MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The 6th annual Camellia Bowl will bring together the Sun Belt’s Arkansas State Red Wolves and Conference USA’s Florida International Panthers
It’s the second time in Camellia Bowl history that the Sun Belt is being matched up with Conference USA. Typically the Sun Belt matches up with the Mid-American Conference. More so, Arkansas State and Florida International are meeting for the first time in a long time.
The Red Wolves and Panthers are old Sun Belt Conference opponents. FIU’s an old Sun Belt Conference member and the two teams haven’t played since 2012. It’s surely not a matchup FIU misses as they’re 2-6 all-time versus Arkansas State, including a 34-20 loss to Arkansas State in their last meeting.
Arkansas State is making its second appearance in the Camellia Bowl, its first since 2017. The Red Wolves lost their only appearance in the bowl, a 35-30 loss to the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders - the largest loss in Camellia Bowl history.
They enter the 2019 Camellia Bowl with a 7-5 record led by plenty of offensive weapons.
When you look at the offense of the Red Wolves, all eyes immediately look to find No. 7. That’s redshirt senior wide receiver Omar Bayless, and if you haven’t heard of him before, his stats do the talking. Not only does Bayless lead the Sun Belt Conference in receiving yards (1,473) and receiving touchdowns (16), he’s second in all of the NCAA in both categories and lands in the top 10 in receptions of which he has 84. He’s been an unsolvable riddle all season long for defenses and has gone over 100 yards receiving in seven of his team’s 12 games.
The guy throwing him the ball is pretty good, too, and he’s a redshirt freshman. That’s Layne Hatcher. Hatcher has thrown for 2,553 yards and 23 touchdowns this year while completing over 68% of his passes.
At running back, the Red Wolves have Marcel Murray spearheading the pack. He’s got 782 rushing yards on the season to lead Arkansas State rushers. He’s also rushed for six touchdowns.
The Red Wolves score a ton of points coming in at 33.7 points per game (31st nationally) and average 432.2 total yards per game. They’ll be a handful for a Florida International defense that isn’t used to giving up that many yards per game.
Speaking of FIU, the Panthers are coached by Butch Davis, who has led the Panthers to a bowl game in each of his three years as head coach now. Davis led the program to its most wins (9) in school history last season and recorded 17 wins in his first two seasons at FIU. Now, his Panthers come into the Camellia Bowl with a 6-6 record, looking to finish above .500 for the third time under his watch.
When looking at the Panthers team, two things pop out. They have a defense that gets after the ball (FIU’s 11 interceptions put them in a tie for 32nd place nationally) and they have a quarterback who does not turn the ball over.
That quarterback is redshirt senior James Morgan. He’s 13 touchdown passes to only three interceptions, while throwing for over 2,200 yards.
The two receivers often on the receiving end of those passes are Tony Gaiter IV and Shemar Thornton. Gaiter has 49 receptions for 632 yards and four touchdowns and Thornton’s hauled in 48 receptions for 582 yards and five touchdowns.
Two backs pace the backfield for Davis’ FIU team. Anthony Jones (802 yards, nine touchdowns) and Napoleon Maxwell (609 yards, eight touchdowns) will have the attention of Arkansas State linebackers whenever the Panthers set up in formation.
FIU doesn’t score a ton of points per game (26.5 points per game), but FIU only allows 26.7 points per game and if they can keep Arkansas at or near that average, the Panthers may have a chance against a Red Wolves defense that has been torched for an average of 34.8 points per game.
Florida International will enter the Camellia Bowl looking for its second consecutive bowl win, while Arkansas State is trying to snap a streak of consecutive bowl losses as well as turn its bowl luck around. The Red Wolves have lost four of their last five bowl games (only win in that span being a 31-13 win over Central Florida in the 2016 AutoNation Cure Bowl).
The 2019 Camellia Bowl kicks off at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 21 from Cramton Bowl. The game will be televised on ESPN.