BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - The PapaJohns.com Bowl will feature a coach on his way out and a program seemingly on its way up.
While Southern Miss (7-5) wants to send longtime coach Jeff Bower out with a win in Saturday's game at Legion Field, No. 20 Cincinnati (9-3) is trying to reach double digits in victories for only the second time.
In other words, there's motivation aplenty for both teams.
Bower, however, isn't using the ``win one for the coaches'' method of getting his team ready.
``We know we're all gone, but this game's about the players and we're going to do the best we can for them,'' he said.
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It's his team for one more game before Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Larry Fedora takes over. Fedora is not expected to attend the game.
Unlike Bower, linebacker Gerald McRath doesn't bother to downplay the desire to send his coach out with a win. Only Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Frank Beamer have longer tenures at one school among current coaches.
``I think it's bigger than what fans and media and anybody outside can understand,'' said McRath, the Conference USA defensive player of the year. ``It's one of those family-type deals. People don't understand what he's done for a lot of men, helping raise a lot of guys from little kids to turning them into men by the time they leave the program.
``It's just right that you go out and leave everything on the line, leave no regrets. You want to send him out on a bang.''
Brian Kelly has come in with a bang. The Bearcats' first-year coach has two big milestones within reach: Cincinnati has never finished a season ranked and has only reached 10 wins once, back in 1951.
``It will be a great challenge for us and we're excited about the opportunity to play and make history,'' said Kelly, who has the best first-year record of any Bearcats coach. ``That's really what we've been talking about all week.
``Our seniors get the opportunity to be that group that wins 10 football games.''
The Southern Miss seniors, meanwhile, have won three straight bowl games and are trying to become the school's first senior class to win four. It would take an upset since the Golden Eagles are 10 1/2-point underdogs.
``This is another one for them that they just love the opportunity to have a top 20 team playing in their neck of the woods,'' Kelly said.
Southern Miss and Cincinnati are former Conference USA rivals but haven't met since 2004, when the Bearcats moved to the Big East.
``There's more talent on this team than any Cincinnati team when they were in Conference USA,'' Bower said. ``There's a higher level of talent, without a doubt.''
It starts with quarterback Ben Mauk, coming off a 431-yard, four-touchdown performance against Syracuse and thriving in Kelly's no-huddle spread offense.
The Wake Forest transfer is the nation's ninth-most efficient passer, throwing for 2,787 yards and 27 touchdowns while getting intercepted just six times.
``He's got good people around him, but he makes them go,'' Bower said.
Cincinnati's defense is pretty good, too. The Bearcats lead the Big East in run defense, allowing just 106 yards per game, and rank third nationally in turnover margin.
It sets up a compelling matchup with Southern Miss running back Damion Fletcher, who has run for 2,819 yards in his first two college seasons.
Another compelling storyline: How did the future uncertainty affect the Golden Eagles' preparation? Bower admits the predicament was ``unusual'' but doesn't think his staff let it detract from the job at hand.
``Our coaches are mentally tough people and we all understand the situation,'' he said. ``We've got a responsibility to our players and every coach wants to do his best for his players.''
That goes both ways, said McRath.
``If you go out there and let all hang on the line, he's going be happy,'' he said. ``He deserves nothing less than that.''

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