Air Force A Rare Underdog In First Responder Bowl Against Louisville

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There is a consensus among online sportsbooks in Colorado for the First Responder Bowl at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas on Tuesday: Louisville might be better than Air Force, but not by much.

As for the point spread, there is very little variance among Colorado sportsbooks. Most have the Cardinals (6-6 overall, 4-4 in the ACC) as a 1.5-point favorite against the Falcons (9-3 overall, 6-2 in the Mountain West), but BetRivers, TwinSpires, and SI have Louisville favored by a single point.

There is even less divergence in the total market, as FanDuel (54.5) is the only book that wasn’t offering a total of 55 as of Monday afternoon.

An evenly matched bowl game on SMU’s home field would be good news for television viewers, but is there an edge to be found for bettors?

Air Force hasn’t thrown a pass since Nov. 19

Air Force has the top rushing offense in the nation (340.8 yards per game), and it’s not close. The No. 2 team on that list, Army, also runs the triple-option and averaged 280.6 rushing yards per game this season.

The Falcons’ option is spearheaded by quarterback Haaziq Daniels, who has galloped for 705 yards and nine touchdowns to go along with 932 passing yards. Daniels is one of five Air Force players with more than 350 yards rushing this season, led by running back Brad Roberts, who has 1,279 yards and 13 touchdowns.

It’s a bowl game, so expect the unexpected, but Air Force hasn’t thrown a pass for 91 consecutive offensive plays. The last Air Force pass came against Nevada on Nov. 19, and with Daniels out against UNLV on Nov. 26, the Falcons ran on every play – 69 offensive snaps – and racked up 511 yards.

Backup quarterback Zachary Larrier ran for 80 yards and a score on nine carries in Daniels’ absence. Daniels missed the UNLV game with an illness not related to COVID-19 and should get the start in the First Responder Bowl.

But determining an opposing team’s preparedness for the triple option is not so easy. Louisville’s defense ranks 73rd nationally against the run, but it has not faced an option attack this season, and rushing yards allowed against a conventional offense is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

There also isn’t a good recent comparable to draw upon. The last time Louisville played a true triple-option team came in a 2018 matchup against Georgia Tech, then coached by triple-option dignitary Paul Johnson. The Cardinals gave up 542 rushing yards and 66 points that day​​, but that was a year before current Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield took over the program.

Satterfield undefeated in bowl games

Satterfield’s run at Louisville hasn’t been all roses — two blowout losses to hated rival Kentucky certainly sting — but the former Appalachian State coach has a knack for winning bowl games.

In Louisville’s first season under Satterfield, the Cardinals took down Mississippi State, 38-28, in the 2019 Music City Bowl. Satterfield also won two editions of the Camellia Bowl (2015 and 2016) and the Dollar General Bowl in 2017.

Air Force has a 5-5 record in bowl games under head coach Troy Calhoun, with its last win in the 2019 Cheez-It Bowl against Washington State.

Trends to watch

There is no doubt the Falcons are the better team against the spread. They have an 8-4 ATS record this season, compared to Louisville’s 6-6 ATS mark, and have also covered three straight.

Air Force has only been an underdog once this season, and the Falcons won that game against Boise State outright. Louisville, on the other hand, has a 2-3 ATS record as a favorite this season.

The Falcons have also been streaky in the totals market. They closed the season with three straight overs, but that was preceded by four straight unders.

On the conference side of things, the Mountain West is 4-1 in bowl games, but its one loss came with significant context. Nevada lost Monday to Western Michigan, but played without star quarterback Carson Strong, who opted out of the game to prepare for the NFL Draft, and was also missing other key players and coaches.

Jeremy Balan has been a journalist, editor, and sports writer since 2007. After years covering prep, college, and pro sports for online and print media, he focused on turf writing at BloodHorse from 2015-2019 and won an Eclipse Award for his coverage of the devastating fire at San Luis Rey Training Center. Contact Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremybalan) or through email at jbalan@bettercollective.com.

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