January 6, 2011/8:00 pm Eastern
Mobile, AL - Ladd-Peebles Stadium
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Middle Tennessee came into the season with big ambitions of taking the Sun Belt crown from Troy and vaulting itself to national prominence. It got there quickly… but for all the wrong reasons, when QB Dwight Dasher was suspended for the first four games by the NCAA for accepting a $1500 loan and failing to repay it. He came back for the final eight games but never quite seemed up to game speed; at this point the Blue Raiders are just happy to be bowling again. The same can be said for the Redhawks, who entered the season with little to no expectation that they’d be in Mobile in January after going 2-10 in 2008 and 1-11 last season. Yet Miami won the MAC East and stunned Northern Illinois in the championship to take the conference title. Both teams enter their final game of the season with momentum — Middle Tennessee finished with three straight wins to get bowl eligible, and Miami has won five in a row heading into the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Even without now-disgraced former coach Mike Haywood on the sidelines for the Redhawks, this should be a well-balanced matchup under the Alabama lights…
- Middle Tennessee: Just as the offense centers around Dasher, so too does the defense anchor on a pair of defensive linemen, Jarrett Crittenton and Jamari Lattimore. The pair of seniors were instrumental in a pass defense that allowed teams just 190 yards a game, and a defensive line that was 14th in the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss. They are susceptible to strong running games, though — something the Redhawks don’t necessarily possess but might try to exploit nonetheless. If Dasher can rediscover his form from last year’s New Orleans Bowl, it will fall to Crittenton and Lattimore to lead the defensive effort to keep the opposition from scoring. If they can, the Blue Raiders will win their second straight bowl game for the first time in school history.
- Miami: Just like their opponents in Mobile, the Redhawks will need their greatest showing from a pair of defenders. DB Dayonne Nunley and LB Evan Harris were both ballhawks for the Redhawks, each snagging five interceptions during the course of the season. It was a big part of the turnaround that saw Miami go from dead last in turnover margin in 2009 (120th at -2.00/gm) to the cusp of the top 20 in 2010 (21st at +0.62/gm), and the pair will have to remain a threat in coverage if they are to prevent a slowly-heating Dasher from finding his truest form at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
KEY POSITIONAL BATTLE
At first glance this is a true battle of weaknesses… but sometimes it is the team that can get timely production from an otherwise flagging unit that manages to prevail in bowl games. Crittenton and Lattimore might be studs on passing downs, but the Middle Tennessee front seven has a hell of a hard time against the run. Ranked 100th in the country, allowing almost 194 yards on the ground a game, they present an opportunity for senior Miami RB Thomas Merriweather. Don’t let the Redhawks’ averages fool you — yes, the team is ranked 114th nationally with less than 97 rushing yards a game, but Merriweather has heated up as of late. During Miami’s five-game winning streak to close out the year after going 4-4 the first two months, Merriweather has averages 111.4 yards a game with six touchdowns. Will the Blue Raiders present the opportunity for his fourth 100+ yard game of the year, or can Crittenton and Lattimore get their defensive teammates riled up to stop the run in Mobile?
TALE OF THE TAPE
Turnovers: Always such a big part of the game, this season directly showed how turnovers can affect the success or failure of a team. As previously mentioned, the Redhawks went from the absolute worst team in FBS football in turnover margin last season to an eight-win turnaround predicated on the nearly three-turnover swing in their favor in that statistic in 2010. Likewise Middle Tennessee went from a ten-win team with the 8th-best turnover margin in 2009 to dead last in 2010, a 2.5-turnover swing in the statistics against them. If Miami protects the ball and Nunley, Harris or one of the other Redhawks D can get the ball free from the Blue Raiders, even just one turnover could swing the contest.
Miami is by far the more elite team in this competition, showing better balance over the final third of the season than their yearlong numbers would attest. Middle Tennessee is basically hinging its hopes on Dwight Dasher returning to competence; there’s no guarantee based on what he’s shown in his 2010 performance that this will happen in Mobile. Both defenses have studs worth watching in this prime-time showdown, and it might be that side of the field that proves most captivating in this broadcast from Alabama. The score will be low, but expect interim coach Lance Guidry and the Redhawks to find some way to prevail and put together one of the most astounding swings between seasons in NCAA history, getting to ten wins just a year removed from 1-11…
PREDICTION: Miami 21, Middle Tennessee 17