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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Armed Forces Bowl (Bowl #6)...By S.H. Austin

12/23, 8 p.m. ET ESPN

Utah by 1.5 points, total of 50

Tulsa: 8-4
Utah: 7-5
Both teams were a bit disappointed with the above records. Utah returned a lot of starters from a team that went 7-5 last year. Phil Steele's preseason publication had them winning the Mountain West. The Athlon preseason publication penciled them in for eight wins, no losses, and four coin flip games. They went 1-3 in the coin flip games and also lost to Wyoming and New Mexico. Utah was preseason top 25 in both publications. Tulsa returned even more starters from a 9-4 team that won the CUSA championship and scored a bowl upset over Fresno State in the Liberty Bowl. After beating UTEP on 10/27 of this year, Tulsa had a 7-1 straight up record, with wins over eventual bowl teams Navy, Southern Miss, and East Carolina. They looked like a surefire lock to win the conference again. Stunningly, they dropped their next three games, missing the Vegas line by 21, 14, and 16 points at the end of regulation, respectively. Each team is capable of playing with anybody. Each team is also capable of stumbling around for a couple of quarters.

Tulsa: 29-20 versus the 92nd ranked schedule
Utah: 28-20 versus the 74th ranked schedule
Very similar performances once you total up the numbers. It's a virtual dead heat after adjusting for strength of schedule. In the big picture, CUSA and the Mountain West are similar conferences. These guys registered at about the same place in their respective leagues.

Tulsa: 6-5 versus the spread
Utah: 6-4-1 versus the spread
Despite failing to live up to their preseason expectations, these teams did manage to slightly outperform Vegas expectations for the year. Both are capable of looking very good when things are clicking. Tulsa had a hot start, going 5-1 ATS in their first six board games. Utah had the better finish, posting a 3-0-1 ATS mark the last month of the season.

Tulsa: +112.0, with a season turnover differential of -5
Utah: +37.4, with a season turnover differential of +8
Interesting how the scoring totals were almost identical, but the yardage stats are from different planets. Tulsa moved the ball extremely well this year, but had a high risk offense that ended up being too turnover prone. In the three losses that brought their season to a halt, they lost the turnover category 7-1. Utah made up for less yardage by cashing in more cheap points from their turnover advantage. It should be noted that the Utes were turnover prone when playing from behind. They gave the ball away 11 times in losses to UCLA, Boise State, and Wyoming. They only lost the ball seven total times in their other nine games!

Tulsa: 16-8, fewer TDs than you'd expect
Utah: 23-11, good for a first year starter
When reading the boxscores, Tulsa strikes you as a team that should have more TD passes than that. They have a balanced attack that rolls up a lot of yards against weak opponents. Clearly they do more damage on the ground in the red zone than in the air. Utah had a senior QB who made his first start in last year's season finale. He struggled versus tough opponents this year, until the season finale against flat BYU. Against weak opposition, the QB and the team thrived.

Tulsa changed so much when they hit that brick wall that it's hard to be certain now regarding their real strengths and weaknesses. All of the reasons they were 9-3 ATS last year, and 5-1 ATS in their first six board games suddenly seemed to disappear. When things were clicking, they had a potent balanced offense that moved the ball at will against weak mid-major opposition. The defense was better than people realized (returning 9 starters from a team that ranked 40th in the nation the prior season). They weren't as good as Boise State or BYU, but they were better than Navy (having scored a 24-23 road victory with a 444-356 yardage edge over that team). BOOM! They were outgained by Houston 472-249, they were committing four turnovers in an overtime loss at home to Rice, they were getting outgained in a 34-24 loss to SMU, and the season was in turmoil. A lot of college teams are prone to be inconsistent. This particular model is pretty rare though.

Utah is also a balanced team with a decent defense. They'll throw 25-30 passes per game normally, more if they fall behind. As we saw in the stats above, they're not as explosive as Tulsa, but they're less turnover prone. They're more likely to find the end zone through the air, as well. It might be as simple as this. Tulsa had the slightly better running game, and played a lot more soft run defenses. Otherwise, these teams are very similar.

Tulsa played a lot of teams who are kind of like Utah, but nobody who's really exactly like Utah. Most CUSA opponents are softer on defense. Navy's in the same ballpark power rating wise, but hardly anybody plays like Navy. Of course, we also have the problem that Tulsa played well early and poorly late against pretty much everybody. It is worth noting that Tulsa played BYU early in the season, and got throttled 49-24 on the road. It was their only bad game until the late collapse. Utah played BYU in their season finale, losing a heartbreaker 33-31 on the final play of the game (particularly frustrating to people who had Utah with a big moneyline who saw a 31-27 final get posted in some places!). That, by itself, suggests Utah is the better side. But, BYU had already wrapped up the Mountain West championship and their bowl bid, so it wasn't the best effort BYU had to offer.

