Beef O'Brady's Bowl:
Ball St. vs. Central Florida
A heartbreaking overtime loss in the Conference USA title game cost UCF a spot in the Liberty Bowl. The consolation prize for the Knights is getting to play a relatively short distance from campus - albeit against an unexpected opponent that will be looking for its seventh straight victory.
UCF tries to bounce back when it faces Ball State in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Friday night. The Knights may be playing in front of what amounts to a home crowd as they try to do that, as they'll travel only 100 miles to Tropicana Field - a much closer destination than Memphis, where Tulsa is headed for the Liberty Bowl. UCF made its first trip to the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in 2009, suffering a 45-24 loss to Rutgers. The Knights will play in this game for the final time as a C-USA member as they head to the Big East for next season, but they may be back given the bowl's affiliation with that conference. The Knights (9-4) led by six going into the fourth quarter against Tulsa on Dec. 1 but allowed a 54-yard punt return for a score that pushed the game to overtime, where the Golden Hurricane prevailed 33-27. UCF had a 38-yard field goal blocked to start the extra period.
The high-scoring Knights, averaging 35.2 points, are led by Blake Bortles, who threw for 2,787 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The bruising Murray has powered the ground game with 1,035 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns, though he failed to reach 100 yards in the last three games after a four-game stretch in which he ran for at least 117 each time. UCF has five players that have run for at least 162 yards and it has scored 31 touchdowns on the ground - seven by Bortles. UCF will be facing something of a mirror image in Ball State (9-3), which is averaging only 0.2 fewer points than the Knights. The Cardinals' Keith Wenning has passed for 2,878 yards, 22 TDs and 10 INTs, while sophomore Jahwan Edwards has rushed for 1,321 yards and 14 scores.
Edwards has been particularly effective during Ball State's win streak, averaging 131.0 yards with nine touchdowns in the six games. He ran for three TDs to power the Cardinals past Miami of Ohio 31-24 in their regular-season finale Nov. 23. Ball State won without Wenning, who suffered an ankle injury while catching a pass against Ohio on Nov. 14. His status for the bowl game is uncertain. The junior has posted a 143.8 passer rating in his last five contests. The Cardinals also lost Wenning's backup Kelly Page in the third quarter against Miami, leaving freshman Kyle Kamman to make his collegiate debut. If Wenning and Page can't go, Ball State will likely lean even more heavily on its powerful ground attack, which averages 214.3 yards. Along with Edwards, the Cardinals have Horactio Banks, who's rushed for 585 yards in 10 games.
While Ball State's offense should give it a chance to extend the winning streak, the Cardinals' defense may need to be considerably better than it's been for most of the season. They are allowing 205.8 yards per game on the ground - near the bottom of the FBS - and 217.7 through the air, which could prove fatal against the balanced UCF attack. Ball State opponents are averaging 31.5 points. The Cardinals are 0-5 in bowls, with their last appearance coming in the 2008 season, a 45-13 loss to Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl. UCF's last bowl appearance in 2010 yielded its first victory in four overall tries, 10-6 over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl.
Both teams can move the ball, but UCF’s 29th-rated defense has allowed about nine points less per game (22.5) than Ball State’s and should provide the difference. The MAC conference is very overrated, and Central Florida should control this game. Ball State’s most notable wins were at Toledo and against Ohio. Include a very strong lean to the over 60, as UCF can match wits offensively and should score well into the 40's.
The pick: Central Florida -7 (bought half)