College football best bets: For UCLA-USC, the over is the play

USC and UCLA could find the end zone a whole lot in Saturday's rivalry game.
USC and UCLA could find the end zone a whole lot in Saturday's rivalry game.

This column was a Mississippi cover away from an 0-4 weekend this past Saturday, when Illinois and UCLA let me down as favorites while New Mexico couldn’t keep pace with Air Force as a big underdog. We’re running out of time to turn things around, but at 22-21-1 for the season there’s still a chance to move into the profitability zone.

All spreads and totals were taken Wednesday from the consensus odds at VegasInsider.com unless noted. All times Eastern on Saturday unless noted.

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The game of the week

No. 7 USC at No. 16 UCLA, over 75, 8 p.m., Fox

This is a high total, but it’s warranted considering both teams’ all-offense, no-defense ways. To wit:

  • UCLA ranks third nationally in offensive success rate, and USC ranks fourth. Their defenses rank 112th and 119th, respectively.
  • The Bruins’ defense has given up 149 scrimmage plays of at least 10 yards (97th in the country), and the Trojans have given up 152 (101st).
  • Both of these offenses have been great at keeping drives alive on third and fourth downs, with UCLA posting a national-best success rate of 60.2 percent and USC at 55.7 percent, which ranks sixth. Conversely, both defenses have been dismal at getting opposing offenses off the field: The Bruins rank 103rd nationally in third/fourth down success rate, and the Trojans are even worse at 125th.

Yes, UCLA put up a season-low 28 points against a truly bad Arizona defense this past weekend, but that was more the Bruins’ fault than anything else. UCLA still averaged 6.1 yards per play, and seven of its 10 drives crossed the Arizona 30-yard line. But three of them resulted in zero points (a fumble, a missed field goal and an end-of-game loss of downs), and that was the difference. Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura also averaged 11.3 yards per attempt against the Bruins’ defense, and USC quarterback Caleb Williams (31 passing touchdowns, two interceptions, 8.8 yards per attempt this season) could be in line for a big day.

Last year’s UCLA-USC game featured 95 points, and that was before Lincoln Riley brought his offensive wizardry and a host of gaudy transfers to the Trojans. I expect a bunch of points again.

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The favorite

No. 20 Central Florida (-16.5) vs. Navy, 11 a.m., ESPN2

Navy is 5-0 against the spread as a double-digit underdog this season, but the Midshipmen are playing in the final contest of a grueling three-game stretch, have questions at quarterback, have no hope of a bowl game at 3-7 overall and perhaps have started thinking about their annual tilt with rival Army on Dec. 10. This all sets up well for UCF, which will look to maintain momentum from this past weekend’s win at Tulane as it tries to secure the Group of Five’s spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Navy looked hopeless in the first half of this past weekend’s game against Notre Dame, which scored touchdowns on five of its six first-half possessions and missed a field goal on the one it didn’t. But the Midshipmen completely changed defensive tactics in the second half, blitzing often while employing a cover-zero package — each receiver was covered man-to-man, with no deep help from the safeties — in the secondary. The change seemed to baffle the Fighting Irish, who gained a paltry 12 yards in the second half but held on for a 35-32 win.

UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee threw only three passes against straight man coverage against Tulane, but he completed all three for 30 yards. Against Memphis on Nov. 5, he completed 6 of 8 passes for 73 yards against man coverage. The week before against Cincinnati, UCF quarterbacks completed 61.9 percent of their passes for 145 yards against man coverage (Plumlee was injured in the second quarter and replaced by Mikey Keene). The point is Plumlee probably won’t be as befuddled by Navy’s schemes as Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne seemed to be. UCF ranks 20th in passing success rate overall, while Navy’s defense ranks 120th in that category.

It’s unclear who will start at quarterback for Navy. Xavier Arline, who began the season as a backup, left the Notre Dame game with an apparent leg injury in the fourth quarter and was replaced by Maasai Maynor, who was appearing in only his sixth game over three seasons. It’s all a lot to ask of a team that fought hard in losses to Cincinnati and Notre Dame and now must face a third straight tough opponent.

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The underdog

Louisiana Lafayette (+24) at No. 19 Florida State, noon, ESPN3 streaming

Florida State has won its past three games by a combined 124-22, with the past two victories coming on the road. The Seminoles finally are trending in the right direction in Mike Norvell’s third season as coach, and quarterback Jordan Travis has completed 75 percent of his passes with nine passing touchdowns and only one interception in those three big wins.

Louisiana Lafayette, meanwhile, is muddling along at 5-5, a massive letdown after last season’s historic 13-1 campaign. The Ragin’ Cajuns will fall short of their expected preseason win total (the number was 8.5 victories), and they need to win one of their final two games to qualify for a bowl.

So why, then, do I like the underdog to stay reasonably close here? For starters, Florida State’s impressive three-game stretch has come against Georgia Tech (which already had fired its coach), Miami and Syracuse (both in free fall). Plus, the Ragin’ Cajuns’ strength lies in their pass defense, which is allowing a respectable 6.9 yards per attempt and has more interceptions (14) than touchdowns allowed (13). In its most recent game, a 36-17 win Nov. 10 over a Georgia Southern team that passes at one of the highest rates in the country, Louisiana Lafayette gave up only one passing touchdown to quarterback Kyle Vantrease, and his 57.1 completion percentage was his second-worst mark of the season.

This also is a good situational spot for the Ragin’ Cajuns, because the Seminoles might be looking ahead to next weekend’s season finale against Florida. With both Sunshine State rivals creeping back to respectability, it’ll be the first time in a few years that the matchup will have much in the way of heat to it, and the Seminoles might either let their guard down or rest their starters if things get out of hand early. The SP+ efficiency metric pegs this as closer to a 13-point Florida State win, and I like the big dog to keep things at least somewhat respectable.

The wild card

Buffalo vs. Akron, Akron team total under 19.5 points, 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network

It’s becoming increasingly likely that this game will be played in snowy, windy conditions as a lake-effect storm pummels the Buffalo area between Thursday and Sunday. This could hinder an Akron offense that passes the ball 60.6 percent of the time (sixth nationally) and has gained 77.8 percent of its yardage through the air this season (eighth nationally).

There’s also the matter of the Zips’ quarterback situation. Starter DJ Irons left Akron’s previous game — a 34-28 loss to Eastern Michigan on Nov. 8 — in the second quarter because of injury and didn’t return, and backup Jeff Undercuffler was ineffective, completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing two interceptions.

Akron will need to run the ball to have much of a shot in blustery conditions, but the Zips rank 130th out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in expected points added per rush while Buffalo’s defense ranks third in that category. Don’t be deceived by the numbers put up by Akron’s Cam Wiley in the Eastern Michigan game. Of his 144 rushing yards, 73 came in the fourth quarter when the Zips were down three scores and struggling to move the ball through the air (55 of those yards came on one fourth-quarter touchdown run). Wiley had rushed for only 44 yards in his previous four games combined.

Akron is 1-9 and hasn’t beaten an FBS team this season. Buffalo needs one win for bowl eligibility. The Bulls and the weather should keep the Zips off the scoreboard.

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