Thursday, January 18, 2018

2017 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: AAC

Last week, we looked at how AAC teams fared in terms of yards per play. This week, we turn our attention to how the season played out in terms of the Adjusted Pythagorean Record, or APR. For an in-depth look at APR, click here. If you didn’t feel like clicking, here is the Reader’s Digest version. APR looks at how well a team scores and prevents touchdowns. Non-offensive touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and safeties are excluded. The ratio of offensive touchdowns to touchdowns allowed is converted into a winning percentage. Pretty simple actually.

Once again, here are the 2017 AAC standings.
And here are the APR standings sorted by division with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, the AAC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine if teams drastically over or under perform their APR. By that standard no team had a record significantly different from their expected record. With nothing of note to write about there, let's move on to something a little more interesting.

On New Year’s Day, UCF defeated Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to wrap up an undefeated season. Some naysayers may speculate that Auburn lacked motivation in the game. And that is a valid point.  It was certainly business as usual for UCF with no outside distractions. The victory was notable since it marked just the fifth time since 2005 than a mid-major (non-BCS or Group of Five) team finished the regular and postseason without a loss. It also marked the first time any team accomplished that feat in the playoff era (since 2014). How does UCF stack up against those other four teams? I’m glad you asked. Let's dive into a quick and painless analysis of each team based on their in-conference YPP and APR numbers, their SRS, and how their wins stack up. Moving chronologically, we’ll begin with 2006 Boise State.
Surprisingly, the Broncos do not even rate as the best WAC team in terms of YPP. Hawaii had a ridiculous offense in 2006 (arguably better than the 2007 version) and despite their defensive shortcomings, they edged Boise in Net YPP. In APR Boise rated out ahead of their secluded conference mates. The SRS, which stands for Simple Rating System, is a quick and dirty way to rate college football teams based on margin of victory and strength of schedule. For more, check out this link. It is far from the final word on team ratings, but it a good measure of team strength. Boise’s rating implies they were about 14 and a half points better than the average FBS team on a neutral field and this number ranked tenth in 2006. I used top-50 SRS wins as a proxy for the good teams Boise beat and bottom-100 SRS wins as a proxy for the terrible teams they beat. As the table indicates, about a third of Boise’s wins came against either the very worst of FBS or an FCS team. This table and the ones to come do not make any distinction between FCS team ratings and lump them in with the FBS chaff. Prior to beating a good, but hardly great Oklahoma team in a riveting Fiesta Bowl, Boise’s best wins came at home against Hawaii and Oregon State. The Broncos did garner a pair of solid road wins and their five top-50 wins is not a bad showing.

In 2007, Hawaii finished the regular season unbeaten, but were humbled in the Sugar Bowl by an SEC team. In 2008, another unbeaten mid-major returned to the Sugar Bowl to face an SEC power, but the results were a little different.
YPP and APR crown TCU as the Mountain West’s best team in 2008, but Utah beat them on the field in a low-scoring Thursday night classic. The win against the Horned Frogs was their fifth of the season that came by a touchdown or less. Many, myself included, thought that clutch play would evaporate when the Utes faced the Crimson Tide, but Utah jumped out to a 21-0 lead and held the Tide at bay when they cut the deficit to four points in the second half. Outside of Alabama, the Utes beat three top-50 teams in the regular season, including another top-ten team in the aforementioned Horned Frogs. The Mountain West was the strongest mid-major conference in 2008, but it still featured a few lightweights, with two teams ranking in the triple digits. Utah did not win a single true road game against a top-50 opponent, but you can’t blame them for not trying. They opened the year in Ann Arbor against Michigan, but the Wolverines went just 3-9 and also lost at home to Toledo.

In 2009, a pair of mid-majors finished the regular season unbeaten. In the Fiesta Bowl, Boise State and TCU faced off with the Broncos scoring an upset win.
Unlike 2006, the Broncos rated out as the top WAC team by both YPP and APR. Only Nevada, with Colin Kaepernick befuddling defenses with The Pistol, prevented the Broncos from sweeping the statistical accolades in the WAC. The Broncos opened the 2009 season with a home win against an Oregon team that would end up winning the Pac-10, but did not face another team inside the top-50 until their bowl game with TCU. The Broncos only faced four truly terrible teams, but a down year in the WAC meant there were no additional opportunities for marquee wins. Thankfully for the Broncos, their reputation preceded them. Memories of their undefeated 2006 season and dramatic victory against Oklahoma plus their undefeated 2008 regular season were fresh in the minds of voters. Otherwise, they may not have gotten a shot to prove how good they were against TCU.

After losing three total games in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, TCU finally completed a season with a zero in the loss column. In the process, they snagged a bid to the Rose Bowl and finished ranked second in the final AP Poll.
TCU swept the statistical honors in the Mountain West, finishing with the best offense and defense by both YPP and APR. The Mountain West was strong once again in 2010, and this certainly contributed to TCU’s high finish in the polls, with three teams ranking in the SRS top-40. The Horned Frogs also had a sneaky good win in non-conference play against Oregon State. The Beavers may have finished 5-7, but four of their seven losses came against Boise State, Oregon, Stanford, and TCU (all teams that finished in the AP and SRS top-ten). However, even with their Rose Bowl victory against Wisconsin, the Horned Frogs did not beat a single SRS top-ten team.

Following TCU’s victory in the Rose Bowl, there was a dry spell for mid-majors. Part of that is because two formerly unbeaten mid-majors (TCU and Utah) got called up to the big leagues, joining the Big 12 and Pac-12 respectively. There were a few near misses, as Boise finished with one loss in 2011 (in agonizing fashion to TCU), UCF lost a single game in 2013 (though the Knights were technically in a BCS conference), Houston lost to Connecticut in 2015, and Western Michigan lost their bowl game to Wisconsin in 2016. However, UCF finally broke through with an undefeated campaign in 2017.
Memphis did edge UCF in Net YPP thanks to a slightly better defense, but the Knights beat the Tigers on the field twice, so there’s that. Their victories against the Tigers were their best wins until the bowl tilt with a top-ten Auburn team. The Knights did miss out on another potential quality win as their game with Georgia Tech (39th in the SRS) was canceled due to weather issues. Even without that game, the Knights stack up favorably wins wise with the other mid-majors on our list.

So which mid-major was the best? I’d be inclined to favor the 2010 version of TCU thanks to their dominance of a solid Mountain West (that Net YPP above three is hard to ignore). Still, you wouldn’t be remiss in pointing out that while they did have some good wins, they did not really beat any elite competition.

