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Thursday NCAA Football

Thursday Night College Football – Temple vs. East Carolina

An AAC East contest headlines the Thursday night pairing to open the October college football schedule. Here is a look at Temple and East Carolina, a game featuring one of the lowest totals of the week in a matchup of three-win squads looking for conference win #1.

Match-up: Temple Owls at East Carolina Pirates

Venue: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina

Time/TV: Thursday, October 3, 8:00 PM ET ESPN

Line: Temple -11½, Over/Under 46½

Last Meeting: 2018 At Temple (-10½) 49, East Carolina 6

East Carolina was a bowl fixture in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s. Steve Logan went 67-55 over 11 years for the Pirates with five bowl appearances and a successful transition to Conference USA. He resigned after a disappointing 2002 season and the program fell off a cliff with John Thompson going 3-20 over two seasons before being released. Skip Holtz took over and the program was relevant for five seasons before he jumped to South Florida and Ruffin McNeill was able to mostly sustain that success over six years including the final two years in the move to the American. After going 5-7 in 2015 he was fired and history repeated itself with an ugly short-term run for the Pirates under Scottie Montgomery.

The Pirates hope they have found a stable presence for years to come on the sidelines with Mike Houston. Still relatively young at 47, Houston led successful but brief runs at three different programs, most recently going 37-6 over three season at James Madison, including the 2016 FCS Championship which was the only title miss over the past eight seasons for FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. While his offenses ran the option at the Lenoir-Rhyne and The Citadel he has employed a spread at James Madison and at East Carolina, with hopes of capturing the high-scoring potential his Dukes teams had. There has been good balance so far with the Pirates rushing about 38 times per game and throwing 31 times per game.

An appealing underdog in the season opener, East Carolina lost 34-6 at NC State in a lopsided contest but the Pirates have quietly won three of the past four games. Two of those wins were over FCS teams however as last week’s narrow 24-21 win at Old Dominion was the first FBS win of the season. Against NC State and Navy East Carolina lost by a combined score 76-16 while out-gained by 236 and 246 yards respectively, though both of those games were on the road.

Holton Ahlers was named the starting quarterback late in the summer and the sophomore that completed only 48 percent of his passes last season but had 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions has mostly struggled this season. Ahlers has upped his completion rate to 54 percent but already has five interceptions and has lost a half-yard from last season in yards per attempt. East Carolina is running the ball with 867 yards in five games for 4.5 yards per attempt with Ahlers posting 186 yards on the ground and Demetrius Mauney leading the team with 199 rushing yards. Last season East Carolina rushed for only 3.6 yards per carry as there has been clear improvement.

East Carolina will host South Florida at the end of the month and will head to Connecticut in November but the rest of the AAC path is difficult with the Pirates likely to be a double-digit underdog in four of the next five games counting this week’s game. Since 2003 East Carolina is 24-21 in the home underdog role including a handful of power five upsets while on a 10-7 ATS run as a double-digit home underdog, even with those numbers deteriorating significantly in the ugly run the past three years.

Temple had a messy off-season after Geoff Collins left the program after two seasons to take over Georgia Tech. The Owls hired Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz but a few weeks later he was brought back to Miami after Mark Richt retired. Rod Carey was hired after a successful run at Northern Illinois and is now the fifth coach for the program since 2006, not counting Diaz or interim coach Ed Foley.

Temple hasn’t been thought of as one of the top Group of 5 programs often but since 2015 the Owls are 38-20 S/U and 39-19 ATS for records that few programs can match. Temple is 3-1 this season with wins over a pair of major conference teams but losing by 16 against a MAC team, which has some similarities to last season’s erratic start, opening the season with a loss to FCS Villanova before going on to win eight games. Last season’s game was obviously a big one with Collins returning to face his old team and Temple won 24-2 though with only a minimal production edge but catching huge turnover breaks with a 74-yard defensive score, a goal line fumble recovery, and a 65-yard interception return.

Carey replaced current NC State head coach Dave Doeren at Northern Illinois at the end of the 2012 season, making his head coaching debut in the Orange Bowl. He ultimately went 52-30 in six-plus seasons with the Huskies though going 0-6 in bowl games but with four division titles and two MAC Championships. Carey’s track record promoted running the ball and stopping the run with the Huskies ranking third nationally in per carry run defense last season. So far this season Temple has held foes to only 133 rushing yards per game on 3.2 yards per carry but the offense is led by the passing attack.

Junior quarterback Anthony Russo has thrown 151 times in four games and his season line is inflated by posting 409 yards and four touchdowns vs. FCS Bucknell in the opener. Against FBS completion Russo has completed just 49 percent of his passes and in those three games he has five interceptions and just six touchdowns and just 6.0 yards per attempt. In fairness he faced Maryland and Georgia Tech teams in two of those games and ultimately led his team to wins in those games despite the marginal numbers though three interceptions vs. Buffalo were certainly a big factor in the upset loss.

