Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week VIII

We posted our second best week of the year. Hopefully, we are rounding into great handicapping form. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall: 27-22

Florida State -7 Louisville
What odds would you have given me prior to the season starting that Florida State and Louisville would enter this game with six combined losses and nearly zero percent chance to win the Atlantic Division? For Florida State, the explanation is pretty simple. A rough early schedule featuring a pair of undefeated teams (Alabama and Miami) and NC State as well as an injury to their starting quarterback has forced the Seminoles to grind out conference wins. Through five games, the Seminoles are averaging just over 18 points per game, which would mark their worst finish in that stat since 1976. However, there is a good chance their scoring numbers will go up this weekend. Last season Louisville paired a dominant offense with a defense that ranked first in the ACC in yards allowed per play and third in touchdowns allowed. The Cardinals lost defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to Mississippi State in the offseason and replaced him with Peter Sirmon. The results have been nothing short of disastrous. Call it 'The Sirmon on the Rocks'. Through four games, the Cardinals have nearly allowed more touchdowns (19) than they did over the course of eight conference games last season (20). In addition, the Cardinals have allowed nearly seven yards per play to conference opponents, which is quite a feat considering half their conference schedule has featured the struggling offenses of North Carolina and Boston College. Speaking of the Eagles, in their upset of Louisville last weekend, they scored more than 40 points against an FBS team for the first time since 2013. When your defense is congruent with New Mexico State, you have real issues. Obviously, the defensive coordinator change is an oversimplification of a host of issues, but whatever the reason(s), Louisville has one of the worst Power Five defenses this season. Taking that defense on the road against a team with revenge on their mind after last season's debacle is not an ideal situation. Take the Seminoles to win this one by a significant margin.

Iowa -1.5 Northwestern
Typically a narrow road favorite is in prime position to not only fail to cover, but also to get beat outright. Despite this trend, I think the Hawkeyes are a good play here. For starters, they have been sterling in the role of a road favorite since 2013, posting an 11-1-1 ATS record. Couple that with Northwestern's struggles as a home underdog (1-4 ATS in the role since 2015) and the numbers point to Iowa. While Northwestern has pulled their fair share of upsets under Pat Fitzgerald, most of them have come away from Evanston. The Wildcats have won eleven games since the start of the 2012 season as a betting underdog (regular season only). However, only three of those games have come at home! In addition, Northwestern has not lived up to their preseason expectations thus far in 2017. The Wildcats have already lost three games and their best win is against a Maryland team battling a plague of quarterback injuries. Iowa is coming off of a bye and has already faced road challenges at Iowa State and Michigan State. They probably won't blow the Wildcats out, but this feels like a defensive slog the Hawkeyes win by at least a field goal.

Georgia State +7.5 Troy
Georgia State opened their brand new stadium (to them at least) on August 31st and suffered an ignominious defeat to an FCS team. The Panthers got their starting quarterback hurt, turned the ball over four times, and managed just ten points. Since then, the Panthers have played four consecutive road games, including one against the team currently ranked second in the nation. Surprisingly, the Panthers won three of those four games, and return home after a nearly two-month hiatus with a perfect Sun Belt record and a decent shot at their second bowl game in school history. To be fair, the Panthers don't have any great wins, with two coming against FBS noobs Charlotte and Coastal Carolina and the other against perennial underdog Louisiana-Monroe, but for a team with just four road wins in their history as an FBS school prior to this season, that is still impressive. For a Sun Belt team, the Panthers have a prolific passing offense. Senior quarterback Conner Manning is averaging over eight yards per pass (over nine and a half if we remove the game against Penn State) and the team has allowed just eight sacks all season. The Panthers will look to cement their status as Sun Belt contenders against a Troy team that received a lot of publicity for their takedown of LSU a few weeks ago, but has struggled in the aggregate. After topping 30 points seven times last season, they have only managed to get to that number against an FCS foe in 2017. The Trojans have faced a few strong defenses in Boise State and LSU, but Akron, New Mexico State, and South Alabama have also held the Trojans in check. In Sun Belt action, Troy is tenth in the twelve team league in yards per play (Georgia State conversely is first) and recently netted exactly eight points in a home loss to South Alabama. Troy might be better than Georgia State (they did of course win at LSU), but this spread implies they would be about ten points better on a neutral field. For a Georgia State team with everything to play for in terms of the Sun Belt race, I don't see any way they don't keep this close.

Central Florida -8 Navy
Let me preface this by saying their opponents have not been all that strong in the aggregate, but Central Florida may have been the most impressive FBS team in 2017 (non-Alabama and Georgia edition). I was skeptical of the hype Central Florida was receiving in the offseason, but the Knights have dominated their opponents through five games. Consider they have yet to score fewer than 38 points, win by less than four touchdowns, or fail to cover as an increasingly larger and larger favorite. In fact, Georgia Tech fans are probably mighty happy their game in Orlando was canceled. Consider this your last chance to invest in a burgeoning startup before it becomes too successful and prices you out of the market. This will be your last chance to back Central Florida as a small favorite until their bowl game. There are some red flags in backing the favorite here as Navy has been a spry home dog recently, covering and winning outright in their last four games in the role. Couple that with their unique offense and you can see how this game could shake out with a Midshipmen win or cover, but I'll buy into the Central Florida hype and take them as a small favorite.

Louisiana-Monroe +5 South Alabama
This under the radar Sun Belt clash is classic weakness versus strength showcase. The Warhawks from Louisiana-Monroe are a win away from matching last year's total and have an outside shot at a bowl game in their second season under Matt Viator. The Warhawks are averaging over 47 points per game in Sun Belt action, but are allowing 42 in entertaining clashes you have to stream over ESPN3. However, their defensive liabilities may not be as important in this game as South Alabama has struggled scoring points in 2017. In their three games against other Group of Five teams (two Sun Belt games and Louisiana Tech), the Jaguars have averaged just 19 points per game and just 4.4 yards per play. Obviously, those numbers should improve after this game, but South Alabama is overvalued by the betting public after their 'massive' upset of Troy last week. The line in that game was around seventeen points, but it was inflated thanks to Troy's upset of LSU. Realistically, Troy should have been favored by about a touchdown (or less). South Alabama has pulled four upsets as a double-digit underdog since the start of the 2015 season, and they have failed to cover in their three previous follow-up games. In addition, South Alabama is just 1-6-1 ATS as a home favorite since 2014. These two teams will play a close game that will not be decided until the final possession and I would not be surprised if the underdog pulls the outright upset.

Michigan +10 Penn State
The final scores have not reflected it, but if you squint, you can find some holes in the Penn State 'offensive juggernaut'. The Nittany Lions averaged nearly 50 points per game and over eight yards per play in their non-conference trilogy. However, those games came against a pair of overmatched Group of Five teams (Akron and Georgia State) and a Pitt team that has one win against an FBS school. Once conference play started, the point totals stayed high, but the underlying performance was lacking. After needing a last second touchdown pass to beat Iowa, Penn State scored 76 combined points in easy wins against Indiana and Northwestern. However, in Big 10 play, the Nittany Lions have averaged just 5.28 yards per play (by comparison they averaged 6.51 last season). Heisman contender Saquon Barkley had just 131 yards on the ground and averaged under four yards per carry against Indiana and Northwestern. Penn State has compensated for their offensive struggles by winning the turnover battle (+5 through three games) and scoring two non-offensive touchdowns. Iowa, Indiana, and Northwestern have solid defenses, but Michigan is on another level. Since Don Brown became the defensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season, the Wolverines have allowed 30 or more points in regulation only once. In addition, no team has averaged six yards per play against Michigan during his tenure. When Michigan is a favorite, you are paying a premium to back them (10-12 ATS as a double-digit favorite under Harbaugh), but they provide some value when they are a dog. It hasn't happened very often (just twice in the Harbaugh era) and this marks the first time they have been a double-digit dog under Harbaugh. Michigan has issues on offense and that will probably prevent them from winning outright, but I love them catching ten points here.

