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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: GMAC Bowl (Bowl #31)...By S.H. Austin

GMAC BOWL (Mobile)
1/7, 8 p.m. ET ESPN

Southern Miss by 6 points, total of 42

Ohio: 9-4
Southern Miss: 8-5
Both teams were expected to do well in their respective conferences...and they lived up to those expectations. Phil Steele had Ohio tied for first in MAC East. They won the MAC East. He had Southern Miss as second best in CUSA East, they won it. Athlon had Southern Miss ranked 60th in the nation, with six projected wins, two projected losses, and three coin flips. Ohio was picked 100th in the nation by Athlon, with three projected wins, five losses, and four coin flips. Clearly Athlon underestimated the Bobcats this year. Across the full scope of college coverage though, these teams basically lived up to expectations. They weren't expected to be conference champions. They were expected to be contenders. Finishing as runners up in their leagues represent fine accomplishments.

Ohio: 21-17 versus the 110th ranked schedule
Southern Miss: 25-20 versus the 82nd ranked schedule
Each of these teams was penalized by the computers for playing in horrible conferences. We think those numbers unfairly penalize both teams. Ohio played on the road at Rutgers, Missouri, and Illinois. They weren't dodging challenges. Southern Miss played on the road at Florida and Virginia Tech, and hosted NC State. Both programs deserve credit for scheduling tough games outside of their conferences. Let's assume that the basic differences are correct though. Southern Miss played a tougher schedule (maybe it was 60th vs. 80th or something). The fact that they posted a better victory margin confirms the Vegas assessment that the Golden Eagles are the better team.

Ohio: 7-4-1 versus the spread
Southern Miss: 5-7 versus the spread
Maybe everyone reads Athlon! Ohio's pointspread performance reflects what you see when teams who aren't expected to do much play well all season. Southern Miss was sluggish early in the year, getting to just a 2-5 ATS start in their first seven board games. They rallied to cover three of their last five games. It would have been four out of five but they had an inexplicable choke job in the second half of a home game against UAB. Southern blew a big lead that night because of four turnovers, but held on to win straight up.

Ohio: -23.6, with a season turnover differential of -6
Southern Miss: +20.2, with a season turnover differential of +4
We've seen a few teams with negative yardage differential in the bowls. It's not that big a deal when it's a team that runs the ball all the time. They play a "Berle" style (see pre-series article) that has them moving the ball efficiently on the ground, while opponents pick up less relevant yardage in the air. Maybe next year we'll have a chance to do some yardage adjustments that take the air out of the passing teams and pump some air in to the running teams. This "negative" approach only works though when the running teams win the turnover category. Ohio DIDN'T do that, as you can see above. This is a danger sign. Southern Miss is also a Berle team. They have a history of forcing turnovers and taking advantage under head coach Jeff Bower. Based on the numbers above, they have clear matchup edges here. They play the same general style, but put up better numbers against a tougher schedule. That's always a tough matchup for the lesser team. Somebody like Ohio would be much better off trying to take a passing team out of their preferred style than going toe to toe with an opponent that just does the same things they do a little bit better. To a degree, we saw that in the MAC championship game. Central Michigan was a Berle that also knew how to throw high percentage passes. Ohio lost that game 31-10, getting outgained 457-224. They also lost turnovers 3-1. How would you compare Southern Miss to Central Michigan? If they're two touchdowns worse, they still cover.

Ohio: 7-13, stunningly awful for a bowl caliber team
Southern Miss: 14-6, fairly weak, but much better than Ohio

We've talked about this already. Both are run-heavy Berle teams who try to win the field position game on the ground. Neither matches up well with versatile opponents. Either team can get left in the dust by opponents who pass well. Southern Miss lost the CUSA championship game at Houston because they let the Cougars go 20-32-0-276 in the air. Ohio let Central Michigan go 22-30-1-314 in the MAC championship game. Neither is playing a passing opponent here, so both defenses are likely to impress. During the season, both offenses would pass 15-20 times if they were winning, 20-25 times if it was pretty close, and would only crack the 30's if they had to play from behind. Head to head though, it would probably be 17-22 rather than 20-25 per team if it's close. Each coach might prefer to punt and let their defenses try to force turnovers.

There aren't really any great matches because the strengths of schedule were so different. Southern didn't play anyone that would simulate a MAC Berle team. Ohio got closer in spirit with their games at Rutgers, Missouri, Illinois, and against Central Michigan in the MAC championship game. Honestly, Southern Miss isn't as good as Rutgers or Missouri, nor probably Central Michigan (though that could be a really good game). Illinois isn't a Berle, but their not so good at the pass that Ohio couldn't be competitive. Ohio actually upset Illinois on the road 20-17 as a 6-point underdog. Ohio was outgained 397-338, but won turnovers 1-5. How often have you heard that with these Berle teams? Ohio lost to Rutgers and Missouri by a combined 55-13 score, and we already mentioned the 31-10 loss to Central Michigan. Basically, if Ohio doesn't force turnovers they're going to be in trouble here. They have big trouble being competitive with superior opposition.

Ohio should be excited about getting to a bowl game. That's a big step for the the Frank Solich era at this university. Well, it's a big step for the university, PERIOD. It's been decades since this school has been to a bowl.

Southern Miss has been to better bowls in its past, but probably doesn't see this as a downer. It might be hard to get up for Ohio though. If there's an edge here, it probably goes to Ohio. I'd guess there's an 80% chance there's not an edge.

Ohio didn't qualify for a bowl last year
Southern Miss beat Arkansas State 31-19 in the New Orleans Bowl, winning yardage 445-332

Ohio hasn't been to a bowl since the 1960's
Southern Miss has been to five bowls this century, with inconsistent results. The Golden Eagles are 2-2-1 ATS, with little of note to sink your teeth into.

In terms of the match up, this has a lot of similarities to the Western Michigan/Cincinnati game we just wrote up. In that preview, we listed the other bowl games that had similar outlooks going in. There's no need to do that here. If you forgot the list, just click on over to that game. If you're reading this on Ohio/Southern Miss game day, add the WM/Cincy result to the list! The basic lessons were that more games go Under than go Over, though some do blow up because of cheap points off of turnovers. The better team usually wins unless turnovers kill them. If the two teams are about even...then whoever wins turnovers wins the game.

What does that leave us with here? A probable Under that Southern Miss wins unless they lose the turnover battle. If the Golden Eagles can get some kind of lead in the second half, Ohio may resort to desperation passing...and that's probably going to blow up in its face. Because of this dynamic, Southern Miss doesn't have to be a lot better than Ohio to win by double digits. You know what? The same could be said about Ohio though. If they get off to a good start, suddenly the shoe is on the other foot.

We have respect for strength of conference and strength of schedule. Both teams were runners-up in their leagues. Southern Miss is from the better league. They had better stats, and they had better turnover differential. To us, that means they're likely to win and cover this game.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

60% that Southern Miss proves that it's better at the same style of play, and wins by a touchdown or more.

40% that Ohio either stays within a field goal in a tight battle, or wins outright thanks to a turnover advantage.

55% that the game stays Under this already low total.

45% that cheap points from field position breaks or turnovers take the game to the mid 40's and beyond.

S.H. Austin

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