SI.com's Gennaro Filice analyzes the matchup.
Brian Kelly's at it again. The 46-year-old coach who built successful programs at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan is already enjoying great success in his first season at Cincinnati. Granted, the Bearcats showed signs of improvement under coach Mark Dantonio, but Kelly -- the Big East Coach of the Year -- guided the Bearcats to their first nine-win season since 1953. Cincinnati knocked off USF, Rutgers and Connecticut along the way.
Kelly's signature is his no-huddle spread offense, and senior QB Ben Mauk runs it to perfection. The Wake Forest transfer set five national passing records while quarterbacking the same offense at Kenton (Ohio) High. Although Mauk wasn't named to the Big East first or second teams -- thanks to West Virginia's Pat White and Louisville's Brian Brohm -- he finished ninth nationally in pass efficiency with 27 TDs and just six interceptions. With Mauk at the controls, Cincinnati ranks 14th in scoring offense (36.75 points per game). Penalties have been the Bearcats' Achilles heel, as they set school records for most penalties (114) and penalty yards (977).
Cincinnati boasts one of the nation's most opportunistic defenses; the Bearcats rank second in total turnovers gained (39). CB Mike Mickens and FS Haruki Nakamura were both unanimous picks for first-team All-Big East, but strangely the Bearcats struggle mightily against the pass, ranking 105th nationally.
Cincinnati possesses a huge weapon in punter Kevin Huber, who leads the nation with a 46.8-yard average.
Southern Miss raised more than a few eyebrows when it fired coach Jeff Bower after 17 seasons. Bower has led the Golden Eagles to 14 consecutive winning campaigns and 10 bowl games in the last 11 seasons. Bower will stay on to coach the bowl game, but his lame-duck status doesn't help Southern Miss' morale.
The Golden Eagles' offense revolves around standout sophomore Damion Fletcher. The diminutive (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) rusher has totaled 2,819 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first two seasons at the college level. The x-factor is quarterback Jeremy Young. If Young isn't on his game, opponents load the box and shut down Fletcher.
Southern Miss' defense is respectable, statistically speaking, but the Golden Eagles have had trouble at times defending the pass. Still, offenses must steer clear of versatile DB Brandon Sumrall, who has a nose for the football. C-USA defensive Player of the Year Gerald McRath headlines a strong front seven from the middle linebacker spot. Up front, the Golden Eagles boast two talented linemen in Matthew Chatelain and Martavius Prince.
Cincinnati was hoping to get to a better bowl, but the Bearcats will still be geared up to earn their 10th win. While Cincy is suspect against the pass, they're stout against the run -- Southern Miss' strength. Southern Miss has experienced lapses against solid passing teams ... like Cincinnati. Look for Mauk to finish his college career in style.
The pick: Cincinnati 49, Southern Miss 24