NEW ORLEANS BOWL
RICE vs. TROY
12/22, 8 p.m.ET ESPN2
POINTSPREAD AT PRESS TIME
Rice by 4.5 points, total of 52
Both teams were happy with the above records. Troy was 4-7 last year; Rice was 1-10. Troy proved to be the class of a very weak Sun Belt conference in 2006. Rice was 0-4 to start the season against a killer schedule that featured Houston, UCLA, Texas, and Florida State. From that point on they were 7-1 straight up and ATS. Nobody expected this much improvement this quickly. The Athlon preseason publication penciled them in for zero wins, nine losses, and three coin flips. This isn't a marquee bowl, but it is a matchup of teams who are excited about being in a bowl. These kinds of bowls can be surprisingly rare in the first 20 bowl games!
Rice: 21-23 versus the 62nd ranked schedule
Troy: 28-33 versus the 121st ranked schedule
This gives you a sense of why Rice is the favorite here. Both teams had losing scoring margins for the season because of blowout losses to powerhouses in September. When all 12 games were in the books, Rice had the better average vs. a much tougher schedule. If anything, the Vegas spread underestimates the scoreboard differences between the teams. Rice is a field goal better in raw numbers, but played a schedule that was more than two points tougher. Of course, muddling up the pretty picture is the fact that Rice lost at Florida State 55-7, Troy led on that field at halftime before losing to the Seminoles 24-17. Troy has big performances in them to be sure.
Rice: 9-3 versus the spread
Troy: 6-5 versus the spread
Rice was clearly one of the most underrated teams in the country this year. They were only favored twice all season, but are headed to a bowl! Troy impressed Vegas with covers against Florida State and Georgia Tech in September. After those two games, the team dropped four straight against the spread. As soon as everyone gave up on them, they started covering again. When they were good, they were pretty darned good for a Sun Belt team.
AVERAGE YARDS PER GAME/TURNOVER INFLUENCE
Rice: -72.5, with a season turnover differential of +13
Troy: -29.2, with a season turnover differential of -9
The yardage differences here are largely a result of Rice's poor September. They were outmatched physically by better teams as they were trying to adjust to new head coach Todd Graham. Those numbers probably won't mean anything here. Be sure to notice that big edge in turnover differential. Troy had bad turnover problems despite playing a very weak schedule. That speaks poorly of their chances to thrive when they step up in class in a bowl game. Rice actually had a favorable differential against the gauntlet, then really dominated in Conference USA play. It's always dicey to handicap based on turnovers. If turovers do impact this game, they're likely to favor Rice.
QUARTERBACK TD/INT RATIOS
Rice: 27-9, and you can see Major Applewhite in the numbers
Troy: 18-16, fairly poor for the conference champion of a bad conference
Rice looks to be following in the mold of mid-major teams that try to spread things out and outscore people. They talk the talk on defense. But, four CUSA opponents topped 480 yards on them. Imagine a team trying to become Hawaii, but smart enough to know that it's better to pass 40 times a game rather than 60.
Troy is hard to divine from a distance. I didn't see them on TV this year. Even in the best of times they weren't posting dominant stats that told you what their priorities were. With that poor TD/INT ratio (for a bowl team), you have to assume they run first and pass to balance things out. In desperation mode, they'll top 40 passes. The defense looked great some weeks (five opponents couldn't reach 300 yards), but horrible others (four opponents topped 400 yards).
GAMES VERSUS SIMILAR OPPONENTS
Rice looked great in CUSA play, which at least suggests that they'll match up well here. Without a good fix on Troy, it's hard to know which Rice opponents are similar to Troy. You'd have to assume Rice would have won the Sun Belt had they been in that conference.
Troy was competitive with Florida State and Georgia Tech, but then ran out of gas the next two weeks against Nebraska and UAB. Stylistically, Nebraska and UAB were decent matches for Rice. So, we have to throw the 56-0 and 21-3 losses in those games out, because Troy won't be exhausted here after a month off. You have to give kudos to an undermanned team that can cover against FSU and Georgia Tech on the road in September.
MOTIVATION FOR THIS GAME
Both teams should be motivated, so we'll call it a wash.
LAST YEAR'S BOWL PERFORMANCES
Neither team had a winning record.
RECENT BOWL TRENDS
Rice hasn't been to a bowl game since 1961. You have to assume that Graham and Applewhite are going to make sure the kids get the full experience.
Troy's only bowl trip was to the 2004 Silicon Valley Bowl, where they lost to Northern Illinois 34-21 as a 3-point underdog. You have to assume that team was excited about that trip. Not a good sign for the program that they missed the spread by double digits.
WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?
In most of the bowl games, we'll outline percentage expectations that make as much sense as possible given the information. That's tough to do here. Troy is capable of extremes in all sorts of directions. The Sun Belt teams haven't been competitive with their CUSA opponents the past few years:
2005: Arkansas State (+15) lost to Southern Miss 31-19 (a cover)
2004: North Texas (+6) lost to Southern Miss 31-10
2003: North Texas (+4) lost to Memphis 27-17
That's 0-3 straight up, 1-2 ATS, and loss margins of 12, 21, and 10 points. In that light, this line looks too small.
Typically, you want to take underdogs in the early bowls. Sun Belt teams haven't established they have the talent level to compete in the postseason. They're not your typical underdogs, in other words. So, do you want to lay points with the team that was hardly ever favored all season? Or, do you want to take a Sun Belt team when that conference champ has been losing this bowl by double digits?
Rice's critical number is 29 for a "Rice and Over" combo at the posted spread. They have topped that in five of their last six games. Here they're playing in a dome, which certainly won't make it harder to score. That might be a way to go at it if you're fans of what Rice and the young coaches have been doing this year.
We'll call it a lean to Rice on these pages. We want to make it more than a lean. Bowl history is so strong against early favorites that you just have to be careful laying points every time you see statistical or strength of schedule edges. Only a lean to Rice.