The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 8, 2019

2019 Conference USA Football Preview

Welcome to the 2019-2020 College Football season on the SS Touchdown, your favorite PiRate ship of analytical merriment.

The PiRates have spent hours upon hours doing research this summer getting ready for another football season.  2018 was an incredible year for our ratings, as we finished at the top of the Prediction Tracker against the spread in college football, and the best against the spread and at picking winners in NFL football.  We have seen a steady bump in additional readers, so we hope we can follow up with another great year.

Today, we begin previewing one NCAA FBS conference per day for the next 11 days.  In past years, we published lengthy previews, but after hearing from a lot of you tell us that you come here for the stats, we are going to try to become the Sergeant Joe Friday of football, “Just the Stats.”  Oh, we’ll throw in a little Joe Gannon and include something from out of left field when something warrants it.

We begin with Conference USA, the #11 rated conference to begin the PiRate Ratings season.

The Official Media Poll

Conference USA Media Poll
East Division
Pos. Team 1st Place Votes
1 Marshall 14
2 Florida Int’l. 9
3 Florida Atlantic 3
4 Middle Tennessee 0
5 Western Kentucky 0
6 Old Dominion 0
7 Charlotte 0
 

 

West Division
Pos. Team 1st Place Votes
1 North Texas 20
2 Southern Miss. 4
3 Louisiana Tech 0
4 UAB 2
5 UTSA 0
6 Rice 0
7 UTEP 0

For some reason, Conference USA did not release the total vote count by the media.  We only received the First Place Votes and position each team finished in the voting.  Additionally, the media did not vote on an overall champion.

 

The PiRate Ratings

Preseason PiRate Ratings–CUSA
East Division
Team PiRate Mean Bias Average
Florida Int’l. 93.6 93.7 94.4 93.9
Marshall 92.9 92.6 93.8 93.1
Florida Atlantic 91.7 91.1 92.4 91.7
Middle Tennessee 90.5 90.0 90.6 90.4
Western Kentucky 87.5 88.7 89.0 88.4
Charlotte 86.6 87.0 87.0 86.9
Old Dominion 75.1 76.0 75.1 75.4
 

 

West Division
Team PiRate Mean Bias Average
Southern Miss. 93.4 92.2 93.7 93.1
North Texas 92.5 92.3 93.4 92.7
Louisiana Tech 90.7 90.8 90.8 90.7
U A B 88.2 89.1 88.7 88.7
U T S A 77.5 80.0 77.2 78.2
Rice 77.7 78.8 77.0 77.9
U T E P 67.9 72.6 68.3 69.6
CUSA Averages 86.1 86.8 86.5 86.5

Note:  These preseason ratings are accurate as of August 1, 2019, and subject to change before the first week of the season due to personnel changes prior to the first week of the season.

Predicted Won-Loss Records

The PiRate Ratings were not created to forecast won-loss records like other ratings might attempt.  Our ratings are valid for just the next game on the teams’ schedules, and we have pre-set adjustments built into our ratings on many teams.  For instance, if a team has exceptional starting talent but little depth, their rating has a pre-set reduction per week of the season, so that even if they win or lose a game by the exact expected margin, they will lose some of their power rating due to their depth issues.

If a team has exceptional, but inexperienced talent, their rating will have a pre-set addition per week of the season, and even if their performance may be exactly what was expected, their power rating will rise.

What you see in these predicted won-loss records are our opinion and not calculated from the ratings.  These are the estimated records based on a vote, with the Captain having 50% of the vote and the crew having the other 50%.  Then, if the Captain didn’t like the result, he swung his sword and chose them by himself.  Actually, the conference records had to be balanced, and all the half-win votes made it a mess, so it’s probably 100% his opinion.

PiRate Members Predicted Won-Loss
East Division
Pos Team CUSA Overall
1 Florida Atlantic 6-2 8-5
2 Marshall 6-2 9-3
3 Florida Int’l. 5-3 7-5
4 Western Kentucky 4-4 5-7
5 Middle Tennessee 4-4 5-7
6 Charlotte 3-5 5-7
7 Old Dominion 1-7 2-10
 

 

West Division
Pos Team CUSA Overall
1 Southern Miss. 7-1 9-4*
2 Louisiana Tech 6-2 9-3
3 North Texas 6-2 7-5
4 UAB 5-3 8-4
5 UTSA 2-6 3-9
6 Rice 1-7 1-11
7 UTEP 0-8 1-11
* Southern Miss. picked to win CUSA Championship

 

Bowl Projections

Bowl Team
Bahamas Southern Miss.
First Responder Marshall
Gasparilla Cincinnati
New Mexico Louisiana Tech
New Orleans UAB
 

 

Alternate Bowl Teams
Frisco Florida Int’l
Independence North Texas

Coaches That Could Move To FBS Power Conference Schools

Seth Littrell–North Texas

Lane Kiffin–Florida Atlantic

Jay Hopson–Southern Miss.

 

Coaches on The Hot Seat

Dana Dimel–UTEP

Frank Wilson–UTSA

Bobby Wilder–Old Dominion

 

Top Quarterbacks

Mason Fine–North Texas

Tyler Johnson III–UAB

James Morgan–Florida Int’l.

 

Best Offense

North Texas

Florida Int’l.

Marshall

 

Best Defense

Marshall

Louisiana Tech

Southern Miss.

 

Coming Tomorrow–The Mid-American Conference

 

 

 

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August 11, 2018

2018 Conference USA Preview

Note: The preseason ratings you see in the previews may not be the same as the ratings you see for the first game. We update every team’s rating based on player injuries, changes to the depth charts, and other factors that may change during preseason practice.

Some of our Group of 5 Conference won-loss predictions were figured before the beginning of August preseason practices. Thus, it could be that a player or players on some teams have already suffered season-ending or multiple game injuries or have left their teams, and these won-loss predictions no longer accurately reflect our ratings. We hope that by the time we preview the Power 5 conferences, we will know who is not going to be available (players and head coaches).

 

Conference USA is an interesting league. Annually, it comes in as the second weakest conference overall to begin each season, sometimes just a fraction ahead of the Sun Belt. Yet. this league produces a plethora of bowl-eligible teams. Last year was no different, as 10 of the 14 schools earned bowl eligibility, and nine received bowl invitations.

Last year, after a slow start that saw his team lose big to Navy and Wisconsin and then suffer a heartbreaking loss at Buffalo, Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic team caught fire and won their final 10 games. Included in the season-ending sweep were a CUSA Championship Game title and a victory in the Boca Raton Bowl, both by fat margins. The Owls finished the season averaging better than 40 points and almost 500 total yards per game, but Kiffin will have to rebuild on this side of the ball. Expect defense to help FAU contend for another conference title.

Marshall and Middle Tennessee should be FAU’s chief competition for the title. Coach Doc Holliday is one of the best recruiters in the Group of 5 conferences, and he has a lot of experienced talent returning to Marshall. If not for the fact that the Thundering Herd will have to break in a new quarterback and has no player that has thrown even one pass for the school in a game. Additionally, there will be a new offensive coordinator, as Tim Cramsey comes to Huntington from Sam Houston State and brings a new offense.  Of course, his 2017 SHU offense merely averaged better than 43 points per game and proved to be powerful running and passing the ball.

Middle Tennessee has the top returning quarterback in the division in Brent Stockstill, but the Blue Raiders have an iffy secondary and could be forced to outscore opponents every week.

The West Division looks like a three-team race. North Texas, Lousiana Tech, and UAB could finish in a three-way tie, with Southern Mississippi a distant fourth. Having two of the weakest FBS teams in the same division in Rice and UTEP, means that the other four division rivals can almost count on two conference victories already.

North Texas has the top overall quarterback in the league and maybe the best overall in the Lone Star State in Mason Fine. As a sophomore last season, he finished 6th nationally in passing yards, and he is the leading passing yardage leader among returning quarterbacks. Fine has most of his receiving corps returning this year, so if he gets just a little better pass protection, he could lead the Mean Green to the best season in Denton since Hayden Fry coached there in the late 1970’s. UNT Coach Seth Littrell is on a fast track to taking over a big time program. Every stop along the way, the team he has coached as an assistant set passing and total offense records. Mentoring Fine is not the first time he has trained a top prospect into a big-time talent. He previously tutored Nick Foles at Arizona.

UAB coach Bill Clark takes a back seat to nobody. How’s this for an incredible feat of wizardry? Clark stayed with the program when the school dropped football for two seasons. With just a handful of recruits to work with and a promise of playing again in the future, he recruited enough talent and then “coached ’em up.” Picked to maybe win two games by most pundits last year in their return to the game, UAB enjoyed an 8-win season and bid to the Bahamas Bowl. With 14 starters returning from last year’s first team back in football and a decent recruiting class, UAB should be right there with North Texas in the West Division race.

Skip Holtz is the big name in the West Division of CUSA, and his Louisiana Tech Bulldogs have to be considered one of the tri-favorites in this division. His team underperformed a bit last year but still managed to win seven times and make an appearance in the Frisco Bowl, where LT looked more like the team people expected them to be, dusting SMU 51-10. The Techsters have a lot of returning talent, and if said talent plays more like they did in the bowl and less like they did against Southern Miss and Rice, then the Bulldogs could make it back to the top of the division.

Here is how the CUSA media voted in the preseason poll.

Team
East Division 1st Place Votes
1. Florida Atlantic 22
2. Marshall 4
3. Middle Tennessee 0
4. Florida Int’l. 0
5. Western Kentucky 0
6. Old Dominion 0
7. Charlotte 0
Team
West Division 1st Place Votes
1. North Texas 18
2. Louisiana Tech 4
3. UAB 3
4. Southern Miss. 1
5. UTSA 0
6t. Rice 0
6t. UTEP 0

There were no votes for overall conference champion.

The PiRate Ratings basically confirm the media’s preseason opinions.

Conference USA
East Division
Team CUSA Overall PiRate Mean Bias Average
Florida Atlantic 0-0 0-0 102.0 103.0 103.3 102.8
Marshall 0-0 0-0 94.3 97.1 95.0 95.5
Middle Tennessee 0-0 0-0 91.4 93.4 93.0 92.6
Old Dominion 0-0 0-0 87.5 91.3 89.0 89.3
Florida Int’l. 0-0 0-0 82.0 86.8 82.6 83.8
W. Kentucky 0-0 0-0 80.4 84.6 81.2 82.1
Charlotte 0-0 0-0 76.2 78.7 76.3 77.1
West Division
Team CUSA Overall PiRate Mean Bias Average
Louisiana Tech 0-0 0-0 93.8 96.4 95.2 95.1
N. Texas 0-0 0-0 93.0 96.3 93.6 94.3
U A B 0-0 0-0 91.1 93.6 91.5 92.1
Southern Miss. 0-0 0-0 81.6 85.0 82.1 82.9
U T S A 0-0 0-0 80.2 85.6 81.6 82.5
Rice 0-0 0-0 71.4 74.5 69.7 71.9
U T E P 0-0 0-0 69.3 72.5 68.6 70.1
CUSA Averages 85.3 88.5 85.9 86.6

New Coaches

When a large majority of schools gain bowl eliibility, there are not going to be a lot of coaching dismissals. Unless coaches get better jobs, they will return to their respective schools. As mentioned previously, Rice and UTEP ranked in the bottom 10 of all FBS schools last year, and these two teams will welcome new leaders.

