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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: International Bowl (Bowl #30)...By S.H. Austin

1/6, noon ET ESPN2

Cincinnati by 7 points, total of 41.5

Western Michigan: 8-4
Cincinnati: 7-5
Normally in this space we talk about the expectations each team had going into the season. Neither of these teams had ANY expectations! Cincinnati was picked 90th by Athlon in its preseason publication. Athlon penciled in one win, eight losses, and three coin flip games. Western Michigan was tabbed as the 101st best team in the land, with two projected victories seven losses, and three coin flip games. Way to go Athlon! Phil Steele's preseason publication picked Cincinnati to finish 7th in the eight-team Big East. He had Western Michigan finishing in a tie for 3rd in the MAC West (even with the Central Michigan team that would eventually win the whole thing). Both teams turned out to be better than expected. Neither is really a top notch team by national standards. But, both are capable of rising to the occasion and playing with respected opponents. Remember that Cincinnati beat Rutgers this year, and that Western Michigan only lost 28-20 on the road at Florida State in November. Those teams won their bowl games. Cincinnati only lost 23-17 on the road at Louisville. Western Michigan upset Virginia on the road back in September. You can cherrypick highlights and make them both sound pretty good. Among the lowlights, Cincy got drilled by a Pittsburgh team that turned out to be horrible. Western Michigan lost badly to Indiana, and won a string of nailbiters against poor MAC teams Northern Illinois (a bowl farce), Eastern Michigan, and Miami of Ohio. Nice kids who try hard. Cincinnati had a higher volume of impressive results when you include a solid 23-6 win over South Florida.

Western Michigan: 23-19 versus the 107th ranked schedule
Cincinnati: 21-19 versus the 16th ranked schedule
That's a monster difference in strength of schedule. How did Cincinnati manage that? They played Ohio State and Virginia Tech in non-conference action, then had to face the four other bowl teams from the Big East (Louisville, West Virginia, Rutgers, and South Florida). We're not so high on the Big East that we would agree with this being a top 20 schedule. But, it's certainly much tougher than what Western Michigan faced. And, it's a much tougher schedule than most people probably realize that Cincinnati had to face. This is a battle tested team to be sure. The fact that they BEAT Rutgers and South Florida, while hanging tough at Louisville, looms very large in their favor.

Western Michigan: 7-5 versus the spread
Cincinnati: 7-3-1 versus the spread
When expectations are low, it's virtually automatic that decent teams will have strong pointspread records. We hope you've seen through this series of write-ups how important preseason expectations are in determining the pointspread hurdles teams will be facing throughout the year. The oddsmakers and public have big trouble shaking their preconceptions. You can take advantage all season. Cincinnati was 4-1 ATS even after their strong performance at Louisville, and 3-1 ATS after drilling South Florida. Western Michigan covered 55% of the time after the upset at Virginia. The lines don't adjust as quickly as they should after red flag performances.

Western Michigan: +46.1, with a season turnover differential of +11
Cincinnati: +35.7, with a season turnover differential of -5
Given the strength of schedules, Cincinnati's yardage mark is MUCH more impressive here. Popping a positive number when you're not a bully-type team is a fantastic accomplishment against a killer slate. Only being +46.1 against what was largely a patsy-class slate (by bowl standards) is a strike against Western Michigan. Turnovers do favor the underdog here though. Cincinnati had SEVEN games where they gave the ball away three times or more. It's very hard to trust a favorite who can be that sloppy. Western Michigan only had three games like that.

Western Michigan: 18-11, not great given strength of schedule
Cincinnati: 15-14, poor by bowl standards

Western Michigan will pass about 25 times if things are going well, and 40 times if they're not. That's fairly standard for college teams...which means there's nothing special to talk about with these guys! They try to run first. If it works, they keep doing it. The defense was strong by MAC standards. It's hard to know what that means outside the league. They played the poor offenses of Virginia and FSU in non-conference action, along with Indiana and Temple. You'd have to call them a Rutgers-model because offensive explosions are rare. They try to grind out a win...which did help them in the nailbiters we mentioned earlier. A season of inclement weather also played into their hands.

Cincinnati also follows the Rutgers model. They'll pass a lot when trailing. When winning, they may pass as little as 15 times (exactly 15 in the upset of Rutgers, just 18 in victories over Syracuse and South Florida). We mentioned that Western likes to run, so let's look at Cincinnati's run defense. The Bearcats were strong against the run this year within context. They couldn't stop West Virginia...but that's not a traditional running attack and those guys can fly. They held Ohio State to 166 yards on 5.2 ypc. Normally those aren't great numbers...but if you do that against Ohio State, you're going to hold teams who AREN'T Ohio State to much lower numbers. Cincinnati did that consistently. Eight opponents failed to rush for 110 yards on the Bearcats. Only Ohio State and West Virginia topped 4.5 ypc. Virginia Tech and Louisville DIDN'T reach 4.5 ypc. From what we can tell, both defenses match up well with both offenses. Since Cincinnati was doing this against a much tougher schedule, they have to get the edge in the matchup.
The strengths of schedules were such that it's hard to find opponents that match this particular foe for each. Most of Cincinnati's opponents were better than Western Michigan. None of Western's opponents were really a good match for Cincinnati.

