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Sports Then and Now



College Football Championship Preview: Can Alabama Stop DeShaun Watson? 1

Posted on January 07, 2016 by Jim Hurley
The Alabama Crimson Tide will have to stop Heisman finalist DeShaun Watson if they hope to win another national title.

The Alabama Crimson Tide will have to stop Heisman finalist DeShaun Watson if they hope to win another national title.

We’re down to one more game in the college football season. On Monday night in Glendale, Alabama plays Clemson for the national championship. The Crimson Tide are a six-point favorite. What way do you play it?

Let’s begin by saying that the fluctuations of the pointspread mean that shopping for the right price and timing will be important. Some books in Las Vegas have the line as high as (-7). If you’re a Clemson backer you’d clearly like to get a clean touchdown. Just as clearly, Alabama bettors only want to give 6 or 6.5.

Both teams rolled through their semifinal games on New Year’s Eve and both did it by pulling away in the second half. Clemson trailed Oklahoma 17-16 at the half before ripping off twenty unanswered points to win 37-17. Alabama led Michigan State 10-0 at intermission before four unanswered touchdowns led to a 38-0 rout. The Tigers & Tide are clearly the best two teams in the country and playing like it right now.

Let’s begin with the keys for Clemson. It all starts with quarterback DeShaun Watson, a dual-threat quarterback who used his running to great effect against Oklahoma, rushing for 145 yards. Watson also ran well in his team’s biggest games this year, going for 93 against Notre Dame, 107 against Florida State and 131 in the win over North Carolina.

The performance against Florida State is most relevant here because the Seminoles were a top five defense this season. With their speed on the edge, Florida State is the only team that comes even close to providing a test case for what might happen against Alabama. The fact Watson was able to make hay on the ground against FSU provides reasonable hope he might be able to do on Monday night.

Running back Wayne Gallman was vital in the win over Oklahoma, gaining 150 yards and that was no fluke. He also went over 100 yards against Florida State and North Carolina and got close to that against Notre Dame in monsoon-like conditions. Gallman and Watson together make for a diversified running attack where a defense can’t just focus on one player.

The key is going to be throwing the football. Michigan State had opportunities in the first half to make plays in the passing game, but drops killed one drive and an ill-advised pass that was intercepted on the goal line killed another. If Sparty doesn’t make those mistakes, they might have been tied at the half and who knows how the second half unfolds.

Watson’s season-long passing numbers are impressive, but he was erratic against Oklahoma, completing 16/31 for 187 yards and missing some receivers that were clearly open. There won’t be nearly as many opportunities against Alabama, and Watson can’t leave plays on the field, especially early in the game the way Michigan State did. If Clemson is going to win, we need to see the Watson that went 28/42 for 297 yards against Florida State.

Defensively, the Tigers have playmakers, but the health of Shaq Lawson is going to be crucial. The talented defensive end left the Oklahoma game in the first half with a knee injury, but is expected to play. He needs to be able to pressure the quarterback for Clemson to win.

On the other side of the defense is another terrific playmaker in Kevin Dodd. At linebacker, Clemson is anchored by B.J. Goodson, who is both steady at making the sure tackle and capable of blowing up a play behind the line of scrimmage. The top corner, Cordea Tankersley, leads the team in interception with five picks and it’s likely Clemson will need to get some mistakes from Alabama quarterback Jake Coker if they’re going to win this game. Read the rest of this entry →

College Football Bowl Preview – Part 1: Football For Diehard Fans 3

Posted on December 17, 2015 by Jim Hurley
Bronco Mendenhall will be on the BYU sidelines for the final time during their bowl game against Utah.

Bronco Mendenhall will be on the BYU sidelines for the final time during their bowl game against Utah.

The college football bowl season kicks off this Saturday afternoon. Many of you will wager on these games and even more will enter recreational pools where you have to pick every game. If you’ve looked at the early schedule, you know there’s a lot of teams only the most diehard of fans and those of us in the business of handicapping are familiar with in detail.

To redress that, I’ve compiled a little “tale of the tape” on the nine bowl games that will between December 19-23. This is by no means a complete look at each game. What it will do is give you a basic statistical snapshot of how each team looks at what it does well. Each listing includes…

*The basics of W-L record and most importantly, strength of schedule. The latter has to be a significant factor in how you weigh every other piece of data. Some of us rely on complex computer models to do it, others just keep it in the back of their mind. Just make sure you keep it in mind.

*Each team’s national ranking on offense and defense, as measured by points allowed.

*The basic stats of each team’s quarterback—their completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and TD/INT ratio.

*A notable player on the team besides the quarterback—usually an elite running back or defensive playmaker, and occasionally a wide receiver.

