(This is the first in a series previewing the Group of 5 conferences based on their O/U win totals, as provided by Draftkings.)
It’s that time of the year where preview magazines and articles are out in full force. And while they are a blast to read, periodicals like Lindy’s and Phil Steele can be a bit overwhelming with their information. We all know the nuts and bolts of what a reader wants to know…
How can I win money?
So, I wanted to do a bit of a breakdown of each Group of 5 conference, using the over/under win total as provided by Draftkings (as of July 1) as a barometer. Some lines I have a strong feeling about betting the Over, some lines I have a strong feeling about betting the Under, and some I would just stay away from altogether. Basically if Goldilocks were a bookie, it would be me.
So, let’s take a closer look at the AAC.
Cincinnati (O/U 9) – Ok so, let’s give Cincinnati their flowers right away. They made the CFP last year against all odds and gave Alabama a more competitive game than most people expected. They have taken their recent success and turned themselves into a school attractive enough to join a Power 5 conference. Good luck to them in the future and thank you for your service. Sincerely, the entire G5.
Now then, let’s look at this final year.
They lost a LOT of talent to the NFL and start this season at Arkansas having to break in a new quarterback, several new weapons and 8 starters on defense. That game just doesn’t feel winnable at all.
From there, the schedule softens considerably. They get games against Kennesaw St., at Miami (OH), Indiana at home, at Tulsa and against South Florida, a stretch that should pretty comfortably have them sitting at 5-1 heading into back-to-back trips at SMU and at UCF. Their November ends pretty comfortably, with games at home against Navy and East Carolina, at Temple and at home against Tulane.
To me, this line boils down to that SMU and UCF back-to-back. Both those teams are going to be good, but I think SMU has a Cincinnati problem no matter where they play. I just don’t see the Bearcats losing both those. Given they have no Houston on their schedule…Take the Over.
Houston (O/U 9) – Since we are in the Trust Tree, I will admit something right here. I think Houston is going undefeated. In my opinion, they are the most talented team in any Group of 5 conference, Clayton Tune and Nathaniel Dell make up one of the best QB-WR combos around (though Fresno St. and UTSA can also make an argument) and their defense is consistently producing pros. They really do give off Cincinnati 2021 vibes.
However, there is also the distinct possibility they could start the season 0-2.
Draftkings projects Houston to go 9-3, primarily on the basis of the difficulty of their road schedule. While there is no Cincinnati or UCF to be found, the Cougars start the season on the road against G5 Forever-Love-of-my-Life UTSA, then follow that up by going to Lubbock to play a Power 5 team that I am developing a crush on in the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Now, while both of those games are road games, Cougar Nation should travel well since both games are in state. Both of those games could go either way. The rest of their road schedule offers challenges at Memphis, in Annapolis against an always tricky Navy, at SMU and at East Carolina. Those are six very difficult road games.
I don’t see many struggles at home with games against Kansas, Rice, Tulane, South Florida, Temple and Tulsa, so the Over/Under line essentially depends on if you think they can go 4-2 against that road schedule or not. Even if they lose the first two non-cons, they are good enough to run the table in the AAC. And if they split the first two, they have a bit of a cushion still. Take the Over.
UCF (O/U 8.5) – There is a lot of potential with this team. I mean, A LOT.
Gus Malzahn has a very fun team to watch. The Bounce House is never easy for opponents and they always have a high-octane offense. This year is no different, as they may have one of the best stables of running backs in all of the Group of 5 in Isaiah Bowser, Johnny Richardson and Florida transfer DeMarckus Bowman, along with all-conference receiver Ryan O’Keefe and Auburn transfer Kobe Hudson, a guy Malzahn recruited. It’s really up to whoever starts at quarterback – either Mikey Keene or Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee – to conduct this train.
In a somewhat surprising twist, they also have a very good defense. They return 8 starters from last year and have done a good job building depth through the transfer portal. And oh yeah, they don’t play Houston and get Cincinnati and SMU at home.
Taking a closer look at their schedule, Draftkings has their line at 8.5. With 5 of their first 6 games at home and their lone road trip at Florida Atlantic, they don’t leave the state of Florida until October 22. Despite two of their non-conference game against ACC foes Louisville and Georgia Tech, 6-0 is not outside the realm of possibility at all. So that means they need to go 3-3 in the back half of their schedule. While roads games at East Carolina, Memphis and Tulane are not easy, they lend themselves to shootouts. And I don’t care if the game is played on Mars, you don’t want to get into a shootout with UCF. Add to that home games against Cincinnati and Navy and a road game to end the season at USF, and it is not hard to see them going 9-3 or better. Take the Over.
Memphis (O/U 7.5) – I had the top 3 teams in the conference all hitting the Over. Since the Law of Averages is very real, that means that some teams have to fail to live up to expectations.
