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2019 LendingTree Bowl Preview: Miami (OH) RedHawks vs. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

It’s the penultimate game of the 2019 college football season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 MAC Championship Game Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s a bowl of many identities — the Mobile Alabama Bowl, the GMAC Bowl, the GoDaddy.com Bowl, the Dollar General Bowl, and now the LendingTree Bowl. One of the major changes the annual bowl game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium underwent this season was the rebranded name. The other major change reverted the bowl back to its former slot as the penultimate game of the college football season.

From the 2006 season to the 2014 season, the LendingTree Bowl transpired several days after New Year’s and several days before the National Championship Game. The first few years of the College Football Playoff era featured plenty of experimenting with the bowl schedule, but the annual contest in Mobile, Alabama, is back in its coveted slot. Once again, all we have left before seven months of barrenness is the LendingTree Bowl and the National Championship.

This year’s LendingTree Bowl showcases two teams that participated in conference championship weekend in early December. At the same time the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns’ attempted comeback bid against Appalachian State ultimately fell short, the Miami (OH) RedHawks pulled off an upset over Central Michigan at the MAC title game in Detroit. For the first time since 2010, the RedHawks won the conference crown, and they’ll look to carry that momentum through postseason. To finish off its last championship campaign in 2010, Miami bested Middle Tennessee in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in the same venue it will end its season Monday night.

The 2010 GoDaddy.com Bowl also signifies Miami’s most recent bowl victory, and the bout with Louisiana will be the RedHawks’ second bowl since the win over Middle Tennessee 10 years ago. Miami already clinched its first winning season since 2010, but the RedHawks enter Mobile as heavy underdogs to the Ragin’ Cajuns.


Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

Louisiana lost three games in 2019 to two different opponents. The Ragin’ Cajuns fell to 13-1 Sun Belt champion Appalachian State twice — 17-7 on a Wednesday in October and 45-38 in the conference championship (after trailing 42-17 in the late third quarter). Their other loss was falling 10 points short of Mississippi State on Week 1 in the Superdome. Despite losing to the Bulldogs, Louisiana head coach Billy Napier was a target of the Mississippi State coaching vacancy this week, but Napier said “he is not a candidate” for the opening, per Tim Buckley of The Daily Advertiser.

With a full coaching staff, Louisiana attempts to notch an 11th win for the first time in program history. The Ragin’ Cajuns rattled nine double-digit wins this season and dominated Sun Belt competition outside of running into the buzzsaw that is Appalachian State.

Offensively, the Ragin’ Cajuns boast one of the nation’s strongest and most versatile rushing attacks. Louisiana ranks sixth in the FBS in rushing yards per game and third among non-option based attacks. Elijah Mitchell leads all rushers with 1,092 yards and 15 touchdowns. Running back Raymond Calais has contributed 882 rushing yards and six touchdowns, while Trey Ragas adds 781 yards and 11 touchdowns to the mix. Calais and Ragas each average over seven yards per carry, and spreading the wealth has helped the backfield this year with stamina. With three rushers earning over 100 carries, fatigue rarely becomes a factor for the tailbacks, which allows Louisiana’s well-oiled machine to wear down opposing defenses.

Even with 265 rushing yards per outing, Louisiana passes the ball better than most FBS teams. Quarterback Levi Lewis registered over 2,800 passing yards in the regular season, throwing 24 touchdown passes to just five interceptions. He completes 63.6% of passes and sometimes turns on the Jets in the ground game with 133 yards and three touchdowns as a runner. Wide receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley is Lewis’ favorite target by a mile. With 53 receptions, he leads all Ragin’ Cajuns by 21 receptions and has more than 400 receiving yards than any other teammate. Bradley’s eight receiving touchdowns are only three fewer than the entire Miami team combined in 2019.

Louisiana quietly comes armed into battle with a top 20 scoring defense. The Ragin’ Cajuns feasted on Sun Belt competition, allowing fewer than 10 points in three of its six most recent performances. Louisiana doesn’t allow many 20+ yard pass plays and ranks among the country’s elite in aerial defense, yielding under 200 yards per game. Outside of the secondary, Miami’s primary focus on the Ragin’ Cajuns defense should be middle linebacker Jacques Boudreaux. Boudreaux’s tackle output of 102 nearly doubles the amount of any other Ragin’ Cajun, and he’s contributed two tackles for loss, four pass breakups, and a forced fumble on top of it.


Miami RedHawks

Miami started the decade with a bowl win in Mobile, and now, the RedHawks hope to end it with another.