Washington State -10.5 Colorado
Washington State, along with Clemson, got Chaos Weekend started late last Friday night when they lost in blowout fashion at Cal. The Cougars entered that game as a double-digit favorite, but did not manage an offensive touchdown for the first time since 2013 (a game they somehow won by the way). Obviously Washington State did not play well, but Cal has proven to be a strong defensive team, particularly at home. Under first year head coach and former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, the Bears have held four of their six FBS opponents to less than five yards per play. So Washington State's offensive performance was a little more excusable. In addition, the Cougars turned the ball over seven times, including a few highly improbably interceptions. Those plays hurt the Cougars in the present, but aren't predictable going forward. Considering they turned the ball over seven times, the Cougars played decent defense against the Bears despite allowing 37 points on the scoreboard. The Bears only scored three offensive touchdowns and averaged just 5.2 yards per play. The loss was certainly devastating to Washington State's playoff hopes, but Mike Leach has proven his teams will circle the wagon. During his tenure in Pullman, the Cougars have suffered four losses as either a double-digit favorite or against an FCS foe. The Cougars are 3-0 ATS in their previous follow-up games. The eccentric Leach should have his Cougars ready for a home game against a Colorado team that has declined dramatically from their division winning team in 2016. The Colorado defense, which ranked second in the Pac-12 last season in yards allowed per play, is currently second to last in the category this season. Washington State should get back on track offensively against the Buffaloes. Washington State is 7-2 ATS as a double-digit home favorite under Mike Leach (not counting two losses to FCS teams), and I would expect that trend to continue Saturday night.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week VII

Once again, we followed up a losing record, with a winning week. This is the time we make it two good weeks in a row. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 21-21

Eastern Michigan +6 Army
For the third game in a row, Eastern Michigan could not make the plays when they needed as they dropped a one-score game to Toledo. That result followed an overtime loss to Ohio and a close loss to Kentucky. With the MAC gauntlet starting next week, this game will go a long way toward determining whether of not the Eagles can get to a consecutive bowl games. Army is also looking for consecutive postseason appearances. A win here would give them five on the year, but the back half of their schedule is significantly tougher than the front, so a loss could derail those bowl hopes. The best team Army has beaten thus far is Buffalo, as they have beat up on the dregs of Conference USA the past two weeks. UTEP and Rice did not offer much resistance as the Black Knights rushed for more than 750 yards and ten touchdowns in those two games. While the running game has been prolific, the defense has been leaky. Buffalo averaged eight yards per play against the Black Knights, fellow option team Tulane averaged nearly seven, Rice averaged six, and even putrid UTEP had one of their best offensive showings of the year. The Army defense is just what the doctor ordered for an Eastern Michigan offense averaging just 19 points per game (and never topping 24 in any game) in 2017. The Eagles have been solid defensively in 2017, allowing just 18 points per game and under five yards per play in the early going. That is particularly impressive considering the Eagles have faced two strong MAC offenses (Ohio and Toledo) and a pair of Power Five teams (Rutgers and Kentucky). Eastern Michigan has been a solid road team under Chris Creighton, posting a 12-8-1 ATS record as a road underdog. They are an even more impressive 7-1 ATS in the role since the start of 2016. In fact, in their last four games as a single digit road underdog, the Eagles have four outright wins. Another here would not shock me.

Pittsburgh +12.5 NC State
This just seems like a game NC State is destined to lose right? After a huge home win against a top-20 Louisville team, NC State finds themselves ranked 20th in the latest AP Poll (their highest ranking since they climbed to 14th in 2003). The Wolfpack seem primed for a letdown, but let me give you a few more reasons the Panthers seem like a solid play here. For starters, Louisville's defense has crashed and burned. NC State averaged over seven yards per play against Louisville and probably should have won by a larger margin. However, outside of games against Kent State and Murray State, Louisville is allowing 6.68 yards per play! North Carolina, Clemson, and NC State all significantly exceeded their seasonal averages on offense against Louisville. I feel like the decline of Louisville's defense has not gotten a lot of press, so the NC State offense is probably a little overvalued. Another reason to fade NC State is the common opponent these two teams have faced. NC State beat Syracuse and Pitt lost to the Orange. However, the NC State game was in Raleigh and the Pitt game was in the Carrier Dome. NC State beat the Orange by eight and Pitt lost to them by three. That difference of eleven points comes close to this number, but once homefield advantage is accounted for, the difference is more than cut in half. I know extrapolating too greatly with the transitive property is folly, but this spread feels like it should be closer to a touchdown. Also keep in mind, this is NC State's second true road game. Their first was against Florida State with James Blackman making his first start for the Seminoles. Take Pitt to keep this one close.

UNLV +7.5 Air Force
I was drinking the UNLV Koolaid last weekend, as I thought they had a chance to knock off San Diego State at home. Alas, the Aztecs bounced back from a below-average showing the week before to crush the Rebels in Sin City. However, I don't think you should abandon the UNLV bandwagon just yet. Based on five games worth of data, UNLV appears to be a team that will struggle mightily against good defenses (see San Diego State and to an even greater extent, Ohio State), but will torch poor ones. If you have not checked the numbers lately, Air Force does not have a good defense. The Falcons have allowed at least six yards per play and a grand total of 132 points in their last three games. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Falcons have lost all of those games. Air Force has not gone quietly, putting up 107 points of their own in the three contests, but their defense is not to be trusted. Laying more than a touchdown in what appears to be a back and forth shootout is not the side you want to be on. Couple that with the fact that Air Force is coming off an emotional loss to Navy, and they could be prime for an outright upset. Since 2012, after facing a fellow service academy (what I think can be fairly classified as a rivalry game), the Falcons are just 2-8 ATS, including 1-4 as a favorite. Look for that trend to continue here.

Akron +14.5 Western Michigan
The spreads for Western Michigan appear to be inflated based on their spectacular performance last season. While the Broncos have adjusted to the loss of head coach PJ Fleck, quarterback Zach Terrell, and wide receiver Corey Davis, they have not been as successful against the number. Over Fleck's final three seasons in Kalamazoo, the Broncos were 24-13 ATS versus FBS foes. Thus far in 2017, the Broncos are just 2-3 ATS, but more importantly, 4-2 overall and in prime position for a fourth consecutive bowl bid. The Broncos will be looking for their twelfth consecutive MAC win against an Akron team that also enters unbeaten in MAC play. With every other MAC East team already sporting a conference loss, a win would go a long way toward setting Akron up for their first division title since 2005. The Zips are 3-3 thanks to a rough non-conference schedule that included dalliances with Penn State and Iowa State as well as a road trip against a Troy team that knocked off LSU. Of course, Western Michigan didn't exactly line up cupcakes as they opened with Southern Cal and Michigan State. Akron has played well as a road underdog against fellow mid-majors under Tommy Bowden, going 11-4 ATS in the role with four outright wins. Winning outright is probably too much to ask against Western Michigan, but I like the Zips to keep this one within a touchdown.

Navy +3.5 Memphis
Maybe its because they are a service academy. Maybe its because they run the archaic triple option. Maybe its because no one can spell their coach's name. Either way, Navy has been criminally underrated the past three seasons. Consider that in 2015, Navy won their first four and then nine of their first ten games, but did not enter the AP Poll until they were 7-1. They finished 2015 ranked 18th. Navy began 2016 3-0, and then 5-1, and then 9-2, but were only in the poll a total of three weeks. They did struggle at the end, losing their last three, so they did not finish in the final poll. Thus far in 2017, Navy is 5-0 and yet the Midshipmen barely cracked the latest AP Poll. In the past two and a half years, Navy has won five games as a betting underdog, with two of those wins coming against the Memphis Tigers. Thanks to their play and some scheduling quirks dealing with hurricanes, the Tigers have had a disjointed start in 2017. They opened with a closer than expected win against Louisiana-Monroe, saw their game with UCF postponed due to Hurricane Irma, upset UCLA in a shootout, struggled with an FCS school, were crushed by UCF in the rescheduled game, and then dropped 70 points on Connecticut. Despite the seemingly easy win against Connecticut, the Tigers allowed nearly seven yards per play to the Huskies. However, they were able to snuff out three drives by forcing turnovers (while committing none of their own) and stop a pair of fourth down attempts. Obviously forcing turnovers and stopping fourth downs will win you games, but relying on those two things is not the most reliable method moving forward. Navy's offense is as strong as ever, and their defense, outside of last week's showing against Air Force, has been solid in 2017. Look for the Midshipmen to make it three in a row against Memphis with an outright win on Saturday.

