How are things going in Luke Fickell’s first season at Cincinnati? Well, the Bearcats are a home underdog to the Temple Owls for Friday night’s matchup under the lights at Nippert Stadium. DSI Sportsbook has Temple as a 2.5-point favorite and that’s where the market opened, so we haven’t seen any disagreement from the numbers guys early in the week. Considering Temple had wins over Villanova, UMass, and East Carolina before last week’s stunner over Navy, this is a little bit of a surprising line.
This battle of first-year head coaches that were defensive coordinators at elite programs is full of intrigue, at least as much intrigue as you can find in a game pitting a 4-5 team against a 3-6 team. Temple is 4-5 straight up and 4-5 against the spread. Cincinnati is 3-6 straight up and 4-5 against the spread. There isn’t anything particularly remarkable about these two teams, though Temple is just -40 in point differential and Cincinnati is -97 in point differential.
Perhaps Temple found something offensively in Frank Nutile and that is the reason for the big adjustment to the Owls. Logan Marchi was really struggling to replace four-year starter Philip Walker at quarterback. Marchi had a 55.5 percent completion rate with a 9/8 TD/INT ratio. Nutile hadn’t seen much action, but he was terrific in the upset over Navy by going 22-of-30 for 289 yards with four touchdown passes against one interception. The junior quarterback has now started back-to-back games and has been solid in both of them. He had just five passing attempts career coming into this season. Competent quarterback play might be the spark that this Temple ground game needs. The Owls are on pace for their worst rushing season since 2014 with just 3.4 yards per carry. The loss of Jahad Thomas was expected to have a minor impact, with Ryquell Armstead and Isaiah Wright back, but Armstead only has 3.8 yards per carry on a team-leading 118 carries. Wright is more wide receiver than running back with 33 receptions for 502 yards. He has to love the QB change and maybe it is time to adjust the Owls, specifically this Dave Patenaude offense, up a few points. Temple ranks 95th in yards per play, but that could be on the rise if Nutile is for real.
Temple’s offense wasn’t expected to be great. The defense lost some key pieces in Haason Reddick, Nate Hairston, Avery Williams, and Praise Martin-Oguike, so there was some rebuilding that needed to be done. The thought was that former Mississippi State and Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins would be the right man for the job. So far, Temple has allowed 5.6 yards per play, which is up a full yard from last year and the worst performance since 2013. There has been a lot of progress, though. After allowing nearly 6.2 yards per play in September, Temple allowed just 4.74 yards per play in October and just 5.1 yards per play last week against Navy’s option. This will be the team’s first game since October 14 against a non-option offense, so we’ll have to see how that transition goes.
Expectations seemed to be a little bit too high at Cincinnati for Luke Fickell’s first year. Fickell brought in a solid offensive coordinator in Mike Denbrock, who was on Brian Kelly’s staff at Notre Dame, but this team simply doesn’t have the talent on offense. This group managed just 19.3 points and only 5.3 yards per play last season. Hayden Moore has a 13/7 TD/INT ratio, but has completed less than 56 percent of his throws and has less than six yards per attempt. The ground game may have found something in Gerrid Doaks, who has six yards per carry as a redshirt freshman, but the lack of explosive plays makes it really hard to move the ball to score points, even in the AAC. Cincinnati has 5.1 yards per play this season, which is the worst mark for the program in several years. The Bearcats have gone five straight games without hitting 30 points and have only done it once this season. That’s not going to get it done in this league without an elite defense.
The hiring of Fickell made sense. He has strong Ohio ties and can get this defense back to the level that it once was. In the AAC, playing defense can set you aside from the rest of the pack, assuming you have an average offense to back it up. Well, Cincinnati does not have that and has allowed 5.9 yards per play defensively. The Bearcats benefited from an atrocious non-conference group that managed only 4.84 yards per play. In conference play, Cincinnati has allowed 6.8 yards per play. If Temple’s improved offense is for real, this looks like a good spot for that group to keep gaining some confidence.
College Football Free Pick: Cincinnati Bearcats +2.5
Cincinnati only scored 17 points last week against Tulane, who has one of the worst defenses in the country, while Temple scored a huge upset win over Navy. There’s a bit of recency bias plugged into this line. The Bearcats don’t deserve a whole lot of respect, and maybe I have not upgraded Temple enough with the switch from Marchi to Nutile, but Temple as a road favorite seems a little bit aggressive to me. My numbers had this game pick ‘em on a neutral, so home field swings the balance to Cincinnati.