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Friday Football News and Notes

Friday Football News and Notes

SMU at Rice

Back in the early 1980s during the Pony Express days of Craig James and Eric Dickerson, SMU had a big-time football program. The death penalty brought that to an end, however, and the Mustangs haven’t gone bowling since 1984.

After finishing 1-11 last season, SMU’s boosters (a group dubbed “The Circle of Champions”) decided it was time to go out and spend big money to lure a proven coach. The school’s search lasted 71 days and reportedly included overtures to Paul Johnson, Rick Neuheisel, Mike Martz and Dennis Franchione.

Finally, the Mustangs landed June Jones after he led Hawaii to an unbeaten regular season and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. They made Jones the highest-paid coach in Conference USA, inking him to a long-term deal worth nearly $2 million per year.

Will this move bring SMU back to prominence? If Jones’ tenure at Hawaii is any indicator, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” The offensive guru who had head-coaching stints with both the Chargers and Falcons is a proven winner.

When Jones took over the Warriors, they had lost 18 consecutive games. In his first season, Hawaii went 9-4 in the best turnaround in NCAA history.

SMU is hoping for a similar turn in fortune when it opens the 2008 campaign Friday night at Rice. Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened the Owls as 4 ½-point favorites and sent the total out at 70. As of Wednesday afternoon, most books had Rice as a 3 ½-point ‘chalk’ with a total of 71.

Gamblers can back the Mustangs on the money line for a plus 150 return (risk $100 to win $150).

Rice (3-9 straight up, 5-6 against the spread) took a step back in David Bailiff’s first season at the helm. The Owls went to a bowl game for the first time in 45 years in 2006, but Todd Graham parlayed that success into a job offer from Tulsa.

Rice, which returns nine starters on offense and seven on defense, has C-USA’s premier signal caller in senior quarterback Chase Clement. He has 5,666 career passing yards and is poised to become the school’s all-time leading passer by mid-season. Assuming he stays healthy, Clement will break Tommy Kramer’s career passing mark. (Kramer was Fran Tarkenton’s heir apparent with the Vikings back in the early ‘80s.)

Clement, who has a 55/27 career touchdown-interception ratio, will be looking to get the ball into the hands of stud WR Jarett Dillard. The Biletnikoff Award candidate was a second-team All-American in 2006. Dillard hauled in 79 receptions for 1,057 yards and 14 TDs last season.

Even though Rice only won three times in 2007, the team wasn’t lacking in the points department at all. In fact, the offense produced 31 points or more in seven of the squad’s last eight games.

As for SMU’s offense, it will have a new leader calling the signals. Junior QB Justin Willis, who has 51 TD passes in 22 career starts, has been in Jones’ doghouse since the spring. It is unclear whether or not Willis will dress out Friday, but he’s the third-string QB at best. True freshman QB Bo Levi Mitchell will get the starting nod, while redshirt freshman Logan Turner has been named the back-up.

Although SMU limped to a 4-8 spread record last year, it did excel as a road underdog with a 4-2 ATS mark in those situations. Rice has only been favored 10 times since 2004, posting a 3-7 ATS record in those spots.

Kick-off is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--Rice has won nine in a row over SMU at home.

--SMU owns an atrocious 54-147-3 record since returning from the death penalty in 1989.

--SMU lost five games by seven points or less last year, including three defeats in overtime.

--Meaningless/Irrelevant factoid that I found surprising: ESPN’s Game Day crew hasn’t been to Athens since 1998. That probably changes this year.

--ESPN’s Mark May has the same two teams that I do in the national-title game, Florida and USC. Yikes! On the bright side, we have different winners, as I like the Gators to win their second “natty” in three seasons.

--One of the bolder college football predictions at the VI Seminar came from Bryan Leonard, who thinks South Florida will go unbeaten and play for the national championship. Leonard also feels LSU is overrated, while Kentucky is underrated.

--More quick-hit seminar tidbits:
1-Marc Lawrence and James Manos both think California is overrated, while Marshall is underrated.
2-Manos, a Clemson alum, thinks the Tigers are getting too much hype. According to Manos, they won’t avoid their annual hiccup and could go down to both Alabama and Wake Forest early.
3-The entire college panel felt that Ole Miss was underrated.
4-Keith Fredrick thinks West Virginia is overrated and questioned the hiring of Bill Stewart.
5-Dave Cokin thinks Duke will be a solid ATS team in David Cutcliffe’s first season. Cokin, who is also high on East Carolina, thinks Colorado St. is “going to be one of the worst teams in Division-I.”
6-The Gold Sheet’s Bruce Marshall thinks Syracuse is the nation’s best fade team. 

