The Miami Beach Bowl features two of the nation’s top Group of 5 programs from 2015, and this Dec. 21 matchup between South Florida and WKU should be one of the better pre-Christmas bowls this season. This game also features a reunion between South Florida coach Willie Taggart and his old program. Taggart was a quarterback at WKU from 1994-98 and later worked as the program’s head coach from 2010-12.
After a 6-18 record and a spot on the hot seat after his first two seasons at South Florida, Taggart rebounded with an 8-4 campaign in 2015 and clearly has the program trending in the right direction. The Bulls have ranked near the top of the American Athletic Conference in recruiting since Taggart arrived and return most of their core for 2016. With the young talent in place, combined with wins in seven out of their last eight games, South Florida could use the Miami Beach Bowl as a springboard to an even better 2016 campaign.
While Taggart established the foundation for WKU’s success at the FBS level, second-year coach Jeff Brohm has elevated the program and emerged as one of the rising stars in the Group of 5 ranks. Brohm is 19-7 in two seasons with the Hilltoppers and guided WKU to its first season of double-digit (11) wins on the FBS level. The Hilltoppers also faired well against Power 5 competition, scoring a victory over Vanderbilt in the season opener, while holding their own against Indiana and LSU.
South Florida and WKU have met only six times on the gridiron. The Bulls own a 4-2 series edge, with the last matchup between these two programs taking place in 2010.
Miami Beach Bowl: WKU (11-2) vs. South Florida (8-4)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET (Miami, Fla.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: WKU -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. WKU QB Brandon Doughty
WKU’s offense was one of the best in college football this season, averaging 44.2 points a game and a robust 7.19 yards per play. The success of the offense starts with quarterback Brandon Doughty – an Athlon Sports third-team All-American for 2015. The senior passed for 45 touchdowns and 4,594 yards this season and led the nation by completing 71.8 percent of his passes. Not only is Doughty efficient and careful with the ball, he’s also capable of attacking defenses downfield and producing big plays. In 13 games this season, Doughty connected on 37 passing plays of 30 yards or more. And Doughty has plenty of help in his supporting cast, as receivers Jared Dangerfield, Antwane Grant, Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris each caught over 45 passes this season. WKU was held under 30 points only twice this season. Can the Hilltoppers continue their high-scoring ways against a talented and athletic South Florida defense? The Bulls limited opponents to 21.1 points per game this season, forced 23 turnovers and generated 32 sacks. This defense is opportunistic and does a good job of limiting big plays. Coordinator Tom Allen was an underrated addition for Taggart’s staff in the offseason, and his defense will have its hands full trying to slow Doughty and an explosive WKU offense.
2. South Florida’s Rushing Attack
South Florida’s best defense against WKU’s high-powered offense could be its ground attack and running back Marlon Mack. The sophomore has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and rushed for 1,273 yards and eight touchdowns in 11 games this year. Mack enters the Miami Beach Bowl with four consecutive 100-yard performances and at least 100 yards in seven out of his last eight games. But Mack isn’t a one-man show on the ground. Backup running backs Darius Tice (448 yards) and D’Ernest Johnson (290) have been effective in limited action, while quarterback Quinton Flowers has chipped in 883 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 175 carries this season. WKU’s run defense ranked fourth in Conference USA, surrendering 156 yards per game and 4.23 yards per carry. Led by first-team All-Conference USA linebacker Nick Holt, the Hilltoppers held their last five opponents under 200 rushing yards. Will South Florida establish control of the line of scrimmage and utilize the run to keep WKU’s offense on the sidelines?
3. Style of Play and Tempo
These two teams aren’t drastically different in terms of pace of play, but the tempo and overall flow of the game will be critical on Monday afternoon. WKU wants to push the tempo, as Brohm’s team is averaging 72.3 plays a game. South Florida used more hurry-up or no-huddle approaches in Taggart’s third season, with the emergence of quarterback Quinton Flowers helping to ease the transition in scheme. However, Flowers isn’t just a threat on the ground, as the sophomore threw for 21 touchdowns and 2,017 yards this season. With the ability to control the clock and utilize the ground attack, South Florida can slow down the overall pace and keep WKU’s offense on the sidelines. However, the Hilltoppers want to do exactly the opposite. With Doughty and the talented skill players in place, Brohm wants his offense to go fast and jump on South Florida early, forcing the Bulls to abandon their ground game. Which team will control the overall pace of the game from the opening snap?
Last year’s Miami Beach Bowl between Memphis and BYU was an exciting back-and-forth matchup that also featured plenty of postgame fireworks. And in its second season, this bowl landed another intriguing matchup that should be one of the better postseason games outside of the New Year’s Six or playoff slate. South Florida ended the season on a tear and has a few advantages in its favor. The Bulls should be able to establish the run, limiting the overall possessions for Doughty and his receivers. Additionally, South Florida’s opportunistic defense could create headaches for Doughty and keep the Hilltoppers behind the chains and in third-and-long situations. However, with Doughty playing his last game at WKU, the Hilltoppers will be motivated to send their prolific senior quarterback out with a victory. This game should be high in entertainment value, and the guess here is WKU scores late to edge the Bulls in Miami.