A school record for victories will be in play for Florida International as the 8-4 Golden Panthers take on Temple in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl on Thursday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Temple, at 6-6, looks to lock down a third straight winning season with a victory.
Fresh off an American Athletic Conference title, the Owls didn't have the season they hoped in head coach Geoff Collins' debut season, but they did go 3-1 in their final four games to become bowl eligible. Temple has not won a bowl since beating Wyoming in the 2011 New Mexico Bowl. Florida International is playing in a bowl for just the third time ever. The Panthers' only win came over Toledo in the 2010 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
The bowl contest will be the first matchup ever between the schools. FIU, under first-year head coach Butch Davis, will look to get to nine wins for the first time ever. Temple is making a third straight bowl appearance for the first time in school history.
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl: Temple vs. Florida International
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 21 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, Fla.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Temple -7
Three Things to Watch
The biggest reason perhaps for Temple's late-season surge is the insertion of junior Frank Nutile into the starting quarterback role. After a 3-4 start, the Owls are 3-2 with Nutile at quarterback with the only losses coming to undefeated UCF and in overtime to Army. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Nutile is a gunslinger. Over the last five games, he's averaged more than 253 passing yards per game and has a total of 11 touchdowns to just six interceptions in that span. Nutile threw for 262 yards and three scores his last time out to help the Owls become bowl eligible against Tulsa. He'll be facing an FIU defense that ranks 93rd against the pass (242.8 ypg).
For Florida International, Alex McGough, a senior, has had a solid season even with his leading receiver, Thomas Owens, missing the final three games. McGough accounted for 22 total touchdowns and got better as the season went on. Over his final six games, the senior threw just two interceptions and completed more than 70 percent of his passes. He'll match up against a Temple defense that leads the AAC in passing yards allowed per game (210.0) but has surrendered 21 touchdowns through the air while picking off just eight passes. If both quarterbacks find their rhythm early, it could be a difficult night for the defenses.
2. FIU Offensive Line vs. Temple Defensive Line
For Florida International to get to nine wins, the Panthers must win the battle up front. That's an area where they have been good this season as FIU has allowed just 22 total sacks. Led by senior guard Jordan Budwig, the Panthers also did a decent job as a run-blocking unit this season, averaging 165.1 yards per game on the ground.
FIU's offensive line, however, will have its work cut out for it as it faces a Temple team that is deep and talented up front. Senior defensive ends Sharif Finch and Jacob Martin have combined for 15.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for a loss this season. When it comes to getting to the quarterback, the Owls rank 22nd nationally and second in the AAC in sacks per game (2.7).
Additionally, with 92 tackles for a loss, Temple is tied for 13th in the FBS in that category (7.7 per game). Besides, the two ends, linebackers Shaun Bradley and Sam Franklin along with defensive linemen Julian Taylor and Quincy Roche all have at least 8.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage this season. For FIU to have a chance, it can't get manhandled up front.
3. Isaiah Wright
With the aforementioned Owens done for the year, the most dynamic offensive player on the field in St. Petersburg will likely be Temple's Wright. With 40 catches for 581 yards, Wright is the Owls' leading receiver, but he's used in a number of ways. Wright also is averaging 8.4 yards per carry on 23 rushing attempts this season and has taken both a kickoff and a punt back for scores.
Dynamic playmakers have given the Panthers fits this season and Wright looks to add his name to that list. UCF's Tre'Quan Smith gashed FIU for a pair of scores while Florida Atlantic's Devin Singletary ran for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Slowing down Wright will be the key for the FIU defense. With four interceptions, senior Brad Muhammad has been the Panthers' best cornerback and will likely spend time matched up with the explosive Wright.
Beating a Temple team peaking at the right time was going to be a tall task for FIU anyway, but not having No. 1 wide receiver Thomas Owens only magnifies that. The Temple defensive front will be tough for FIU to contain, which could complicate things. The Tropicana Field crowd should be friendly in the Sunshine State-based Panthers' favor, but the matchups seem to favor the Owls. Temple without question, has improved offensively of late and that's largely due to the quarterback change. With Frank Nutile at the helm, the Owls are averaging nearly 32 points per game. They are 5-0 this season when scoring at least 29 points. FIU is giving up 28.5 per game.
Prediction: Temple 34, Florida International 24
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)