Thursday's College Action
October 29, 2013
By Joe Nelson
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The Thursday Night college football schedule features four nationally televised games this week for a packed Halloween night. While none of the four games will have a major impact on the national picture, they are meaningful games in the conference races. Here is a brief look at all four games to close out October and start the 10th week of the college football season.
South Florida Bulls at Houston Cougars (-17½) - (ESPN, 7:00 p.m. ET)
While most assume that Central Florida’s upset win over Louisville two weeks ago decided the AAC title and the corresponding BCS bowl game bid, Houston made an emphatic statement last week they deserve to be in the conversation with a 49-14 win at Rutgers. Six turnovers helped the cause for Houston and the Cougars own by far the best turnover margin in the nation at +20. After this game Houston has Central Florida and Louisville in back-to-back weeks with both games on the road but for now Houston holds the top spot in the conference and has clinched a return to the postseason with a sixth win last week after going just 5-7 last season. A veteran offense was expected to be very productive this season but the defense has made great strides this season after allowing 483 yards per game last year.
South Florida has been a nationally ranked team at times in three of the last five seasons but the program has fallen on hard times lately. Skip Holtz was fired after a 3-9 season in 2012 and things started very poorly for former Western Kentucky head coach Willie Taggert with an ugly 0-4 start this season that featured losses to McNeese State and Florida Atlantic. South Florida did manage to pick up wins over Cincinnati and Connecticut but they were soundly out-gained in both of those games and the rebuilding process will take some time. The Bulls have scored just 14 points per game this season and they have had less than half the per game production on offense compared with Houston, posting just over 240 yards per game on only 4.2 yards per play. The defensive numbers compare favorably with Houston as the Cougars have been fortunate with turnovers to only allow 22 points per game on the season.
These teams have not met since 2002 but South Florida is 10-4 ATS all time when dogged by at least 17 points while going 11-6-1 ATS in the last 18 games as an underdog overall. Houston has held a very tough home field in recent years, going 21-10-1 ATS since 2008, including going 18-6-1 ATS as a home favorite in that span.
Rice Owls at North Texas Mean Green (-4½) - (FS1, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Rice went 7-6 last season with a bowl win and while many thought the Owls could take another step forward this season, contending for a Conference USA title seemed like a bit of a reach. Louisiana Tech entered the West division this season and perennial Conference USA power Tulsa looked like a threat to repeat as conference champion. At this point in the season Rice is 4-0 in conference play and they already have a big win at Tulsa. They are currently tied with Tulane on top of the West division and the Owls will be favored in the three remaining games after this week. Rice was out-gained in three games on the current five-game winning streak however and this is a challenging scheduling spot as Rice is playing a fourth road game on five weeks. Statistically Rice and North Texas have very similar numbers on both sides of the ball with Rice featuring the superior rushing attack but also a defense that is more vulnerable on the ground.
The jump from the Sun Belt to Conference USA sounds daunting but given the current make-up of the league North Texas has fit in just fine, off to a 3-1 start in conference play and at 5-3 overall. The lone loss came at Tulane in a game where the Mean Green had a 133 yard edge. North Texas enters this game coming off back-to-back road wins but similar to what can be said for Rice, the recent competition has been very weak. North Texas is 3-0 at home this season S/U and ATS and the win over Ball State looks pretty impressive at this point in the season. Despite these teams being in the same division they have not yet had a common opponent and it is not a stretch to say the winner will be in great position for the division title. Tulane has some difficult conference games remaining and has been fortunate this season so whoever wins Thursday night will have a great chance to make the conference title game.
Rice has covered in nine of the last 11 road games while winning five of the last six road contests S/U. These teams played in 2010 with Rice winning 32-31 at North Texas in a game where the Mean Green had a substantial yardage edge. North Texas is just 19-26 ATS at home since 2005 but they are 11-5 in the last 16 instances. Since 1999 North Texas is 19-14 ATS as a home favorite, including 5-2 ATS in the last seven instances and 2-0 ATS this season.