North Texas +3 Texas-San Antonio
The nation is probably not riveted with the divisional races in Conference USA, but this is a huge game. Every team in the West has at least one conference loss save North Texas, and a win by the Mean Green would give them a leg up on two of their biggest division threats (these Roadrunners and the Southern Miss Golden Eagles who were beaten by North Texas two weeks ago). North Texas has exploded on offense this season, averaging over seven yards per play in Seth Littrell's second season as head coach. In fact, despite a pair of losses to likely bowl teams SMU and Iowa, the Mean Green have averaged more yards per play than each of their first five opponents. The most amazing stat for the Mean Green is that they have already scored more points through five games (194) than they did for the entire 2015 season (182) when they went just 1-11 (the lone win was over Texas-San Antonio for what its worth). The Roadrunners have also shown improvement in their second season under a new coaching regime. Frank Wilson led the Roadrunners to their first bowl game in 2016 and despite missing a game due to Hurricane Harvey, a second bowl game seems assured. The Roadrunners pulled off the biggest win in school history in their opener when they upset Baylor in Waco. Of course, the Bears have not won a game this season, which is a common refrain for the three teams the Roadrunners have beaten. Baylor, Southern (FCS), and Texas State have combined for exactly zero FBS wins in 2017. Hard to see how oddsmakers made them a road favorite here. In addition, the team that beat the Roadrunners last week (in San Antonio no less), Southern Miss, lost to North Texas the previous week. The wrong team is favored here. I would feel comfortable backing the Mean Green even if this line were reversed.

Arizona -1 UCLA
This Pac-12 After Dark battle in Tucson will be an interesting clash between a pair of coaches with a lot in common. Both Jim Mora Jr. and Rich Rodriguez are in their sixth season at their respective schools and have guided their squads to division titles (Mora in 2012 and Rodriguez in 2014), but are coming off disappointing performances in 2016. After winning at least seven games in each of their first eight combined seasons, both teams managed seven wins as a duo last season. However, both seem to have improved and sport matching 3-2 records in 2017. They have even achieved those records in a similar fashion. Both teams lost to mid-major Group of Five teams in the non-conference, opened conference play with a loss, and beat Colorado for their first conference win. Arizona seems to have found their quarterback to lead them back to the postseason as Khalil Tate set the quarterback rushing record last week with over 300 yards on the ground. He also threw for 142 yards on just 12 pass attempts. Despite those heroics, Arizona only won by three points thanks to a defense that allowed 42 points and 300 yards rushing to Colorado. UCLA also has a pretty good quarterback. Josh Rosen, a likely early NFL entrant, has thrown for over 2000 yards and 17 touchdowns through five games. Unfortunately, the Bruins have not been as prolific on the other side of the ball. The Bruins have allowed nearly 40 points and 284 rushing yards per game this season. Every team save Memphis has torched the Bruins on the ground and that plays right to Arizona's strengths. With the Wildcats playing at home and this spread sitting under a field goal, they are the play here. This should be one of the more entertaining games on Saturday with about a five hour run time and very few defensive stops.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week VI

We failed yet again to post consecutive winning weeks as I managed just a 2-5 mark. Also, if you followed my advice and took Ole Miss, my bad. We'll try and do better this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 17-18

Eastern Michigan +13.5 Toledo
A few weeks after earning their first ever victory against a Power Five opponent (in name only), Eastern Michigan nearly got their second against Kentucky. The loss dropped the Eagles to 2-2, but the progress they have made under Chris Creighton is undeniable. Consider this: From 2008 through 2015, Eastern Michigan won six road games. Since the beginning of 2016, the Eagles have won five road games. To qualify for a second consecutive bowl game, and the third in school history, the Eagles will need to continue to be road warriors as five of their last eight games are away from Ypsilanti. The first of those contests comes against a Toledo team looking to win its first MAC championship since 2004. The Rockets have finished with at least six MAC wins six times over the past seven seasons, but have not been able to advance to the MAC Championship Game. Northern Illinois and Western Michigan have foiled their efforts. Thus far in 2017, Toledo has not been all that impressive. Ignoring their season opening win against FCS Elon, the Rockets have struggled putting away a winless Nevada team, needed a last second field goal to beat a Tulsa team with just a single win, and been moderately competitive for a three quarters against Miami. Nothing they have done thus far gives me the notion they will be able to beat a solid Eastern Michigan team by two touchdowns. The Eagles are 9-4 ATS as a road underdog since 2015 and I expect that trend to continue here.

Virginia -2.5 Duke
The most impressive aspect of Virginia's surprising win against Boise State two Fridays ago was not the fact that they won, but the fact that they rolled up 42 points and 440 yards against a heretofore stout Bronco defense. While Washington State did drop 47 points and 455 yards on the Broncos a few weeks prior, there were a few differences. That game was in Pullman, not Boise, it lasted three overtimes, and the Cougars had two defensive scores. Yards per play tells a much clearer picture. Washington State averaged just 4.8 yards per play against the Broncos while Virginia averaged 6.4. It marked just the third time the Broncos had allowed over six yards per play at home since 2012! Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert is doing his best Matt Schaub impression for the Cavaliers. With three wins in non-conference play the Cavaliers have a shot at their first bowl bid since 2011. Fresh off a bye, they host an improved Duke team in a perfect letdown spot. Last week, the Blue Devils were unbeaten and hosting a top-15 Miami team. The Blue Devils were game, but the Hurricanes pulled away in the second half and won 31-6. Off that tough game and their rivalry game against North Carolina the previous week with Florida State on deck (in Durham), this spread seems way too low. Take Virginia to win easily here.

Purdue -3.5 Minnesota
Its early, and I may be speaking too soon, but it looks like Jeff Brohm will have the Boilermakers back in the postseason faster than most initially thought. After winning just three games against Power Five opponents in four seasons under Darrell Hazell, the Boilermakers already have one such win in 2017. And that one win came by more points (32) than the combined margin of their three wins under Hazell (24). Unfortunately, thanks to a difficult early schedule that featured a pair of top-20 teams, the Boilermakers are just 2-2 a third of the way through the season. Purdue was very competitive against Louisville in the opener, losing by just seven and hung around with Michigan for the better part of three quarters. The good news for Purdue is that they will not face a defense as stout a Michigan's over the remainder of the season or a quarterback as talented as Lamar Jackson. And that might be bad news for Minnesota. Against the three teams without an elite defense, Purdue has averaged 36 points and 460 yards per game. Minnesota has a solid defense, so they may not get to those averages, but playing at home as a slight favorite, Purdue should be a solid play. Plus, Jeff Brohm's teams have a good track record as a home favorite. In his three seasons at Western Kentucky and early start at Purdue, his teams are 12-5 ATS in the role. Look for that trend to continue here with Purdue earning their first conference win of the season.