This is the AAC opener for Temple and three difficult games will follow this contest with a challenging West draw of Memphis and SMU in back-to-back weeks before hosting UCF. Temple also plays at Cincinnati late in the season as despite a 3-1 start there will be work to do to get to a bowl game. Last season Temple played UCF about as well as any of the other American squads in a 52-40 loss in Orlando while the Owls were able to beat Navy, Cincinnati, and Houston as this team shouldn’t be ruled out of the AAC East race either.

There aren’t many negative trends for Temple in recent years and the Owls are 11-3 ATS since 2014 as a road favorite while 27-11 ATS in all road games since 2013. Temple is 5-1 in the last six instances as a double-digit road favorite, though losing at -14 at Buffalo in September.

Series History: Meeting each of the last five years as AAC foes Temple is 5-0 S/U and 5-0 ATS in this series with every win coming by at least 10 points. Temple won 34-10 in 2017 as a slight favorite in the last trip to Greenville while the teams also met regularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s as fellow Independents. Temple is on an 8-1 ATS run in this series since 1989 and historically 7-5 S/U and 8-3-1 ATS in this series since 1986.

There is also a Sun Belt contest Thursday night to kick off the college football week as Georgia Southern visits South Alabama in a division crossover game. Both teams lost their conference openers last week and sit with just one win each on the season through September.

Match-up: Georgia Southern Eagles at South Alabama Jaguars

Venue: Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama

Time/TV: Thursday, October 3, 7:30 PM ET ESPNU

Line: Georgia Southern -10½, Over/Under 45½

Last Meeting: 2018 At Georgia Southern (-12) 48, South Alabama 13

Georgia Southern won 10 games last season and finished just behind Appalachian State and Troy in the Sun Belt East race finishing 6-2. In a 1-3 start the Eagles haven’t had their typical rushing success so far this season however. Losing badly to LSU was certainly forgivable and Georgia Southern nearly had an upset at Minnesota as this squad could still emerge as a winning team. Last week vs. a Louisiana-Lafayette at home Georgia Southern was soundly out-gained turning back to Shai Werts at quarterback but it was a three-point game into the fourth quarter.

Steve Campbell went 33-15 at FCS Central Arkansas and was considered a great hire by South Alabama, though the team did have mixed success over nine years under Joey Jones, including two bowl trips in six years after making the jump to the FBS level and a huge upset over Mississippi State in 2016. Campbell inherited an inexperienced team and the Jaguars mostly struggled in a 3-9 debut season. At 1-4 the returns have been no better this season though the Jaguars did give Nebraska a scare in the season opener. The only win came vs. FCS Jacksonville State though the only FBS home game was a difficult draw vs. Memphis. While South Alabama scored late to make a 30-10 game 30-17 last week, they were only minimally out-gained and rushed for 263 yards to offer some promise moving forward.

Series History: Meeting each of the last five years Georgia Southern is 5-0 S/U and 5-0 ATS in this series with every win coming by at least 15 points. The past two meetings have both been at home with a 24-9 win in 2016 for Georgia Southern in the last visit to Mobile.

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Free NCAA Pick Thursday

#616 Connecticut +9.5 over Houston 6:00 PM CT

Houston owns a glowing 23-1 record and is in control of the AAC thanks to the 65-58 home win over Cincinnati on Sunday. That was a misleading final score as Cincinnati led at several points in the second half before ending the game with an over six-minute scoring drought while the Cougars caught several breaks with close calls including two questionable out-of-bounds calls where the near official was overruled. That was the biggest game of the AAC season and this could be a flat spot with Houston surviving several close calls on the road this season.

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Connecticut is a shell of its past stature as a basketball power but the Huskies have won four straight home dates and own an early season win over Syracuse. Despite the marginal record Connecticut rates as an above average offensive team and should be able to keep pace with the Cougars in this matchup. A big area of opportunity is rebounding with the Huskies potentially towering over a small Houston team in many lineup possibilities. Coming off back-to-back losses this is a great opportunity for Connecticut as a heavy home underdog.

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Thursday NCAA Tulane vs. Houston

Thursday Night College Football – Tulane at Houston

11/14/2018

This week’s Thursday night ESPN game comes out of the American Athletic Conference with a West division battle between Tulane and Houston. Both teams are in a three-way tie with SMU at 4-2 on top of the division standings as the victor can remain in the mix for the division title. Here is a look at tonight’s game to start a big mid-November college football weekend.