And finally, before we go, I just want to include the most recent unbeaten power conference (BCS or Power Five) team. Florida State ran roughshod over their schedule on the way to a national title in 2013, but there wasn’t a great deal of heft on it.
Florida State’s Net YPP, APR, and SRS numbers are phenomenal, but look at those wins. Prior to the ACC Championship Game, they had just three top-50 wins, with their victory against a down Florida team barely qualifying. They didn’t beat a top-ten team until the bowl game, yet I don’t recall hearing anyone wanting to exclude Florida State from what was then a playoff featuring only two teams. Unlike the unbeaten mid-majors, Florida State only faced a pair of truly awful teams, but outside of name recognition, was Florida State's 2013 schedule that much different than UCF's?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

2017 Yards Per Play: AAC

Another college football season has come and gone. The long, dark offseason is here. But don't fret too much. I'll be here to help you kill a little time over the next 20 weeks as each FBS conference gets the Yards Per Play (YPP) and Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR) treatment. That will get us into May, when football is still a long way off, but at least the sun shines more. We'll take our sojourn alphabetically as we have for the past two years. That means we begin with the home of the current national champion, the American Athletic Conference.

Here are the AAC standings.
So we know what each team achieved, but how did they perform? To answer that, here are the Yards Per Play (YPP), Yards Per Play Allowed (YPA) and Net Yards Per Play (Net) numbers for each AAC team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by division by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games. Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings. It would be fantastic if college football teams played 100 or even 1000 games. Then we could have a better idea about which teams were really the best. Alas, players would miss too much class time, their bodies would be battered beyond recognition, and I would never leave the couch. As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s YPP. Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards Per Play and Yards Per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or under-performing by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2017 season, which teams in the American Athletic Conference met this threshold? Here are AAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
East Carolina was the only AAC team that saw their expected record differ significantly from their actual record. The Pirates were bad in 2017; by both their record and per-play numbers, but a team with the Pirates appalling overall statistics does not usually manage to win a quarter of their conference games. The Pirates played well in exactly one conference game, when they hammered Cincinnati at home in their penultimate game. In the contest, they averaged nearly two more yards per play than the Bearcats. That result would prove to be an outlier as any hope for closing the season strong evaporated the next week when Memphis hung 70 on them. All told, of East Carolina’s six conference losses, three came by at least 30 points, five came by at least 24 points, and only one came by single digits. The cumulative effect of those losses mitigated their one strong performance.

I know this is a retrospective of the American Athletic Conference for 2017, but this portion of the post will only be tangentially related to the AAC. I’ll be more AAC-centric next week, I promise.

Arkansas made what I thought was an interesting hire in poaching Chad Morris from SMU and I wanted to address it. Is hiring Morris a good move for Arkansas, and perhaps even more importantly, is going to Arkansas a good move for Morris?

Chad Morris’ career record at SMU hardly stands out. In three full seasons, his teams managed just a 14-22 mark. His record in conference play was even worse at 8-16. Devoid of context, that does not sound like a record that will net you a Power Five job. Of course, context matters, and Morris was taking over a team that won just one game the season before he arrived. The Mustangs improved each season under his tutelage, going from two wins in his first season, to five in his second, to seven in his third. Obviously, within this framework, Chad Morris appears to be a solid hire as he raised the SMU program from the depths of college football to be a competitive team in the premiere mid-major conference. Of course, SMU was also in pretty bad shape when Morris’ predecessor took over.

June Jones also took over an SMU team that won just a single game the year before he arrived. In addition, the Mustangs had posted just one winning season since returning from their NCAA-mandated death penalty in 1989. You can make a cogent argument that Jones was stepping into a more hopeless situation. And if you look at the numbers, he did better than Morris in terms of resurrecting the program, particularly in conference play.
SMU may have finished just 7-7 in Jones’ third season, but they won their division and played for the conference title. Even when the program was leaking oil at the end of his tenure, his final three seasons were comparable record-wise in the aggregate to the three Morris spent in Dallas.
Morris did coach in a tougher conference, but the Conference USA Jones coached in was better than the current iteration of Conference USA. Lest we forget, seven current members of the AAC came from Conference USA in 2013. My point is, Morris' rebuilding project is hardly unique in college football, especially when compared to his predecessor.

Let’s drill down a little more into Morris’ three years at SMU. Where did his teams excel? Where did they struggle? Here are the conference YPP and APR numbers for each of his three teams.
It’s pretty clear what side of the ball prevented SMU from winning more games in the AAC. His offenses improved each season and his final offense was the best in the AAC outside of Orlando and Memphis. The defense on the other hand…Put it this way, the next average defense Morris fields will be his first. His initial SMU team allowed over 45 points per game. His second team improved because it would be hard to be much worse, but still allowed over 36 points per game and his final team once again allowed over 36 points per game. If Morris were simply the offensive coordinator as he was at Clemson, this would not be any of his concern, but as head coach, it is his responsibility to recruit competent defensive players and hire coaches who can put them in position to succeed. He has not proven thus far that he is capable of doing that. And speaking of defense, care to guess what side of the football Arkansas needs the most help on?
It’s uncanny how bad Arkansas’ defense has been under Bret Bielema, especially the past two seasons. Allowing over seven yards per play in two consecutive seasons is quite an accomplishment. I guess we need to give Bert credit for somehow dragging the 2016 team to a bowl game. So Arkansas, with tremendous defensive deficiencies, hired an offensive-minded coach with a track record for bad defenses. What could go wrong?

Morris appears to understand what held his SMU teams back as Arkansas recently hired esteemed SEC defensive coordinator John Chavis. Chavis has been with the conference since Tulane and Sewanee were members and he has coordinated some fantastic defenses (most notably LSU in 2011), but his career that encompasses the YPP and APR era is a mixed bag.
Chavis has never put a terrible defense on the field, but his last few years at LSU and his tenure at Texas A&M reeked of mediocrity. I know mediocrity in the SEC is above-average nationally, but it makes sense to compare Chavis to his conference peers especially since he is moving to a school that does not recruit as well as his previous three stops. And speaking of recruiting...

I am also confused why Morris would want to go to Arkansas (other than the obvious reason of exorbitant sums of money). By taking the Arkansas job, Morris has assured that he will be coaching a team that talent-wise is optimistically fifth best in the SEC West. Let’s give Morris the benefit of the doubt and assume he can out-recruit Ole Miss and Mississippi State. He still has to contend with Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Texas A&M every season. Do you really want to push that boulder year after year? I think hanging out in the AAC West until a better job opened up would be a superior course of action. Morris did have to deal with recruiting to a private school, but two other schools in the division (Tulane and Tulsa) have the same issues and another is a military academy (Navy). Houston and Memphis are the only large public schools in the division and both could potentially lose their head coaches in the next few years, giving Morris the advantage of stability at SMU.

