1:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Florida State -16.5, Over/Under: 49
With Christmas in the rearview mirror, the Bowl Season continues with the Independence Bowl, as the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles battle the Florida State Seminoles at Independence Field in Shreveport, Louisiana. Now in his second year in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Jay Hopson has now successfully taken Southern Miss (8-4, 6-2 in Conference USA) to their third consecutive Bowl, while on the verge of guiding them to their tenth 9-Win Season in the history of the Program. Winners of three straight outings, the Golden Eagles finished Third in Conference USA’s West Division, after facing a solid schedule, despite all four of their losses coming at the hands of opponents who happened to be Bowl Eligible. In all honesty, they probably had an even higher ceiling if not for the injury to Starting Quarterback Kwadra Griggs (56.3%, 1,793 YDS, 7.5 Y/A, 15 TD, 2 INT), who missed nearly a month of the campaign, with his return heralding back-to-back defeats before he and his teammates managed to turn things around. Efficiency has been the Redshirt Junior’s mantra, for Griggs hasn’t thrown an Interception since before Halloween; since initially returning from injury, since a 30-12 loss to Alabama-Birmingham back on October 28th, he’s completed 61.5% of his Attempts for an average of 195.8 Yards per Game on 7.5 Yards per Attempt, with Seven Interceptions and Zero Interceptions, while rushing for another 140 Yards and a Score on Thirty-Three Carries. Sophomore Quarterback Keon Howard (56.5%, 1,199 YDS, 7.1 Y/A, 8 TD, 5 INT) played admirably in his stead, winning three of his five starts, but was ultimately pulled once Griggs was healthy, in no small part to his decision-making; in his time on the field, Howard threw Eight Touchdowns in comparison to Five Interceptions, which did not compare favorably to his teammate. And it’s with that said, that Griggs will once again get the nod today, with Southern Mississippi’s punishing Rushing Attack set to take the stage led by Ito Smith (232 CAR, 1,321 YDS, 13 TD), Conference USA’s second-leading Rusher in 2017. The Senior Tailback has been very productive since setting foot on campus, compiling 4,444 Rushing Yards over the course of his career, ranking fourth all-time in the history of the league. No player on Hopson’s roster has been more integral to their 3-Game Winning Streak, rushing for no fewer than 150 Yards in each affair with a total of Six Touchdowns over that stretch. Furthermore, he remains a threat as a Pass-Catcher out of the Backfield, no doubt maximizing his NFL Stock with Thirty-Six Receptions for 370 Yards and another Two Scores in 2017. After today’s contest, the faithful in Hattiesburg should look back upon Smith’s tenure at Southern Mississippi with aplomb for only three players in Conference USA History have ever accumulated more Yards from Scrimmage (5,864), with only sixteen players in the NCAA History to gain more. However, Smith is far from the only playmaker in Hopson’s artillery, for no matter who has started at Quarterback, Korey Robertson (72 REC, 1,070 YDS, 11 TD) has remained a handful for opposing Secondaries. The conference’s leader in both Receiving Yards (1,070) and Receiving Touchdowns (Eleven), the Junior really turned up the heat over the final five games of the campaign, reeling in Forty-Four Catches for an average of 136.4 Receiving Yards and Six Touchdowns, utilizing his powerful 6-1, 210 lb. frame against smaller Defensive Backs. It should be interesting to see how this prolific Offense matches up with Florida State’s Defense, which despite their struggles in 2017 remains loaded with talent on all three levels. Hopson’s Attack has amassed a respectable 30.5 Points per Game (50th Overall) on a very balanced 438.3 Total Yards, including 249.3 Yards through the air, and another 189.0 Yards on the ground. Balance is the operative word, folks, for if the Golden Eagles do in fact establish a successful Running Game, they’ll be far more likely to keep the Seminoles’ fierce Pass-Rush at bay, with their opponent taking down opposing Quarterbacks Twenty-Seven times thus far.