Rice hired MIke Bloomgren and hopes to get the same results that Bloomgren produced as offensive coordinator at Stanford. He also has experience coaching with the New York Jets during the Rex Ryan era. The Owls will use power running mixed with play-action passing and hope to improve on 16 points and 330 yards per game on offense. Thanks to home games with Prairie View and UTEP, Bloomgren should double the win total from one to two.

UTEP wore the collar last year, going 0-12 and losing by an average of 25 points per game. The Miners hired 55-year old Dana Dimel, who for the last decade has been the offensive coordinator at Kansas State. Dimel has past head coaching stops at Wyoming and Houston. He succeeded in Laramie but failed in Houston. In year one, he faces a gargantuan rebuilding process, but you cannot really go south from 0-12, unless you repeat with another 0-12 that includes a loss to an FCS team. Northern Arizona will be a tough FCS opponent for the Miners.

Predicted Won-Loss Records

East
Team Conference Overall
Florida Atlantic 8-0 11-2 *
Marshall 7-1 9-3
Middle Tennessee 6-2 7-5
Old Dominion 4-4 6-6
Western Kentucky 3-5 5-7
Florida Int’l. 2-6 3-9
Charlotte 0-8 1-11
West
Team Conference Overall
North Texas 6-2 9-4
UAB 6-2 9-3
Louisiana Tech 6-2 8-4
Southern Miss. 4-4 5-7
UTSA 3-5 5-7
Rice 1-7 2-11
UTEP 0-8 1-11
* Fla. Atlantic picked to win CUSA Championship Game

Bowl Tie-ins
CUSA does not have a set bowl order. They send teams to bowls to create the best overall matchups.

These are the bowls tie-ins for 2018.

Bahamas Bowl in Nassau, Bahamas
Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, FL
Gasparilla Bowl in St. Petersburg, FL
Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu, HI
Heart of Dallas Bowl in Dallas, TX
New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque, NM
New Orleans Bowl in New Orleans, LA

There are secondary bowl agreements with the Frisco Bowl in Frisco, Texas, and the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, if those bowl need at-large alternates.

Coming Tomorrow–The Mid-American Conference

August 15, 2011

2011 Sunbelt Conference Preview

2011 Sunbelt Conference Preview

 

The guard may be in process of changing in the Sunbelt Conference.  Florida International and Troy finished tied for first at 6-2 last year, but FIU defeated the Trojans by 17. 

 

Florida International returns an experienced quarterback in Wesley Carroll, good depth at running back with Darriet Perry and Darian Mallary capable of teaming for 1,800 rushing yards, and the top receiver in the league and a possible high NFL draft choice in T. Y. Hilton.  Their offensive line is close to the best in the league and could emerge as the best if someone can step forward at center.  FIU should top 30 points and 400 yards per game this season.

 

Defensively, the Golden Panthers should be as good as or better than last season.  The one question mark will be at linebacker.

 

Louisiana Monroe is the wildcard in this season’s SBC race.  The Warriors return 17 starters from a year ago and should definitely improve on their 4-4 conference mark and 5-7 record overall.  An overtime loss to eventual champion FIU and a one-point loss to Louisiana in the season finale was all that kept ULM from winning the league last year.  The Warriors figure to be at least 7-10 points better in 2011, and when they host FIU on November 19, it could very well be for the 2011 SBC title.

 

Kolton Browning is an excellent dual threat quarterback.  He completed 62% of his passes last year as a freshman.  His top four receivers return this year, and ULM should gain 250 yards through the air this season.

 

The defense must improve after giving up 32 points per game last year.  The Warriors gave up 4.4 yards per carry, and that number will not win a conference championship.

 

Troy is not out, but they are down a bit.  The Trojans were hit hard after the end of the season losing two wide receivers that were expected to contribute heavily in 2011.  Chip Reeves and Jamel Johnson would have been the two leading returning receivers for the league’s best passer, Corey Robinson.

 

Troy should have a much improved defense this season after giving up more than 30 points per game in 2010.  However, the Trojans’ offense may not repeat last year’s results when they averaged 34 points and 450+ yards per game. 

 

Defensively, end Jonathan Massaquoi will contend for defensive Player of the Year honors.  Massaquoi recorded more than 20 tackles for loss with 13 ½ sacks last year.  He will see more double teams with the departure of Mario Addison.

 

Arkansas State could have been 8-4 instead of 4-8.  The Red Wolves will be the most exciting team in the league with their no-huddle hurry-up offense.  An inexperienced offensive line could be their downfall.  If the green OL can protect quarterback Ryan Aplin, ASU’s passing game could top 275 yards per game through the air.  Dwayne Frampton, Allen Muse, and Taylor Stockemer return after combining for 145 receptions, 1,933 yards, and 16 touchdowns last year, and this year junior college transfer Jose Jarboe joins the fold to give the Red Wolves a receiving corps that has no peers inside the league.

 

Unfortunately, the hurry-up offense means the defense may have to hurry to get back on the field for too many plays.  ASU’s defense does not have the depth to stay on the field for 75 plays a game and be effective.

 

Western Kentucky is being picked near the bottom of the conference by the media, but we believe the Hilltoppers will be much improved this year.  WKU was outscored by just 2.6 points per game in league play, and they were only outgained by 20 yards per game.  With most of their skilled players returning on offense as well as some decent depth in the trenches, the Hilltoppers could flirt with a winning record in 2011.  A tough non-conference schedule could prevent that from happening, but we would not be surprised if WKU’s conference record was .500 or better.

 

Running back Bobby Rainey returns after leading the league with 1,649 yards rushing.  If the Hilltoppers can come up with just a little more balance on the attack side, they could threaten the 28 points per game mark.

 

Defensively, WKU was too easy to run on.  The Hilltoppers gave up five yards per carry, and still they were often burned by enemy passing games.  The defense will be quite a bit improved, but it is still not championship quality.

 

Middle Tennessee has never won the SBC title; they have flirted for years with championship material, but the Blue Raiders have been the Fresno State of the Sunbelt.  2011 should see Middle Tennessee take a step back after going to bowls both of the last two seasons. 

 

The Blue Raiders must rebuild on defense, and they were not all that tough on that side of the ball, giving up 120 points and 1,426 yards to Troy, Arkansas State, and FIU, the top three offenses in the league.

 

There could be a diamond in the rough on the offensive side of the ball.  Running back Jeremiah Bryson was headed to Pittsburgh, but he changed his mind to stay closer to home due to family issues.  Bryson could be the best back in Murfreesboro since Dwone Hicks played there a decade ago.

 

It is hard to believe that it has been seven years since North Texas was the original Troy of the Sunbelt.  The Mean Green won the league title four years in a row from 2001 to 2004, but UNT hasn’t tasted success since, going just 13-58 in the past in the last six seasons.  New head coach Dan McCarney will try to resurrect the program.  McCarney brought Iowa State back to respectability, taking the Cyclones to five bowls in six years and coming within a missed kick of winning the Big 12 North twice.  McCarney was Urban Meyer’s top assistant at Florida the last three years. 

 

McCarney dismissed top receiver Darius Carey from the team, and the UNT passing attack will struggle this year.  Sophomore quarterback Derek Thompson will battle Juco transfer Brent Osborn.  Whoever emerges as the starter will be handing the ball to Lance Dunbar about 25 times per game.  Dunbar rushed for 1,553 yards and 13 scores last year, and he caught 28 passes for three more touchdowns.

 

Defensively, the Mean Green were quite improved last year, although they still gave up 30 points and almost 400 yards per game.  Just three years ago, they gave up close to 50 points and 500 yards per game.  There could be additional improvement in 2011, but a tough schedule should prevent UNT from threatening for bowl eligibility.

 

Louisiana starts from scratch with new coach Mark Hudspeth.  Every place Hudspeth has gone, his teams have won, and the folks in Lafayette are excited in hopes that he will turn the program around.  UL’s last winning season was in the previous century, so do not expect miracles in year one.  In fact, the Ragin’ Cajuns could even take a small step back from last season’s 3-9 finish.

 

Quarterback Chris Masson is not going to be confused with Jake Delhomme, but the senior should improve on his 52.9 completion percentage this season.  He played in a shotgun formation last year and will be under center most of the time this season.  Masson has the top tight end target in the league in LaDarius Green.  Green is a threat to get open in the seams of zones and present a monstrous target.

 

An inexperienced offensive line will spell doom for the offense this year, but UL could have some memorable moments.

 

The defense is going to have some rough Saturdays once again.  UL surrendered 37 points and just under 400 yards per game last year, and even an improvement to 30 points allowed will not be enough to move the Ragin’ Cajuns north in the standings.

 

Florida Atlantic head coach Howard Schnellenberger just announced that 2011 will be his last.  Schnellenberger, 77, has a storied history in football.  He was recruited to Kentucky by Bear Bryant and later served on some of the best coaching staffs of all time.  As an assistant at his alma mater in the late 1950’s, he served under future NFL Champion coach Blanton Collier along with Don Shula and Bill Arnsparger.  As an assistant at Alabama, the Crimson Tide won multiple national titles, and he was the key recruiter that landed Joe Namath.  As an assistant in the NFL, he won a Super Bowl ring with Shula at Miami after helping the Rams win two division titles in the late 1960’s.  Throw in a college football championship at the U of Miami, and that is more than enough for any one man.  He was not finished.  He returned to his city of childhood and built Louisville into a major force in college football.  He also started the program at FAU. 

 

We mention all these things, because the 2011 season could be a really lousy way to exit the profession.  The Owls were the weakest offensive team in the SBC last year, and they lost most of their good players, including quarterback Jeff Van Camp and his top three receivers.  FAU had trouble running the ball, and it will be difficult to improve the running game with an inexperienced passing game this season.  The one positive is the return of all starting offensive linemen.

 

Defensively, opponents had little difficulty running or passing against the Owls in 2010, and the scary news is that the 2011 defense could be a little weaker.  Five of the top six tacklers from last year are gone.

 

Sunbelt Conference Preseason Media Poll

Team

First Place Votes

Points

1. Florida Int’l

5

75

2. Troy

2

66

3. Middle Tennessee

 

54

4. Louisiana-Monroe

 

54

5. Arkansas St.

1

49

6. North Texas

 

33

7. Western Kentucky

1

28

8. Louisiana

 

26

9. Florida Atlantic

 

20

     

 

 

The PiRate Ratings

 

   

 

 

Team

PiRate #

Prediction

1. Florida Int’l

87.1

7-1/8-4

2. Louisiana-Monroe

82.3

7-1/8-4

3. Troy

81.3

6-2/6-6

4. Arkansas State

81.3

4-4/5-7

5. Western Kentucky

75.1

3-5/4-8

6. Middle Tennessee

72.8

4-4/5-7

7. North Texas

71.9

3-5/3-9

8. Louisiana

71.7

1-7/2-10

9. Florida Atlantic

68.7

1-7/1-11

Next: The Mid-American Conference Preview, Tuesday, August 16 

August 10, 2010

2010 Sunbelt Conference Preview

2010 Sunbelt Conference Preview

Two teams have dominated this league since its inception as a football conference.  In the early years, North Texas repeatedly won conference championship after championship.  In recent years, Troy has dominated the league, while North Texas has fallen on rough times.

2010 could be a year of change.  Middle Tennessee has played second fiddle in this league for most of their existence as a Division 1-A (FBS) participant.  The Blue Raiders have been to two bowls as the conference runner-up.  With a load of talent returning from a 10-win season that included a bowl victory, Coach Rick Stockstill’s squad could be poised to become the new dominant team in the SBC.

