The 2019 edition of the Independence Bowl between Louisiana Tech and Miami will feature a team that is excited to be playing in the game and a team that probably wishes it was playing in a higher-profile bowl.
The Louisiana Tech's campus in Ruston is located about an hour away from Shreveport, where the Independence Bowl will be played. Needless to say, the Bulldogs should have a distinct home-field advantage on Thursday.
Louisiana Tech (9-3) has had a very good season and was a few bad breaks from potentially playing in the Conference USA Championship Game. Head coach Skip Holtz will try to lead the Bulldogs to their first 10-win season since 1984.
On the other hand, Miami (6-6) will enter the bowl season on a two-game losing streak as they fell to Florida International and Duke to end the regular season. The Hurricanes are hoping to finish Manny Diaz's first season as head coach on a high note. However, it won't be easy as several key players are sitting this game out.
Defensive ends Jonathan Garvin and Trevon Hill, junior wide receiver Jeff Thomas, and linebacker Michael Pinckney have all decided to skip the Independence Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. Also, fullback Realus George announced his intentions to transfer. So the Hurricanes' depth will be tested.
This will be the fourth meeting between these teams and the first since 2004. Miami has won the previous three and could use another or the Hurricanes will finish with a losing record for the first time since going 6-7 in 2014.
Walk-On's Independence Bowl: Louisiana Tech (9-3) vs. Miami (6-6)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 26 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Independence Stadium (Shreveport, La.)
Spread: Miami -6
When Louisiana Tech Has the Ball
Miami's defense has been one of the best in college football this season as they finished the regular season ranked 13th in total defense (307.6 ypg), but they will be challenged by the Louisiana Tech offense. The Bulldogs enter this game averaging 445 yards (30th in FBS) and 34 points (27th) per game.
They're led by J'Mar Smith, Conference USA's Offensive Player of the Year and one of the most dynamic quarterbacks the Hurricanes have faced this season. In 10 games, Smith has complied 2,814 yards, 17 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Smith's biggest weapon is his arm strength, which allows him to make big plays downfield.
Louisiana Tech has other weapons too. Running back Justin Henderson is just shy of 1,000 rushing yards on the season (967) and he leads Conference USA with 15 touchdowns on the ground. Smith's top targets are Adrian Hardy, Cee Jay Powell, and Smoke Harris. Each has already posted 40-plus receptions and Griffin Hebert has a team-high six touchdown catches.
With Garvin, Hill, and Pinckney opting to skip the bowl game, Miami's defense will be challenged. Those three starters combined for 31 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks (team has 43 total) during the regular season.
When Miami Has the Ball
Miami's offense has been good at times this season and it's also been bad. The good certainly came in wins over Florida State and Louisville when Jarren Williams was able to put up big numbers. The bad came in losses to Florida International and Duke when Williams turned the ball over a ton while struggling to find the end zone.
Because of the inconsistency at the quarterback position, Diaz has held an open competition during practices leading into this game. While Williams and N'Kosi Perry took all of the snaps during the season, Tate Martell could get his chance. Martell, a transfer from Ohio State, lost the battle for the starting job in fall camp and also has been away from the team on two different occasions this season.
Whoever starts against Louisiana Tech will have to do a better job on third down. The Hurricanes are dead last in the nation (130th) on third down, converting just 26.4 percent of their opportunities.
Being without leading rusher DeeJay Dallas, who suffered an elbow injury in the loss to FIU, certainly doesn't help Miami's offensive outlook. Cam'Ron Harris (545 rushing yards, 5 TDs) will be called on to help take some pressure off of whoever is in at quarterback. With no Thomas (31 rec., 379 yds., 3 TDs) to aid the receiving corps, the Hurricanes will need more production from the likes of leading receiver K.J. Osborn (45 rec., team-high 5 TDs), big-play tight end Brevin Jordan (14.1 ypr); and Mike Harley (second on team with 38 rec.).
One thing that will help the Canes' pass catchers is that Amik Robertson, one of the top cornerbacks in the nation, will not play after announcing he will enter his name into next year's NFL draft. The junior is a two-time, first-team All-Conference USA honoree and also received All-America recognition from numerous outlets this season. He is second in the nation with 21 passes defended and also recorded five interceptions.
Louisiana Tech has won its past five bowl games. Meanwhile, Miami has lost eight of its last nine, including the last two against Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl (2017 season) and the Pinstripe Bowl (2018). Will the Hurricanes come into a bowl game in Louisiana motivated to play against a Conference USA opponent?
Quarterback J'Mar Smith will be a big key for the Bulldogs. But if he plays like he did in the regular season, a depleted Miami defense could be in some trouble.
Louisiana Tech is 9-1 when Smith starts as he missed two games due to a suspension. The Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year should be motivated to help his Bulldogs get their 10th win of the season over a Power 5 team.
With the Hurricanes missing several key starters, especially on defense, it's difficult to pick against Louisiana Tech, especially since this is game is in Shreveport.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 34, Miami 20
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo courtesy of latechsports.com)