They share two common opponents. Each played Miami of Ohio and Akron:

*Cincinnati beat Miami 24-10, winning yardage 296-226 *Western beat Miami 26-24, winning yardage 429-375

*Cincinnati beat Akron 20-14, winning yardage 424-291 (losing turnovers 3-0) *Western beat Akron 17-0, winning yardage 327-119

That's 22-12 for Cincinnati, with a 360-259 yardage win (+101) That's 22-12 for Western, with a 378-247 yardage win (+129)

The only hedge here is that Western Michigan-Akron was a season finale, and Akron may have no-showed the game. But, that's not certain. So, this particular comparison points favorably at the underdog (and the Under).

Western Michigan couldn't have imagined they'd be going to a bowl game when they didn't win their half of the MAC. They should be excited. Northern Illinois was in the same boat and got squashed by TCU. There's no guarantee that lesser teams like this can do anything with motivation, even if they have it. They have to catch a flat opponent too.

Cincinnati is happy to be going to a bowl game. They have to resist the urge to get complacent because the opponent doesn't get their juices flowing. When you've played a lot of teams who appeared in big time bowls, getting up for Western Michigan can be hard. If there's an edge in this category, it probably goes to Western Michigan. Guessing motivation is always dicey. This year in particular it's been a relatively fruitless endeavor. Early bowl dogs struggled ATS. This kind of game is more reminiscent of an early bowl game than a marquee event.

Neither team qualified for a bowl last year

Western Michigan hasn't been to a bowl since 1988. Their prior appearance was in 1961.
Cincinnati is 1-3 ATS in bowls this century, playing exclusively in early minor bowls. This would have been one of those if not for a schedule change.

We have two Milton Berle teams going head-to-head. One is from a better conference, and clearly played a much tougher regular season schedule. Let's see what we can learn from previous bowls this year that were in this vein:

*TCU 37, Northern Illinois 7: Better team from better conference won big. Underdog didn't deserve to be in a bowl. Game landed right on the total, but only did so because of a blocked punt touchdown. The "stat score" we've been discussing in some Mess Hall threads had the game going Under by double digits.

*SAN JOSE STATE 20, New Mexico 12: Underdog pulled the upset, largely because of a 0-4 turnover advantage. Loser was forced to throw 45 passes in a style they don't like to play. Game stayed way Under expectations on scoreboard and in stat score.

*CENTRAL MICHIGAN 31, Middle Tennessee 14: Better team from better conference won big. Underdog didn't deserve to be in a bowl. Game stayed Under despite an interception return for a TD...with a stat score that was way Under. Losing team had to pass 41 times in a style they don't like to play.

*FLORIDA STATE 44, UCLA 27: all heck broke lose as projected defensive battle turned into a fireworks show. Dog wins with 1-3 turnover advantage.

*GEORGIA 31, Virginia Tech 24: Cheap points for both teams turned a defensive struggle (200-189 in total yardage) into a misleadingly high scoring game. Dog wins with 1-4 turnover advantage.

*AUBURN 17, Nebraska 14: This is what Georgia/Virginia Tech should have been.

*WISCONSIN 17, Arkansas 14: Similar to other Berle/Berle games in terms of low yardage and point totals. Dog wins with 2-3 turnover advantage

Those are the best matches in terms of styles here. If a game gets out of reach, the Berle teams have to pass more than they like to play catch up. If they can stay within striking distance, they try to win the battle of field position. Clearly we're seeing more edges on the total than the team side. The totals were 2-4-1 to the Under, and would have been 1-6 to the Under on the stat score. Favorites of a touchdown or more did go 2-0 ATS (TCU and Central Michigan). Games with more competitive projected matchups typically went to the team that won the turnover category (a standard "tie-breaker" when evenly matched teams square off). That turnover category is the single biggest influence in creating the "roulette wheel" that is a 60-minute football showdown.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

55% that the game goes Under this low total because these teams aren't likely to play wide open football for any extended period of time.

45% that the game goes Over because the teams are inspired to try all sorts of goofy gadget plays by mid-major compatriot Boise State...or because there's always a chance that turnovers lead to cheap points like we saw in Georgia/Virginia Tech.

53% that Cincinnati's big game experience helps them expose Western Michigan as a Northern-Illinois type pretender.

47% that Cincinnati doesn't take this opponent as seriously as it should, and another post December big dog gets the money thanks to inspired play or a turnover advantage.

S.H. Austin

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