As for Troy, this could be a small blip for the Trojans, as they face a major rebuilding season.  Troy graduated quarterback Levi Brown who threw for over 4,000 last year, and the Trojans lost six of their top seven tacklers.

Former conference power North Texas could be on the rise again.  With all-SBC running back Lance Dunbar returning (1,378 yards rushing), the top six pass catchers (includes Dunbar), and most of the two-deep in the offensive line, the Mean Green will post much better offensive numbers.  They scored 27 points per game last year, so that number could rise to 30+ this year.  A weak defense will prevent North Texas from winning the conference championship.

The Sunbelt is guaranteed two teams in bowl games once again this season.  With the two more teams getting bowl bids this year (addition of two bowls and elimination of one bowl), there is a chance a third team could receive an invitation, as other conferences fail to provide their allotted quota of teams to contracted bowl games.  Four teams could potentially reach seven or more wins this season, as the league appears to have great balance in the middle.  The fly in the ointment: except for Middle Tennessee, the rest of the league will all win zero or one of their non-conference games.

Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.

Predictions

Pos. Team Conf. Overall
1 Middle Tennessee 7-1 10-2
2 North Texas 6-2 7-5
3 Troy 5-3 6-6
4 Florida Atlantic 5-3 5-7
5 Louisiana 5-3 5-7
6 Arkansas State 3-5 3-9
7 Florida International 3-5 3-9
8 Western Kentucky 2-6 2-10
9 La.-Monroe 0-8 1-11

 

G M A C Bowl: Middle Tennessee

New Orleans Bowl: North Texas

 

The Sunbelt Conference gets priority for filling a vacant spot in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl if there is a third team with seven wins.

 

The Sunbelt is also a backup for the St. Petersburg Bowl and a second tier backup for the Papa John’s Bowl.

 

Team By Team Breakdown

 

Team Arkansas State Red Wolves
               
Head Coach Steve Roberts
               
Colors Scarlet and Black
               
City Jonesboro, AK
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 76.9
               
National Rank 116

 

Offense: The Red Wolves lost five of their six starting skill position players.  New quarterback Ryan Applin could top the production of last year’s starter Cory Leonard, but Leonard only threw for 1,416 yards and seven TDs.  Applin’s shoulder will be a concern early after undergoing surgery in the spring.

Tight end Kedric Murry is the lone returning skill starter.  He caught just seven passes a year ago, so the receiving corps will be noticeably weaker.  At running back, 2009 top rusher Reggie Arnold is gone, but Derek Lawson should equal or top Arnold’s production this year.

The strength of this team is its offensive line.  Rarely does a Sunbelt team return an experienced two-deep unit like this year’s ASU OL.  They will open holes for the backs and give Applin plenty of time.

Even with all the new skill position players, we see Arkansas State’s offense faring better in 2010 than in 2009 when they averaged 23 points and 329 yards per game.  Look for 25-28 points and 350 yards per game.

Defense: The Red Wolves have fielded respectable defenses for the last five seasons, but ASU’s defensive line has been decimated due to graduation.  Even though the top four tacklers return, two of those four are defensive backs.  Gone is all-SBC end Alex Carrington and his 14 ½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage. 

ASU also lost their two starting cornerbacks and their nickel back.  The Red Wolves gave up 219 yards per game through the air and 61% completions, and that number could be worse this season.

We see ASU yielding 27-32 points per game and 350-380 total yards per game.

Schedule: Games at Auburn, Indiana, and Navy are not winnable.  A  homecoming game with Louisville could determine whether ASU can top last year’s four win total.  They get the two weakest conference foes at home, so three wins is about what to expect.  You can expect a coaching change in Jonesboro if three is all there is.

Team Florida Atlantic Owls
               
Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger
               
Colors Red, White, and Blue
               
City Boca Raton, FL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 78.1
               
National Rank 111

 

Offense: FAU had an explosive offense that scored more than 27 points per game and gained more than 430 yards per game last year, but the Owls still finished with a losing season due to a weak defense.  This year, the offense will be noticeably weaker.  Only two full-time starters return on offense, and neither one is a quarterback or offensive lineman. 

Quarterback Jeff Van Camp started five games last year, and the Owls won three of those starts.  He averaged a very respectable 7.5 yards per attempt, but you can expect that number to fall this year.  With an entirely new offensive line and only one of the top six receivers from 2009 returning, FAU’s passing game will suffer, falling from 280 yards per game to as low as 180 this year.

The one bright spot on offense is the return of running back Alfred Morris.  Morris rushed for almost 1,400 yards and 11 scored last year, but those numbers will drop as well.

Look for FAU’s offense to ground to just 20-23 points per game and 300-330 total yards.

Defense: As much as the offense regresses this year, the defense could show signs of great progress this year.  The defensive line suffered some late losses in depth, but three starters (two juniors and a senior) return up front, including potential all-league end Kevin Cyrille.  Cyrille registered 11 ½ stops behind the line last year.

The back seven was as weak as the front four last year, but the good news is they can only improve.  FAU gave up 233 passing yards at a better than 67% completion rate for enemy quarterbacks.  The only reason the passing yardage number wasn’t 300+ per game is that the Owls gave up more than six yards per rushing attempt. 

We see the Owls giving up about 28 points and 400 yards per game this year, which unfortunately would be a vast improvement over last season.

Schedule: The Owls have just four home games this year, as well as a very tough out-of-conference slate.  FAU plays at UAB, Michigan State, South Florida, and Texas and should lose all four games.  They don’t face the league’s two best teams until after Thanksgiving, but those games will come back-to-back following the trip to face the Longhorns. 

Florida Atlantic could challenge for bowl eligibility, but they would have to pull off an upset at UAB and beat all six of the SBC teams they face before Thanksgiving.  We see them winning five of those first six league games, but that will lead to a repeat of last year’s 5-7 season.

Team Florida International Panthers
               
Head Coach Mario Cristobal
               
Colors Blue and Gold
               
City Miami, FL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 3-9
               
PiRate Rating 78.2
               
National Rank 110

 

Offense: The Golden Panthers have improved in total yardage for four consecutive seasons, and this year should make it five in a row.  Former Mississippi State starting quarterback Wesley Carroll takes over behind center.  Carroll was Miss. State’s starting quarterback in 2007 when the Bulldogs went to a bowl.

Carroll has a full house of returning receiver talent, as the top eight pass catchers return, including breakaway threat Greg Ellingson and possession receiver T.Y. Hilton.

FIU has never been a rushing power, averaging just 100 yards per game the last five years.  Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Harden will team with Darriet Perry to form the best tandem the Panthers have had.

The offensive line has some rebuilding to do, but the drop off shouldn’t be much.

We see FIU scoring 25 points per game and gaining about 340 yards per game this year.

Defense: This has been FIU’s Achilles heel since the program was established in 2002.  The Golden Panthers yielded 35+ points and almost 500 yards per game in 2009, and those numbers will not improve by much if any this year.

Up front, the line was decimated by graduation losses.  FIU couldn’t stop the run last year, giving up 230+ rushing yards per game, and opponents could match or better that this year.

While most of the leading players in the back seven return, it is misleading to think having these top tacklers returning will lead to much better defensive production.  These players made a lot of tackles because they did not prevent many passes from being completed.  One player who did contribute in the pass defense was cornerback Anthony Gaitor.  Gaitor knocked away seven passes and picked off two others.

We look for marginal improvement on this side of the ball, about 30-32 points per game and 430-450 yards per game.

Schedule: This is a killer schedule, and it will prevent FIU from breaking through with a winning season.  FIU will start 0-4 after facing Rutgers, Texas A&M, Maryland, and Pittsburgh, the latter three on the road.  Home games with the two weakest teams give them a slim chance at breaking even in the league, but it looks more like a repeat of last year—three wins.

Team Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
               
Head Coach Rickey Bustle
               
Colors Vermillion and White
               
City Lafayette, LA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 6-6
               
PiRate Rating 82.6
               
National Rank 102

 

Offense: The Ragin’ Cajuns always seem to do just enough on offense to stay competitive in conference games without ever looking flashy or producing gaudy statistics.  Last year, ULL scored just 22.2 points per game, which paved the way for four of their six wins being by four points or less.

Quarterback Chris Masson won’t win any all-league honors, but he won’t hurt his team’s chances either.  He should pass for about 200-240 yards per game and complete close to 60% of his tosses.

Masson has a couple of quality receivers to pass to, namely tight end Ladarius Green and wide out Marlin Miller.  At 6-6, Green is an inviting target.  He could be playing for pay in 2012.

The Ragin’ Cajuns used to be a predominately running team, but they only averaged 137 yards per game last year.  2010 should see similar results.

The offensive line lost three starters to graduation, but the entire second five returns.  There should be little or no drop in production this year.

Louisiana should average about 23-26 points and 375-400 yards per game this year.

Defense: This is where great progress must be made if ULL is to contend for a bowl bid this year.  The last three years have been poor for the stop troops in Lafayette.  ULL has given up more than 30 points and 400 yards all three seasons.  Things are looking up in 2010.  The improvement may be subtle due to a schedule that has them playing two SEC opponents, but the Cajuns will be tougher on this side of the ball.

The front seven should see the bulk of the improvement, as opponents will find it harder to run the ball, and quarterbacks will see more pressure than they have the last three seasons.

Schedule: Yet another team that will more than likely lose all four non-conference games, Louisiana faces a tough slate of opponents.  It starts with a visit between the hedges to face Georgia.  A Friday night home game with Oklahoma State will give the Cajuns a chance to pull off a big upset.  Road games in consecutive weeks at Ohio U and Ole Miss should produce two rough losses.  ULL gets a week off prior to hosting Middle Tennessee, and this could be the upset of the year in the Sunbelt.

The Ragin’ Cajuns have enough talent to threaten in the league if 6-2 is good enough to win the conference.  We think they will fall short by just a bit.  5-3 will lead to a 5-7 mark overall unless ULL can upset Oklahoma State.

Team Louisiana Monroe Warhawks
               
Head Coach Todd Berry
               
Colors Red and Gold
               
City Monroe, LA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 6-6
               
PiRate Rating 74.8
               
National Rank 117

 

Offense: UL-Monroe fired former Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie and hired former Army coach Todd Berry.  Expect a drop from a typical Navy season to a typical Army season.  Don’t blame it on Berry; blame it on a loss of talent.

On the offensive side of the ball, ULM has enough talent to move the ball on the middle of the pack and weaker conference defenses.  It starts in the running game, where Frank Goodin returns to tote the pigskin.  Goodin rushed for 1,126 yards and 13 scores last year, while topping five yards per carry.

Quarterback Trey Revell returns after tossing for 1,739 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the four hands that caught 78 of his passes and nine of those scores are gone.  Throw in an inexperienced offensive line, and the passing game will suffer this year.

Look for about 175 rushing yards and 175 passing yards for 21-25 points per game.

Defense: Only four starters return on this side of the ball.  The Warhawks were a competent defensive team last year, but that is going to change.  Three of the four linebackers (actually ULM used a 3-3-5, but the Hawk back was more of a linebacker) from last year are gone, and two of the three starters in the trenches are gone as well.

The two returning defensive backs are among the best in the league, but they may be called on to stop more running plays this year.  Darius Prelow and Nate Brown combined for 18 passes batted away last year.

We look for ULM to give up 400+ total yards and 30-35 points per game this year.

Schedule: The Warhawks have a winnable game out of the league this year, as they host FCS rival Southeast Louisiana.  Who do they play in the other three games?  How about Arkansas, Auburn, and LSU, all on the road?  Because they must face Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, we do not see ULM winning a conference game this season.  1-11 looks possible.

