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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Las Vegas Bowl (Bowl #2)...By S.H. Austin

12/21, 9 p.m.ET ESPN

BYU by 4 points, total of 60

BYU: 10-2
Oregon: 7-5

BYU only returned three defensive starters from last year's 6-6 team, so an explosion of this caliber was a bit of a surprise. They did challenge themselves with non-conference road games at Arizona and Boston College (both close losses), and then ran the table in the Mountain West. It was a down year for that league. BYU pretty much smoked everybody until they had clinched the crown. After clinching, they almost lost outright to Utah in their season finale. Oregon was 4-0 in September (thanks to some help from the refs in the Oklahoma game). They were hoping that win would launch them to a possible Pac 10 crown in a year where USC looked vulnerable. Instead, they limped to a 3-5 record the rest of the way. One of those wins came against Division I-AA Portland State. With fair officiating, we're talking about a 6-6 team that was expected to win nine of its 12 games according to the Vegas lines. A big disappointment for Ducks fans.

BYU: 37-15 versus the 81st ranked schedule
Oregon: 31-27 versus the 7th ranked schedule
We're using the USA Today computer rankings for the strength of schedule analysis. That publication saw the Pac 10 as the best conference in the country. You could argue they saw the 2006 Pac 10 as the best conference in the history of football! All league teams show up as having brutal schedules. We think the USA Today over ranks the conference a bit. It's okay with us if you knock about 10 spots off all those teams. Oregon did play Oklahoma and Fresno State in September, so it's not like they were trying to dodge the competition. BYU's +22 point differential is very impressive. They had the kind of offense that can run up the score on weaker competition. When you've got the 81st ranked schedule, that's a lot of weak competition. Think of them as a bully that's not as good as the stats suggest when they step up in class.

BYU: 9-2-1 versus the spread
Oregon: 6-5 versus the spread
It took the oddsmakers forever to realize that BYU had improved so much. They would have started the season with 10 straight covers if not for an overtime push at +7 on the road versus Boston College in a 30-23 loss. Those of you who believe that the weekend pointspreads reflect "perfected" markets need to count up all the teams that had long cover streaks in one direction or the other this year. The oddsmakers, the sharps, and the public missed the boat on several teams this season. Through six games, BYU was 6-0 ATS at the end of regulation, yet they still beat the spread by double digits in three of their next four outings. Oregon actually fared pretty well ATS considering the magnitude of the 2006 disappointment. When they won, they won big enough to top expectations as a general rule. They just won less often than expected.

BYU: +134.5, with a season turnover differential of +14
Oregon: +133.2, with a season turnover differential of -11
Check that out! Even though BYU has looked much superior to Oregon in the categories we've discussed so far, they were actually almost dead even in yardage. Oregon moved the ball at will all season, but kept killing themselves with turnovers. Facing much weaker competition, BYU didn't have turnover issues at all. This fact is very important to remember when handicapping the game. The teams are even except for turnovers. If Oregon can protect the ball, they can easily spring the upset here. Also worth remembering...part of that BYU turnover advantage comes because bad teams were playing catch up against them all season. Oregon may not be as good as they thought they were going to be, but they're much better than the bottom two-thirds of the Mountain West.

BYU: 30-7, a great year from a versatile offense
Oregon: 17-16, very poor, well below expectations
As we run through more of these stats, you'll see the kinds of numbers that reflect potent attacks, and the kind that reflect troubled attacks. Oregon's numbers are lousy in a bowl context. They had five multi-interception games, and suffered four giveaways or more in four different games. Combined with that is the fact that the volume of passing TDs is much lower than you'd expect for a high scoring team that passed 40 times or more five times. This looks to be a team that racked up passing yardage between the 20's on soft defenses, but really had no idea what to do when the game was on the line vs. quality opposition.

BYU is a mid-major power that relies on a version of the spread attack to obliterate outmanned opponents. There are always three or four teams like this every year that post great records, then typically play high scoring bowls. The defenses are overmatched when they step up in class, but the offense has enough tricks up their sleeve to stay in the ballgame. Oregon would have to be classified as a mid-level major conference team that tricks people into thinking they're great with occasional blowouts. This class of team tends not to play well in big games versus top competition unless the opponent is flat as a pancake. Every conference has a couple of teams like this. The Pac 10 used to have several teams like this every year, but new coaching regimes have brought physicality to various programs.

BYU didn't play any opponents that are an ideal match. Boston College is actually pretty close to Oregon in style, though it's a Big East team. Boston College does throw a lot of passes, and tends to be soft against the pass itself. It's the best we can do. That game ended 23-all at the end of regulation on the road.

Oregon played a few teams that are reasonably similar to BYU. Many Pac 10 teams could be considered "cousins" to BYU (so to speak) style-wise. If you stuck them in the Mountain West, they'd be favorites to win the crown. If you moved BYU to the Pac 10, nobody would make BYU a favorite to finish in the top three. Let's take Arizona State, Washington State, and Oregon State as the three who are probably most similar in composite. Oregon won handily (statistically speaking) in all three games, but went 1-2 straight up on the scoreboard. They did cover two of the three games, routing ASU and sneaking within the +3 in a 30-28 loss to OSU.

