Mountain West teams have edge in early bowl matchups
By Jeff Frank
Sports Analyst, Inside the Numbers
Let's Be Frank
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Mountain West Conference has struggled in bowl games the last two years with a 6-7 record both straight up and against the spread. However, five of those 13 games were against Pac-12 teams.
This season, only one of the seven matchups comes against the Pac-12 conference and that game does not take place until New Year's Eve when Boise State battles Arizona.
The action starts this Saturday when Air Force plays Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Falcons opened at plus 1.5 points but are now favored by one.
The key to this game is the health of Air Force senior QB Kale Pearson. Even though his backup, Nate Romine, guided the Falcons to victory over Colorado State in the regular season finale, they need their starter to be under center against the Broncos.
Pearson is the more accomplished passer and rusher compared to Romine and his availability will be a big advantage for the Falcons. As of Thursday afternoon, the senior is expected to start.
Defensively, Western Michigan is ranked 37th nationally against the run, which should come in handy against the triple-option offense. However, 55 of the top 60 teams in that category have allowed fewer yards per carry than the Broncos, so it is doubtful they will stop Air Force's ground attack.
Western Michigan's offense improved greatly from 2013, averaging 35 points per game, more than doubling last year's output of 17. Nevertheless, the Broncos had a much easier schedule in 2014. Not on this season's slate were Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern and Buffalo. This year more than half the teams they faced allowed 28 points or more.
Another factor in the Falcons favor is where the game is being played. They are familiar with the blue turf at Bronco Stadium having stepped foot on it twice since 2011. Meanwhile, Western Michigan has never played there. In fact, the Broncos have played just one game this far west in over five years and it was a 12-point win at Idaho earlier this season - a game they outgained the Vandals by only 58 yards.
Perhaps the biggest thing in Air Force's favor is how badly Mid-American teams have been in postseason play. Clubs from the MAC are 2-10 both straight up and against the spread the last two years with the only two wins came against teams from the Sun Belt Conference. Furthermore, Western Michigan has never won a bowl game in five chances.
Take Air Force minus one point in the first of three three-star plays.
Fresno State, another Mountain West Conference team, takes on Rice in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. As is the case with the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Mountain West squad is familiar with the location as the Bulldogs have played in Hawaii three times since 2011.
Fresno State opened as the 1-point favorite but are now getting two points after a disappointing 6-7 season. The Bulldogs began the year losing their first three games to USC, Utah and Nebraska by a combined 107 points. However, they rebounded to win six of their final nine regular-season matchups before losing to Boise State for the Mountain West Conference Championship.
Rice also lost its first three games but came on strong to win seven of its final nine. The Owls other two losses came at Marshall and Louisiana Tech. Still, they only beat one team going to a bowl game and that was UTEP. Fresno State has knocked off two bowl-bound squads in San Diego State and Nevada.
Both Fresno State and Rice hosted Hawaii this season, which is ironic since they are playing in the Hawaii Bowl. The Bulldogs led 28-0 entering the fourth quarter and held on to win by seven. Rice needed a fourth quarter rally to win by two touchdowns after trailing in the third quarter.
Fresno State lost the Hawaii Bowl as a 12.5-point favorite two years ago to SMU. This time around, the Bulldogs are getting points. Look for them to come out firing on all cylinders as they erase the memory of that 33-point loss.
Take Fresno State plus two points.
Outside the Mountain West Conference, the Miami Beach Bowl pits BYU and Memphis - a game the Cougars opened as one-point favorites but now the Tigers are giving 1.5.
Memphis has won nine games this season after going 3-9 in 2013. The Tigers are outscoring their opponents by a 2-to-1 margin and come into this contest on a six-game winning streak.
However, those six victories came against the bottom six teams in the American Athletic Conference, and five of those teams finished the season below .500. The only team Memphis beat with a winning record was the Cincinnati Bearcats, who were in the middle of a three-game slide at the time allowing a combined 146 points to Ohio State, Memphis and Miami-Florida.
BYU was supposed to contend for a much bigger bowl than the Miami Beach Bowl. but star quarterback Taysom Hill was injured in early October and the team fell apart with four consecutive losses.
Once new signal caller Christian Stewart got comfortable under center, the offense changed from a heavy run-based attack to a well-oiled passing machine. Stewart completed 62 percent of his passes for over 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns (with just one interception) in the final four games - all victories.
These two teams have common opponents this season in Houston, Connecticut and Middle Tennessee. Memphis finished 2-1 outscoring those teams 101-to-55. Meanwhile, BYU went 3-0 with a 95-to-42 advantage.
Take BYU plus 1.5 points.
Take over 61 points in the New Orleans Bowl between Nevada and Louisiana, Northern Illinois +10 (Marshall) in the Boca Raton Bowl and San Diego State -2.5 (Navy) in the Poinsettia Bowl.
THIS YEAR'S RECORD
This year's final regular season record was 104-87-6 (54 percent) after a 5-2-1 mark in Week 15. The one five-star selection proved victorious so that record finished at 10-8. The three-star plays went 2-0-1 for a 22-14-2 mark. The lone two-star choice lost bringing that total to 33-30. The one-star plays went 2-1 for a 39-35-4 mark.
After a slow October, I bounced back with a 23-10-1 (69 percent) record over the final four weeks of the season. Furthermore, there were just two weeks (of 15) where I finished with a losing record of more than one game.