 

Match-up: Tulane Green Wave at Houston Cougars

Venue: At TDECU Stadium in Houston, Texas

Time/TV: Thursday, November 15, 8:00 PM ET ESPN

Line: Houston -10, Over/Under 67½

Last Meeting: 2017, at Tulane (+9) 20, Houston 17

 

The American Athletic Conference West has had three different division champions in three years and a fourth new participant to the AAC title game is possible out of the West this season. SMU, Houston, and Tulane are all tied at 4-2 with SMU having wins over both Houston and Tulane. The Mustangs have a difficult game with Memphis this Friday before heading on the road to face Tulsa next week as a loss is certainly possible to open the door for the winner of this game.

 

Along with Memphis, Houston was considered one of the favorites in the West riding five consecutive winning seasons even after a step-back to 7-5 last season in the first season under Major Applewhite. Houston won the inaugural AAC Championship game in 2015 and grabbed headlines nationally in 2016 with notable wins over Oklahoma and Louisville.

 

Houston struggled to find a quarterback early last season but D’Eriq King emerged in late October, keying the upset over South Florida and finishing the season with strong results in the air and on the ground. Now a junior King has big numbers, accounting for 48 touchdowns but his passing numbers are slightly down and he has six interceptions this season. He is a threat on the ground as well with 13 rushing touchdowns on 5.9 yards per carry and he ranks 6th nationally in QB Rating behind five players on College Football Playoff contending teams.

 

Offense hasn’t been an issue for Houston, averaging nearly 48 points per game for the fourth highest mark in the nation. The defense has really struggled however surrendering 34 points per game, including 37 points per game in AAC play. In back-to-back losses the past two weeks Houston has allowed 104 points and four straight foes have scored at least 36 points against Houston while rushing for at least 196 yards. Houston has also benefitted from not drawing UCF or Cincinnati in the East schedule draw.

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Houston has one of the highest profile defensive players in the nation with Ed Oliver a projected 1st round NFL pick next spring but Oliver hasn’t played in the past three games and appears likely to be ruled out to play again this week with a lingering knee injury. Houston’s defense has allowed big rushing numbers in recent weeks including surrendering 312 rushing yards in last week’s home loss to Temple and the Cougars are coming off back-to-back double-digit defeats.

 

Home losses have been rare for the Houston program with a 22-3 S/U record at home since 2014 and it had been 31 games since Houston had lost a home game by more than a single score. Houston was a 27-point home favorite in a 30-18 win over Tulane at home two years ago but last season in New Orleans the Wave pulled off the upset, making this a revenge game in Houston’s final home game of the season.

 

Tulane started the season with a competitive overtime loss hosting Wake Forest but wound up starting the season 2-5. Three straight wins have put the Wave back in the postseason conversation in the third season for Willie Fritz with Tulane last making a bowl game in 2013. Next week’s home game with Navy will be a reasonable opportunity but Tulane has won its past two road games and could emerge as an AAC title threat with another road win this week.

 

Tulane runs the option and despite marginal numbers, the results have been better since making a move to Justin McMillan at quarterback. Jonathan Banks started most of last season and the senior was productive in the first seven games this season. McMillan is also a senior and played sparingly until replacing Banks in the loss at Cincinnati in early October. He didn’t play at all the next week but he has been the team’s quarterback the past three games, all wins, albeit against lighter competition than Banks faced in most of his games. McMillan had by far his best passing game last week as Tulane surprisingly threw 28 times for 372 yards to add some different wrinkles to the playbook.

 

Tulane has been the best defensive team in the AAC West, allowing only 23 points per game with each of the past three foes held to 18 or fewer points. Pass defense has been a strong point holding opposing quarterbacks to just over 52 percent completions and only 7.2 yards per attempt. Tulane also has allowed just 3.8 yards per rush and just 141 yards per game. Houston has only allowed 3.9 yards per rush on the season but the numbers have been heading in the wrong direction the past four weeks.

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Houston’s defense will certainly be difficult to trust as a heavy favorite in any matchup though this is a Cougars team that has scored at least 41 points in five of six conference games, a figure Tulane has reached once vs. FBS competition this season. Whichever team controls the pace and avoids turnovers should have the edge and the recent scheduling has played a role in the recent opposing trajectories for these teams.

 

Last season: Houston trailed 13-3 at halftime at Tulane but seemed likely to pull out the win as there were missed opportunities with a fumble near midfield while also failing going for it on 4th-and-1 from the Tulane 6-yard-line early in the second quarter. On the first drive of the second half King threw an interception in the end zone but after a Tulane interception Houston scored a touchdown to close to within three by the start of the fourth quarter. On the next drive Houston went 91 yards to take the lead but Tulane answered with Banks delivering a 64-yard touchdown pass. Down three in the final minutes Houston again went for it on 4th down rather than attempting a long field goal for the tie and came up empty as Tulane held on for the upset.

