12:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: South Florida -3, Over/Under: 66
Expect the fireworks to be on display today in Birmingham, Alabama, as the Twenty-Second-Ranked South Florida Bulls battle the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the Birmingham Bowl form Legion Field. Today’s contest marks the third trip to a Bowl for Texas Tech (6-6, 3-6 in Big XII) since Kliff Kingsbury took over the Program five years ago, and their first after missing out on the Postseason altogether last year finishing with a disappointing 5-7 record. 2017 started off strong enough for the Red Raiders, who raced out to a 4-1 record on the strength of a light schedule, but once they delved deeper into their conference sleight, it all began to fall apart, as they endured a miserable 4-Game Losing Streak against the league’s stiffer competition. Of course, when it comes to this team, it’s always about whether or not they can truly stop anyone. Sure, they’re going to score A TON of points, but can they actually keep the opposition out of the End Zone long enough to earn greater success. As has been the case in the five years under Kingsbury, the answer in Lubbock, Texas remains a resounding no, with Tech getting torched for an average of 31.8 points (96th Overall) on a whopping 434.0 Total Yards, while proving to be particularly ineffective against the Pass, yielding 279.8 Yards through the air on 63.9% Passing. Needless to say, that’s not a recipe for success in a Pass-Happy Conference like the Big XII. It gets worse though, folks, for this particular aspect of their Defense was absolutely eviscerated in their six losses, with Kingsbury’s charges relinquishing 39.3 Points on 451.2 Total Yards, all the while permitting Eighteen Passing Touchdowns. Furthermore, they’re 1-5 when giving up Thirty Points or more, in comparison to a 5-1 mark in all other contests. With that said, the Raiders finally began to buckle down on this side of the ball over the final three games of the campaign, in which they coincidentally went 2-1 en route to becoming Bowl Eligible for the first time since 2015. Against the likes of Baylor (on a Neutral Field), Big XII Title Game Participant TCU, and Texas, they managed to plug some of their myriad of holes, allowing a far more respectable 24.7 Points on 400.0 Total Yards, with the major difference proving to be Takeaways, totaling Nine in the last three games alone, including four in each of their wins over the Bears and the Longhorns. If you’re going to play such an up-tempo style, with your Defense giving up yards wholesale, then you had damn well better force a bunch of Turnovers, which has been this unit’s only real saving grace this season, for the Red Raiders have produced a stellar Twenty-Seven Takeaways. Twelve different players have recorded at least one Takeaway, led by Jake Parker (42 TKL, 2.5 TFL, 4 INT, 4 PD, 4 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD), with the Redshirt Sophomore tallying five, while returning a Fumble for a Touchdown. But enough of all this talk about their Defense, for the mantra at Texas Tech is to score, score, score, with 2017 being no different for Kingsbury’s troops, who have averaged a healthy 34.3 Points (26th Overall) on a prolific 468.4 Total Yards, including a staggering 326.8 Yards through the air. The storied Air-Raid Scheme has been a major part of this program ever since Mike Leach installed it eighteen years ago, with the Red Raiders slinging the ball up and down the field for nearly two decades. Leading the aerial assault is Nic Shimonek (68.2%, 3,547 YDS, 8.2 Y/A, 30 TD, 8 INT), who as a Redshirt Senior will be playing in his last game as collegiate athlete. It’s a good call from Kingsbury, who had previously benched the veteran Quarterback for the Regular season Finale in Austin, Texas, after a brutal performance against TCU in which he ended the 27-3 drubbing (at home on Senior Day, no less) completing just 17-of-33 Passes for 137 Yards and an Interception. However, with the Offense stalling a week later against Texas, Shimonek came off the Bench to throw a pair of Fourth Quarter Touchdowns, including the game-winning score inside of two minutes to seal the 27-23 victory. Look for him to hook up with Keke Coutee (82 REC, 1,242 YDS, 9 TD), who ranked second in the Big XII in both Receptions and Receiving Yards, with the Junior Receiver also factoring into the Return Game as well, returning Eight Kickoffs for 253 Yards and a Touchdown.
