Title Tips - Group of Five
November 28, 2017
By Joe Nelson
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Playing for a championship is the goal of every program and nine conference champions will be decided this weekend, eight coming on Saturday.
College Playoff berths are not on the line in the Conference USA, AAC, MAC, and Mountain West games but all four contests will feature regular season rematches to fill out the championship Saturday schedule.
CONFERENCE USA CHAMPIONSHIP
Matchup: North Texas Mean Green at Florida Atlantic Owls
Venue: At FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida
Time/TV: Saturday, December 2, 12:00 PM ET, ESPN2
Line: Florida Atlantic -11, Over/Under 73½
Last Meeting: October 21, 2017 at Florida Atlantic (-3½) 69-31
Lane Kiffin is only 42 but he has already been the former head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee, and USC. After rebuilding his tarnished reputation as an assistant at Alabama for three seasons he surprised many by taking over at Florida Atlantic. It has proven to be a wise move for the trajectory of his career with a great season in Boca Raton and likely some options available to him if he chooses to pursue another position higher up the college football ladder.
The Owls went 3-9 last season and started this season 1-3 while also dealing with the complications of Hurricane Irma in September. Florida Atlantic wound up as one of three teams in the nation to go undefeated in conference play. Florida Atlantic averaged 39.8 points per game with the sixth most productive rushing attack in the nation. North Texas was just 1-11 in 2015 before Seth Littrell took over the program. The Mean Green managed to get a bowl invite at 5-7 last year, losing to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl but delivering a season of improvement. This year’s team is now 9-3 with the only loss after a 1-2 start coming in Boca Raton.
North Texas is without Jeffery Wilson who led the team in rushing as they look for their first conference title since winning four Sun Belt titles in a row from 2001-2004. Nic Smith has been very productive as his replacement and Mason Fine had the top quarterback rating in Conference USA, just ahead of FAU’s Jason Driskel while attempting nearly twice as many passes.
2017 Meeting: The Owls had a record setting day hosting North Texas is October with 69 points and 804 total yards. It was 24-0 not even 14 minutes into the game and 41-7 at halftime. North Texas did wind up with 31 points and 420 yards as well but three turnovers on the first five possessions put the Mean Green in a substantial hole.
Series History: Florida Atlantic won the first six meetings between these teams from 2004 to 2009, going 5-1 ATS in the run as well. North Texas won all four meeting from 2010 to 2014, going 3-1 ATS. October’s blowout win for Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton was the first meeting since November of 2014.
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP
Matchup: Memphis Tigers at Central Florida Knights
Venue: At Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando, Florida
Time/TV: Saturday, December 2, 12:00 PM ET, ABC
Line: Central Florida -7½, Over/Under 82
Last Meeting: September 30, 2017 at Central Florida (-5½) 40-13
The top two quarterbacks in the AAC face off in the third ever AAC Championship and the first appearance in the game for either program. UCF last played for a championship losing the 2012 Conference USA title game to Tulsa while Memphis and UCF were co-champions of the AAC with Cincinnati in the 2014 season before the league had divisions.
Sophomore McKenzie Milton followed Scott Frost to UCF and after emerging as the starter as a freshman last season he was the AAC’s top rated passer (2nd nationally) this season with 30 touchdowns against six interceptions, completing 69 percent of his passes on 10.3 yards per attempt. Milton has also rushed for 429 yards leading a Knights offense that scored 47.6 points per game to pace the nation. Riley Ferguson delivered a fine senior season for Memphis with 32 touchdown throws and 3,500 passing yards. At 6’4” Ferguson could be a mid-round NFL draft pick in April. As the total suggests both offenses are capable of huge numbers with Memphis scoring 44.3 points per game.
The head coaches will be bigger storylines than the quarterbacks however as it is assumed the Scott Frost will be departing Orlando for a power five job. His Alma Mater Nebraska certainly is interested but there could be other schools in play as well, including possibly Florida State should that position open up. Memphis head coach Mike Norvell is 18-6 in two seasons at Memphis and also will likely have the opportunity to interview for a few openings as well. He played at Central Arkansas as the opening in Fayetteville seems like a possibility but he also was an assistant at Arizona State before taking over at Memphis.
2017 Meeting: Originally scheduled for the second week of the season this game was shuffled along with several other AAC games following Hurricane Irma, played in late September when UCF has originally scheduled FCS Maine and Memphis had originally scheduled a game at Georgia State. UCF had only played two games but they had outscored Florida International and Maryland 99-27 with the win at Maryland turning some heads as the Terrapins were 2-0 with a win over Texas. UCF has clear edges statistically and led 23-7 before eventually leading 40-7 with the Tigers adding a late touchdown. UCF had a 603-396 yardage edge with a 4-1 turnover edge. The rushing edge was most prominent with a 350-75 advantage for the Knights.
