Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, December 2, 2011 at 11:23 AM
Championship Weekend in college football has arrived, with six different leagues having official championship games that will determine the title. There are two games set for Friday Night, and then four on Saturday. We've decided to split up the statistical coverage three and three so we can take care of the earliest Saturday kickoff for you in TODAY'S report. That will give you some extra time to think through the possibilities.
We start with Friday Night's game in Detroit for the Mid American crown...
MAC CHAMPIONSHIP (in Detroit)
Ohio vs. Northern Illinois
Vegas Line: Northern Illinois by 3.5, total of 70.5
These teams didn't play in the regular season, and have been inconstant enough of late that you really have to study the boxscores hard to get a good read. Each deserves credit for the big upset win that put them over the top:
Northern Illinois (+9) stunned Toledo 63-60 in a Tuesday Night Arena League game that got a lot of after-the-fact attention. Toledo was thought to be a shoe-in for one spot in the MAC title tilt...but Northern Illinois kept that from happening...with this result being the tie-breaker after both teams finished 7-1 at the top of the MAC West standings.
Ohio (+4) beat Temple 35-31 in a game that would prove to be a difference-maker too. Ohio finished with a one game lead over the Owls in the MAC East. Reverse the result, and you reverse the standings. So many people were looking forward to a Toledo-Temple MAC final!
But...you can't avoid the lowlights of teams like this when handicapping a big game. Northern Illinois is coming off two nailbiters vs. Eastern Michigan and Ball State where they were favored by 18 points. Ohio actually lost to Ball State and Buffalo as favorites of more than a touchdown this year, then didn't close particularly strong either.
The MAC is known for having some wild results during the regular season and in this game. Our sources in the area will make sure we're on the right side. Here are some numbers for you statheads...
Offensive Rankings: Ohio 18th, Northern Illinois 9th
Defensive Rankings: Ohio 36th, Northern Illinois 91st
Strength of Schedule: Ohio 125th, Northern Illinois 106th
Both teams played very easy schedules...so those offensive rankings are misleading in the extreme. It is important to remember tough that offenses is the strength of both of these teams. That might affect your thinking on the total in a game played in a dome. And, should a team with the 91st ranked defense against the 106th ranked schedule be favored by more than a field goal on a neutral field?
PAC 12 CHAMPIONSHIP
UCLA at Oregon
Vegas Line: Oregon by 32, total of 66
These teams didn't play in 2011 either. But, it's not hard to imagine what would have happened given UCLA's generally poor play vs. high quality opposition...and Oregon's tendency to run up the score.
UCLA VS. PAC 12 ELITE THIS YEAR
USC 50, UCLA 0
Stanford 45, UCLA 19
The Bruins also lost at home to Texas 49-20, and Utah 31-6...but they do deserve credit for surviving Arizona State (amidst the collapse of the Sun Devil program) and dominating Cal. Things get REALLY ugly for UCLA when a game gets away from then.
And, when these teams played last year, Oregon won 60-13 as 27-point favorites on this same field.
So, we're talking about a UCLA team that's fully capable of losing this game by 47-50 points! But, you get the sense the Bruins were blowing off last week's game so they'd be at full strength and intensity for this stunning shot at a conference championship. And, Oregon has had trouble pushing victory margins into the 30's in league play this year as a general rule. Even when dominant, they're winning by the high 20's outside of their trip to Colorado.
Offensive Rankings: UCLA 56th, Oregon 6th
Defensive Rankings: UCLA 84th, Oregon 65th
Strength of Schedule: UCLA 16th, Oregon 25th
We have to say...those aren't the stat differences of a 30-point game. The defenses are similar, and UCLA grades out having the tougher schedule according to Jeff Sagarin's numbers at USA Today (as we've mentioned often, that's where we get the strength of schedule data from here in NOTEBOOK previews). Oregon's very clear edge on offense is meaningful for the straight up win. Is it enough to win by at least five touchdowns? That's for handicappers to decide.
CONFERENCE USA CHAMPIONSHIP (early Saturday)
Southern Mississippi at Houston
Vegas Line: Houston by 12.5, total of 72
These teams didn't play in the 2011 season either. We won't see rematches until the prime time games on Saturday! It's worth nothing though that there's a very strong recent history amongst these teams. Southern Miss won last year's meeting, and has taken three of the last six even though they were underdogs four times. This is certainly a team that's capable of giving Houston fits even if Houston will have home field advantage.
It's very likely that, had this game been played in early November, the line wouldn't have been nearly this high. Houston hadn't been dominating teams yet on a consistent basis, while Southern Miss looked like a force in CUSA East. Since then:
Houston just CRUSHED everyone through November, covering Vegas spreads by 31, 11, 22, and 16 points. Not winning...COVERING SPREADS by about 20 points a game for the month!
Southern Miss barely got by a slumping Central Florida team that couldn't even manage a winning record this year...then was shocked by UAB as 23-point favorites.
Handicappers will have to determine of the old Southern Miss is capable of showing up...and if that will even matter if the November Cougars maintain their form. Note that Houston WILL get a BCS bowl bid (probably to the Sugar Bowl) win a big win here because they will have met the mid-major threshold in the BCS rankings.
Offensive Rankings: Southern Miss 15th, Houston 1st
Defensive Rankings: Southern Miss 26th, Houston 60th
Strength of Schedule: Southern Miss 110th, Houston 111th
The full season numbers make it much more likely that Southern Miss can make this a game. We're looking at virtually identical schedule strengths....and a big enough edge on defense for Southern Miss that they have real upset potential. There's the catch...should you handicap based on the full 12-game slate, or the most recent 12? Should you handicap on a very competitive series history...or the fact that Houston beat UAB 56-13 when Southern Miss couldn't win?
This first set of three games could prove very tough for do-it-yourself handicappers who didn't have enough time this year to study the MAC and CUSA. That's why JIM HURLEY'S exclusive TEAM HANDICAPPING approach is so valuable! We do the work...with our scouts, our sources, our statheads, our computer programmers, and our Wise Guy connections...then you make all the money!
Selections Friday and Saturday will be available a few hours before kickoff. Don't forget that Saturday's slate also includes big games like Oklahoma at Oklahoma State and Texas at Baylor (plus the Big East finales). Use your credit card online to get our BIG, JUICY WINNERS, or call the office at 1-800-323-4453. Remember to ask about our offer for remaining football...and early season baskets when you call!
Back with your early Saturday in the NOTEBOOK to talk about the SEC, ACC, and Big 10 Championship games. WHEN CHAMPIONSHIPS ARE ON THE LINE, YOU NEED WORLD CHAMPION HANDICAPPER JIM HURLEY!