The Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks made huge headlines early in the season and sustained that success, while the Ohio Bobcats got off to a strong, undefeated start of their own before faltering.
That makes Friday's Independence Bowl matchup extremely intriguing, and one in which several x-factors will ultimately decide the winner. Bobcats star runningback Beau Blankenship is expected to shine for Ohio, while dual-threat quarterback Kolton Browning will need to put up a strong performance to keep Louisiana-Monroe in striking distance.
Here are some other factors and players that are going under the radar but will be vital in determining the champion in Shreveport, La.
Isaiah Newsome, S, Louisiana-Monroe
Despite not playing in the huge 34-31 overtime win in the opener against Arkansas, Newsome was a second-team selection in the Sun Belt conference. At 5'11" and 193 pounds, he provides an extremely physical presence on the outside.
That should make life difficult for Bobcats leading receiver Donte Foster getting open against likely double coverage. Foster had a monstrous game against Kent State in the regular season finale in catching 11 passes for 100 yards.
With a team-leading four interceptions, it's clear that Newsome has a knack for making plays on the ball. Newsome is a significant piece of the Warhawks' 3-3-5 defense not only for his coverage ability, but also due to the fact that he is a sure tackler..
That unconventional look should throw off the OU offense at least slightly.
Five defensive backs may stereotypically indicate a favorable defense to run the ball against, but Louisiana-Monroe is actually ranked 30th nationally against the run, according to NCAA.com.
Tyler Tettleton, QB, Ohio
After throwing 12 touchdowns in his first seven games, the junior has only thrown four in his past five—and three of those came in a blowout victory over Eastern Michigan, who won just twice in 2012.
The other games resulted in losses. While the defense is somewhat to blame for those shortcomings, there is no doubt that the Bobcat offense has gone a little bit cold since a 7-0 start in terms of point production.
Tettleton's numbers don't look bad at all, especially his 16 touchdown throws to just three interceptions. But he will have to make plays, with the Louisiana-Monroe defense keying in on stopping Blankenship.
With a far better running game supporting him than in 2011, more should have been expected of Tettleton based on his 28 touchdown passes as a sophomore, though. That further proves how big of an impact player WR LaVon Brazill—now on the NFL's Indianapolis Colts—was for Ohio.
Competition in Regular Season
Kicking off the slate with two SEC foes hardened the Warhawks early on, as did a slap of adversity with a 47-42 loss at home to Baylor—who didn't turn out to be so bad after all.
Only an injury to Downing in the middle of the year prevented Louisiana-Monroe from a shot at running the table during the conference season. Downing is the team's leader in passing and rushing yards, and the offense couldn't stay on the field for very long—much less win shootouts—without him.
Once the quality of opponents increased for the Bobcats, they wilted. A disappointing away loss to Miami (Ohio) began a downward spiral during the conference season, and Ohio couldn't recover to salvage the MAC.
Having coached at Nebraska prior to his tenure in Athens, there has to be significant pressure on head coach Frank Solich to bring the Bobcats a bowl victory. On the other sideline, Todd Berry is an emerging name as the Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year, and as Jason Pugh of The Town Talk documents, Berry is coaching with nothing to lose.
I actually had this label when I was up at Illinois State. They made the accusation that I was a riverboat gambler. I don't know that it's so much that. I think I'm a calculated risk-taker. We have a sign up on our wall that says, "We didn't come here to play. We came here to win."
His resilient Warhawks team that has taken that mindset to heart in a culture change that has resulted in the program's first bowl appearance since joining the FBS as it's known today in 1994 (h/t ESPN).
This will be an entertaining, hard-hitting game, but the stoutness of the Louisiana-Monroe rushing defense and a strong game from Browning should be enough for the Warhawks to pull this one out against an opponent from a better known conference.
Prediction: Louisiana-Monroe 27, Ohio 21