And so we've come to the final game of the 2015 season for Washington. A season that began with many question marks, including whether the Huskies would win enough games to be bowl-eligible. It took a two-game win streak to conclude the regular season, but here we are - Washington is 6-6 and bowling for the sixth straight season. Their reward is a match-up with a 9-4 Southern Miss team from Conference USA in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, played in the historic Cotton Bowl. It features a classic duel between a shutdown defense (Washington) vs. a prolific offense (Southern Miss). It also carries extra meaning for both teams: for Washington, it's a chance to secure a winning record for the season (which would also be their sixth straight) and keep positive momentum building towards next season; for Southern Miss, it's a 3rd chance this season to knock off a Power-5 conference team and gain broader respect for their program. Who will prevail?
If we take this game on its surface and look at how both teams have fared this year, it really shouldn't be much of a contest. Yes, the Golden Eagles are 9-4 and have scored 40.2 ppg, but a closer look reveals that most of this damage has been done against the also-rans of FBS football. When matched-up against Mississippi State and Nebraska, they are 0-2 and their offense has scored just 44 points (while giving up 70). None of the advanced metrics out there think this will be close - FEI rates Washington 27th overall and Southern Miss 55th; Bill Connelly's S&P system predicts a Washington win by close to 9 points; Jeff Sagarin's system favors Washington by nearly 13; ESPN's FPI gives the Huskies a 66.2% chance of winning.
But as we all know, games aren't won on paper. Human factors come into play - some teams simply aren't playing with the same motivation as their opponents, and sometimes star players are distracted by looking ahead to the NFL. I think it's easy to see the motivation for Southern Miss - this is their last chance this year to notch a win over a major conference team and prove something to themselves and critics of lower-tier teams.
The question really is what is the motivation level for Washington. Unlike last year, I think we'll see a focused Huskies team that doesn't sleepwalk through the first half. This is a program that's now two years into the Chris Petersen era, and most of the hard work of culture change and acclimation should be complete - the players know how this coaching staff works, and the coaches know their players. While there are some NFL prospects on the team in Travis Feeney, Cory Littleton, Jaydon Mickens and Josh Perkins, none are high-level prospects like last year's crew with an eye toward the draft and avoiding injury. The core of this team is rather young, and it hasn't escaped their notice that they could be on the verge of doing big things next year and beyond, and this game is another step in their development and building momentum heading into what could be a really good season in 2016.
I don't think the Golden Eagles will roll over - they have a good scheme on offense and execute it well, but I think the defense will do as they've done all year and will keep Southern Miss contained, and I think the growth in the offense and the emergence of Myles Gaskin will continue. It may take 3 quarters to fully secure the outcome, but I think Washington wins by 2+ scores - let's call it Washington 34, Southern Miss 17
I have been pessimistic a lot in predictions this season, but that won't be the case here. The Huskies played about as well as possible in the final two weeks and have something to play for here (finishing with a winning record) so I don't expect them to overlook this the way programs like Washington do sometimes in low-level bowl games like this. Southern Miss is going to try and air it out, and I don't think that is a great idea against the Husky defense. I see the defense creating pressure, causing turnovers and feeding the offense great field position early, enabling the Huskies to get out front early and roll. Gaskin will score a couple on the ground, Browning will spread it around to the receivers, and someone will get a return and/or defensive touchdown. Washington 48, Southern Mississippi 10
That oddsmakers favor Washington in this game by 8.5 points is no surprise: the Golden Eagles of Southern Mississippi are coming off of a 17-point loss to Western Kentucky in the Conference USA championship, while the Huskies are riding a two-game stretch in which they've pasted Pac-12 North rivals Oregon State and Washington State by a combined score of 97 to 17. Furthermore, the Dawgs almost certainly hold the advantage in the battles of the Jimmys versus the Joes. Though recruiting is far from an exact science, it is notable that Scout.com ranked Washington's recruiting classes from 2012 to 2015 23rd, 14th, 35th and 23rd in the nation; meanwhile, the talent brought in by Southern Miss during that time frame ranked 70th, 81st, 100th, and 92nd among the nation's 128 FBS programs.
The Golden Eagles' explosive offense (40.6 points and 519.8 yards per game) is by far their biggest strength, but it is telling that in two games against Power 5 competition -- Mississippi State and Nebraska, whose defenses ranked 58th and 68th in yards allowed per game, compared to Washington at 29th -- Southern Miss scored just 22 points per game, though they did still earn 435.5 passing yards per contest. Even more telling, the Golden Eagles scored touchdowns on just five of 12 red zone trips against Power 5 opponents, while only eight teams in the entire country were better than Washington at preventing red zone touchdowns.
All this is to say that for Southern Miss to have a chance to win this game, Todd Monken's team will have to play flawless offense while somehow goading the Husky defense into giving up the big play and scoring touchdowns from beyond 20 yards out. Considering that Washington allowed its opponents to gain 30 or more yards on just 14 plays this year (tied for sixth best in the nation), I don't see that happening. Southern Miss will move the ball and keep the game competitive, but the depth of Washington's defense will show in the third and fourth quarters en route to a two-score win. Washington 31, Southern Miss 17.
Hard to think that Coach Petersen suffers another letdown in a bowl 2 years in a row. The featured matchup will be the Husky D against the Golden Eagles. So long as the Dawgs play like they did in the Apple Cup, they should be able to pull out the victory. Washington 27, Southern Miss 20