Ike Udengwu. Udengwu saw action in three games this season and threw two interceptions in those outings. Luckily, Eastern Michigan has relied heavily on the rushing attack, hopefully limiting the pressure on Udengwu.
The rushing attack for Eastern Michigan is headlined by Samson Evans and Jaylon Jackson. Combined the duo accounts for 16 total touchdowns this season. Evans is the leading rusher with 635 yards on 142 attempts. Jackson is right behind him with 574 yards on 125 rushing attempts. These two have been consistent all season long, however, they ramped up production in the final two wins to get bowl-eligible. If Eastern Michigan wants to end the season with a win and finish 7-6 the offense will need to get these two going early. With an untested quarterback under center, Evans and Jackson will be the key to success.
Who to Watch for South Alabama
South Alabama will be without a couple of notable players in the 2023 68 Ventures Bowl as well. The owner of a 1,000-yard reception season, Caullin Lacy is in the transfer portal. Lacy tallied 91 receptions and seven touchdowns in 2023. On top of that, the leading rusher La’Damian Webb is out with a toe injury. Webb is another member of the 1,000 yards club. He amassed 1,007 rushing yards this season. The Jaguars have depth on the offense, but replacing these two for this game won’t be easy. However, all eyes will be on the South Alabama defense in this one.
The Jaguars come into this bowl game with 27 sacks and eight fumble recoveries this season. The production in tackles for loss has been great as well. This defense has allowed an average of just 116 rushing yards per game. The Jaguars defense is led by linebacker Quentin Wilfawn. After a career dealing with shoulder injuries, Wilfawn came into 2023 healthy and in a new position. The coaching staff moved him slightly from inside linebacker to a more pass-rush linebacking role for this season. It is safe to say that he has thrived in this new position. The senior linebacker has racked up 15 tackles for loss and six-and-a-half sacks in 2023. He also added two forced fumbles. He leads this defense in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks. His ability to pressure the quarterback will come in handy against a backup for Eastern Michigan.
Both of these teams are missing key players for this bowl matchup. However, both also have strengths that can be highlighted. For Eastern Michigan, this game is about trying to keep momentum entering the 2024 season after having a rocky 2023. The Eagles finished the MAC regular season on a positive note and will look to get a third-consecutive win to end the season. For South Alabama, the Jaguars had high hopes for 2023 in the Sun Belt but fell flat after a statement win against Oklahoma State. They will look to continue to play strong on defense and shut down the rushing attack of Eastern Michigan. Either way, someone is ending this season 7-6, and the other with a losing season.