TCU/Utah?Big Game or Grand Illusion?

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK
 
RIDICULOUSLY EASY SCHEDULES MAKE IT DIFFICULT TO JUDGE TCU AND UTAH

The BCS rankings make it seem like one of the biggest games of the entire season...maybe even the entire decade! The winner of today's TCU/Utah game will be poised to jump into the top two of the BCS standings between now and the end of the season if Oregon or Auburn lose, and if Boise State fails to win out by huge margins every single time.  A mid-major reaching the ultimate championship game truly would be one of the biggest stories of the decade, if not all time.

Strength of schedule is so dicey for TCU, Utah, and Boise that this game by itself serves as a virtual "mid major tie-breaker" for the winner. Boise won't have defeated anybody as good as TCU or Utah on its slate...and today's winner obviously will have vanquished the other.

The question we have to ask now is...is TCU/Utah really a big game, or is it just a grand illusion perpetuated by everyone's inability to judge national championship quality in such a small sample size?

We talked about Boise State yesterday in our preview of the Hawaii/Boise State game. Because of publication deadlines, that was written before Virginia Tech/Georgia Tech on Thursday Night. Virginia Tech's lackluster victory sure didn't help Boise's cause. If your big claim to fame is a three-point victory over a team who barely beat Georgia Tech and lost to games Madison...it's REALLY tough to tell anyone you're better than the best teams in the SEC or the Big Ten.

Still, Boise State does have the size and speed to win big time football games. And, as fans of the team are more than happy to point out, BOISE STATE BEAT TCU LAST YEAR IN THE FIESTA BOWL!

TCU keeps saying that doesn't matter. New teams, new season. Well, it DOES matter. There are extreme similarities from last year to this year with both Boise and TCU. And, these guys play so few big games every season that you HAVE to go outside the box to evaluate them. TCU proved to us last year that they DIDN'T have what it takes to win a big game on a neutral field when it was needed most. The offense was pedestrian (and fairly horrible). When the other guys weren't intimidated by their speed and physicality, TCU didn't have a lot of options.

TCU has figured out how to win big games by not playing any?

They'll have a chance today vs. Utah. Here's the tale of the tape:

TOTAL OFFENSE
TCU 11th
Utah 20th

TOTAL DEFENSE
TCU 1ST
Utah 6th

FULL SEASON RECORDS
TCU 9-0
Utah 8-0

MOUNTAIN WEST RECORDS
TCU 5-0
Utah 5-0

Sure looks like a pair of powerhouses. They're a combined 10-0 in league play, 17-0 for the season, and register very well in the national math. That's the big game part. Now, the grand illusion part:

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE (according to USA Today)
TCU 72nd
Utah 98th

It's not hard to run up great stats when you're playing a horrible schedule! And, that's particularly true when you know ahead of time that you HAVE to run up the score and the stats because you're from a mid-major conference. TCU and Utah could conceivably be among the best five teams in the country. It's conceivable that they're not even best five in the SEC if they had to play an SEC schedule. In the case of Utah, that's even more likely because the Utes barely have the stats of a top 15 team while playing the 98th ranked schedule.

Utah's toughest opponent? The season opener with Pittsburgh. PITTSBURGH! Utah played at home, and had to go overtime to beat an out-of-region foe who NOBODY thinks of as powerhouse material this year. How would Pittsburgh do in the SEC? Utah had to go OT to beat them at home.

The differences in stat rankings and schedule strength explain why TCU is a 5-point road favorite today. The market is telling you TCU would be about an 8-point favorite on a neutral field. And, the market is also telling you that Utah as a top five team nationally is a crock. No way #3 is more than a TD better on a neutral field than #5 in the real world.

TCU is also getting respect off the only quality common opponent in the Mountain West. The Horned Frogs dominated a decent Air Force team 38-7. Utah had to sweat a 28-23 finish last week, in what could have been a lookahead spot.

Let's also note that the third place team in the Mountain West is currently San Diego State. Neither TCU nor Utah has played them yet. Even strength of schedule in league play has been as easy as it gets for these two!

Folks...this could be #3 vs. #5...but it could also be #10 vs. #30. And it's fairly likely that TCU wouldn't strike you as a top 10 caliber team if they played in the SEC or Big 10....and that Utah wouldn't strike you as a top 30 team on a week-to-week basis if they played in any major conference. Unfortunately we may not know if this was a big game, or a grand illusion, until all the BCS bowls are in the books. Though, we should learn more about Utah this month, as they have Notre Dame, San Diego State, and hated rival BYU still ahead. If Utah is 12-0 after a great November, we promise to forget about the Pittsburgh game.

How should handicappers handle today's affair. The basics:

  • TCU clearly looks to be the better team in terms of physicality and athleticism.
  • Utah does "step up" well though in a big game environment, as you've seen in bowl victories many times over. Alabama is still hearing about the beating they took at the hands of the fired up Utes in a recent Sugar Bowl.  TCU can't come in flat, or they're toast.
  • Utah has a revenge motive coming off a 55-28 shellacking in Forth Worth last year (549-284 in total yardage...which gives you a sense of the physicality and athleticism edges we were talking about for TCU).
  • It's not quite a "#1 on the road as a favorite" scenario that took down Alabama, Ohio State, and Oklahoma in successive weeks...but it's pretty darn close considering how TCU has ruled the league and the region for so long. You've seen that special intangibles can come into play when a talented home dog gets sky high for a chance to make headlines.

JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK will only play this game if we hear something special from our sources. Our stats and computer simulations confirm TCU's advantage that's reflected in the Vegas line. If we hear that either team is a bit intimidated behind the scenes, or lacking confidence about the challenge at hand; we might step in. Because it's the biggest game of the day on the college card, we wanted to present a framework for your handicapping. That doesn't lock us into a play because there are so many great options on this very busy Saturday card.

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Big game or grand illusion? Hey...NETWORK has BIG GAMES today that definitely aren't grand illusions. DON'T MAKE A MOVE IN SATURDAY ACTION UNTIL YOU HEAR WHAT JIM HURLEY HAS TO SAY!

 

 

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