The C-USA (Southern Miss) and Sun Belt (Louisiana Lafayette) conference representatives face off in New Orleans on December 17.
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
The Golden Eagles were supposed to have a great season and contend for a possible spot in the top 25, but ended up struggling down the stretch to finish at 6-6. Their most impressive win was on the opening weekend when they beat Kentucky, who finished strong enough in the SEC to make a bowl game. They also beat Louisiana Tech, who had a phenomenal season, finishing 8-5.
Senior quarterback Nick Mullens threw for 2,942 yards and 22 touchdowns even though he missed two games with injury. He threw for nearly 4,500 yards last season, so he is one of the most trusted quarterbacks in college football, even with the dip in production this season. Allanzae Staggers is his number one target with 935 yards receiving. He had 292 yards and two touchdowns against Rice, displaying his big play ability.
In the running game, Ito Smith is a star. He rushed for 1,321 yards and 15 touchdowns and even helped Mullens out with 453 receiving yards. Smith rushed for over 125 yards in both of the Golden Eagles’ big wins, meaning when he plays well, it is a reflection of what the team is doing.
Special teams wise, kicker Parker Shaunfield is a weapon with 12 out of 13 field goals and all of his extra points made.
Defensively Southern Miss gives up 30.8 points per game, which results in them losing games when their offense doesn’t show up. The good news is that their pass defense is great, only allowing 181.6 passing yards per game, while their run defense only gives up 150 yards per game.
Picasso Nelson Jr. has shown that he is more than just a cool name. He had two interceptions against a high-powered Louisiana Tech passing attack. He will need to keep this momentum going in this game.
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
Louisiana-Lafayette struggled to get to 6-6, but has impressive wins against South Alabama and Arkansas State. They will have the home field advantage in New Orleans, but not by a wide margin.
People will remember quarterback Anthony Jennings from his days at LSU, but he did not have a great season for the Ragin’ Cajuns. He threw for 2,074 yards, but had more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (11). He has some talent, but needs to protect the football better. He does add the ability to run the ball with 322 yards on the ground. Al Riles picks up a lot of the receiving yardage 665 yards, while Keenan Barnes is the big touchdown threat with six. Barnes’ six foot three stature creates a match-up nightmare for opponents.
The real star of the offense is Elijah McGuire, who is second in school history with 4,202 career rushing yards. That puts him at the 84th most rushing yards in FBS history. McGuire can also catch the ball out of the backfield with 322 receiving yards. He should get a shot with an NFL team next season.
The defense is similar to their offense, as the score 25.8 points per game and give up 25.1 points per game. They give up 241.9 pass yards per game and 128.7 rush yards per game, making them solid in both categories.
Tracy Walker plays a linebacker/defensive back hybrid and helps out at both positions. He has three interceptions and is also one of the team leaders in tackles. Linebacker Otha Peters totaled 18 tackles in their game against New Mexico State. Prather has helped the Ragin’ Cajuns limit a lot of big plays.
The Golden Eagles have a senior quarterback that is trust-worthy and a running back who is a play-maker in Smith. The good pass defense of Southern Miss will shut down Jennings and the Louisiana Lafayette offense.
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles 43 Louisiana Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns 33