Miami -3.5 Florida State
I'll admit, taking Miami here makes me a bit uneasy. The Hurricanes have lost seven straight to the Seminoles, including a pair of games (2010 and 2016) where they entered as the favorite. Overall, four of the games, and the last three in a row have been decided by five points or less. However, as an alum of Wake Forest, I watched all of last week's Florida State game with great interest. While the Seminoles were able to pull one out in Winston-Salem, they needed to catch a few breaks. The Demon Deacons averaged a yard more per play than the Seminoles, but lost the turnover battle and allowed a backbreaking kickoff return. One turnover was deep in their own territory and directly led to a Florida State field goal, while the other was in Florida State territory and snuffed out a potential scoring drive. The kickoff return came when Wake Forest had just moved out to a nine-point lead and while the kickoff itself did not result in a touchdown, it put a heretofore anemic Florida State offense in prime position to score one. Everyone knows Florida State is now guided by a freshman quarterback, but I think the bigger issue for the offense is the line. Wake Forest sacked James Blackman five times, and while the Deacons have a better defense than most probably believe, Miami probably has better pass rushers. This Miami team also seems cut from a different sort of cloth than the recent vintage. With the Florida State game on deck, Miami headed to Duke last Friday night and soundly defeated a quality Blue Devil team. The win made the Hurricanes 5-1 ATS as a road favorite under Mark Richt, as they have proven to be a reliable team away from home. Florida State's history as a home underdog under Jimbo Fisher is a short one, so there is not much to be gleamed there. The Seminoles lost, but covered as a home dog to Clemson last year and lost and failed to cover as a home dog to Oklahoma in 2011. I think this is the year Miami finally exorcises their Seminoles demons.

Coastal Carolina +2 Georgia State
In their last game, Georgia State won at Charlotte. That win gave the Panthers five road wins as an FBS program. Depending on when you got the game, it also marked the first time they were ever a road favorite. Can the Panthers win two in a row on the road? While they were ultimately able to get the job done against a bad Charlotte team, the final score of 28-0 was misleading. The Panthers only averaged about half a yard more per play than the 49ers, but won the turnover battle 3-0, stopped the 49ers on a pair of fourth down conversions, and scored a touchdown when Charlotte blocked their field goal. Those three things are all solid contributors to victory, but not something to be relied on going forward (especially the score off the blocked field goal). After dispatching Charlotte, the Panthers will attempt to defeat another FBS newbie in Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers have been a little disappointing in their maiden FBS voyage. After opening with a victory against Massachusetts, they have dropped three in a row, including an embarrassing loss to the Leathernecks of Western Illinois two weeks ago. The FCS Leathernecks rolled up over 500 yards, averaged nearly nine yards per play, and scored 52 points against Coastal in Conway! The Chants rebounded in a solid effort against Louisiana-Monroe last week, where a fumble return on the game's final play made the score a little more lopsided than it actually was. Outside of the Western Illinois game, Coastal's defense has been decent (by Sun Belt standards), so we'll chalk that one up to FBS growing pains. Georgia State is not a dynamic offense (they have scored 38 points through three games), so there is no way I can back them as a road favorite. Take Coastal to win outright.

SMU +6.5 Houston
This is a revenge spot for the Cougars, who were embarrassed by SMU last season. However, I think SMU is a solid play as Houston has not impressed thus far in 2017. Outside of a beatdown of overmatched Rice, Houston has failed to score more than 24 points against Arizona, Texas Tech, or Temple. Two of those are Power Five teams, but neither is known for their defensive acumen. The Cougars did manage to win two of those three games, so they have played good defense, but the Cougars obviously miss the talents of the departed Greg Ward Jr. SMU is on the other end of the spectrum, as the Mustangs have scored at least 36 points in every game en route to averaging 48 per contest, but are also allowing over 30 points per game. Defensively, the Mustangs seem to either make or allow a big play. They have 21 sacks on the season (good for third nationally in sacks per game), but have allowed over nine yards per pass (remember the NCAA accounting method is faulty as sacks are counted as rushing yards). Houston has only allowed four sacks all season, so this will be an interesting battle. Houston will probably get over some of their offensive ills in this game as I expect a shootout. However, asking them to lay nearly a touchdown against a dynamic SMU offense is too much.

UNLV +11 San Diego State
The Mountain West is in an interesting spot at the moment. San Diego State is currently the second highest ranked Group of Five school (albeit in the AP Poll which doesn't really count for anything), just one spot behind South Florida. The Aztecs have beaten a pair of Pac-12 schools (Arizona State and Stanford) and own a solid win against Northern Illinois. However, the Aztecs may not even be the best team in the conference. According to Bill Connelly's win expectancy numbers, San Diego State should have lost each of their last four games (the previously mentioned trio and Air Force), yet the Aztecs came out on the right side of the scoreboard. That tightrope will be hard to walk for the rest of the season. Of course, the there are no more Power Five teams on the schedule, but Boise State does visit sunny San Diego next week, and the Aztecs could have to face the Broncos or a team like Colorado State in the Mountain West Championship Game. With the game against Boise looming, the Aztecs travel to Sin City to face a team that has coalesced since their shocking upset loss to Howard. Against teams not named 'Ohio State', the Rebels have put up at least 40 points, rushed for at least 300 yards, and averaged at least eight yards per play in every game. San Diego State always has a good defense under Rocky Long, but UNLV will be able to scratch out their share of yards and points. San Diego State should be able to run the ball effectively, with Rashaad Penny likely going over 1000 yards on the season (needs 177 to reach the mark), but I expect a competitive shootout so pop a 5-Hour Energy and stay up for this one.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week V

We managed a 4-3 mark in Week IV. We'll try to put together consecutive winning weeks for the first time this season. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 15-13

Iowa State +6.5 Texas
With the Big 12 looking unusually deep (Baylor and Kansas appear to be the only dead weight), this game is vital to the bowl hopes of both teams. Based on Bill Connelly's advanced stats, despite being ranked 49th, Iowa State is only favored in one game remaining on their schedule (granted they are projected to be within a touchdown in five other games). Similarly, while Texas is favored by the numbers in six of their nine remaining games, after a 1-2 start, they are just an upset or two away from potentially missing out on a bowl game. Suffice it to say, this Thursday night game will have a profound impact on the narrative for both teams going forward. Iowa State has been a lively home dog under Matt Campbell, going 4-1 ATS last season and earning either a push, close win, or close loss depending on the spread you bought the Iowa game at this year. Unfortunately, while the Cyclones have been close under Campbell, they have only won once as a home underdog. Outside of a season-ending blowout loss to West Virginia, their other five home losses under Campbell have come by a combined 26 points. The Cyclones could be in store for more of the same against Texas and Tom Herman. Herman has a fantastic overall record of 23-5 as a head coach, but he has struggled in the role of road favorite. Four of his five total losses have come as a road favorite and his teams have failed to cover the last three times in the role. The fan in me wants Iowa State to finally break through and get their first big win under Campbell, but I think the more likely result is another tight loss.

Illinois +6.5 Nebraska
I touted the benefits of Lovie Smith as a college underdog two weeks ago thanks to his defense and the Illini responded by giving up nearly 700 yards of offense to South Florida. Naturally, I'm back on them again. Let me explain my logic. South Florida has an athletic quarterback who carries the ball a lot (Quinton Flowers averages more than ten non-sack rushing attempts per game) and the Illini have a pair of quality defensive ends who excel at rushing the passer, but are not great at controlling running quarterbacks. Hence the devastation South Florida wrought. Nebraska comes to Champaign with a more traditional offense and a quarterback who is not a running threat. And perhaps not much of a passing threat either as Tanner Lee leads the nation in interceptions thrown. Illinois has offensive issues of their own, so they need this to be an ugly slog in the teens or low twenties to win. In fact, the Illini may have a quarterback controversy brewing. Despite their offensive struggles, Illinois is a good play here. They are coming off a bye while Nebraska is on a short week after an unimpressive performance against Rutgers last week. In addition, Nebraska has failed to cover as a favorite this season and are just 4-7 on the road under Mike Riley. This game probably won't be very aesthetically pleasing, but you can still make some cash if you back the Illini.

