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Free NCAA Pick Saturday

#626 Kent State -7 over Ohio 12:00 PM CT

Ohio has a top 100 road win at St. Bonaventure but that win was back on November 5. In MAC play the Bobcats are 1-4 on the road with only a two-point win at Eastern Michigan in a game that featured a big comeback and a massive free throw edge. Ohio enters this game off back-to-back wins but both games were at home against lesser MAC foes. Now back on the road the Bobcats could struggle having gone 4-7 through one of the weakest schedules in the MAC so far. Kent State is only 6-5 in MAC play but grades as a far better offensive performer through a difficult conference schedule so far. The Flashes are coming off back-to-back narrow losses and all five MAC defeats have come by single-digit margins as this team could easily have a stronger record. Kent State is 10-2 at home this season and is one of the best shooting teams in the conference, particularly from long range connecting at nearly 37 percent from 3-point range. The Flashes are also the best 2-point defense in the MAC as there should be clear advantages for the home team in this contest. Kent State has a veteran roster that is one of the most experienced teams in the nation and the Flashes won both meetings last season while winning nine of the past 12 in this series. Ohio last won at Kent State in 2014 and home court should hold again.

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MAC Championship Preview

MAC CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW

Championship weekend kicks off in Detroit with the MAC Championship Game Friday night in Detroit. Northern Illinois has now represented the West in seven of the last nine title games while this is just the second appearance for Buffalo. Here is a look at Friday’s closely-lined championship game in the MAC.

 

Match-up: Northern Illinois Huskies at Buffalo Bulls  

Venue: At Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan

Time/TV: Friday, November 30, 7:00 PM ET, ESPN2

Line: Buffalo -3, Over/Under 49

Last Meeting: 2017, at Northern Illinois (-8) 14, Buffalo 13

 

Buffalo has been the prominent MAC team all season since starting the year 4-0 with notable wins at Temple and at Rutgers. The Bulls started 6-0 in conference play to take a commanding lead in the East but slipped up at Ohio in mid-November before clinching the division title last weekend. At 10-2, it has been the best season record-wise in Buffalo history already and the Bulls will have two more opportunities to add to the win count.

 

This if the fourth season for Lance Leipold who won six Division III championships in eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater and figures to be a candidate to be interviewed for major conference positions in the near future. Buffalo went 5-7 and 2-10 in his first two seasons before reaching 6-6 last year without getting a bowl invite.

 

Rod Carey took over Northern Illinois for the Orange Bowl at the end of the 2012 season after Dave Doeren was hired at NC State. In six-plus seasons he is 51-29 with the Huskies finishing in the top three in the West every season while this will be his fourth MAC title game, going 1-2 in three straight appearances from 2013 to 2015. A bowl win has eluded Carey, winless in five tries but the program has been a consistent force in the conference.  

 

The Dollar General Bowl in Mobile vs. a Sun Belt team has been the typical landing spot for the MAC Champion though there are not true ranked bowl tie-ins for the MAC. The Camellia, Famous Idaho Potato, Frisco, and Bahamas Bowls are also tied to the MAC with the conference featuring seven bowl-eligible teams including six that are at least 7-5 this year.

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West champion Northern Illinois is just 7-5 but the Huskies lost non-conference games to Iowa, Utah, and Florida State, while beating BYU for one of the nation’s most difficult non-conference schedules. The Huskies held this spot despite losing its final two MAC games to slide to 6-2 in league play, falling in single-score games hosting Miami and at Western Michigan in the final two weeks.

 

Northern Illinois has the top scoring defense in the MAC, allowing just 19.8 points per game while Buffalo was one of the conference’s top offensive teams, posting 35.5 points per game in conference play. These teams didn’t play in the regular season this year but Buffalo did face Eastern Michigan and Toledo in the crossover games for a fairly difficult schedule. Northern Illinois drew Ohio and Miami as both teams faced the second and third place teams from the opposing divisions.

 

Experienced mobile quarterbacks are on both sides with sophomore Marcus Childers playing significantly last season as a freshman for Northern Illinois. He posted worse numbers across the board this season however despite a similar record for the Huskies. Junior Tyree Jackson threw nearly twice as many touchdown passes this season compared with last season for Buffalo but he also saw major declines in most of his passing numbers compared with last season. At 6’7” Jackson is a difficult matchup for any defense but the Huskies have had great defensive numbers this season.

