Miami Beach Bowl: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers vs. USF Bulls
Date: Dec. 21, 2:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Location: Miami, Florida | Marlins Park
Best moment: The Hilltoppers showed they were for real in the season opener, as Joe Brown stuffed Nathan Marcus one yard shy of the goal line of a two-point conversion attempt in the last 33 seconds to preserve Western Kentucky's 14-12 victory at Vanderbilt. The victory over an SEC opponent set the tone for the rest of Western Kentucky’s season.
Lowest moment: The Hilltoppers had a golden opportunity to land a second victory over a Power 5 conference opponent. But down 38-35, they couldn’t stop Indiana running back Jordan Howard, who helped the Hoosiers salt away the 5:56 left on the clock to seal the win.
Key player: Quarterback Brandon Doughty makes the Hilltoppers go. The sixth-year senior became the third QB in FBS history to post consecutive seasons with 4,000 passing yards and 40 touchdowns. This season, Doughty leads the nation in a handful of passing categories, including a remarkable completion rate of 72.5 percent.
Motivational level: High. The Hilltoppers have had a tremendous season. It’s difficult to envision them not being motivated to finish off such a great season on a high note. Western Kentucky ought to be ready to play. -- Jake Trotter
Best moment: There are quite a few moments to pick from, which is a surprise considering the state of the program not long ago, before coach Willie Taggart built the Bulls back up. While the wins against American East division champion Temple and Cincinnati on back-to-back weekends were special, the victory over Power 5 opponent and road favorite Syracuse set the wheels in motion for a 7-1 finish to 2015. USF bullied the Orange, gaining 540 yards -- 281 on the ground -- en route to a 21-point statement win.
Low moment: It wasn’t a bad loss by any means as Navy was once the front-runner to represent the Group of 5 in a New Year’s Six bowl, but USF had a chance to knock off the Midshipmen and help its bid for a berth in the American championship. USF was having success limiting Navy’s offense and took a 17-13 lead in the third quarter. The Bulls still led in the fourth quarter, but a missed field-goal attempt from 32 yards set up an 80-yard go-ahead touchdown drive for Navy. USF fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and another Navy touchdown salted the game away. If they had held on against Navy, the Bulls would have finished the regular season with eight straight wins and a berth in the conference title game.
Key player: Marlon Mack had several Power 5 offers, but the Florida native elected to play for USF. Taggart is thankful as Mack is now one of the best running backs in the country. He quietly put together a terrific season, rushing for 100 yards in seven of the final eight games, including a 230-yard effort in an upset of Temple. The sophomore ranks 18th nationally in yards per game with a 115.7 average.
Motivation level: High. The Bulls haven’t played in a bowl game since 2010, and they have an opportunity for their first nine-win season since consecutive 9-4 campaigns in 2006 and 2007. There’s an outside chance the Bulls could finish the season in the AP Top 25, too. They’re currently fifth among unranked teams receiving votes, and bowl season will knock a few teams from the rankings. -- Jared Shanker