Despite playing in different conferences, Southern Miss and Louisiana-Lafayette are two teams that are all too familiar with one another. Saturday’s matchup in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl will be the 51st all-time meeting between the two schools with Southern Miss leading the series 38-11-1. They last met in 2008 with the Golden Eagles winning 51-21.
Both teams finished the regular season needing to win their final game to gain bowl eligibility and did just that in convincing fashion. Southern Miss racked up 426 yards of offense and held a top-10 offense in Louisiana Tech to just 254 total yards in a 39-24 victory. ULL closed the regular season winning its last three Sun Belt games, including a 30-3 victory over in-state rival Louisiana-Monroe despite having zero passing yards.
With a winning season on the line for a pair of 6-6 teams, there should be plenty of motivation for both sides on the opening night of the bowl season.
New Orleans Bowl: Southern Mississippi vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 17 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Southern Miss -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. End of an Era
Saturday will mark the final game for Southern Miss senior quarterback Nick Mullens as he caps off an exceptional career, accumulating 11,648 passing yards and 85 touchdowns over the last four seasons. After throwing for a career-high 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns last year, 2016 was a trying season for Mullens who dealt with a new offensive system, a brand new set of receivers and injury (missed two games). Despite that, Mullens still wound up finishing third in Conference USA in passing yards (2,926) and sixth in touchdowns (22). Against Louisiana-Lafayette, Mullens will get the start but don’t be surprised to see backup Keon Howard used in packages as well, as he started two games when Mullens was injured. Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson has already stated he plans to get both onto the field, but expect Mullens to get the majority of the snaps under center against the 79th-ranked pass defense.
2. Tough Sledding
Southern Miss will bring into Saturday’s matchup one of the most versatile running backs in the country in junior Ito Smith, but finding creases to run through may be a struggle against a stout front seven. Louisiana-Lafayette has allowed just 3.4 yards per carry on the season, good for 24th nationally and third in the Sun Belt. Over the last month of the season, the Ragin’ Cajuns have really clamped down, allowing a little more than 110 yards per game on the ground, well below their season average. Senior linebackers Tre’maine Lightfoot and Otha Peters, along with freshman defensive lineman Joe Dillon, all received Sun Belt postseason recognition and will play an integral part in trying to limit one of the top rushers in college football.
3. Good Jennings/Bad Jennings
Overall, it was a below-average season for the former LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings, who threw 2,083 yards and 11 touchdowns for Louisiana-Lafayette. Jennings did rush for 322 yards and seven touchdowns, but the Ragin’ Cajuns’ offense was stagnant far too often during the season, coming in just 108th in the FBS in scoring and 103rd in passing. And it is no coincidence that how Jennings played in each game had the greatest impact on the outcome – just look at his stat line. Ten of his 18 total touchdowns came in wins, while seven of his 12 interceptions came in the six losses. Depending on which Jennings shows up in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday may determine which team is victorious.
Louisiana-Lafayette will undoubtedly have home-field advantage playing in its home state and taking part in four of the past five New Orleans Bowls. But the Ragin’ Cajuns are at a significant disadvantage in terms of offensive firepower against the likes of Southern Miss, who sport a senior quarterback, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, and multiple weapons on the outside at receiver. Can ULL’s stingy defense come up with enough stops to limit Nick Mullens and company or will Anthony Jennings have to make more plays than usual to keep pace? A big advantage at quarterback for Southern Miss proves to be the deciding factor Saturday in the Big Easy.
Prediction: Southern Miss 31, Louisiana-Lafayette 21
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.