There are very few days on the sports calendar nowadays with little or nothing taking place.
Christmas Eve is—as it is traditionally—a day for families to gather and begin their Christmas celebrations. But, this year there is plenty to watch with a full slate of NFL games on during the afternoon and early evening.
The end of the day will feature a game that has become quite an entertaining option for those of us who can get a chance to sit and catch the game.
The Sheraton Hawaii Bowl has become a Christmas Eve tradition from the beautiful island of Oahu. The history of this game has been a lot of offense with a lot of points, but the games have not been too close over the last few years.
There’s a chance that could change with this year’s matchup.
Most of the nation was stunned when Southern Mississippi when to Houston and defeated the Cougars in the C-USA Championship, when they were primed to play in a BCS game and had a possible outside shot at the BCS title game.
But the Golden Eagles have been a very good team all season.
They have only lost twice all year—by six on the road at Marshall and by three on the road at UAB. But they did beat five bowl teams and win the conference championship, so it a trip to the Islands for Christmas is a nice cap to one of the best seasons in school history.
Their opponent in Honolulu was coming off of one of the best seasons in school history, and the letdown was evident early on. The Nevada Wolfpack was coming off a 12-1 season and a Top 15 final ranking in 2010, and this season got off to a rough start with a 49-point loss to Pac-12 champion Oregon.
They proceeded to lose two of their next three, and it was looking like it could be a major step back this season. But then, they found themselves a groove and ran five straight wins to get themselves bowl eligible. There were a couple of stumbles toward the end of the year, but they finished strong with a massive blowout win over Idaho.
They ended with a 7-5 season and a chance to play a good opponent with the whole nation watching.
So, can Southern Mississippi get their 11th win and a Top 15 finish or will Nevada get a huge upset and carry some major momentum into 2012?
Read on for the preview of the 2011 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
Southern Mississippi offense vs. Nevada defense
Having one of the Top 15 offenses in the country, the Golden Eagles have been well-balanced, averaging over 200 yards both running and passing.
The catalyst for the attack is QB Austin Davis, who finished in the Top 25 in total offense for the season. He’ll spread the ball around to Kelvin Bolden, Ryan Balentine and Tracy Lampley.
Jamal Woodyard leads the ground game to keep defenses guessing. The Wolf Pack defense has been OK—ranking in the middle of the pack in the major defensive categories. One key player for them is Brett Roy, who finished in the Top 10 in sacks. He’ll need to get pressure on Davis to try and get the Southern Miss offense off rhythm to slow down their potent attack.
Edge: Southern Mississippi
Nevada offense vs. Southern Mississippi defense
While it may have taken a little while to get going, once the Nevada offense got used to the new personnel on this year’s unit, it took off.
The tandem of Tyler Lantrip and Cody Fajardo have proven to be extremely effective this year, leading the Wolf Pack to an average of over 250 yards both rushing and passing per game. Those numbers ended up giving Nevada the fifth best offense in the nation this season.
This is going to be another big challenge for the Southern Miss defense.
They were able to rise up and play a great game against the potent Houston offense in the C-USA Championship. But can they do that again against an offense that has been just as effective and will have had three weeks to prepare for them?
I’m going with the offense in this case.
Both teams are fairly even, but special attention must be paid to the two punt returners in this game.
Lampley of Southern Miss and Richard Matthews of Nevada both finished in the Top 11 in the country, and they have to be a focus for both punt coverage teams, because both can create a big momentum swing in this ballgame.
One other specialist to watch is Golden Eagles K Danny Hrapmann. He finished eighth nationally in FG made per game. If this game is tight in the fourth quarter, Hrapmann may be called in in a big spot to make a big kick.
Edge: Southern Mississippi
Larry Fedora will be coaching his final game at Southern Mississippi: He will take over as North Carolina’s head coach after this game.
Fedora has enjoyed a breakout season in his fourth and final year in Hattiesburg. He’s led the team to 11 wins and their fourth bowl game in a row. It will be interesting to see how his players play for him in his final game in black and gold.
Chris Ault is now in his 27th year as the head man in Reno. His Pistol offense is now the rage in college football, and he has done well in his second go round with Nevada, leading them to their seventh straight bowl.
These are two offensive specialists that will make for an entertaining game of wits.
This and That
This will be Southern Mississippi’s first trip to the Islands, and they should really enjoy the travel. The advantage here goes to Nevada, however.
They have played here many times as a member of the WAC. This is also their second Hawaii Bowl in the last three years and third overall. Their familiarity with the extended travel and playing in Aloha Stadium will give help them on Christmas Eve.
So, what will happen in the 2011 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl?
This might be one of the best bowls on the schedule. Two very potent offenses playing on a fast surface in beautiful weather should mean plenty of points. There have been at least 55 points in each of the last five contests—with three of them over 70 points—and this should be more of the same. If you can, set aside some time for some entertaining football on Christmas Eve.
Line: Southern Mississippi by six
The Sports Mac Prediction: Southern Mississippi 48, Nevada 42