Instant Analysis - New Orleans
MTSU 42 ... Southern Miss 32
Back when Middle Tennessee joined the Sun Belt in 2001, it was supposed to be the league's power team. It had the talent, the athleticism, and the speed to dominate from the start, and while it was solid from time to time, it always fell short.
There were teams with monster defense, like the 2006 squad, and there were teams with phenomenal offensive firepower, like the 2001 team, but the results were never enough. The Blue Raiders were always very good, but couldn't get over the hump to win the one really big game it always needed each year. And now it got it.
It wasn't a total shocker that MTSU beat Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl, but it was stunning how fast Dwight Dasher and the team looked, even when the defense was struggling to get off the field. Head coach Rick Stockstill put together his best team yet, and thanks to the maturation of Dasher, this is now a program that matters.
The New Orleans Bowl is a no-win situation for Conference USA. Of course the league is supposed to beat the Sun Belt opponent, but teams like Troy and MTSU are every bit as good as the C-USA mid-level teams they get to go against. Southern Miss had a nice season, but to close out with a loss to Middle Tennessee is a sour note that goes beyond just losing a bowl game. That's not to slight the Blue Raiders or the Sun Belt, but when it comes to national perception; it just doesn't look good on paper.
But Middle Tennessee really was good enough to come up with the win over a strong USM team and this wasn't a fluke. This was the second win over a Conference USA team this year (Memphis was the first), there was a win at Maryland, and the three losses were on the road at Clemson and Troy and lost at home to Mississippi State. Now it'll be interesting to see if the program and the Sun Belt can build off this.
To those who bemoan the bloated postseason in college football, did you catch a glimpse of Middle Tennessee QB Dwight Dasher on Sunday night?
Yeah, 34 games is a bit much and can often reward mediocrity, but they also cast a wide enough net to include teams like the Blue Raiders, which would otherwise be left on the outside looking in. If Middle Tennessee didn't get a nationally-televised opportunity to play in the New Orleans Bowl, you might not know that the school just won its 10th game of the year under Rick Stockstill and seventh in-a-row. And you definitely would not be familiar with the work of Dasher, one of those smaller-school kids warranting a lot more pub.
Playing on a bad ankle, Dasher was downright heroic in the 42-32 upset of Southern Miss. Running the quarterback draw like a young Donovan McNabb, he rushed for more than 200 yards and two scores, adding a couple of touchdowns through the air without a turnover. Best of all for the folks in Murfreesboro, he still has another year of eligibility remaining. Plus, now that he's had the chance to introduce himself to the country in the school's first-ever bowl victory, he won't be such an anonymous entity heading into the 2010 season.