I’m beginning to think that almost any Division 1 college football team can cause problems for anyone else in the sport on a given Saturday.
No, that opinion isn’t just due to the shocker in Champaign last weekend. I’ve actually got a pair of 2018 results in mind – The Citadel giving Alabama what-for in a span of 2 quarters, and Georgia Southern playing brave pigskin to cover ATS in Death Valley as a tropical deluge loomed.
But there’s no doubt Illinois-over-Wisconsin is the “holy crap” moment of 2019 so far, even more of a surprise than UGA falling in what should have been an ordinary SEC romp.
I was among many handicappers who felt that the Fighting Illini would run into prohibitive size and speed disadvantages in addition to the numbers-gap as Wisconsin’s 2-deep rotation rolled into the 3rd quarter. My wager was on the Badgers to cover with at least a 35-point victory.
Instead, Lovie Smith’s charges found ways to hang around, including a dynamic RB combo of Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin, who each starred in the decisive 4th quarter of a 24-23 upset win. The Illini defense prevented all of the explosive plays it could and made the Badgers play ball-control against themselves, the most-reliable way for David to smite Goliath since Horse & Saddle Prep first upset Metropolis High centuries ago.
It’s clear what Las Vegas thinks of the Illinois-Wisconsin result –a fluke of familiarity in the Big Ten. Purdue is a (-10) favorite over Illinois in a lunchtime Saturday kickoff at Ross-Ade Stadium, betting action having pushed the spread 2 points toward the Boilermakers already.
I’m the guy to caution against giving a surprise upstart too much credit too quickly…but I can’t imagine the Fighting Illini rolling-over as easy as some gamblers seem to think.
Maybe pundits who defend the current FBS system have been correct all along. College football really does create breathless suspense every weekend. But you needs lots and lots of competitive teams to bring about that scenario – something D1 is blessed with now more than ever before.
Texas and Oklahoma had plenty to prove in the regular season 30 years ago…against each other. Otherwise, the conference slate was mostly a foregone conclusion. Teams in 2019 must prove themselves again and again.
In their own separate ways, the Clemson Tigers, Purdue Boilermakers, and New Mexico Lobos are in the same boat on Saturday. Each program would like to make a statement, and gamblers and/or handicappers are giving each team a vote of confidence to do so. However, thanks to pesky competition, there’s a chance all 3 will experience a setback before the next Sabbath.
Here are pompous prognostications on the teams mentioned above – plus a bonus for fellow service-academy junkies.
Illinois Fighting Illini at Purdue Boilermakers
Illinois deserves more credit for the win as opposed to Wisconsin simply being trashed for the loss, and TV pundits are simply rationalizing, unprepared to speak intelligently about the Illini. Now that the Champaign student-athletes are seeing a spark of hope on the horizon, we can at least count on them to play crisp, hard football until if and when the next crisis-moment arrives in the Smith era.
The Boilermakers have been pretty hard to beat when defending home turf in Indiana, whipping Maryland and Vanderbilt while giving the ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers a stressful visit. But Purdue is still 2-5 overall, and was crushed on the ground in both directions against Iowa in a 26-20 loss last weekend.
Perhaps bettors simply felt that a TD + conversion-for-2 spread was too tight for a proven-superior commodity that defeated Illinois 46-7 last season, and overcorrected or even got it right on the dot at (-10). But the rising Over/Under total misses a crucial aspect of game management in this scrum. Lovie will not be interested in throwing-away Illinois’ biggest asset in this match-up – the fact that the Fighting Illini have been running the ball successfully while the Boilermakers have not.
Illinois will stick to the ground game and try to limit the downfield pass, forcing Purdue to win with ball-control drives of its own. A shortened game could lead to a much-lower point tally than eager gamblers are expecting.
Pick: Under (61)
Boston College Eagles at Clemson Tigers
Boston College was threatening to crack-into the club last autumn, but the Tigers met the Eagles head-on with a brand-new passing game that was taking the Power-5 by storm. Not even Notre Dame or Alabama had a prayer of stopping Trevor Lawrence, Justyn Ross and Travis Etienne by season’s end. The offensive triumvirate at Death Valley is the perfect complement to the Tigers’ brutish blocking and tackling, and Clemson showed just how high the ceiling of an elite team can go. BC lost to Clemson by 20 points in a reasonably-competitive 2018 game that resulted in a “push” on many point-spread wagers. It didn’t mean Boston College wasn’t necessarily welcome on the top tier.