Which brings me to Memphis.
The good news first: They return sophomore quarterback Seth Henigan, who threw for over 3,300 yards and 25 touchdowns. He’s a solid starting point. The bad news is, they Tigers lost 9 of 11 starters on defense and star receiver Calvin Austin from a team that was only 6-6 last year anyway. Why should they be expected to improve?
On top of that, let’s analyze their schedule a bit. They start off heading to Starkville to take on a good Mississippi St. team that hasn’t forgotten how Memphis won last year’s game under controversial means. The Tigers follow that up by heading to Annapolis to face a Navy squad that should be improved from last year. 0-2 is not out of the question at all. From there, Memphis does get a bit of a break, with four consecutive home games against Arkansas St., North Texas, Temple and Houston. As I mentioned above, the Houston game feels like a bad matchup, but the other three are very winnable. Memphis is likely looking at 3-3 heading into a back half that begins with back-to-back road games at East Carolina and at Tulane, a home game against UCF (which I touched on above) and ends with a game at SMU.
Draftkings has the line at 7.5 for the Tigers, and I just don’t see them getting over that. They may not get close. Take the Under.
SMU (O/U 7) – If such a thing exits, Tanner Mordecai may be the MVP of the AAC. That’s a good starting point for the Mustangs. But much like Memphis, there is not much familiarity around him.
Starting with head coach, as Sonny Dykes went across town to be the head man at TCU. He’s replaced by Rhett Lashlee, a respected offensive mind, but this is his first time as a head coach. He won’t be easing into his career.
SMU’s schedule is very interesting, especially early on. They begin the season on the road against North Texas, a team that ended last season winning five straight regular season games, returns enough to be considered a darkhorse in C-USA and is not interested in playing little brother to SMU. That game is not going to be easy. Neither are other non-conference games at Maryland and at home against TCU for Sonny Dykes’ homecoming. Think he doesn’t want to win that? After that is a trip to the Bounce House and back-to-back home games against Navy and Cincinnati. For a team that has severe defensive deficiencies and only returns five offensive starters, playing teams expected to be prolific on offense like North Texas, Maryland, and UCF on the road early on sounds less than ideal.
On the other hand, the optimistic Mustang fan could say that North Texas and Maryland are not exactly world beaters and games against TCU, Cincinnati and Houston are all at home. And Mordecai (or Preston Stone) is likely to be the best quarterback in most games they play. The season could go any direction. Stay Away.
East Carolina (O/U 6.5) – For me, the problem with gambling is when your heart gets in the way of your head.
Take East Carolina for instance. I have always had a soft spot for them. Not sure why. Maybe it’s the cool purple helmet. No matter the reason, I have always wanted them to be good, but they haven’t very often been better than mediocre.
I may have purple colored glasses on, but this year could be different.
With senior quarterback Holton Ahlers and sophomore running back Keaton Mitchell, they may have the best QB-RB combo in the conference. If Georgia transfer Jaylen Johnson can make an impact at WR, this offense could really hum.
The problem is the schedule.
Draftkings set the line at 6.5, definitely an attainable number. But the season starts with the Pirates hosting trendy ACC pick NC State. While I’m not overly high on the Wolfpack, picking them to lose here may be my heart talking. Let’s say for argument’s sake NC State wins, I bring to your attention a late-season stretch that goes as follows: home against UCF, at BYU, at Cincinnati, home against Houston. Yikes. There are conceivably your 5 losses, and margin for error. Could they win the remainder of their games (Old Dominion, Campbell, Navy, at USF, at Tulane, Memphis, at Temple) to get to the required seven victories? Absolutely. Could they steal a victory from one of the above teams? Of course. But I can’t bring myself to bet on it. Stay Away.
Tulane (O/U 6) – Tulane is the quintessential Jekyll and Hyde team.
They went to bowl games each yeah from 2018 to 2020. Then last year, thanks to a perfect storm of injuries and a brutal schedule, along with an actual storm in the form of a hurricane that forced them to relocate for a few weeks, the bottom dropped out in the form of a 2-10 season.
So what do we expect from Tulane this year? Well, if the Draftkings line of 6 is any indication, mediocrity. But I also perceive that as Vegas not really knowing.
For starters, Tulane returns quarterback Michael Pratt, who arrived on the scene as a freshman by putting up 330 total yards and scoring 4 touchdowns in a near upset of Oklahoma. Him and fellow sophomore Tyjae Spears at running back are nice building blocks for a Green Wave offense that is expected to be a little more up-tempo this year.