 

Only Clemson is allowing fewer yards per carry than Northern Illinois at just 2.6 yards per rush attempt on the season. The Huskies were only out-gained on the ground three times this season and never in MAC play with only Iowa, Florida State, and BYU holding a ground edge in this matchup while in six of eight MAC games Northern Illinois had a rushing edge of at least 96 yards.

 

Dominating the ground game has been the key to beating Buffalo this season as in the team’s two losses they had a major rushing deficit. In September Army out-gained Buffalo by 178 rushing yards and won 42-13 in Buffalo while in mid-November Ohio out-rushed Buffalo by 280 yards in a 52-17 result that prevented the Bulls from clinching the division at the time.

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Despite the 6-2 record Northern Illinois played almost exclusively close games in MAC play with seven of eight games decided by 10 or fewer points in either direction. The only lopsided result was a home win over 2017 MAC Champion Toledo but that game featured nearly identical production but a few big turnovers and special teams plays tilting the scales to the Huskies. Northern Illinois actually has a negative scoring differential on the season despite being 7-5, though they outscored MAC foes by an average of 5.3 points per game.

 

Buffalo outscored foes by an average of 11.0 points per game overall this season and 10.9 points per game in MAC play. Buffalo scored at least 31 points in nine of ten wins this season while five of seven wins for Northern Illinois came with 26 or fewer points scored by the Huskies as these teams have generally been in contrasting types of contests and whoever dictates the pace could have the advantage.

 

2017 Meeting: In mid-October Northern Illinois visited Buffalo and took 14-3 lead with a pair of early second quarter touchdown drives led by Marcus Childers who ran for the first score and threw for the second. Buffalo would answer with 10 points before halftime including getting a field goal following a fumble for a one-point game at the break, 14-13. Northern Illinois had 1st-and-goal early in third quarter before a Childers fumble and on the next possession the Huskies missed on a 43-yard field goal. Buffalo got zero points after an 81-yard drive early in the fourth quarter with a missed field goal that could have taken the lead and a few minutes later an interception in Huskies territory also cost the Bulls a chance to get in front. Northern Illinois missed another field goal in the final minutes as the 14-13 edge held after a scoreless second half filled with missed opportunities.

 

Series History: Northern Illinois is 10-0 S/U in this series since Buffalo joined the FBS ranks with the Huskies 7-3 ATS. Northern Illinois has been favored by at least seven points in every previous meeting as this will be the first time Buffalo has been favored in this series and in eight of the previous 10 meetings Northern Illinois has been favored by 14 or more points.

 

MAC Championship History: The MAC Championship has been won by the West representative in eight of the last 12 seasons and Northern Illinois has been six of the previous eight MAC championships, winning the title in 2011, 2012, and 2014, with the last title under current head coach Rod Carey.  

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Free NCAA Pick Saturday

#393 Bowling Green +7 over Akron 2:30 PM CT

Bowling Green is just 2-8 this season but two of the past three losses have come by just seven points each. The Falcons played a difficult non-conference schedule and the MAC West draw featured two of the better teams in that division. This is the road finale for the Falcons after a win at Central Michigan last week, dominating with a 320-166 yardage edge. Jarret Doege has been a productive quarterback with 24 touchdown throws while the team got running back Andrew Clair back from injury last week with the sophomore posting 5.8 yards per carry the past two seasons.

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Akron was in the MAC Championship last season and beat Northwestern earlier this season. The Zips are on a 2-5 run since however and the offense has really struggled since having to turn to Alex Ramart at quarterback. Kato Nelson missed the last game and is a question mark this week for Akron and Ramart has one of the worst season lines one will ever see, 28 percent completions, 1.9 yards per attempt, one touchdown, and six interceptions.

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Akron is a lousy rushing team posting 3.2 yards per carry and Nelson was a big piece of that ground production. Akron is technically alive in the bowl hunt at 4-5 but they will be heavy road underdogs the next two weeks as this home finale isn’t likely to bring great fanfare. The three FBS wins for Akron this season have come by five, one, and seven points and last season Akron had a comeback win at Bowling Green despite getting out-gained with the Falcons committing four turnovers, including a 4th quarter interception returned for a touchdown.