Team Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
               
Head Coach Rick Stockstill
               
Colors Blue and Gray
               
City Murfreesboro, TN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 7-1
Overall 10-3
               
PiRate Rating 88.8
               
National Rank 90

 

Offense: The Blue Raiders appear to be the class of the league this year thanks to a dominant offense that could threaten 40 points per game this year.  Middle is coming off its first 10-win season and bowl victory since moving up to the big time.

Quarterback Dwight Dasher may be too small to become a legitimate NFL prospect, but he could be a star in the Canadian Football League.  Last year, the 5-10 speedster gained more than 1,150 yards rushing with 13 touchdowns, while passing for almost 2,800 yards and 23 more touchdowns!

Dasher has one of the league’s best set of receivers.  Garrett Andrews is a threat to go the distance on any catch.  Three newcomers could contribute immediately.

As if those riches weren’t enough, The Blue Raiders have two backs besides Dasher capable of rushing for 100+ yards in a game.  Phillip Tanner and D.D. Kyles could combine with Dasher to rush for 225-250 yards per game.

The offensive line returns four of five starters.  Expect the sacks allowed total to drop from 19 to as low as 10 this year.

MTSU is capable of topping 40 points and 500 yards per game this season, and we expect at least 35 points and 450 yards.

Defense: Middle Tennessee’s defense won’t get much credit, but if the Blue Raiders are to win their first SBC title this year, the defense will have to continue to shine in anonymity.  This side has yielded about 24 points and 350 yards per game the last two years, and they could be poised to kick it up a notch in 2010.

The defensive front seven is a small concern this season, and if the Blue Raiders fail to take the league title, and they aren’t torn apart by numerous injuries, it will be the lack of pass rush and coverage in the short zones that may do them in.

The secondary is the class of the league, and in a league known for its passing, that is important.  Rod Issac, Kevin Brown, and Jeremy Kellem teamed up to intercept seven passes and knock down 15 others.

Schedule: The Blue Raiders have the best non-conference schedule in the Sunbelt Conference.  An opening game at home on Thursday night against a beatable Minnesota team precedes a breather against former Ohio Valley Conference rival Austin Peay.  A visit to a weak Memphis team the week after could leave the Blue Raiders at 3-0 and poised to crack the Top 25.  The final non-league tilt comes in October against Georgia Tech.  MTSU hosts Troy on October 5, and the winner of that game should take the conference flag.  A September 25 visit to Lafayette to take on Louisiana could be a big trap game.  If they can win that game and knock off Troy, then the Yellow Jackets could be all that stops the Blue Raiders from running the table.

Team North Texas Mean Green
               
Head Coach Todd Dodge
               
Colors Green and White
               
City Denton, TX
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 2-10
               
PiRate Rating 81.7
               
National Rank 105

 

Offense: The Mean Green scored 27 points per game last year, but they only won twice.  Expect both numbers to head north this season as this team returns a lot of talent.  Last year’s starting quarterback, Riley Dodge (son of the coach), returns.  However, he suffered a shoulder injury and has been moved to a wide out position.  Dodge is a true athlete, so it wouldn’t surprise us if he caught 50 passes this season and still see a few snaps at his old position.

Nathan Tune and Derek Thompson will vie for the starting quarterback job.  Tune saw considerable action last year, while Thompson was forced to burn a redshirt in the middle of the final game last year.  Neither can run the ball the way Dodge did, but both can hum the ball down the field.

Whoever is throwing the ball will have the conference’s elite group of receivers.  Besides Dodge, Oklahoma transfer Tyler Stradford joins the squad that returns its top six pass catchers from 2009.

Those receivers will find the going easier than normal because defenses will have to stop the running game first.  North Texas returns the league’s number two rusher in Lance Dunbar, who gained 1,378 yards and scored 17 touchdowns last season.

Making this offense lethal this year is a very experienced and capable offensive line featuring tackle Esteban Santiago.

We believe North Texas will average better than 30 points and 425 yards per game this year, and they could top 200 yards rushing and passing in more than half their games.

Defense: Normally, when a team surrenders 36 points per game, it would be considered pathetic.  However, in Denton last year, this represented a 12-point improvement over the year before.  Expect another 12-point improvement this year.

The defensive line is in much better shape this year with three starters returning up front.  End Brandon Akpunku recorded six sacks and 5 ½ other tackles for loss.  The second four provide excellent depth here with three upperclassmen backing up the starters.

The second line of defense features a potential All-SBC linebacker in Craig Robertson.  Robertson led the Mean Green in tackles last season, but he will need to make more of those closer to the line of scrimmage this year if UNT expects to contend for the conference championship.

This should be the best secondary in Denton in years.  With a better pass rush, look for the back unit to defend more passes. 

We believe North Texas will chop another 8-12 points off their defensive yield and give up about 24-28 points and 375 yards per game.

Schedule: North Texas has a chance to win two or three of their non-conference games, but it isn’t a given.  A home game with Rice on September 11 and a visit to Army the following week will determine if the Mean Green will go to a bowl this season.  An opener at Clemson could be ugly.  The season finale is at home with a Kansas State squad that could need one win to become bowl-eligible.  Kansas State lost to Louisiana in Lafayette last year.

In the conference, North Texas hosts Troy and plays at Middle Tennessee in back-to-back weeks at the start of November.  We think they will split those games.  If they can win at Florida Atlantic, they have a chance to sneak through and win or share for the Sunbelt title as the surprise team.  Even if they fall short, we think the Mean Green will play a 13th game in December.

Team Troy Trojans
               
Head Coach Larry Blakeney
               
Colors Red and Gray
               
City Troy, AL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 9-4
               
PiRate Rating 86.9
               
National Rank 94

 

Offense: How do you replace the best quarterback in school history?  Levi Brown completed 64% of his passes for 4,254 yards last year.  New quarterback Jamie Hampton has six career starts under his belt, so he isn’t entirely raw.

Hampton has the league’s best returning trio of receivers.  Jerrel Jernigan, Tebarius Gill, and Chip Reeves teamed for 140 catches and 2,045 yards, with Jernigan accounting for better than half of that amount.

Troy used a running back by committee approach last year, but starter DuJuan Harris is capable of rushing for 1,000 yards if he returns to his 2008 form.

The offensive line returns three starters, and the two new starters are experienced upperclassmen. 

Troy averaged 34 points and 486 yards per game last year.  Expect a drop in those gaudy numbers, but the Trojans will still be a potent offensive machine.  28 points and 400 yards would still lead to a good season.

Defense: Welcome to troubles!  Troy was decimated by graduation losses on this side of the ball.  Six of the top seven tacklers are gone including three defensive linemen who are on NFL preseason rosters.

Four new DL starters will be in the trenches, and even though Coach Blakeney has recruited well, this quartet will not come close to matching last year’s numbers of 138 rushing yards allowed and 33 sacks.

Two linebackers have moved on, leaving Daniel Sheffield as the lone returnee in the front seven.  New middle linebacker Xavier Lamb should emerge as the leading tackler this year.

The last line of defense returns two starters, including the best pass defender in the league.  Cover corner Bryan Willis is a shutdown defender, but we don’t believe he will match last year’s total of 4 interceptions and 12 knockdowns.  Passers will have an extra half-second or more to locate open receivers on most plays.

Troy gave up 30 points and 425 yards per game last year, and those numbers will be worse this year.  Look for 35 points and 450 yards out of this rebuilding defense.

Schedule: Road games at South Carolina and Oklahoma State are sure losses.  A home game with Bowling Green is very winnable.  A trip to UAB on September 18 could determine whether Troy can get to seven victories and earn a bowl bid.  Middle Tennessee hosts Troy on Tuesday, October 5, in a nationally televised game.  We expect the Blue Raiders to exact revenge on the Trojans and end their reign of supremacy.  A road game at Florida Atlantic on December 4 could be a must-win game for bowl-eligibility and a possible third bid from the league. 

Team Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
               
Head Coach Willie Taggart
               
Colors Red and White
               
City Bowling Green, KY
               
2009 Record              
Conference 0-8
Overall 0-12
               
PiRate Rating 72.7
               
National Rank 118

 

Offense: Things are looking up for the Hilltoppers this year, but when you go 0-12, things can’t look much worse.  New coach Willie Taggart comes from Stanford, and he will install a pro-style offense using 1st team All-SBC running back Bobby Rainey the same way Toby Gerhart was used in Palo Alto.  Expect Rainey to get 300 rushing attempts this year, if WKU can stay in games and not have to resort to throwing the ball 85% of the time in the second half.  Rainey could easily lead the nation in rushing if he gets 300 attempts.

Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes did a lot of running himself last year—running for his life after a helpless group of pass blockers played like matadors.  Jakes has the potential to be the third best passer in the league if he gets just average protection up front.

Unfortunately, Jakes has little in talent on the other end of his passes.  The seven returning receivers from last year all failed to average 10 yards per catch.  A lot of that had to do with Jakes having to throw quickly to avoid the rush, but yards after the catch is not where this group excels.

The aforementioned offensive line will make strides toward improvement, but don’t expect a major transformation.  If they can allow 10 fewer sacks, WKU will move the ball and eat the clock this year.

Western scored 20 points per game last year and 25 in league play.  Expect the ‘Toppers to approach 24-26 points and 350-375 yards this year.  The big plus will be a ball-controlled rushing game that is capable of reducing total plays per game by as much as 10

Defense: WKU surrendered 40 points and almost 480 yards per game last year, and even with nominal improvement on this side of the ball, we expect the offense to keep this unit on the sidelines for a couple minutes more per game this year.

Taggart will switch Western to a 4-3 defense this year, and the new DL should improve on the 245 rushing yards allowed.   All players who contributed significantly last year in the two-deep return this season.

The second line of defense welcomes back all three of its four top players, and the trio of returning starters should be much improved this year.  Thomas Majors could earn 1st team all-conference honors.

The back line of defense was the weakest in all of FBS football last year, giving up 67.8% completions and 28 touchdowns!  Three starters return, and this unit must improve some, but it will still be a major liability.

We expect WKU to chip off as much as a touchdown from the points allowed this year, but 33-35 points per game is still too much for the Hilltoppers to turn things around.

Schedule: WKU has guaranteed themselves an 0-4 start prior to getting a week off on October 2.  The Hilltoppers open at Nebraska, at Kentucky, home versus Indiana, and at South Florida.  They will be banged up and need that week off before starting conference play.  Their first two conference games come at FIU and home with ULM.  If they don’t win one of those two games, it could lead to a repeat 0-12 season.  We think they will win one of those games and maybe pick up another upset in the second half.  2-10 would be a beginning toward becoming competitive in the future.

Coming Tomorrow: The Mid-American Conference Preview.  Will the Owls fly high in the MAC sky?

March 17, 2010

Brackets, Brackets, Brackets & A Preview Of The First Round

Question:  How many of you reading this are beginning to come down with some symptoms that will force you to call in sick for work the next two days?  Big Dance Fever seems to strike hard every year at this time.

Now that you are in your pajamas in bed with your TV set to CBS, your computer set to March Madness on Demand, and your brackets as your bed partner, you can begin your two day miraculous recovery.

Before you send off your bracket picks, take a look at the PiRate method for picking teams to advance.  You should re-read the Sunday, March 14, 2010 blog to better understand this method.

Without further adieu, let’s dig in.