I think Arkansas reached on a coach with a bad defensive track record coming off a rebuilding job that is not as impressive as it appears on the surface. I think Morris could have held out for a better job that did not include sharing a division with four perennial top-twenty teams. I’ve been wrong before (once or twice), but I don’t think this marriage is built to last.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Optimal Playoff Size

Back in 2014, college football fans got what they had been clamoring for since the sport began –a playoff. No longer would computers and stodgy old newspapermen decide the best team in college football. The champion would be determined on the field and there would be no controversy. No split titles and no politicking in the press or on television. Just the best eight sixteen thirty two four teams deciding things between the lines. By most accounts, the playoff has been a massive success. There have been a few stinkers, but also some classics. The hoopla surrounding the games and the selection show has provided ESPN with countless topics and talking points for their on-air talent to pontificate on. Even the commercials have been pretty good. Of course, when somethings is successful, that inevitably leads to expansion, which in this case is bracket creep. Everyone knows it’s just a matter of time before the playoff expands. The big questions are, when it expands, how much will it grow, and who will be included? To try and come up with an optimal number of playoff teams, I looked to college basketball, a sport that has used a tournament to crown its champion for nearly 80 years.

Before we look at college basketball, let’s take a look at the FBS playoff. Currently, the playoff includes the four ‘best’ teams. ‘Best’ of course, can mean different things to different people, but let’s assume the four teams selected are indeed, the best of what’s around. Currently 130 teams play at the FBS level. So, the playoff includes about 3% of the FBS population.
But let’s be real here. New Mexico State and Alabama are not really playing football at the same level. New Mexico State could win every game on their schedule for the next ten years, and probably would not ever sneak into the four-team playoff. In fact, no team from the Group of Five has finished higher than twelfth in the final playoff rankings. For all intents and purposes, those teams outside the Power Five and Notre Dame are not eligible for the playoff. Therefore, the playoff includes about 6% of the playoff-eligible population.
In 2011, the NCAA basketball tournament expanded to 68 teams. I was not a huge fan of this development, but no one consulted me. About 350 teams have played Division I basketball each season since the field expanded, give or take. This means that roughly 20% of all teams playing DI basketball make the playoff.
Of course, as in football, most teams really have no shot of winning the national championship. A few years ago Jim Boeheim bitched about the tournament not expanding despite more teams moving up to Division I. Boeheim is partially right. Twenty years ago, there were only 305 teams playing collegiate basketball at the highest level. DI membership has increased by about 15% in the last two decades. However, those newcomers are not competing with Syracuse for a bid to the tournament. Teams like Longwood and Cal State Bakersfield are competing with teams of similar history and stature for one automatic ticket to the Big Dance. In April, I wrote a piece regarding at-large bids in the NCAA tournament. I’m still waiting on my Pulitzer, but the conclusion is that there are essentially eight leagues that dominate the pool of at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Those leagues are the Power Five football conferences, the Big East, the American, and the Atlantic-10. If you don’t play in one of those leagues (or are not a certain private institution located in Spokane, Washington), you don’t have much of a shot at the national title. However, if you do play in one of those leagues, there is basically a two in five five shot you will make the playoff.
Until I ran the numbers, I didn’t realize how much the NCAA tournament rewarded major conference mediocrity. Over 40% of teams in the top-eight conferences made the NCAA tournament each season since 2011. To me, this seems to invalidate a significant portion of the regular season. In addition, when you let the riff-raff in, you can end up with a bad champion.

The way I see it, the FBS playoff needs to strike a balance between being egalitarian and preserving the importance of the regular season. If FBS used the same 20% ratio as DI basketball, that would give us a playoff field of about 24 teams (which is the size of the FCS playoff). That is probably a little too big. Similarly, if FBS used the 40% ratio of Power Five teams, that would give us a playoff field of about 24 Power Five teams. This would render the regular season pretty much useless. The tone deaf fans and coaches angry at star players for sitting out glorified exhibitions would lose their minds if a star player sat out a regular season game with a playoff bid already secured.

So what is an optimal size for a playoff bracket? I have two suggestions, and since I am a mid-major apologist, they both include accommodations for Group of Five teams.

Proposal # 1:
Eight-team field with automatic bids to each Power Five conference champion, an automatic bid to the highest ranked Group of Five team, and two at-large spots.

I’m open to altering this one slightly to eight at-large spots with a guaranteed spot to the highest ranked Group of Five team. The past few seasons, nearly every Power Five champion has at least been in the conversation for a playoff spot, but in cases like say the ACC in 2008, a Power Five conference champion may not necessarily merit a bid. In addition, removing the conference champion provision gives Notre Dame a fairer shake.

Proposal #2:
Sixteen-team field with automatic bids to each FBS conference (ten total) and six at-large spots.

This is my personal preference because it guarantees the Sun Belt and MAC at least have a theoretical chance at winning the national championship. It also virtually guarantees every top-ten teams makes the playoff as the Power Five conference champions would likely account for at least four of the top-ten teams. Of course, this is probably the most unrealistic option as this would require the national champion to play seventeen games which would keep the student athletes away from classes for too long (wink wink) and also require them to play a physically taxing and potentially debilitating sport even longer for free.

Playoff expansion is coming and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Thankfully, the nature of football means expansion has its limits. The regular season will still matter, and even with an expanded bracket, we will probably never end up with a champion as bad as NC State or Villanova.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

We ended the regular season with a winning week to push us two games over .500 on the year. However, we are still be below the gambler's break even percentage of .524. A 5-2 record (or better) over bowl season will put us above that mark. Let's get it!

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 49-47-2

Cure Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
Georgia State +6.5 Western Kentucky
In his first season in charge in Atlanta, Shawn Elliott guided the Panthers to their second bowl game in school history. That second bowl game will be a return trip to the Cure Bowl where they fell to San Jose State two years ago. Georgia State doubled their win total from last season, but the Panthers have fielded pretty much the same team both seasons. Last year's team averaged 19.9 points per game and allowed 26.6. This year's team averaged 19.7 points per game and allowed 25.5. Last year's team finished 1-2 in close games while this year's team was 4-1 in such contests. In football, as in life, randomness plays a large role in success. Last year's average to poor luck cost Trent Miles his job. This year's fantastic luck has bought Shawn Elliott goodwill in Atlanta. That goodwill will likely dissipate somewhat if the Panthers lose the Cure Bowl as it would mark their third consecutive loss. It would also behoove the Panthers to score some points, as they have managed just twenty total points in their last two games. The good news for the Panthers is their opponent in the Cure Bowl declined significantly after losing their head coach. Western Kentucky went 23-5 (an even more impressive 23-2 against teams not in the SEC) in 2015 and 2016 with consecutive Sun Belt titles. In those 28 contests, the Hilltoppers averaged nearly 45 points per game! As is the case with all mid-major programs, that success got their head coach an ostensibly better job. The Hilltoppers turned to Mike Sanford Jr. to lead them in 2017. Some regression was to be expected with the Hilltoppers losing seven starters on offense including a pair of 1000-yard receivers and a 1500-yard running back. However, the Hilltoppers scoring average dropped by nearly twenty points per game and their scoring margin actually fell into the red. The Hilltoppers cannot blame a brutal schedule for their decline, as half their wins came against teams that won two or fewer games (Ball State, Charlotte, and UTEP) and they only beat one team that finished bowl eligible (Middle Tennessee State). Neither team in this bowl game is good, as they both rank in the triple digits in the Sagarin Ratings. Western Kentucky is better than Georgia State, but after consecutive double-digit win seasons, how motivated will they be to face a team with as little national cache as Georgia State? These teams are much closer in quality than this spread indicates. Take the Panthers to keep this one close.

