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No. 23 Navy vs. Kansas State: Liberty Bowl preview and picks against the spread

No. 23 Navy (10-2) vs. Kansas State (8-4)

Location: Memphis | When: Dec. 31 (3:45 ET) | TV: ESPN | Line: Navy -2.5

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Navy: It’s the third 10-win season in coach Ken Niumatalolo’s tenure. Navy lost to Memphis in Week 3 before reeling off five consecutive wins to move to 7-1 and into the AP top 25 ahead of a matchup with Notre Dame.

That didn’t go well. Notre Dame’s exceptional talent dominated and won the game 52-20. But Navy bounced back the next week and beat SMU at home before finishing the season with wins over Houston and Army.

Kansas State running back James Gilbert leads the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Kansas State: Until Oklahoma got its doors blown off by LSU on Saturday night, the Wildcats had the honor of being the only team to beat the Sooners in 2019. 

Kansas State moved to 5-2 on the season with that 48-41 victory over OU on Oct. 26. The Wildcats clobbered in-state rival KU the next week to move to 6-2 and it was easy for KSU fans to dream of a 10-win season given the schedule the rest of the way.

That didn’t happen. Losses to Texas and West Virginia followed to knock KSU back to 6-4. But the Wildcats responded with wins over Texas Tech and Iowa State to finish at 8-4 overall and in a four-way tie for third in the Big 12 standings.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH

Because running the football is fun too. Navy’s triple-option attack led by QB Malcolm Perry is great to watch when it’s clicking and Kansas State runs the ball on approximately two-thirds of its offensive snaps.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Navy FB Jamale Carothers: As you can imagine, Navy is going to run, run, run and run some more. The Midshipmen average 60 runs per game to just eight passes and boast the 11th-best scoring offense in college football at 39 points per game. 

The sophomore Carothers has been a big part of that rushing attack since a 154-yard performance at Tulane on Oct. 26. He’s the team’s second-leading rusher with 712 yards and averages 7.3 yards per carry, the most of anyone on the team. He’s also second with 14 rushing touchdowns and has caught two touchdowns on just four passes. 

Kansas State RB James Gilbert: The Ball State transfer is having his best season since 2016. Gilbert rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore with the Cardinals, but played just three games due to injury in 2017 and rushed for just 659 yards on 152 carries in 2018.

He came to Manhattan in the offseason and has emerged as K-State’s lead back this season. Gilbert has played in 10 games and has 133 carries for 698 yards and six touchdowns. He was especially effective against Oklahoma, when he rushed 13 times for 105 yards and a score. Thanks to some nagging injuries, that was the last time he topped the 100-yard mark. But he should be ready to roll on Tuesday.

Navy's Malcolm Perry is one of the most dynamic rushers in college football. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

Navy QB Malcolm Perry: He’s not likely to play much quarterback at all in the NFL, as we wrote a few weeks ago, but this fascinating prospect could be a specialist in the league — as a slot receiver, punt returner, runner or trick-play artist. The 5-9, 185-pound Perry will be capping his brilliant career with the Midshipmen by trying to find running room against a Wildcats defense allowing 4.91 yards per carry this season and 18 TDs on the ground. But NFL scouts watching this game will be continuing to measure Perry’s nearly elite-level athleticism and trying to figure out ways how that can be unleashed in the NFL. We think he’s got a shot to be drafted late.

— Eric Edholm

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Navy: The Midshipmen are looking for just the second 11-win season in program history. The first came in 2015 when Navy finished the year 11-2 and won the Military Bowl. That team finished No. 18 in the final AP top 25 and will probably be in that vicinity after the 2019 season with a win over K-State.

Kansas State: The transition from Bill Snyder to Chris Klieman has been an incredibly smooth one. We could look back in five years and say KSU’s snagging of Klieman from North Dakota State was the best coaching hire of the 2018-19 offseason.

A win not only gives Klieman his first bowl triumph as Kansas State’s coach but also extends Kansas State’s bowl winning streak to three. The last time the Wildcats lost a bowl game was in Memphis in 2015. 

PICKS

Nick Bromberg: Kansas State +2.5

Sam Cooper: Kansas State +2.5

Picks from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast

Pat Forde: Navy -2.5

Pete Thamel: Kansas State +2.5

Dan Wetzel: Navy -2.5

Sean Sullivan: Navy -2.5

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.