Thursday, November 04, 2010

Prediction Thursday- Southern Mississippi

Wading through the New York Post’s jubilant election coverage, we are faced with a not so jubilant detail- Southern Mississippi -9.5 over Tulane.

On paper, that is a pretty big number for a Golden Eagles outfit cursed with inconsistency, unable to defeat UAB- an opponent definitely in Tulane’s class. And for all the woe associated with Tulane blowing a 14-point lead to SMU via 28 unanswered second half points, some would point out that SMU really had to work, depend on a crazy, atypical run of play in the second half, to get a mere one score plus cover.

I dunno. After weeks of praising Tulane’s improvement, I’m a little down. The bloom of improvement, the glow of Tulane’s upset win at Rutgers, is dissipating. Heck, I’ve got readers chiding me for missing “easy” selections against Tulane.

The knock on Southern Mississippi is the aforementioned inconsistency- which isn’t exactly fair. They’ve been juggling injuries, but they seem to have got the C-USA offense cranked up: 35 points four weeks in a row, 40 counting OT. Unlike last year, QB Austin Davis isn’t great. But we’ve seen what a competent, low turnover ball distributor can do given a chance to throw 35 times a game: score bunches. Injuries aside, as long as Davis is pitching, USM figures to be a real handful- certainly capable of scoring the type of points needed to cover this sort of number.

No, the inconsistency is on the defense- where they sort of have a Tulane vibe to them: some good players, some issues. Some Saturdays they hang in gamely (particularly versus the run), other Saturdays it is an avalanche. I wrote about this a few weeks back versus Tulsa:
You have to think about C-USA a little different. Defenses in the NFL tend to fail in stages- sort of a linear progression from good-to-okay-to-bad. C-USA defenses tend to gap down, a geometric reaction versus arithmetic- like a bridge sagging, sagging, sagging, then utter failure. I tend to think that stems from a talent gap factor. There is an ability step down in the NFL from star to starter to reserve. But that gap is miniscule to the step down in C-USA. You can have a pro prospect one place, and a guy who might not start for Harvard at another. In the NFL you might occasionally have one or two defenders who totally can’t handle their assignments. In C-USA, you routinely have three or four guys who are just over matched.
To me, here is the selection. Southern Mississippi figures to score here, they can hurt even a plus C-USA defensive outfit. But can Tulane keep up; can it get the USM defense to that point where the critical failure happens? It is a critical point because in games where USM’s defense is not “tested to failure”, they tend to hammer the hapless victims (the exception being a narrow victory over Louisiana Tech).

I’m doubtful for three reasons. First, for some reason, the Tulane offense has decided to take the ball out of Ryan Griffin’s hands (particularly on first and second downs) and give to Darkwa and company. Say what you want about my theories about run/pass ratios in C-USA, but this is an incontrovertible fact: Tulane has struggled in the Toledo regime to turn good rushing totals into points. And that is problematic on a Saturday where Tulane figures to need five TDs just to sort of be in it.

Second, Tulane is still sort of a 50-50 proposition to just play horrid in some typical secondary issue of game performance: turnovers, kick returns or simply stop playing pass defense for a quarter. There is seemingly more talent on the Tulane roster (ed. note: Tulane was a 21.5 'dog last year)- but odd gaps in performance routinely surface. I can’t figure out, construct a formula for which week exactly, but sometimes a huge part of the game plan goes horrible wrong. So we have a weekly 50-50 chance that Tulane won’t play competently enough in some facet of the game to even have chance: back-to-back-to back fumbles versus Army, first quarter woes, etc.

Third, even if they do play competently and have a good run/pass mix, Tulane’s offense simply might not be good enough anyway to break the USM defense.

I’m not optimistic here. Tulane could play well on offense and, due to too much rushing or lack of skill position talent at wide receiver(s), not put the requisite pressure on Southern Mississippi to get the Golden Eagles to collapse. Tulane can very likely play well on offense here: Darkwa could go for 150 yards, Griffin put up 14-for-20, 150 yards, 0 INTs.... and score 17 points Saturday. And there is a goodly chance that Tulane just goes and makes one of their every other game "messes".

So I like the simple, routine expression of big number offense featured by USM- and not the what do we have this week nature of Tulane. Southern Mississippi -9.5 over Tulane is the pick.

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