Vanderbilt +10 Florida
I'll say this for Jim McElwain, the man has been able to get it done in close games. In his three seasons at Colorado State and two and change at Florida, his teams are 17-4 in one-score games (12-2 in one-score conference games). Is this a repeatable trend or is he the proverbial hot hand at the craps table? It will be interesting to check back in a half-decade or so and see if this remarkable run continues. Thus far in 2017, it shows no signs of slowing down as the Gators have beaten Tennessee on a touchdown at the horn and escaped Kentucky in similar, but less dramatic fashion. Now the Gators try to move to 3-0 in the SEC for the second time in three years under McElwain. With Georgia looking strong, the Gators cannot afford to slip up against a team that typically resides at the bottom of the SEC East. A week ago, it looked like Vanderbilt might be a legitimate contender in the division. The Commodores were riding a five game regular season win streak dating back to 2016, with outright wins as a betting underdog against Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Kansas State. Alas, the resident conference bully came to Nashville and crushed the Commodores. However, based on the team's history under Derek Mason, a disheartening loss does not necessarily carry over to the following game. In 2014, Vanderbilt lost 51-0 to Dak Prescott and Mississippi State. They rebounded to lose by just a touchdown and easily cover in the season finale at home against Tennessee. In 2015, Vanderbilt was shut out by eventual Peach Bowl Champion Houston. In their next game, they traveled to Florida and nearly upset the Gators. Last season, Vanderbilt suffered a disappointing opening loss to South Carolina. In their next game, they crushed Middle Tennessee State. A week later, they lost by a large margin to Georgia Tech. They responded by upsetting Western Kentucky on the road in their next game. I wouldn't trust Vanderbilt to win this game, particularly with McElwain's resplendent record in close games, but I think they regroup and keeps this one close against a Florida team still reeling from a host of suspensions.

Northwestern +15 Wisconsin
Looking too far into the future is folly in college football, but the Wisconsin Badgers should be favored in each of their remaining games until Michigan comes to town in mid-November in the penultimate regular season contest. The Badgers breezed through the non-conference portion of their schedule, allowing just 30 points to their first three opponents while passing and rushing with equal aplomb. For Northwestern, non-conference play did not quite go according to plan. The Wildcats beat the Group of Five teams on their schedule, but were beaten soundly in Durham by an improved Duke team. Northwestern has rebounded from disappointing starts before, including last season when they opened 1-3 with losses home losses to Western Michigan, Illinois State, and Nebraska. Despite having five of their final eight games on the road, the Wildcats won three games away from Evanston (two as an underdog) and nearly upset Ohio State in Columbus as they secured a bowl bid. Northwestern has been a lively road dog recently, going 9-3 ATS in the role since 2014, including 5-1 as a double-digit road underdog. There is a legitimate question to how good Wisconsin actually is. While they have throttled their three opponents thus far, those three teams have combined for exactly one FBS win (Utah State over San Jose State). This spread should probably be closer to eleven or twelve points, so take the Wildcats here.

Wake Forest +7.5 Florida State
It seems I was a bit premature in my effusive praise of Wake Forest last week. The Deacons narrowly escaped Appalachian State in Boone thanks to a blocked extra point and a blocked field goal at the end of the game. Of course, the Deacons fared better than Florida State as the Seminoles dropped to 0-2 with a home loss to NC State. Quarterback James Blackman had a solid game in his first career start, throwing for nearly 300 yards and a touchdown. However, he was sacked four times by the Wolfpack defense, and the Seminoles managed only 21 points. Blackman will be making his first road start against the Deacons, albeit in admittedly not the most hostile environment. Still, Wake Forest has been solid at home under Dave Clawson, posting a 7-4 ATS mark as a home underdog. In addition, they have covered against the Seminoles in four of the last six games in Winston-Salem, including a pair of outright wins. Against competent teams, Wake Forest will have issues moving the football, but I think they can make this a low-scoring defensive slog. I don't think Wake Forest can simultaneously move to 5-0 while dropping the Seminoles to 0-3, but this one should be close.

Ole Miss +28 Alabama
I know this pick may seem ludicrous after Ole Miss was able muster all of 16 points in a loss at Cal and Alabama decimated what appeared to be a solid Vanderbilt team on the road. Let me explain my reasoning. For starters, the Cal game should be placed in proper context. ACC and SEC teams that make the trek west to face Pac-10/12 schools don't do well.
Since 2005, they are a cumulative 3-17 and have been outscored by about 17 points per game on average. This chart is a little deceiving for several reasons. I used conference affiliation at the time of the game or now as a determining factor so former ACC member Maryland's trip to Cal in 2009 is included as are Syracuse and Louisville's sojourns while they were Big East members. But should Texas A&M, a 'southeastern' team traveling to Los Angeles count? Probably not, but I included them anyway. In addition, many of these teams (Duke, Virginia, and Wake Forest for example) were huge underdogs in their games. However, I think it is telling that the only ACC/SEC underdog to win outright was LSU (against Arizona State as the slightest of underdogs in 2005). In addition, only four ACC/SEC teams have been favored in their road trips, and half of them lost outright (Ole Miss two weeks ago and Tennessee at the beginning of the Phil Fulmer death march in 2008). Anyway, I mention all that to posit that Ole Miss is probably a little undervalued after their loss to Cal. Similarly, Alabama is probably a little overvalued after their win against Vanderbilt. Its hard, even for a team like Alabama, to play at peak performance in every game. Here are just a few (cherry picked) examples from the past three seasons. In 2014, Alabama hammered Texas A&M 59-0. The next week, they failed to cover as a huge favorite at Tennessee. In 2015, Alabama was a slight underdog to Georgia and crushed the Bulldogs in Athens. They failed to cover the next week at home against Arkansas. Last season, Alabama beat Southern Cal 52-6. They failed to cover their next two games as large favorites against Western Kentucky and Ole Miss. The only thing the public loves more than a favorite is a heavy favorite, and they are paying about a four or five point premium to back the Tide here. Ole Miss does have some legitimate concerns here with leading receiver AJ Brown potentially missing the game and the Rebels having no running game to speak of. That would be a problem if I expected Ole Miss to win this game, but they don't even really have to keep it close. Expect a lot of Ole Miss punts, a few big passing plays by the Rebels, a glitchy Alabama offense, and a final margin of about three touchdowns.

Nevada +10 Fresno State
This line does not make a great deal of sense to me. Both these teams have faced arduous schedules in the early going with Fresno State battling a pair of top-ten teams (Alabama and Washington) on the road and Nevada playing two Power Five road games (Northwestern and Washington State) while also hosting a very good Group of Five team (Toledo). Fresno and Nevada have also faced one FCS school, and while the Bulldogs took care of business against Incarnate Word, the Wolfpack were shocked by Idaho State. That loss, plus the fact that they were annihilated by Washington State last week while Fresno enjoyed a bye is probably the reason for this inflated number. Keep in mind Fresno State has not been favored at home against an FBS foe, much less by double-digits, since 2014. Even more damning, the Bulldogs are also just 1-5 ATS in their last six games in that role. On the other side, Nevada is 10-4 ATS in their last fourteen games as double-digit underdog, albeit with most of those coming under Brian Polian, the previous coach (1-1 under Jay Norvell). Fresno State should not be laying double digits against any fellow Mountain West team. Take the Wolfpack to keep this one close.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

After a perfect Week II, regression was in order. We went 3-5, but the yearly total is right at the break-even percentage. We'll try to get above it this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-5
Overall: 11-10

UNLV +40 Ohio State
Last week, the spread was pretty much right on the money for Ohio State in their game against the Black Knights from Army. In my post, I picked the game (incorrectly) at +30 for Army, but at other outlets and on ESPN, I saw it at either 30.5 or 31, which is exactly where it ended up. I give that background to logically quantify this spread. Its not a direct apples to apples comparison, but if this spread is to be believed, then Army would basically be a ten-point favorite on a neutral field against UNLV. To be fair, the Rebels did endure perhaps the largest outright loss in gambling history earlier in the season. However, the Rebels responded to that disappointment by blowing out Idaho in Moscow and have had a week to prepare for their trip to Columbus. Meanwhile, Ohio State has had two Power Five games and a clash with Army's unique offense before facing the Rebels. With the Big 10's expanded conference schedule, this is the last non-conference game Ohio State will play before the postseason as conference play resumes next week with a challenging trip to Piscataway. Despite their loss to Howard, the Rebels actually have solid per play numbers through two games. They are averaging north of eight yards per play (granted against inferior competition) and have scored at least 40 points in each of their first two games. Precocious freshman quarterback Armani Rogers has thrown for over 400 yards and rushed for over 100 yards and will likely be the quarterback of the next bowl eligible UNLV team (it could happen this year!). I don't expect UNLV to come close to their seasonal averages against Ohio State, but if they can get to ten points they should be able to cover this bloated number.