If you just want to enjoy the bowls on TV and in a pool, this will do it for you. If you want to bet the bowls, this is one small step to get started on handicapping the array of personnel matchups and intangibles that are involved at this great time for college football.

Arizona (-11.5) New Mexico, Saturday, December 19, 2 PM ET
New Mexico
Record/SOS: 117th
Offense: 61st
Defense: 66th
QB: Lamar Jordan (53%, 8.3 YPA, 4/6), Austin Apodaca (51%, 6.5 YPA, 1/5)
Other: Dakota Cox (LB, 9.5 Tackles For Loss)

Arizona
Record/SOS:  56th
Offense: 19th
Defense: 107th
QB: Anu Solomon (63%, 7.6 YPA, 18/4)
Other: Scooby Wright (LB, one of best players in country but hindered by injuries this year)

Comment: The health of Wright, currently listed as questionable is a huge factor in this game. Also keep an eye on Solomon who’s had injury problems of his own this year. From a stylistic standpoint, this is a classic battle between a run-heavy offense in New Mexico and a pass-happy attack with Arizona and Rich Rodriguez. Note that the game is played on New Mexico’s home field and a key factor for handicappers will be weighing that—along with Arizona’s disastrous showing in last year’s Fiesta Bowl against Boise State—against the obvious strength of conference factor that works in the Wildcats favor.

Utah (-3) BYU, Saturday, December 19, 3:30 PM ET
Utah
Record/SOS: 9-3/32nd
Offense: 57th
Defense: 3rd
QB: Travis Wilson (62%, 6.8 YPA, 13/10)
Other: Gionni Paul (LB, 12.5 Tackles For Loss)

BYU
Record/SOS: 9-3/72nd
Offense: 34th
Defense: 31st
QB: Tanner Mangum (62%, 7.9 YPA, 21/7)
Other: Bronso Kafusi (LB/DL goes 6’7”, 15.5 Tackles For Loss)

Comment: Take note that BYU’s strength of schedule ranks pretty low at 72nd. The Cougars played a brutal early slate with four tough games right out of the gate and it drew national attention. That’s because, as an independent, they had to frontload the schedule with teams going into conference games. If that was the last you heard of BYU, don’t be under any illusions about the overall quality of their slate. Also note that Utah’s star running back Devontae Booker missed the end of the regular season and will miss this game as well. BYU is undergoing a coaching change with Bronco Mendenhall leaving for Virginia. Read the rest of this entry →

History of College Football’s Heisman Trophy 4

Posted on December 07, 2015 by Mike Raffone

Heisman TrophyStanding 13.5” tall and weighing in at a hefty 25 lbs., the Heisman Trophy is unquestionably the most prestigious award in all of college sports.

The bronze trophy easily stiff-arms its way into today’s Sports Then and Now blog as the award gets presented later this week to college football’s most deserving player. And, here’s a little history of the sport’s most coveted prize.

Every December since 1935, the Heisman Trust in New York City awards the beautiful bronze trophy to “the nation’s most outstanding football player whose performance best exhibits the finest of excellence with integrity.”

Votes from 870 sports journalists, geographically located in six sections across the United States, plus previous Heisman Trophy winners and one collective vote from ESPN sports fans, are submitted to the Deloitte accounting firm where the ballots are tabulated and governed by the Heisman Trust.

Since 2005 the annual winner has been selected at the Best Buy Theater in the New York Hilton in Times Square, New York City, before a national television audience on ESPN.

Quarterbacks and running backs have dominated the Heisman Trophy selection process over the years. No primary defensive player has ever won the coveted trophy, although Michigan’s multi-talented Charles Woodson won the prize in 1997 as a game-changing defensive back, kick returner and punt returner.

Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston have been the most recent recipients of the venerated award. Read the rest of this entry →

MSU vs. OSU: Two Bad Bets Collide Saturday in Columbus 1

Posted on November 19, 2015 by Jim Hurley
The 2015 season has been filled with smiles on the field, but challenges off for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

The 2015 season has been filled with smiles on the field, but challenges off for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Ohio State and Michigan State are indisputably successful on the football field. The record is a combined 19-1 as they prepare for their Saturday showdown in Columbus (3:30 PM ET, ABC) and it would be a perfect 20-0 if not for a terrible officiating blunder that cost Michigan State a win at Nebraska. But the Spartans and Buckeyes haven’t been so good to their backers at the betting window—a combined 7-13 against the spread (ATS).

Michigan State is the slightly bigger offender, going 3-7 ATS to Ohio State’s 4-6. But for Saturday’s game that can be cancelled out by the fact the Buckeyes have been atrocious bet at home, failing to cover in five of six home games.