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Backups get chance to shine for Raiders

ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) -When Drew Carter went down with a season-ending knee injury that created an opportunity for one of the Oakland Raiders' unproven receivers to make the roster.

The final exhibition game Friday night in Seattle is the last chance for those players to impress coach Lane Kiffin enough to stick with the team after the roster is reduced to 53 players on Saturday.

Despite those hefty stakes, the players involved don't want to put too much pressure on themselves leading up to the game against the Seahawks.

''I can't do that because then you'll freeze up,'' receiver Todd Watkins said. ''You have to play relaxed. You have to go out there and know the game plan and play within yourself. That's what coach always says, play within yourself. If you go out there and try to do a million things, bad things can happen.''

Watkins, rookies Arman Shields and Chaz Schilens, Jonathan Holland and Chris McFoy are in the running for the final two receiver spots.

Javon Walker and Ronald Curry are the only proven receivers on the roster and are entrenched as starters. Second-year player Johnnie Lee Higgins also has a spot on the roster assured because he is also the kick and punt returner.

The other five players are fighting for two spots. But that number could be reduced if the Raiders sign a receiver who gets cut by another team this weekend.

''There's a lot of guys in the mix,'' Kiffin said. ''You have to figure which guys are going to make it, does someone else come in from the outside to make it and then, also, which guys will be on the practice squad. So, those guys will get a lot of opportunities in this game.''

Walker and Curry won't even play against the Seahawks as Kiffin is resting all of his starters to avoid any more injuries after losing Carter and fullback Oren O'Neal last week.

That will give plenty of chances to those other players.

''It's a great opportunity to get the get the feel of the game,'' Watkins said. ''In college was the last time I really got to play the whole game. I'll be in there most of the time. You can get in the zone and the flow of things. It's totally different than going in for the third or fourth quarter.''

Watkins spent his first two years in the NFL on the practice squads in Arizona and Atlanta, but has been the most impressive of the group since signing with the Raiders this offseason.

He has excelled in practice and also has five catches for 66 yards in the first three preseason games.

''You don't want to get complacent,'' Watkins said. ''I've been thinking to myself, 'It's not over. I've had a good camp, yeah, but it's not over.' I need to go out there and practice hard this week to get myself ready for this game mentally and physically.''

The only other receiver fighting for a roster spot with any catches this preseason is Schilens, who has three for 45 yards. Schilens was a seventh-round pick out of San Diego State.

Shields was picked ahead of Schilens, going in the fourth round. But he has been slowed by a knee injury for most of camp before finally returning to practice this week.

''I feel comfortable because while I was out our coach put a big emphasis on getting mental reps,'' Shields said. ''I made sure I was there mentally and I tried to run the plays through in my mind so I felt fine.''

McFoy is the only one of the group to play in an NFL game, making one catch in three games last season for the Raiders.

Holland, a seventh-round pick in 2007, missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury.

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Friday's Playbook
By Josh Jacobs

For us East Coast bettors, three 10:00 p.m. EDT preseason Week 4 games might be difficult to follow from the first to fourth quarters. But for everyone else, the six West Coast teams participating in the final stage of preseason play indicate the final opportunity to cash in on second and third tier squads.

Let’s take a sneak peak at all three contests just before kickoff begins on Friday.

Denver (-3) at Arizona – 10:00 p.m. EDT

The first question on everyone’s mind is will QB Matt Leinart find his groove in the National Football League, or more like when? Whether it’s the 12 interceptions that greeted him into his first year with Arizona in 2006, the constant rotation with Kurt Warner in 2007 or the season ending fractured left collarbone sustained in a contest against St. Louis last year, it’s becoming clear that patience is wearing in the state of Arizona.

Since we divulged on Leinart, it’s been announced that Warner will take opening snaps for the Cardinals in Friday’s contest. The saga continues in the desert and the light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t seem to be that bright.

What we can expect from both Arizona and Denver is a game focusing on the air attack. While Warner and the Cards will be airing it out with WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald securing the big plays, the Broncos should be able to take off early on with signal caller Jay Cutler and newly acquired wide out, Brandon Stokley refining their game plan.

But the numbers don’t lie and Denver is an impressive 9-0 SU and ATS in its last nine Game 4’s in the preseason. And then there’s the Bronco’s head coach, Mike Shanahan’s career preseason record of 40-24 SU and 35-28-1 ATS! has listed Arizona as a three-point home favorite, with a total of 37 installed.