Las Vegas Bowl @ Las Vegas, Nevada
Boise State +8 Oregon
The Boise State Broncos will be making their sixteenth consecutive bowl appearance when they take on the Oregon Ducks in fabulous Las Vegas. Since joining FBS in 1996, the Broncos have proven to be the most successful startup of all time. 2017 marks their twentieth consecutive winning season, their sixteenth consecutive year of appearing in the AP Poll at some point during the year, and their thirteenth conference title. The Broncos have dipped a little (by their standards) since Chris Petersen left for Washington, but they are still the most consistent mid-major program. The Broncos were solid on both sides of the ball this season, ranking third in the Mountain West in yards per play and fifth in yards allowed per play. Their per-play differential ranked third in the conference, but thanks to some shrewd negotiating tactics when they joined the Mountain West, they were allowed to host the conference championship game despite having the same record and losing to the other title game participant. The home field likely made the different as the Broncos won a tight defensive affair to claim their first conference title since 2014. While the Broncos are an underdog in this game, they did manage to retain their head coach. Unfortunately, for Oregon, that is not the case. When the Florida State job came open, Willie Taggart headed back east. The Florida State job is one of the best in college football, so you can hardly blame him for leaving despite spending just one season in Eugene. That one season was successful as the Ducks improved by three games over their 4-8 disaster in 2016. Most importantly, the Ducks were able to fix their defense. In 2016, they ranked eleventh in the Pac-12, allowing nearly seven yards per play to conference opponents. They improved that number by more than a yard and a half and ranked third in 2017. In fact, had their quarterback not missed significant time, during which they went 1-4, the Ducks could have contended in the rugged Pac-12 North. Of course, while the Ducks did lose just a single game with Justin Herbert taking snaps, that was the softer portion of their schedule. Five of those seven games were at home, and just three came against teams that finished with winning records (and the Ducks lost one of those). Despite the improvement from 2016, Oregon is not the dominant force they were under Chip Kelly and for a bit under Mark Helfrich. I'm surprised Oregon is laying more than a touchdown with their coaching situation in flux against a quality, motivated mid-major opponent. Boise State has had a unique track record against Power 5 opponents under Bryan Harsin. When the Broncos are favored, they have won four of six games, but have covered just twice. When they are an underdog, they are just 1-2 straight up, but 2-1 ATS. The lone game they did not cover as an underdog came in Harsin's first game against what turned out to be a very good Ole Miss team. The Broncos will be the more motivated, hungry team here, and with them catching more than a touchdown, they are an easy play.

Birmingham Bowl @ Birmingham, Alabama
South Florida -3 Texas Tech
South Florida's game with Texas Tech has high stakes, as the Bulls will attempt to become the first team to win three Birmingham Bowls. That statement is not entirely true. When South Florida won the inaugural edition, it was sponsored by Papa Johns. The Bulls became the first team to win two editions of this bowl game when they knocked off South Carolina in overtime last season. The win allowed the Bulls to finish in the final polls for the first time in school history, and a win here would see them finish ranked in back-to-back seasons. A win would also be their third in a row against Power Five conference teams. And unfortunately for the Bulls, win or lose, this will mark the final game for quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers has accounted for 107 touchdowns during his career in Tampa and is 28 yards short of rushing for 1000 yards for the second straight season. He will leave South Florida ranked fourth on the school's all-time passing yardage list and with 44 yards rushing, the all-time leading rusher! Don't get the narrative twisted though. The Bulls are not an imbalanced team. Their defense actually ranked first in the American Athletic Conference in yards allowed per play and the team improved their scoring defense by nine points per game from last season. The Bulls were very disruptive on defense, ranking ninth nationally in tackles for loss (fourth in tackles for loss per game) and three individual defenders racked up more than ten tackles for less (Bruce Hector, Greg Reaves, and Mike Love). The Bulls will take on a Big 12 team that is renowned for being imbalanced, but were actually mediocre on both sides of the ball. In Kliff Kingsbury's first four seasons in Lubbock, the Red Raiders ranked in the top half of the Big 12 in yards per play each season (twice finishing second) and in the bottom half in yards allowed per play (once finishing last and twice finishing second to last). The defense improved to fifth in yards allowed per play this season, their highest ranking since finishing third in the category in 2007. However, the offense regressed to sixth in yards per play and the net result was more of the same. The Red Raiders finished 3-6 in the Big 12 (same as 2016) and are now just 16-29 in conference play under Kingsbury. The Red Raiders did spring a pretty big bowl upset during his first year in charge, but the Bulls should be sufficiently motivated in facing a Power Five opponent and will want to send Flowers out in style. The Bulls should win this game by at least a touchdown.

Hawaii Bowl @ Honolulu, Hawaii
Fresno State +2.5 Houston
This Christmas Eve showcase features a pair of teams piloted by first year head coaches. For Houston, their first year head coach did a reasonable job guiding the team after Tom Herman departed for the more prestigious university in Austin. The Cougars went 7-4, but dropped three games by four points or less, so their record could have been much better. The Cougars ranked fifth in the American in yards per play and third in yards allowed per play. Their per-play differential ranked fourth in the conference behind the two participants in the conference championship game and South Florida. Meanwhile, Fresno State enjoyed a sensational season, especially considering the modest expectations they entered the year with. The Bulldogs went 1-11 last season and entered 2017 on a thirteen-game losing streak to FBS opponents. That number reached fifteen after the Bulldogs endured difficult road trips to Tuscaloosa and Seattle. However, once conference play started, the Bulldogs played exceptionally well under Jeff Tedford. They won seven of eight conference games and ranked second in the conference in per-play differential. Their defense was especially dominant, ranking first in yards allowed per play and permitting just eleven offensive touchdowns in eight conference games. The Bulldogs even crept into the top-25 of the AP Poll for a brief period. However, they dropped a tight game at Boise in the Mountain West Championship Game, missing out on their first conference title since 2013. One overlooked aspect of this game is that Fresno State has already played in Hawaii this season, beating the Warriors back in November. As the Bulldogs and Warriors have been in the same conference for a quarter century, they have made fourteen trips to the islands since 1992. Of course, that familiarity with the islands did not help them five years ago. Houston has only made one prior trip to Hawaii, losing to the Warriors in this very bowl game fourteen years ago. That game featured 102 combined points. With these two quality defenses, I would be very surprised if this total hit half of that. Houston came into their bowl game last season as a slight favorite against a Mountain West opponent. That didn't work out so well. This has been a trend for the Cougars, first under Herman and now under Applewhite. Each of their four losses under Herman came when the Cougars were favored and their five losses under Applewhite have come under similar conditions. Take the Bulldogs to not only cover, but win outright.

