The XFL season is winding down, but the spring football season is far from over. This weekend's idle week before the XFL's championship game on May 13 provides the perfect opportunity to dive deeply into the USFL.
Three weeks in, it feels like a league of haves and have-nots, and my guess is that we will see most of the four teams from last year back in the postseason. But, I have been deep in the weeds in spring football long enough to know that a team's fortunes can be drastically altered with one change at the quarterback position. So, here I will break down a few things that have jumped off the page early in the season, and I will follow up with my best bet for this weekend.
Four hubs are better than one
Last season, all the regular season games were played in Birmingham. It gave the hometown Stallions, who ended up winning the championship, the benefit of playing in front of a small collection of human beings rather than the ambiance of endless, empty steel bleachers. This season there are four hubs (Detroit, Memphis, Birmingham and Canton), with a pair of teams assigned to each. Ford Field drew over 7,000 fans in Michigan's first home game, and while that's still a low turnout, it's an improvement in at least spreading out the fan interaction. Don't go crazy and start factoring home-field advantage into your handicap because it doesn't really exist in hub formats.
New Orleans is the only undefeated team
This is one that I saw coming a mile away, and now I have a serious case of FOMO for not pouncing on the New Orleans' preseason futures price. I thought the Breakers had the most talented skill position players in the league last season, and I used to rip my hair out watching former QB Kyle Sloter get so little out of the Breakers' offense.
Now with CFL transplant McLeod Bethel-Thompson at QB, New Orleans has the league's most dynamic offense. The Breakers dropped 45 points on 7.3 yards per play on Birmingham, who previously outscored opponents 69-12 entering the contest. New Orleans has now scored 38 or more in its last two games and sits atop the USFL standings at 3-0. New Orleans and overs are worth monitoring.
Coaching changes: The good, bad and ugly
Half of the league has new coaches, which isn't great for continuity. But, I'm sure you have probably guessed, the coaches that decided to jump ship weren't the ones having the most success. In a hilarious turn of events, it appears to be addition by subtraction in Michigan. Jeff Fisher was one of my favorite fades last season, and the Panthers (2-1) look like a potential playoff team after replacing him with Mike Nolan. Michigan won its first two games with Nolan on the sidelines after only winning twice the entire season under Fisher.
The Houston Gamblers and Pittsburgh Maulers haven't been as lucky. Both teams sit at 1-2 and are heading towards losing seasons under first-year coaches. While Curtis Johnson's Gamblers are starting to show some life, QB Kenji Bahar still ranks seventh among starters in QB rating. The QB situation is worse in Pittsburgh, as a strong defense is masking the ineffectiveness of QB Troy Williams. New head coach Ray Horton has been super conservative, but it's also hard to blame him after inheriting the league's worst roster. I have successfully hammered the under in all three of Pittsburgh's games. They have a solid defense led by a swarming pass rush. However, QB Troy Williams is eighth among starters in passer rating, averaging only 63 passing yards per game through the first three weeks.
Best bet: Birmingham Stallions at Pittsburgh Maulers Under 44
We are going back to the well with Pittsburgh's under for obvious reasons. The Maulers are coming off an upset win over Philadelphia in which they settled for five field goals. The win serves as confirmation bias for the most conservative offenses in the league, so I don't expect many points at all from the Pittsburgh side. Especially considering how the Stallions' defense was taken to the woodshed by New Orleans this past weekend.
Pittsburgh's defense has been lights out, led by former first-round pick and Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster. The Maulers have allowed only 18.3 points per game against some of the league's best offenses. They get another one this week in Birmingham, which is the only thing keeping this total above 40. Pittsburgh's games have yielded combined scores of 37, 23 and 34. I will put my money on this one failing to make it to 44.