Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bowl Appetit

New Orleans Bowl
Florida Atlantic -2.5 Memphis

The 7th annual New Orleans Bowl features a matchup of two teams that finished with losing records in 2006. Florida Atlantic improved from 5-7 to 7-5 (and Sun Belt champs) to qualify for their first ever bowl game. Memphis meanwhile, also went 7-5, a 5-game improvement from their 2-10 finish in 2006. The Tigers are playing in their 4th bowl game in 5 years. One of those bowl games was the 2003 New Orleans Bowl where they defeated North Texas 27-17.

While Memphis was able to finish 7-5 (including 6-2 in Conference USA play), they were more lucky than good. They were outscored by 22 points on the year (roughly 2 per game) and finished an outstanding 5-2 in games decided by 4 points or less. Those 5 narrow wins were not over good teams either. They beat Marshall (3-9 record) by 3, Rice (3-9) by 3, Tulane (4-8) by 1, Southern Miss (7-5) by 3, and SMU (1-11) by 3. Their other victories were over Jacksonville State (non-Division IA) and UAB (2-10). Those two were by comfortable margins, but the tale of the tape shows the Tigers have won exactly one game over a Division IA team by a comfortable margin.

Of course, that doesn't mean Memphis does not have a few strengths. On the contrary, they are quite proficient offensively. Led by senior quarterback Martin Hankins, the Tigers scored over 29 points per game and finished 23rd nationally in total offense (447 yards per game), 12th in passing yards per game, 33rd in quarterback rating, and 8th in sacks allowed per game. Unfortunately, all the good their offense accomplished was undone by their defense. The Tigers finished 100th in total defense, allowing 440 yards per game. Part of the problem (and I stress only part because there were many) was the pass rush. The Tigers accumulated only 14 sacks in 12 games (109th in the country). All that time in the pocket allowed opposing quarterbacks to get very comfortable. The Tigers were 82nd in the country in opposing quarterback rating and 87th in completion percentage allowed. Tiger opponents completed nearly 62% of their throws! Of course, the run defense was not great either, as they were gouged to the tune of 5.20 yards per rush (113th nationally).

So can Florida Atlantic exploit that porous Tiger defense? Yes. In 2006, the Owls averaged only 15.1 points per game. This season, they averaged 30.1 points per game. The primary reason for the offenses' improved output was quarterback Rusty Smith. As a freshman in 2006, Smith completed 55.7% of his passes, averaged about 6.6 yards per pass while throwing 6 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and compiling a rating of 113.27. Smith has improved in every area in 2007. he completed 57.3% of his passes, averaged 7.5 yards per pass, threw 27 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and compiled a rating of 136.61. The Owls offensive line also did a great job protecting Smith allowing only 12 sacks all season (tied for 8th nationally--with Memphis).

What about the Owl defense? They allowed 33.8 points per game (which is actually about 2 points per game more than Memphis), but they were a bit better in total defense (85th nationally allowing about 417 yards er game). Like Memphis, the Owls struggled getting to the opposing quarterback, accumulating only 12 sacks all season (114th nationally). The Owls were also worse than Memphis at limiting their opponents completion percentage. Opposing quarterbacks completed 64.8% of their passes against the Owl defense (108th nationally). The one thing the Owls did do well on defense, was generate turnovers. They forced 33 turnovers (4th nationally); 19 interceptions and 14 fumbles. Of course the Tigers were no slouch either, forcing 25 (37th nationally); 12 interceptions and 13 fumbles.

With two defenses this bad and two offenses this good, there should be some fireworks in this game. Both these teams are fatally flawed on defense and covering punts (Florida Atlantic finished 78th in the nation at covering punts and Memphis finished 118th), making their defense seem a little worse than it really is. Their saving grace is their offense and their ability/luck in forcing turnovers. Both teams are 7-5 and Florida Atlantic is from the historically weaker conference, but 4 of their 5 losses have come to Oklahoma State (6-6 record), Kentucky (7-5), South Florida (9-3), and Florida (9-3). Memphis meanwhile lost to a pair of Sun Belt teams that Florida Atlantic defeated (Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State).

The Pick: Florida Atlantic will cover the 2.5 point spread.

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