We got back .500 with a winning week last week. Let's see if we can go back to back. Home teams in BOLD.
Last Week: 4-3
Charlotte +16.5 Rice
The Club Lit era at Charlotte is over. After guiding the 49ers to their first bowl game in school history in his first season in 2019, Will Healy could not field a competent defense over the past two seasons and lost his job following a loss to Florida International last week. The 49ers have lost seven consecutive Conference USA games since beating, wait for it, Rice, last November. That victory was the 49ers fifth last season, but they dropped their final three games and missed out on a bowl. Their defense was truly atrocious last season, as they allowed over seven and a half yards per play to conference opponents. Believe it or not, while their defense is still bad in 2022, they have improved by about a yard per play against conference opponents. I don't expect Charlotte to pitch a shutout, but Rice will probably not score as many points this week as they did last week. Louisiana Tech actually owns the worst per play defense in Conference USA, so we probably saw peak Rice (at least offensively) last week. There are two questions that must be answered before you back Charlotte. The first is, have the 49ers quit? Healy is out and Pete Rossomando is in. Can the interim coach motivate the team or are they checked out and ready for 2023? The other question concerns quarterback Chris Reynolds. Will Reynolds start and finish the game? If so, the 49ers should be able to score enough to cover this number. Reynolds backups have not played well when he has missed time this season. I'll bank on him avoiding injury in this game and the team staying motivated for at least one more week. If the losses continue to mount, it might be time to evacuate the mine, but we'll stay underground with them for one more week.
Central Florida -1.5 Cincinnati
This matchup lost a little luster when Central Florida was upset at East Carolina last weekend. Instead of a clash between two teams with undefeated conference records, Cincinnati has a chance to almost eliminate Central Florida from the conference race. While the Knights fell in Greenville last weekend, the margin was misleading. Central Florida scored just 13 points, but they averaged over six yards per play. They committed four turnovers (while forcing none) and also turned the ball over on downs once. The Knights may have been looking past the Pirates to this pivotal game with the Bearcats. I expect Cincinnati will have Central Florida's full attention this week. The Bearcats have won three straight in this series, including a dominating 56-21 victory in the Queen City last year. Cincinnati won in their last trip to Orlando, but that came in the pandemic season when crowd size was limited. With a full house, at the Bounce House, I think Central Florida gets back on track and makes the AAC race a little more interesting.
New Mexico State -2 Massachusetts
On the surface, this seems like a pretty even matchup between two bad teams. The Aggies are 2-5 and the Minutemen are 1-6. With the 1-6 team having the homefield, it makes sense this spread is so tight. However, if you dig a little deeper into New Mexico State, you will see the Aggies have played better than you think. The Aggies have played seven games, with two coming against Big 10 teams. Minnesota and Wisconsin dominated the Aggies, outscoring them 104-7. However, in their five games against Group of Five competition, the Aggies, dare I say, have actually played well. They have outgained their five Group of Five opponents by more than a half a yard per play (5.13 to 4.54). Those five teams are not what you would classify as 'good' teams (Florida International, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, and UTEP), but then again, neither is Massachusetts. What about the Minutemen? If we strip out their performance against Power Five teams, how do they look? Well, not a lot changes, since they haven't faced a Power Five team (they get their shot to inflict even more angst in College State in a few weeks). Both these teams are led by coaching veterans (Jerry Kill and Don Brown), but only one appears to be heading in the right direction. You won't hear this said (or written) very often, but the Aggies should be favored by more. Take them at this cheap price.
North Texas +10 Western Kentucky
Last week, one of the more impressive under the radar streaks in the Group of Five ended. Heading into their trip to the Alamodome, North Texas had won eight consecutive Conference USA games. The Mean Green even held the lead late against the Roadrunners, but UTSA scored in the final seconds to pull out the victory. I was skeptical of North Texas coming into the season, and they struggled in non-conference play, losing all three FBS games. However, North Texas played well enough to win two of those games (they were not competitive against SMU). Against UNLV and Memphis, the Mean Green outgained the Rebels and Tigers on a per play basis (6.36 to 6.03), but committed five turnovers while only forcing one. Two of those turnovers led directly to touchdowns with Memphis racking up two pick sixes in a ten point win. On paper, Western Kentucky has been the best team in Conference USA on a per play basis. In their four conference games, they outgained their opponents by nearly two yards per play (6.61 to 4.66). However, a lot of that surplus was gained in their domination of Florida International. If we remove that 73-0 drubbing, the Hilltoppers have a more modest differential (5.67 to 5.29). The Hilltoppers are still benefiting from that beatdown of the Panthers. Ten points is too many to lay against a competent team like North Texas.
