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Choosing C-USA: The Shula Bowl takes center stage

All eyes will be on FAU and FIU in Week 12, as bowl positioning and a berth in the Conference USA Championship Game is at stake.

NCAA Football: Marshall at Florida Atlantic Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

We almost had it. Conference USA’s Game of the Week was in serious consideration to be the Game of the Week for the entire FBS landscape. College Gameday was actually considering to come to Boca Raton for the Shula Bowl.

All FAU and FIU had to do was take care of business. FAU did their part and beat a Louisiana Tech team trending in the wrong direction. FIU on the other hand, lost to a surging Old Dominion team. The result? College Gameday going to Madison, Wisconsin.

Week 12 doesn’t offer a lot of great games, as the Power 5 teams are all gearing up for Rivalry Week. This was a major opportunity to give spotlight to the conference and they barley missed out. In the offseason C-USA decided to move everyone’s rivalry games away from Rivalry Week to keep those games from being overshadowed by the P5. While I’m still in the camp of rivalry games being the conference opener, perhaps Week 13 is a slot to look at going forward.

We’ve seen ESPN occasionally break from the norm and highlight non-P5 conferences, when the P5 slate is poor. Maybe all it takes for Gameday to come to C-USA is a rivalry game with division title stakes. Of course, this year was a perfect storm-type opportunity as Lane Kiffin is one of the bigger names in the sport and having Butch Davis, a coach who’s famous in his own right on the other sideline, might have had something to do with ESPN strongly considering making a trip to Boca.

Choosing C-USA Record: 69-26

Game of the Week

FIU at FAU (FAU -15, 7:00 PM ET, Stadium)

The two highest-profile coaches in the conference will finally face off (perhaps for the only time). With just two weeks left in the season, the most anticipated game of Conference USA is finally here as Lane Kiffin’s FAU Owls will host Butch Davis’ FIU Panthers with a division title on the line.

If FAU wins, the Owls will advance to the Conference USA Championship Game where they will host North Texas. If FIU wins, the Panthers will not only match their longest winning streak against FAU and retain the magnificent Don Shula Award, but they will also keep their slim hopes of a division title alive.

It’s a big game. The biggest Shula Bowl ever in fact. But Vegas doesn’t think the game will live up to the hype as the Owls are a 15 point favorite. Neither does S&P, as they only give FIU a 21 percent chance of leaving Boca Raton with a win.

Vegas is going with the eye test whereas S&P is evaluating the matchup based off of stats. It’s hard to argue against both assessments. FIU has a 6-3 record due to having a solid defense, good special teams, and a great receiver in Thomas Owens.

The Panthers aren’t particularly amazing at anything. They are 20th in Passing Success Rate, a nod to their efficiency, but they are 101st in Passing IsoPPP. They don’t generate explosive passing plays despite having one of the best receivers in the offense.

Alex McGough has passed for 2,051 yards and 11 touchdowns, while rushing for 252 yards and four touchdowns. He’s still the same streaky passer with good mobility from years past, but the difference this season is that McGough has stayed away from costly turnovers. He has just seven interceptions this year.

Perhaps the biggest difference in this FIU team compared to years past is that they aren’t great at running the ball. Alex Gardner was one of the most productive players for FIU during the Ron Turner era, but he’s mainly been an after thought this year as he’s rushed for 579 yards and two touchdowns. Napoleon Maxwell and Shawndarrius Phillips have been serviceable tailbacks for the Panthers but nothing scary.

With that trio, FIU ranks near the bottom in Rushing S&P+ (115th), Rushing Success Rate (103rd), and Rushing IsoPPP (109th). They aren’t efficient, and they aren’t explosive. FAU’s run defense has been more than serviceable since Jeremy Cox rushed for 200 yards in their conference opener. That means Alex McGough will more than likely have to beat the FAU defense. McGough has proven to FAU fans that he’s quite capable of doing just that.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Florida International
Alex McGough is 2-1 in the Shula Bowl with 555 passing yards for two touchdowns and three interceptions, with four rushing touchdowns.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

While the Panthers have a huge safety option in Thomas Owens, FAU has their own safety valve in Devin “Motor” Singletary. The #Motor4Heisman campaign is in full swing. Singletary has rushed for 1360 yards and 19 touchdowns this year. When in doubt, FAU gives Singletary the ball.