 

Historical Trends: Houston has held a strong home field edge with a 65-16 S/U and 43-33-1 ATS record since 2006 while going 4-1 S/U and 3-2 ATS at home this season. Houston is on a 12-2 S/U and 11-3 ATS run in this series since 2003 though Tulane has covered in the past two trips to Houston including an upset win in 2014 as a 17-point underdog. Tulane is 9-49 S/U and 27-31 ATS as a road underdog since 2008, going 5-6 ATS since 2016 under Fritz with only one S/U upset, with that win the 41-15 win at South Florida earlier this month.

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Thursday NCAA – Tulsa at Houston

Thursday Night College Football – Tulsa at Houston

10/01/2018

This week’s Thursday night ESPN game comes out of the American Athletic Conference with a West division battle between Tulsa and Houston. The Golden Hurricane fared poorly on Thursday night two weeks ago in their first conference game while this is the AAC opener for Houston. Here is a look at Thursday’s game to start college football Week 6.

Match-up: Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Houston Cougars

Venue: At TDECU Stadium in Houston, Texas

Time/TV: Thursday, October 4, 8:00 PM ET ESPN

Line: Houston -18, Over/Under 67½

Last Meeting: 2017, at Tulsa (+14) 45, Houston 17

Houston won the inaugural AAC Championship game in 2015 and grabbed headlines nationally in 2016. That success let to Tom Herman being hired in Austin and last season former Texas quarterback guided Houston to a 7-5 season in his first season as head coach.

Four of the five losses for Houston came in single score games but the one exception was a blowout loss at Tulsa, losing by 28 as a two-touchdown favorite. This season Houston is 3-1 with a notable win over Arizona while the loss came by 14 at Texas Tech. This will be the first game of the AAC season for the Cougars who figure to be the favorites in the West division with last season’s champion Memphis already 0-2 in league play.

Houston struggled to find a quarterback early last season but D’Eriq King emerged in late October, keying the upset over South Florida and finishing the season with solider results in the air and on the ground. Now a junior King has rushed less successfully and has a lower completion rate but with 15 touchdowns and just one interception he has been a great leader with the offense scoring at least 45 points in every game.

Houston has rushed for over 1,000 yards in four games on 6.4 yards per carry with a committee as Patrick Carr leads the team with only 201 rushing yards and King leads the team with five rushing touchdowns.

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Houston also has one of the highest profile defensive players in the nation with Ed Oliver a projected 1st round NFL pick next spring. Houston hasn’t had great defensive numbers this season allowing over 30 points per game after surrendering fewer than 24 points per game last season.

After a two-win 2017 season is expected to be an improved team with a shot at making the postseason. The 1-3 start has featured three losses in a row all against quality competition falling to Texas, Arkansas State, and opening the conference season with a 31-17 loss at Temple two weeks ago. Tulsa out-gained Temple by more than 100 yards in that game but had five turnovers including allowing two defensive touchdowns.

Luke Skipper split time at quarterback last season and has led the offense in all four games this year. He has marginal numbers with six interceptions and just 6.2 yards per attempt. Chad President is still on the roster but has only seen a few snaps this season after sharing the load last season for Philip Montgomery, in his fourth season as the head coach at Tulsa.

Montgomery led Tulsa to a bowl game in his first season and then produced a 10-win 2016 season before reversing course last year. Montgomery was an assistant at Houston from 2003 to 2007 before being the offensive coordinator at Baylor from 2008 to 2014 as a long-time assistant to Art Briles.

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Last season: Houston was 4-1 heading to Tulsa with the Hurricane 1-5 at the time and coming off a 62-28 loss at Tulane. It wasn’t a surprise when the Cougars took a 10-0 early lead but out of halftime Tulsa was a different team, feeding off of a big turnover to produce 17 points in the third quarter. Houston would get back within seven before Skipper hit a 70 yard pass play to seal the win. Tulsa added two touchdowns in the final minute for a more convincing result than they deserved and it may be something the Houston players remember.

Historical Trends: Houston is on a 42-31-1 run in home games since 2006 including a 6-2 ATS start under Applewhite including 3-0 as a double-digit home favorite. Tulsa has covered in six of the past eight meetings between these schools going back to 2009 including covering in each of the last four meetings in Houston. Tulsa is on a 22-11 ATS run as a double-digit underdog since 2010 with seven S/U upsets, going 12-4 ATS in that role since 2015 under Montgomery.

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Thursday NCAA Preview: Tulsa vs. Temple

Thursday Night College Football – Tulsa at Temple

This week’s Thursday night ESPN game comes out of the American Athletic Conference with a pair of 1-2 squads facing off in what will be a key win towards bowl eligibility for the victor. Tulsa and Temple haven’t had the September starts they envisioned but both still have a shot at a successful season. Here is a look at this week’s Thursday night game to kick off the fourth big weekend of college football.