The defense gave up 34 points a game last year, an embarrassingly high number that is expected to drop this year in part due to a non-conference that loses Oklahoma, UAB and Ole Miss and replaces them with UMass, Alcorn St. and Southern Miss. (There’s also a game at Kansas St. that won’t be easy but isn’t impossible either.) Following a conference opener at Houston that will likely put that Tulane at 3-2, the remaining schedule is chock full of games that could go either way (East Carolina, at USF, Memphis, at Tulsa, UCF, SMU) before a season finale at Cincinnati. The UMass, Alcorn St. and Southern Miss games are definitely winnable, the Kansas St., Houston, Cincinnati road tilts are likely losses. The remaining 6 are toss-ups.
I expect Tulane to be significantly better than they were last year, but 6-6 is probably the best case scenario, with an eye toward taking a major step forward next year. Take the Under.
Tulsa (O/U 6) – Riddle me Tulsa.
Last year, the Golden Hurricane ended up with a winning record and a bowl victory. They also pushed Ohio St. and Cincinnati in their games. But don’t forget that they also lost to UC Davis and a Navy team that put no effort into passing the ball.
To me, there’s just not a lot to like. Their quarterback Davis Brin, threw 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. That ratio isn’t going to cut it. The defense returns two starters from last year and the offensive line lost both tackles to the NFL. Their schedule this year offers very few gimmies. The non-con is tricky, if not outright difficult, with games at Wyoming, at home against Northern Illinois, Jacksonville St. (a team Florida St. foolishly took for granted last year) and at Ole Miss. I don’t think they are going 0-4 in those games, but with a conference opener against Cincinnati and a season finale at Houston, they definitely better not.
It just feels like Tulsa is stuck in neutral. Even teams like USF and Temple have found quarterbacks through the portal to give their fanbases optimism. Six wins feels way too high, I’m not sure five is high enough either. Take the Under.
Navy (O/U 4.5) – Remember the part I said about a thousand words ago about the head and heart getting in the way of each other? That applies to Navy too.
I live in Maryland and have family members who served in the Navy. So I always want to see them do well on a level different than the other academies. But this column is nothing if not objective. And objectively, the past two seasons have not been good for Navy football.
Sure they beat Army last year, which supersedes any victory in any sport, but it also could provide a jumping off point for this season. Junior quarterback Tai Lavatai continued to improve as the season went on, and this could be the year everything comes together for him. If the unproven weapons can figure it out, the triple option could be more dangerous than it has been in a couple years.
Draftkings set the number at 4.5, and the season opener against Delaware should get them off to a good start. I mentioned earlier that Memphis Week Two felt like a dangerous game for the Tigers as well. There are winnable home games against Tulsa and Temple, then of course those Cadets in Philadelphia. Those are probably the best bet at 5 wins, because games at East Carolina, at Air Force, at SMU, at Cincinnati, at UCF and at home against Houston and Notre Dame (in Baltimore) would not give them too many chances at victory. My gut says they get to 5, but I would understand if you were skeptical. Stay Away.
USF (O/U 4.5) – The bottom two teams in the AAC (based on projected win total) are running similar races.
The Bulls and the Temple Owls both have first-year coaches and quarterbacks coming via the transfer portal. In the case of USF, it is Gerry Bohannon from Baylor.
Here’s the thing though, the offense isn’t the problem for USF. It’s that defense. A defense that gave up 34.7 points per game had better improve, because USF has the following games on their schedule: Home against BYU, at Florida, at Louisville, at Cincinnati, at Houston, home against UCF. Those are 6 not-very-winnable games, no matter how good you are. However, Draftkings set the number at 4.5 wins for the Bulls, meaning they have to be 5-7 to hit the over. Taking those previously mentioned six games into consideration, they likely have to go 5-1 against Howard, East Carolina, Tulane, at Temple, SMU and at Tulsa. I don’t see it. Take the Under.
Temple (O/U 2.5) – Believe it or not, but Temple might be sneaky.
Last year was a rough one for the Owls, yet they still finished the season 3-9, which is over the 2.5 Draftkings projects for this year’s team. And it appears the Owls upgraded at the quarterback position, getting North Dakota State transfer Quincy Patterson to come to Philadelphia. (Replacing D’Won Mathis, who can still be a weapon for the offense.) In fact, Temple could hit the over by the end of September, with a non-conference schedule of at Duke, Lafayette, Rutgers and UMass all at home. They also get potential bottom dwellers Tulsa and USF at home. I’m not saying they are going to a bowl, but there are absolutely 3 wins there. If the defense can go from allowing 37.5 points per game to say 27.5 points, there may be more. Take the Over.
Overs – Cincinnati, Houston, UCF, Temple
Unders – Memphis, Tulane, Tulsa, USF
Stay Aways – SMU, East Carolina, Navy
4. East Carolina
So here is my deep dive into the AAC. If you use any of my recommendations, feel free to tweet me what your bet is (@justincripe). And if you are the parlaying type, we will probably become best friends.