Cincinnati first-year coach Brian Kelly is preparing his team for a bowl game following the program's best regular season in 54 years, but it's almost like he's been here before.
In fact, Kelly has.
The 20th-ranked Bearcats (9-3) will look to give Kelly his second bowl victory in less than a year when they take on Southern Mississippi (7-5) in the PapaJohns.com Bowl on Dec. 22 in Birmingham, Ala.
Kelly was hired as Cincinnati's coach on Dec. 4, 2006, fresh off winning the MAC championship game in just his third season at Central Michigan. While there are typically many new hires in the early part of December following the conclusion of the regular season, Kelly took the unusual step of coaching his new team in its postseason game, the International Bowl on Jan. 6.
The move paid off as Cincinnati defeated Western Michigan, a team Kelly's Central Michigan squad had beaten less than two months earlier.
That bowl victory served as the springboard to the Bearcats' 2007 season, which saw them finish with the program's most wins since going 9-1 in 1953.
"I'm excited for our program to be going to bowl games in back-to-back years," Kelly said. "After a 9-3 season, this group deserves an opportunity to play one more game."
The Bearcats are rather familiar with this season's bowl opponent. Cincinnati and Southern Mississippi have split 14 meetings between 1976 and their most recent matchup in 2004, with the Golden Eagles winning five of the past seven.
The Bearcats opened 6-0 this season, and had a pair of signature wins on the way to their best start since 1954. They beat Oregon State, which wound up finishing third in the Pac-10, 34-3 in the season's second week. And on Oct. 6, they went on the road to defeat No. 21 Rutgers 28-23 - the first ranked opponent Cincinnati had beaten away from home since knocking off Southern Miss 52-24 on Nov. 6, 2004.
Kelly's team dropped games to unranked Louisville and Pittsburgh, but rebounded with victories over No. 20 South Florida and 16th-ranked Connecticut. Those wins set the Bearcats up for a game against No. 5 West Virginia with a chance to play for the Big East title, but the Mountaineers won 28-23.
"A game like (that) shows that we are close to these teams," Cincinnati safety Haruki Nakamura said.
Though the Bearcats didn't make it to a BCS game, Kelly's first full season at Cincinnati was a success. He was named the Big East's coach of the year.
The Bearcats are led on offense by senior Ben Mauk, whose 154.6 passer rating was the best mark in the Big East. He threw for 2,787 yards and 27 touchdowns with just six interceptions.
His best game of the season came in his final career regular-season contest. He threw for a career-high 431 yards and four TDs in Cincinnati's 52-31 victory at Syracuse, which was particularly memorable because of his last game against the Orange.
Mauk transfered to Cincinnati from Wake Forest after suffering a season-ending injury in 2006 against Syracuse while he was the starting quarterback for the Demon Deacons. Because he had already graduated from Wake Forest, he was instantly able to use his final season of eligibility, rather than having to sit out one year. He made sure his transfer was memorable.
"His ability to make plays is something we talk about all the time," Kelly said. "He has a way to make plays when he's flushed out of the pocket."
Mauk guides the second-best offense in the Big East, which averaged 36.8 points per game and 436.3 yards of total offense despite not having a single player rush for 500 yards.
Freshman Marcus Barnett and junior Dominick Goodman are the team's leading receivers with 60 and 61 receptions, respectively. Barnett caught 13 touchdowns.
Defensively, the Bearcats excel against the run, ranking first in the conference. They are last against the pass, but are tied for second in scoring defense, giving up just 18.6 points per game.
Southern Mississippi will be playing its final game under longtime coach Jeff Bower. Bower has spent 29 years at the school, the last 17 as the Golden Eagles' coach, and has gone 119-82-1. He resigned on Nov. 26, but it sounded like the decision wasn't completely voluntary.
"I want you to know there's a lot of fight left in Jeff Bower, and I am not done yet," Bower said during the announcement.
Only Penn State's Joe Paterno (42), Bobby Bowden (32) of Florida State and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer (21) have longer tenures with their schools.
Like Kelly, Bower's first experience on the sidelines at Southern Miss was in a bowl game. After taking over on Dec. 2, 1990, Bower coached in the team's loss in the All-American Bowl - the final game of Brett Favre's career with the Golden Eagles.
Under Bower, the Golden Eagles are headed to their sixth consecutive bowl game - they've won their past three - and the PapaJohns.com Bowl will be their 10th postseason game in the past 11 years.
Bower's final season as coach has been mostly disappointing. Picked to win Conference USA in the preseason, Southern Miss finished fourth in the East Division.
The Golden Eagles' lone victory against a bowl team came on Sept. 15 against East Carolina. In their other four games against bowl teams, they lost by an average of 15.5 points.
Southern Miss is led by tailback Damion Fletcher. The sophomore ran for 1,431 yards, the 13th-most in the country, and 15 touchdowns. He was also the MVP of last season's GMAC Bowl, running for two scores in the Golden Eagles' 28-7 win over Ohio.
While the Bearcats struggle defending the pass, Southern Miss is last in Conference USA in passing yards.
Defensively, the Golden Eagles are first in the conference in scoring defense (23.6), total yards (363.2) and passing yards, and second in rushing yards allowed. That unit is headlined by linebacker Gerald McRath, who was named the Conference USA defensive player of the year - the fourth time a Southern Miss player has won the award in the past five years.
by: Staff Writers - Email Us
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