1. Which teams meet the upper range criteria in every category?  That means they outscored their opponents by eight or more per game; their field goal percentage was greater than 7.5% better than their opponents; they outrebounded their opponents by five or more per game; they forced at least three more turnovers per game than they committed; and they stole the ball 7.5 or more times per game.

ANSWER—Only two teams met this criteria this year, and neither are members of a big six conference.  Murray State not only met all criteria, they met the upper limits.  The Racers outscored opponents by 17 points per game.  They had a field goal percentage margin of 11.7%.  They outrebounded opponents by six per game and forced 2.7 more turnover per game than they committed.  Best of all, Murray averaged 10 steals per game.  Their R+T was an outstanding 12.48.  Alas, Murray’s schedule strength was just 46.02, and that is too low to consider the Racers a threat to make it to the Elite 8.  Sweet 16 is not totally out of the question.

The second team that met this criteria, but not as well as Murray State, was Brigham Young.  The Cougars outscored opponents by 17.8 points per game.  They shot 7.9% from the field better than their opponents.  They outrebounded the opposition by 5.1.  Their turnover margin was 4.1.  They averaged 8.5 steals per game, and their R+T was an amazing 13.46.  BYU’s schedule strength was 52.52, which is adequate enough to see the Cougars as a serious threat to advance to the second week in this tournament.

2. Which teams can be immediately eliminated due to a negative R+T rating?

ANSWER—Usually upwards of 8-10 teams can be eliminated every season due to poor R+T ratings.  In the Big Dance, this rating, which measures the number of extra scoring opportunities, is vital to winning.  Only two teams can be eliminated right off the bat, and not many people would think of picking them to win any way.  Those two teams are New Mexico State and UC-Santa Barbara.

Several teams just barely qualified with R+T ratings just above zero.  Two of those that just qualified are top 20 teams.  Georgetown and Vanderbilt could be ripe for upset bids in either the first or second round. 

The Hoyas face Ohio U in the first round, and the Bobcats don’t have the merits to pull the upset.  In a second round match, Tennessee definitely meets the criteria to advance to the Sweet 16, so the Volunteers could be a strong pick to knock off Georgetown and advance to St. Louis.

Vanderbilt draws Murray State in the first round, and the Racers could easily pull off the first upset by a double-digit seed.  Murray would then face either Butler or UTEP in a second round game, and the Racers would have a legitimate chance to advance to the second week.

3. Forget all this talk of first round upsets.  Which teams are capable of winning it all?

ANSWER—We thought you’d never ask.  Every year when we compose these ratings, we apply the PiRate formula and look for teams scoring 15 or above to find the real contenders.  Because we have added won-loss record away from home this year, we have elevated that real contender number to 18.  17 teams met that criteria this year.  Before we list them in order, we must clarify something.  After the first two rounds, and after the second two rounds, we recalculate these ratings.  Some teams still alive will cease to meet the minimum score and no longer be considered a serious threat, while one or two teams might move into this elite group.

This year, one team fared much better than all the others.  Thus, that team becomes our favorite to win all the marbles in Indianapolis.

Is that team Kansas or Kentucky?  Guess what?  It is neither.  The one team that scores almost six points better than any other is none other than Duke.  Could Coach K be on his way to title number three in Durham?  We love his seeding, and we definitely see the Blue Devils winning their first four to earn a ticket to Indianapolis.  As a matter of fact, as we see it, the selection committee did several huge favors for the Blue Devils.  First, they get the winner of the play-in game, so they will have a great scouting report.  Of course, this game will be a breather.  On Sunday, Duke will play either Cal or Louisville, and it could actually be the toughest of their four games on the way to the Final Four.  Because Villanova and Purdue are fading as fast as the sun in Barrow, Alaska, in October, there’s a chance that both could be gone before the Sweet 16.

After Duke, six other teams scored 20 or more points in the criteria rating.  They are Kansas, Kansas State, BYU, Syracuse, West Virginia, and Baylor in that order.

Kentucky comes in at number eight, followed closely by New Mexico, Villanova, Michigan State, Maryland, Texas, Tennessee, Old Dominion, Murray State, and Georgetown.  Yes, the Hoyas still qualify as one of the real contenders, but just by a razor’s edge.  Their R+T score is rather low.

The best of the rest (those that just barely missed the 18-point score) are: Siena, Utah State, Washington, Ohio State, and Wisconsin.  These 22 teams are the ones that you should consider for your Sweet 16.

Here is a look at the 32 first round games.  The number in (parentheses) represents the PiRate Bracketnomics criteria number.

First-Round Games

 

East Regional

 

#1 Kentucky (19.8) vs. #16 East Tennessee (1.6)

This is your typical one vs. 16 mismatch.  Kentucky will not win by 50 like they might have in the days of Rick Pitino; they might outscore the Buccaneers by 20 points in two separate segments in this game and yet win by only 20 points.

The Wildcats will dominate the glass, and ETSU won’t be able to force enough turnovers to make this a game.  We see UK holding the Bucs to about 35% shooting and 60 or fewer points.

Prediction: Kentucky 74  East Tennessee 53

 

#8 Texas (19.0) vs. #9 Wake Forest (4.9)

The Longhorns were a big disappointment after being ranked at the top at 17-0 earlier in the year.  Looking at their stats, it’s definitely hard to see how they lost nine times in their final 16 games.

Texas just barely misses qualifying as superior in every PiRate Bracketnomics’ category.  They outscored opponents by 11.5 points per game, shot 6.7% from the field better than their opponents, finished +6.8 in rebounding and +1.1 in turnover margin, and they averaged 7.8 steals per game.  They compiled these stats playing in one of the two toughest leagues.

Wake Forest lost five of their final six games and fell several places in their seeding.  The Demon Deacons have a negative turnover margin, which is always a tough thing to overcome in the Big Dance.

This game should be interesting due to the fact that neither team is playing as well as they could.  We think Texas will play a little more cohesively in the opening round and survive and advance. 

Prediction: Texas 77  Wake Forest 72

 

#5 Temple (14.5) vs. #12 Cornell (10.2)

A lot of prognosticators are going with Cornell to become yet another 12-seed upset winner and even advance to the Sweet 16, becoming the first Ivy League team to make it that far since Penn lost to Duke in the Sweet 16 in 1980.

The Big Red earned the respect of the nation when they played at Kansas and lost by just five points.

This was Temple’s best team in years—maybe the best since 1988.  The Owls, as they have for decades, play tough defense on the perimeter, denying the ball from being passed inside and getting tight on three-point shooters.  They don’t force many turnovers, but they commit less than 11 per game. 

Cornell coach Steve Donahue was an assistant to Temple coach Fran Dunphy, so these coaches know what to expect in this game.  We’re going with this five-seed to avoid the upset.

Prediction: Temple 68  Cornell 60

 

#4 Wisconsin (16.1) vs. #13 Wofford (5.3)

The Badgers cannot take the Terriers lightly.  Wofford is another 13-seed team capable of pulling off an upset.  Expect 40 minutes of half-court offense with less than 130 total points scored.

Both teams tend to rely on one player to bear the scoring burden.  For Wisconsin, guard Trevon Hughes is the go-to guy.  For Wofford, forward Noah Dahlman is the key offensive threat.

It will be easier for Wisconsin to shut down Dahlman than Wofford to shut down Hughes, and Hughes has a little better quartet of teammates. 

Prediction: Wisconsin 63  Wofford 56

 

#6 Marquette (12.2) vs. #11 Washington (16.9)

This will be one game you will want to tune in if you have March Madness on Demand.  We think it will be very entertaining.

Marquette will move the ball around the perimeter and take a lot of threes.  If they hit 35% or better, they will be tough to beat.  However, the Golden Eagles are weak on the boards, and if those treys don’t fall, they cannot win.

Washington is not getting much respect coming out of the weak Pac-10.  The Huskies won their final seven games including the league tournament to earn an automatic berth here.  They can score points in bunches, and even though they are on the small side, they are the best rebounding team in the Pac-10.  That happens to be Marquette’s weakness.  That happens to be why UW will still be playing Sunday.

Prediction: Washington 82  Marquette 75

 

#3 New Mexico (19.6) vs. #14 Montana (3.2)

At first glance, this looks like another blowout that you see when a number three takes on a number 14.  However, Montana is not to be disregarded without a fight.  The Grizzlies found themselves down by more than 20 points to Weber State in the Big Sky Championship Game and came back to win.

Montana plays tough defense and works patiently for intelligent shots.  This style of play may be a bit boring, but it can be quite effective if the players stay within the frame of the philosophy.

New Mexico wins games through tough hustle.  The Lobos are tough on the boards, and they seldom turn the ball over more than a dozen times per game.  They can pose tough matchup problems for a lot of teams, because they can post up their guards and bring their forwards out high to shoot the three.  We’ll go with the Lobos to win, but it may be a lot more difficult than most people expect.

Prediction: New Mexico 72  Montana 63

 

#7 Clemson (12.3) vs. #10 Missouri (14.7)

This will be a helter-skelter game from start to finish.  These teams are both reliant upon forcing turnovers and converting them into fast break points.  We expect a lot of physical play with the referees letting a lot of contact go.

Missouri relies a little too much on its outside game, while Clemson has some inside presence.  In the Big Dance, the teams that can get offensive putbacks are usually the teams that survive and advance.  We don’t think Missouri will have an answer for Clemson forward Trevor Booker.

Prediction: Clemson 77  Missouri 72

 

#2 West Virginia (23.5) vs. #15 Morgan State (-0.2)

Morgan State has been here before.  The Bears lost to Oklahoma in the first round last year.  Coach Todd Bozeman likes for his team to move the ball up the floor quickly and bang it inside.  That might work in the MEAC, but this is not the MEAC.

West Virginia looks a little sloppy at times, and the Mountaineers don’t shoot the ball all too well, but they play tough defense and dominate on the boards.  WVU enters this tournament with a chip on its shoulder after flopping in the first round against Dayton last year.  Coach Bob Huggins’ squad has played in several nail-biters this year, and they should be ready to play.

Prediction: West Virginia 69  Morgan State 52

 

South Regional

#1 Duke (34.4) vs. #16 Arkansas Pine Bluff (-11.5)

Well, we blew the play-in game, but luckily that’s a Mulligan in bracket picking.

Duke will get a breather game in their opener.  The Blue Devils will apply pressure man-to-man defense and force the Golden Lions to commit numerous turnovers.  Duke’s big guys will repeatedly get offensive rebounds when the Blue Devils miss shots, and those players will clean the defensive glass as well.

UAPB should be fortunate that they won the play-in game.  They will give up more points in the first half of this game than they did in the entire game Tuesday night.

Prediction: Duke 87 Arkansas Pine Bluff 59

 

#8 California (11.4) vs. #9 Louisville (9.5)

Louisville beat Syracuse twice this year, but the Cardinals are not nearly as good this year as they were last year.   This UL team lacks the little something extra to advance very far in this tournament.

Cal won their first outright Pac-10 regular season title since Darrall Imhoff led the Bears to the National Championship Game against Ohio State in the 1959-60 season.  This edition of Bears is the polar opposite to that earlier version.  Cal is strictly a perimeter-oriented team that must shoot the ball well in order to win.

This one is a true tossup game.  It will be a contest of better offense vs. better defense.  Cal has to travel almost 3,200 miles, and the long trip could be their undoing.

Prediction: Louisville 72  California 68

 

#5 Texas A&M (12.7) vs. #12 Utah State (17.3)

This is one of those 5-12 games where the PiRate system shows the underdog to be the better team.  Utah State would be the outright favorite in this game if they played a little better defensively, especially on the perimeter.

