Armed Forces Bowl Houston Cougars (10-3, 5-6-1 ATS) vs. Air Force Falcons (7-5, 7-5 ATS), Amon Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Thursday, Dec. 31, noon Eastern, ESPN
By Z-Man of Predictem.com
Point Spread: Cougars -4/Falcons +4
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In a rare rematch of the same bowl game from a season ago, the Houston Cougars, runner-ups in Conference USA this season, take on the Air Force Falcons of the Mountain West Conference in the Armed Forces Bowl on the campus of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth on New Year’s Eve day.
Most off-shore sportsbooks opened Houston as a five-point favorite over Air Force, with a total of 61 1/2 or 62. But early action on the Falcons has pushed the line down to four, while the total has held steady.
Houston is also listed at right around -190 on most college football betting moneylines, with AF getting upwards of +165.
The Cougars returned 12 starters this year from a team that won eight games last year, and they were fully expected to make a run at the C-USA championship. They started 3-0, which included a 45-35 win at Oklahoma State and a 29-28 victory over Texas Tech. Houston then lost at UTEP 58-41, giving up 305 yards on the ground. The Cougs recovered and won five in row and nearly reached the top 10 in the rankings before losing at Central Florida, then scored 128 points in beating Memphis and Rice. And thanks to their win over SMU, Houston earned the West Division’s spot in the Conference USA championship game, which they lost 38-32 at East Carolina. Nonetheless, Houston is playing in a bowl for the fifth-straight season.
Air Force also returned 12 starters this year from a team that won eight games last season, and was projected to finish somewhere in the middle of the Mountain West. And that’s basically what they did. The Falcons started 3-1, then lost three of four, two of those in overtime, to Navy and Utah. Air Force then won three straight, before losing the season finale at BYU. So at 5-3 the Falcons finished fourth in the Mountain West, and will play in the Armed Forces Bowl for the third-straight year.
These two teams met in this game last year, with Houston winning 34-28 as four-point favorites. That game stayed under its posted total of 64. And these teams met early in the regular season last year, when the Falcons beat the Cougars 31-28 as 2 1/2-point underdogs in a game played on the SMU campus. That game went over its total of 52.
Houston led all of FBS in passing offense this season, averaging 450 YPG. Cougars junior QB Case Keenum, this year’s Sammy Baugh Award winner, has completed 71% of his passes this year for over 5,400 yards, with 43 touchdowns, nine interceptions. And Houston has three receivers who caught over 990 yards worth of balls this season.
Conversely, Air Force allowed just 149 YPG through the air, best in all of FBS, and ranked 10th in total defense at 285 YPG. Of course, they didn’t exactly play the toughest of schedules; Sagarin at USAToday.com ranked it 89th-toughest.
Houston’s schedule was even lighter, ranking 92nd.
On offense, the Falcons ranked fourth in FBS in rushing at 274 YPG. On the other side of the ball, Houston ranked 112th vs. the run, allowing an alarming 213 YPG. So expect Air Force to try and keep the Cougars offense off the field by controlling the ball.
Air Force games averaged 43.5 points, and they went 5-6 on the totals. Meanwhile, while Houston games averaged almost 73 points (uhh, that’s 10 touchdowns per game), they went 7-5 on their totals.
The Sagarin PURE POINTS ratings at USAToday.com rate the Falcons at 75.7, the Cougars at 75.1. So on the Sagarin line Air Force is favored by about a half-point.
Sagarin also ranks the Mountain West as the seventh-best conference in FBS this season, with an average team rating of 69.3, while C-USA ranks ninth, with an average rating of 64.7.
The MWC can already claim one bowl victory this season, after Wyoming, which finished a game behind Air Force in the conference standings, upset Fresno State Saturday in the New Mexico Bowl. Meanwhile, C-USA is 0-1 this bowl season, after Central Florida, which went 6-2 in conference play, got drubbed Saturday by Rutgers in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Z- Man’s Pick: I believe Air Force covers the +4.5 point spread.