Match-up: Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Temple Owls

Venue: At Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Time/TV: Thursday, Sep. 20, 7:30 PM ET ESPN

Line: Temple -7½, Over/Under 55½

Last Meeting: 2017, Temple (-5½) 43, at Tulsa 22

After winning the AAC title in 2016 Temple lost head coach Matt Rhule to Baylor and hired Geoff Collins, who had been the defensive coordinator at Florida the previous two years. Last season the Owls slipped from the back-to-back 10-4 seasons they had in 2015 and 2016 but still managed a 7-6 season. Temple beat Tulsa on the road in the regular season finale to reach 6-6 before beating Florida International in the Gasparilla Bowl, all things considered a fairly successful first season with the coaching transition plus the loss of longtime quarterback Phillip Walker, a four-year starter that is the all-time passing leader for the Owls.

There were some important players that graduated for Temple last season, notably in the receiving corps but expectations were elevated with the Owls considered by many the favorite in the AAC East. The offense gained a spark when Frank Nutile took over at quarterback last season and the top rushers from last season returned along with several key starters on a defense that has been very effective in recent years.

Temple opened the season with a pair of home games and lost both games, falling 19-17 (-14½) to FCS Villanova and 36-29 (-4) to Buffalo. On its own neither loss was egregious as Villanova gave Temple a great battle early last season and is one of the better FCS programs. Buffalo meanwhile is considered one of the top MAC teams is off to a promising 3-0 start as it could be a more reasonable loss by season’s end.

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Nutile struggled with four interceptions before being injured late in the Buffalo game. He may be healthy enough to return in the near future but he may not get his job back at Temple was rejuvenated last week under sophomore Anthony Russo who played well in the team’s 35-14 (+16) upset win at Maryland. The Owls took a 21-7 lead at halftime even with Russo throwing a pick-6 the other way. Early in the second half Russo hit a 47-yard touchdown pass and the Owls even survived a blocked punt returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to hold on for a 21-point win. Temple’s defense allowed just 195 yards and no offensive touchdowns as the Owls can feel confident heading into the conference season.

Tulsa has had a roller coaster run in now four seasons under Philip Montgomery, who was hired in 2015 after leading the Baylor offense under Art Briles. He inherited a 2-10 team and went bowling in year one, nearly upsetting Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl to finish 6-7. In 2016 the Hurricane delivered a 10-3 campaign with a dominant bowl win. Last season everything went wrong as Tulsa inversed its record to just 2-10. A closer looks reveals a lot of narrow losses but also a major decline statistically on both sides of the ball.

Tulsa has decent returning experience and was universally projected for a season of improvement this season. How much Tulsa can improve remains to be seen. After being tested but winning 38-27 (-13) against FCS Central Arkansas in the opener, the Hurricane delivered a valiant comeback bid at Texas, losing by seven 28-21 (+21) despite falling behind 21-0 at halftime. Last week Tulsa had a big measuring stick game against Sun Belt power Arkansas State and came up short with a 29-20 (-1½) loss at home. Three turnovers were a factor as an interception return touchdown in the third quarter was a big blow ahead of Tulsa climbing back within seven points in the fourth quarter.

Luke Skipper was erratic as a freshman last season, starting six games including the upset win over Houston. He has been more accurate so far this season and already has more touchdown passes but he also has three interceptions after throwing only four in 127 attempts last season. His yards per attempt average is also down to 6.9 compared to 9.0 last season. Facing quality competition has been a factor and the challenge will be great this week with Temple featuring a reputation as a strong pass defense in recent years. Shamari Brooks leads Tulsa with 310 yards rushing so far this season as the Hurricane keep the ball on the ground almost twice as often as they throw.

The Tulsa defense has looked capable after allowing 37.5 points per game last season no foe has reached 30 against the Hurricane this season. Now 1-2 Tulsa is at a critical juncture in the season with three of the next four games on the road and the lone home game a difficult October game with South Florida. Tulsa isn’t likely to be favored in any of the next four games as bowl hopes could be extinguished without an upset along the way.

Skipper didn’t play in last season’s game as Tulsa saw a 7-0 lead a few minutes into the game disappear. Temple led 31-13 at the half and sealed the game with a punt return touchdown late in the third quarter in a 43-22 win. Temple had a 451-369 edge in yards with three Tulsa turnovers. Tulsa did rush for 5.8 yards per carry and 318 yards against a Temple defense that had good season numbers against the run as only Notre Dame ran for more yards against the Owls last season. Behind Chad President and Will Hefley Tulsa completed only six passes in the game while having two interceptions however. Nutile was sharp with one of his best games completing 20 of 28 passes with three touchdowns.