Quicklane Bowl @ Detroit, Michigan
Northern Illinois +5 Duke
After a one-year hiatus both the Huskies and Blue Devils are returning to the postseason. The Huskies will be playing in their ninth bowl game in the last ten seasons. However, this was not your typical Northern Illinois team. The Huskies did average over 30 points per game for the eighth consecutive season, but they ranked just tenth in the MAC in yards per play. The good news for the Huskies is that their quarterbacks who received the most playing time in 2017, Daniel Santacaterina and Marcus Childers, are a sophomore and a freshman respectively, so the offense should improve over the next few seasons. The Huskies relied on their defense to get them back to a bowl game. The team ranked second in the MAC in yards allowed per play and held their opponents to under twenty-one points per game. The Huskies spent so much time in opponents' backfields they should be required to pay property taxes, as they posted the most tackles for loss per game in the nation! Duke also has issues on offense, ranking thirteenth in the ACC in yards per play. Their defense was not much to write home about either as they ranked just eleventh in yards allowed per play. Overall, their per play differential ranked twelfth in the ACC. So how did they qualify for a bowl game? David Cutcliffe has done his best Bill Snyder impression and maximized Duke's odds of winning despite poor peripherals. The Blue Devils made over 80% of their field goal attempts, went for it on fourth down more often and converted more often than the national average, and returned four interceptions for touchdowns. Those little things helped the Blue Devils finish 6-6 despite meh per play numbers. Can Duke keep doing the little things and win their second consecutive bowl game? Northern Illinois is just 4-4 against Power Five opponents under Rod Carey, but they are 7-1 ATS. The Huskies have been underdogs in seven of the eight games (their lone turn as a favorite was a blowout win against Purdue) and seven of the eight games have come away from DeKalb. Detroit is not a short jaunt from home, but it is certainly a more MAC friendly location for the Huskies. Rod Carey has yet to win a bowl game as a head coach, so that does concern me somewhat, but this spread should be closer to a pick em. Catching more than a field goal makes the Huskies the easy play here.

Independence Bowl @ Shreveport, Louisiana
Southern Miss +16 Florida State
After a brief and sudden sojourn into awful irrelevancy, Southern Miss has returned to their rightful place in the college football pecking order. The Golden Eagles are a quality mid-major, but not quite good enough to win their league. Southern Miss won or shared three of the first four Conference USA championships, but once the new Millennium began, they only managed to win the title once in between 2000 and 2010 despite winning posting a winning record each season. The continued mediocrity eventually cost Jeff Bower his job. The first few years under Larry Fedora were not much different, with the Eagles winning seven, seven, and then eight games. However, the Eagles finally broke through in 2011. They won their division and then upset Houston in the Conference USA Championship Game. Fedora parlayed that into the North Carolina job and the Eagles sank like a stone under Ellis Johnson in 2012. Todd Monken engineered a slow rebuild and the Eagles were division champs in his third season. He departed for the NFL and Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson took over the program.  The Eagles have won fifteen games in Hopson's two season, including a win against Kentucky is his first game. However, six of their ten losses under Hopson have come when they were favored, including five of their six conference losses! Those point spreads seem to indicate the Eagles have better underlying talent that their opponents, but are not necessarily maximizing it. The yard per play numbers agree, as the Eagles ranked second in Conference USA in yards per play and fourth in yards allowed per play. Their per play differential ranked second behind Florida Atlantic. The Eagles will face another team that under-performed relative to their per play numbers. By now, everyone knows that Florida State had to reschedule a game with Louisiana-Monroe just to eke out bowl eligibility. The Seminoles lost their quarterback in the opener and lost their head coach just before the season ended. In between, they posted a 3-5 ACC record, their first losing conference record since 2006, despite a positive per play differential. Under offensive guru Jimbo Fisher, the Seminoles ranked eighth in the ACC in yards per play, but were fourth in yards allowed per play. The Seminoles finished the season winning their final three by an average of nearly forty points per game. Those are very Florida State-like numbers. However, those wins came against Delaware State (FCS), a Florida team playing out the string, and Louisiana-Monroe. With the exception of Florida (and this year who knows) Southern Miss is better than all of those teams. The Eagles will have something to prove against a Power Five opponent, so they should be plenty motivated here. How motivated will Florida State be playing in Shreveport when they had hopes of ending the season in Atlanta? I don't think Southern Miss will win, but this number is way too high.

Citrus Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
Notre Dame +3 LSU
When I was perusing bowl spreads, this one stuck out like a sore thumb. LSU, a team that lost to Troy and was not competitive against Mississippi State is favored against a Notre Dame team that was ranked third in the nation at the beginning of November. Granted, Notre Dame did lose two of three down the stretch, but those games were on the road against top-fifteen teams. The Miami team they lost to did not lose at home this season. Ditto the Stanford team. Meanwhile, LSU did win six of seven to end the year after being upset by Troy, but outside of the Auburn win, none came against stout competition. In the SEC, LSU was solid, ranking sixth in yards per play and fifth in yards allowed per play. Their per play differential ranked fourth behind the three titans (Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia), but it was significantly behind those teams. Quarterback Danny Etling brought LSU above-average quarterback play for the first time since Zach Mettenberger was under center. Etling averaged over nine yards per throw and tossed just two interceptions on the year. Etling will be challenged by a Notre Dame defense that ranked fifteenth nationally by permitting just 6.2 yards per pass. Of course, Notre Dame will probably have issues of their own throwing against LSU. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush completed a little less than half of his passes, but made up for it by rushing for over 700 yards and 14 touchdowns. As a team, the Irish rushed for over 3000 yards and ranked third nationally averaging 6.37 yards per carry. All signs point to this being a close game, but it feels like the wrong team is favored. Under Brian Kelly, the Irish are just 3-3 in bowl games, but when they are not facing elite teams like the Alabama team that won the national title in 2012 and the Ohio State squad that may have been the best team in the country in 2015, they are 3-1 with a pair of outright upsets, including one over LSU three years ago. The teams entered that game under similar circumstances, with Notre Dame having lost five of six after a hot start and LSU entering as winners of four of six. I expect more a repeat here with the Irish springing the outright upset.

You didn't think the bowl preview would only include picks for a few games did you? No, dear reader I have a few extra bits of statistical minutia for you. We'll begin with a trivia question.

By my calculations, seven bowl games feature exhibitions between teams that were once members of the same conference at the same time. Teams that happened to be Independent at the same time are not counted. Can you name them all? Extra credit if you get the last one, as they were conference mates before World War II.



