- Time and date: Saturday, December 17 at 5:45 p.m. ET / 4:45 p.m. CT
- Network: ESPN
- Location: Hancock Whitney Stadium — Mobile, AL
- Spread: Southern Miss (-6.5), per DraftKings
- Over/under: 45.5, per DraftKings
- Southern Miss money line: -245, per DraftKings
- Rice money line: +205, per DraftKings
- All-time series: Series tied, 6-6
- Last meeting: Rice 24, Southern Miss 19 — October 2, 2021
- Current streak: Rice, 2 (2020-21)
- Southern Miss last bowl: 2021 Armed Forces Bowl, 30-13 loss to Tulane
- Rice last bowl: 2014 Hawaii Bowl, 30-6 win over Fresno State
- 2021 LendingTree Bowl matchup: Liberty 56, Eastern Michigan 20
* Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.
Setting the scene
Southern Miss vs. Rice is a college football season staple. The Golden Eagles and Owls met as C-USA rivals every year from 2014 to 2021, and they were originally scheduled to square off in 2022 until Southern Miss made a late departure to the Sun Belt. But a conference change couldn’t keep the birds of prey apart.
Rice is bowling for the first time since 2014, and the Owls utilized their academic excellence as a gateway into bowl season. They were situated atop the pecking order among 5-7 teams due to their high academic progress rating, and that leveraged them into their first bowl in eight years. Southern Miss is bowling for the first time under second-year head coach Will Hall. The Golden Eagles seek their first postseason victory since 2016 against a familiar opponent. The winner of this game in Mobile also earns bragging rights in an all-time series which is tied at six apiece.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles outlook
Southern Miss (6-6, 4-4 Sun Belt) triumphed in the regular season finale over ULM to snap a 3-game losing streak and improve to .500 on the season. The Golden Eagles’ jump to the Sun Belt proved beneficial to the program and they’re bowling for the first time in three years. While Southern Miss did not earn a single conference over a team above .500, the Golden Eagles earned a signature non-conference road win back in September against a New Year’s Six qualifier in Tulane — proving the team’s ability to upend the cream of the crop.
The Golden Eagles’ must-win regular season finale can best be described as the Frank Gore Jr. game. The sophomore running back eclipsed the 1,000-yard threshold for the first time as a Golden Eagle thanks to a 199-yard explosion against ULM. The performance mirrored Gore’s sensational showing from the opener where he posted 178 yards on Liberty. Gore is not an easy running back for defenses to handle, and he becomes even more tricky in the wildcat formation. He fired 12 passes this year and completed three for touchdowns. Attempting 28 passes over the past two seasons, Gore has seen a quarter of his strikes result in six points, and that formation should be expected several times this bowl season.
Southern Miss’ typical passer is junior quarterback Trey Lowe, who first launched his college career four years ago in the Camping World Bowl as a member of West Virginia. Lowe has started under center for short stints across his three seasons at Southern Miss, earning the nod for the final three matchups on the regular season schedule. He is completing 53.4 percent of his passes this year and averaging 211 passing yards per start. Lowe hasn’t exactly unleashed his mobility in 2022, but that element of his game was on display two seasons ago, so Rice should at least be wary of the quarterback’s ability to make things happen with his legs.
In the receiving corps, Jason Brownlee draws the most eyeballs. Brownlee more than doubles any other Golden Eagle in receptions and receiving yards, attaining 52 and 819 on the season. Rice’s defensive backs are well aware of his capabilities, considering Brownlee posted a 2021 season-high 127 yards on the Owls in their prior meeting. With 2,072 yards in a storied career, Brownlee ranks fourth on the program’s all-time list and the senior could conceivably rise into third place with a prosperous day in Mobile. Providing support at the position is Latreal Jones, a junior college transfer who witnessed a rise in snaps toward the end of the season. Jones looks to finish his first FBS campaign strong after producing a team-high 59 receiving yards in the team’s prior outing.
On the other side of the ball is where Southern Miss is at its best. The Golden Eagles tie for 44th in the FBS with an opponent scoring allotment of 23.5 points per game. This impressive mark, a considerable improvement from last season, can be attributed to fielding one of the Sun Belt’s strong run defenses. The Golden Eagles contain the ground with plenty of firepower as one of 37 FBS teams holding teams to under 3.8 yards per carry. When it comes to punching tickets into the backfield, not many Sun Belt defenders do it like Santrell Latham — the team’s only All-Sun Belt selection in the defensive front seven. Latham exhibits a résumé featuring 81 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and a pair of forced fumbles, and he’ll be tasked with preventing Rice from bouncing its runs to the boundary.
In the secondary resides Southern Miss’ other two all-conference defenders, free safety Jay Stanley and strong safety Malik Shorts. The safety tandem spearheads a passing defense which permits opponents to rack up 228 yards per game through the air, and they’ll hope to limit that number when pitted against Rice’s true freshman quarterback AJ Padgett. Stanley and Shorts are both ballhawks by nature and when combining their talents, they have amassed seven interceptions on the season.
