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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Motor City Bowl (Bowl #8)...By S.H. Austin

12/26, 7:30 p.m. ET ESPN

Central Michigan by 8.5 points, total of 52

Central Michigan: 8-4
Middle Tennessee: 7-5
Some of the bowl matchups this year are going to present opportunities to go off on long tangents about a variety of issues in college football handicapping. This won't be one of them! We'll take a bit of a breather whenever a Sun Belt team is in a bowl game. Central Michigan won the MAC this year. All four of their losses came against bowl teams, so that's a very strong 8-4 for a MAC squad. It's a scandal that Middle Tennessee was allowed within 1,000 miles of a bowl game. It's a borderline scandal to begin with that the Sun Belt champion gets to play in a bowl. A team that can't win the Sun Belt isn't bowl material by a longshot. The Motor City committee said they had to take a seven win team over a few of the six-win nominees (like Kansas, for example). If that's how it works, the NCAA needs to kick the Sun Belt down to IAA. A seven-win Sun Belt team is like a three-win team in a real conference.

Central Michigan: 30-23 versus the 95th ranked schedule
Middle Tennessee: 24-23 versus the 106th ranked schedule
After our grouchy rant of ten seconds ago, you probably thought the teams wouldn't look so similar in those numbers. Middle Tennessee did have good results in their bad conference. And, since both of these conferences rank near the bottom, you don't get a real sense of how bad the Sun Belt is. Nobody's worse than the Sun Belt, and the MAC isn't very good. So, they seem close together to a computer when you stack the conferences. Imagine sticking a high school team in the Mountain West conference. The high school team would go 0-8 in league play. The second worst team would go 1-7...but the second worst team would still be a lot better than the transported high school team. They're further apart than the record indicates. That's the case here with strength of schedule. A lot of Middle Tennessee's opponents were bottom of the barrel, in a barrel they shouldn't have even been in.

Central Michigan: 10-3 versus the spread
Middle Tennessee: 7-4 versus the spread
Both teams did much better than the oddsmakers and public expected this year. Central shouldn't have surprised anyone because they started the season with a national TV cover against Boston College. Then got the money again the next week against Michigan. One non-cover came in garbage time (Temple). One game missed by a point on the road against a bowl team (Kentucky), and the other miss came the week after Central had clinched their spot in the MAC championship game (Northern Illinois). This team was solid as a rock in games that mattered. Middle Tennessee went 2-2 ATS in non-conference play (various double digit losses at high spreads). So, that means they went 5-2 ATS in the Sun Belt. They were 5-1 until a massive choke job as a 9-point favorite in the season finale against Troy. MTSU lost that game 21-20, losing yardage 316-203. Troy won their next game, and the crown.

Central Michigan: +35.5, with a season turnover differential of +5
Middle Tennessee: -43.0, with a season turnover differential of +8
Remember the "Milton Berle" article that ran here at Major Wager before the Bowl Preview Series started? Central Michigan was a bit of a Berle in games where they were in control. They didn't needlessly run up the score or stats. And weather was an issue in the Midwest much of the year, further condensing the stats of good teams. Central's better than this category makes it look.

Central Michigan: 27-10, great considering QB was a question mark early
Middle Tennessee: 8-8, ridiculous for a bowl team with a soft schedule

Central Michigan is a textbook team that impressed people with their skills and attitude all season. You have to be careful falling for a team like this when they step up in class. They did lose 41-17 at Michigan (a cover at +28), and 45-36 at Kentucky (not covering at +8). By the reduced standards of the MAC, this was a class squad. They earned their championship with solid play on both sides of the ball. They were clearly superior to Ohio in the title tilt.

Middle Tennessee was pretty much the same thing in a lesser conference. If they hadn't choked the Troy game on their home field, they could easily have been considered the "Central Michigan of the Sun Belt." They either won stats or won turnovers in most of their conference games.

Central Michigan probably played a lot of MAC teams who are similar to Middle Tennessee. Their opponent here wouldn't be the worst team in the MAC if they transferred. Central Michigan was the best team in the MAC, which is the important thing to remember.

Middle Tennessee didn't really play anyone comparable to CMU. Their non-conference games were all against teams better than Central Michigan, and they got squashed. In order, Middle Tennessee lost to Maryland 24-10, Oklahoma 59-0, shorthanded Louisville 44-17, and South Carolina 52-7.

Central Michigan might relax after winning their league title. Some teams do that when the preseason goal was to win the conference championship rather than win a bowl. And, they surely can't get excited about playing somebody like Middle Tennessee. You get fired up for big name teams, not "directional" teams that don't even have a direction.

Middle Tennessee has to be extremely excited about getting a bowl bid. They couldn't have imagined this was likely after the loss to Troy. It's very easy to see this one category trumping all the negatives we've said about this unit. They're likely to play excited, particularly after laying an egg in their last game. Central might get caught flat footed out of the gate.

Neither team qualified for a bowl.

Central Michigan hasn't been to a bowl since 1994.
Middle Tennessee has never been to a bowl.

Bowl history speaks very highly of double digit underdogs. They come in with energy and an attitude. The favorites come in ogling the cheerleaders and primping for the TV cameras. As we said in the write-up of the New Orleans Bowl, Sun Belt teams haven't established yet that they deserve to be in that class of dogs you should respect. It's just a lower quality of athlete. No way around that fact. They haven't matched up well against CUSA in recent New Orleans Bowls. They probably won't match up well here either. We do think they have a chance to catch Central Michigan napping early.