As you probably would have guessed, the common bond between most of these teams is the Sun Belt. Since forming in 2001, the Sun Belt has been the home to 18 different FBS teams at one point or another. It is typically a destination for teams just moving up to FBS as half of its all-time membership began their FBS lives in the conference. The defunct Western Athletic Conference also had a revolving door of membership around the turn of the century, so it is represented multiple times here as well. New Mexico State and Utah State are well acquainted, sharing a conference (and nickname) four separate times in a quarter century. Missouri and Texas is the obvious example involving Power Five teams, but yes, national semifinalists Alabama and Clemson once shared a conference. Back when the world has but a dark void and the almighty had yet to create the SEC, or ACC for that matter, Clemson and Alabama (along with a nearly literal cast of thousands) called The Southern Conference home.

And before we leave conference affiliation, the Independence Bowl also features a clash of former conference mates (on the hardwood). Back in the late 80's and early 90's Southern Miss and Florida State did battle in the old Metro Conference (both teams even made the NCAA tournament in 1991) before the Seminoles moved to the ACC.


Before we sign off for 2017, let's discuss the unique Rose Bowl pairing. As any college football fan knows, the Rose Bowl historically pairs the Big 10 and Pac-10/12 champion. Even with the Rose's inclusion in the BCS and later College Football Playoff, this tradition was mostly observed. However, with the Rose serving as a semi-final game and no Big 10 or Pac-12 teams in the playoff, this will be the first time since 2001 that both participants are not from the Big 10 or Pac-10/12. That national championship Rose Bowl marked the first non-Big 10/Pac-10 clash since the forties. Including that game and this one, there have been nine non-traditional Rose Bowl participants since World War II.
Amazingly, the Big 12 has accounted for five of those spots, with Oklahoma and Texas making multiple appearances. Georgia will be the first SEC team to play in the Rose Bowl since Alabama following the 1945 season.

Well, that's all I have for you. Enjoy bowl season and check back a week or so after the National Championship Game for the first of the annual offseason posts examining each of the ten FBS conferences using YPP and APR. Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Strangers in the Field Part III: How'd We Do?

I went to Vegas back in the summer and made some wagers. Here is how they turned out.

Over/Under Win Totals

Bowling Green over 4 wins -135 ($30 to win $22.25)
The Falcons managed a 3-5 conference record in 2016 under a first year coach and I figured they could at least match that in 2017. If they managed three conference wins in 2017 and beat their FCS opponent, the Falcons would at least push. Alas, the Falcons lost to their FCS opponent (a team that at least made the FCS playoffs) and managed just a par of conference wins. We’ll call this a decent to poor bet, but it was far from the worst one I made.

Buffalo over 3.5 wins even ($50 to win $50)
Head coach Lance Leipold, a massively successful Division III coach, would be entering his third season and just needed to win a third of his games to cash this ticket. The Bulls made me sweat a bit, losing a pair of one-point games and a seven overtime thriller, not to mention their close loss to Army, but won their final three to finish 6-6. One of the benefits of making these bets is that I watch more games involving the teams I bet on than I normally would. Buffalo was a lot of fun to watch this season. I’m no pro scout, but Anthony Johnson seems like a name you may want to remember. He averaged over 100 yards receiving per game despite the Bulls being forced to play their backup and third-string quarterback for a significant portion of the year. The deep ball to Johnson was the highlight of MACtion 2017.

Central Florida under 7.5 wins -115 ($30 to win $26.10)
This was a major whiff. Despite improving by six games in Scott Frost’s first season, the Knights were not a good offensive team in 2016. I figured the team would stagnate and then surge in Frost’s third season in charge. The Knights featured one of the best mid-major offenses in 2017 and finished the regular season undefeated. However, despite this poor wager, I still earned a push thanks to Hurricane Irma, which resulted in the Knights only playing eleven regular season games

Georgia Southern over 5 wins +110 ($30 to win $33)
Another major whiff. Georgia Southern also lost to their FCS opponent (unfortunately, a common refrain for teams I bet on) and began the season 0-9. They did show some spunk late in the year, winning two of their final three games. If they would have fired Tyson Summers last year, maybe this ticket would have cashed.

Illinois over 3.5 wins +120 ($30 to win $66)
Another whiff. As I mentioned earlier, one thing I like about making these bets is that it forces me to watch these teams more than I normally would. Watching the Illini made me thankful I don’t have to watch them regularly. The program appears to be hopeless as a winless Big 10 season would attest. I know the team was young, but I did not see improvement throughout the year. Lovie Smith is allegedly coaching the team, but it would not shock me if his face fell off in a postgame presser and a Men In Black style alien (with no knowledge of football) was actually controlling his him.
Sorry. I thought we had five downs.

Marshall over 5 wins -130 ($30 to win $23.10)
Marshall represented the inverse (or converse, I haven’t had a logics class in a while) of the Plexiglas Principle. The Herd fell hard and fast in 2016, and I expected a bit of a rebound in 2017. Marshall won three of four non-conference games, including an extremely lucky win against Miami (Ohio) and had this ticket cashed by Halloween. Thank goodness, as the schedule toughened in November and the Herd finished 7-5. The Herd did lose their last two regular season games by a combined three points, so Marshall was closer to finishing with nine wins than they were to less than five.

Ole Miss over 5.5 wins -130 ($40 to win $30.80)
Matt Luke did make a few questionable coaching decisions in the Ole Miss games I watched and the Rebels appeared to be quite undisciplined, but give him credit for keeping this team together. After a 2-3 and later a 3-5 start with no bowl to play for, the Rebels never quit and competed until the very end. It did take Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald wrecking his ankle for this ticket to cash, but Ole Miss should have beaten Arkansas rendering the Egg Bowl irrelevant in determining whether or not this was a winner. At one point in the second quarter, the Rebels had a 96% chance of winning their home game with the Hogs.

SMU over 5.5 wins -110 ($30 to win $27.30)
The Mustangs seemed like easy money after their 4-1 start, but they made me sweat a little before cashing this ticket. They did top six wins before Halloween, but a tough November stretch (Central Florida, Navy, and Memphis) made me nervous. Thankfully, I could watch those games with a detached indifference. SMU was a lot of fun to watch in 2017, but their defense prevented them from winning big.

Texas-San Antonio under 6.5 wins even ($30 to win $60)
Like Central Florida, this ticket ended up being a push thanks to a canceled game. I had a much better read on the Roadrunners though. They finished with six wins and they would have been a decent-sized underdog in their cancelled game. This was a decent bet that probably would have cashed without the weather interruption.

UNLV over 5.5 wins +125 ($30 to win $37.50)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but a team I bet on lost to an FCS opponent. Some have said it was the largest point spread defeat in college football history. Even with that loss, UNLV still had a chance to win go over this number as they stood at 5-6 heading into their annual rivalry game with Nevada. The Rebels even had a second half lead, but eventually lost by a touchdown. Even though they didn’t cover, this was a decent bet. UNLV also lost to Air Force despite owning a 27-0 lead and lost at home to the worst BYU team (perhaps) ever. I’m glad I’m not a UNLV fan as this was a season of missed opportunities.

