Written By Rana G on Monday, December 20, 2010 | 8:09 PM
Louisville and Southern Miss didn't play for conference championships this season, but both programs came closer than many outside of Louisville and Hattiesburg may have realized.
The Cardinals improved by two games, from 4-8 to 6-6, in a weakened Big East. Other teams may have had an edge in size or talent, but the Cardinals rarely were overmatched in their first season under coach Charlie Strong. Of their six losses, five came by eight or fewer points; in the lone double-digit loss - 20-3 to Pittsburgh - Louisville trailed by a field goal at halftime.
Southern Miss had a lot of close calls, too, on the way to an 8-4 season.
The Golden Eagles lost three Conference USA games by a combined eight points - 44-43 to East Carolina, 50-49 to UAB in double-overtime and 56-50 to Tulsa.
Both teams fit the stereotype of their respective conferences in 2010. Louisville plays solid defense and has one elite difference-maker on offense (running back Bilal Powell).
Southern Miss has a prolific offense, but its defense frequently resembles a sieve, meaning some high-scoring, back-and-forth games.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Louisville rush offense vs. Southern Miss rush defense: Despite being hobbled by injuries late in the season, senior Bilal Powell averaged 120.9 rushing yards per game. At 6-foot and 215 pounds, he's tough to bring down, and he plays behind one of the best lines in the Big East. Powell is playing about 90 minutes from his hometown of Lakeland, Fla. Louisville also has capable backups in true freshman Jeremy Wright and former starter Victor Anderson. Southern Miss has a highly ranked but inconsistent run defense. The Eagles held six opponents to fewer than 100 yards, but South Carolina, UAB and Tulsa were able to rush for at least 200 yards and four touchdowns each. Edge: Louisville.
Louisville pass offense vs. Southern Miss pass defense: Senior Justin Burke will start his fifth consecutive game in place of Adam Froman, who missed the last part of the season with a thigh bruise. Burke was 50-for-90 for 572 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions in his four starts. The Cardinals don't have a great receiving corps; it is led by freshman TE Cameron Graham. Southern Miss' pass defense has been awful recently. The Eagles allowed a combined 873 passing yards in the past two games (Houston and Tulsa) and 21 touchdown passes in the past seven games. Edge: Louisville.
Southern Miss rush offense vs. Louisville rush defense: Southern Miss has three capable backs. Freshman Kendrick Hardy (855 yards, seven touchdowns) became the feature back in the second half of the season. QB Austin Davis can move a little, too; he rushed for 436 yards and a team-leading 10 touchdowns. Louisville's run defense has struggled at times, but the Cardinals held Jordan Todman to a season-low 80 yards in a shutout of Connecticut. Edge: Southern Miss.
Southern Miss pass offense vs. Louisville pass defense: With touted junior WR DeAndre Brown injured for most of the season, Davis has spread the ball around. Four receivers (including Brown) have had a 100-yard game, seven have had at least one touchdown catch and six finished the regular season with at least 20 catches. That kind of spread offense could limit the impact of Louisville's top cornerback, Johnny Patrick, who had five of Louisville's nine interceptions this season. Edge: Louisville.
Louisville special teams vs. Southern Miss special teams: If the game comes down to a kick, Southern Miss will have an advantage with Groza Award finalist Danny Hrapmann, a junior who was 26-of-30 on field-goal attempts, including two of at least 50 yards. Reggie Hunt became the main kick returner in the second half of the season, and he is averaging 28.6 yards per return. Louisville's Doug Beaumont is one of the top punt returners in the country at 15.3 yards per return, with a touchdown. Both teams have been excellent in punt coverage but awful in kickoff coverage. Edge: Southern Miss.
Louisville coaches vs. Southern Miss coaches: Both coaches have guided their teams through adversity this season, particularly Southern Miss' Larry Fedora. On the field, both teams needed to overcome injuries to key players (Brown and starting LB Martez Smith for Southern Miss, Froman and Powell for Louisville). Each of Southern Miss' three C-USA losses was by a touchdown or less. Strong led one of the best turnarounds in the Big East by ending Louisville's bowl drought. Edge: Louisville.
X-factor: Both teams have had three weeks off, but the layoff may be more beneficial for the Cardinals. Burke wasn't the starter until the final month of the season, and the extra practice should help, especially against a defense that has struggled. Powell faced injury and illness in the last four games of the season, and presumably will be 100 percent.
Louisville will win if: The Cardinals need to win the game on the ground. It's a clich?but for these teams, it's true: The team that runs the ball will win. Southern Miss averaged 227.6 rushing yards in its wins and only 155 in its losses. The same is true for Louisville: The Cardinals rushed for 212 yards in wins and 149 yards in losses.
Southern Miss will win if: The Golden Eagles need to make Louisville face some third-and-longs. Sothern Miss' defense has struggled, for the most part, but there is an area where the Eagles have been the best in their league: third-down defense. Southern Miss led C-USA in that category, allowing opponents to convert first downs only 33 percent of the time.
Olin Buchanan: Louisville 24, Southern Miss 20
Tom Dienhart: Louisville 29, Southern Miss 27
David Fox: Louisville 24, Southern Miss 14
Mike Huguenin: Southern Miss 30, Louisville 24
Steve Megargee: Louisville 27, Southern Miss 20
Posted by Rana G at 8:09 PM