Courtesy of Bobby Smith
CEO, Sports Reporter
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 26
Qualcomm Stadium - San Diego, CA (Grass)
NORTHERN ILLINOIS over UTAH STATE by 6
Put a real defense in front of NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch and he becomes almost a regular guy back there. Lynch just doesn't have the great downfield passing skills - nor is his offense built for those skills. He's not bad at it, just not great. Utah State has a real defense. They just held Fresno State's #1 pass offense to -21 points fewer than its scoring average on Fresno's home field. Unfortunately for us, that wasn't good enough to win the game or cover the spread because their true freshman quarterback sometimes struggles, did struggle, and then got a concussion, becoming the latest Utah State offensive backfield guy to go down. The problem with Utah State is that the offense has scored only between 13 and 28 points against five bowl-bound opponents since QB Chuckie Keeton and RB Joe Hill were lost for the season with injuries. Senior TE D.J. Tialava joined those two on the sidelines shortly afterwards. Northern Illinois was good enough to put 30 points on the board at Iowa, and the 27 they scored against Bowling Green in the MAC title game loss was 13 more than the Bee Gees had been allowing. So, while Utah State's defense merits much respect, 535 yards per game offenses like Northern Illinois, led by a real gamer at quarterback, don't allow themselves to be shut down. NORTHERN ILLINOIS, 33-27.
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 27
Navy-Marine Corps Stadium - Annapolis, MD (FieldTurf)
MARSHALL over MARYLAND by 11
Seriously, man, what kind of world are we living in these days when the Blundering Herd of Marshall is favored in a bowl game vs. an ACC school that is headed for the Big Ten? Dare we play the common-opponent game here? Let's! Both sides played Virginia Tech this season. Both sides went to overtime, at Virginia Tech, tied 21-21. Doesn't matter what happened after those first 60 minutes of each game. The fact that they were able to score 3 TDs apiece on the road against the nation's #4 ranked defense that allowed only 17.4 ppg this season speaks well of each offense. Both quarterbacks, Maryland's C.J. Brown and Marshall's Rakeem Cato, are dual-threat sparkplugs supported by some zippy athletes. Marshall's pass offense was 39-10 TD-INT this season. Impressive, but more than a little suspect considering the level of play in C-USA, where some of the best teams left, and some lower-conference teams moved up. The Blundering Herd also padded its running attack by 60 yards per game this season to become a more balanced 290/212 run-pass offense. In 10 games against unranked opponents this season, Maryland rushed for 162 yards per game. That sounds good, but it's only about average. The Terps' best receivers have been sidelined for a while. Brown, the quarterback, has the most rushing touchdowns on the team with 12. Marshall does a good job of spreading the field and creating inside holes for hard-to-find zippy little running backs, which will make it harder for Maryland's secondary to hold WR Tommy Shuler and TE Gator Hoskins in check. Maryland has produced only 18% touchbacks on its kickoffs, so Marshall's KR De'Andre Reaves may have opportunities to secure good field position to aid in answering after Maryland scores. MARSHALL, 37-26.
