Photo: A.J. Erdely
Source: Rob Foldy/Getty Image North America

The Blazers and Huskies meet in Boca Raton on Tuesday night

The Boca Raton Bowl features a rare meeting of conference champions in the 2018-19 postseason, as UAB meets Northern Illinois on Tuesday night in FAU Stadium. And if the regular season finale for both teams is any indication of how this game might go, Tuesday night’s matchup certainly won’t lack for intrigue or excitement. The Blazers used a late penalty against MTSU to hold on for a 27-25 victory in Conference USA’s Championship, while the Huskies rallied in the fourth quarter against Buffalo to a claim a 30-29 win in the MAC title game.

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UAB’s play on the gridiron has been one of college football’s best storylines over the last two years. The program was disbanded following the 2014 season but was later reinstated in ’15, with the team returning to the field and Conference USA play in ’17. The Blazers shattered preseason expectations with an 8-5 record last fall and capped the year with an appearance against Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl. Coach Bill Clark’s team was even better in 2018, finishing 10-3 overall with the program’s first Conference USA title. UAB also won 10 games for the first time in its program history, helping Clark earn Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year honors.

Success at a high level is nothing new to Northern Illinois. The Huskies have the most appearances of any school in the MAC in the conference title game, claimed four league titles since 2011 and made five bowl trips in six full years under coach Rod Carey. After a 5-7 mark in 2016, Northern Illinois has posted back-to-back 8-5 records and claimed the MAC title over Buffalo in dramatic fashion this year. After trailing 29-10 in third quarter, the Huskies scored 20 unanswered points to claim a 30-29 victory. Carey’s team faced a brutal non-conference schedule – Iowa, Utah and Florida State – but both losses in MAC play came by seven points or less.

This is the first meeting on the gridiron between Northern Illinois and UAB. The Huskies are 4-8 in bowl games, while the Blazers are 0-2.

Boca Raton Bowl: UAB (10-3) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5)

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: UAB -2.5

Three Things to Watch

1. UAB’s Ground Attack

It’s no secret what UAB wants to do on offense in this matchup. The Blazers ranked first in Conference USA with 587 rushing attempts and ranked second in the conference by averaging 208.9 rushing yards a game. Sophomore Spencer Brown is the catalyst for UAB’s ground attack, as he eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year by ending the regular season with 1,149 yards and 16 scores. Brown is averaging 4.7 yards a carry and has just one run of 30 yards or more this season. Helping Brown’s cause as one of the top Group of 5 running backs in the nation is an offensive line featuring four senior starters, including first-team All-Conference USA selection Justice Powers. Rishard Cook, James Davis and Malique Johnson each earned second-team honors this season.

Production by Brown on early downs is going to be crucial for UAB on Tuesday night. The offense exceled at converting third-down attempts (44.3 percent success rate) in the regular season, but Northern Illinois has been stingy all year against the run. The Huskies rank first in the MAC in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 2.7 yards a carry and 109.7 yards a game. Additionally, Carey’s team allowed only one opponent (Iowa) to rush for more than 168 yards in a contest this fall. All-America end Sutton Smith (24.5) is the main disruptor, but he will have help from linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis (13.5 TFL) and fellow linemen Josh Corcoran (12.5) and Jack Heflin (8.0). Considering the talent off the edge with Smith and Corcoran, Brown and UAB’s ground game would be wise to pound away at the interior.

UAB’s passing game wasn’t prolific by any means, but quarterbacks A.J. Erdely and Tyler Johnston III made enough plays to keep the offense rolling this fall. Erdely connected on 56.1 percent of his passes for 1,539 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnston’s completion percentage was slightly higher (56.8), as he added 950 yards and seven scores through the air. The two quarterbacks combined for 15 picks in 2018. Erdely was banged up late in the year, allowing Johnston to start four out of the final five contests. All signs point to Johnston starting on Tuesday night, and the freshman will certainly have his hands full with a defense that is limiting teams to just 21.5 points a game and 4.6 yards a play. Receivers Xavier Ubosi (21.8 ypc), Andre Wilson (30 catches), Kailon Carter (22) and Collin Lisa (14) give Johnston a solid group of weapons with big-play ability on the outside.