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Up next Temple has another opportunity vs. a major conference team visiting Boston College and the Owls have a very tricky AAC road schedule this season playing at Navy, at UCF, and at Houston as it will be critical to take care of business at home. With a limited margin for error the rest of the way after 1-2 starts for both programs, this game could feel like a postseason elimination game already in September.

Historical Trends: Temple has won the two recent meetings between these teams with wins in 2014 and 2017. Tulsa won both meetings in 1987 and 1988 for a split in four games both S/U and ATS. Tulsa is only 6-13 S/U on the road under Montgomery since 2015 but 14-5 ATS including 12-3 ATS as a road underdog and 5-1 ATS as an underdog of fewer than 10 points. With a pair of losses already this season Temple is just 3-5 S/U and 2-6 ATS at home under Collins since 2017 though going back to 2014 Temple is 17-10 S/U and 16-11 ATS in home games. Temple has failed to cover in five games in a row as a home favorite and is just 6-9-1 ATS as a single-digit home favorite going all the way back to 1998.

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Early AAC West Preview

Early AAC West Preview

The American was led by East champion Central Florida last season with a historic season but the West had quality performers as well. The AAC has produced the top Group of Five squad twice in the last three years and should remain the top threat outside the power five again in 2018.

The West division offers a deeper group of six teams than the East with five of six teams winning at least five games last season and all six teams with realistic bowl hopes this season. This could be a tight multi-team race with the division again capable of producing four bowl teams as it did in 2017. Here is an early look at the AAC West ahead of the 2018 season.

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Memphis: Memphis went 7-1 to win the West last season before giving UCF a great test in the title game but the Tigers lost its offensive stars from last season with Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller now in the NFL. Memphis won 10 games last season despite awful defensive numbers but Mike Norvell is back for his third season after getting some attention from major programs. Perhaps the biggest game of the AAC West season will be a second week game at Navy for Memphis as a win there will put the Tigers in the driver’s seat for the division title. Memphis should be favored to win three of four non-conference games and another 10-win campaign is very possible with a run at a perfect season not out of the question with both UCF and Houston visiting the Liberty Bowl and the biggest non-conference hurdle being against a beatable Missouri team in October. Replacing a prolific quarterback means things could go the other direction as well but 15 starters are back as this should remain a quality team.

Navy: The Midshipmen were in the AAC title game two years ago and Navy has a chance to get back in the picture after the program’s worst season since 2011. Ken Niumatalolo is 84-48 in 10 seasons at Navy and while a 6-6 regular season that featured a second straight loss to rival Army was a disappointment, a 49-7 bowl blowout over an ACC team was a great way to finish the season. Navy plays 13 regular season game with an opener at Hawai’i as it will be a grueling slate that features eight games away from home. Zack Abey is back in action after rushing for over 1,400 yards last season and Navy was a solid defensive team last year that soundly out-gained its competition despite the even record. Navy has most of the toughest conference games at home other than a trip to UCF but ultimately the travel will wear on this team as a few upset defeats could occur along the way. Navy won’t run the table but if Memphis comes back to the pack the Midshipmen will be right there in the West mix.

Houston: Houston has fallen in win count in back-to-back seasons and while there were mixed results in Major Applewhite’s first season with the Cougars the potential was there with several strong performances and mostly close losses other than an upset loss at Tulsa.  A pair of tough non-conference games will give Houston a chance to get back on the national map in September and D’Eriq King led the Cougars to productive results after taking over at quarterback. Houston lost five times as a favorite last season as the Cougars proved to be overvalued based on the success of the previous two seasons and this year more grounded expectations could make Houston a threat to surprise. There is top end talent on the defense and a bit more consistency can be expected in a year two of a major coaching change. Houston has to play on the road vs. the top two division threats and draws two of the top three teams from the East as the schedule hardly will be ideal for a rise to the division title.

Tulsa: After Tulsa won 10 games with some good fortune in 2016 the results reversed course last year with a 2-10 mark for the Golden Hurricane despite statistics more indicative of a close to .500 club. Tulsa lost six games by 10 or fewer points and really struggled to stop the run allowing 5.9 yards per rush and 265 rushing yards per game. This year’s team is a great bounce-back candidate as one of the AAC’s most experienced teams with proven performers on both sides of the ball. The schedule is difficult with Tulsa likely to be a hefty underdog in all six road games but there are winnable home games ahead and one upset could swing the Hurricane into being a bowl candidate. The passing game had a huge drop off last season but Philip Montgomery should be able to get his offense back closer to the strong scoring numbers of 2015 and 2016.

