Washington (6-6) and Southern Miss (9-4) square off in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl on Saturday at 2:20 p.m. ET on ESPN, keeping the post-Christmas bowl season rolling in these teams' first-ever meeting.
Here are three reasons why you should watch.
1. High-powered Eagles offense versus rugged Huskies defense: Washington, despite losing three first-round draft choices from last season, had the best defense in the Pac-12 this fall, holding foes to just 17.8 points per game, which ranked 12th nationally. Southern Miss averaged 40.6 points per game on offense, which ranked 11th in the nation. The Eagles' offense is led by efficient QB Nick Mullens, who passed for 4,145 yards and 36 touchdowns, both top-10 numbers nationally. The Eagles also have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Jalen Richard and Ito Smith, who combined for 22 TDs. Finally, the Eagles produced 102 plays of 20-plus yards, 12 more than any other team in the nation. The Huskies' defense yielded just 49 plays of 20-plus yards and was outstanding in the red zone. So, yeah, this is a strength-on-strength matchup.
2. Battle of regions, battle of Power 5 versus Group of 5: This is a Have vs. Have-Not battle, with all the pressure on Washington, the Power 5 team, not to go rear-end-over-tea-kettle and embarrass fellow members of the college football plutocracy. If Southern Miss (Conference USA) wins, it gets to crow about punching the Pac-12 in the nose. If Washington wins, it gets to let out a sigh of relief. Moreover, the Eagles aren't only from Mississippi, they are from "Southern" Mississippi (Hattiesburg). The Huskies aren't only from the Pac-12, they are from the Northwest coast -- heck, practically in Canada. If you were going to pick a place that is most different than Hattiesburg in this great, diverse country, it might be Seattle, and this writer has been to both places. So whoever wins this game gets to claim its brand of football is better, and that will include the SEC.
Well, we might be overselling that.
3. Washington sets up for 2016? The Huskies look like a team that could make a lot of noise in 2016, both in the Pac-12's North Division and, perhaps, the national rankings. They are scheduled to welcome back 15 position-player starters, including true freshman QB Jake Browning and seven starters from an outstanding defense. This is a team that ... might ... beat ... Oregon ... for the first time in 432 years -- plus or minus. Browning found his groove over the final third of the season, and true freshman running back Myles Gaskin could earn some national attention if he builds on his 1,121 yards rushing with 10 TDs from this fall. An impressive performance, in fact, against a solid Southern Miss team that won nine games might lodge in AP voters' minds and spawn a preseason ranking in August.