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December 18, 2007

Papajohns.com Bowl: UC vs. Southern Miss

Papajohn's.com Bowl: Who has the edge? | Rivals.com Bowl Central | Complete bowl schedule

PAPAJOHNS.COM BOWL
Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Southern Miss (7-5)
WHEN: 1 p.m., Dec. 22.
WHERE: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
WEATHER: Cloudy, about 63.
TV: ESPN2 (Pam Ward will do play-by-play, with Ray Bentley as the analyst).
THE LINE: Cincinnati by 11.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Cincinnati 4-1, Southern Miss 1-4.
RECORD VS. BCS TOP 25: Cincinnati 2-1, Southern Miss 0-2.
BCS RANK: Cincinnati 22nd; Southern Miss N/A.
SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Cincinnati 53rd, Southern Miss T-96th.
COACHES: Cincinnati—Brian Kelly (1-0 in bowls); Southern Miss—Jeff Bower (6-4 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: If nothing else, it should be intriguing to see how the Southern Miss players – and the ESPN announcers – treat Bower, who already has been replaced (by Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Larry Fedora) as coach. Cincinnati's mind-set also is important; the Bearcats deserved a better postseason destination.
KEY STATS: Southern Miss is 22nd nationally in rushing offense (200.3 yards per game). Cincinnati is 15th in rushing defense (105.7 yards per game). Southern Miss can't win if it's forced to throw.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Cincinnati QB Ben Mauk quietly put together one of the best seasons in the nation. He threw for 2,787 yards, with 27 TDs and just six picks. Mauk also ran for another 335 yards and three scores. He'll be throwing against a Southern Miss secondary headed by CB Brandon Sumrall (91 tackles, five picks).
Jeff Bower's first game as Southern Miss coach came Dec. 28, 1990, in the All-American Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.

His final game as Southern Miss coach comes Saturday in the Papajohns.com Bowl in the same stadium.

Bower "resigned" Nov. 26 but is being allowed to coach this final game even though Southern Miss already has hired a replacement (Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Larry Fedora).

Bower, a Golden Eagles alum, is in his 17th season at Southern Miss; that's fourth on the active list of Division I-A coaches who have the longest tenure at the same institution, behind only Penn State's Joe Paterno, Florida State's Bobby Bowden and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer.

Despite the potentially awkward situation of playing for a coach who already has been replaced, players said practices have gone well.

"We're more relaxed and focused," star tailback Damion Fletcher told the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American. "We want to win this last game for Coach Bower, and send these coaches out on a winning note."

Bower has to be hoping his final game has a different outcome than his first with the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss lost to North Carolina State in that 1990 All-American Bowl. Bower, incidentally, was hired off the Oklahoma State staff, where he was offensive coordinator. He replaced Curley Hallman, who had been hired by LSU. Southern Miss officials chose Bower to coach in that season's bowl rather than Hallman.

PAPAJOHNS.COM Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Southern Miss
Cincinnati run offense vs. Southern Miss run defense
EDGE: Southern Miss The Bearcats don't have a feature back; rather, they use a committee approach to running the ball. They also don't have a breakaway threat. QB Ben Mauk has proved to be an able runner, and Southern Miss needs to make sure he doesn't make any big plays with his legs. Southern Miss has been solid against the run, and DT Martavious Prince and LB Gerald McRath need to play well against Cincy.
Cincinnati pass offense vs. Southern Miss pass defense
EDGE: Cincinnati Southern Miss CB Brandon Sumrall is a good one, but he and his secondary mates will be tested by a solid Cincinnati receiving corps. Marcus Barnett (13 TD catches) was one of the best freshman receivers in the nation, and Mauk has adapted well in his first season in the Bearcats' passing offense (27 TD passes, just six picks).
Southern Miss run offense vs. Cincinnati run defense
EDGE: Cincinnati This is where Southern Miss must produce if it wants to win. Southern Miss TB Damion Fletcher had eight 100-yard games this season, including six of the past eight. The Bearcats have allowed just three teams to rush for 100 yards, but two of those teams (Pitt and West Virginia) beat the Bearcats.
Southern Miss pass offense vs. Cincinnati pass defense
EDGE: Cincinnati Southern Miss isn't going to beat anybody when it is forced to the air. The Golden Eagles' receivers are nothing special, though TE Shawn Nelson has a ton of ability, if not consistency. Plus, Cincinnati's secondary will be the best Southern Miss has seen this season. The Bearcats are tied for the national lead with 23 picks, a big reason they have a fantastic plus-17 turnover margin (Southern Miss is at minus-two). CB Mike Mickens and FS Haruki Nakamura are the standouts in the secondary, and DE Anthony Hoke has 12 sacks.
Cincinnati special teams vs. Southern Miss special teams
EDGE: Cincinnati Cincinnati P Kevin Huber leads the nation (46.9 yards per punt), but K Jake Rogers is average at best. The Bearcats return teams and their coverage teams also are average. Except for its coverage units, which have been good, Southern Miss' special teams are adequate - nothing more.
Cincinnati coaching staff vs. Southern Miss coaching staff
EDGE: Cincinnati Bower, a Southern Miss alum, is on his way out after 17 seasons and 10 bowl appearances. While he has an offensive background, his teams have been known for their defense. His last game on the Southern Miss sideline figures to be emotional. Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly has instituted an attack mentality on both sides of the ball, and his players have adapted well in their first season under Kelly, who almost certainly will be snapped up by a bigger school in the next few years.
Cincinnati will win if
The Bearcats have more talent and, quite simply, are a better team. Motivation is big for the Bearcats. If they can stifle Southern Miss' ground attack, the Bearcats almost assuredly win.
Southern Miss will win if
The coach already has been replaced, and if Southern Miss plays hard for Bower, it can pull the upset. That also means limiting turnovers (which can be tough against Cincy's aggressive and attacking defense) and controlling the ball and the clock with the running game. Fletcher's production will be huge.
X-factor
Cincinnati's mind-set is the key. The Bearcats deserved better than this bowl. Will that lack of respect be a rallying point, or a cause for a "who cares?" attitude?
The picks
Huguenin's pick: Cincinnati 30-20
Other Rivals.com expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Cincinnati 41-20
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: Cincinnati 28-21
Bill King, Rivals Radio host: Cincinnati 27-17
Check out the rest of the Rivals.com Expert Picks.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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