UL-Monroe Warhawks at Troy Trojans (-3) - (ESPNU, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Louisiana-Monroe lost its first Sun Belt game 31-10 at home against Western Kentucky but the Warhawks have won back-to-back games to stay relevant in the conference race. The statistics are a bit skewed for Louisiana-Monroe with losses to Baylor and Oklahoma by a 104-7 combined score taking a major toll on the numbers. The Warhawks scored a big win for the program at Wake Forest early in the season, a win that looks better as the season has played out but four times this season UL-Monroe has failed to top 14 points as consistency has been a problem. UL-Monroe is gaining just 4.8 yards per play on the season and the season goals changed dramatically with the loss of senior quarterback Kolton Browning who is remembered for his heroics in the upset over Arkansas last season. Louisiana-Lafayette leads the Sun Belt and has looked like the best team in the conference so while the winner of this game won’t be in a great position in the conference race; the loser will likely be knocked out with a second conference loss.
After winning just five games last season Troy has already reached five wins this season, currently riding a three-game winning streak entering this game off a big upset at Western Kentucky last weekend. Troy was soundly out-gained last week but this is a team that seems to play close games almost every week. Troy has four wins by seven points or less this season but two losses have also come by just seven points. Troy has only played one of the last six games on the road and the Trojans are 3-0 S/U at home this season, though just 1-2 ATS. Troy is led by senior quarterback Corey Robinson who is completing over 70 percent of his passes and the Trojans throw for 325 yards per game. The offensive statistics are far superior for the home team in this matchup but the Troy defense has struggled, allowing 6.5 yards per play and nearly 33 points per game.
These teams did not play last season but UL-Monroe won 38-10 at Troy in 2011 in the last meeting. That was a down season for the Trojans but UL-Monroe has covered in six of the last eight meetings going back to 2003. UL-Monroe is 10-3 ATS in the last 13 road games and 8-4 ATS in the last 12 games as an underdog. Troy is 42-11 S/U at home since 2003 but they are just 5-14 ATS since 2010 in home games and just 3-11 ATS as a home favorite since 2010.
Arizona State Sun Devils (-11) at Washington State Cougars - (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET)
As usual the Pac-12 South has looked much weaker than the Pac-12 North and Arizona State is in a position that they have been each of the last two seasons, leading the division near the midpoint of the conference season. Despite strong starts in conference play the Sun Devils have always faded and the 3-1 start this season to lead the division by themselves will be tested with a challenging closing schedule. Arizona State’s only conference loss came at Stanford and the Sun Devils have battled through a very difficult schedule overall, splitting non-conference games with Wisconsin and Notre Dame. The statistics are impressive for the Sun Devils, out-gaining foes by nearly 160 yards per game on average with 509 yards of offense per game and good balance between the running and passing attacks. The Arizona State defense has allowed more points than last season’s average but the yardage numbers have been very good, especially against the run considering the competition faced. Arizona State is coming off back-to-back dominant home wins over Colorado and Washington but the Sun Devils have not won a single game away from home this season while going just 8-20 S/U in road games the past five plus seasons.
At 4-4 it has already been a season of improvement for Washington State in the second season behind Mike Leach as Washington State has not won more than four games in a season since 2007 and the Cougars were just 3-9 last year. With the four remaining games, topping four wins will not be easy but Washington State has two conference wins for just the second time since 2007. While getting to a bowl game is probably a stretch for Washington State the team has been far more competitive as the 6-2 ATS record can attest. Washington State gave Auburn a very close game in the opening week and the win over USC was one of the biggest wins for the program in many years. In three of the last four games Washington State has lost by at least 22 points while getting out-gained by at least 160 yards but they have faced an extremely tough schedule and the Cougars took care of business in beating California to make it clear they are no longer at the bottom of the conference. As expected this is one of the top passing offenses in the nation, throwing for 373 yards per game but the defense is allowing 440 yards per game, an average that is actually worse than last season.
Arizona State won 46-7 last season at home but as a similar favorite in Pullman in 2011 the Sun Devils lost 37-27. Washington State has covered in four of the last six meetings including three straight meetings at home. Arizona State is 2-0 ATS as a road favorite under Todd Graham however, winning both instances last season. Washington State was 2-1 ATS as a home underdog last season but they failed in 52-24 loss in the lone instance this season hosting Oregon State, though it is worth noting that game was very tight until a disastrous turnover-filled fourth quarter for the Cougars.