5 College Football Conference Championship Mismatches Bettors Should Note
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) celebrating with teammates
- It's important to examine some of the biggest conference championship mismatches where bettors can gain an advantage.
- I'll focus on mismatches in the trenches, on the outside and even pinpoint a major special teams edge.
- I'll start with both conference titles on Friday night before highlighting three more on Saturday's slate.
As we head into Week 14 of the college football season, we have a very robust data set to analyze the relative strengths and weaknesses of each of the 20 teams competing for conference titles this upcoming weekend.
Whether you want to look in the trenches, at the skill positions or even on special teams, bettors must identify and be cognizant of glaring unit mismatches each week.
Power ratings should serve as your handicapping starting point, but situational angles and matchup analyses should help refine your final wagers.
As I do each week, I have pinpointed five noteworthy unit mismatches, which will hopefully help you make more informed betting decisions. I will point out a major discrepancy in a standard statistic and then provide supporting evidence that the underlying metrics back up.
I’ll start by highlighting a mismatch in both conference championship games on Friday — and then finish up with three more on Saturday. Let’s get to it.
Buffalo Pass Defense vs. Northern Illinois
- Spread: Buffalo -3.5
- Over/Under: 49.5
- Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Buffalo defense only allows 6.4 yards per pass attempt (32nd nationally), while the anemic NIU offense averages just 5.0 yards per pass attempt (127th in country). Also, opposing quarterbacks have only completed a touch over 50% of their passes against Buffalo this season — the third-lowest rate in all of college football.
The advanced metrics tell the same story. Per S&P+, Buffalo ranks No. 1 in the nation in Pass Efficiency defense, while Northern Illinois’ offense ranks 128th.
The Bulls do struggle in regards to defending Pass Explosiveness (122nd), but NIU has one of the least-explosive passing attacks in FBS (129th). Do not expect Northern Illinois to get anything through the air against an underrated Buffalo pass defense.
Additionally, I think Buffalo can have more success in getting after the quarterback. Many will focus on defensive end Sutton Smith and a Northern Illinois defense that accumulated an NCAA-best 46 sacks in 2018. However, Buffalo has allowed just eight total sacks all season (only Army and Air Force have allowed fewer) and rank in the top 10 in Adjusted Sack Rate.
Buffalo’s defensive front actually has the better matchup, also ranking in the top 15 in Adjusted Sack Rate. That should cause major problems for an NIU offensive line that ranks 109th in that same category — including 119th on Passing Downs.
Utah Special Teams vs. Washington
- Spread: Washington -5
- Over/Under: 44.5
- Friday, 8 p.m. ET, FOX
In what many anticipate will be a low-scoring and tight Pac-12 title game, special teams could make all of the difference. And if you’re looking for the team more likely to make a big play on special teams, it’s Utah by a country mile.
Utah should dominate field position all night long, thanks to senior punter Mitch Wishnowsky — a 2016 Ray Guy Award winner and 2017 finalist, who finds himself as one of three finalists once again this season. Not surprisingly, the Utes average 40.6 net yards per punt (14th in country), while Washington averages just 33.75 (121st).
The Utes will also have the edge in the kicking game, as senior kicker and 2017 Lou Groza Award winner Matt Gay has a much more reliable leg than Washington freshman kicker Peyton Henry.
Gay has connected on 20 of his last 22 field goal attempts — with the only two misses coming from beyond 50 yards. On the other hand, Henry has missed five of his 19 attempts this season, including three from inside 40 yards.
Henry is just 1 of 3 from longer than 40 yards and has never even attempted a field goal from beyond 50. Meanwhile, Gay has connected on 35 of 36 under 40 and has drilled seven field goals of 50-plus yards in his two years as Utah’s kicker.
The advanced metrics confirm the above, as Washington has the 115th ranked S&P+ Special Teams unit, while Utah boasts the seventh-best.
UAB Pass Rush vs. Middle Tennessee State
- Line: MTSU -1.5
- Over/Under: 45.5
- Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN
The UAB defense has 41 sacks for an average of 3.42 per game, which ranks fourth nationally. That unit could be the difference against a Middle Tennessee State offensive line that has allowed 34 sacks on the season (2.83 average ranks outside the top 100).
Per S&P+, UAB will bring a defense to Murfreesboro that ranks No. 2 in Adjusted Sack Rate, including a No. 3 ranking on Passing Downs. And as you might expect, the MTSU offensive line sits at No. 103 in that same category — and an even worse 115th on Passing Downs.
If Middle Tennessee can’t protect Quarterback Brent Stockstill in a very pass-heavy offense (109th in Standard Downs Run Rate), the UAB defensive front will dominate the Conference USA championship.
Clemson Defensive Line vs. Pittsburgh
- Line: Clemson -27.5
- Over/Under: 53
- Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
If you can shut down the Pittsburgh rushing attack, you can shut down the Pittsburgh offense. The Panthers rely heavily on their explosive rushing attack, which averages a top-10 mark of 5.8 yards per carry.
We saw how little Pitt did last week against another great run defense in Miami, which won 24-3 after holding the Panthers to just 69 rushing yards on 38 carries. Well, Clemson has an even more dominant run defense.
In fact, nobody can shut down the run as effectively as the No. 1 ranked S&P+ rush defense of Clemson, which only allows an NCAA-best 2.2 yards per rush. That’s historically dominant, as only four other teams have allowed the same or fewer yards per rush since 2007.
As a result, Pitt will find itself in many passing situations, which should give quarterback Kenny Pickett nightmares. The Panthers’ offensive line has allowed 28 sacks or 2.33 per game, which ranks 78th in college football. They will be tasked with containing a Clemson defense that has totaled 43 sacks on the season (T-2nd).
The advanced metrics paint the same picture, as Pitt ranks 115th in Adjusted Sack Rate (113th on Passing Downs). Meanwhile, Clemson’s defense ranks in the top 10 in that same category — both overall and on Passing Downs. Pickett will be running for his life all night long in Charlotte.
Northwestern Discipline vs. Ohio State
- Ohio State -14
- Over/Under: 60.5
- Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, FOX
Northwestern doesn’t have the explosive offense (125th in IsoPPP+) to exploit Ohio State’s primary weakness on defense. The Wildcats also don’t generate much pressure on the quarterback (122nd in Adjusted Sack Rate, which is how you can disrupt quarterback Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeye offense. They also have one of the worst special teams units in the country.
On paper, Northwestern doesn’t have much going for it except an edge in discipline. One way that Ohio State can let Northwestern hang around in this Big Ten title game is through penalties.
Northwestern averages a minuscule 26.66 penalty yards per game, which is the fewest in the country. Conversely, Ohio State has dealt with discipline issues all season long. The Buckeyes average 76.0 penalty yards per game, which ranks in the bottom-five nationally.
Northwestern has only been penalized 34 times on the entire season for 320 yards, while Ohio State has been penalized 98 times for 912 yards — including 12 times for 150 yards just last week against Michigan. On average, the Buckeyes get flagged almost five more times than the Wildcats per game.
It likely won’t decide the outcome, but a few key penalties that keep Northwestern drives alive or cost Ohio State a big play or two could impact what’s really important — which team will cover.