San Diego (+3) at San Francisco – 10:00 p.m. EDT

Is San Francisco ready to entrust the future of the team in the hands of slinger J.T. O’Sullivan and better yet, can this organization improve on a 5-11 record from last season (San Fran is a combined 16-32 in the last three seasons)?

There’s no doubt that O’Sullivan is the No. 1 QB on the depth chart. A 60.1-percent passing percentage, 351 yards gained through the air and two TDs are all figures that have faired well during this preseason (mix in two interceptions into this report as well).

As for the numbers, off the cuff trends are tough to come by as a combined 20-27 ATS record in Game 4’s between the 49ers and Chargers points to no clear cut direction. However, it’s worth noting that San Francisco has been a scoring machine in the preseason, combining for 71 points in the last two games.

On the other end of the field, San Diego has had trouble finding the end zone with any of its squads. The Chargers have averaged just 12 points per game in the last two outings, but that’s not to say the core starters haven’t done their job. In-fact field general Philip Rivers is coming off a 143 yard passing performance (11-for-21) and backup running back Darren Sproles eclipsed the 100-yard mark on 13 carries.

With most of the San Diego starting team taking a seat for this contest, books have gone on to install the 49ers as 2½-point favorites with a total set at 36. It almost feels like San Francisco is playing for what the not so distant future might entail, while the Chargers are just hoping to jump into 2008 with a healthy team (anyone hear about defensive specialist Shawne Merriman’s injury?).


-- Oakland will travel up north to Seattle in a 10:00 p.m. EDT scheduled meeting. Most books have installed the Seahawks as three-point favorites with a total sitting at 35.

-- The Raiders are 6-2 ATS when coming off a back-to-back SU loses in preseason action (24-0 loss against Arizona, 17-16 defeat in Tennessee) are 13-12 in Game 4’s but have cashed tickets with a 3-1 ATS run in the last four Game 4’s.

-- The Seahawks haven’t been all that bad in final preseason games, notching up a 14-10 ATS record in Week 4 games. Despite scoring just 17 points in a defeat in San Diego last week, Seattle’s offense has been on fire, finding the end zone and uprights for a total of 63 points in the first two preseason games.

-- Remember that this is a Seahawks club without their two top wide receivers in Bobby Engram (shoulder) and Deion Branch (knee). Both players are expected to miss significant time during the regular season.

-- Seattle has been installed as an underdog in all three preseason games played. The total has gone ‘over’ twice in the three games, with that total set anywhere from 34 to 37 ½-points.

-- Bad news for a youthful Raiders team will witness fullback Oren O’Neil (knee) and wide receiver Drew Carter (knee) possibly shutting down the season even before it takes off. Both injuries occurred in the first few minutes of the shutout loss in Arizona last week.

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What bettors need to know: Broncos at Cardinals

What bettors need to know: Broncos at Cardinals (-3, 37)

Cardinals to start Warner

Kurt Warner will start at quarterback in the preseason finale, but coach Ken Whisenhunt says no decision has been made yet about who will start the opener at San Francisco.

Warner has been battling Matt Leinart for the starting job.

“We all want to know,” Warner said. “For Matt and myself, it’d be nice knowing what the situation would be and be able to move forward with it. The way I look at it more than anything, the sooner it can happen, the sooner we can get past the (interviews and media coverage) that goes with it and you can prepare for the game.”

Arizona (2-1) is coming off a 24-0 win at Oakland last Saturday night despite Leinart throwing three interceptions in less than two quarters.

Other spots up for grabs

Neither Deuce Lutui nor Elton Brown has seized the Arizona right guard spot, and there are a handful of backups still battling for a place on the 53-man roster.

"It's really come down, at a number of positions, to how they play in this game," Whisenhunt said. "And we've made that point to the team this week. I love the guys we have on this team . . . but realistically (some) are not going to be here on Saturday."

NFL teams must cut to 53 players by Saturday afternoon. At inside linebacker, Monty Beisel, Matt Stewart, Brandon Moore and Ali Highsmith are competing for the two backup spots behind starters Gerald Hayes and Karlos Dansby.

Russell will play a lot

Broncos receiver Cliff Russell figures to play extensively tonight. He is on the cusp of making Denver's roster after being on injured reserve, waived, signed and waived again. Russell has played for Washington, Cincinnati, Miami and Detroit before joining the Broncos.

"As long as they keep calling you, you have to come," he said.

Broncos linebacker fights for a spot

Denver won’t be playing most of its starters. For rookie linebacker Spencer Larsen, the game marks his best chance to show what he can do after an emotionally tumultuous summer. Earlier this month, Larsen's second son, Gunnar, was born the same day as the burial of his 2-year-old niece, Kamber Ann, the victim of an accidental drowning.