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Point Train Free Pick

#128 Central Michigan -3 over Ball State 2:00 PM CT

This is a desperation spot for Central Michigan sitting at 1-5 overall and 0-2 in MAC play with the program looking for a fifth straight bowl appearance. The schedule has been difficult facing three power conference teams and two teams that might well wind up meeting in the MAC Championship. Four of five losses have come by 15 or fewer points including road games at Kentucky and at Michigan State. Central Michigan dominated this matchup last season with a 56-9 win in Muncie last October with a 455-208 yardage edge.

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Ball State was an injury-depleted squad in that game as the Cardinals are a more formidable threat this season as the line suggests, with Central Michigan priced similarly on the road last season. Ball State has two wins but they came against FCS Central Connecticut State and a Kent State team that appears likely to finish at the bottom the MAC. Four of six games for Ball State have come at home and in two road games the Cardinals have posted just 26 points combined. Last week’s eight-point loss at Northern Illinois featured the Cardinals trailing by 15 late in the third quarter before a late charge and Central Michigan did a much better job in that same matchup holding the Huskies to a only 284 yards likewise in an eight-point loss though that was in Dekalb while Ball State played at home last week.

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Interceptions have been a problem for Central Michigan with 12 in six games between Tony Poljan and Tommy Lazzaro with a split of playing time last week for the quarterbacks as a -7 turnover differential on the season has been a key reason the Chippewas have fallen short in close games including a 4-1 turnover deficit last week hosting Buffalo in an otherwise competitive game. John Bonamego has a winning home record every season since taking over Mt. Pleasant with a 12-7 S/U home record. Ball State has lost 10 road games in a row S/U while posting only two S/U MAC road wins since 2015.

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Early MAC West Preview

Early MAC West Preview

The MAC produced the top Group of Five squad two years ago before the conference had a less distinguished campaign in 2017 led by Toledo’s league title. The Rockets along with the rest of the MAC other than Ohio had a disappointing bowl season however.

All six MAC West teams can make a case for being in the division race with coaching stability at all six programs but likely new quarterbacks at most programs as the top returning signal callers in the conference are all on the East side. This has been a multi-team race the past few years and it should again be a competitive field although the East might be gaining ground in the overall MAC picture. Here is an early look at the six MAC West programs looking ahead to the 2018 season.

Northern Illinois: The Huskies were a near automatic choice to win the MAC West much of the last decade and after a down 2016 season Northern Illinois returned to the postseason last year. Rod Carey enters year six in DeKalb with good returning experience and a stellar track record at home. A very tough non-conference schedule could leave the postseason margin for error quite thin for the Huskies but Marcus Childers is back at quarterback and the run defense was exceptional last season. The schedule is difficult with three of the better East teams on the schedule while the four home dates in MAC play will all come against quality teams. Northern Illinois had some good fortune last season with a number of narrow wins and while they are likely the top threat in the West, this isn’t going to be a runaway race.

Western Michigan: Tim Lester stepped into a tough situation with Western Michigan taking over for P.J. Fleck after an undefeated season and a Cotton Bowl appearance. His 2017 Broncos went 6-6 but didn’t get a bowl invite and the team was fortunate with a pair of overtime victories in league play. The statistics for the Broncos were favorable despite the even record as Western Michigan played USC and Michigan State while also facing a very difficult set of road games in MAC play. The Broncos have the ability to rise to the top this season with one of the few returning quarterbacks in the West and the opportunity to host the toughest MAC games. Western Michigan is +26 in turnovers the past two seasons for some good fortune however but in a muddled race where 6-2 is probably enough to win this division, the Broncos are a serious contender to get back on top.

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Toledo: The Rockets won 11 games last season and more importantly retained Jason Candle as head coach. Replacing all-time passing leader Logan Woodside will be a tough task however for Toledo in 2018. There is a strong receiving corps to work with and Toledo has a preferable draw from the MAC East but they will need to beat the other West threats on the road to repeat as the division champion. Toledo won with a mediocre defense the past two seasons but most of the top players from last year’s defense are gone as the Rockets will likely play in shootouts this season with an unproven quarterback. Candle is 14-3 in MAC games and Toledo has won at least five MAC games in eight straight seasons as they remain a chief threat.