In order for UAB to win on Tuesday night, it has to establish the run by giving Northern Illinois a heavy dose of its star running back (Brown). An x-factor to watch: Johnston’s mobility. The freshman rushed for 331 yards and four scores in the regular season and posted double-digit carries in three out of UAB’s last four games.

2. Northern Illinois’ Offense

Similar to UAB, Northern Illinois’ offense wants to lean on its run to setup the pass. The Huskies posted 553 carries to just 372 passing attempts in the regular season. Carey’s group wasn’t overly prolific on the scoreboard, as the offense averaged only 20.7 points a game and 4.6 yards a play. However, this unit showed signs of progress in the MAC title win over Buffalo. In the victory, Northern Illinois averaged 6.1 yards a play, recorded 23 first downs and threw for 300 yards (a season high) versus the Bulls. Additionally, the 409 total yards was the third-highest total for the Huskies all year. Can Carey’s team build off that performance?

While the Huskies are a run-first attack, this team doesn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher. Instead, a couple of players will tote the rock for Carey’s team, spreading the wealth in the NIU backfield. Tre Harbison needs just 15 yards to reach 1,000, as he leads the team with 985 yards through 13 games. Marcus Jones (523) and Jordan Nettles (215) are next up at running back, and quarterback Marcus Childers has chipped in 496 yards and leads the team with six rushing scores in ’18.

As mentioned above, Northern Illinois hopes the performance on offense from the MAC title game travels to Boca on Tuesday night. Childers’ 300 passing yards and four scores through the air were the most this offense has generated all year with its passing game. The sophomore has an experienced group of receivers at his disposal, including Jauan Wesley (49 catches), D.J. Brown (55) and Spencer Tears (34).

While there are reasons for Northern Illinois’ staff to be optimistic about its offense, UAB has been stingy all season on this side of the ball. The Blazers rank first in Conference USA in scoring defense (17.3), limit teams to 4.9 yards a play, rank second in the conference in pass efficiency defense and have generated 43 sacks in ’18. This unit is also holding teams to 3.5 yards a rush and less than 120 rushing yards a game. Jamell Garcia-Williams (9.5 sacks), Tre’ Crawford (8.0) and Quindarius Thagard (4.0) are the main disruptors up front for Clark and will be tasked with keeping the offense in check.

It may seem like a broken record, but we have to mention it again. Northern Illinois wants to run the ball, and Childers is a big part of that plan. However, considering UAB’s strength up front, the Huskies will need to throw downfield with success on early downs to win this game.

3. Havoc Plays and Turnovers

There are several similarities between these two teams, so it’s no surprise the spread is right around a field goal. However, with a tight (and low-scoring) game anticipated, one play by the defense or a mistake on offense could be the deciding factor.

In the turnover department, UAB comes into this game with a minus-one ratio. The Blazers have generated 18 takeaways and lost 19 turnovers through 13 games. Northern Illinois is almost identical in this area. The Huskies have an even margin, losing 18 turnovers and gaining 18 this season.

The continuing similarities between these two teams continues with sacks generated. Northern Illinois leads the nation with 50 sacks, while UAB is tied for third nationally with 43. Smith has recorded 15 sacks, with Corcoran (10) also in double-digits. The Blazers are led by Garcia-Williams (9.5) and Crawford (8.0), but eight players have recorded at least two this season.

One defensive area where UAB owns a big edge is on third-down stops. The Blazers are limiting opponents to a 25 percent conversion rate, with the Huskies allowing 38.1 percent.

Final Analysis

Points will be a premium on Tuesday night. Both teams are averaging under 30 points a contest and will bring two of the nation’s top defenses to Boca Raton. With the defensive prowess in this matchup, timely offense and mistakes are going to be magnified. Winning the turnover battle and converting third downs to keep drives alive will loom large. Can UAB’s offense consistently generate enough push on first downs to keep Johnston out of third-and-long situations? When Northern Illinois has the ball, can Childers pick up where he left off in the MAC title game? Expect a low-scoring game, but the Blazers add to the best season in school history with the program’s first bowl victory.

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Posted in CFB, Top Fantasy Picks

CHERIBUNDI TART CHERRY BOCA RATON BOWL STORYLINES

1. Florida Atlantic won’t have to travel far for its bowl game; in fact, the team won’t have to travel at all. The Owls will be home for their postseason appearance on Dec. 19, when they face Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl. “Sometimes bowl games are tough to travel to,” Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin told reporters. “Some fans don’t get to go. To be right here, it’s awesome. Competitively speaking, it’s a home-field advantage. The only downside is for the players, that they don’t get to go somewhere else.”

