I'll be posting Free Best Bets or Strong Opinions on games throughout the season here on the Huffington Post. This week I'll post a Strong Opinion that was going to be a Best Bet until the line moved down from +7 to +4 1/2 points. But, I still think Cincinnati is a profitable play and have designated it as a Strong Opinion.
Cincinnati (+4 1/2) 31 TENNESSEE 30
Cincinnati went from 12-1 in 2009 under coach Brian Kelly to just 4-8 last season in coach Butch Jones' first season at the helm. However, the Bearcats were actually a good team last season despite their record, as they out-gained their Division 1A opponents 421 yards at 6.0 yards per play to 382 yards at 5.6 yppl but were derailed by a randomly bad -15 turnover ratio. The offense was even better when quarterback Zack Collaros was on the field (he missed a game and a half) and after a disastrous start in their opener at Fresno State (a confused offensive line allowed 8 sacks) Collaros averaged an impressive 7.0 yards per pass play against teams that would combine to allow 5.8 yppp to an average quarterback. Collaros combines with RB Isaiah Pead, who ran for 1029 yard at 6.6 ypr last season (and 6.7 ypr in 2009), to give the Bearcats a very good attack that has potential to be even better given that Collaros averaged an incredible 10.9 yppp on 125 pass plays in 2009 while completing 75% of his passes (he completed more modest 59% last season and should be better). There is no doubt that Cincinnati will be very good offensively again this season and could be much better in the second year of Jones' offense.
Cincinnati's defense was a bit below average last season, allowing 5.6 yppl to teams that would combine to average 5.4 yppl against an average defense, but the Bearcats had just 5 returning starters last season and all 11 of last year's starters return for this campaign. Teams with 10 or 11 returning defensive starters improve an average of 0.5 yards per play, which would put the Bearcats' defense at 0.3 yppl better than average, which is certainly reasonable. That unit will be up against what should be a good Tennessee offense led by sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, who averaged 7.3 yppp last year (against teams that would allow 6.3 yppp to an average QB) after taking over for Matt Simms at mid-season. The Vols lost their top 3 receivers from last season, including big play WR Denarius Moore (20.9 yards per catch), but Bray looked sharp last week and sophomore Justin Hunter looks more than capable of filling to void left by Moore (Hunter averaged 25.9 ypc on 16 catches last season and had 146 yards on 6 catches last week). Bray threw for 293 yards on 24 pass attempts (skewed a bit by an 81 yard pass) against a pretty solid Montana defense and I expect him to be even better this season as a sophomore. The Vols rushing attack couldn't move the ball against Montana last week, averaging just 3.6 yards per rushing play and Cincinnati is very tough to run against (the Bearcats were 0.7 yprp better than average last season and should be even better this year). Tennessee was just average last season running the ball (4.5 yprp against teams that would allow 4.5 yprp) and they don't appear to be any better this year - and it's unlikely they'll have much success running in this game - so it will be up to Bray to exploit a mediocre Cincinnati pass defense, which he should be able to do (I project 7.7 yppp for Bray in this game). Overall, my ratings project 416 yards at 6.1 yards per play for the Vols in this game, but that may not be enough to beat the Bearcats given the state of Tennessee's defense and the explosiveness of Cincy's attack.
Tennessee was mediocre defensively last season, allowing 5.7 yppl to a schedule of FBS teams that would combine to average 5.8 yppl against an average defensive team, and the Vols have just 4 of last year's starters healthy with #2 tackler LB Herman Lathers still recovering from an injury and top defensive back FS Janzen Jackson (#3 tackler and 5 interceptions) having been dismissed from the team. Tennessee could still be better defensively in the second year under DC Justin Wilcox' system, but giving up 346 yards at 5.1 yppl to 1AA team Montana last week suggest that the Vols' stop unit still has issues - although 80 of those yards were on one pass play (a sign they may miss FS Jackson). I actually rate Tennessee's defense at 0.2 yppl better than average this season, a bit better than last year, but that's not nearly good enough to keep Cincinnati's potent attack (1.1 yppl better than average) from moving the ball at a very good clip (I project 446 yards at 6.2 yppl). I expect Cincinnati to challenge for the Big East title this year and last week's 72-10 win over a horrible Austin Peay team should have them confident for this game while Tennessee could get caught looking ahead to next week's game with Florida. I actually think Cincinnati is a better team than Tennessee and my ratings favor the Bearcats by 1 point.
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