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This Miami Beach Bowl would be a great matchup even if Willie Taggart weren't facing his old team

The new bowl set the bar high with its debut, a BYU-Memphis thriller that ended with overtime and a brawl. USF vs. WKU could be equally fun, with interesting story lines off the field and a wonderful contrast in styles on it. (Dec. 21, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN.)

Cliff McBride/Getty Images

1. Hopefully Willie Taggart doesn't go to the wrong sideline.

For a sport that features such an embedded oligarchy, fortunes sure can change quickly sometimes. Two days into October, Willie Taggart's USF Bulls were 1-3 with excusable losses to Florida State and Memphis and an inexcusable 18-point loss to Maryland. They were very much living down to the title of my offseason USF preview ("It's bad"), and it didn't look like Taggart would be in Tampa much longer.

But after winning just seven of their first 28 games under Taggart, USF then won seven of eight. After scoring more than 21 points five times in two-plus years, the Bulls did so seven times.

Things clicked in a way things aren't supposed to click. After averaging 5.5 yards per play and 24.8 points per game through one-third of the season (numbers which represented clear improvement over last year's destitution), the Bulls averaged 6.7 and 37.9 thereafter. Running back Marlon Mack rushed for 184 yards against Syracuse and 230 in a pasting of No. 24 Temple. Quarterback Quinton Flowers rushed for 201 against SMU. Backup Darius Tice pitched in 94 in a 38-point destruction of Cincinnati. The play-action game has been strong: Flowers averaged 6.2 yards per pass in the first four games, then 9.4 in the last eight.

Two months after looking like he was going to lose his job, Taggart was interviewing for the South Carolina position.

The reward is an awkward bowl matchup. Taggart was a four-year starting quarterback for WKU in the 1990s and twice finished in the top 10 of the Walter Payton Award voting. He spent eight years as a WKU assistant under Jack Harbaugh, and after a three-year stint at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh, he returned to WKU. The Hilltoppers had won just two games in two years when he arrived and went 2-10. He then pulled off back-to-back seven-win campaigns and left for USF.

2. Two smoking hot offenses

That WKU is having an awesome season is no surprise. Beginning with Taggart's tenure, the Hilltoppers had either improved or held steady for five consecutive seasons, and with what they returned in 2015, it was pretty clear that they would extend that streak.

WKU welcomes back Brohm, quarterback Brandon Doughty, last year's top three running backs, three of its top four receivers, four offensive linemen with starting experience, its top six defensive linemen, five of its top seven linebackers and six of its top eight defensive backs. The Hilltoppers even welcome a couple of former UAB defenders.

I really like WKU. Despite obvious defensive deficiencies, the Hilltoppers were so good over the last five games of the year that they finished in the F/+ top 50, and they return most of the reasons. Marshall is still going to be a beast, but WKU was as good as or better than the Thundering Herd in November, and if they keep that up, they are a legitimate Conference USA contender.

WKU began slowly, with tight tossup wins over Vanderbilt and Louisiana Tech and a tossup loss to Indiana. But beginning with a visit from Miami (Ohio) in Week 4, the 'Toppers were almost untouchable. They won 9-of-10 and the only loss was at LSU. In those nine games, the average score was WKU 52, opponent 21.

Quarterback Brandon Doughty completed an incredible 72 percent of his passes at 8.8 yards per attempt (including sacks), five receivers caught at least 38 passes (two caught more than 75) and WKU boasted one of the nation's most efficient offenses.

That two top-30 defenses (Vanderbilt and LSU) were able to hold the Hilltoppers in check is a blemish, and USF's defense ranks a respectable 39th. But the depth of the Bulls' secondary will be tested in a way that it hasn't been since the Memphis game, when the Bulls allowed 305 passing yards and a 158.2 passer rating.

3. Key Stat: These teams are almost total opposites

Check out the monstrous stat preview here.

Spread: Western Kentucky -3.5
S&P+ Projection: Western Kentucky 36.1, South Florida 25.6
Team Sites: Underdog Dynasty (WKU), Underdog Dynasty (USF)
Offensive Footprint
Category (Rk) Western Kentucky offense South Florida offense
Std. Downs Run Rate 46.7 percent (123) 72.5 percent (12)
Pass. Downs Run Rate 17.6 percent (127) 47.3 percent (10)
Defensive Footprint
Category (Rk) Western Kentucky defense South Florida defense
Std. Downs Run Rate 57.1 percent (98) 64.6 percent (26)
Pass. Downs Run Rate 37.3 percent (30) 33.3 percent (71)

In the Styles Make Fights department, few bowl matchups will be more interesting.

WKU throws almost exclusively, but opponents usually tend to choose running over passing when attempting to attack the USF defense.

USF runs more than almost any non-triple-option offense in the country, but opponents tend to attack WKU with the pass on standard downs.

Which of these two hot offenses can stick more closely to its identity? This might be the third-best defense that Doughty and WKU have faced, and against strong Vandy and LSU defenses, WKU was forced to dink and dunk (average yards per completion: 9.5). If USF's secondary can tackle and survive to play another down, the Bulls might be able to keep WKU under 30 points.

In the midst of USF's torrid stretch of offensive play, the Bulls were held to just 62 rushing yards by Navy in a 29-17 loss. Mack had 10 carries for just 29 yards. WKU's defense ranks a respectable 55th in Rushing S&P+ and 39th in stuff rate (percentage of rushes stopped at or behind the line), with five different defenders logging at least 4.5 non-sack tackles for loss. (The leader: sophomore linebacker TJ McCollum, with 8.5.) If WKU can create negative plays and force Flowers to pass, USF's balance falls apart in a hurry.


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