2. The Owls played a competitive non-conference schedule and absorbed three losses before going 8-0 in Conference USA action. They defeated North Texas 41-17 on Nov. 30 to win the league title and possess one of the nation’s top running backs in league MVP Devin Singletary, not to mention an efficient passing game led by Jason Driskel. Florida Atlantic, which is playing in its first bowl game since 2008, finished 3-9 in each of the previous three seasons before turning things around under Kiffin, the former coach at Tennessee and USC, as well as of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.

3. Akron fell to Toledo 45-28 in the Mid-American Conference championship game – a contest that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated – but still was selected for a bowl game for the second time in three years. The Zips lost to Penn State and Iowa State by a combined 93-14 margin early this season but stabilized thereafter to go 6-2 in the MAC under the guidance of sixth-year coach Terry Bowden. Akron used three quarterbacks against Toledo in search of an offensive rhythm that arrived too late, and it remains to be seen if senior Thomas Woodson, junior Robbie Kelley or freshman Kato Nelson will get the start in Boca Raton.

TV: 7 p.m. ET, ESPN.

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ABOUT AKRON (7-6, 6-2 Mid-American Conference): The Zips do not have an impressive rushing attack, as they average 3.3 yards per carry and didn’t have a single player gain 400 during the season. Woodson saw the bulk of the action at quarterback this year and has thrown 14 touchdowns against nine interceptions, while Nelson has an 8-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, although he is completing less than 50 percent of his passes. The team allowed 93 points in two meetings with Toledo but otherwise is yielding a respectable 22.6 points per contest.

ABOUT FLORIDA ATLANTIC (10-3, 8-0 Conference USA): The Owls have not lost since suffering a late setback at Buffalo on Sept. 24, winning nine straight games – eight by double digits – behind a dynamic offense. Florida Atlantic averages 39.8 points – ninth in the nation – and has not been held below 30 since Week 2 against Wisconsin, which enters bowl season with the third-best scoring defense in the country. Driskel has thrown 13 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, while Singletary has run for 100-plus yards in 11 straight games and has staggering totals of 1,796 yards – fourth nationally – and 29 rushing touchdowns, which is eight more than any other player in Division I.

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Posted in CFB

Boca Raton Bowl Preview

Memphis Tigers vs Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Like offense? The Boca Raton Bowl is your game (Enter Contest). WKU averages 45.3 points a game, while Memphis isn’t far behind at 39.5. This matchup was slated to feature Jeff Brohm (WKU) and Mike Norvell (Memphis), two rising stars in the head coaching ranks. However, Brohm accepted the head coaching position at Purdue. Defensive coordinator Nick Holt will lead the Hilltoppers in this game.

WKU closed the season on a seven-game winning streak and scored at least 44 points in every contest during that run. Quarterback Mike White successfully replaced Brandon Doughty this year, throwing for 4,027 yards and 34 scores. He’s supported by standout running back Anthony Wales and two dynamic receivers (Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris). Quarterback Riley Ferguson (3,326 yards and 28 TDs) frequently targets Anthony Miller (84 catches), and the Tigers have three players with at least 460 rushing yards. This is the first meeting between these two programs.

ABOUT MEMPHIS (8-4, 5-3 AAC)

The Tigers had a tough task replacing head coach Justin Fuente and quarterback Paxton Lynch after last season but barely missed a beat behind new coach Mike Norvell and quarterback Riley Ferguson. Memphis won three of the last four games to improve its bowl position, including knocking off then-No. 20 Houston 48-44 in the regular-season finale. The Tigers average 39.5 points and rolled up 555 yards of total offense in the win over the Cougars.

Ferguson saved his best performance for last, passing for 409 yards with four TDs and no interceptions against Houston to cap a 3,326-yard season. Ferguson’s campaign places him second on the school’s all-time single-season throwing yards’ list. He’s just behind Lynch’s total of 3,776 from last season. Tigers freshman Tony Pollard was named the AAC’s Special Teams Player of the Year after ranking third in the nation with 993 kickoff return yards. He’s tied for third with two kickoff return TDs.

