Dec. 22, 10 a.m. PST
Southern Miss (7-5) vs. Cincinnati (9-3)
Spread: Cincinnati -11
The spread seems deceiving at first. Cincinnati is a great football team, especially defensively, but Southern Miss has a lot to play for. Head coach Jeff Bower has resigned but will remain with the team through the bowl game, his players will want to send him off on a good note. That said, there could be some discrepancy as offensive coordinator Larry Fedora takes the reigns. If the two can’t coexist on the sidelines in decision-making, Cincinnati will roll.
Cincinnati was a threat to win the Big East championship this season, starting with a 6-0 record. They won at Rutgers and vs. Oregon State in that span. A disappointing two-game losing streak followed however, falling to Louisville and Pittsburgh. Neither of those teams will be bowling but both are dangerous nonetheless. The Bearcats recovered to beat South Florida and Connecticut before the late season loss to West Virginia put the Big East crown out of their reach. The bright lights of a night-game and the BCS ramifications intensified the atmosphere in the West Virginia-Cincinnati game but the Bearcats simply couldn’t keep up. If it weren’t for the Mountaineer offense, UC head coach Brian Kelly would be taking the Michigan job right now, not Rich Rodriguez.
Four of the five USM losses this season came against bowl bound teams (Tennesssee, UCF, Boise State and Memphis). The only other game USM played against a team headed for a bowl was a 28-21 road win over East Carolina.
The Bearcats run Kelly’s spread offense very efficiently. Led by experienced quarterback Ben Mauk, who is a picture of consistency. He only threw six interceptions and never had a multi-interception game this year. Mauk rarely has a poor day but when he does he’s able to run the ball effectively as he did in the victory over South Florida. He’s one of four players on the team with over 300 yards rushing. Receivers Marcus Barnett, a redshirt-freshman, and Dominick Goodman, a junior, have over 60 catches and 700 yards receiving.
This game will show two incredibly contrasting offensive styles. Unlike the wide-open passing attack of Cincinnati, USM will pound the ball with its talented backfield. Sophomore tailback Damion Fletcher ran for 1,431 yards this season, his second consecutive year topping the 1,000-yard mark. Back-up Tory Harrison is capable and played well when given the opportunity. Even quarterback Jeremy Young gets in on the act. But Young is the offenses Achilles heel. It’s their inability to throw the ball that has held back the Golden Eagles this season. He’s been ineffective despite the small sample size and the threat of a great running game. USM is a quarterback away from being the class of Conference-USA.
Both teams have difficulty stopping the pass, which favors the Bearcats spread attack. But the USM offense runs the ball so productively it’s hard to count them out if they can win the turnover battle. They’re going to have to be patient with their running game, even if they get down by a few scores. Anything can happen when you’re playing against a spread offense and if they get a few bounces they can give themselves a chance to win. Southern Miss has an excellent front seven but that won’t help against a team that passes to set up the run. They’re going to tire themselves out chasing UC receivers all over the field and misdirection runs could give the defense fits.
Cincinnati will keep the pressure on all game long and their suffocating defense might force the Golden Eagles offense into a passing game that they don’t have. A few big plays from Fletcher might give them hope but Cincinnati should be in a bigger bowl game than this.
Cincinnati 28 – Southern Miss 18
The game will be televised in Canada on TSN.