It's also worth remembering that the backdoor potential isn't very high here. Remember that TD/INT ratio for Middle Tennessee's quarterbacks? They have eight TD passes ALL YEAR! How do you come from behind if you can't throw TD passes?

I'd rate the percentages this way:

100%: we'll lean to Middle Tennessee if Troy looks good in the New Orleans Bowl against Rice four days earlier.

100%: we'll lean to Central Michigan if Troy looks lousy in that game.

Isn't it great to have certainty about your leans?

Given that Central Michigan can be a "Milton Berle" with a lead, and that Middle Tennessee probably won't have an explosive catch-up game, we'll lean to the Under on the total. Central Michigan beat Ohio 31-10 in the MAC championship game. It's hard to see why this total is 11 points higher than that. Middle Tennessee had high scoring losses in their non-conference blowouts. Central Michigan isn't as explosive as Oklahoma, Louisville, or even South Carolina in that kind of game.

We'll call it 60/40 for the Under in this early look. If it turns out that many of the early bowls are turning into wild shootouts (which happens some years), we might drop it to 55/45 for the Under. Both teams prefer to play "controlled" football. That could lead to a field position game. Under makes the most sense of anything right now at this high total.

We'll let the New Orleans Bowl be the guide on the team side.

S.H. Austin

Addendum to Bowl Preview #8
By S.H. Austin

Since I was pretty hard on Middle Tennessee in the above preview, I wanted to post some of the pro-MTSU emails I've been getting here at the website. We always encourage people to post their thoughts in the threads. Some people prefer the anonymity of email, so I won't use their names or email addresses.

Here are the complete transcripts (with only a couple of typo's fixed), cut-and-pasted in:

"All 5 of MTSU losses were against bowl teams. The SBC was 3-3 I believe against CUSA. NIU who beat CMU this year played like a junior high team last night. So you better "lean" to middle. You are very uneducated toward the SBC and I bet your betting record shows."

"So, if Middle Tennessee beats Central Michigan, you know, the MIGHTY MAC champ, will you still contend that we shouldn't be in a bowl game? Do you think the MAC #2 and #3 are better than the Sunbelt #2 and #3? I don't. MT beat the MAC CHAMP Akron Zips with Charlie Frye at the helm. The MAC is no better than the Sunbelt. There's a reason Troy beat #17 Mizzou and Marshall a couple of years ago and MT beat the SEC EAST LEADING Vanderbilt Commodores last year (You know, the same Vandy that beat Tennessee?) and two times before that: We had the better teams. Go Blue Raiders"

"Your analysis of the Mid-American Conference and Motor City Bowl leaves much to be desired. You obviously have never seen a Sun Belt team play and are basing your beliefs on the scores of three or four games Middle Tennessee played and a bunch of meaningless stat sheets. Screw the fact that a team that destroyed Central Michigan in the regular season got obliterated last night in the Poinsettia Bowl by the #2 seed from the non-Power $ix Mountain West. Screw the fact that Central Michigan hasn't really played world-beaters either besides overrated Boston College and a Kentucky team that scraped by LOUISIANA-MONROE by 2 points late in the season!

Middle Tennessee's going to head to the Motor City. We are going to give Central Michigan a DAMN good game even though airheads like you don't think we will. And should we win, I hope you're prepared to eat your big helping of crow, PUNK!"

"Its a scandal to think that ANYONE told you that you could write. I guess that's why you aren't writing for a real newspaper. You and your article is a joke."

It's great to get feedback from people who follow teams closely, and I don't mind the insults since I started the whole thing by calling it a scandal that MTSU got a bowl bid with a team that lost 155-24 to Oklahoma, Louisville, and South Carolina; and got outgained on its home field 316-203 as a 9-point favorite over Troy with the conference championship on the line.

Regarding a couple of points...

Central Michigan did lose to the Northern Illinois team that got routed in the Poinsettia Bowl. Central Michigan had just clinched their division title the prior week, and didn't have any reason to show up. It was a meaningless game because the championship was still a couple of weeks later. They played poorly, and Northern Illinois played well. No argument there.

You can judge CMU off that game if you wish, just as you can judge Rutgers off the loss to Cincinnati, USC off the losses to Oregon State and UCLA, West Virginia off the loss to South Florida...and on and on.

Middle Tennessee can certainly beat Central Michigan if Central plays as badly as they did versus Northern Illinois.

In past years, Sun Belt teams have scored upsets over opponents who took them too lightly. Middle Tennessee did upset Vanderbilt last year 17-15. They were outgained 347-209, but eked out a tight victory. Vanderbilt did go on to beat Tennessee later in the year. That was a Tennessee team that went 5-6 and missed out on a bowl.

Sun Belt teams are capable of scoring upsets over teams who take them lightly, particularly teams with struggling offenses. Florida State almost lost to Troy earlier this season. The fact that this happens sometimes doesn't mean a conference is strong. And, you certainly can't eliminate all the blowouts and ONLY look at the close games to gain a full understanding of the team or the league.

Stats aren't meaningless. They help paint the picture.

I have seen Sun Belt games. My son attended an academic academy at a Sun Belt school while in high school. I've also watched the last three New Orleans Bowls where the conference champion lost to a mid-level CUSA team:

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

Sun Belt teams are capable of scoring upsets. They don't ALWAYS shine under the spotlight. Cherry-picking the games where past teams played well doesn't tell the full story.

Thanks again for the feedback. Best of luck to you MTSU fans. No need to keep spamming, lol. Your points are now in the public domain. Many bowl viewers and wagerers are rooting for the underdogs, so you'll have a lot of company in spirit.

S.H. Austin

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