Eastern Michigan: It has taken time but Chris Creighton has restored the Eastern Michigan program to a respectable level. This was a much better team than the 5-7 record indicated last season as the Eagles lost three overtime games and were competitive in every defeat. The Eagles will break in a new quarterback but the East draw offers promise relative to their peers in the West and Toledo and NIU both have to visit Ypsilanti. Eastern Michigan will face four road games in a five-week stretch early in the year but late season momentum is likely and this defense has a lot of potential after allowing only 23 points per game last season. A rise to the top isn’t out of the question for the Eagles hinging on the outcomes of three huge games in succession early in the conference season.

Ball State: The Cardinals nearly beat Illinois, beat UAB, and then nearly beat Western Kentucky last September. An incredible amount of injuries piled up as the Cardinals eventually went through four quarterbacks and a disastrous 0-8 MAC season followed a very respectable non-conference first month. This will be one of the most experienced teams in the conference with quarterback Riley Neal and running back James Gilbert back from injuries. This was a team poised for a 2017 breakthrough before the injuries and Mike Neu has an opportunity to lead major improvement in his third season. The non-conference draw is difficult and three of the four home dates will be against division heavyweights while also pulling Ohio and Miami from the East. The schedule could take a toll but last season’s numbers should be thrown out the window in evaluating this team as a competitive season should be ahead.

Central Michigan: John Bonamego was a surprise hire in Mt. Pleasant but he has led the Chippewas to three straight bowl seasons. Central Michigan won the final five regular season games last season to finish 6-2 in MAC play but this looks like the least experienced team in the conference with only running back Jonathan Ward a notable returnee for the offense. All four MAC road games are of the difficult variety but Central Michigan avoids Ohio and Miami from the East draw for a preferable league slate. Bonamego seems to get the most out of his players and the gap between the top and bottom of this division doesn’t look significant.

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Early MAC East Preview

Early MAC East Preview

The MAC produced the top Group of Five squad two years ago before the conference had a less distinguished campaign in 2017 led by Toledo’s league title. The Rockets along with the rest of the MAC other than Ohio had a disappointing bowl season however.

The MAC frequently deals with coaching turnover but 11 of 12 head coaches from last season return as with some stability league-wide the conference could deliver notable performances to get back on the map in 2018. Several returning quarterbacks are also back in action as the East could close the recent gap with the West this season. Here is a look at the six schools fighting for MAC East supremacy in 2018.

Ohio: Frank Solich is the dean of the MAC entering season #14 in Athens and the Bobcats turned in a 41-6 bowl blowout for the lone postseason victory for the conference last season. Ohio has turned in three straight winning seasons but fell short of the division title last season after losing narrowly in the final two regular season games on the road. Ohio has posted a winning home record in nine straight seasons and the biggest tests in the MAC East should be at home this season with the Bobcats likely favored to go 6-0 at Peden Stadium. The road slate features some challenges with two of the better West squads on the schedule as well as playing up in two non-conference tests in September. The offense should be the strength of the team after averaging 39 points per game last season and featuring returning talent at every position but a Bobcats program known for steady defense under Solich could step backwards this season to open up the division race.

Buffalo: The Bulls improved by four wins last season to reach 6-6 but despite winning the final three games of the season to become bowl eligible, Buffalo did not get an invitation. Buffalo has three difficult non-conference games in September as making a bowl breakthrough won’t be easy in 2018. Tyree Jackson has a chance to be one of the top quarterbacks in the conference while the top four rushers from last season return for Lance Leipold’s fourth season with the program. The defense isn’t likely to be among the top MAC units and Buffalo has a tough MAC West draw along with facing Ohio on the road late in the season. Buffalo is a threat in this race with a quality offensive line and this was a team that didn’t lose a single game by more than 10 points last season, including a pair of one-point losses in MAC play plus a seven-overtime loss vs. Western Michigan.  The Bulls weren’t far away from a big breakthrough last season and should be considered a MAC contender.

