Louisiana-Monroe (8-4 overall, 6-2 Sun Belt)
For the first time since joining what is now the FBS ranks in 1994, Louisiana-Monroe recorded eight wins in a season and earned its first bowl bid. Todd Berry earned Sun Belt Coach of the Year honors for leading the Warhawks to their 8-4 finish that included a five-game win streak in the middle of the season -- the program's longest in FBS play. Quarterback Kolton Browning earned Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year honors with 2,830 yards passing and 34 total touchdowns, leading a ULM offense that averaged 35.5 points per game. Defensively, the Warhawks' strength has been shutting down the run. Four times this year, ULM held opponents under 100 yards rushing, and it ranks first in the Sun Belt allowing just 135.8 yards per game.
At their best: ULM's 34-31 overtime win over then-No. 8 Arkansas made for fantastic theater on the second weekend of the season, but the best win might have been a 31-17 victory at Middle Tennessee. The Warhawks nearly doubled up the Blue Raiders in time of possession, controlling the ball and neutralizing Middle Tennessee star running back Benny Cunningham.
At their worst: The Warhawks' most disappointing loss came against their in-state rivals from Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 3. A crowd of 20,203 -- the second-highest attendance total for a Sun Belt game at Malone Stadium -- was rocking as ULM held a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter, but the Ragin' Cajuns took control of the game shortly after Browning was sidelined with an injury. ULL quarterback Terrance Broadway was given too many opportunities and burned the Warhawks for five total touchdowns in a 40-24 loss for ULM.
Headliner: All of the "program firsts" would not be possible without Browning. The leader of the ULM offense not only made his impact on the field, but we saw what happened when he was sidelined with an injury. Browning ranks 21st nationally averaging 297.4 yards of total offense per game, as a pass-first quarterback equally dangerous on the run. His favorite target, Brent Leonard, is also responsible for the offensive success this season. Leonard's 97 receptions this season have him ranked eighth nationally and third in the Sun Belt single-season record books. The former walk-on needs just two receptions in the game to become ULM's all-time leading receiver.
Ohio (8-4 overall, 4-4 MAC)
Ohio was the first team in the country to become bowl eligible after its 7-0 start but dropped four of its final five games to fall out of the MAC title hunt and earn the at-large bid to this game. Ohio is at its best when limiting mistakes and controlling the game with a powerful rushing attack led by Beau Blankenship. Quarterback Tyler Tettleton smashed most of the school passing records this season and was one of only three quarterbacks to throw 15 or more touchdowns and three or fewer interceptions (AJ McCarron, Tino Sunseri). Tettleton has taken a step back with Blankenship's emergence in 2012 but maintained his pace to throw for 2,500 yards in back-to-back seasons. A win over ULM would give Ohio its fourth nine-win season in eight years under the direction of coach Frank Solich.
At their best: The Bobcats kicked off their season by outscoring Penn State 21-0 in the second half to seal a 24-14 victory over the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley in the first game of the season. Ohio rode that win and the school's best start since 1968 to a Top 25 ranking. There was a lot of emotion and off-the-field distractions for Penn State's first game since the NCAA sanctions were handed down regarding the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Considering what we saw from Penn State throughout the rest of the season, you have to tab that opener as the most impressive victory of the season.
At their worst: Ohio's struggle down the stretch, losing four of its final games, featured a sudden loss in the ability to force turnovers. The Bobcats rank No. 9 nationally in turnover margin but forced just four in their final five games -- as opposed to 18 in their first seven games. They also turned the ball over five times in that stretch, giving them a negative margin during that time. Taking care of the ball will clearly be a key for Ohio on Friday.
Headliner: Blankenship exploded this year for 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns, setting the school's single-season rushing record and tying the record for most 100-yard rushing games in a season (eight). Blankenship enters the game hot -- 306 yards in his last two games -- but faces a daunting task against the Warhawks' rush defense. Ohio will need a strong day from Blankenship to keep the clock moving and establish a rhythm for Tettleton and the Bobcats' offense.
What: Advocare V100 Independence Bowl
When: Friday, Dec. 28, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
Where: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.
Weird: ULM vs. Ohio is one of three bowl match-ups that feature a Sun Belt team facing a team from the MAC. Central Michigan earned the first win for the MAC by topping Western Kentucky in the Little Caesers Pizza Bowl on Wednesday, and Arkansas State will face Kent State on Jan. 6 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Line: Louisiana-Monroe -7
Prediction: Normally when a team struggles down the stretch, you would assume that there would not be much invested in the bowl game. But I'll break that line of thinking when Ohio has Solich on the sideline. I think the Bobcats enter the game more motivated than expected and possibly jump out to an early lead. But, as mentioned above, ULM is a very different team with Browning in the lineup. And with a short trip from Monroe over to Shreveport, it should not take long for the ULM offense to find its rhythm and start rolling.
Louisiana-Monroe 34, Ohio 31
For all of the dates, times, ticket and viewing info for all 35 games; check out the Bowl Schedule page
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