Early Predictions for Case Cookus, J'Mar Smith in 2022 USFL Championship

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxCorrespondent IJune 26, 2022

CANTON, OHIO - JUNE 25: Case Cookus #10 of the Philadelphia Stars looks to pass the ball in the fourth quarter of the game against the New Jersey Generals at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on June 25, 2022 in Canton, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/USFL/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/USFL/Getty Images

The United States Football League came back this spring. While the new incarnation of the USFL has no real ties to the original league we last saw in action in 1985, its eight teams are named after classic franchises.

Two of those teams—the Philadelphia Stars and the Birmingham Stallions—are set to face off in the new USFL's inaugural championship game.

The regular season began with eight teams and two divisions, North and South. Four of those teams made the postseason, which had its opening round on Saturday. Now there are two, and by next Sunday night, only one will stand.

2022 USFL Championship

Where: Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, Canton, OH

When: Sunday, July 3

Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

TV and Live Stream: Fox, Fox Sports App

Playoffs Recap

Philadelphia Stars 19, New Jersey Generals 14

The Stars' path to the title game included a big hurdle in the form of the New Jersey Generals. The Generals finished the regular season tied with Birmingham with a league-best 9-1 record.

However, Philadelphia carried plenty of momentum into the playoffs thanks in no small part to the late emergence of quarterback Case Cookus.

Cookus wasn't Philadelphia's starter when the season opened, but the 12-round draft pick shined once he got the opportunity. Despite making just six starts, Cookus ranked fourth in passing and tied for second with 12 touchdown passes.

Philadelphia won four straight before falling to New Jersey in the regular-season finale.

While Cookus had an up-and-down outing in the playoff rematch—he completed just 50 percent of his passes and threw an interception—he did run for a touchdown and got plenty of help from his teammates.

Trailing in the fourth quarter, the Stars took a five-point lead on an electrifying 88-yard punt-return touchdown by Maurice Alexander Jr. just inside of the two-minute warning. On the ensuing Generals drive, cornerback Amani Dennis sealed it with an interception.

A-MONEYDENNI$ @AmaniDennis29

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Birmingham Stallions 31, New Orleans Breakers 17

While the finish of the Stars-Generals game was wild, the New Orleans Breakers and Stallions matchup was just as thrilling early.

New Orleans struck first with a Jordan Ellis touchdown run, but Birmingham scored on the next two possessions. Stallions quarterback J'mar Smith tied the game with a touchdown pass to Osirus Mitchell. Birmingham then took the lead when DeMarquis Gates picked off Kyle Slotter and returned it 71 yards for the score.

The Breakers tied it up late in the second quarter, but Birmingham immediately answered with a 90-yard kick-return touchdown by Victor Bolden Jr.

Birmingham Stallions @USFLStallions

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Sloter threw his second interception of the half on New Orleans' final possession before the break.

The scoring wasn't as fast or furious in the second half, as Birmingham utilized a physical, ball-controlling brand of offense led by Smith and running back Bo Scarbrough. As was the case often during the regular season, this was enough for the Stallions to close things out over the final two quarters.

This set up an intriguing matchup for next week's game.

Preview and Predictions

Much of next Sunday's game will hinge on the play and the health of Cookus. He has helped guide one of the USFL's top passing attacks—Philadelphia led the league with 12 touchdown passes in the regular season—but isn't immune to making mistakes.

Birmingham's dominant defense, meanwhile, is great at capitalizing on errors.

Cookus also suffered a back injury on Saturday, though it doesn't appear to be truly concerning.

"It's going great," Cookus told Sara Perlman of NBC Sports. "They took me to the tent, wanted to get some x-rays just for precautionary reasons, but feeling great, gonna get a little rehab this week and be ready for it."

Even if Cookus is at 100 percent, he'll have a tough challenge in Birmingham's defense. This is a squad that hasn't surrendered more than 20 points in a game since Week 2.

If the Stars hope to pull off another upset, they'll need to get off to a fast start. The Stallions have shown time and time again that they know how to grind out games and limit opposing opportunities late.

Philadelphia will also have to avoid miscues. Birmingham is a well-balanced team with great chemistry. Some of that stems from coach Skip Holtz having several of his former Louisiana Tech players—including Smith, wideout Adrian Hardy and fullback Bobby Holly—on his roster.

Sloppy football isn't going to beat Birmingham. The Breakers learned that when two interceptions and a special-teams disaster cost them any chance of taking momentum into the second half.

If Philadelphia can play mistake-free football and perhaps get a few takeaways of their own, they can claim the title. The Stallions have only lost once this season, and it came against the Houston Gamblers, who finished the season with just three wins.

Birmingham had a chance to rally late in that one but Smith threw an interception in Houston territory with less than two minutes remaining.

On paper, though, this is a matchup that favors the Stallions. When these two teams met back in Week 5, Birmingham cruised to a 30-17 victory. Expect similar results next Sunday.

Prediction: Birmingham 27, Philadelphia 17