Maryland -3.5 Central Florida
Through two games, and really just one, the public perception of Maryland has changed drastically. That the Terps crushed FCS Towson in their second game would not have moved the needle a great deal regardless of their performance in the opener. However, by beating Texas and the wunderkind Tom Herman in Austin, Maryland ratcheted expectations (at least marginally) in D.J. Durkin's second season. Despite losing their starting quarterback, Tyrrell Pigrome, to injury in the second half and allowing Texas to score two non-offensive touchdowns to keep the game close, Maryland beat the Longhorns for the first time ever (and also scored on Texas for the first time). With Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State in their division, to say nothing of improving Indiana and established Michigan State, anything beyond a bowl game is probably a pipe dream, but the Terps have served notice that they should be competitive. Contrast this to last season when they lost to the four teams on their schedule that finished ranked by a combined 160 points. With the tough road ahead, Maryland will need every victory they can get. Thus, they will likely not overlook a Central Florida team that took them to overtime in Orlando last season. The Knights are probably ready to play some football as they have not taken the field since the Thursday before Labor Day. In that game, the Knights dominated their in-state 'rival' from Florida International. The Knights led by 30 at the half before easing off the throttle in a 61-17 win. The offensive struggles from 2016 seemed to dissipate as quarterback McKenzie Milton averaged an obscene 17 yards per pass! However, it should be noted that Florida International struggled in their follow-up game against Alcorn State. I would be hesitant to read too much into the Knights' big win as they also laid 53 on the Panthers in 2016. Maryland has had a week off to prepare for this game and it will be the second started by freshman quarterback Kasim Hill who played well against Texas after entering the game and was not challenged against Towson. Couple that with the homefield advantage and Maryland should win this game by at least a touchdown.

TCU +13 Oklahoma State
Based on early returns there appears to be three legitimate contenders for the Big 12 title in 2017. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and TCU are all undefeated with a road win against a fellow Power Five team and glowing scoring margins. Of course, conference play has not even started yet so potential darkhorses like Kansas State, Texas, and West Virginia are still lurking in the weeds. However, methinks this conference opener will go a long way toward determining the participants in the new non-divisional Big 12 Championship Game. Oklahoma State has looked peerless in the early going, averaging 54 points per game and outscoring their opponents by 110 points through three games. The Cowboys were quite impressive in their most recent game, scoring touchdowns on their first seven possessions against Pitt before reeling the offense in. Despite their impressive start, I would posit the argument that Oklahoma State is probably overvalued here by close to a touchdown. The Cowboys have crushed their opponents, with two of the games coming away from Stillwater, but how good are the teams they have beaten? The Cowboys scored 59 points on Tulsa, but the Golden Hurricane allowed 96 points in their next two games against fellow mid-majors Louisiana-Lafayette and Toledo. The Cowboys scored 44 points against South Alabama, but the Jaguars allowed 47 points in their opener against Ole Miss. Finally, the Cowboys decimated Pitt, but the Panthers were beaten soundly by Penn State and narrowly edged FCS member Youngstown State (while allowing over seven yards per play to the Penguins). Suffice it to say, the competition has not been all that intense. TCU will be their toughest challenge yet, and while the Horned Frogs struggled a bit with SMU last week, keep in mind it was the dreaded 'sandwich game', coming between a trip to Arkansas and this foray to Stillwater. Plus, the Mustangs are usually the more motivated bunch in that game thanks to TCU's status as a Power Five program now. Since joining the Big 12, TCU is 9-3 ATS as a road underdog (2-0 as a double-digit road dog), with five outright upsets. Granted, two of those failures to cover came in Stillwater, but this line feels way too high. Take the Horny Toads to keep this one close.

Miami (Ohio) +2.5 Central Michigan
Assuming the Redhawks can overcome their fourth quarter collapse against Cincinnati last week, they should be a solid play in the conference opener for both teams. With a chance to claim the Victory Bell for the first time since 2005, Miami blew an eleven-point fourth quarter lead thanks to some questionable decisions by players and coaches. Miami may be disheartened by their rivalry loss, but the goal of a conference title is still in play. Remember, this team did not quit last season when they began 0-6. Instead, they rallied for an improbable bowl bid and nearly beat Mississippi State in the postseason. As long as their psyche is fine, I think the wrong team is favored in this game. The only thing Central Michigan has proven, as has pretty much every other FBS team since 2010, is that they can beat Kansas. Outside of their road whipping of the Jayhawks, the Chippewas have needed overtime (and six turnovers) to dispatch an FCS team and been blown out by a decent Power Five team. Central Michigan is the home team, but Miami has been a lively road dog under Chuck Martin, going 12-6 ATS with three outright upsets and a horde of near misses. Look for the Redhawks to take this one outright as well.

Wake Forest -4 Appalachian State
I must say, when examining Wake's schedule in the preseason, I assumed this game would be a loss. However, Wake has played their best football yet under Dave Clawson in the early going and seem to be pretty good this year. A second consecutive bowl game is certainly within reach, and who knows, perhaps the Deacons can upset one of the 'Big 3' (Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville) within their division. Through three games, Wake Forest has scored 131 points (granted against less than stellar competition). In Clawson's first year (remember the one that brought you the scoreless classic with Virginia Tech?), Wake did not score their 131st point until the ninth game! In took until the seventh game in 2015! Anyway, the offense, while it may not remain potent, is at least functional. The running game has me feeling particularly optimistic as the Deacons could average north of four yards per carry for the first time since 2010 and have a 1000-yard rusher for the first time since 2005. Don't get me wrong, Appalachian State still scares me, and I hate the fact that this game is in the mountains, but I feel much better about it than I did in July. Not only because of Wake's improvement, but also because the Mountaineers have not looked as strong as expected. Appalachian State opened the season traveling to Athens, and while I did not expect them to emerge from between the hedges with a victory, they were not very competitive. They trailed by 31 points entering the fourth quarter and outside of a few nice runs by quarterback Taylor Lamb, were not able to move the ball at all. They followed that up with an expected thrashing of Savannah State, but one shouldn't gleam much from that game as the Tigers were beaten just as soundly by Montana of the FCS. Finally, Appalachian State traveled to San Marcos to face a Texas State team with just a single FBS win since the start of the 2016 season. The Mountaineers were outgained by nearly 100 yards and averaged fewer yards per play while escaping with a 20-13 win. Historically, Appalachian State has given Wake fits, and even beaten them a number of times. My Wake Forest career began with a Thursday night loss to the Mountaineers. However, since joining FBS in 2014, Appalachian State is just 1-4 ATS against Power Five teams (I'm sure you remember the one cover). In addition, despite rarely being a home dog, they are 0-2 in the role since joining FBS, with both spreads clocking in below a touchdown (as this one does). I'm usually slow to come around, but I'm drinking the Wake Koolaid. The Deacons, even on the road, seem to be a touchdown better than the Mountaineers.