Meanwhile, today’s trip to Birmingham must feel awfully like deja vu for South Florida (9-2, 6-2 in American Athletic Conference), who concluded their 2016 campaign with a victory in the Birmingham Bowl. On that day, they outlasted South Carolina in a 43-36 shootout that earned them a school-record eleven wins in a single season. A year later at this same venue, they look to string together double-digit wins for the first time in the brief history of the Program. Under the leadership of Charlie Strong, the Bulls stand poised to do exactly that, concluding a stellar season in which they garnered national attention on the strength of a 7-0 start, and very nearly captured the American Athletic Conference Championship, falling to undefeated Central Florida in a wild and crazy Season Finale. The epic 49-42 shootout featured a little bit of everything, with the two instate rivals combining for some staggering totals, including Ninety-One Points, Thirteen Touchdowns, Fifty-Nine First Downs, 1,186 Total Yards of Offense, 310 Yards Rushing and 876 Passing. Furthermore, it was a game defined by big plays and ridiculous scoring binges, with the Golden Knights racing out to a 21-7 lead before the Bulls rallied back to take a 34-28 lead in the Third Quarter, and tying the affair at 42-42 late in the Fourth Quarter. However, with the game seemingly destined for Overtime, UCF had one more ace up their sleeve, returning the ensuing Kickoff Ninety-Five Yards for the game-winning Touchdown. Simply put, this was one of those games where you just hate to see a loser. The outcome was at no fault of Quinton Flowers (53.4%, 2,600 YDS, 8.1 Y/A, 21 TD, 6 INT), who absolutely exploded for a ridiculous 605 All-Purpose Yards and Five Touchdowns in what was the penultimate game of the Senior’s prolific collegiate career. One of the most electrifying Dual-Threat Quarterbacks in the nation, the former 2016 AAC Offensive Player of the Year made his case once more for the award, 24-of-45 Passes for 503 Yards, Four Touchdowns and an Interception, while gashing the Knights for another 102 Yards and a Score on Twenty Carries. Then again, he’s been making plays with his legs for quite a while, racking up a whopping 3,566 Rushing yards and Forty Touchdowns over the duration of his four-year tenure in Tampa, ranking first overall in American Athletic Conference History in Touchdowns Responsible For (107), all the while going down as the most decorated Quarterback in USF History, owning twenty-five school records, with many more set to fall in today’s contest. As a whole, Strong’s charges are extremely balanced, particularly on Offense, where they’ve averaged 38.3 Points (14th Overall) on a prolific 508.6 Total Yards, including 243.3 Yards through the air and another 265.4 Yards on the ground. In addition to Flowers’ exploits, the Backfield Tandem of D’Ernest Johnson (177 CAR, 745 YDS, 7 TD) and Darius Tice (162 CAR, 878 YDS, 11 TD) has been troublesome for opposing Defenses, while Marquez Valdes-Scantling (50 REC, 746 YDS, 5 TD) and Tyree McCants (30 REC, 598 YDS, 5 TD) have routinely made plays in the Passing Game. While today’s matchup features a pair of very explosive Offenses, the difference lies with South Florida’s Defense, which under Strong has not lost a step and is much better than the performance they posted against Central Florida. On the season, the Bulls have relegated opponents to 22.5 Points (36th Overall) on 342.5 Total Yards, limiting Quarterbacks to just 52.7% Passing and opposing Rushers to a scant 3.3 Yards per Carry. Like their counterparts in tonight’s contest, they’ve proven adept at getting their hands on the football, accumulating Twenty-Two Takeaways, including Eighteen Interceptions, two of which they’ve returned for Touchdowns. Though Strong was largely unsuccessful in his three years at the University of Texas (16-21, .432) he’s very familiar with Big XII competition, and should have his charges prepared to battle Texas Tech’s Air-Raid Attack, which he is of no stranger to; Strong went 2-1 against them, though the games were generally very high-scoring, with the teams scoring over Thirty-Five points apiece in the last two meetings.