It doesn’t matter which two teams are playing in the Hawaii Bowl. It is always going to be an interesting handicap. Two years ago, when San Diego State bludgeoned Cincinnati 42-7 as a 2.5-point favorite, it may have been the easiest win in gambling history. Could we see a similar situation this season with a Mountain West team used to the trip and the travel against an AAC team that is not? The Fresno State Bulldogs are a 2.5-point underdog per BetOnline Sportsbook against the Houston Cougars for this year’s Hawaii Bowl on December 24.
Houston heads into this game with a 7-4 straight up record and a 6-5 mark against the spread. The Cougars were robbed of a game by Hurricane Harvey, but many in the Houston area lost a lot more than that at a time when football was totally irrelevant. The weird start to the season for Houston included a win over Arizona pre-Khalil Tate, so don’t read too much into that one, and a surprise win at South Florida in Tampa. There are some behind-the-scenes developments at Houston, with athletic director Hunter Yurachek now at Arkansas, but that shouldn’t affect the team.
There are some whispers about Jeff Tedford moving on from Fresno State, which would be a big blow to this program. Not much was expected of Fresno State, but the Bulldogs wound up 9-4, including losses to Alabama and Washington on the road, and did very well for bettors with a 10-2 ATS record. Fresno State was 9-3 to the under as Tedford and defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinhauer did some serious work. Tedford, to me, looked like an uninspired hire after his tenure at Cal and lackluster stint as an OC in the NFL, but I was flat out wrong.
What do we make of the Cougars? Major Applewhite’s first season as a head coach has been a whirlwind. He was the offensive coordinator for Tom Herman last season, as Herman had two feet out the door on his way to Austin midway through the season. Applewhite went from right-hand man of interim Todd Orlando in the bowl game to the interim in the bowl game and then impressed enough in the interview to get the job. Applewhite lost quarterback Greg Ward after he exhausted his eligibility. Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen was supposed to be the guy, but that didn’t work out. He completed 76.2 percent of his passes, but only had a 4/4 TD/INT ratio. Kyle Postma took over and also struggled. Quarterback turned wide receiver turned quarterback D’Eriq King saved the day in the win over USF and wound up completing 69.8 percent of his passes with a 6/1 ratio. He also ran 63 times for 5.4 yards per carry. King has started since that USF relief appearance and the Cougars are 2-1 in those games. Overall, Houston managed 6.1 yards per play this season and had one of the highest completion percentages in the country.
Veteran defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio walked into a pretty good situation in Houston. Having one of the best defensive players in the country in Ed Oliver was a good start and the Cougars had seven starters back, so the defense wasn’t light on experience. Houston’s defense allowed just 4.8 yards per play last season, which is why Todd Orlando went to Texas with Herman and has been getting some head coach interviews this month. The Cougars regressed back to 5.4 yards per play allowed, largely because the secondary struggled. Last year’s rush defense allowed just 2.9 yards per carry, which wasn’t sustainable, and that number rose to 3.8 this season. The pass defense allowed 268 yards per game and a 61.8 percent completion percentage. That was nearly 50 yards more per game than last season. Houston was lucky to hold opponents to 23 points per game, especially in the high-octane AAC.
Fresno State has been a great story this season. Trending downward since Derek Carr went to the NFL, the Bulldogs rebounded and have the chance to win as many games this season as they won from 2014-16. Late transfer Marcus McMaryion from Oregon State provided a lot of stability for this offense with a 14/4 TD/INT ratio and a 61.1 percent completion rate. Last season, Fresno QBs only completed 51.9 percent of their passes and had a 13/12 ratio. KeeSean Johnson had another fine season and needs 81 yards to be a 1,000-yard pass catcher. This offense also ran for over 2,000 yards after rushing for just 1,394 and 3.2 yards per carry last season. Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer was a good fit with Tedford and Fresno State averaged 5.8 yards per play. This is a team that really surprised, but when you dig into the coaching decisions and the late McMaryion transfer, it all starts to make sense.
The biggest change for Fresno State came on defense. This is a Bulldogs defense that allowed just 17.2 points per game this season. The Bulldogs allowed just 4.9 yards per play, the fewest since 2012. Last year, Fresno State allowed 5.8 yards per play and the defense allowed six yards per play the season prior. The Mountain West isn’t chock full of great offenses, but Fresno State limited big plays and defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinhauer, who made the move from the Canadian Football League, thrived with a defense that was lacking experience in the back seven. It certainly helped to be +8 in turnover margin with an offense that only turned it over 11 times, but the dramatic turnaround of this Fresno State program does need to be applauded.
College Football Free Pick: Fresno State Bulldogs +2.5
Fresno State goes to Hawaii every other season. In fact, Fresno State played in Hawaii this season on November 11. What makes the Hawaii Bowl such an interesting handicap is that angle. Going to Hawaii is a big deal for college kids that otherwise wouldn’t be able to go. Fresno State has been through it and knows the lay of the land. Houston has not. A 10-win season is a big motivating factor for a team as well. Houston may not even be the better team here and they’re laying points in what amounts to a bad bowl spot. Fresno State plus the points, Fresno State on the money line, and if you really want to get cheeky, consider some Fresno State alternative lines when those are available.