But the loss portended what would be a disappointing finish. Soon, BC was 2nd-tier again. And the currently 4-3 Eagles are being handicapped like a decidedly 2nd-tier program against Clemson this Saturday, with a big fat (+33) margin on point-spread betting boards. Terrible talons!
The idea that Clemson is sure to blow-away any mid-tier Power-5 contender on the gridiron may be a flawed one. Specifically, the handicap of the ’19 Tigers as an indomitable beast is based on the tight, anxious Texas A&M and North Carolina scrums being flukes of a sort. While each said Clemson opponent has been making progress in its own right and should be expected to star in the postseason, a marquee bowl bid is far from a certainty for either the Aggies or the Tar Heels.
There’s nothing about Texas A&M’s campaign-to-date that would suggest the Aggies are better than Boston College. Want to hear Texas A&M’s resume of vanquished foes so far? Texas State. Lamar. Arkansas (by a hair). Mississippi. In contrast, BC’s slate of 4 wins includes Virginia Tech. NC State, and dangerous FCS opponent Richmond.
The UNC contest showed how easily Clemson’s house of cards could collapse. Dabo Swinney’s team ran and passed efficiently and didn’t allow a slew of big plays – that’s 3 or 4 planks of Dabo’s winning formula. Except Mack Brown’s offense was consistently running the ball well, shortening the game and creating a pins-and-needles finish.
Nah, I don’t think the Tigers can lose to BC unless the ball bounces funny all night. But BC’s got something pretty good going with A.J. Dillon, and while QB Dennis Grosel doesn’t make a legendary decoy in the Read-Option, the Eagles are likely to play high-motor defense and are athletic and smart enough to get by vs Clemson on special teams.
Pick: Boston College to cover (+33)
Hawaii Warriors at New Mexico Lobos
Bookmakers didn’t want to give New Mexico any credence at all following opening records of 2-5 straight-up and against the spread. Gamblers have other ideas, shrinking Saturday night’s Hawaii-at-UNM spread to (-10) on the favored Rainbow Warriors.
I’m calling this match-up the Respectability Bowl. Each team has a novel offense and plenty of skilled weapons to take advantage of the playbook, but neither program has an easy time recruiting for defense, and total collapses without the ball are common. To get to respectability, it has to be about more than the offense.
Hawaii’s passing game lit up the field against visiting Air Force in Week 8 but the Falcons exposed the Rainbows’ defense as smoke and mirrors, embarrassing the UH secondary with 1 long bomb after another. New Mexico’s attack can be as feast-or-famine as Hawaii’s despite the run-oriented play selection.
Both teams may score quickly, punt quickly or give up the ball on downs at any time, and neither HC is likely to put 100% faith in his defense.
Fans thinking “New Mexico likes to run and grind clock” is helping lead to a falling O/U total of (69.5) points. It may be an illusory notion.
Tulane Green Wave at Navy Midshipmen
Throughout the current era of service-academy football a little birdy in the back of my mind has been chirping, “if only Army or Navy had a defense. A real-life, athletic, dominant defense. If that ever happens, they could crush Las Vegas.” Yeah right. Heh heh, heh heh…holy battleship.
Welcome to 2019, and a Flexbone team with a deadly card to play.
Don’t look now, but Navy has a dynamite defense that is simply shutting-down big, fast, agile offenses. The Mids haven’t been bothered in 4 out of 5 victories, and clobbered South Florida last weekend with a disturbingly-efficient and brutish game plan.
QB Malcolm Perry dashed into the record books in the 31-3 slaughter of USF, drawing the attention of the Associated Press. Hiding in the weeds is the story of a Navy secondary that’s flying all over the place and a shining hour for under-sized LB Jacob Springer – who hosted a hat-trick of sacks as the blitzing Mids allowed 3.8 yards per pass attempt.
Annapolis could house a hell of a stubborn at-home opponent this season, and there’s no need to kick field-goals whenever the devilish Perry solves a defense in the 2nd half…making this particular Saturday afternoon point-spread (Midshipmen giving (-3.5)) look kind of silly.
Pick: Navy to cover
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.