Larsen, a sixth-round pick in April. traveled to Phoenix twice during training camp because of the events and said it all has weighed on him.

"I feel like, under the circumstances, I've done as well as I can," Larsen said. "I'm happy with it. Obviously, you wish you could have more of an impact, but that's why (tonight's) game is so important to me."

"It was hard there for a while to keep my focus on what I was supposed to be doing, but the last couple weeks, I've been a little more focused and trying to work through it all.”

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Denver vs. Arizona

Week 3 is always scary in the preseason as that is when major cuts are usually made, and typically this involves more and more scrubs coming out of the wood work. Do you think it is by any coincidence that each home team is favored by a field goal? I'm telling you, it is an absolute **** hole at times to bet in the presesaon especially in week 3 when so many backups are trying to make the team, Arizona won big at Oakland and Kansas City mind you as this team has the ability and maturity to win on the road given over the past few years they have steadily gotten better, Denver comes off a home loss to Green Bay 24-27, after they beat Dallas by double-digits, frankly, Arizona loves to win preseason games while Shannahan typically doesn't care for them, wouldn't be surprised to see an Arizona cover here.

San Diego vs. San Francisco

San Diego beat Seattle at home 18-17, but note that they did not cover the 5.5 spread placed on them at home, they lost to St. Louis on the road 6-7, San Francisco is looking forward to this game more than San Diego this I can promise you, they come off a 7 point win at Chicago and a 34-6 win over Oakland at home, I wouldn't be surprised to see San Francisco do all they can to try to win a game that doesn't count just for a morale boost for their fans.

Oakland vs. Seattle

Oakland's QB situation continues to be amusing, note that Seattle lost on the road by 1 to San Diego in their last ballgame, I know that this game means nothing to either team, but the Seahawks were 7-1 at home last year, Seneca Wallace is more than a capable backup, Oakland did lose to Arizona 0-24 so this team is obviously highly irritated, I wouldn't be surprised to see better play from them today, having said that, it is tough to go against Seattle at home regardless.


Temple vs. Army

Temple was a team that I kept my eye on last year, this is why they are favored by a touchdown at this game, Temple is actually a MAC team and it plays an independent team in Army, This team returns 2008 First Round Draft Pick Travis Selton, and they return 20 0f 22 starters, that is saying a lot, this team has won the last 3 ballgames that it played in last year, they were young last year, still are but are more seasoned, remember, this team won at Kent State, beat Eastern Michigan and Akron. This team also beat Miami of Ohio on the road and although they won just 4 games last year, 2 of those were on the road as fairly sized dogs. Army beat Temple last year 37-21 at home last year, so obviously the game went over, but they did lose to tougher competition and lose the last 4 ballgames of the year getting outscored 33 to 157 so they are not coming into this game thrilled from last year's performance. Army has DiMechelle returning to the helm as QB and this should be a great game, but I favor Temple an their 20 returning starters. The total of 41 seems a bit low here as well given that both offenses should put up points.

SMU vs. Rice

June Jones takes over SMU and he worked his magic with Hawaii and he will once again will attempt to work his magic with SMU, the total sits at 69, more than 2/3rds of the public favor Rice the home favorite here, Rice won this game 43-42 last year, June Jones of course loves the pass and that is a testament to how high this total is today, SMU finished just 1-11 last year, but that will undoubtedly change this year, Rice won just 3 games last year so they did not do much better than SMU did, This team is returning 6 on offense and 7 on defense, June Jones is hoping Tom Mason will make a key difference in helping him get a better defense as no doubt his offense will put up points, Rice allowed more than 41 points per ballgame last year as their defense was struggling, Rice allowed nearly 200 yards per ballgame on the ground last year so points should be scored, it might take Jones's kid a little while to get used to the offense though, wouldn't be surprised to see an under nor an outright SMU win. But, this is going to be a sling-fest more than anything, but the line did go down 2 points since its opening of the total.

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Steve Merril's NFL Report

SAN FRANCISCO -2½ (vs. San Diego)

The 49ers have a decisive scheduling edge in their game as they have 8 days of rest, while San Diego must travel on just 3 days rest after playing on Monday night. San Francisco also has an edge at quarterback with former starters Alex Smith and Shaun Hill playing the majority of the game.

ARIZONA -3 (vs. Denver)

Arizona also has an edge at quarterback in their game as there is still a competition for the starting spot between Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart. The starters will play a few series, while Denver will probably not play their starters at all tonight.

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