Just because someone has been handicapping for a while doesn’t make them an “expert.” It certainly doesn’t mean that they’ll automatically win a majority of their picks. But you do get a feel for things, like reading the tea leaves early in the 4th quarter when trying to determine if your prediction will work out as planned. Such rapid in-game analysis comes with a feeling of triumph, mystery, or dread. It doesn’t always matter what the score is, since there’s still up to 15:00 for a carefully-handicapped point-spread pick to go south.
3/4ths of the way through the MAC Championship Game between Buffalo and Northern Illinois, it appeared as if my prediction of Buffalo-to-cover was working out just fine. At least on the scoreboard. Buffalo’s blockers and skill players looked dominant against NIU, and it took a Marcus Childers-to-D.J. Brown TD pass with :17 left in the 3rd quarter just to keep the Huskies from going into the final frame down by 3 scores.
But as the NIU defense stiffened for the final hurrah, a look at the body English of Buffalo Bulls QB Tyree Jackson was ominous evidence that something else was going on. Jackson was slumped, walking around aimlessly between plays, and growing less confident with every throw. Meanwhile Rod Carey’s team – surely a 5-to-1 moneyline underdog in live betting at that point – was warming to the challenge. After all, they’re experienced in winning MAC titles…and in beating the Bulls.
Sho ’nuff. Final score: NIU 30, Buffalo 29, and the team from DeKalb had won yet another improbable championship. Yes, the Huskies struggled on offense for much of the 2018 season. Doesn’t matter. No handicapper should take them lightly ever again.
It’s possible, though, to take a team seriously and still tout against them. It all depends on time, place and circumstances. Northern Illinois is as gritty a football program you’ll find anywhere in the FBS. But NIU is up against a toughie in UAB, a squad that won its own mid-major league in 2018 and already owns 10 victories.
Who will win the battle for Group of 5 supremacy? Bookies and the betting public aren’t sure, and the odds are tight as Tuesday’s showdown draws closer.
Who: University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers vs Northern Illinois Huskies
When: Tuesday, December 18th, 7 PM EST
Where: FAU Football Stadium, Boca Raton, FL
Lines: UAB (-2.5) vs NIU (+2.5) / O/U Total: (43)
The line that jumps out at me immediately is the O/U total. (43) is a rather low, NFL-like number for a contest between 2 conference champions. In fact a lot of NFL totals can go well into the 50s-range, making the number cavernous for any level of football. Why is Vegas so certain that a defensive battle will happen at FAU?
Maybe because any time UAB has faced a vulnerable offense, the Blazer defense has shut it down. Alabama-Birmingham blanked 3 teams in 2018 including Rice and UTEP, held Louisiana Tech to a single TD, and only allowed a FG against UTSA in a 52-3 drubbing.
The squad’s results against several bowl teams are even more impressive. UAB hosted the talented North Texas Mean Green on October 20th and allowed 0 points in the 2nd half. UNT was held to less than 3 yards per carry, and burly D-lineman Garrett Marino sacked Mason Fine twice. The Blazers also tripped Tulane 31-24, and held Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond to less than 200 yards passing despite giving up a bundle on the ground in a 21-point loss.
On offense, UAB is carried by sophomore tailback Spencer Brown, a muscular runner who has accumulated 2500 yards over the past 2 seasons. Frosh quarterback Tyler Johnston III has had his ups and downs while waiting to become the team’s full-time starter, but he brings a dual-threat element to the position.
Northern Illinois’ defense is nothing to be trifled with. The Huskies have a strong front-7 led by edge-rusher Sutton Smith and linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis. NIU allowed 38 points in 12 quarters against BYU, Utah, and Toledo, and gave up less than 3 yards per carry on the year – a marvelous stat against a schedule that also included Florida State and Iowa.
But the 4th-quarter comeback against Buffalo may represent a peak that the NIU offense won’t be able to recreate in a bowl game. Childers has been OK in the pocket at times, and has scored 21 combined touchdowns, but he’s only averaging 2.8 ypc and has taken 38 sacks. The Huskies have a backfield-by-committee without a 1000-yard rusher and no dominant WR to speak of. To add to the point-scoring woes, kicker Andrew Gantz has a limited range and has missed chip-shots from inside the 30 yard line.
Northern Illinois would be deadly in a bowl game against a mid-tier G5 team like Louisiana Tech or South Florida. But having used every drop of sweat to win their conference with a brave performance, there might be a little bit less left in the tank for a bowl game against a program that is sky-rocketing upward after years away from the gridiron.
UAB coach Bill Clark won Coach of the Year in the FBS in 2018-19 and will have the Blazers ready to go. Sure, it will probably be a low-scoring contest, but the C-USA champs have the more dynamic offense and an equally-fearsome D. The pass rush could bother Childers while an 11-on-11 ground game grinds out 1st downs and ball control for the 10-win favorites. I can see NIU flourishing on a couple of early drives, then turning the ball over when the blocking breaks down. If it comes down to a final Red Zone chance in a tie ballgame, consider that Blazer PK Nick Vogel has not missed from inside 40 yards…unlike his counterpart.
Take UAB to cover and win a grudging battle in Florida.