Meanwhile, a season that began with so much promise for Florida State (6-6, 3-5 in ACC) has quickly devolved into a disaster, wrecked by injuries, and a Coaching Controversy, which eventually became a Coaching Vacancy, with Jimbo Fisher leaving Tallahassee for greener pastures after eight extremely successful seasons as their Head Coach. The fall of the Seminoles has been really quite shocking and surprising if not for nothing just how quickly it’s taken to occur. Keep in mind, folks, that this Program was ranked Third in the country entering their hyped Season Opener against Top-Ranked Alabama, which was where all their problems began; trailing 24-7 with the game well out of hand, star Sophomore Quarterback Deondre Francois tore the Patella Tendon in his Left Knee sustaining a Sack midway through the Fourth Quarter on what would otherwise be an afterthought if not for the cold fact that it ended his season altogether. Things quickly spiraled out of control from that point for Fisher’s charges, who went on to lose four out of their following six outings, sporting a dismal 2-5 record entering November, with the prospects of qualifying for a Bowl looking bleaker by the moment. After all, this is Florida State, folks. A Program that has enjoyed thirty-nine consecutive winning seasons, thirty-six straight appearances in a Bowl, and have most recently hoisted a National Championship in 2013. Fortunately, they managed to turn things around enough to win three out of their final four contests in order to become Bowl Eligible, though even that took a back seat to Fisher’s standing in the Program, with a long-posited move to Texas A&M eventually becoming reality shortly before the Regular Season Finale against Louisiana-Monroe. With Assistant Coach Odell Haggins serving as the Interim Head Coach for the 42-10 victory, the Seminoles ensured they’d compete in yet another Bowl, with the opportunity to avoid their first losing season in four decades. However, in order to do so they’re going to need to really show up for the Independence Bowl, even if it falls exceedingly short of their initial goals for the season. So often do we see these major Programs endure disappointing campaigns, and fail to arrive motivated for such lesser Bowls. Haggins is going to have quite the task on his hands, given the circumstances; in addition to fielding a team once again without the presence of Francois, there are a number of Seminoles that will be sitting out today’s affair in order to remain healthy and prepare for the NFL Draft, with the likes of All-ACC Defensive Back Derwin James (84 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 SK, 2 INT, 11 PD, 1 TD, ), Linebacker Matthew Thomas (85 TKL, 10.0 TFL, 2.0 SK, 1 INT, 2 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD), and Defensive Lineman Josh Sweat (56 TKL, 12.5 TFL, 5.5 SK, 3 PD) among them. This is likely to be a significant blow to the Defense in particular, with the three aforementioned Defenders ranking One, Two, and Three on the team in Tackles. Of course, there’s also the matter of the arrival of Willie Taggart, who was hired a month ago to replace Fisher, after spending one year as Oregon’s Head Coach. Taggart, who rebuilt South Florida in his four years with that Program from 2013 to 2016, has some serious shoes to fill in his return to the state of Florida, where the expectations will be considerably higher than they were at any of his previous stops. Sporting a mediocre career record of just 47-51, it should be interesting to see just how long of a leash the Powers That Be will afford him in Tallahassee, though he has proven adept at mining the region’s fruitful recruiting grounds, in addition to being something of a builder; Western Kentucky was winless before he took over the Program back in 2009, and turned them into a 7-6 outfit in his third year on the job, before performing a similar makeover at South Florida, who were 3-9 before his arrival and 10-2 in his final term on their sideline. Of course, he’ll have plenty of talent on hand on with the return of a healthy Francois, buoyed by the emergence of James Blackman (57.2%, 1,997 YDS, 7.4 Y/A, 15 TD, 11 INT), who was thrust into action a lot sooner than anyone on the Staff would have preferred, despite eventually growing into the job. Over the final five games of the Regular Season, the Freshman completed 55.0% of his Attempts for an average of 169.6 Yards per Game on 7.8 Yards per Attempt, with Eight Touchdowns in comparison to Four Interceptions, while winning four out of those five contests.