Singletary is averaging 6.6 yards per carry and is the face of the best rushing offense in C-USA. La Tech did a great job bottling him up last week and for the first time during conference play, the Owls had to rely on Jason Driskel to make the offense effective.

Driskel came through and if Singletary is limited again, he’ll have to get through a passing defense that isn’t great. The Panthers are 120th in Passing Downs S&P, 128th in Passing S&P, and 113th in Passing Success Rate. What FIU is great at is limiting explosive passing plays as the Panthers are 8th in Passing IsoPPP. FAU has lived off of explosive plays through the air as the Owls are 31st in Passing IsoPPP. If the Shula Bowl is low scoring it’ll be because of FIU’s ability to prevent Driskel from generating huge gains through the air.

While it’s easy to see the Owls run away with the Don Shula Award and clinch their first ever division title, I’ve seen far too many FIU teams with less talent hoist the Don Shula Award. Butch Davis is not to be taken for granted. The Panthers are a well-coached team that doesn’t beat themselves and forces you to make plays. With nothing to lose, I expect FIU to pull out all the stops.

But It probably won’t be enough. If FAU can keep their composure from the start -unlike the Navy game - and not beat themselves, they could win this comfortably. I see the game being close for three quarters before FAU pulls away with a huge Singletary touchdown run, and 14 points off turnovers in the fourth quarter.

FAU 42 FIU 24

The Rest of C-USA...

Middle Tennessee at WKU (Middle Tennessee -3, Friday, 8:00 PM ET, CBSSN)

This year’s version of 100 Miles of Hate will have bowl eligibility on the line. It’s a huge game for the trajectory of both programs as we get closer to the end of the season. MTSU enters the game having won two straight, while WKU enters the game having lost two straight. Considering that both head coaches have endured criticism for not having living up to preseason expectations, they could use a win.

I’m going to give the same key to victory in the Moonshine Throwdown for the 100 Miles of Hate: If WKU doesn’t run the ball effectively, they aren’t going to win. The emergence of linebacker-turned-running back Tavares Thomas has been huge for MTSU. I’m going with the Blue Raiders in a close one. Rick Stockstill really needs this win and I think he gets it.

Middle Tennessee 36 WKU 31

Rice at Old Dominion (ODU -8.5, 2:00 PM ET, ESPN3)

The Owls have looked so much better offensively over the last few weeks but I think the Monarchs are really hitting their stride. Steven Williams appeared to turn the corner against FIU and I think the Monarchs get one-step closer to bowl eligibility.

Old Dominion 41 Rice 28

Louisiana Tech at UTEP (La Tech -17, 3:00 PM ET, CUSA TV)

No way the Bulldogs lose this right? STAY AWAY FROM THE SPREAD.

Louisiana Tech 35 UTEP 10

Charlotte at Southern Miss (Southern Miss -17, 3:00 PM ET, CUSA TV)

The Golden Eagles were embarrassed at home by Charlotte last year. I think they pour it on the 49ers to make amends for it.

Southern Miss 48 Charlotte 7

UAB at Florida (Florida -11, 4:00 PM ET, SEC Network)

S&P gives UAB a 61 percent chance at winning this game. 61 percent! The Blazers are definitely going to play hard. Not sure about the Gators though. I really want to choose UAB but none of my upsets over P5 teams this year have worked so here’s to reverse psychological, universe.

Florida 31 UAB 14

Army at North Texas (North Texas -2.5, 6:30 PM ET, beIN)

One of the best matchups of the week as the 8-2 Army Black Knights comes to Denton looking to make it two in a row. I’ll go with the Mean Green as I think their offense will be too much for the Cadets.

North Texas 45 Army 30

Marshall at UTSA (UTSA -1, 7:00 PM ET, CUSA TV)

The Roadrunners are getting the cavalry back but I just don’t trust UTSA right now. Their offense has been too inconsistent and I feel like Marshall is on the verge of closing the season strong.

Marshall 28 UTSA 17