It might sound harsh to call this game a battle of the overrateds, but ATS numbers like that make it difficult to dispute. The spread reflects how the teams are ‘rated’ by opinion that is informed (though not infallible) and coldly objective and these two haven’t measured up.

Maybe expectations were unreasonably high—when you see Ohio State (-13) against a team one point away from being undefeated themselves, it’s enough to make you wonder if these programs simply haven’t been bet past the capacity of any normal college football team to deliver. It happened to Alabama and Florida State last year, who covered a combined five spreads in the 2014 regular season, and it’s happening in Columbus and East Lansing in 2015.

Figuring out the reasons why are going to be crucial, because even beyond Saturday, both are going to play in significant games that will be fun to watch—meaning they’ll be fun to bet. Ohio State has its trip to Michigan. Michigan State has a less-marquee, though still very interesting game with Penn State. The odds say either the Buckeyes or Spartans will be in the Big Ten Championship Game and then we could have one of them in the College Football Playoff and the other in the Rose Bowl. Read the rest of this entry →

Can the Houston Cougars Stay Undefeated? 3

Posted on November 13, 2015 by Jim Hurley
Greg Ward Jr. has led Houston to a perfect record both by passing and running.

Greg Ward Jr. has led Houston to a perfect record both by passing and running.

The Houston Cougars have quietly kept winning games all year long. They’re now 9-0 and poised to make a move at the getting an automatic bid to one of the six major bowl games played on December 31-January 1. From the perspective of sports bettors, Houston has been good to us, covering the spread in six of their nine games. Now they get to play some spotlight games that will be fun to watch and fun to wager on. The first one is Saturday night at home against Memphis (7 PM ET, ESPN2).

Houston has flirted with some national prominence in the past, and always on the strength of a prolific quarterback and a high-scoring offense akin to what we say in the Big 12. In recent years we’ve seen it with Case Keenum. Some of us can turn back the clock and remember when it was David Klingler or Heisman Trophy-winning Andre Ware blowing out the scoreboard lights. But this Cougar team is different.

Now it’s about running the football in Houston and both quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and running back Kenneth Farrow are adept carrying the ball. The Cougars have consistently dominated rushing yardage totals throughout the season. Their first big win, a 34-31 upset at Louisville on September 12 as a (+13) underdog was keyed by a 226-70 advantage on the ground.

The pattern has held throughout this magical season under first-year head coach Tom Herman. Houston rolls up the yardage on the ground and for the most part, they’ve done good job defending the run. There have been some trouble spots—SMU got them for 151 yards, but the Cougars control the trenches.

A byproduct of this is that Houston consistently wins the turnover battle. Running the ball is the safest way to travel, and when you can do it while your opponents can’t, it stands to reason that they’ll be the ones making the most mistakes.

This emphasis on the run doesn’t mean the Cougars can’t throw the ball though. Ward has a 70 percent completion rate and that has not come at the expense of big plays. The Houston quarterback generates an outstanding 9.1 yards-per-attempt, with his primary target of wide receiver Demarcus Ayers. This is going to be an important part of Houston’s game going forward. In two weeks they play Navy on Black Friday, and no one is going to beat the Midshipmen in a battle of ground games. The Cougars can bring some versatility to the table.

Houston’s ability to run and stop the run while still keeping an open offense has led to them not only being a good ATS bet, but being outstanding on the road. The Cougars have played four road games and covered all of them. That includes games like Louisville where they were a hefty underdog. It includes games like Tulane and Central Florida when the Cougars gave three touchdowns. You name the ATS situation, they’ve met the challenge. Read the rest of this entry →

History of Notre Dame Football’s Touchdown Jesus 2

Posted on November 09, 2015 by Mike Raffone

Touchdown JesusAlong with the beautiful 218 foot tall bell tower of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the gleaming 187 foot tall gold dome of the school’s administration building, the 210 foot tall Hesburgh Library forms the skyline of America’s most recognized Catholic university.

A gorgeous mosaic named the Word of Life adorns the south side of the entire Hesburgh Library and towers over the north end zone scoreboard of the University of Notre Dame’s 80,795 seat football stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

This famous mosaic showcases Christ the Teacher. He’s reaching out to others, and with his raised arms, appears to mimic a football official signaling a touch down. It’s obvious to onlookers that he’s presiding over the action from on high.

Known universally throughout the college football world as Touchdown Jesus, this Word of Life mosaic doesn’t need a Hail Mary Pass or an Immaculate Reception to ascend into today’s Sports Then and Now blog.

Though unintentional, Touchdown Jesus quickly found its way into football lore when fans of all religious beliefs recognized Jesus’ innocent, but obvious, pose on this monstrous mural. Read the rest of this entry →

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