Georgia State Pick Em Charlotte
This game is the early favorite for least consequential final score of the season. Both Georgia State and Charlotte are relatively new to FBS and outside of a nice run at the end of 2015 for the Panthers, neither has had much success. Charlotte did pick up their first win as an FBS program against Georgia State two years ago, but these schools have combined for just twelve total wins against FBS programs in about six and a half combined years of play at the FBS level. Yuck. Anyway, I'm backing a team in this game that is currently averaging all of five points per game. Of course, had James Franklin not iced their kicker in the closing seconds, Georgia State could be averaging six and a half points per game. So there's that. Part of the reason for Georgia State's low offensive numbers is the fact they have only played two games and one of those came against Penn State. In the other game, when the Panthers reopened Turner Field, their quarterback, Conner Manning, was hurt and they fell to Tennessee State. Manning did play against Penn State, but put up dreadful numbers against the Nittany Lions. However, he played well for the Panthers last season and is likely licking his chops at the thought of playing a Charlotte defense that is allowing nearly nine yards per pass. Charlotte has played a strong team (Kansas State), but their secondary was also torched by Eastern Michigan and an FCS team (NC A&T). Their offense has not been much better, as they scored 14 total points against Eastern Michigan and Kansas State. College Football Final won't lead with the highlights from this game, but the money you can make from it spends just the same. All the Panthers have to do is win, and they should get Shawn Elliott his first win as a full-time head coach here.

Florida -3 Kentucky
Kentucky is on a nice run, having gone 10-3 over their last thirteen regular season games since starting 0-2 in 2016. In that span, the Wildcats have won more road games (four) than they won from 2010-2015 (three). Can Kentucky take the proverbial next step and win some conference games to put them in contention in the SEC East? Beating the Gators would go a long way toward that goal, especially considering they have lost thirty in a row to Florida. So how good is Kentucky? Can they break that streak? Last week I opined that South Carolina might be the least statistically impressive 2-0 team in the country. With the Wildcats winning in Columbia last week, they may have taken that title. Kentucky won the game by ten points, but they were actually slightly outgained by the Gamecocks and averaged nearly a yard and a half less per play. The Wildcats pulled off two huge fourth down stops while South Carolina missed three field goals (granted none were chip shots) and an extra point to boot. Previously the Wildcats had beaten Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky with better, but similarly mediocre statistical performances. Expecting Kentucky to win another game, especially against a team with the pedigree of Florida does not seem wise. Florida is coming off an emotional win against Tennessee, so there could be concern for a letdown. However, Gator fans should be cautiously optimistic about the offense after their performance against Tennessee. Even when removing the (don't call it a) Hail Mary pass against the Vols, Florida averaged a healthy 5.67 yards per play against the Vols. That's not a great number by any stretch, but it shows their putrid showing against Michigan likely had more to do with the quality of opponent than general offensive ineptitude. Kentucky has played decent defense through their first three games, but they ain't Michigan. The defense did get gashed by the Vols on the ground, but even with a good showing against Eastern Kentucky, the Wildcats are averaging under four yards per carry through the first three games so its unlikely they can have similar success. With a line right at a field goal, I can't take the underdog unless I have a belief they can win the game outright. I don't get that feeling here. Kentucky has actually performed poorly as a home dog under Mark Stoops, going 2-10-2 ATS in the role. That plus the general trend of this rivalry (the smallest margin of victory for Florida in this run is three points in 2003) makes the Gators the play here.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

That is how you overcome a slow start. We were perfect (with an asterisk) last week. The South Florida/Connecticut game, which was one of our picks, was canceled. So that means you get eight games this week. Don't worry, no extra charge. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-0
Overall: 8-5

Illinois +17.5 South Florida
In just a little over one season, Lovie Smith has built Illinois in the image of the Chicago Bears teams he led for nine years. Don't believe me? Just look at the numbers. Over the 144 games Smith coached in Chicago, his teams scored an average of 20.9 points per game. In the modern NFL, that is not a great total. However, his defenses allowed only 19.2 points per game, which is a very good showing. Thus far in 2017, his Illini are 2-0 and are averaging 22 points per game while allowing 14 points per game. Illinois has played very safe football in the early going, running the ball nearly twice as often as they have thrown it (80 rushes to 44 pass attempts) and ranking in the bottom quartile nationally in plays per minute. The initial competition thus far has not been elite, so it is legitimate to question whether this strategy is sustainable once Big 10 play begins. Eventually, Illinois will have to score in the 30s to win a football game. While this may not be a viable long-term strategy for turning the Illini program around, it is a great strategy for holding down the margin of defeat. When I handicapped South Florida's game against Connecticut scheduled for last weekend, I gave some potential reasons for their offensive struggles in the early going. The staff changes with Charlie Strong and Sterlin Gilbert taking over The Gulf Coast Offense and Marlon Mack departing for the NFL were the main culprits in my opinion. Without another point of data to refute that hypothesis, I have to believe South Florida's offense will again disappoint relative to their performance last season. I also think this is a bad matchup for South Florida schematically. The Bulls love to run the ball, especially with quarterback Quinton Flowers. That plays right into the hands of a strong Illinois rush defense. The Illini have allowed under three yards per rush in their first two games and have a pair of quality freshmen defensive ends in Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay who have combined for four sacks in the early going. The Illini probably don't have the offensive production to win this game outright, but they should keep it close.

Baylor +14.5 Duke
What a difference two games can make. While The Golden Nugget did not put this contest on their 'Games of the Year' summer list, one has to believe Baylor would have been a significant favorite if this game was handicapped over the summer. Even last week, its conceivable Baylor would have been favored. Of course, when you lose to an FCS team (albeit one with designs on moving up) and an FBS newbie, you can expect for the public to overreact and downgrade you faster than the Greek economy. Duke also contributed to this bloated spread by upsetting Northwestern as a small home underdog last week. While Northwestern was viewed as a darkhorse contender in the Big 10 West, early returns indicate the Wildcats are indeed not who we thought they were. Remember, they were down at the half against Nevada despite being favored by more than three touchdowns. So, while Duke's win and margin were impressive in a vacuum, it pays to not jump to conclusions after one game. Plus, while Duke did roll up over 500 yards on the Wildcats, that had more to do with volume (104 plays) than explosiveness (just 5.17 yards per play). Here are a few more trends to keep in mind regarding this game. Matt Rhule is no stranger to rebuilding programs by tearing them down first. His first Temple team finished 2-10, but the Owls played hard all season, finishing 5-0 ATS as a road underdog and 4-0 as a double-digit road dog. Finally, the public seems to overvalue David Cutcliffe and Duke (legitimately never thought I would type that). After going 12-5-1 ATS as a home favorite from 2008-2014, the Blue Devils are just 1-6 ATS in the role since. Duke will ultimately move to 3-0, but it won't be easy.

Utah State +14 Wake Forest
If you don't delve too deeply into the numbers, this game appears to be a real mismatch. Wake Forest is averaging over 42 points per game while allowing under ten. The Deacons beat Boston College by 24 points last week, which was their largest margin of victory against an FBS foe since 2013 and their largest margin of victory in a road game since 2008! While the 34 points were nice, Wake still averaged under five yards per play and can thank the defense for a lot of those points. Wake forced four turnovers (while not giving the ball away themselves). One of those turnovers resulted directly in a touchdown via the return, another set up the Deacons for a 26 yard 'drive', and the other put the ball on the BC two-yard line. Even with conservative accounting practices, the defense contributed to half of Wake's points against Boston College. Don't get me wrong, I love it when defense and special teams make life easier for the offense, but don't be fooled into believing Wake Forest has conquered their offensive inequities. Barring a glut of turnovers by the Aggies, the Deacons will not score a ton of points in this game. In addition, a letdown is likely as this is not a conference game so the Deacons may be overlooking Utah State, particularly with the three-game gauntlet (Appalachian State, Florida State, and Clemson) directly in front of them. Utah State will be plenty motivated playing against a Power Five opponent (and one they did beat in 2014). Don't forget, the Aggies hung tough with Wisconsin for the first 28 minutes or so. I like for Wake to win this game, but this feels like it will be much closer than two touchdowns.

