By all accounts, if the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers aren't hosting this game, on this weekend, the season was going to be seen as a major failure. On the flip side, those of us outside the Southern Miss Golden Eagles nest kind of kept waiting for the birds to fall from a season-opening high, but that didn't happen.
To get to this point, both squads had to defeat last season's division winners, in what could be seen as a changing of the guard from Louisiana Tech and Marshall to Southern Miss and WKU.
Both teams feature prolific offenses, both teams can do just enough on defense, and in the five combined losses the two teams share, I'm sure they both have at lest one back they'd really, really like as a win.
Lets decide a champion.
Start Time: 12:00 p.m. ET
Location: LT Smith Stadium, Bowling Green, Ky.
TV: ESPN2. Live stream available on WatchESPN.
Betting Line: WKU -7.5. Over/Under 74.5
Jeremy previews Southern Miss:
Lost in all of the hoopla of a record setting passing game is just how electric the running game can be. Led by the duo of Jalen Richard and Ito Smith, the Golden Eagles have a chance to have two 1,000+ yard rushers in the same season for the first time since the early 1980s.
Very few teams have been able to slow down the Southern Miss running game with the Golden Eagles averaging over five yards per carry on the season. Credit is due to an offensive line that has had the same five starters in all 12 games of the regular season. With that type of experience in the trenches, it will be hard for the Hilltoppers to stop the rushing attack.
The improvement of Nick Mullens from an average CUSA quarterback to one of the top in the conference is staggering. To put it into context, Mullens has made 16 starts with 19 games played heading into this season. He is only 282 yards away from equaling his passing totals of his first two years combined behind center.
When passing the ball, Mullens has a trio of wide receivers that many teams in the nation would kill have on their side. Casey Martin is the steady force with a team-high 72 catches on the season and an impressive 77.4% catch rate. Junior D.J. Thompson is a star in the making with 51 catches and six touchdowns on the season.
As good as they are, the player everyone wants to see is senior Michael Thomas. The 6-1 receiver has been unreal lately with several mind boggling catches, including a team leading 11 touchdown catches. When the top receiving options are covered, Smith and Richard are excellent in the passing game with a combined 68 catches on the season.
After some early stumbles, the Golden Eagles defense has been quite impressive late in the season. The defense has given up too many explosive plays, but has done an excellent job of limiting the number of successful plays on the year. They are among the top 26 nationally in defensive success rate versus both the run and the pass.
What has made this defense even more impressive in recent weeks is the ability to change a game by forcing turnovers. Watch the beginning of the fourth quarter versus Louisiana Tech when they forced three turnovers on three straight offensive plays to turn a 14-point game into a 51-17 blowout if you need any convincing.
Players to watch on the Southern Miss defense include: D'Nerius Antoine, Brian Anderson, and Kalan Reed.
Fletcher previews WKU:
What impressed me most about the Tops win over Marshall last week was not how quickly they came out of the gate, or how off-guard they caught the Herd, because really neither were true. WKU had a pair of turnovers in the opening quarter, and it was only a 7-0 game after the first quarter.
No, what impressed me was how WKU refused to let it get out of hand on their own side. Impressive defensive stands, batting through mistakes, and sticking with the game plan until it worked. Also, for once we finally saw WKU keep the foot on the throat into the second half, completely deflating the Herd.
Tyler Higbee was a very welcomed sight last week, hauling in six catches for 92 yards and a pair of touchdowns, leading me to question how WKU ever ran any sort of efficient offense without him. Just kidding. Kind of.
I was having this conversation with someone the other day, and they pointed out that the key in this game might come down to the fact that, because WKU has been so dominant throughout their 10-2 run, Brandon Doughty hasn't had to play a full game.
The more I thought of it, the more I realized that isn't 100% true. We really have one good example to look at - the three-point loss to Indiana early in the year. Doughty threw his first three interceptions of the year in that quarter, all of which lead to Hoosier's points, and while that was far from the true reason the Tops lost that game, that's the closest game (outside of Vandy) that WKU had to play this year.
Also something to take form the Vandy game is how much difficulty the Tops had stopping Jordan Howard and the running game. Jeremy noted above that Southern Miss' running game goes mostly unnoticed (kind of in the same vein that it is at WKU). If the Tops don't have a game plan to stop yes Mullens, but also Jalen Richard and Ito Smith and company, USM will find a way to win.
Jeremy: This has a chance to be one of the wildest CUSA title games ever with a couple of explosive offenses. As good as the defense has been playing for Southern Miss, it will be nearly impossible to completely slow down that offense. It will come down to which team makes fewer mistakes. Southern Miss 45, Western Kentucky 42.
Fletcher: I'm kind of taken aback by the differences in predictions. All the "experts" (Fox Sports, ESPN's FPI, etc), yet in our poll in yesterday's CUSA writers staff predictions, an overwhelming majority have Southern Miss as their prediction.
I agree with what Jeremy said. This should be a wild game. It'll be memorable. I've been comparing it to be the WKU/Marshall from 2014, just with much more on the line.
Amidst all the loose rumors of Brohm going to a bigger school, in the last time Doughty and the rest of the seniors will play on Smith Stadium, and how WKU hasn't lost sight of the true goal for this year, I'm going to take the Tops. WKU 56-Southern Miss 46.