Texas A&M played one of the toughest schedules in the nation, and the Aggies showed they could go head-to-head with them.  Their defense is tough, and the Aggies from Texas should hold the Aggies from Utah well below their scoring and shooting averages.  A&M doesn’t shoot the ball all that well, and this should be a close game.  We’ll go against the PiRate chalk and take the Big 12 team.

Prediction: Texas A&M 70  Utah State 66

 

#4 Purdue (15.4) vs. #13 Siena (17.8)

This year, we like the 13-seeds better than the 12-seeds as upset possibilities.  Purdue would probably have been a 10-seed or even missed the tournament altogether had Robbie Hummel been injured all season.  Without Hummel, the Boilermakers are not much better than your average NIT team.

Siena defeated Vanderbilt in the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament and Ohio State in the first round last year.  The Saints may be a little better this year thanks to a balanced team.  Siena has four starters that can score 20 points on any given night.  They have an inside presence with Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter combining for more than 19 rebounds per game.  Throw in a +3 turnover margin, and the Saints get seven more scoring opportunities per game than their opposition. 

We will call the upset in this game, but we give a warning.  Star players have missed NCAA Tournament games in the past, and those starless teams found a way to win.  Loyola Marymount won three games in the Big Dance after Hank Gathers died.  Going back several years to 1965, Wichita State made it to the Final Four after losing their top two players to eligibility.

Prediction: Siena 70  Purdue 65

 

#6 Notre Dame (6.5) vs. #11 Old Dominion (18.8)

This should be an entertaining game with a lot of inside action.  Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody missed multiple games due to injury in February, and the Irish defense stepped up and did the job.  With the big forward back, the Irish are playing their best ball of the season.  While they finished the season winning just eight of their final 13 games, those five losses came by a combined nine points.

Old Dominion is one of those teams like Butler and St. Mary’s that big-six conference teams don’t want to play.  The Monarchs dominate on the boards and seldom give up a high-percentage shot. 

We look for this one to stay close throughout, and the difference could be which team has the better outside shooting day.  If one team has a decent enough outside shooting day to force defenses to stretch, their inside game will become too strong to lose.

While ODU has much better total numbers, we think Notre Dame will get the job done.

Prediction: Notre Dame 71  Old Dominion 66

 

#3 Baylor (21.39) vs. #14 Sam Houston St. (10.33)

Watch out for Baylor!  The Bears rate in that elite group of teams capable of getting to Indianapolis.  In the Bracketnomics Class blog, we mentioned that you needed to be alert for a team that shoots 48% from the field and allows only 38%.  Baylor is one of two teams that meet this criteria.

The Bears also dominate on the glass, and if it weren’t for a negative turnover margin, we would pick them as a Final Four team.  Some future opponent will exploit this liability and defeat them, but it won’t be Sam Houston.

The Bearkats are an interesting and fun team to watch play.  They begin firing threes the moment they enter the gym.  It won’t get the job done in this game.

Prediction: Baylor 81  Sam Houston 67

 

#7 Richmond (10.0) vs. #10 St. Mary’s (10.1)

This game could come down to pace.  If Richmond presses the tempo and makes this a maximum possession game, the Spiders will have a decided advantage.  Richmond needs to speed the game up to force St. Mary’s into unforced errors.

Seldom in the opening round of the tournament do we ever see a team consciously trying to speed up the game.  Nerves and uncertainty usually slow these games down until midway through the second half.

St. Mary’s will win this game if the total number of field goal attempts is 115 or less.  If the pace is average to below average, their seven-man rotation will be able to avoid fatigue.  Center Omar Samhan can control the lane in this game and give the Gaels a strong advantage inside.

Prediction: St. Mary’s 73  Richmond 67

 

#2 Villanova (19.5) vs. #15 Robert Morris(-2.9)

This game should be a mismatch, but it could take some time before the Wildcats pull away.  VU finished the regular season on a 4-6 slide, but the Wildcats lost five of those games to NCAA Tournament teams from their conference.

Once this game begins, we look for the Colonials to keep it within striking distance for a couple of time outs before Villanova slowly pulls away.

Prediction: Villanova 78  Robert Morris 63

 

Midwest Regional

 

#1 Kansas (28.7) vs. #16 Lehigh (0.22)

If there is a chance that one team will top 100 points in the first round without going into multiple overtimes, this game is the one.  Kansas will begin its march to the Final Four with a tune-up game. 

Lehigh will take 25 or more three-pointers in this game, but we believe the Jayhawk defense will force many bad shots from the outside.  KU will then score 1.3-1.5 points per possession.  We’re sorry if you get stuck with this game and cannot get another.

Prediction: Kansas 94  Lehigh 61

 

#8 UNLV (11.7) vs. #9 Northern Iowa (11.7)

How about this for tossup game status?  Not only is this an eight-nine game, their criteria scores are equal.

This game comes down to how well the Panthers can stop the Runnin’ Rebels outside shooting game.  We think UNI will be able to hold the UNLV backcourt of Tre’Von Willis, Oscar Bellfield, Anthony Marshall, and reserve Kendall Wallace under their norms.  At the same time, look for UNI brute center Jordan Eglseder and forward Adam Koch to dominate on the inside.  Combine that with a defense that fits the opponents’ offense like a glove, and we see the Missouri Valley team advancing.

Prediction: Northern Iowa 58  UNLV 53

 

#5 Michigan State (19.5) vs. #12 New Mexico St. (3.4)

We cannot see a 12-seed upset in this game.  The Aggies have a negative R+T rating, which means they typically allow more scoring opportunities than they create.  Against a seasoned NCAA Tournament team, one coming off a visit to the national title game, that won’t be the winning recipe.

Michigan State will win the rebounding battle by 10 or more in this game.  If the Spartans don’t turn the ball over 18 or more times, they will be comfortably ahead by the first TV timeout of the second half.

Guard Chris Allen is expected to return to action after serving a one-game suspension for arguing with the coaching staff.

Prediction: Michigan State 75  New Mexico State 62

 

#4 Maryland (19.5) vs. #13 Houston (1.9)

Houston got hot and won the CUSA tournament after being picked to contend for the conference championship and finishing in the middle of the pack.  The Cougars cannot rebound.  While Maryland is only so-so on the boards, the Terps will win this battle by at least five caroms.

Houston relies on putting pressure on the ball and trying to play in the passing lanes to get steals and force turnovers.  Maryland takes care of the ball and can exploit this type of defense.

Throw in the fact that the Terps play tough defense, and this one looks like a huge mismatch.  Maryland comes mighty close to qualifying for the special field goal percentage criteria.  They connect on 47.2% of their shots and hold opponents to 38.8%.

Prediction: Maryland 83  Houston 70

 

#6 Tennessee (18.9) vs. #11 San Diego State (15.6)

This has the makings of a good game between similar styles.  Tennessee likes to force turnovers and run the break for quick baskets.  In the half-court offense, they try to work the ball inside.  The Volunteers aren’t the best outside shooting team.

San Diego State plays like your typical Steve Fisher-coached team.  The Aztecs have a dominating inside game and hold a +6.7 rebounding edge over their opposition.  The Aztecs aren’t great three-point shooters either, but inside the arc, they shoot almost 55%.

Tennessee is mad at being lowered to a number six seed in a year where they knocked off Kansas and Kentucky, but the Vols went only 10-7 away from home.  They are primed to make a run to the Sweet 16 if the team has enough gas in the tank.

Prediction: Tennessee 72  San Diego State 65

 

#3 Georgetown (18.0) vs. #14 Ohio U (0.7)

This game is a mismatch similar to your typical 1-seed vs. 16-seed game.  Ohio should have been a lower seed.  The Bobcats finished below .500 in a weak MAC this year, and they have no chance against the Hoyas.

Georgetown is not as complete this year as in past seasons.  They are a definite upset possibility, but it won’t happen in this round.  The key to the Hoyas advancing to the Sweet 16 will be how much the regulars can rest in this one. 

Prediction: Georgetown 72  Ohio 59

 

#7 Oklahoma State (6.2) vs. #10 Georgia Tech (9.5)

A very strong Big 12 allowed the Cowboys to move up to a seven-seed, when their performance looks more like a 10-seed.  Georgia Tech belongs as a 10-seed, so this game should be close and exciting.

OSU is a hot and cold team that won’t be around next week.  They either hit from behind the arc or get beat. 

Georgia Tech isn’t a world-beater, but the Yellow Jackets play somewhat consistently.  They will control the boards in this game, but they are turnover prone.  OSU’s shot at winning hinges on how many times they can force Tech into floor mistakes.  We think they will come up a bit short, but this game should be 40 minutes of entertaining ball.

Prediction: Georgia Tech 72  Oklahoma State 68

 

#2 Ohio State (16.8) vs. #15 UCSB (-4.5)

The Buckeyes won 16 of their final 18 games including the regular season and tournament championship in the Big Ten.  Evan Turner is a mini-Magic Johnson.  He can do it all, and he deserves serious consideration for national player of the year.  He isn’t a one-man team, but the Buckeyes’ only liability is a lack of depth.  They go only seven deep, and the two key reserves don’t contribute all that much.

UCSB is one of the two teams that must be immediately eliminated due to a negative R+T rating.  Their stay in the Dance will last just one number, and they will feel like their rival cut in on them in the middle of the song.

Prediction: Ohio State 76  UCSB 54

 

West Regional

 

#1 Syracuse (23.6) vs. #16 Vermont (-3.8)

The ‘Cuse is primed for another run to the Final Four.  Except for a lack of depth, this team would be even with Duke and Kansas.  It won’t bother them in the first two rounds, as the Orange won’t be extended by pressure defense.

This is not the Vermont team of 2005 that actually won an opening round game.  This version of Catamounts is just happy to be here, and they will put up no fuss and wave bye-bye after 40 minutes of tournament action.

We expect Vermont to keep it close for maybe 8-12 minutes before Syracuse goes on a big run and puts this one away before the intermission.

Prediction: Syracuse 90  Vermont 64

 

#8 Gonzaga (13.4) vs. #9 Florida State (14.4)

We don’t believe this will be Gonzaga’s year to advance to the Sweet 16.  The Bulldogs don’t dominate on the glass and pick up nothing in turnover margin. 

This Florida State team reminds us a lot of the Seminole teams of Hugh Durham.  They play aggressive man-to-man defense and work the ball for intelligent shots. 

Gonzaga needs a good shooting effort every time in order to win, and the Seminoles hold opponents to just 37.4% from the field. 

Prediction: Florida State 67  Gonzaga 63

 

#5 Butler (14.2) vs. #12 UTEP (15.8)

This is a game that all five of us here would like to attend.  We think it will be the best of the 5-12 games, and it won’t be an upset if UTEP wins.  These teams are fairly even, and both are talented enough to advance to the second week.

If the question were, “which game has the best chance of going to overtime?” this game would receive strong consideration. 

We will go with the Miners to win a great game and become the favorite in the next round in a possible second classic matchup against another double-digit seed.  This is the 12-seed that has the best chance of pulling off the “upset.”  We don’t call a 50-50 game an upset.

Prediction: UTEP 79  Butler 77 in overtime

 

#4 Vanderbilt (11.2) vs. #13 Murray State (18.0)

Murray State rates as one of four teams not from a big six conference that we believe has the talent to make it to the Sweet 16.  The Racers are actually the most complete team in the tournament and best fit the criteria to go to the Final Four, but their schedule strength lowers their criteria out of that rarified air.