Not many expected it in the preseason, but head coach Chuck Martin and Miami escaped as champions of a league which featured some of the most brutal parity in recent college football memory. The RedHawks enter the LendingTree Bowl at 8-5 and are one of 10 MAC teams to register between 5-8 wins in the regular season.

Miami’s secret to success lies within its defense. Many of the RedHawks’ defensive numbers are skewed due to suffering the worst loss in college football this season — a 76-5 obliteration at Ohio State — but Miami performed consistently in conference play. At Ford Field for the MAC title game, the RedHawks’ held a Central Michigan offense featuring two 1,000 yard rushers to 99 total rushing yards. To overcome Louisiana’s three-headed monster backfield, Miami’s defense will have to see a similar result.

The RedHawks’ defensive line features a stud defensive tackle in Doug Costin, who certainly had a case for MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Costin set a personal-best with 12 tackles for loss this year, tallying four sacks and 55 tackles in a standout individual season. From the strong safety slot, Sterling Weatherford is the leading tackler on the defense with 93 and thrives as a ballhawk in zone coverage. His 10 pass deflections are first on the team and third in the MAC, and he’ll play a vital role in stopping all components of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ efficient offense.

In the pass rushing game, edge rusher Kameron Butler is Miami’s star with 5.5 sacks and 13 tackles. He’ll have his work cut out for him when facing a Louisiana offensive line which allows 1.15 sacks per game, sitting at eighth in the FBS.

Offensively, the RedHawks aren’t the most flashy bunch, but despite owning the 97th ranked scoring offense, Miami managed eight tough-fought wins. RedHawks victories are often complemented by solid showings in the ground game. The one-two punch of Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton out of the backfield produced over 1,200 rushing yards this season. Bester is an excellent red zone runner for the team and often trudges through contact by keeping his legs driving. His 12 rushing touchdowns are fifth in the MAC, and he scored at least one touchdown in every game besides the opener at Iowa this year.

Brett Gabbert will make his final freshman start at quarterback for the RedHawks. An unexpected winner of the job, Gabbert started each of Miami’s first 13 games this season, and while his stats don’t jump out, he's exhibited excellent throwing mechanics and shown great late-game leadership while leading his team to a conference championship. The true freshman currently has 2,163 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, and eight interceptions entering his bowl debut. He has seven receivers with 10 or more catches this year, including the team’s most frequented target in Jack Sorenson.

Sorenson won Offensive MVP honors at the MAC Championship with season-highs of eight receptions and 123 yards. Overall, the junior has accumulated 34 catches, 461 yards, and four touchdowns in his second year starting for the RedHawks. He is accompanied by the team’s elusive deep threat James Maye (25.4 yards per catch), whose catches are almost certain to wind up as first downs for the RedHawks. When facing a team that scores as quickly and often as Louisiana, Miami will need its offense to complete every big play and first down it can manage, and its passing game may prove especially significant in this one.


Game Notes

Time and Date: Monday, January 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET

Network: ESPN

Location: Ladd-Peebles Stadium — Mobile, AL

Spread: Louisiana (-14)

ESPN FPI: Louisiana has 80.9% chance to win

All-time series: Miami (OH) leads, 2-0

Last matchup: Miami (OH) 29, Lousiana 28 — September 11, 1993

A lot has changed — especially with the teams’ branding — since the Miami Redskins beat the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns by a point in Oxford in 1993. Two years prior, Miami won 27-14, and Monday will be an opportunity to extend the record against the Cajuns to 3-0.


Prediction

It’s very rare when a Sun Belt runner-up is 14-point favorites over a MAC champion, but 2019 was an especially odd year for the MAC. Three of the RedHawks’ five losses are to currently ranked opponents (Ohio State, Iowa, Cincinnati), so Miami has been a solid 8-2 against non-elite competition this season. However, Louisiana will present a challenge unlike the one the RedHawks have seen since MAC play commenced.

The Ragin’ Cajuns running back trio will almost certainly gain tons of yardage, but Miami has to respond with a strong night offensively. The RedHawks already withstood a top 10 rushing offense by defeating Buffalo 34-20 — despite allowing over 300 rushing yards. The blueprint to victory against the Bulls was forcing four turnovers, committing zero, and a 100-yard day by Jaylon Bester. That’s the approach needed against Louisiana in Mobile.

However, I’ll predict a standout day by the Ragin’ Cajuns offense — a much more explosive unit than Miami’s. Louisiana wins easily and Billy Napier enters the offseason with his first-ever bowl victory as a head coach.

Prediction: Louisiana 42, Miami (OH) 17