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SMU: Chad Morris showed improvement in all three seasons at SMU and it was enough to get him hired at Arkansas, leaving the program in shambles ahead of an embarrassing Frisco Bowl performance. Sonny Dykes led the team in that bowl game and while it was a scramble for the coaching staff the extra time with the players can’t hurt heading into the 2018 transition. Last year’s team caught some breaks with three very narrow conference wins to only finish 4-4 in league play and the non-conference schedule brings two impossible tests in September. Four of six home games in Dallas will be difficult as the best opportunities for wins could come on the road. Ultimately a decline in win count looks nearly certain in year one for Dykes at SMU even with one of the better returning quarterbacks and good experience back on defense.

Tulane: Willie Fritz has a Tulane team that will be capable of a few upsets this season. The Wave shocked Houston last season and came close in a few other AAC games with narrow losses vs. bowl teams South Florida and SMU. The option attack has required a transition but having a returning quarterback helps even if Dontrell Hillard now needs to be replaced in the backfield. Tulane has just three road wins in two years under Fritz and they will need to find a way to win on the road to have a chance at improving on last season’s 5-7 record. Drawing only one of the East powers helps the cause but the top two West threats take up two of the home dates in American play as the Wave look likely to fall just short of a bowl bid yet again.

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Early AAC East Preview

Early AAC East Preview

The American claimed a national title according to some last season as Central Florida completed a perfect 13-0 campaign, the only program in the nation to do so completing the run with a win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. The AAC has produced the top Group of Five squad twice in the last three years and should remain the top threat outside the power five again in 2018.

The East will again start with UCF but Temple and South Florida are viable threats that will challenge in the East race. An undefeated team in the division is again a possibility and there appears to be a massive chasm between the top three and the bottom three in this division. Here is an early look at the six AAC East squads.

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Central Florida: Scott Frost delivered an incredible season for the Knights but he will be on the sidelines in Lincoln this season with another former Big XII quarterback taking over in Orlando this season. Josh Heupel led Oklahoma to a national title on the field and he has honed his coaching skills at his alma mater and more recently at Missouri to make the leap to his first head coaching job. He inherits the top quarterback in the conference to ease the transition with McKenzie Milton posting huge numbers last season but there were significant personnel losses on both sides of the ball for the Knights in the offseason. The schedule has a few challenging spots as a repeat perfect season is unlikely but this will still be a team that can post a double-digit win count and shouldn’t be ruled out as a top Group of Five threat. The West draw adds two formidable AAC games to the schedule and two of the toughest tests of the conference season will be on the road. Non-conference tests vs. North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Florida Atlantic will determine whether or not UCF can stay in the national spotlight.

Temple: Temple has a team capable of knocking off anyone in the AAC as one of the better defenses in the conference should be even better in the second season behind Geoff Collins. The Owls rallied to win seven games last season including a bowl game but five of six road games in 2018 will be challenging tests. Frank Nutile was a productive quarterback that sparked the offense taking over midseason last year and another solid bowl season should be ahead in Philadelphia. Temple has a good chance to make a bit of noise with a pair of manageable power five non-conference games and they will have a bye week ahead of a huge run of games in November that will decide the fate of the division, with the Owls playing UCF, Houston, and USF in succession.

South Florida: Getting 10 wins in a first season at a new program is a great accomplishment but South Florida was favored in 11 of 12 games last season and expectations of a perfect season were there, ultimately outshined by the in-state neighbors to the northeast. Charlie Strong had a lot to work with last season and his job will be more challenging this season with the loss of top rusher and passer Quinton Flowers. Add several major departures on defense and other big contributors graduating from the offense and the Bulls aren’t likely to match the production of the past two seasons. The schedule is reasonable however and another 10-win season is very possible. The draw from the West is relatively favorable and the Bulls get to host UCF in the season finale after a wildly entertaining contest between those teams for the division title last season. South Florida might not be as good as last season but that doesn’t mean a decline in record is likely.

Cincinnati: It was expected that Cincinnati would perennially be in the conversation as one of the top Group of Five threats after four straight seasons of at least nine wins earlier this decade. The Bearcats are coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons however as Luke Fickell was unable to deliver positive returns in first season with the program. Cincinnati should have the pieces in place to improve defensively this season and the schedule overall is easier than last season’s slate pulling a pair of MAC teams while also getting two of the lesser teams from the West division. The offensive line looks like an area of weakness for this group which could trickle down to the rest of the offense even with veteran playmakers returning in key positions. Returning to the glory days of a decade ago isn’t likely for the Bearcats this season but this should be a borderline bowl team that can show slight improvement.