Utah State over 4.5 wins even ($40 to win $40)
Unlike UNLV, Utah State took advantage of a down BYU team and cashed this ticket relatively easily. You can make the argument Utah State should have won seven or eight games as they held fourth quarter leads against both Wyoming and Air Force.

Wake Forest under 5.5 wins -145 ($40 to win $27.60)
I didn’t mind being wrong about this one. Dave Clawson’s teams typically have great success in his third and fourth season. However that trend was going up against a brutal schedule. All told, the Deacons faced ten teams that won at least six games in 2017 (with five of those games coming on the road). I figured that tough schedule would have them sitting at 5-7 or worse. Wake Forest finished with 7 wins and could have actually won eight or nine considering they lost at home to Duke and a down Florida State.

Game of the Year

September 9th Boise State +6.5 Washington State -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
By kickoff, this line had moved a little after Boise’s less than impressive showing in their opener against Troy. The line was around nine or ten points, so I didn’t buy at a good price. However, the Broncos were in command of this game with a 21-point fourth quarter lead until quarterback Montell Cozart threw a ridiculously stupid pass that Washington State returned for a touchdown. This serves as exhibit A in evidence that you may leave Kansas, but a little bit of Kansas always stays with you. The Cougars tied it in regulation and nearly gave me an awful bad beat as they scored first in the second overtime to lead by seven. Thankfully Boise responded and forced a third overtime where they lost by three. I didn’t buy at good price, but this was a good bet as Boise appeared to be the better team.

November 4th TCU +2.5 Texas -110 ($20 to win $18.20)
TCU was favored by around a touchdown when this game kicked, so I bought at a good price. TCU jumped out to a 17-0 lead and while Texas trimmed the lead to 17-7, they would never really threaten again. This was a great bet.

November 4th Iowa +16 Ohio State -110 ($20 to win $18.20)
At kickoff, the line for this game was about the same, so I didn’t buy a good price. I was very worried Ohio State would wax the Hawkeyes, but thanks to some Kinnick Stadium magic, Iowa put an inexplicable beating on the Buckeyes. This was probably a decent bet with the home team catching double-digits, but never in my wildest dreams did I foresee this outcome.

November 11th TCU +15 Oklahoma -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
This looked like easy money at kickoff, as TCU was an underdog by about a touchdown or so, meaning I had roughly eight points to play with. Alas, Oklahoma obliterated TCU’s defense, scoring 38 first half points before putting it in cruise control in the second half. The Horned Frogs only lost by 18, so there was always a chance for a backdoor cover, but this was not a good bet.

November 25th West Virginia +20.5 Oklahoma -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
I definitely underestimated Oklahoma’s offense heading into the season. I figured under a young, first-year head coach that the Sooners would suffer some offensive regression. Negative. The Sooners scored on pretty much every drive in this game and won by 28. I was a little unlucky as West Virginia lost their starting quarterback in the previous game and while his absence could have meant a few more points for the Mountaineers, Oklahoma dominated this game from start to finish and deserved to cover.

November 25th Utah -1.5 Colorado -110 ($50 to win $45.45)
After a season’s worth of data, this line moved more than a touchdown with Utah hosting Colorado as a ten-point favorite, so I bought at a good price. Needing a win to lock up bowl eligibility, the Utes jumped out to a 28-0 lead and were never threatened. This was a great bet.

Conference Champion Bets

TCU to win the Big 12 +1000 ($10 to win $100)
TCU advanced to the Big 12 Championship Game, but the Horned Frogs were manhandled for the second time in less than month by Oklahoma. Still, the Horned Frogs were one game away from cashing this ticket, so it was a decent bet.

Miscellaneous Bets

Milwaukee Brewers to win World Series +1500 ($10 to win $150)
By the time I returned from Vegas, the Brewers were effectively tied with the Cubs in the NL Central. The Brewers made a little run at the second Wild Card late in the year, but were never in playoff position after late-July.

Minnesota Twins to win World Series +3000 ($10 to win $300)
The Twins made the playoffs as the second Wild Card in the AL and actually had an early lead on the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game. This was a decent bet considering the long odds.

Tampa Bay Rays to win World Series +5000 ($10 to win $500)
The Rays never really made a run, which was surprising to me as I thought they were much more likely to make the playoffs than Minnesota. I suppose this wasn’t a terrible bet given the long odds, but it wasn’t very good either.

Reckless Parlay I:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 26th Massachusetts +1 Hawaii
Nope.
Game 2: September 1st Utah State +29 Wisconsin
Nope.
Game 3: September 2nd Florida International +17.5 Central Florida
Nope.
Game 4: September 2nd Middle Tennessee State +6 Vanderbilt
Nope.
If I had done the opposite on all these games it would have cashed.

Reckless Parlay II:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 31st Buffalo +27.5 Minnesota
Winner.
Game 2: September 1st Charlotte +12.5 Eastern Michigan
Nope.
Game 3: September 1st Florida Atlantic +14 Navy
Nope.
Game 4: September 2nd Marshall +1 Miami (Ohio)
Winner.
Not even close to cashing, but much better than my other parlay.

So here is the tale of the tape.

Money Wagered: $680
Money Won: $669.40
Return on Investment: -1.56%

After two mildly profitable excursions, I lost about ten bucks this year. I'll hold UNLV personally responsible and be sure not to bet on them when I go back next summer.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIV

One weekend undid almost all the good work from the previous three weeks. Alas, this is the final weekend of the regular season and penultimate Magnificent Seven post. Where does the time go indeed? As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 45-44-2

Massachusetts +2 Florida International
Obviously, this game sticks out like a sore thumb on Championship Saturday. The Minutemen and Panthers are far from college football royalty, but both have enjoyed solid seasons in 2017. Florida International has won seven games for the first time since 2011 and with a win here and a victory in their bowl game, the Panthers would set the school record for wins in their first season under Butch Davis. The Panthers are not necessarily a good team, but they have taken advantage of a weak conference and solid play in close games (4-1 record in one-score games) to clinch a winning record after averaging under four wins per season over the past five years. The Panthers will look to win their eighth game against a Massachusetts team having their best season since joining FBS. The Minutemen are 4-7, but have won four of five since an 0-6 start. Massachusetts has to regret how poorly they played over the first half of the season. The Minutemen lost winnable games to Hawaii, Coastal Carolina, and Old Dominion, not to mention tight contests with Ohio and Tennessee. Had the Minutemen won one of those games, they would be in position to become bowl eligible with a win here. Quarterback Andrew Ford has quietly enjoyed a fine season, tossing eighteen touchdown passes against just three interceptions. Massachusetts is off a bye and for a team that will not be participating in the postseason, this is their bowl game. The Minutemen are 4-0 ATS as a road underdog in 2017 and Florida International has yet to cover in two chances as a home favorite this season. Take the Minutemen to not only cover, but win outright here.