BYU lost to a Pac 10 team in this exact same bowl last year, so they have reason to show up with some emotion here. This isn't like TCU with nothing to prove in the Poinsettia Bowl against a team from the MAC. We should expect to see peak intensity from the Cougars.

Oregon may be extremely disappointed about this one. Like about 25 different teams this year, they were thinking about the BCS after a strong September. They thought they would have a great chance to knock off USC, and at least earn a shot at the Rose Bowl. The Las Vegas Bowl is a good bit away from the Rose Bowl. In most of the early bowls, the underdog is the team with more motivation. That may not be the case here. If anybody's disappointed, it's going to be the Ducks.

BYU lost to California 35-28 in the Las Vegas Bowl, losing yardage 473-448 Oregon lost to Oklahoma 17-14 in the Holiday Bowl, losing yardage 361-327

BYU covered as an 8-point dog last season. The only other bowl game they played in this century was the 2001 Liberty Bowl (a 28-10 loss to Louisville). Oregon has been to five bowls this century. Interestingly, they've covered all three games they were underdogs, but failed to cover both times as favorites. The high points were wins in the Holiday and Fiesta Bowls back in 2000 and 2001 (Texas and Colorado). The low point was a 2002 loss in the Seattle Bowl as a 7-point favorite over Wake Forest. Since this isn't the Holiday or Fiesta Bowl, they might lack some intensity. The team did cover in the 2003 Sun Bowl in a 31-30 loss to Minnesota as a 4-point underdog.

This could be one of the few bowl games this year where we think the favorite is more likely to have the edge in motivation. Certainly amongst the first half of the bowl slate, it's either going to be a wash, or the underdog will have an edge. BYU would like to beat a Pac 10 team to make up for last year's loss on this field. Oregon doesn't get much of a boost from beating a Mountain West team after they've already played high profile games against the likes of USC, Oklahoma, Cal, and other bowl caliber teams.

In most seasons, you want to shade your action in bowl games toward the underdogs. To take a favorite, you really have to have superior motivation, superior talent, and a cheap price. In this case, we're talking about a mid major team laying more than a field goal against a major conference team. Note that it's a 12-point line move from the Cal game played on this field last year. It could be that the Over is the better way to go.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

40% chance that we have a high scoring shootout reminiscent of last year's 35-28 game between BYU and Cal, or Oregon's 31-30 Sun Bowl game with Minnesota. Those two games by themselves don't suggest much line value. We do think the styles of play here line up in such a way that the scoring in a shootout is likely to blow up a bit higher than that. Both of these teams are likely to pass 35-45 times in shootouts. That would yield a 38-34 kind of game in good weather conditions.

40% chance that a game that isn't a shootout still ends up in the neighborhood of the number. Maybe Oregon doesn't bring much intensity and BYU is leading 41-17 in the fourth quarter. Maybe Oregon does bring intensity, and we don't have a true shootout, but something more along the lines of 28-24 either way with eight minutes to go.

20% chance that the teams play more conservatively than normal in a tight game, or that a flat performance from one team leads to the other team running out the clock in the fourth quarter. This doesn't seem likely given the penchant of both teams to pass. But, we've seen this happen in bowls. It might be more likely to happen this year because of the rules changes that allow the clock to run more freely.

If you split the 40% coin flips in the middle, that's 60/40 in favor of the Over.

What about the team side? History frowns on laying points with mid major teams against underdogs from major conferences. Ask Hawaii about that in their two late games against Purdue and Oregon State. Mid major teams are much more dangerous as live dogs against flat favorites than they are as favorites.

Let's take the percentages from the totals and imagine how things might play out: *40% shootouts: you want the dog in a shootout, so we'd say 30% to 10% in favor of Oregon within this subset.

*40% total coin flip: most of these games probably would go BYU's way because Oregon is flat. We'd say 30% to 10% for BYU in this section. If Oregon shows up, that's accounted for in the "shootout" category.

20% surprisingly low scoring: tough call. Normally you think about the dog in lower scoring games. Here, that doesn't feel as right. We want to give BYU an edge for perceived motivation advantages. We'll do it here. 13% for BYU, and 7% for Oregon.

That adds up to 53% for BYU, and 47% for Oregon. Or, a lean to the favorite that barely covers the vigorish. The total seems to make more sense depending whether or not the weather forecast cooperates.

In a sense, if you're rooting for the Over, you're already rooting for Oregon. There's no need for an additional play on the dog. The combination of BYU and Over hedges things to a degree. If Oregon no-shows, the worst you can do is split, and you have a chance to sweep if the second half turns into a garbage game with a lot of cheap points. The critical number for BYU is 32 points in that scenario. If you get the Cougars to 32 points, the worst you can do is 1-1 with BYU and the Over.

S.H. Austin

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