Murray outscores their opponents by 17 points per game.  They shoot better than 50% from the field, and they allow only 38.6% shooting on defense.  They control the boards with a +6.0 margin, and they force more than 17 turnovers per game with 10 steals per game.

Vanderbilt was a fatigued team down the stretch, closing 8-5 after opening 16-3.  In that last 13 games, they outscored their opponents by just two per game.  The Commodores just barely avoid being eliminated from consideration with an R+T of 0.6.  They outrebound their opponents by 0.7 per game and have a slightly negative turnover margin.  They rely too much on free throw shooting, and fouls are not called as frequently in the Big Dance.

We look for this to be a great game, but we’re going with another #13 seed to pull off the upset.

Prediction: Murray State 75  Vanderbilt 69

 

#6 Xavier (15.1) vs. #11 Minnesota (10.4)

Morgan State, Butler, Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Purdue are a good list of teams in the Big Dance.  Minnesota owns wins over these seven Samurais.  Xavier doesn’t have a showcase win this year, and the Musketeers are not as tough as they have been in recent seasons.

Tubby Smith’s teams always play well in the Big Dance, while this is the first go around for Xavier coach Chris Mack.  In yet another mild upset, we believe Minnesota will advance to the second round.

Prediction: Minnesota 69  Xavier 66

 

#3 Pittsburgh (8.7) vs. #14 Oakland (4.3)

For those of you who believe the Selection Committee tries to put certain teams together, you might not see the irony in the pairing of these two teams.  First, Oakland is not from California.  The Golden Grizzlies are from Rochester, Michigan.  Pittsburgh is located in the Oakland suburb of the Steel City.  So, when we say the team from Oakland will win the game, we aren’t talking about the Golden State Warriors, and we’re not talking about the team with the word “Oakland” on their jerseys.

This is not the year for the Panthers.  Their numbers aren’t all that good, and they will not advance to the Elite 8 this year.  However, they will cruise in the opening round after maybe facing a struggle through the first couple of TV timeouts.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 67  Oakland 58

 

#7 BYU (24.5) vs. #10 Florida (10.5)

Many prognosticators are calling for the Gators to pull the small upset in the opening round, but we cannot see it happening.

BYU ranks along with Murray State as having the most complete criteria components in the tournament.  The Cougars outscore their opposition by nearly 18 per game.  They do tend to rely on a lot of foul shooting and three-point shots, but BYU also gets a lot of easy baskets via the fast break and secondary offense.  Their R+T rating is a whopping 13.5, as they own a +5.1 rebounding margin, +4.1 turnover margin, and pick off 8.5 passes per game.  Since they have a shooting percentage of 48.6%, they will score a lot of points.

Florida returns to the Big Dance for the first time since they won their second consecutive national title in 2007.  This team is lacking what those two champions had—a dominating inside game.  Center Vernon Macklin is capable of putting up decent numbers, but the Gators rely on perimeter players Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton to get the job done.  Walker is just 5-8, and he will have a tough time against the tall and lanky BYU guards.

Look for Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery to outduel the Florida guards, and the Cougars will prevail in a fast-paced game.

Prediction: BYU 85  Florida 77

 

#2 Kansas State (25.9) vs. #15 North Texas (-3.22)

After Duke, Kansas State may have drawn the best possible bracket.  The Wildcats have the talent to win this regional and possibly set up a fourth game with their in-state rival in the National Semifinal. 

This will be a fun team to watch.  Kansas State coach Frank Martin is a combination of Al McGuire and Bobby Knight with a little Bob Huggins thrown in.  He’s the coach most likely to implode or spontaneous combust during a game.  His antics are working this year, and his players respond by playing like their life is on the line.

North Texas will get killed on the boards in this game, and they don’t have a ball-hawking defense to even it out with a great turnover margin.  Unlike conference rival Western Kentucky, the Mean Green will not carry on the Sunbelt Conference’s recent success in the tourney.

Prediction: Kansas State 82  North Texas 65

 

Our Bracket

 

You have seen the 32 teams we believe will win the first round games.  Here is how we fill out the rest of our bracket.

Second Round Winners

 

Kentucky over Texas in a close game

Wisconsin over Temple

New Mexico over Washington

West Virginia over Clemson

Duke over Louisville

Texas A&M over Siena

Baylor over Notre Dame

Villanova over St. Mary’s

Kansas over Northern Iowa

Michigan State over Maryland in a great game

Tennessee over Georgetown

Ohio State over Georgia Tech

Syracuse over Florida State

UTEP over Murray State

Minnesota over Pittsburgh

Kansas State over BYU in a thriller

Sweet 16 Winners

Kentucky over Wisconsin

West Virginia over New Mexico

Duke over Texas A&M

Baylor over Villanova

Kansas over Michigan State but a fantastic upset bid

Ohio State over Tennessee

Syracuse over UTEP

Kansas State over Minnesota

Elite 8 Winners

West Virginia over Kentucky

Duke over Baylor

Kansas over Ohio State

Kansas State over Syracuse

Semifinal Winners

 

Duke over West Virginia

Kansas State over Kansas (The Wildcats finally beat KU in their fourth try)

National Championship

 

Duke over Kansas State

Might Coach K pull a John Wooden and announce his retirement after winning the semifinal game?  Might he be tempted to take a very large pay raise to coach the Nets for a year or two and then enjoy real retirement like his mentor The General is enjoying?

September 22, 2009

The Best Week Of The Season For College Football

Every year, there is one week of the college football season where the schedule presents more than a dozen games that are not just interesting, they are foretelling.  While the season’s final two weeks usually mean everything, usually a mid-season week turns out to be the week where teams either put up or shut up.  We here at the PiRate Ratings believe this is that week.  Let’s look at the 25 games where we see a major interest in watching or listening to this week. 

 

Thursday Night

7:30 PM: Ole Miss at South Carolina—The Rebels play their first important game of the year after clobbering two patsies.  The Gamecocks aren’t a Top 25 team, but in Columbia, they are tough to beat.  It won’t hurt that USC had already played a Thursday night game.  This should be a high scoring game, weather permitting (chance of thunderstorms), and it could be another one of those recent SEC “Arena Football League Games.”

The PiRate computer says Ole Miss should win by 13.3, while the old Mean rating picks the Rebels by 5.  Vegas has Ole Miss by 3 as of midday Monday.  PiRate Viewer Rating: A-

 

Saturday Games (all times EDT)

12 Noon: Indiana at Michigan—This Hoosier team is 3-0, but make no comparison between it and the cardiac kids of 1967, or even the Bill Mallory teams of 1987 and 1988.  We’ll soon find out if it is another version of the 2007 team.  Indiana struggled to beat Eastern Kentucky and Western Michigan.  Michigan could be on the verge of challenging Penn State, Iowa, and Ohio State for conference supremacy.  They proved themselves valid with a win over Notre Dame, and now they get a chance to move upward.  The PiRate computer picks Michigan by 20.3, and the Mean picks the Wolverines by 14.  PiRate Viewer Rating: B

 

12 Noon: Michigan State at Wisconsin—In August, it looked like this game could be a battle of unbeaten teams, but the Spartans have slipped up with a 1-2 start.  This game becomes a must-win game for MSU, because they face Michigan next week.  Coach Mark Dantonio’s team could be looking at 1-5 or even 1-6 if they slip up this week.  As for the Badgers, this is their sixth consecutive year starting 3-0.  Except for 2006, the season hasn’t finished up like it started.  This could be the pivotal game in the UW coaching career for Bret Bielema.  A win here sets them up for a huge rivalry match at Minnesota next week where a win would send the Badgers to Ohio State with a chance to move into Rose Bowl contention.  Wisconsin avoids Penn State and gets Iowa and Michigan at home this year.  A loss could start the ball rolling toward 7-5 or even 6-6. PiRate Rating: Wisconsin by 0.6/Mean: Wisconsin by 4/PiRate Viewer Rating: A-

 

12 Noon: South Florida at Florida State—We’ve been looking at this matchup for quite some time.  This should be a hard-fought thriller.  USF has wanted a shot at any of the three big teams in the Sunshine State, and the economy has made this one possible.  Florida State’s opening game loss to Miami could be explained.  The letdown against Jacksonville State wasn’t totally surprising.  The 26-point win at BYU was a shock.  That makes Miami look all the more talented.  USF has yet to play quality opposition, and this game will give us a good gauge of the ACC against the Big East.  If the Bulls can win this one, then they should be 5-0 when they host Cincinnati on Thursday, October 15.  PiRate Rating: FSU by 14.3/Mean Rating: FSU by 9/PiRate Viewer Rating: A-

 

12 Noon: Fresno State at Cincinnati—Fresno State has played well in losses to Wisconsin and Boise State, but now they face the hardest game on their schedule.  We don’t think the Bulldogs have much chance of adding another big upset to their 21st Century resume, but we do see this as a gauge game.  Cincinnati has looked like a Top 10 team and maybe contender for the National Championship Game through three games.  If Cinti can do to Fresno State what they did to Rutgers, they will move into the Top 12.  If they cannot win by more than three touchdowns, then it makes Boise State look all the more better.  PiRate Rating: Cinti by 21.7/Mean Rating: Cinti by 20/PiRate Viewer Rating: A

 

12 Noon: Southern Mississippi at Kansas—The Golden Eagles aren’t ranked, but Coach Larry Fedora has a strong team in Hattiesburg.  Southern Miss is 3-0 after their great comeback win over Virginia.  Tough road games remain against Houston, Marshall, and East Carolina, so they probably have little or no chance of running the table and sneaking into the BCS Bowl picture.  Kansas will vie with Missouri and Nebraska for the Big 12 North title this year.  They just missed the last two years, and a big win in this game could set the table for finally breaking through.  An impressive win here, followed by wins over Iowa State and Colorado would have the Jayhawks at 6-0 when Oklahoma invades Lawrence on October 24.  KU QB Todd Reesing may be the best passer without much chance of getting drafted.  At 5-11, he’s considered too small for the NFL.  PiRate Rating: Kansas by 17.1/Mean Rating: 14/PiRate Viewer Rating: A

 

12 Noon: North Carolina at Georgia Tech—This game is interesting because the Tar Heels catch Georgia Tech coming off a disastrous road loss to Miami.  If Coach Butch Davis has UNC ready to challenge on the national scene, then the Heels need to do something close to what Miami did to the Yellow Jackets.  They will stack the box to take away the option and force Josh Nesbitt to beat them through the air.  It can be done, but it won’t be easy.  A Tech win means the winner of the Virginia Tech-Miami game will be in the driver’s seat in the Coastal Division.  PiRate Rating: Tech by 1.9/Mean Rating: Tech by 2/PiRate Viewer Rating: A-

 

12:20 PM: L S U at Mississippi State—The AP and USA Today polls have LSU at number 7, but the Tigers are only the fourth highest-ranked SEC team.  The win at Washington looks much more impressive now, but the lackluster win over Vanderbilt becomes a great comparison here.  New Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen saw his Bullies stop Vanderbilt in Nashville more impressively than LSU’s win over the Commodores in Tiger Stadium.  This game hasn’t been close since Jackie Sherrill was coaching in Starkville.  We think it might be this year, and with some lucky bounces, MSU could actually be there at the end.  PiRate Rating: LSU by 15.9/Mean Rating: LSU by 12/PiRate Viewer Rating: A-

 