Rice Owls outlook
Rice (5-7, 3-5 C-USA) finally snapped the C-USA’s longest bowl drought and will receive a taste at the postseason for the first time in Mike Bloomgren’s five years at the helm. The opportunity to prepare for bowl season is a treat to a veteran roster which features a litany of sixth and seventh-year seniors, including the likes of team captains Shea Baker and Trey Schuman.
The Owls launched the 2022 campaign in impressive fashion with wins over fellow bowl eligible squads like Louisiana and UAB. But a 5-4 start was quickly derailed by injuries and a difficult schedule. Closing the season against the C-USA’s top three teams in WKU, UTSA, and North Texas without starting quarterback TJ McMahon, the Owls dropped three consecutive by an average margin of over 24 points.
McMahon isn’t expected to play Saturday, as the first team practice reps have been allocated to true freshman quarterback AJ Padgett. Heading into the penultimate game of the season, Padgett was a scout team quarterback, but the youngster has been forced to quickly adapt to the speed of the collegiate game. Padgett demonstrated marked improvement in the finale, completing 13-of-22 passes for 229 yards — averaging over 10 per completion. He hopes to take an even further leap in his second start, and that is possible considering the support he has from the receiving corps.
Rice’s wide receivers are among the team’s best assets. The 6’5” Brad Rozner has molded into both a jump ball and deep ball specialist with over 20 yards per reception this year. Rozner has five 100-yard showings this year and another one will push him near the 1,000-yard mark on the season. Southern Miss’ secondary should receive an additional challenge considering Luke McCaffrey is expected to return to the lineup. McCaffrey missed the prior two contests with an injury, and the former quarterback proved to be an explosive weapon in his new position. He produced three 100-yard games this year including a 171-yard, 2-touchdown masterpiece in an October win over Louisiana Tech. Another name to watch in this loaded position group is Braylen Walker. The true freshman didn’t catch a single pass until the final week of the season, but he looks poised to be a future standout at Rice after hauling in four receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown in his most significant action to date.
The run game is spearheaded by a pair of longtime Owls, Cameron Montgomery and Juma Otoviano. The duo has been present throughout the entire Bloomgren tenure and both backs produce with respectable averages with Montgomery hovering at 5.8 yards per carry and Otoviano at 6.0. For much of the Bloomgren era, the Owls were more of a grounded offense, but they expanded the passing game this year to create a stronger balance than ever. But given the presence of an inexperienced quarterback, leaning on the run game should be expected in the early going for Rice in Mobile.
Defensively, the second half of 2022 was considerably more rough than the first half — allowing 39 points per game in the final six contests compared to 28.7 in the first six. Defensive back depth was certainly a concern for the Owls as the season progressed, but Rice is equipped with the majority of starters for the LendingTree Bowl. Among the major contributors in the secondary is Gabe Taylor, who might lead the defense in terms of NFL potential. The hard-hitting safety has six pass breakups and two interceptions this year, in addition to ranking third on the team with 55 tackles. Cornerback Jordan Dunbar is another name to watch in the defensive back group as the Owls’ No. 1 counter on the boundary with a team-high eight pass breakups in 2022.
In the 2021 matchup between these programs, Rice utilized a 4-0 advantage in the turnover battle to eke out a 24-19 win. The rosters have certainly changed since then, but the Owls were able to pick off four passes thanks to a relentless pass rush. Rice is middle of the road in terms of the sacks per game metric, but Josh Pearcy, Trey Schuman, and Ikenna Enechukwu present multiple threats to Southern Miss’ pass protection which yields 2.7 sacks on average. But when it comes to limiting the Golden Eagles’ offense, preventing Frank Gore Jr. from heating up is of utmost importance. Thus, the most important position group in this battle for Rice should be the linebackers, so leading tacklers Chris Conti and Myron Morrison will be counted on to prevent Gore from his third 170-yard showing of the year.
The former C-USA rivalry returns at the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, AL, with a coveted bowl trophy and series bragging rights on the line. Neither team watched their season finish in triumphant fashion, considering both squads posted 1-3 records in November after impressive non-conference showings.
Rice is an intriguing team in this game, as we have limited data on true freshman quarterback AJ Padgett, whose collegiate sample size is limited to three halves of action. If Padgett can expand the verticality of the offense, Rice should be in great shape as the Owls boast a solid receiving corps which was the deciding factor in several C-USA wins this year. But Rice loses turnovers more often than any team in the country outside of Northwestern, so mistakes could certainly hamper the Owls’ offensive progress if these ongoing mistakes are not rectified.
Southern Miss can make turnover-plagued teams pay with the aforementioned All-Sun Belt safety tandem of Jay Stanley and Malik Shorts. And when the offense controls the ball, Frank Gore Jr. is an explosive playmaker certain to break off several long runs, or even a surprise touchdown pass. With Gore leading the charge, Southern Miss’ offense winds up on top in Mobile.
Prediction: Southern Miss 29, Rice 16