Utah probably played a lot of teams who are similar to Tulsa. If you buy the analogy that Tulsa looked better than they really were because they could run the ball on soft CUSA defensive fronts...then a lot of Mountain West teams would fit that description if you moved them to CUSA. Utah fared well in general, but not every time out versus those types of teams (losing at Wyoming 31-15 on the road for example, Wyoming would have been capable of having a very nice run this year if they were a CUSA team).

Tulsa has to see it as a letdown. Last year they won their conference, then won their bowl over a team that almost beat USC. They just can't be excited about a trip to Fort Worth.
Utah probably isn't all that excited either. They got sky high for that season finale against rival BYU. This bowl game wouldn't compare in their minds to that.

Tulsa (+7) beat Fresno State 31-24, winning yardage 430-421
Utah (+8) beat Georgia Tech 38-10, winning yardage 560-385
It's just amazing how many bowl dogs of this size last year had huge stat games against flat favorites. No way that a computer would give you Utah 560-385 over Georgia Tech in yardage on a neutral field. But, it happened in last year's Emerald Bowl. Obviously this type of team is very dangerous as a live dog against a flat favorite. Each is much less dangerous when they're the team that's going to be flat. One of the reasons we think the pollsters and the media overrate the true strength of mid-major teams is that they are capable of scoring these kinds of results when major conference opponents blow off a game. It's just so rare to get majors versus mid majors when both teams care equally that the preponderance of evidence favors the mid majors in those arguments.

Tulsa's only recent bowl before last year was a 52-10 loss to Georgia Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise back in 2003 (funny that both have played Tech recently, with extremely varying results.) Sometimes the major conference teams do show up in the mood to play.

Utah is 4-0 straight up and ATS in their last four bowl appearances. Coach Kyle Whittingham picked up where Urban Meyer left off when he went to Florida. This could end up being the tie-breaker here. At least one of the teams has shown a penchant for getting inspired to play bowl games.

It all means a headache for handicappers! You have two teams who just finished off disappointing seasons, and are heading to a boring city for a boring bowl. They're about even in the big picture, though they get things done in slightly different ways. The pointspread is so close to pick-em that neither team is going to feel "disrespected" by the line and get fired up to prove a point. Tulsa knows they blew an opportunity to win their conference. Utah knows they blew an opportunity to upset BYU in their last game.

Either team could win by more than two touchdowns if the other doesn't show up. This game could be a shootout where both offenses move the ball and score (like Utah's 33-31 loss to BYU, or Tulsa's 28-all regulation tie with Rice). Or, if the teams are flat, defenses could control the flow and you get a game that doesn't even reach the 40's (Utah played to 27 with TCU, and 31 with Air Force; Tulsa played to a 47 with Navy, a 26 with Southern Miss, a 41 with East Carolina, and a 37 with Houston).

It's not a tough game to pick because Vegas posted great lines. It's a tough game to pick because of volatile potential in either direction. If Tulsa was 2 and 47, or the game was pick-em and 52, the same issues would be in play.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

15%: Utah's history of strong bowl preparation leads to either a clean victory, or a good come-from-behind effort after a flat first half.

9%: Utah's loss to BYU to end the season was so demoralizing that they can't get focused on this game.

76%: Nobody has a clue, and anyone who says they do is blowing smoke.

If you split the clueless category (which I gave an even number so it would be easier to split), you get 53% for Utah, and 47% for Tulsa. That's a minimal lean to Utah that barely covers the vigorish.

This piece is being written before the bowl slate has started. By game day, BYU of the Mountain West will have played Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. Rice and East Carolina of Conference USA will have played as well. We all may learn something in those games that might trigger more of an opinion here.

We'll just call the total a coin flip. But, you might consider letting weather be your guide. If it's cold or otherwise inclement, these defenses could definitely forge an Under. If it's beautiful, a shootout is a bit more likely. Or, if it's clear in the earlier bowl games that the totals are too high because the rules changes are having a bigger impact than projected, that could also signal an Under here as well.

Be sure to check the MESS HALL thread on game day for potential updates in this matchup. If you have an opinion on the game, feel free to share your thoughts!

S.H. Austin

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