FIGHT HUNGER BOWL
AT&T Park - San Francisco, CA (Grass)
WASHINGTON over BYU by 1
The Huskies of Washington raised their offensive profile this season, to 514 yards per game and 38.5 points per game. But on grass fields, they scored 34, 31, 28, 24, and 31, all below their overall average. Aha, a bunch of home-field or fast-turf guys, eh? BYU is a home-field grass team, for whatever that's worth. But really, any beef we have with Washington is mostly with their overrated defense. Up-tempo spread offenses still give it big troubles. BYU picked the wrong year to play non-conference road games against Top 20-ranked Wisconsin's 3-4 defensive front, and even Notre Dame's. But this Washington hybrid 4-3/3-4 unit is a fake run-stopper. Against an up-tempo BYU offense rushing it on 61% of its snaps, there is only so much that 317-pound Washington DT Danny Shelton can accomplish when he is supported by 230- and 250-pound defensive ends, and the BYU quarterback Taysom Hill is an extra running back accounting for 120 rushing yards per game on his own, while throwing for 220 more. Washington's coaching/coordinator situation is so muddled we won't get into it, but hey, we're not in the meeting rooms and can't say for a fact that it's a negative. Sure, the BYU staff is tight by comparison. After competing well but losing at Wisconsin and at Notre Dame, the Cougars have to be happy for the opportunity to beat a Pac 12 team in a neutral setting as a 'signature win,' given that the romp at Texas is way in the rear-view. But offensive coordinator Robert Anae must prove that he can draw up some effective plays inside the opponent's 20. BYU's red-zone TD rate of merely 49% is a major worry, especially when Washington's is 75%. WASHINGTON, 30-29.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 29
CAROLINA over *ATLANTA by 10
Carolina has allowed the fewest first downs in the NFL: only 14.7 per game. The Falcons are allowing almost twice as many points per game as the Panthers: 27.7 vs. 14.9. Atlanta has the worst defensive third down conversion rate in the NFL: 46%. They are coming home from the West Coast on Christmas week, to host the Panthers off a short week. Many will anticipate a Panthers letdown coming off the big home revenge win against New Orleans last week that flip-flopped the 1-2 team in the NFC South standings and clinched a playoff spot for Carolina. They will anticipate that letdown while they anticipate the Falcons playing for pride. After the ball is kicked off and those abstracts fade, and the series of 120 11-on-11 collisions in three hours begins, we'll see what happens. CAROLINA, 23-13.
*NY GIANTS over WASHINGTON by 1
What have the 6-win Giants accomplished this season? They killed off Jets' QB Mark Sanchez, and probably killed off Lions head coach Jim Schwartz with that road win last week. The quality of play in the NFL will rise because of the Giants' efforts in these areas, so Big Blue should be applauded. In this season finale, they have an opportunity to sweep the Redskins, and the Redskins have an opportunity to lose eight straight games to end the season. But give Washington some credit - they are 2-0 ATS since Kirk Cousins replaced RG1.5 at quarterback, losing a pair of 1-point games. Jim Haslett's Clown-Show defense is a great bet to eventually lose this game for them, but by how much? Tony Romo was playing on one foot in the fourth quarter last week and the Redskins still couldn't stop him from making key plays. Washington - playing with revenge for a Sunday Night Football loss last month - can probably run the ball against the Giants' defense and make a game of it. It looks like the Redskins are trying hard despite much negativity swirling around about the coaching staff's relationship with the owner, so why not keep showing up? NY GIANTS, 20-19.
*CINCINNATI over BALTIMORE by 14
It all comes down to the last week of the season for last year's Super Bowl champions, losers of the last three of four in Cincinnati, a venue where the Bengals have been world-beaters this season. In addition to being undefeated at home, the Bengals have outscored the opposition 250-117, the equivalent average score of 31-15 when playing their games in the Queen City. It's not a good sign for a Ravens squad that is only 2-5 SU and 2-4-1 ATS on the road this season, constantly let down by their offense's inability to run the ball in enemy territory. In last week's beatdown by the Patriots, the Ravens were also let down by their quarterback's painfully evident knee ailment that prevented him from driving the ball and directly contributed to their turnovers. Is it possible that Joe Flacco's knee miraculously heals up in time for this all-important final regular season game of the season? Yes. Is it likely that the Baltimore offensive line suddenly remembers how to block, ensuring that Flacco stays healthy, and that the running backs are able to move the ball, eat some clock and take some pressure off the quarterback? Listen, Christmas was a few days ago. CINCINNATI, 34-20.
Bobby Smith is Editor of Sports Reporter and sportsreporter.com, and author
of "How to Beat the Pro Football Pointspread," currently the nation's #1 best-
selling sports betting book. Check that fact, and order it, at www.amazon.com.