Although the 2011 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl won't feature the Hawaii Warriors, it should still have a festive atmosphere and an exciting football game as the Nevada Wolf Pack take on the No. 21 Southern Miss Golden Eagles.
Nevada had a very solid season even though quarterback Colin Kaepernick advanced to the NFL. The Wolf Pack finished 7-5 overall with a 5-2 record in the WAC, and they had a very explosive and diverse offense as usual. The running back tandem of Lampford Mark and Mike Ball gave Nevada the No. 8 running game in the nation, and the passing game, which implemented a dual-quarterback system, was excellent as well.
Southern Miss had a magical regular season that culminated in a victory over then-undefeated Houston to win the Conference USA Championship and knock the Cougars out of BCS contention. Like Nevada, Southern Miss has a very well-balanced offense led by quarterback Austin Davis and a host of effective rushers, including Jamal Woodyard.
While pride and prize money for the respective schools is mostly what is on the line, it would be great for either of these non-BCS teams to score a win in a fairly well-known bowl. Most are expecting the Golden Eagles to win, but these are two similar and evenly matched teams, so it should be a good one.
Where: Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii
When: Saturday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
Listen: ESPN Radio 94.5 FM (Nevada) and WJDX 620 AM (Southern Miss)
Betting Line: Southern Miss (-6.5)
Key Storyline: Can Larry Fedora Leave Southern Miss on Top?
Which team will win this game?
After four winning seasons at Southern Mississippi, head coach Larry Fedora is moving on to become the head man at North Carolina. The opportunity is a well-deserved one for Fedora as he has helped establish the Golden Eagles as one of the better non-BCS teams in the country on a yearly basis.
Fedora will remain with Southern Miss to coach in the Hawaii Bowl, though, and he will surely want to leave a good, long-lasting impression. I can't imagine that Southern Miss fans fault him too much for jumping at a higher-profile job, and I think Fedora wants to leave them with one last win to cap off a fantastic season.
Who Might Not Play for Nevada: WR Shane Anderson
Nevada senior wide receiver Shane Anderson has missed the team's past two contests after suffering a concussion, and he is questionable for the Hawaii Bowl. Anderson wasn't very involved in the offense over his past few seasons, but he has developed into a reliable target this year.
In 10 games Anderson has reeled in 40 passes for 526 yards and two touchdowns, and he has developed into one of the team's more consistent options in the passing game. This particular contest figures to be fairly fast-paced, so the absence of Anderson could certainly adversely affect the Wolf Pack offense.
Who Might Not Play for Southern Miss: RB Kendrick Hardy
Southern Miss running back Kendrick Hardy has played in only five games this season because of a shoulder injury, and it appears as though he will once again be unavailable on Saturday as he is listed as doubtful. Hardy was a major part of the Golden Eagles offense last season with 903 yards and seven scores and would have been so again this year.
Hardy was on pace for a fantastic 2011 campaign as he rushed for 426 yards and two touchdowns in five games, but his season has been cut short. While the Golden Eagles would love to have him, they haven't missed a beat since he went down as they average more than 200 rushing yards per game as a team.
What They're Saying
After defeating Houston in the Conference USA Championship Game, Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora's name came up plenty in head coaching searches across the country. While Fedora will stay with Southern Miss through the Hawaii Bowl, he will take over as North Carolina's head coach next season, according to Al Jones of the Sun Herald.
"I will be named the next coach at the University of North Carolina," (Fedora) said. "I will coach this team through the bowl game and we will win our 12th game of the year.
"My time has been awesome at Southern Miss and it was an agonizing decision for me to make."
Nevada Player To Watch: WR Rishard Matthews
The Wolf Pack are more well-known for running the ball out of their famed pistol formation, but the passing game has also been quite effective this season. Perhaps the biggest reason for that is the play of senior wide receiver Rishard Matthews, who has made a major leap since last season to become one of the premier pass-catchers in the college game.
Matthews has hauled in 91 balls for 1,364 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, making him a threat that opposing defenses must constantly account for. His mere presence not only makes Nevada's aerial attack dangerous, but it opens up lanes for the running backs as well. How successful Southern Miss is in containing Matthews could directly correlate to the game's result.
Southern Miss Player To Watch: QB Austin Davis
What will be the result of this game against the spread?
Like Nevada, Southern Miss is a team that can do damage on the ground and through the air. The biggest reason for that is senior quarterback Austin Davis. While Davis is probably slightly more adept as a passer with 3,331 yards and 28 touchdowns this season, he is a capable runner as well and a big part of the Golden Eagles' option attack.
The dual-threat nature of Davis makes him very difficult for opposing defenses to compensate for. Even if Davis looks as though he is rolling out for an option play, he could just as easily turn it loose on a pass down the field. Nevada will have to figure out something defensively in order to contain him in the pocket or else it could be a long day for the Wolf Pack.
Key Matchup: Nevada Front Seven vs. Southern Miss Option
Defensively, Nevada ranked in the middle of the pack this season in most categories, which may not seem that bad, but the Wolf Pack played a fairly easy WAC schedule. Mediocrity on defense may have been enough to make a bowl game, but it most certainly won't be good enough to slow down Southern Miss and its option running game.
The Golden Eagles have a host of running backs that can get the job done, and quarterback Austin Davis is a good runner also. Because of that, Nevada will have to be aggressive and decisive against the option. The Wolf Pack must still be wary, though, as Davis proved in the Conference USA Championship Game that he could put the team on his back as a passer as well.
Prediction: Southern Miss 35, Nevada 24