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Central Florida vs. Ball State Cardinals Point Spread - Pick

Central Florida Knights (9-4 SU, 6-7 ATS) vs. Ball State Cardinals (9-3 SU, 9-3 ATS)
Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl
Date/Time: Friday, December 21st, 2012, 7:30 p.m. EST
Where: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.
TV: ESPN/DirecTV 206
by Badger, Football Handicapper, Predictem.com

Point Spread: UCF -7/BSU +7
Over/Under Total: 61.5

Two nine-win teams looking to reach that magical 10-win plateau will clash indoors in December when the Central Florida Knights meet the Ball State Cardinals in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl at Tropicana Field on Friday, December 21st, on ESPN.

Ball State enters the game as one of the hottest teams in the country riding a six-game win streak, turning around a 3-3 start to the season to finish one game out of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) West division behind the BCS-busting Northern Illinois Huskies. But under the surface the Cardinals three losses came against Clemson, Kent State and Northern Illinois, three teams that combined to go 33-5 this season, so Ball State is a much better team than some people are giving them credit for by just looking at the numbers.

The Cardinals will be looking to make a little history too, since they have never won a bowl game in the football program’s existence going 0-5 in their previous five post-season appearances. This will also be the first-ever bowl appearance for second-year head coach Pete Lembo, who came to the Cardinals from the ranks of FCS (Elon) and academic schools like Lehigh and Dartmouth.

Central Florida limps into the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl as losers of two of their last three games, including a heartbreaker in the Conference USA Championship game to Tulsa in overtime, 33-27. The Knights fell apart late in the game, falling asleep on a long punt return late in the fourth quarter before losing after failing to do anything on their opening possession of OT. Ironically, both late-season loses came against Tulsa (their other two loses were to Ohio State and Missouri), so the Knights will be happy to play anybody else other than the Golden Hurricanes this bowl season.

Oddsmakers are expecting Central Florida to rebound following the title-game loss, opening the game with the Knights as 8-point favorites in their home state when the number went up on the board early in December. After a week of action, mostly on Ball State, the line has dropped the hook to minus -7.5 at a few offshore sportsbooks, while the rest of the sports book world is currently listing the number at -7.

The over/under total opened at 61.5 and has yet to move in either direction since it went up on the board.

Offensively this game will be keyed by the quarterbacks, both Knights sophomore Blake Bortles and Cardinals junior Keith Wenning. In his second year of playing, Bortles is starting to approach school records held by former Knight and NFL player Daunte Culpepper. The long layoff before the bowl game will likely help Wenning, who snapped his 33-game consecutive starts streak by missing the Cardinals finale with a broken bone in his ankle, even though he’s officially listed as questionable.

Bortles has thrown 22 touchdowns and hits on 63 percent of his passes, but his best attribute is that he spreads the ball around very well for a young QB, since the Knights have 11 players that average over 10 yards per catch and 10 different receivers who have at least one touchdown score. Running back Latavious Murray (1,035 yards, 16 TD) gives the Knights a dangerous option out of the backfield, but there’s really no single player that the Knights rely on despite scoring 35.2 points per game (27th in FBS).

Ball State has an impressive offensive line and a 1,000-yard rusher in Jahwan Edwards (1,321 yards, 14 TD) that helps to take the pressure off of Wenning, but at 471 yards a game (22nd) and 35 points per game (31st) the Cardinals offense is high-powered like most teams in the MAC. Receiver Willie Snead (1,070, yards, 7 TD) is Wenning’s top weapon on the perimeter, but Jamill Smith (6 TD) and TE Zane Fakes (5 TD) are also involved over the middle when the Cardinals need to move the chains.

The biggest difference is this game though will likely be on defense. Central Florida sports two of the best safeties in Florida in Kemal Ishmael (C-USA Defensive Player of the Year) and Clayton Geathers, and both have over 100 tackles this season to show for it and help the Knights hold teams to just 22.5 points per game. Ball State, like most teams in the MAC, take defense as an option and their 460 yards a game allowed (104th) and huge yardage allowed on the ground (206 ypg – 108th) make the Cardinals offense have to work twice as hard as they should in order to outscore teams week to week.

These two schools have met three times on the gridiron in the past, the last time coming in 2004 when the Knights were members of the MAC, but lost 21-17 to Ball State in Muncie. Ball State also won at home in 1996, but the only meeting in Florida (1998) ended in a huge Knights victory, 37-14.

Other obscure items worth noting about this game is the fact that the Knights played in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in 2009, losing to Rutgers 45-24.

The bowl game will also be Central Florida head coach George O’ Leary’s 200th career game. The Knights will certainly try and make the milestone a victory, but historically Central Florida is a meager 1-5 SU versus teams from the state of Indiana. The Knights are 5-2 ATS against the MAC, but the Cardinals are also strong in non-conference play (19-7 ATS in L26), so the betting trends are sort of a wash.

Badger's Pick to Cover the Point Spread: Central Florida tends to keep games close and doesn't blow very many teams out. On the flip side, I think Ball St. has a shot of winning this game straight up so I'm very happy to take the points here. This being somewhat of a home game for UCF is overrated and I don't buy into it. Take Ball St. plus the points.

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