Memphis Tigers vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Tuesday Dec. 20, 7 p.m. ET
I have a holiday tradition every year that goes along with the turkey, the tree, the decorations and the rest. As soon as the bowl schedule is set I circle the game with the best chance to go totally haywire, and I block off everything else so I won't be distracted from watching it. Every year there is a game with two teams that can score in bulk and which don't really believe in consistently playing defense. It's inevitable. Bowl organizers know that people love scoring, so in the absence of high-profile teams they look for the promise of fireworks.
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Well, this year it is unquestionably the Boca Raton Bowl that has gone that way with their pairing. Here's all you really need to know. The total here is currently set at 79 and moving upwards - and even that isn't likely high enough. The next highest total for any bowl game is 68.5, for the Central Michigan and Tulsa game the day before . So, do yourself a favor and grab the popcorn and a beer or three and settle in for some fun. It's not like you can do any better on a Tuesday night.
Boca Raton Bowl Betting Storylines
To say that Memphis doesn't play defense under new head coach Mike Norvell, last the offensive coordinator at Arizona State, isn't entirely fair. They do at times and do it well. They won 34-7 at Cincinnati two games back and 51-7 at SMU two games before that. They can do it. They just don't do it consistently and are prone to getting into shootouts. Their last game was that insane 48-44 win over Houston - as much fun as I had watching a game all year. Two games before that they lost to South Florida 49-42. Two games prior they faltered later on and lost 59-30 to Tulsa. It's like they are an addict trying unsuccessfully to stay clean. If they focus on defense they can play a relatively reserved game. As soon as things get off the rails, though, they are gone. Scoring has never been the issue, though - they averaged 39.5 points on the season and 44 in their last four. QB Riley Ferguson completed at least 60 percent of his passes in all but the Tulsa game, and he averaged 8.3 yards per attempt while throwing for 28 touchdowns with just nine picks. He's a gunslinger, and he's up against a Western Kentucky defense that ranked 110th in the country against the pass. He's going to have a day. The Hilltoppers are very tough to run against - they rank fourth in the country in yards per game allowed - but that won't be a major factor here because establishing the run is never a priority for the Tigers.
The list of teams that scored more than Western Kentucky did this year is very short - Louisville, with 45.3 points per game, narrowly edged them at 45.1, and that's it. This team loves to pile on the points. They had just 10 in a predictable early loss to Alabama, but they scored at least 30 points in every other game, at least 44 points in 10 of their other 12 games, and 50 or more six times. Like Memphis, and as you would expect from a team that scores this much, this is a team that attacks through the air to a very unbalanced degree. Junior QB Mike White had even better numbers than Ferguson. He completed more than two-thirds of his passes for more than 4,000 yards, with 34 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a gaudy 10.4 yards per attempt. He sits fifth nationally in passing yards, yet his 387 passing attempts were 69 fewer than the nearest to him in the Top 5 and 233 fewer than Cal's Davis Webb - who outpassed him by just 268 yards. This is a remarkably efficient passer. Memphis ranks 82nd in the country in passing yards allowed per game, and Houston's Greg Ward Jr. threw for 487 yards last time out. White will pile up the yards here.
The one potential wrinkle for the Western Kentucky attack in that head coach Jeff Brohm, who also served as offensive coordinator, has left to take the job at Purdue. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford is the new coach, and he is strong with quarterbacks, but he obviously isn't in charge yet. Defensive coordinator Nick Holt will lead the team in this game. He's smart enough to just let the team do what they do, and his head coaching duties could take away somewhat from the defensive preparedness here, but there is a chance that the loss of Brohm and the distraction of the search for his replacement could handcuff the offense somewhat.
Boca Raton Bowl Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened with Western Kentucky favored by 6.5, and that has since fallen to five points. Memphis has seen a slight majority of the action, so the movement isn't that surprising - or hugely significant given that it hasn't yet touched any key numbers and quite likely won't. The total, as discussed in the opening, is sky high at 79.
The Tigers are 6-0 ATS in their last six against Conference USA but just 1-6 ATS in their last seven against teams with winning records. They are 18-7-1 ATS in their last 26 nonconference games but just 1-4 ATS in their last five played at a neutral site. The Hilltoppers are 5-1 ATS in their last six games overall and 5-2 ATS in their last seven against teams with winning records, but they are 0-4 ATS in their last four nonconference games.
Memphis vs. Western Kentucky Boca Raton Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions
The absence of Brohm concerns me somewhat, but it doesn't change what is the clear play here - to take the "over". Both of these teams love to score and are good at it, and both have very good quarterbacks facing defenses full of holes they can and will exploit. This one will be crazy, and the over will be in real jeopardy. If I was forced to take a side I would take Memphis, but I don't have a real strong feeling either way - the winner will essentially be the team that gets the ball last in all likelihood.
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