Now in only its third season of existence, the Boca Raton Bowl is developing a reputation for matching up talented and somewhat overlooked Group of 5 programs.
In its inaugural football game in 2014, the bowl based at Florida Atlantic University in south Florida brought together the Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois and Conference USA champion Marshall. The Thundering Herd won 59-23. In 2015, it was the MAC runner-up Toledo and American Athletic Association (AAC) runner-up Temple with the Rockets winning 32-17.
For 2016, the Boca Raton Bowl pits Conference USA champion Western Kentucky (10-3) and a dangerous Memphis (8-4) squad from the AAC. The Tigers were last seen knocking off then No. 20 Houston 48-44 at home.
While the Hilltoppers seem to be the favorites, they enter the bowl game having lost its head coach Jeff Brohm who recently took over the top job at Purdue. Hilltoppers defensive coordinator Nick Holt has been named the interim coach for the bowl game.
Memphis knew the feeling of losing its coach last year when Justin Fuentes bolted to Virginia Tech after a 9-4 season. However, first-year coach Mike Norvell has the Tigers poised to repeat that record with a bowl win.
According to the latest bowl odds, Western Kentucky is a 4.5-point favorite over Memphis with a total set at 78 points. Check out our bowl predictions where we pick the straight up winner of all 40 games.
Regardless, a lot of points should be scored in this game. Memphis averages 39.5 points per game while Western Kentucky finished second in the nation with a 45.1 scoring average.
DATE & TIME:
Dec. 20, 4 p.m. PST on ESPN
Most sports books have Western Kentucky as a 4.5-point favorite and the over/under scoring of the game at 78. Check out more free NCAA football picks from myself and the rest of our handicappers here at Betfirm.
Brohm’s departure may have skewed the betting line closer toward Memphis as of late.
Western Kentucky offense
The Hilltoppers have built a powerhouse offense which ranks seventh in the nation in averaging 517 yards per game. After struggling for two seasons at South Florida, quarterback Mike White has busted loose for a massive season in throwing for 4,027 yards and 34 touchdowns. Senior receivers Taywan Taylor (89 catches, 1,586 yards, 16 TDs) and Nicholas Norris (73 catches, 1,253 yards, 13 TDs) have both had huge statistical seasons. Yet, the most dangerous weapon may be running back Anthony Wales who rushed for 24 touchdowns on the ground to go with 1,376 yards. As a team, WKU has scored at least 44 points in each of its last nine games.
The Tigers were only 90th in total defense in allowing 443 yards per game. Memphis particularly needs to shore up its run defense which allowed an average of 200 yards on the ground. On the positive side, Memphis forced 28 turnovers. Then again, the Tigers only had 17 sacks which could spell trouble for such a strong aerial attack the team will face in the Hilltoppers. Safety Jonathan Cook leads the team with 81 tackles. Junior lineback Genard Avery led the team with five sacks, picked off two passes and registered 74 tackles.
When it comes to putting up yards and points, the Tigers are almost as prolific as the Hilltoppers. Junior quarterback Riley Ferguson threw for 3,326 yards and 28 TDs in making people forget about Paxton Lynch. He has an ace receiving target in Anthony Miller (84 catches, 1,283 yards, 13 TDs). Memphis usually takes a running back-by-committee approach to the ground game that still averaged 166.5 rushing yards per game. Doroland Dorceus (783 yards, 9 TDs) is the leading rusher.
Western Kentucky defense
The Hilltoppers actually were respectable on the defensive end in allowing 24.1 points per game in finishing 37th in total defense. In particular, WKU finished fourth in the nation with 99.1 rushing yards allowed per game. Keith Brown, a graduate transfer from Louisville, leads the way with 123 tackles and a team-high six sacks. Defensive lineman Chris Johnson had 11.5 tackles for a loss.
Memphis did well early, struggled midway through the season, but may have gotten a nice confidence boost with the regular-season ending Houston victory. The tigers will look to try and build on that and match another nine-win season.
How much will Brohm’s departure hurt Western Kentucky? It is tough to determine a team’s mental state at this point.
The numbers favor Western Kentucky in this football contest given that they are more explosive and could limit Memphis on the ground. However, the departure of Brohm means some upheaval could be store for the Hilltoppers. Look for Memphis to want to win the game in order to prove they are truly a rising talent in the AAC. Memphis has a lot more to play for.
Also, keep an eye on the betting odds of the over/under. Given the offensive propensity of these, they could easily score a combined 80 points. When it comes to predictions, take the over until the line reaches into the 80s.