When we last saw the Connecticut Huskies on the football field, they conceded 517 rushing yards in a 45-point loss in their season finale against West Virginia.
When the Huskies last faced the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, their opponent in this year's Meineke Car Care Bowl, they lost 24-13 as 6 ½-point home favorites over their ACC foes. That was just last year.
Yet if either team has captured the favor of early bettors heading into Saturday's opening bowl game, it's UConn. Wake Forest opened as a 3-point favorite for the annual postseason game in Charlotte, N.C., but the spread had fallen to 1 ½ points by Thursday.
ACC schools have excelled in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, going 4-1 straight-up (SU) and 3-2 against the spread (ATS) in the game's history (including its early incarnation as the Continental Tire Bowl). The ACC's record improves to 3-1 SU and ATS when its opponent hailed from the Big East conference.
Saturday afternoon should also resemble a home game for the Demon Deacons, a North Carolina-based team. Through Thursday, they'd sold three times as many tickets for the game as the Huskies.
Most importantly from a betting point of view, the move makes Wake Forest, one of the nation's top bets in recent history, a more attractive wager. Wake is 16-4 ATS as an underdog or when favored by less than a touchdown since 2006. The Deacs wrapped up the regular season on a 6-1 ATS run and won four of their last six games by at least two touchdowns.
When you listen to head coach Jim Grobe talk about his team and you understand why Wake has become a winner despite traditional inability to recruit the region’s most highly-touted prep players.
“The old formula holds true," Grobe told North Carolina's WRAL.com. "You play great defense, you play great special teams, and you don’t beat yourself on offense, and you’ve got a chance to win.
“We won an ACC championship (in 2006) playing good defense and having good special teams, and taking care of the football on offense... We’ve really done that again this year. Our offense has not been very explosive. In fact, we call offensive plays with the defense in mind. We don’t want to put our defense in bad situations.”
It's an unsexy approach to football that keeps individual numbers on the unremarkable side. That, in turn, keeps public bettors away, something the wise guys have been happy to exploit as long as Wake meets its own standards on the field.
And with respect to Grobe, the coach underestimates (perhaps intentionally) his own offense.
The Demon Deacons have recently recaptured last year's championship form, averaging 37.5 points in their four convincing wins in the second half of the season. Quarterback Riley Skinner, finally healthy, relived 2006 in the second half of the current season. Skinner completed 73.0 percent of his passes and threw only three interceptions in Wake’s final six games, guiding the Deacons’ misdirection offense.
It says a lot about Wake Forest that its biggest offensive star is its center, Steve Justice. A first-team All-American, Justice commences every play in a complicated offense that lines up in a shotgun formation more than half the time. He protects Skinner and opens holes for ACC rookie of the year Josh Adams with equal aplomb, but centers don’t compile stats, so casual fans underestimate Justice’s value.
The kicker is the Demon Deacons’ placekicking edge. UConn’s Tony Ciaravino hit a high percentage of his field goal attempts this season, remedying what had been an annual concern in Storrs. But accuracy, not distance, is Ciaravino’s forte. Not so with Wake’s Sam Swank, who makes 50-yard field goals look routine.