Fab Five: Week XIV
Let this game serve as a Exhibit A for what can happen when you expand your conference and separate into divisions (and have two teams ineligible for the postseason). Wisconsin could sneak into the Rose Bowl with five losses if they happen to upset the Cornhuskers in this, the second-annual Big 10 Championship Game. Wisconsin won the first edition last season against Michigan State, and with Ohio State and Penn State both ineligible this season, were prohibitive favorites to return. The Badgers have returned, but with five regular season losses (tied for the most in the Bret Bielema era). While the losses have mounted in 2012, they have all been close. The Badgers have lost four games by exactly three points (including their first meeting with Nebraska in Lincoln) and another by seven in overtime. Despite the disparity in records, these teams seem about even. Don't be surprised if the Badgers leave Indianapolis with Roses in their mouths Saturday night.
South Florida +6.5 Pittsburgh
Last week, Pitt took a giant step toward bowl eligibility by pounding the current Big East front-runner, and by the time this game is played, potential Big East champion Rutgers by three touchdowns. Meanwhile, South Florida lost for the eighth time in their last nine games by 17 at Cincinnati. Easy play here right? Pitt in a snoozer. Before you double down on Pitt though, consider the Panthers have won just one road game all season (at Buffalo) and lost their last game as a road favorite three weeks ago versus Connecticut. The Panthers were in perfect position to take on Rutgers, coming off a bye. In addition, South Florida has been decent at home this season, posting a 2-3 record and covering in their lone game as a home underdog (versus Florida State). Pitt may well get their elusive sixth win here, but I think this game will be close.
Connecticut +5.5 Cincinnati
After their shocking win last week versus Louisville, the Connecticut Huskies seek to win their third straight game and get to bowl eligibility. Standing in their way is a Cincinnati team still technically alive for the Big East title. The Bearcats have just two league losses, and a win in Storrs coupled with a Louisville win over Rutgers would put them in a four-way tie at the top of the standings with Louisville, Rutgers, and Syracuse. The BCS bid would go to the highest ranked team in the BCS, so the Bearcats are out of luck there. Still, it would mark the second-consecutive shared title for the Bearcats (many may forget they finished tied with West Virginia and Louisville last season). Cincinnati is just 5-8-1 Against the Spread (ATS) on the road under head coach Butch Jones while the Connecticut Huskies are 3-0-1 ATS as a home underdog under head coach Paul Pasqualoni. Look for the Huskies to keep this one close as they fight to attain bowl eligibility.
Middle Tennessee State +10 Arkansas State
On this Championship Saturday, its fitting that this Sun Belt game is the de facto league championship. Both Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State enter this game sporting identical 6-1 league records. Middle Tennessee has won four straight overall and five straight in the league, while Arkansas State has rattled off six straight wins since losing their league-opener to Western Kentucky. The Blue Raiders from Middle Tennessee are looking for their first league crown since sharing the title with Troy in 2006. Arkansas State is looking to repeat as champions after finishing 8-0 to claim the title outright last season. Middle Tennessee State has been extremely solid on the road, going 5-1 (ATS), including 2-1 as an underdog, with the two covers resulting in straight up wins over Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky. Arkansas State has been less than stellar as a double-digit favorite, failing to cover in that role in both their games (versus Memphis and South Alabama) this season. Arkansas State should get their second consecutive league title, but Middle Tennessee will make them work for it.
South Alabama +6 Hawaii
I can't think of a better way to end your first season as a IA program than in Honolulu. That is just what the Jaguars from South Alabama get to do on Saturday night, and they may also be able to leave the islands with a win. Last week notwithstanding, when they rolled up 48 points on UNLV, the Warriors have been punchless in Norm Chow's first season as coach. Prior to that outburst, the Warriors had been averaging 17 points per game against their fellow Mountain West conference foes. In addition, they were also pretty bad ATS, failing to cover in any of their three previous home games. South Alabama has been solid as a road underdog this season, covering four times in six games. Look for that trend to continue here as they hang with Hawaii and potentially leave with third win of the season.