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Miami, OH: The Redhawks finished the 2016 season with six straight wins to go from 0-6 into a bowl game where they almost upset Mississippi State. Expectations were high to start last season but Miami suffered a disappointing 5-7 season despite outscoring and out-gaining its opposition. Quarterback Gus Ragland missed some time last season and could be one of the top players in the conference if he can complete an entire season after missing a lot of games the past two years. Miami has one of the most experienced teams in the conference and the Redhawks will get to host Ohio in conference play for a big opportunity to move up. The road slate in the MAC is challenging including a game at Northern Illinois while also drawing Western Michigan from the West for one of the more challenging MAC schedules overall. Add in four difficult non-conference games and Miami isn’t a lock for the postseason even if it won’t be a surprise if the Redhawks are among the top division finishers.

Akron: The Zips delivered a surprise division title last season with a pair of late season wins over the top contenders in the division. A blowout bowl loss followed up a double-digit defeat in the MAC title game however as Akron felt like an overachiever reaching seven wins. On the season Akron was soundly defeated in the scoring and yardage statistics although a tough non-conference schedule was a significant factor. Akron won three MAC games by three or fewer points and chances are a few results will flip in 2018. Akron draws three of the best teams from the MAC West while taking on seven road games overall in the 2018 schedule. The defense has a chance to improve but a lot of the production from last season’s offense has departed and a decline in wins for Terry Bowden’s seventh season with the Zips looks likely.

Bowling Green: The Falcons have gone from three straight MAC title game appearances to picking up only five MAC wins the past two seasons combined. Pressure could be elevated for Mike Jinks in his third season at Bowling Green and this year’s roster has a chance to show improvement. Bowling Green had a number of narrow defeats last season but a defense that surrendered 507 yards per game must make major strides to get the Falcons back on the MAC radar. Carl Pelini comes in as a high profile defensive coordinator and he has some experience to work with but the offense still might be a year away from regaining its past production levels from earlier in the decade. Bowling Green does have a few favorable home opportunities after going winless in five home dates last season but three power conference non-conference tests will take a toll on the overall numbers.

Kent State: The only coaching change in the MAC comes at Kent State after five straight losing seasons, Sean Lewis takes over for Paul Haynes. Injuries have taken a toll on this program in recent seasons but this program will get a boost with Lewis being a long-time assistant to Dino Babers who had a lot of success in the MAC at Bowling Green. This will be a major scheme transition but a few notable transfers and decent returning experience could help the cause though the schedule is a beast with seven road games and some of the top MAC teams visiting Kent as there are few clear opportunities for wins ahead.

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Free NCAA Pick Tuesday

#537 Northern Illinois +12.5 over Toledo 6:00 PM CT

Toledo leads the MAC West with an 8-2 league record but the Rockets have faced one of the lighter schedules in MAC play and they have lost by double-digits in both defeats against two of the only quality teams they have faced in conference play. Toledo has a good offensive team and is one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the nation but the defense has struggled.

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Toledo has just three home wins all season by more than 13 points and the Rockets have lost S/U three times at home this season. Northern Illinois has gone just 10-13 with a 3-7 mark in MAC play but most games have been competitive while having to face six of the last nine conference games on the road for a tough early season path in the conference. The Huskies won at Toledo last season and lost the home meeting in overtime as this has been a tight series in recent meetings.

Northern Illinois has a very low turnover rate while shooting effectively in the paint and from the free throw line as this is a team that takes very few 3-point shots. A slower tempo for the Huskies can help to magnify this spread and the Rockets create turnovers at one of the lowest rates in the nation as there are not likely to be many extra opportunities in this matchup. The recent loss of Missouri transfer Willie Jackson can’t be understated as while he didn’t play a great deal of minutes he was an efficient contributor for the Rockets.

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MAC Championship Notes

MAC CHAMPIONSHIP

Match-up: Akron Zips at Toledo Rockets

Venue: At Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan

Time/TV: Saturday, December 2, 12:00 PM ET, ESPN

Line: Toledo -21½, Over/Under 57½

Last Meeting: October 21, 2017 at Toledo (-15) 48-21

Toledo has been one of the better teams in the MAC for much of the last decade but the Rockets haven’t been to the MAC Championship since winning the 2004 title. The Rockets are 10-2 with only one MAC loss and a loss to highly rated Miami, FL in the non-conference schedule. Senior quarterback Logan Woodside has 24 touchdown passes with just three interceptions to finish fourth nationally in quarterback rating.

