Editor's Note: For the sixth consecutive year, the Mountain West will send five teams into postseason bowl games. The league has earned 56 bowl bids since 1999 and holds a 31-20 (.608) all-time record in those contests. Over the last eight seasons, the MW has captured the Bowl Challenge Cup four times and owns the best win percentage in bowl games among the 11 FBS conferences with a 24-12 mark (.667). The MW is the only conference to win the trophy four times since the award's inception in 2002-03. This is the last in a series of five previews analyzing the matchups between this year's MW bowl participants and their respective opponents.
Overview: Air Force, which finished fourth this season in the MW, earned a bowl bid for a school-record sixth straight year under coach Troy Calhoun. The Falcons are 10-11-1 all-time in the postseason, having posted a mark of 1-2 in three previous appearances in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Air Force and Rice are meeting for the seventh time overall. The Falcons lead the series 5-1, with the most recent meeting culminating in a 22-16 win by the Falcons in 1998. Rice, meanwhile, which won five of its final six games to finish in a tie for second place in the West Division of Conference USA, earned its 10th bowl bid in school history and third in the past seven years. The Owls, whose most recent postseason appearance came in a 38-14 win over Western Michigan in the 2008 Texas Bowl, have an all-time mark of 5-4 in bowl games.
When Air Force Has the Ball: Sixth-year senior quarterback Connor Dietz has completed 67-of-108 passes for 1,127 yards with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. He was one of just three players (Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Louisiana Tech's Colby Cameron) to avoid throwing an interception until the ninth game of the season. Dietz's completion percentage of 62.0 percent ranks as the third-best single season mark in school history. He is second on the team in rushing with 658 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Senior running back Cody Getz ranks ninth in school history in single-season rushing yards with 1,213. Ranked No. 20 nationally with an average of 110.3 yards per game, Getz opened the season with five straight 100-yard games. He has topped the 200-yard mark a school-record three times this season and has six 100-yard games, tying the single-season school record. Junior receiver Ty MacArthur, who is averaging 17.1 yards per catch, leads the team with 24 receptions for 411 yards. MacArthur is also fifth on the team in rushing with 419 yards and two touchdowns while averaging a team-best 8.7 yards per carry. Defensively, Rice is paced by first-team All-Conference USA selection Phillip Gaines, a junior cornerback who is tied for the national lead with 18 pass breakups. Defensive tackles Hosam Shahin and Christian Covington have combined for nine sacks this season. Shahin's career-best 5.0 sacks are the most by a Rice interior lineman in 15 years. Shahin and Covington have combined with defensive ends Cody Bauer (5.5) and Jared Williams (5.5) for 20 sacks this season.
When Rice Has the Ball: Junior quarterback Taylor McHargue has had a hand in 22 of the Owls' 46 touchdowns this season. McHargue, who has completed 188-of-317 pass attempts (59.3 percent) with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions, also leads the team in both rushing yards (809) and rushing touchdowns (11). Junior running back Charles Ross (763 yards, 4 TDs) averaged 5.7 yards per carry during the regular season. Senior tight end Vance MacDonald, a first-team All-Conference USA selection who has been invited to participate in next month's Senior Bowl, has caught 35 passes for 433 yards and a pair of touchdowns despite missing three games due to injury. He had a combined 16 receptions for 184 yards and a touchdown in the team's final two games, finishing with a career-high nine catches in the season finale against UTEP. Air Force senior inside linebacker Austin Niklas and senior outside linebacker Alex Means pace the Air Force defense. Niklas is second in the MW and 28th nationally with an average of 9.5 tackles per game. He has recorded 10 or more tackles five times this season. Means, who ranks second on the team with an average of 7.4 tackles per contest, leads the team and ranks fourth in the league with 11.0 tackles for loss. He also has two interceptions, nine pass breakups and has blocked four kicks in his career.
Special Teams: Rice junior placekicker Chris Boswell leads the nation with six field goals of 50 or more yards this season and tied an NCAA record by kicking three from that distance against SMU on Nov. 17. He is 6-of-7 from 50 or more yards this year and has made his last four from that distance. He has connected on a school-record 21 field goals in 2012 while establishing a Rice scoring record for kickers with 105 points. Air Force senior placekicker Parker Herrington has made 4-of-10 field-goal attempts this season, while the do-everything MacArthur is averaging 19.7 yards on kickoff returns and 7.6 yards per punt return. MacArthur's 965 all-purpose yards rank second on the team. Rice junior Jeremy Eddington preserved the team's spot in the postseason when he returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown with just over six minutes remaining in the season finale at UTEP. Eddington finished with 210 yards on four kick returns, the second-best total in school history.
Analysis: Only one team in the nation --- Army --- averaged more yards rushing per game than Air Force (328.75), which is matched against a Rice squad that ranked tied for 91st in the country against the run (192.75 ypg). Conversely, the Owls, who boasted the second-best ground game in Conference USA (201.25 ypg), will test a Falcons rush defense that endured its own share of struggles, allowing an average of 198.0 yards per contest. In a game where the numbers are relatively even, much could be determined by special teams and Air Force's ability to protect the ball. The Falcons turned it over 26 times during the regular season, seven more than Rice.