After two and a half weeks of bowl action we’ve finally hit the big games, starting with tonight’s GoDaddy.com Bowl between Miami of Ohio and Middle Tennessee State. 6-6 Middle Tennessee (third place in the Sun Belt) is favored by two points over 9-4 MAC Champion Miami. The line reeks of Vegas either a) knowing way more than we do; or b) just throwing their hands up in confusion like the rest of us. Choice a is more likely, but I’m not ruling out choice b – there’s a lot of college football for these guys to watch over the course of the year and neither team was on the bowl radar for most of the season. After a 1-11 record last season, Miami started out an improved 4-4 but still needed to win their last five regular season games just to make it to a bowl (8-4 Temple from the MAC was left out). Middle Tennessee started 3-6 and needed to win their last three games – including an upset on the road over Sun Belt champion Florida International – plus get some help from other conferences just to make it into a bowl. So it’s not like Vegas insiders were intently watching these two teams’ games all season trying to get an edge come bowl time.
Miami RedHawks (9-4)
The Miami RedHawks were the feel-good story of the college football season. Led by second-year coach/domestic assault arrestee Mike Haywood, the RedHawks won four of their first seven games after winning only three games combined over the previous two seasons. They won their first three conference games over MAC bottom dwellers Eastern Michigan, Kent State, and Central Michigan and were the cute “they control their own destiny” team of the conference that no one actually believes will win.*
* “Control their own destiny” is usually code for “There’s no way in hell this team is going to keep winning.” Like Baylor this year, which led the Big 12 South with three games to go…only those three teams happened to be Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M (they lost the three games by a combined 68 points).
But then the RedHawks kept winning. After a loss to Ohio, Miami rolled off three wins in a row in ugly fashion – a 12-point win over 2-5 Buffalo, a 3-point win over 2-7 Bowling Green, and a 5-point win over 0-10 Akron. Still, heading into the last weekend of the season, they needed to upset 8-3 Temple and have Ohio lose to 4-7 Kent State in their season finale. Stunningly, the RedHawks dominated Temple 23-3 and Kent State beat Ohio 28-6 to send the upstart squad to the MAC title game. They entered the title game as 14 1/2 point underdogs to #25 Northern Illinois (10-2, 8-0 in the MAC). And of course they won.
The RedHawks don’t do anything particularly well. They have a decent passing offense and a potential professional receiver in Armand Robinson, but their starting quarterback Zac Dysert went out with three games left in the season with a ruptured spleen. Freshman backup Austin Boucher has been adequate as his replacement – throwing for four touchdowns and only one interception – but starting a freshman backup isn’t typically a recipe for success in bowl games. They also have a decent rushing defense, which will help against the Dwight Dasher-led Blue Raiders rushing offense. Miami can’t run the ball (114th in FBS), can’t score (103rd), and is only okay at stopping the other team (46th in scoring defense).
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (6-6)
The Blue Raiders finished 10-3 with a bowl win last year but got off to a rocky start this year. Star quarterback Dwight Dasher missed the first four games and the team got off to a rocky 2-2 start. Even after Dasher came back in Week 5, the team was out of synch – they lost 4 of 5 and were completely dominated by Troy, Georgia Tech, and Arkansas State. Sitting at 3-6 with three games to go, the Blue Raiders won all three to qualify for a bowl game.*
* The MAC commissioner must be terrible at his job. The MAC has 13 teams and only three bowl tie-ins plus one additional tie-in if other conferences don’t have enough .500 or better teams (which will happen every year with all these games). The Sun Belt has nine teams and only one tie-in but two additional tie-ins if other conferences don’t have enough qualifiers. Middle Tennessee had an automatic bid to a bowl after finishing 6-6 while 8-4 Temple and 6-6 Western Michigan from the MAC were the only eligible teams not selected for a bowl game. I’d call that not doing your job.
In many ways, Middle Tennessee is Miami’s polar opposite. The Blue Raiders have a solid rushing attack – 32nd in FBS, but that includes the four games without Dasher. They are decent at pretty much everything else and not really terrible at anything. Looking at the statistics, this team should be substantially better than a 6-6 team with only one win over a .500 or better team (28-27 over Florida International).
The key matchup for the game will be Middle Tennessee’s rushing offense versus Miami’s rushing defense. Sticking with my theory on the superiority of Sun Belt athletes over MAC athletes (2-0 so far this bowl season), I think Dwight Dasher and the Blue Raiders rushing offense will win this battle and put up a few touchdowns. I just can’t trust a freshman backup quarterback to do the same against a defense that will be faster than any he’s faced before. Although I don’t typically like picking the underachieving team over an overachieving team, the pick is Middle Tennessee 28, Miami 14.