Army +30 Ohio State
This is probably not what Ohio State needs coming off a tough game against Oklahoma. Even if the Buckeyes had beaten the Sooners, hosting an improving Army team that runs a unique offense was never a good matchup. I don't think the Buckeyes are in danger of losing this game as their foundation is too strong, but 30 points is a lot, especially in a game likely to see a smaller than average number of possessions. Army was burned on some big plays last week against Buffalo, and I don't mean the Bills, as quarterback Tyree Jackson averaged over twelve yards per throw against the Black Knights. Thus, I would expect J.T. Barrett to quiet the horde of Buckeye fans calling for his demotion by posting solid passing numbers here. The real question in handicapping this game is how many points can Army score? Ohio State has not played too many option teams. In fact, the Buckeyes two clashes with Navy (in 2009 and 2014) represent the only two instances in the past decade. In both those games, Ohio State allowed an average of 22 points and 278 rushing yards per game. Both those Navy teams qualified for bowl games, so they may have been a little better than Army. However, both those games also took place on the season's opening weekend, so the Buckeyes had all offseason to prepare for the unique offense. This game comes a week after a tough home loss against a fellow national contender. I have a hard time believing Ohio State can cover this number unless they can shut Army out. Based on a limited sample size against a similar, but probably superior team with additional time to prepare, it is doubtful that Ohio State can hold Army scoreless. I don't know that Army will put a scare into Ohio State, but they should do enough to cover this number.

Idaho +21 Western Michigan
After becoming perhaps the largest favorite to ever lose a game, UNLV rebounded by strolling into the Kibbie Dome and putting a hurting on Idaho. The Vandals allowed 550 yards at more than eight yards per snap to the Rebels while producing only 14 points of their own. With the team moving down in classification next year, it looks like they will be hard pressed to follow up on last season's surprising campaign. Did you know Idaho won nine games last year? Yes, they play in the Sun Belt, and none of the teams they beat were very good (at least in the regular season), but that was perhaps the quietest nine win season in recent memory. Anyway, this week the Vandals travel to Kalamazoo to take on a team that is also struggling in the early going. At least the Broncos can blame the schedule. While they have scored just three offensive touchdowns in their first two games, both of those contests came on the road against Power Five teams. Still, outside of some great runs by LeVante Bellamy, the Broncos have been pretty bad offensively. Take out a trick play touchdown, and the passing game has generated just three yards per pass (roughly equivalent to an Eddie George plunge up the middle at the end of his career). Even against quality defenses, those are not good numbers. I would expect Bellamy and the other backs (Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin) to have big games against an Idaho defense that was gashed by UNLV, but this spread just seems way too high considering Western Michigan's offensive struggles. Keep in mind, Idaho has been a solid road play under head coach Paul Petrino. The Vandals are 13-7 ATS as a double-digit road underdog, including an 11-3 mark since 2014. Plus, while the Vandals lost 20 of their first 21 road games under Petrino, they have actually won four of their last five. That might be stretching it here, but with a quality senior quarterback in Matt Linehan, Idaho should do enough to stay within two touchdowns.

Toledo -10 Tulsa
This Group of Five clash is only getting the streaming treatment on Saturday, but you might not find a game with more fireworks on Saturday. Toledo has consistently been the bridesmaid in the MAC West division, finishing no worse than second in six of the past seven years with no MAC Championship Game appearance to show for it. In a season without a prohibitive Group of Five favorite, can the Rockets break through and perhaps garner a New Year's Six bowl bid? Well, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, the Rockets will look to improve to 3-0 for the third consecutive year against an entertaining Tulsa squad. The Golden Hurricane have seen 191 total points scored in their first two games. Unfortunately, Tulsa has only scored 90 of those points. Tulsa lost by a large margin to a top-ten Oklahoma State team, but perhaps of greater concern was the 42 points they allowed at home to Louisiana-Lafayette. Both teams averaged north of seven yards per play with the Ragin' Cajuns actually edging the Golden Hurricane in that metric. With that defensive track record, its hard to see them slowing down Toledo and senior quarterback Logan Woodside. As long as this spread stays around ten points, the Rockets are a solid play here. They should not struggle at all moving the ball against Tulsa, and while Tulsa will do some scoring of their own, they won't be able to make enough stops to keep this one close.

Kentucky +7 South Carolina
Is South Carolina the most statistically unimpressive 2-0 FBS team? No way. Take a look at the overall numbers for Illinois or Old Dominion. However, the Gamecocks are probably the most statistically unimpressive 2-0 team with a pair of legitimate wins. The Gamecocks have beaten a pair of Power Five opponents away from home despite being outgained by over 300 total yards and despite averaging nearly half a yard fewer per snap than their opponents. How have they done this? They have pretty much run the board in 'The Little Things Bingo'. The Gamecocks have returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, have a turnover margin of +4, and have stopped their opponents three on fourth down. While it is possible to walk this tight rope for a full season (hell my alma mater did it in 2006), expecting it to continue is a good way to be disappointed. Teams will eventually stop kicking to Deebo Samuel and for a few games here and there, the turnover margin will probably swing the other way. This team feels like a lite version of Muschamp's second Florida team. The defense is not nearly as good, but the passing game is better. That Florida team was able to skate by all season on middling per play numbers, but then 2013 happened. The bill usually comes due. Anyway, while that Florida team was able to keep winning all year, they were not very good against the number as a favorite, posting a 3-5 ATS mark in the role with two outright losses. Kentucky has flown under the radar in the early going with less than impressive wins against Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky. However, Kentucky has actually won the last three games in this series despite being an underdog twice and the Gamecocks have only covered once against the Wildcats since 2009 (the first game after Stephen Garcia was dismissed in 2011). Look for more of the same this week. South Carolina may move to 3-0, but the Wildcats will put up a fight.

Kansas State -4 Vanderbilt
Of all college football teams to have played at least two games, care to guess who ranks first in scoring defense? Its Vanderbilt. The Commodores have allowed just six points through two games, limiting Middle Tennessee to one touchdown pass (where they proceeded to miss the extra point) and holding Alabama A&M scoreless. Holding the Blue Raiders to six points is impressive as they traveled to Syracuse last weekend and upset the Orange while putting 30 points on the board. However, extrapolating anything from the big win over Alabama A&M is folly. The Bulldogs were shut out by the Commodores, but they also lost to a UAB team rebooting its football program over Labor Day Weekend. In fact, Alabama A&M has played eight FBS teams since 2012 and their smallest margin of defeat in that span is 27 points. Of course, Kansas State has not exactly faced an SEC West quality schedule in the early going. The Wildcats began the season in the top-25 for the first time since 2014 and responded by crushing Central Arkansas (FCS) and Charlotte by a combined 84 points. Consistently covering as a road favorite is about the only thing Bill Snyder has not done in his second stint as Kansas State coach, posting a mediocre 6-6-1 ATS mark in the role. However, I am extremely skeptical of Vanderbilt's offense in this game. The Commodores have been solid on defense under Derek Mason and their offense has averaged 40 points per game in their last four home games. However, two of those games came against FCS foes and the other two were against Ole Miss and Tennessee teams limping to the finish in 2016. Kansas State, like most Big 12 defenses, typically employs a bend, but don't break strategy, so quarterback Kyle Shurmur should post solid yardage totals. However, to win this game though, Vanderbilt will need to punch the ball in the endzone. I don't know if they can do that as running back Ralph Webb has struggled against low-level competition (under three yards per carry) in the early going. The Big 12 got two solid non-conference road wins by comfortable margins last weekend, and I believe they will add a third this Saturday.