The 2023 Camellia Bowl will be played on Saturday, December 23rd at the classic Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama. The tenth edition of the game will feature another matchup of teams from the MAC and Sun Belt conferences. The game will be a clash of 6-6 teams between the Arkansas State Red Wolves and Northern Illinois Huskies with both going for their seventh win.

Arkansas State is playing in its third Camellia Bowl which is a record. For Northern Illinois, it is their first time in the Montgomery bowl game. The Red Wolves are 1-1 in postseason with a 34-26 win in 2019 over Florida International. For the conferences, the Sun Belt has a 5-3 advantage over matchups with the MAC. The two schools have met in bowl season before. In 2011, they met in the GoDaddy.com Bowl that ended with a 38-20 victory for Northern Illinois.

2023 Camellia Bowl Preview

Arkansas State Red Wolves

The Red Wolves are bowling for the first time since 2019, and the first under head coach Butch Jones. The former Volunteers head coach is 4-2 in bowl games during his time with Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and Tennessee. The season got off to a rough start, going 0-2. Arkansas State opened against Oklahoma and Memphis losing by a combined score of 110-3.

A switch at quarterback led to success for the Red Wolves. Jaylen Raynor passed for 2,300 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season. He was rewarded with the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year award after the season. He also added to the rushing attack with 324 yards and five touchdowns. The best performance of the season for Raynor was when he passed for 383 yards and six touchdowns in a 52-28 victory over UMass.

The offense ranked ninth in the Sun Belt averaging 375.5 yards and 27.8 points. Arkansas State uses a pair of running backs in Ja’Quez Cross and Zak Wallace. The two combined for 1,244 yards and 13 touchdowns. The go-to target at receiver is Courtney Jackson. He led the team with 38 receptions for 658 yards and seven touchdowns. The offensive line is anchored by All-Sun Belt performers Jacob Bayer and Jalen Cunningham.

Defensively, Arkansas State ranked near the bottom in the Sun Belt. Overall the defense ranked 13th giving up 445.5 yards per game. The rush defense ranked last allowing 183.8 yards per game. The unit is not without good players though. Defensive lineman Thurman Geathers was selected to the All-Sun Belt third team with three-and-a-half sacks and 47 tackles. Geathers also had one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Defensive tackle Nate Martey led the team with six sacks and defensive end Keyron Crawford had five and a half.

Northern Illinois Huskies

The Huskies did finish 6-6, but they were second in the MAC West with a 5-3 record. Like Arkansas State, Northern Illinois did not have a good start. They got off to a 1-4 start with losses to Southern Illinois, Nebraska, Tulsa, and Toledo. The Huskies would win the next three and finished strong at 5-2.

Offensively they were a top-five offense in the MAC. The strength of the offense was the run game averaging 178.8 yards per game. That number ranked second in the conference. Running back Antario Brown rushed for 1,164 yards and 10 touchdowns. Brown also averaged 6.2 yards per carry. He had four games of 100-plus yards, but his best game was in a 55-14 win over Akron. He had 280 yards and four touchdowns on just 13 carries in the game. Passing is not the strength of the team, but quarterback Rocky Lombardi has managed the team. On the season he threw for 2,074 yards and ten touchdowns. The important statistic is he only threw five interceptions.

The defense ranks third in the MAC allowing 318.5 yards per game, and first against the pass surrendering just 164.9 yards per game. The unit is led by two All-MAC second-team performers in defensive tackle James Ester and cornerback Javaughn Byrd. For Ester, he led the team with four sacks and one forced recovery. Byrd had two interceptions on the season and one forced fumble.

The 2023 Camellia Bowl is the first bowl for the Huskies since 2021. Head coach Thomas Hammock led the team into the Cure Bowl that season and lost a close game to Coastal Carolina 47-41.

Who wins the 2023 Camellia Bowl?

The matchup of Arkansas State and Northern Illinois should be a competitive game that comes down to the fourth quarter. The key will be the strength of the Huskies versus the weakness of the Red Wolves. That is the rushing attack led by Brown and Northern Illinois. Another factor is the strength of the Huskies’ defense is their pass defense. That unit should be able to limit Raynor and the Arkansas State passing game. The Northern Illinois Huskies win 24-16.

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