We finally got back in the good graces of the football gods as we posted a 4-3 week. This is the last full (or partly full) Saturday of games for like nine months. Let's try and go out on a winning note. As always, home teams in BOLD.
Last Week: 4-3
Southern Miss +7.5 Western Kentucky
Southern Miss is one of the biggest surprises of the 2015 college football season. After hitting rock bottom in 2012 following the departure of Larry Fedora, the Eagles have progressed ever so slightly, winning a single game in 2013, three in 2014, and surging to nine wins this season. Head coach Todd Monken will likely be a finalist for some postseason awards. The Eagles are balanced on both sides of the ball ranking second in Conference USA in yards per play and first in yards per play allowed (both stats in league play). In fact, since losing to Marshall in early October, the Eagles have won six straight games with each victory coming by at least three touchdowns. Of course, the Eagles are an underdog in this game primarily because Western Kentucky has been quite impressive as well, in running the table in league play. The Hilltoppers are led by senior quarterback Brandon Doughty who has tossed 40 touchdowns for the second consecutive season. However, the Hilltoppers have gone from seven regular season wins to ten because their defense has gone from a liability to a strength. After allowing 6.7 yards per play against league foes last season (dead last in Conference USA), the Hilltoppers have allowed just 5.2 yards per play to conference opponents this year. Nick Holt, the former head coach of Idaho, has been the defensive coordinator both seasons, so one would think the talent level has improved. I expect this to be one of the more entertaining game of Championship Saturday, and while I wouldn't bet on Southern Miss winning outright, their per play yardage differentials are superior to Western Kentucky's. Look for the Eagles to keep this one close.
Temple +6.5 Houston
The inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship Game will serve as a play-in game for the New Year's Six Bowl bid for the Group of Five. Neither the Owls nor the Cougars were favorites in the preseason to make it to the title game, though both were expected to finish in the top half of their respective divisions. I expected Temple to be an underdog when this line came out as Houston is hosting the game, but this spread seems like it is about about a field goal too high. Outside of their game against a red hot South Florida team, Temple has had a chance to win every game they have played. Their offense is not dynamic enough to run away from anyone, and that likely causes them to be undervalued by the general public. The Owls are also 8-3 against the number as a road underdog under head coach Matt Rhule. Look for that tend to continue here, and don't be surprised if they leave Texas with an outright upset.
Georgia State +21 Georgia Southern
At 5-6, and a huge underdog on Saturday, Georgia State will likely look back on this season as one of missed opportunity. The Panthers have had by far their best season since joining FBS, but they have also lost home games to FBS newbie Charlotte and FCS Liberty. If they had won either of those games, they would be preparing for a bowl bid. As it is, the Panthers will probably have to settle for marked improvement thanks to some patented Trent Miles Third Year Magic. The Panthers will take on another program that is new to FBS. Georgia Southern moved up last year, and despite nine wins and a conference title, were not eligible to play in the postseason. That has been rectified this season as the Eagles have already accepted a bid to the GoDaddy Bowl. Even when they were struggling through their first two seasons as an FBS program, Georgia State was a strong play as a road underdog, and this year they have been even better. The Panthers are 13-3 against the number as a road underdog and 11-2 as a double digit road underdog. The Panthers will be motivated to get to a bowl and upset their in-state brethren. They won't win, but they will stay within three touchdowns.
New Mexico State +3 Louisiana-Monroe
Remember the good old days of Warhawk football? It wasn't that long ago when Louisiana-Monroe was America's Team. In 2012, the Warhawks beat Arkansas and put a scare into both Auburn and Baylor. The Warhawks went 8-5 in 2012 and followed that up with another bowl eligible 6-6 campaign in 2013. However, since then, the Warhawks are just 5-19 and have struggled mightily on offense. The Warhawks have been held below 20 points 13 times in 24 games and are averaging just 18.5 points per game against FBS competition. Their struggles cost them their coach a few weeks ago. The good news for the Warhawks is that they should be able to put some points on the board against a New Mexico State team that is allowing over 45 points per game this year. Despite their struggles defensively, the Aggies have managed to win three games (or thrice as many as the Warhawks). Louisiana-Monroe is the worst team in the Sun Belt and it is shocking to see them favored against anyone. This should be a competitive game, but since you are getting three points, the Aggies are the play.
Kansas State +6.5 West Virginia
As I have written numerous times on this blog, I have a great reverence for Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder. Perhaps my affinity for The Wizard has clouded my judgment here. However, since returning to the sidelines in 2009, the Wildcats have been money in the bank under Snyder. They are an incredible 49-25-1 against the number when facing FBS teams since 2009. Many of those games have begun with the Wildcats as underdogs and ended with an outright victory. In fact, it has happened 15 times, including twice against West Virginia. This is not a vintage Kansas State team, but playing at home and needing a win to guarantee bowl eligibility, I think they are a solid play here.
Florida +17 Alabama (@ Atlanta)
This rematch of the 2009 SEC Championship Game (and 2008, 1999, etc.) appears to be a mismatch. Alabama is one win away from entering the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive year (only Ohio State with the assistance of much chaos could join them as repeat offenders) after winning nine in a row, with eight coming by double digits. Meanwhile, Florida has struggled mightily the past few weeks, barely putting away Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Florida Atlantic before losing by a humiliating final score against their arch rival. The Gators have averaged just 4.3 yards per play and scored just 55 total points in those four games. One might figure points would be at a premium against an Alabama team that has allowed just 102 points in their nine-game winning streak. This may come as a surprise, but I too expect Florida to struggle scoring points against the Crimson Tide. However, I think this number is a little high considering the game is at a neutral site. If the game were in Brian Dennehy Stadium, I could fathom a line this high. As it is, I think Florida is a shade undervalued, and I expect their defense to keep them (relatively) in this game.
South Alabama +18 Appalachian State
Appalachian State is probably the best team in the Sun Belt, but thanks to their head-to-head loss to Arkansas State, the Mountaineers will probably have to settle for a second place tie in the league. The Mountaineers have one final tuneup before they prepare for their inaugural bowl game. The Mountaineers will play in the Camellia Bowl, which happens to be the bowl game South Alabama played in last year. Spooky eh? At 5-6, South Alabama is playing for a bowl game and should be sufficiently motivated. The Jaguars are also competent enough on defense to keep this one within three scores.