Shreveport wasn't the location that Florida State hoped its season would end prior to the year, but the Seminoles will look for a 41st straight winning season on Wednesday as they face Southern Mississippi in the Walk-On's Independence Bowl. It is the first meeting between the schools since a 54-14 FSU victory in Tallahassee in 1996.
The Seminoles, at 6-6, became bowl eligible by winning its final three games of the season. Southern Miss comes in with a record of 8-4 and winners of three straight a well. Both teams will be vying for a second straight bowl win.
While FSU dominated the most recent meeting, the last contest between the schools on a neutral field was way back in 1989 when the Golden Eagles upset the then-No. 6 Seminoles 30-26 in Jacksonville, Florida, thanks to a young quarterback named Brett Favre.
As for this game, Southern Miss team will look to improve to 2-3 against Power 5 teams under head coach Jay Hopson and get its first win over an ACC school since topping Virginia in 2011. Florida State looks to go to 2-0 under interim head coach Odell Haggins.
Walk-On's Independence Bowl: Southern Mississippi vs. Florida State
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 27 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Independence Stadium (Shreveport, La.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida State -16.5
Three Things to Watch
1. James Blackman vs. USM Pass Defense
Blackman will be the first true freshman to start a bowl game at quarterback for the Seminoles since Chip Ferguson in the 1985 Gator Bowl win over Oklahoma State. That also was the last time a true freshman started under center for the Seminoles until Blackman this season. It has been an up-and-down season for Blackman in his 11 starts, but he played better and built confidence down the stretch.
Blackman will be facing a good Southern Mississippi defense. The Golden Eagles have allowed just 322 yards per game and only 190 through the air while holding opponents to 6.5 yards per attempt. Senior safety Tarvarius Moore leads the team with 73 total tackles and three interceptions. Curtis Mikell, also a senior, is the best cover corner for the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss enters this game with nine interceptions and 18 total takeaways.
2. Running backs
The Independence Bowl will feature some talented running backs and the first one to watch will be Southern Miss senior Ito Smith. At 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, Smith (above, right) is the workhorse for the Eagles with more than 1,300 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Smith is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has eclipsed the 100-yard mark seven times this season, including 219 against Louisiana-Monroe. In his only two matchups against Power 5 teams — Kentucky and Tennessee — Smith managed a total of 88 rushing yards while averaging 2.4 yards per carry.
Florida State will look to establish its two-headed monster of Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick (right). Both went for more than 100 yards the last time out against the same Warhawks team that Smith had a career day (27 att., 219 yards, TD) earlier this season. Patrick, a junior, is more of a power back while Akers has slowly become the Seminoles' primary ball carrier. With 930 yards, Akers is just 79 away from breaking Dalvin Cook's FSU freshman rushing record.
3. Non-offensive touchdowns
For Southern Mississippi to pull off the upset in Shreveport, it may need to come up with some game-changing plays in a phase of the game other than offense. The Golden Eagles have had no problem doing so thus far with four defensive touchdowns on the stat sheet already. Two were via interceptions by senior defensive back Kelsey Douglas. Fellow DB Cornell Armstrong also returned a pick for a score and defensive lineman Xavier Thigpen fell on a fumble in the end zone.
On the other side of the coin, Southern Miss has given up two defensive touchdowns. Florida State has five non-offensive scores with four coming over the final three weeks of the season. Since 2005, FSU has had 10 non-offensive touchdowns either work for or against it in bowl games. Quarterback Deondre Francois had an interception returned 14 yards for a touchdown by Michigan's Mike McCray in last season's Orange Bowl victory.
Florida State has had a month's worth of distractions with Jimbo Fisher leaving for Texas A&M. The Seminoles also will be without three important contributors in safety Derwin James, defensive end Josh Sweat and wide receiver Ermon Lane, who will all be focusing on the NFL or a career in some other form of professional football in Lane's case. Still, interim head coach Odell Haggins is a Seminole through and through and will not allow the team to come in unfocused. A win over a name program like FSU would go a long way for the Golden Eagles, but Southern Miss hasn't been the same team this season against Power 5 schools. Expect Southern Miss to play hard, but the Seminoles' talent advantage will be too much to overcome.