This game catches one team at the end of an era, and the other at the beginning of an era.
Southern Miss head coach Jeff Bower will be coaching his final game for Southern Miss when the Golden Eagles take on Cincinnati in the second edition of the PapaJohns.com Bowl. The Bearcats are in their first season under head coach Brian Kelly.
Bower announced his resignation November 26. He has spent 29 years at the Hattiesburg, Mississippi school as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Bower is 119-82-1 and currently on astreak of 14 consecutive winning seasons. The school has received 10 bowl invitations in the past 11 campaigns.
The Golden Eagles will begin a new era after the bowl season under the guidance of new head coach Larry Fedora, the former offensive coordinator for Oklahoma State.
Kelly moved from Central Michigan to Cincinnati when Mark Dantonio left the Bearcats to take the Michigan State job. Kelly's first season saw Cincinnati improve from 8-5 to 9-3 with a second consecutive 4-3 finish in the Big East.
The season was a bit disappointing for Southern Miss fans whose team was a preseason pick by the CUSA coaches to win the east division title and get a rematch with Houston in the conference championship game. The Congrove Computer Rankings at CollegeFootballPoll.com had the same projection. Instead, the Golden Eagles lost home games to Central Florida, Memphis and - most shockingly - Rice, and needed wins in their final two games over UTEP and Arkansas State to insure a winning season.
Cincinnati, on the other hand, was picked by the computer to finish just 6-6 and the Big East media predicted the Bearcats would finish fifth in the conference. But Cincinnati reeled of six straight wins to begin the season before stumbling in back-to-back games against Louisville and Pittsburgh. The final defeat was a hard fought 28-23 loss at home to West Virginia.
QB Ben Mauk, a transfer from Wake Forest, provided an offensive spark for Cincinnati as he topped the Big East with a 154.6 passer rating, outshining the likes of Pat White (West Virginia), Matt Grothe (USF) and Brian Brohm (Louisville). The Bearcat defense remained a solid holdover from last year's successful squad while the offense improved its scoring output by 15 points per game.
For Southern Miss, sophomore RB Damion Fletcher was the workhorse as he ran for 1,431 yards and 15 touchdowns. QB play was inconsistent as Jeremy Young suffered a knee injury against Boise State, and Stephen Reaves threw 8 INT's to just 3 TD passes in relief.
One of these teams will have a bowl game winning streak halted. Cincinnati has won its last two postseason affairs while Southern Miss has won three straight.