Playing as the biggest favorite of championship weekend, run defense might be the biggest weakness for Toledo, allowing 170.8 rushing yards per game on 4.7 yards per carry. Akron isn’t a great threat to exploit that weakness as the Zips were out-rushed in all 11 FBS games this season but the Zips have some momentum with a late season upset of Ohio to move up in the MAC East standings, clinching this spot with a win over rival Kent State last week.

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Terry Bowden is in his sixth season at Akron with now five straight seasons of finishing at least 5-7 after the program went 1-11 in three consecutive seasons including Bowden’s first with the program in 2012. Akron was 5-3 last season before losing the final four games to miss a bowl bid as this has been a redemptive campaign. Akron senior quarterback Thomas Woodson hasn’t played the past three games after being suspended for a violation of team rules. Freshman Kato Nelson has played well since taking over and while Bowden has said that Woodson is available he hasn’t made it clear what the plan will be as they look for an upset.

2017 Meeting: Toledo led 21-0 after the first quarter and coasted to a 48-21 win with a 626-333 yardage edge. The Rockets only lined up for 3rd down nine times and converted six times to move the ball with ease throughout the game. Toledo had 11 penalties for 104 yards compared to none for Akron as that could be an area of emphasis for second year head coach Jason Candle who is now 19-6 in two seasons and could get some calls from athletic directors around the country in the coming weeks.

Series History: Toledo has won nine of 12 meetings S/U since 1992 though going just 2-3 ATS since 2008. This season and last season the result was nearly identical with a 48-17 win at Akron last season and a 48-21 home victory for the Rockets in October. Akron’s last win in the series came in 2013 at home wining 31-29 (+11) and this is set to be the highest spread ever in the series.

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Free NCAA Pick Friday

#124 Buffalo +6.5 over Ohio 12:00 PM CT

The Bulls have won back-to-back games to reach 5-6 with a bowl bid possible with a win in this finale. Ohio is a formidable team but this is a tough spot for the Bobcats as they surrendered the top spot in the MAC East with last week’s loss to Akron and then watched the Zips lock up the division title Tuesday night. Ohio won 34-10 last season but Buffalo won in a blowout two years ago in the last home meeting.

Much more is at stake for the Bulls at home while a demoralized Bobcats team could arrive in chilly Buffalo where the Bulls are 18-10 ATS at home since 2013. The host has won seven in a row in this series and the yardage in last season’s game was nearly even with the Bulls out-rushing Ohio 156-105. Both teams defend the run effectively and the yards-per-play numbers are nearly identical despite Ohio being given road favorite status.

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Ohio was -15 net yards in the three road wins they have with those wins all coming against losing teams and it has been over a month since Ohio won a road game. Buffalo beat Florida Atlantic at home in September and the home losses this season came by one-point against Northern Illinois and in multiple overtimes against Western Michigan with both of those teams rating stronger than Ohio.

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Free NCAA Pick Tuesday

#101 Kent State +15 over Akron 6:00 PM CT

The Zips stunned Ohio last week even with Thomas Woodson suspended to take the lead in the MAC East and Akron will head to Detroit for the MAC Championship with a win this week. Backup quarterback Kato Nelson had a career performance last week that will be hard to replicate, throwing for four touchdowns and more than 300 yards. The Zips have to face their fierce rival Kent State to win the division title however.

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The Flashes have had a miserable season but actually played a good game last week against Central Michigan despite a misleading 19-point loss. Kent State had a 494-450 yardage edge and a 25-16 first down edge in that game. Despite being a division leader at 5-2 Akron has a scoring differential of only +7 in MAC games, 104 points worse than Ohio’s differential as last week’s win was a significant upset that will be difficult to back up.

The underdog has had some success in this series going 9-4-1 ATS since 2003 and this will be one of the highest lines ever in this matchup. This looks like a mismatch but the statistics can be thrown out the window in a season-finale rivalry matchup and the pressure is squarely on Akron looking to get to the MAC title game for the first time since 2005 as Kent State should have some trickery planned to do anything possible to play spoiler.

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Check out guaranteed college basketball holiday tournament picks for Tuesday night from Nelly’s, Bobby Dalton, and B.E.S.T. Also expect to see football releases for Thursday as early as Wednesday afternoon.