Two explosive offenses are set to square off with the C-USA title on the line
If anybody asks for some betting advice about Saturday’s Conference USA title tilt, give him a quick response: Bet the over. Both Western Kentucky and Southern Miss pile on the points, and there is little doubt that although their defenses have some strong entries on their resumes, there will be some spinning scoreboards in Bowling Green, Ky.
Western Kentucky is just the seventh team in 20 years to make it through C-USA play unscathed, and offense is clearly the Hilltoppers' strength, as evidenced by the team’s 44.2 points per game (fourth nationally) and 519.8 yards per game (10th) this season. Southern Miss ranks eighth in the country in yards (534.8) and ninth in points (41.7) per game, and has been particularly potent the last three weeks, putting up 65, 56 and 58 to finish the season on a six-game winning streak.
College Football Podcast: Championship Week Preview
Southern Miss at Western Kentucky
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Western Kentucky -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Big Numbers
Both teams boast some of the nation’s most potent skill position players. Western Kentucky QB Brandon Doughty is one of the country’s premiere passers, thanks to his FBS-leading 42 TDs and 4,184 yards, which rank fifth nationally. Last week, in the 49-28 win over Marshall, Doughty threw for 370 yards and five scores. His top wideouts, Taywan Taylor (71 catches, 16.9 yards per reception, 15 TDs) and Jared Dangerfield (67, 10.3, 7) are potent, and Anthony Wales has run for 933 yards and seven scores, while averaging a huge 7.2 yards/carry. Hilltoppers head coach Jeff Brohm is quite familiar with Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens, whom he recruited to UAB when was the Blazers’ offensive coordinator. Mullens has thrown for 3,964 yards and 35 TDs with just nine interceptions. The Golden Eagles’ passing attack is robust, but the ground game may be even better, thanks to Jalen Richard (1,065 yards, 13 TDs) and Ito Smith (983, 7).
2. For the Defense
The expected offensive explosion shouldn’t diminish the accomplishments of the two defenses, even though it’s likely they will be under tremendous duress all afternoon. Southern Miss is particularly strong at getting into enemy backfields and has posted 84 tackles for a loss and 31 sacks this season. It should be interesting to see how that plays against a Western Kentucky team that has allowed just 14 sacks all year and whose backs (other than Doughty) have lost only 93 yards all year. Western Kentucky has registered 74 tackles for a loss this year and has intercepted opposing passers 14 times while holding them to a completion rate of 54.9 percent. In the win over Marshall, the Hilltoppers limited the Thundering Herd to just 31 rushing yards and picked off Chase Litton twice.
3. Bowl Mania
Since the C-USA champion isn’t tied into any specific postseason destination, it will be interesting to see what happens after Saturday’s game. Many think that Western Kentucky would prefer to play in the Miami Beach Bowl, against the American Athletic Conference (AAC) runner-up. That’s a pretty nice destination for the Hilltoppers and a good matchup. Southern Miss could well end up in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, which would provide a reasonable traveling assignment for fans and the opportunity to match up with a team from the Pac-12.
The Hilltoppers weren’t perfect in their win over Marshall – Brohm was angry at Western Kentucky's special teams play – but they looked pretty good, as they have in winning eight of their last nine games. The offense is humming, as usual, and the opportunity to play at home is a big deal for a team that played at L.T. Smith Stadium only twice in its final six games. Expect a big performance from Western Kentucky.
It’s easy to focus on just the Hilltoppers, thanks to their undefeated C-USA record, but Southern Miss' 7-1 league mark isn’t too shabby, and Todd Monken's team has been particularly explosive of late. The key to this one will be whether the Golden Eagles can get any pressure on Doughty. If not, it’s going to be a big day for Western Kentucky.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 41, Southern Miss 37
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.