1:00 PM: Marshall at Memphis—Here’s a game that should determine a bowl spot for the winner and doom the loser to the wrong side of .500 for the season.  We think Marshall is primed to break out and save Coach Mark Snyder’s job this year.  It’s been six years since the Thundering Herd last enjoyed a winning season, and we see at least seven wins in their near future.  This is the C-USA opener for both teams.  The schedule sets up well for Marshall if they can win this road game.  They get East Carolina and Southern Miss. at home, and it wouldn’t be a big surprise to us if they could sneak into contention in the East.  PiRate Rating: Marshall by 3.5/Mean Rating: Marshall by 2/PiRate Viewer Rating: B+

 

3:00 PM: UNLV at Wyoming—The Rebels have never been a Division 1-A (FBS) heavyweight.  The 2000 season is the only good year they’ve had since moving up in classification 30 years ago.  UNLV has a chance to get back to a bowl game this year, as long as quarterback Omar Clayton can remain healthy.  On a gimpy knee, he guided the Rebels to a comeback victory over Hawaii.  This becomes a must win game, and Wyoming is beatable.  However, in Laramie, the Cowboys play tough.  Tell Mack Brown that the Cowboys are an easy pushover.  One slip up by UNLV this week makes their bowl hunt much more difficult.  PiRate Rating: UNLV by 3.4/Mean Rating: UNLV by 5/PiRate Viewer Rating: B

 

3:30 PM: Arkansas at Alabama—Arkansas’s passing game will show everybody whether Alabama’s pass defense is national championship caliber.  We don’t expect the Hogs to threaten an upset here, but this game should tell us whether Alabama is good enough to run the table and get to the SEC Championship Game for a second consecutive season.  To this point in the season, Alabama has actually looked like the top team in the conference if not the nation.  If the Tide is going to rise and become the South’s elite, they need to win this one by 20 or more points.  PiRate Rating: Bama by 20.8/Mean Rating: Bama by 20/PiRate Viewer Rating: A-

 

3:30 PM: California at Oregon—The Bears didn’t look like a championship caliber team in their win at Minnesota last week, while Oregon handled Utah.  Cal has a home date with Southern Cal next week, but the players better concentrate on this game.  Autzen Stadium is still one of the toughest places to play as a visitor, and Oregon isn’t Washington State.  If Cal doesn’t come out ready for bear, the game with Southern Cal could be for 5th place in the standings.  Jahvid Best needs to put two good halves together to move up on the Heisman Trophy list.  PiRate Rating: Cal by 15.5/Mean Rating: Cal by 3/PiRate Viewer Rating: A+

 

3:30 PM: TCU at Clemson—With BYU and Utah losing to BCS conference teams this past weekend, the Horned Frogs may be the last legitimate shot for a Mountain West team to make it to a BCS Bowl Game.  A win at Clemson could move TCU up into the top 12.  We don’t think this Horned Frog team has the same tough defense as the recent teams in Ft. Worth.  Clemson could easily be 3-0 today, but several questionable miscues cost them against Georgia Tech.  After watching Miami destroy Tech, could the Yellow Jackets be overrated, and thus could Clemson not be as tough as they were supposed to be?  This game may not supply the answers, but at least the winner will move up on the early bowl bubble.  PiRate Rating: Clemson by 4.5/Mean Rating: Tossup/PiRate Viewer Rating: A-

 

3:30 PM: Pittsburgh at North Carolina State—We here at the PiRate Ratings must remain impartial, as the only thing we truly root for is to be correct when we pick games.  However, a couple of us would be happy if Dave Wannstedt had a BCS Bowl team.  This may be Pittsburgh’s best team since 1982.  Then, again, this could be another year like 2000.  We should have a lot more evidence to make that call after this game.  The Panthers have a one-two punch in quarterback Bill Stull and blazing fast running back Dion Lewis.  North Carolina State is a little better than average but not the juggernaut they were seven years ago.  It Pittsburgh can win in Raleigh, a double-digit win season is possible.  PiRate Rating: Pitt by 2.0/Mean Rating: 6/PiRate Viewer Rating: B+

 

3:30 PM: Miami (Fla.) at Virginia Tech—This game is the one of the top three of the day.  Two games into the season, this edition of Hurricanes is more like Camille than a tropical depression.  Quarterback Jacory Harris may be the top passer in the ACC, and he may soon move high up on the list of NFL prospects in the next couple of years.  He has a live and accurate arm, and his ability to pass on the run makes it difficult to sack him.  Virginia Tech beat Nebraska last week in a close game, and the Hokies have won 38 of the last 43 games at Lane Stadium.  If Miami can win this game, it will set up an even more interesting battle against Oklahoma next week.  PiRate Rating: Virginia Tech by 6.7/Mean Rating: Virginia Tech by 4/PiRate Viewer Rating: A+

 

4:30 PM: Troy at Arkansas State—There are two key games in the Sunbelt Conference this week.  Troy has been the Southern Cal of the SBC as of late, but the Trojans may not be quite as strong this year.  Arkansas State had an extra week to prepare for this game and gets the Trojans in Jonesboro.  These teams have split the last four games in this series, and the Red Wolves have what it takes to pull off the mild upset.  An ASU win throws this race wide open.  PiRate Rating: Troy by 2.4/Mean Rating: Troy by 1/PiRate Viewer Rating: B

 

6:00 PM: Florida at Kentucky—Two years ago, Kentucky upset number one LSU in Lexington.  No, we don’t expect a repeat Saturday.  The Wildcats start a grueling stretch of games that call for the Cats to play Alabama, at South Carolina, and at Auburn after this game, so UK could easily be 2-4 when Louisiana Monroe comes to town on October 24.  Florida needs something to show the pollsters and computers that they deserve their lofty ranking.  What should be an unbelievable year like Nebraska in 1995 could fail to materialize over the lack of all-conference receivers.  Can Tim Tebow do it all on the offensive side?  Think Larry Csonka with Bob Griese’s arm.  You bet he can lead the Gators to Pasadena in January.  PiRate Rating: Florida by 32.7/Mean Rating: Florida by 20/PiRate Viewer Rating: A-

 

6:00 PM: Colorado State at BYU—Had the Cougars won last week in a grueling game, we were prepared to check this game as a possible letdown game and go with the Rams and the points.  The Cougars exited Lavell Edwards Stadium thoroughly bewitched, bothered, and bewildered after losing to Florida State 54-28.  Colorado State is 3-0 for the first time since 1994.  That team went 10-1 in the regular season including a 28-21 win at BYU.  We don’t expect a repeat in 2009, but a good showing could be the next step on the long climb back to the top in the MWC.  The Rams should win eight games this year, but this won’t be one of them.  PiRate Rating: BYU by 16.9/Mean Rating: BYU by 16/PiRate Viewer Rating: B+

 

7:00 PM: Arizona State at Georgia—Arizona State has never played in an SEC stadium (unless you count the 1951 visit to then Southwest Conference member Arkansas).  In their only two games against SEC teams, the Sun Devils lost at home to Georgia last year and at home to LSU in 2005.  ASU Coach Dennis Erickson knows a little about winning in the Deep South, having claimed a national title at Miami.  He may have an average squad or some degree better, but wins against Idaho State and Louisiana Monroe has yet to prove anything.  Georgia has already played three tough games, winning two SEC battles already.  The Bulldog defense has yet to shut anybody down, but the offense has looked impressive in wins over South Carolina and Arkansas.  This game will tell us a lot more about these two conferences as the season progresses, but it should be exciting itself.  The weather could be a major factor as well.  PiRate Rating: Georgia by 15.6/Mean Rating: Georgia by 7/PiRate Viewer Rating: A

 

7:00 PM: Army at Iowa State—Say What?  This game is an important one?  You betcha!  It looks like the “trade” of Gene Chizik to Auburn for Paul Rhoads could prove to be a win-win decision.  Iowa State could be looking at a possibility of sneaking into the eighth or ninth Big 12 bowl slot if they can win this game.  Kansas State, Texas A&M, Colorado, and Baylor present winnable games if the Cyclones can stop the option game of the Cadets.  On the other side of the equation, Army needs only to become bowl eligible to earn a guaranteed bowl bid.  The Cadets are 2-1 and have winnable games left against Tulane, Vanderbilt, Temple, VMI, North Texas, and of course Navy.  If Army wins this game, then we are confident in saying they will earn their first bowl trip since 1996.  This game becomes, in essence, a bowl qualifier.  That’s why it makes our list of the key 25 games this week.  PiRate Rating: ISU by 12.4/Mean Rating: ISU by 10/PiRate Viewer Rating: A-

 

7:00 PM: Middle Tennessee at North Texas—This is the second key Sunbelt Conference game this week.  Middle Tennessee is the only SBC team to own four wins on the road against teams from BCS conferences, and the Blue Raiders made it number four last week by winning at Maryland (the second consecutive win over the Terps).  North Texas showed signs of life this year in winning at Ball State and giving Ohio U a great battle, but quarterback Riley Dodge went down with an injury in the third quarter of that game.  He missed last week’s blowout loss at Alabama, but he will return this week.  He gives the Mean Green a chance in this game.  PiRate Rating: Middle Tenn by 8.7/Mean Rating: Middle Tenn by 8/PiRate Viewer Rating: B

 

7:30 PM: Arizona at Oregon State—Both teams lost to undefeated, out-of-conference opponents last week, but the winner of this game could challenge in the Pac-10.  We don’t think either can go on the road and beat both Cal and USC (both play these two powers on the road), but the winner of this game should stay in contention for one of the Pac-10’s top four bowls.  PiRate Rating: Oregon State by 3.9/Mean Rating: Oregon State by 2/PiRate Viewer Rating: B

 

8:00 PM: Iowa at Penn State—Could this game be for the Big 10 Championship?  It’s possible.  Iowa stumbled out of the gate with Northern Iowa, but impressive wins over Iowa State and Arizona have the Hawkeyes 3-0 for the third time in four years.  This is more than just any big game for Penn State; the Nittany Lions came into this game last year ranked number three at 9-0 and lost 24-23 in Iowa City.  Penn State is undefeated again and ranked number five this time, but Joe Pa’s team has played three patsies.  The winner of this game will be the leader in the clubhouse in the Big 10, but with Michigan, Ohio State, and even Wisconsin still around, they won’t have it wrapped up.  PiRate Rating: Penn State by 5.6/Mean Rating: Penn State by 4/PiRate Viewer Rating: A+

 

9:00 PM: Washington at Stanford—Can you believe this game?  Washington is the second ever team to crack the AP poll rankings in September after being winless the year before (Florida in 1980).  Stanford is close to being 3-0, and the Cardinal have not been this good since 2001.  Simply put, the winner of this contest is going to a bowl game this year.  You’ll see two great quarterbacks in this one.  Stanford’s Andrew Luck is just a freshman, but he’s averaging 9.3 yards per pass attempt and completing 62.3% of his passes.  Washington’s Jake Locker is leading the Pac-10 in total offense.  PiRate Rating: Stanford by 9.5/Mean Rating: Stanford by 8/PiRate Viewer Rating: A

 

9:15 PM: Texas Tech at Houston—These teams haven’t played each other since the Southwest Conference days, and it should be one of the most exciting games of the season.  You have two teams that average better than 400 passing yards per game.  Houston’s Case Keenum has a shot at an NFL career in a couple of years, while Texas Tech’s Taylor Potts may be the best quarterback Coach Mike Leach has placed in his offense.  PiRate Rating: Texas Tech by 6.2/Mean Rating: Texas Tech by 3/PiRate Viewer Rating: A-

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