Two teams that have been some of the best success stories of the 2023 regular season will meet on Friday night in the Conference USA title game. Jerry Kill and his New Mexico State Aggies will look to avenge one of their three losses this season against a Liberty team that went a perfect 12-0 in Jamey Chadwell’s first year as the Flames head coach.
With electrifying offenses on both sides of the field, I’ll break down why I’ll be targeting both the first-half total and a team total in this matchup.
New Mexico State’s season started out with them going 1-2 in their first three games, with their two losses coming at the hands of UMass and Liberty. However, their regular season would end with them winning eight straight games, including a win over Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium. During that winning streak, the Aggies scored an average of 27.2 points per game, which has them ranked 22nd in offensive success rate headed into this weekend.
The Aggies' offense revolves around their polarizing quarterback, Diego Pavia. The sophomore signal-caller threw for 2,727 yards and 23 touchdowns while leading the team in rushing yards with 808 and rushing touchdowns with five. Pavia has proven he can beat opponents with both his arm and legs, but the Aggies' offense, in general, is more centered around their running game, ranking 31st in run play percentage.
Defensively, the Aggies ranked 20th in points allowed per game, but they were also ranked 80th in defensive success rate and 106th in EPA. The team that scored the second most points on their defense this season also happens to be the Liberty Flames, who scored 33.
For as good as the Aggies' offense was, the Flames' offense was even better this season, ranking 4th in the country in offensive success rate. Flames quarterback Kaidon Salter also has duel-threat abilities, as he managed to throw for 2,431 yards and 29 touchdowns while also picking up 11 rushing touchdowns. Behind Salter and running back Quinton Cooley, the Flames averaged 295.4 rushing yards per game, which is the highest average in the country.
The point total for the Conference USA title game is currently set at 57, but for my play, I’ll be taking the first half over of 27.5 (-115), which is available at BetMGM. With an average of 23.9 points per game in the first half, Liberty was 4th in the entire country in first-half scoring average, and when these teams met back at the beginning of the season, they went into halftime with a combined 30 points.
Liberty is no stranger to high-scoring games this season, in fact, over their last six games, they allowed 25+ points in five of them. That defensive output led to them ranking 97th and 96th in EPA per pass play and rush play, respectively. With an overall defensive EPA that ranks 100th, the Flames' defense is another example of a team whose average number of points allowed per game might be a bit misleading.
Diego Pavia has only improved since the first matchup between these two teams, and over the last three games, the Aggies have averaged 14.7 first-half points per game. If the Aggies can score close to that average during the game, the Flames should be able to cover the rest of the number, as their top-ranked running game should be able to exploit an Aggies defense that is 103rd in EPA per rush play.
Not only do I think the Flames will be able to put up points in the first half, but I think they’ll also go over their team total of 34.5, which is priced at (-110) on BetRivers. Liberty has exceeded this number in eight of their 12 games this season, including each of their last six games. They even managed 33 points against the Aggies in their first meeting without scoring a single point in the fourth quarter.
The Flames have moved the ball downfield very efficiently this season, converting on 49.2% of their third downs, which is 9th in the country. That ability to generate scoring drives should shine through against the Aggies since not only are they 87th in success rate on rush plays, but they are 113th in EPA per pass play and 69th in yards allowed per pass (7.4).
1H Over 27.5 (-115) on BetMGM
Liberty Flames Team Total Over 34.5 (-110) on BetRivers