ABOUT WESTERN KENTUCKY (10-3, 7-1 C-USA)

Western Kentucky closed out the season on a seven-game winning streak, capped by a 58-44 victory over Louisiana Tech in the C-USA championship game. The Hilltoppers are second among FBS teams with a scoring average of 45.1 points. They’ve bumped that number up to 52.1 over the last nine contests. Western Kentucky is aiming for its third straight bowl win after knocking off Central Michigan 49-48 in the 2014 Bahamas Bowl and beating South Florida 45-35 in the 2015 Miami Beach Bowl.

The Hilltoppers’ offense is led by quarterback Mike White, who passed for 4,027 yards, 34 touchdowns and six interceptions while averaging 10.43 yards per attempt. Making White’s job easier is senior wide receiver Taywan Taylor. Taylor logged in 1,586 yards and caught 16 of those TD passes, including two in the C-USA championship game. Western Kentucky’s defense held three of its last five opponents under 10 points. They’ve recorded as many sacks (five) as rushing yards allowed against Louisiana Tech.

Posted in CFB

College Football Fantasy Draft News 12-22-2015

Akron Zips vs. Utah St Aggies College Football Fantasy Preview 12-22-2015

In the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl the Utah St Aggies will meet the Akron Zips. Fantasy college football draft GM’s can tune to ESPN TV on Tuesday December 22nd at 3:30PM Eastern Time to track the scoring results of their DFS roster picks.

 

The Utah St Aggies are no strangers to the Potato Bowl in nearby Boise Idaho as they have faced MAC conference schools in the past. What was evident in their appearances here against the MAC schools is the fact they had a much better push as the line of scrimmage on both the offensive and defensive side of the football. Utah St can’t be happy with a 6-6 record but all six of their losses came against bowl opponents who were much better than the Akron Zips.

 

Akron finished with four straight wins against lower tier MAC schools. None of their six wins came against bowl teams. They are an offensively challenged team and on defense have allowed 238 yards passing ranking 87th in the nation.

 

College Football Daily Fantasy League Pick

 

Utah St has shown some flash this year as they put up 58 points to Wyoming, 56 points at Fresno St and 52 points to Boise St. Sophomore quarterback Kent Myers threw for three touchdowns passes against Boise St, four touchdown throws with 364 yards passing at bowl bound Air Force. He also had a three touchdown performance with 246 yards passing at home to Wyoming. Look for Utah St to exploit the Zips weakness in defending the pass and Myers comes up with a huge performance for fantasy backers.

 

Play Kent Myers

 

Utah St Aggies QB

 

Senior wide receiver Hunter Sharp leads the Aggies with 60 catches for 746 yards with nine touchdowns. He came on very strong during the latter part of the season. At Air Force on November 14th Sharp had 13 grabs for 193 yards with three touchdown catches. Against BYU on November 28th he had seven receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown reception.

 

Play Hunter Sharp

 

Utah St Aggies WR

 

Toledo Rockets vs. Temple Owls College Football Real Money Fantasy Preview 12-22-2015

 

It will be a MAC conference versus AAC conference matchup in the Boca Raton Bowl as the Temple Owls will meet the Toledo Rockets. Fantasy draft managers can tune to ESPN TV on Tuesday December 22nd at 7PM Eastern Time to follow the results of their one day league roster picks.

 

This should be an interesting matchup as we have a very good defensive team in Temple taking on a MAC school in Toledo that has put up nearly 35 points per game ranking 26th from college football. The MAC defenses were down this year and the best defensive team that the Owls faced was Arkansas in week one that saw Toledo push across 16 points.

 

Temple had a shot at making a New Year’s Day bowl but were defeated 24-13 to the Houston Cougars which eliminated them. You have to be impressed by the Owl’s performance against Memphis as they gave up just 12 points in the victory. At East Carolina the Owls allowed only 14 points. They limited Penn St to 10 points.

 

College Football Daily Fantasy League Pick

 

The Temple Owls are the 17th best defensive team in all of college football by allowing just 329 yards per game. They are 16th in the nation in scoring defense by giving up 19.2 points per contest. Another benefit is looking at the injury report and you see a very healthy team heading into this bowl.

 

Play Temple Owls Defense

 

Posted in CFB