The early bowls are all about match-ups and this clash of the Sun Belt and Conference USA is no different. Al Dannity looks at what to expect when the Panthers take on the Thundering Herd.
Defenses will open One look at the stats will tell you that Florida International has a stingy defense, giving up just 19.4 points per game, but don’t assume the Panthers have a massive edge on D. The Thundering Herd’s numbers were hurt by playing against high-scoring offenses from Ohio, Houston, and Tulsa. Marshall can also point to a strong showing early in the year, holding Conference USA champions to just 20 points in the Thundering Herd’s biggest win of the year.
Neither team is likely to be overly tight on defense in post-season play. Lower-tier bowls such as this one normally favor offenses, as coordinators tend to adapt their schemes to overcome regular season weaknesses. I expect big plays to be the key here rather than total yardage. Whichever defense keeps big gains to a minimum will be better placed to come out on top in this battle.
Motivation matters Who wants it more? That question carries an awful lot of weight at this time of year. One-time fringe Heisman candidate T.Y. Hilton will face a national audience and he, along with upwardly mobile coach Mario Cristobal, have a lot to gain from this game. Cristobal was the hottest property amongst Sun Belt coaches at one-stage this season but a 5-3 conference record saw his stock drop considerably. A win in primetime would go a long way towards moving back into the limelight and garnering attention from BCS programs.
Marshall’s motivation is far less complex, making them arguably a more attractive prospect. Having only become bowl-eligible with an overtime win against East Carolina, the Thundering Herd will be delighted to make the trip to St. Petersburg. In an effective road game, they have nothing to lose and won’t be afraid to try a more expansive game plan.
The verdict If bowl games were like the regular season then this would be a simple pick. FIU have the big star in Hilton, a nationally respected defense, a coach bound for bigger things, and effectively home advantage. The Thundering Herd on the other hand are really happy to be here. Between September and November the Panthers have all the marbles but right now it’s Marshall who enter this game with a reason to care. Turnovers could prove decisive and safety Omar Brown is one to watch as Marshall look to make up for the disappointment of missing out on the Conference USA title game. I like the Thundering Herd to pull the upset and win as +4.0 underdogs with Sports Interaction.