For the first time since 2003, and only the second time in the game's history, both MAC Championship Game participants enter ranked in the AP Poll. In fact, if things fall into place, the winner of this game could crash the BCS party (especially if that winner is Kent State). While the Golden Flashes are a great story, Northern Illinois appears to be the real class of the MAC. In MAC-play, the Huskies won all their games by at least seven points, covered the spread in seven of eight games, and posted the league's most explosive offense. Kent State was impressive as well, winning all but one of their eight games by seven points or more. However, the Golden Flashes played in the weaker of the two divisions and are playing in their first postseason game since 1972. Meanwhile, Northern Illinois is playing in their third straight MAC Championship Game and likely remembers the result from two seasons ago when they arrived as prohibitive favorites against a plucky upstart. Northern Illinois should win this game by double-digits.
Like the Pac-12, Conference USA rewards its strongest team by giving them homefield advantage in the conference title game. In the seven seasons that Conference USA has staged a title game, the favorite has covered four times, and the home team has covered four times. Those are hardly dominant trends. However, these teams played on the field just two weeks ago, with the result being a two-point win by the Golden Hurricane. Last week, in a rather meaningless game for Tulsa, they committed three turnovers and lost by eight to an SMU team fighting for their postseason lives. Meanwhile, Central Florida knew (after East Carolina's win on Friday) that they had to win to qualify for this game. They beat UAB by 25. With proper motivation, Tulsa is the better team. Plus they are playing at home, and need only win by a field goal to cover here.
Oklahoma State -4.5 Baylor
Give Baylor their due, as they have qualified for a third consecutive bowl game under Art Briles. That is quite an accomplishment for a team that went 16 years between bowl bids. Also give the Bears credit for knocking off an unbeaten Kansas State team at home two weeks ago, in one of the more memorable upsets of recent vintage. The Bears also won last week to get to that elusive six-win plateau. However, Texas Tech has been trending downward since bludgeoning West Virginia in mid-October. Since that game, the Red Raiders have lost four of six, with both wins coming in overtime, and have allowed a ghastly 492 yards per game. Oklahoma State has proven they remain a force to be reckoned with under Mike Gundy, even in a rebuilding year. The Cowboys have won seven games and are 5-2 ATS as a favorite this season. Oklahoma State should do enough to beat the Bears by at least a touchdown here.
West Virginia -20 Kansas
What mid-western team is about to lose their 21st straight conference game? That's right, the Kansas Jayhawks. While I don't trust West Virginia to play any semblance of defense here, I also don't believe Kansas will come close to stopping Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and the rest of the West Virginia offense. Kansas has covered once all season on the road, and that came against a Texas Tech team that has imploded (though not as bad as last season) down the stretch. West Virginia may give up 30 here, but I have a hard time seeing them not coming close to 60 themselves.
Alabama -7 Georgia @ Atlanta
I have a hard time understanding the love Georgia has been getting of late. Since being waxed by South Carolina, the Bulldogs have won six straight, including an impressive win over Florida. However, of their six wins in that stretch, two came against SEC teams that failed to win a game in the conference (Kentucky and Auburn), one came against a IAA team (Georgia Southern), another came against a 6-6 SEC team (Ole Miss) , and the last one came against a 6-6 ACC team (Georgia Tech). On the other side, Alabama has faced a pair of tune-ups in preparation for this game, beating Western Carolina and Auburn by identical 49-0 scores since being upset by Texas A&M.. Alabama strikes me as the much better team, having allowed just ten offensive touchdowns in their eight SEC games. Georgia has a dynamic offense, but they will find the sledding rough against Alabama's elite defense. Plus Georgia's defense is a little suspect, allowing both Tennessee and South Carolina to crack the 30-point barrier against them. Look for the Crimson Tide to win by double-digits here.