Mouth of the Rat Bowl
Boca Raton Bowl: Memphis vs Western Kentucky
I think I might be betting on every single team who had their head coach poached this Bowl season. Logically these coaches were poached because their teams played well, so we're backing good teams, and statistics have shown that teams losing their head coach don't suffer for it in their Bowl Games.
The high flying Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky battle the tested Tigers of Memphis in the translated to English Mouth of the Rat Bowl.
Key Matchup #1: WKU's pass offense vs. MEM's pass defense.
WKU faced a pretty soft schedule of pass defenses this year, shredding most of them like a fine mozzarella. Only two of those pass defenses were better than Memphis' 24th ranked unit, Alabama (#2) and Vanderbilt (#22). WKU did decently against them, so I expect WKU to have at least a decent day through the air. Looking at Memphis' pass defense scores for the season, there's a pretty solid correlation, 67%, between their scores and the rank of the pass offenses they played. This means that the better the pass offense that Memphis faced, the worse their pass defense did, which further bolsters WKU's chance for a good day passing the ball with their #8 ranked pass offense.
Key Matchup #2: MEM's run offense vs. WKU's run defense.
Memphis had a pretty balanced offense this year, running on 52% of their plays (FBS median is 55%). Versus a near dead average strength of schedule ranking of run and pass defenses faced, MEM has my 63rd ranked run offense and 30th ranked pass offense. I'll just briefly say that Memphis should also have a decent day throwing the ball. WKU also has a pretty strong correlation between their pass defense scores and pass offenses faced at 62%. WKU's pass defense was pretty strong in the second half of the season in conference play, but that's because outside of Louisiana Tech, every other pass offense they faced was below average. Still, the improvement was drastic enough to suggest that this team is playing better pass defense now than the were earlier in the season, regardless of the opponent. The same could be said for Memphis' pass offense as well, they played better down the stretch versus conference opponents, though their conference schedule was clearly tougher than WKU's. Okay, that wasn't exactly a brief note on MEM's passing matchup, lol.
Let's get back to the key matchup -- how well will MEM be able to run the ball? The answer: below average. WKU is known for the potent offense, but did you know that in addition to having my 8th ranked pass offense they also have my 8th ranked run defense? I bet you didn't! In the 2nd week of the season WKU played a road game at Alabama, where they held Alabama to their lowest yard per carry average of the season of just 3.2, a full yard less per carry than their next lowest of 4.2 against LSU. Impressive. Memphis does have a negative correlation of -44% of run offense scores versus run defenses faced, so they shouldn't get shut down on the ground.
The Weakest Unit on the Field this Game Will Be...Memphis' run defense.
Memphis' run defense hasn't been terrible, but it's been below average ranked 77th. They've also had a pretty correlation of 67% with their run defense scores, so I expect WKU's 45th ranked run offense to have a pretty good game.
All in all, Western Kentucky should have the higher yards per pass average, but it is their matchups in the run game that should power them to a double digits win. One of their best defenders, LB T.J. McCollum is expected to miss, but even applying some deductions to the defensive projections I still have Western Kentucky favored by almost 12. With Western Kentucky's excellent run defense not allowing Memphis to prolong every drive where they have short third downs, and with Western Kentucky's run offense controlling the clock with the lead in the 2nd half, I like the Under here as well. Western Kentucky's gave have averaged 38.8 1st half points, but just 28.8 in the 2nd half, as they do, as mentioned, tend to run the ball and the clock in the 2nd half while still playing pretty good defense.
Final Score projection: Memphis 28 -- Western Kentucky 42