Series History: Central Florida has won S/U 10 meetings in a row in this series going back to 2005 with the last win for Memphis coming in 1990 when UCF was not playing at the top college football level. Memphis has covered in three of the last five meetings going back to 2010 with this September’s 40-13 win for the Knights the first meeting since 2013. The highest scoring meeting between these teams didn’t quite reach this year’s total with a 56-20 result in favor of UCF in 2007.
Matchup: Akron Zips at Toledo Rockets
Venue: At Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan
Time/TV: Saturday, December 2, 12:00 PM ET, ESPN
Line: Toledo -21½, Over/Under 57½
Last Meeting: October 21, 2017 at Toledo (-15) 48-21
Toledo has been one of the better teams in the MAC for much of the last decade but the Rockets haven’t been to the MAC Championship since winning the 2004 title. The Rockets are 10-2 with only one MAC loss and a loss to highly rated Miami, FL in the non-conference schedule. Senior quarterback Logan Woodside has 24 touchdown passes with just three interceptions to finish fourth nationally in quarterback rating.
Playing as the biggest favorite of championship weekend, run defense might be the biggest weakness for Toledo, allowing 170.8 rushing yards per game on 4.7 yards per carry. Akron isn’t a great threat to exploit that weakness as the Zips were out-rushed in all 11 FBS games this season but the Zips have some momentum with a late season upset of Ohio to move up in the MAC East standings, clinching this spot with a win over rival Kent State last week.
Terry Bowden is in his sixth season at Akron with now five straight seasons of finishing at least 5-7 after the program went 1-11 in three consecutive seasons including Bowden’s first with the program in 2012. Akron was 5-3 last season before losing the final four games to miss a bowl bid as this has been a redemptive campaign. Akron senior quarterback Thomas Woodson hasn’t played the past three games after being suspended for a violation of team rules. Freshman Kato Nelson has played well since taking over and while Bowden has said that Woodson is available he hasn’t made it clear what the plan will be as they look for an upset.
2017 Meeting: Toledo led 21-0 after the first quarter and coasted to a 48-21 win with a 626-333 yardage edge. The Rockets only lined up for 3rd down nine times and converted six times to move the ball with ease throughout the game. Toledo had 11 penalties for 104 yards compared to none for Akron as that could be an area of emphasis for second year head coach Jason Candle who is now 19-6 in two seasons and could get some calls from athletic directors around the country in the coming weeks.
Series History: Toledo has won nine of 12 meetings S/U since 1992 though going just 2-3 ATS since 2008. This season and last season the result was nearly identical with a 48-17 win at Akron last season and a 48-21 home victory for the Rockets in October. Akron’s last win in the series came in 2013 at home wining 31-29 (+11) and this is set to be the highest spread ever in the series.
MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERNCE CHAMPIONSHIP
Matchup: Fresno State Bulldogs at Boise State Broncos
Venue: At Albertson’s Stadium in Boise, Idaho
Time/TV: Saturday, December 2, 7:45 PM ET, ESPN
Line: Boise State -9, Over/Under 49
Last Meeting: November 25, 2017 at Fresno State (+6½) 28-17
Boise State won eight WAC titles from 2002 to 2010 but the program has won the Mountain West championship just twice and just once since the championship game format started. That title came by virtue of beating Fresno State in 2014 in Boise 28-14, though falling well short of an over three-touchdown spread. The Broncos have won 10 or more games in 14 of the last 18 seasons and they will hit that mark with a win this weekend (or with a bowl win).
The Broncos have several notable upsets vs. power five schools in recent years but they missed in both opportunities in September. This year’s team drew one of the tougher schedules in the conference having to play San Diego State and Colorado State on the road with those teams generally considered the preseason division favorites. Quarterback Brett Rypien didn’t match the numbers he posted last season and wound up splitting a lot of time with Montell Cozart as the Broncos had some inconsistency on offense but were one of the top defensive teams in the conference.
Jeff Tedford had success in 11 seasons at California before he was let go after the 2012 season. He coached in the NFL in 2014 and the CFL in 2015 before returning to college football as an assistant at Washington last season. This season has led one of the great turnarounds in college football with the Bulldogs going from 1-11 to 9-3 and playing for a conference championship at his Alma Mater. Always known as a quarterback developer he has turned Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion to one of the top players in the conference. The Fresno State defense is also 12th nationally in scoring defense allowing just 17.3 points per game for a dramatic improvement from last season.
2017 Meeting: These teams played last week in Fresno knowing that they would play again in this championship game this week. Fresno State prevailed 28-17 to pull away after Boise State closed to within two points in the fourth quarter. There were no turnovers and the yardage was nearly even with third down success the biggest difference in the box score.
Series History: Boise State is 13-4 S/U in this series since 1996 with a 12-4 ATS record however Fresno State has covered in the past three meetings. Prior to last week’s 28-17 win for Fresno State at home these teams last met in the MWC Championship in 2014 with Boise State winning 28-14 but falling short of a -23 spread at home. None of the S/U wins for Fresno State in this series have come in Boise.
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