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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Papa John's Bowl (Bowl #4)...By S.H. Austin

PAPAJOHN'S BOWL (Birmingham)
12/23...1 p.m. ET...ESPN2

South Florida by 3.5 points, total of 43

South Florida: 8-4
East Carolina: 7-5
Both teams picked up two wins over last year's respective records. Skip Holtz has been doing a great job with East Carolina, and will eventually be on some short lists for major college programs. The improvement has been unmistakable. Jim Leavitt at South Florida usually creates emotional rollercoasters because players can't keep up with his intensity. In their peak games they can be very good. South Florida beat West Virginia outright on the road as a 20-point underdog to end the regular season. They almost beat Rutgers earlier in the season. South Florida won the stats in both of those games. Two nice stories here with these teams in 2006.

South Florida: 23-18 versus the 57th ranked schedule
East Carolina: 23-21 versus the 71st ranked schedule
They look to be fairly comparable teams off of those numbers. South Florida is a few points better against a slightly tougher schedule. That would lead you almost exactly to where the Vegas pointspread is here. Very few bowl games will have numbers this close together in both scoring margin and schedule strength.

South Florida: 7-4 versus the spread
East Carolina: 10-2 versus the spread
The Pirates of East Carolina were one of the steals of the season. Oddsmakers and the public just never caught up to how good they were. Last year, the line caught up in late October after a 6-1 ATS start. This year, the 6-1 ATS start was followed by a 4-1 ATS finish. Over the last two seasons, Holtz's bunch is 18-5 versus expectations. We'll probably refer to this several times during the bowl previews this year...the perception that pointspreads reflect a perfected market is completely out of touch with the reality of what happens on the field. Good teams that stay off the radar can cover 78% of their spreads over a two-year period simply because few people are taking them seriously. Nice year for the Bulls too. They laid a few eggs, but played well more often than not.

South Florida: +71.0, with a season turnover differential of 0
East Carolina: +17.9, with a season turnover differential of +6
These differences are worth noting. Against a comparable schedule, South Florida was 54 yards better per game. The standard yards-per-point ratio is about 15. So, that edge means 3.5 points or so on the scoreboard. Again, that's in line with the spread here. East Carolina made up for those weaknesses with a good turnover ratio. Both defenses were about the same in forcing turnovers. South Florida's offense was much sloppier with the ball, they lost it 29 times this season. That's very high for a bowl caliber team, particularly one that tries to emphasize the running game when possible. Let's file that away for the time being.

South Florida: 15-15, when we're deeper into the month, you'll know this is poor
East Carolina: 11-11, same thing here, just with a more conservative team

South Florida basically follows the Rutgers model. They pass more than Rutgers because they fall behind more often. But this is a point-of-attack team that tries to win with defense and power. They try to be balanced on offense, but that leads to more turnovers than they'd like. South Florida's defense held six of its last seven opponents to 310 yards or less. The only team they couldn't stop was versatile Louisville. Even so, the Cardinals only scored 31 points when they typically get much more than that as home favorites. This strong defense should get much more respect than it does.

East Carolina is a bit more wide open, but they're trying to install a defensive mindset as well. That can be tough to do quickly at a Conference USA school that has trouble recruiting athletes. You have to do a lot of finesse things until the bodies start coming in. As a result, East Carolina will have a few games where they pass the ball 40 times because they fall behind. You could say they're trying to progress towards the style that South Florida is already playing. Some people think all CUSA teams play like Houston, throwing the ball in an attempt to win shootouts. That's not really what Holtz is trying for here.

These teams are pretty similar to each other, and they played similar schedules. So, this really isn't a category that's going to tell us much more than we already know. The straight up records show that both teams did pretty well within this class of opponent. The ATS records show that East Carolina was more consistent about beating expectations.

It's worth noting that both teams played West Virginia this year, and both teams did well. East Carolina hosted the Mountaineers early in the season. They were 21-point home underdogs against a team the media was touting as possible national championship material. EC trailed 14-7 at the half, and lost 27-10 when West Virginia got a late touchdown to pad the margin. Total yardage was just 369-317 for the Mountaineers.

We've already mentioned that South Florida pulled the upset. That was a 24-19 final as a 20-point road underdog. SF won yardage 363-310, helped partially by an injury that hobbled West Virginia's quarterback.

Note that West Virginia had seven combined turnovers in those games. If you're relatively even at the point of attack with East Carolina and South Florida, while you're committing turnovers, then you're not national championship material. Be careful assuming that Big East teams are good on a national scale just because they know how to run up the score on some patsies. We'll talk more about that when West Virginia and Louisville roll around.

South Florida is coming off that season-ending upset of West Virginia, and might have trouble getting focused here. You often see flat performances from teams that did something amazing in their regular season finales. However, South Florida was embarrassed in last year's bowl game. This should help lessen that letdown effect.

East Carolina should be very excited about going to a bowl game. They also could be flat, as they ended their season with a 21-16 win over NC State. That was certainly a big win for EC. It's not quite the same as how South Florida finished though.

South Florida lost to NC State 14-0, losing yardage 300-295
East Carolina didn't earn a bowl bid

South Florida's only bowl bid ever was that loss last year
East Carolina hasn't been to a bowl under this coaching regime, last appearing after the 2001 season.

If both teams show up with equal intensity, we're talking about a competitive, low scoring game. The Vegas line has already projected that, so it's hard to see much value unless you can decipher which team is going to bring more intensity.

We think that's more likely to be the dog than the favorite. This is usually true in bowl games, and South Florida is coming off the more dramatic season finale. We do admit though that we are very impressed with South Florida's defense. If the squad as a whole is embarrassed about getting shut out last year, it's going to be hard for East Carolina to get any distance on them to win comfortably. The fact that South Florida is more turnover prone (that note we filed away for later use) could be the bonus the dog needs to get over the hump.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

50%: a tight competitive game that could go either way in terms of the pointspread in the fourth quarter.

30%: East Carolina has enough to hang within the number, or win a close game as long as the line stays over a field goal.

20%: South Florida is so motivated after getting shut out last year that they play a brilliant defensive game and manage to cover similar to the 27-10 win over Syracuse, or the 22-12 win over Pittsburgh.

If you split the 50% category halfway, it adds up to 55% for East Carolina, and 45% for South Florida. Given recent bowl history favoring underdogs, that's probably the best way to look at it.

Most scenarios would probably suggest an Under at the current total. Versus mid-major caliber teams who made bowls, East Carolina had games land on 41 vs. Tulsa, 34 in regulation with Southern Miss, and 35 with Rice (though a 41 at Navy keeps it from being a perfect picture). South Florida played to 43 or fewer points in eight of its 11 games.

It's hard to love an Under in bowl games because there are more trick plays and chicanery due to coaches having a month to prepare. The weather's usually nice too. Even when an Under makes A LOT of sense in a bowl, you'll see two flea flickers, a double reverse, a blocked punt for a TD, and all sorts of stuff that make your head spin. In the regular season, this might be a 70% Under scenario at the current line. Given it's a bowl, and that South Florida stayed way Under last year, let's call it 60% for the Under. If the weather forecast could hurt scoring, then it's a stronger play. Nobody does flea flickers in bad weather.

All told, the percentages suggest the dog and the Under, with the Under probably having a slight edge in the big picture. Those offseason rules changes might help Unders this year, making them more common than in the past.

Good luck whichever way you end up going in this bowl. Feel free to share your thoughts below!

S.H. Austin

S.H. Austin

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