Date/Time: October 2, 7:00 p.m. ET
Spread: Houston -2.5
With big expectations entering the season, the UCF Golden Knights and the Houston Cougars are a combined 3-4 with Thursday night’s game to open up conference play for both teams. UCF lost Blake Bortles to the NFL and it has shown as the Knights have scored just 25 points per game. The Houston offense has not fallen much from last year’s pace, but a seven-point output in the opener against UTSA looms large in all of their statistical categories. The slate is effectively wiped clean for both teams now with American Athletic Conference play beginning. The Cougars are a 2.5-point favorite.
A drop-off was expected from UCF. The Knights were going from a rare first-round draft pick to a quarterback with 14 career pass attempts at the collegiate level. While the loss of Bortles was undoubtedly huge, it’s the loss of Storm Johnson that may have had the biggest impact. After averaging 160 yards per game on the ground in 2013, the Knights have rushed for just 94.3 yards per game this season. That ranks 117th out of 128 FBS teams. Their 2.8 yards per carry is 1.6 yards fewer per carry than last season.
In UCF’s defense, they have taken on two power five conference opponents with a game against Penn State in Dublin, Ireland and also faced off against Missouri. The Knights got on track with a blowout win over Bethune-Cookman and perception may be down a bit on them given the losses, both on and off the field. Bettors are going to see UCF at 1-2 and assume they’ve taken a major step back without Bortles and Johnson. While that’s the case, Houston is more on their talent level.
Speaking of perception, the Houston Cougars aren’t the same team that they used to be. Everybody expects a run-and-gun, light up the scoreboard team. The Cougars averaged a 26-16 score in conference play last season and exceeded 35 points in four of their 13 games. There’s a lot more control in this offense than there used to be under Kevin Sumlin. The Cougars have hung a couple of 47s on UNLV and Grambling State, with two lesser offensive performances against BYU and UTSA. This offense returned its quarterback and the majority of its skill players, so the slow start has been surprising to most.
Regression was expected from Houston because of their +25 turnover margin last season. The defense returned 10 starters from last season’s team and has held their opponents to 18.5 points per game. The Cougars defense gave up 523 yards to BYU as it was overmatched at the point of attack, but they have had success against the other teams they have faced. Houston certainly throws quite a bit, but Tony Levine has tried to build a more balanced team and that includes the defense. He inherited a defense that allowed 36 points per game in his first season and they only gave up 21.8 last season.
Last season’s UCF/Houston matchup ended in a 19-14 Knights win with less than 800 total yards of offense. George O’Leary has a 69-59-1 ATS mark at the helm of the Knights. As a road dog, the Knights are 19-16 ATS. Tony Levine is 17-12 ATS with the Cougars and 7-5 laying chalk at home.
Free College Football Pick: UCF Golden Knights
UCF has already spent two weekends idle with a bye following the Dublin game and a bye this past weekend. They’re plenty fresh and the defense is the strength of this team. Perception is down on the Knights because of how the season has started and the big names that they have lost. The Knights are taking on a team with much more comparable talent than Penn State and Missouri and it should show in this game.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.