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Connecticut: Randy Edsall went 3-9 in his return to Connecticut after coaching five mediocre seasons at Maryland. The Huskies did upset two AAC foes last season but closed the season with five straight defeats. Another poor finish in the AAC East looks likely with a daunting set of home games in conference play but Connecticut will get to play two of the lesser West teams to help the cause. Add a pair of winnable non-conference games and Connecticut has a chance to show mild improvement this season. The defense was gutted however with very little experience back in action but the offense did make a big leap from the 2016 numbers last season. This will be a team that will welcome shootouts unlike during the Bob Diaco years as the Huskies will at least be a more interesting team to watch even if a bowl bid is not realistic this season.

East Carolina: The decision to fire Ruffin McNeill after the 2015 season was mostly panned and it looks even worse at this point after a pair of 3-9 seasons for East Carolina. Scottie Montgomery will face some heat this season with improvement expected but the schedule is quite challenging with two ACC squads on the schedule in September and the first five AAC games on the schedule coming against arguably the best five teams in the conference. Drawing Memphis and Houston from the West is less than ideal and the division road games are all very difficult. Realistically another 3-9 season looks likely considering this was a defense that allowed 45 points per game and 542 yards per game last season and will now need to break in a new quarterback.

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Free NCAA Pick Sunday

#856 Temple +3 over Houston 3:00 PM CT

Houston delivered a huge win over Cincinnati on Thursday night and that result could take a toll into a tricky road game Sunday afternoon. The Cougars haven’t played on the road since February 3 and that was a very narrow escape at UCF. Houston lost the previous two road games in AAC play and are only 5-4 S/U on the road for the season with the four-point win at UCF the only top 100 caliber result.

In January Houston beat Temple by three at home in a comeback result. The Owls were in the midst of a five-game slide and have played much better ball of late. Temple lost on Thursday at Wichita State despite playing a very good game and being right there to the end. The Owls have a home win over the Shockers and the overall schedule for Temple has been among the toughest slates in the nation, contributing to the inconsistent results.

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Temple has seven top 100 wins on the season including three top 20 wins while Houston has three losses away from home against teams outside of the nation’s top 50. After the biggest win of the season a letdown on the road is possible against a Temple team that has played the AAC’s toughest slate.

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Free NCAA Pick Sunday

#828 Tulane +2.5 over Temple 2:00 PM CT

The AAC is proving to be a high quality conference this season rating just behind the Big Ten and Pac-12 at this point in the season. Long-time NBA head coach Mike Dunleavy has made some positive strides in his second season with Tulane following a 6-win campaign a year ago. At 13-8 the season has already been a success and home wins over SMU and Houston have been very impressive in American play.

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Tulane beat Temple by 10 on the road in late December as well but the Wave have also delivered erratic performances with home losses to Connecticut and South Florida and barely escaping with an overtime win at East Carolina earlier this week. Tulane led nearly wire-to-wire in the first meeting using a strong inside scoring game to offset ugly 3-point shooting on both sides. Tulane had a big edge in defensive rebounds and had fewer turnovers.

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The 12-10 Owls have an interesting profile as early season wins over Clemson and Auburn are now top 20 caliber victories while Temple enters this game off a huge Thursday overtime win against AAC favorite Wichita State. The Owls have won five of the last seven to shake off a five-game slide from late December and early January. This is a terrible shooting team everywhere on the floor and the road results have been shaky with a 2-6 S/U record on the season in road tests. One of the wins came by two points at SMU for an impressive result but narrowly winning at Penn was the other road victory.

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Temple also has multiple home losses to teams that are outside the nation’s top 100 including the defeat against Tulane. Ultimately this looks like a spot to fade the Owls coming off marquee home wins over Connecticut and Wichita State even in a revenge spot. The Wave should find more success on offense in this matchup as one of the most efficient scoring teams in the conference and the edge for Temple on defense isn’t as significant as one might expect.

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Free NCAA Pick Thursday

#551 Central Florida +14 over Wichita State 8:00 PM CT

Playing through a much tougher conference schedule has taken a toll as Wichita State has lost back-to-back games in league play. The Shockers are still a threat to make national noise this season but they are now 1-4 against the best four teams they have faced. Wins over Marquette, Baylor, and Oklahoma State have dimmed a bit and the strongest win of the season was cancelled out last weekend in now splitting the season series with Houston.

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Most will expect a bounce-back tonight at home for Wichita State but this line reflects that with a grossly inflated price. UCF has competed well in a 13-6 start to the season with some of the top defensive numbers in the nation. UCF will slow the pace of this game to a halt making the double-digit number seem even more significant. The Knights have only lost once by more than 11 points this season and that came facing West Virginia on the second of back-to-back nights after a huge win over Nebraska.

This is a veteran Knights team that won three NIT games last season and while injuries have disrupted the roster the pace of play will keep UCF with a great shot to stay within this spread.

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