Missouri +3.5 South Carolina
South Carolina has won four in a row after a 1-2 start and is ranked in the AP Poll for the first time since the early portion of the 2018 season. While the wins are great, context is necessary. Half of those wins came against FCS or bad FBS teams (South Carolina State and Charlotte). The other two are legitimate wins, but Kentucky was starting their backup quarterback and Texas A&M outgained the Gamecocks in both yards and yards per play. The key to both victories was a fast start. Kentucky turned the ball over on their first series and South Carolina scored in the first minute of the game. South Carolina ran the opening kickoff back against Texas A&M and used some Aggie turnovers to lead 17-0 after barely five minutes of game time. The Wildcats and Aggies were able to get back in both games, but those early deficits let South Carolina play from a positive game state. The enigmatic Spencer Rattler (eight interceptions in 2022) didn't have to throw the ball a lot in a comeback effort. Can the Gamecocks get off to a similarly quick start against a Missouri team that has played nothing but close conference games? Their four conference games have been decided by a total of 17 points. That is the product of a good defense and bad offense. Georgia and Alabama are the only SEC teams with better per play defensive numbers than the Tigers in conference play. On the other side of the ball, Vanderbilt is the only SEC team with worse per play offensive numbers. With an offense as bad as Missouri's the big worry is that South Carolina's great special teams (three special teams touchdowns this year) or defense put Missouri in a multi-score hole they are unable to claw out of. While South Carolina is 4-2 under Shane Beamer in home SEC conference games, three of those victories have been point spread upsets. The only previous time South Carolina has been favored in an SEC game under Beamer was last year against Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks needed a last minute touchdown to win that game by a single point. I expect a defensive game played in the teens or low twenties, so I'll take the points with Missouri.
UAB -4.5 Florida Atlantic
UAB is a disappointing 4-3 under interim coach Bryant Vincent. When Bill Clark unexpectedly retired due to health reasons over the summer, I thought the Blazers might fall off. However, while the Blazers have suffered three defeats, they have been actually played pretty well this season. In their losses against Liberty, Rice, and Western Kentucky, the Blazers have outgained their opponents by nearly a yard per play (5.98 to 5.14). Unfortunately, their turnover margin in those three games is -7. The Blazers have committed ten turnovers in those three games, including eight lost fumbles! In their most recent loss to Western Kentucky, the Blazers also lost their starting quarterback and his uncertain status is probably one of the reasons this line is so low. The backup quarterback did not play well last week (he also only attempted ten passes), but even with a limited passing attack, the Blazers still ran the ball efficiently (as they have all season). DeWayne McBride is 25 yards away from 1000 on the season and I expect him to hit that threshold in the first quarter (perhaps the first drive) against an iffy Florida Atlantic defense. Willie Taggart won five of his first six games as coach of the Owls in the pandemic shortened 2020 season. However, since beating Massachusetts by the odd score of 24-2, the Owls are just 6-15 against FBS opponents. The Blazers can win this game by a touchdown with their backup quarterback and if Dylan Hopkins plays, the Blazers will roll.
Pittsburgh +3 North Carolina
One season after failing to meet lofty preseason expectations, North Carolina appears to be coasting toward a Coastal division title. The Tar Heels are currently the only team in the Coastal with a winning conference record and they are two games in the loss column ahead of everyone else. Even if they drop this game to the Panthers, Pitt would likely need to run the table to have a shot at snatching the division from them. Long term for this season, the Tar Heels are looking good, but for this game at least, I think the Panthers are a good play. Pitt scored ten points on the road against a bad Louisville defense last week, which is not a great look for the Panthers. However, before we go burying the Panthers, let's acknowledge one thing Louisville can do - generate negative plays. Louisville is fifth nationally in sacks per game and tenth in tackles for loss per game. They only sacked Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis twice, but one led to a defensive touchdown and they accumulated six tackles for loss. North Carolina also has a bad defense, but they don't generate any pressure. The Tar Heels are 93rd nationally in sacks per game and 120th in tackles for loss per game. Their offense has been elite, averaging nearly 42 points per game, but against competent FBS offenses (those not named Virginia Tech), they are allowing over 38 points per game. Off their ACC Championship, Pitt has struggled with their personnel losses on offense, but Israel Abanikanda, who rushed for 320 yards three weeks ago, should be poised for another big game. I'll take the points with Pitt and see if they can tighten the Coastal race.