Louisiana-Monroe +27 Florida State
In an effort to keep their bowl streak alive, Florida State rescheduled their game with Louisiana-Monroe that was initially canceled due to Hurricane Irma back in September. The Seminoles have endured a disappointing campaign that began with Deondre Francois going down in the opener and continued with a 3-5 ACC record. The Seminoles struggled dramatically on offense this season, scoring just nineteen offensive touchdowns in ten games against FBS teams. The Seminoles did put the hammer down on Delaware State, but otherwise were pretty impotent on offense. Louisiana-Monroe should provide a remedy for Florida State's offensive struggles. The Warhawks ranked dead last in the Sun Belt in terms of yards allowed per play and permitted over forty points per game over the course of the season. However, the Warhawks were able to win four games because their offense was able to move the ball effectively. The Warhawks ranked first in the Sun Belt in yards per play and averaged north of thirty-six points per game. Florida State is the better team, but how motivated will they be for a Noon kick in a game they should win without much effort? Oh, and let's not discount the rumors swirling around their head coach. Meanwhile, for a Louisiana-Monroe team that will not have a thirteenth game, this is their bowl. I don't think Louisiana-Monroe will ever stand a legitimate chance of winning, but they should keep this within four touchdowns.

Idaho +6 Georgia State
With a 3-8 record, and subsequently no bowl hopes, this will be Idaho's last game as an FBS program. After posting a surprising 9-4 mark last season, the Vandals have regressed in 2017. Their offense which ranked second in the Sun Belt in yards per play last season is currently last in the conference. Their per game scoring has also fallen by ten points. Regression should have been expected with the team losing five of their top-six receivers from last season. However, this precipitous fall is outside the realm of reasonable expectations. Thankfully though, the defense has improved, ranking third in the Sun Belt in yards allowed per play and keeping the Vandals in games. Five of their eight losses (and all of their conference losses) have been by a touchdown or less. I expect another close game in Atlanta on Saturday. Georgia State will be looking to clinch their first winning season at the FBS level under first-year head coach Shawn Elliott. The Panthers have rebounded after a rough opening night loss to an FCS team and have actually won six of eight since on 0-2 start. However, four of those wins have come by a touchdown or less and all have come against teams that will finish 2017 with a losing record. Idaho has been money in the bank as a road underdog. In Paul Petrino's first year as head coach in 2013, the Vandals produced a 1-6 ATS mark in the role. Since then, they are 18-4 ATS as a road dog including a perfect 17-0 against Group of Five teams! Look for the Vandals to keep this one close and potentially win outright in their FBS swan song.

South Alabama +10 New Mexico State
Without hyperbole, this is probably the biggest game for New Mexico State since the 1960s. A win here would make the Aggies bowl eligible, and while a bid would not be guaranteed, word is the Arizona Bowl is making eyes at them. The Aggies have progressed in baby steps under Doug Martin, who has one of the most thankless jobs in FBS (something he should be familiar with based on his other head coaching job). A bowl would also be a nice parting gift as the Aggies embark on life in the FBS wilderness as an independent next season. The Aggies are solid on both sides of the ball, ranking in the top half of the Sun Belt in yards per play and yards allowed per play. However, ten points is a lot for them to be giving against a South Alabama team that should be plenty motivated to send their coach out on a positive note. About two weeks ago, Joey Jones, the only coach the Jaguars have ever known, announced he would be resigning at season's end. The Jaguars never achieved great heights under Jones, but he did guide them to six wins in three of the past five seasons. This is no small feat for a new program. Look for South Alabama to keep this one close in Jones' last game as head coach.

Troy Pick Arkansas State
The Sun Belt should have picked a different time to play this game as most will probably ignore this game in favor of the Big 10 or ACC Championship tilts which kick around the same time. These are probably the two best teams in the conference and the winner will clinch at least a share of the Sun Belt title (Appalachian State will clinch a share with a win against Louisiana-Lafayette despite not playing the Trojans or Red Wolves). Winning the Sun Belt has become old hat for the Red Wolves. Arkansas State has won outright or shared five of the last six Sun Belt titles. Troy was used to the spotlight (relatively), winning or sharing five consecutive Sun Belt titles between 2006 and 2010. However, the program grew a little stale under Larry Blakeney and Neal Brown was selected to lead the Trojans back to prominence (relatively). Brown actually had the Trojans in the lower reaches of the top-25 last season and will notch a second consecutive ten win season with a win here. Outside of a glitchy home loss to South Alabama, Troy has been dominant this season. They rank second in the Sun Belt in yards per play and first in yards allowed per play. Oh, and they also beat LSU. Arkansas State also somehow lost to South Alabama (though this one was in Mobile), and while they have been good (as usual), they have not been nearly as dominant as Troy. Arkansas State is tough in Jonesboro, but Troy has been the stronger team this season. Take the Trojans to win a close one here.

Fresno State +8.5 Boise State
Fresno State's reward for beating Boise State last week in The Valley? A rematch with the Broncos for the league championship, with this one taking place in Idaho. A win by the Bulldogs would represent a worst-to-first turnaround as they did not win a single conference game last season. New coach Jeff Tedford seems to have recaptured the magic he had at Cal a decade and a half ago when he generated a similar turnaround. At Cal, Tedford was never quite able to win a conference title (no shame in that), so a win here would have to be extra satisfying. These teams developed a decent rivalry in the old Western Athletic Conference, with Boise State taking the league by storm in the early part of this century. Fresno State snuck up on people this season after their 1-11 campaign in 2016 and tough early schedule that included trips to Tuscaloosa and Seattle. However, since that loss to the Huskies, the Bulldogs have been great. They have won eight of nine, with six wins coming by double-digits. In conference play, the Bulldogs allowed the fewest yards per play of any Mountain West team and allowed opponents just eleven offensive touchdowns in eight games. Boise State has not performed well as a home favorite under Bryan Harsin, going just 7-16-1 ATS in the role under his tutelage. This line should be closer to a field goal, so take the Bulldogs here and don't be surprised if they win outright.

Miami +10 Vs. Clemson @ Charlotte
Sometimes a devastating loss can lead to great things down the road. For Clemson, the Tigers should send Jim Grobe and Wake Forest a 'Thank You' card for getting Tommy Bowden fired after a Thursday night defensive battle in 2008. At that moment, Clemson has not won the ACC since 1991. Since canning Tommy and hiring a relative unknown in Dabo Swinney, the Tigers have won the conference three times and appeared in the championship game five times (counting this appearance) in the last nine seasons. Oh, and they also won a pretty big game last year (technically this calendar year, but you get the idea). Perhaps Miami will need to send Clemson a similar card or fruit basket soon. A little more than two years ago, Clemson decimated Miami in Coral Gables. That was the last straw for Al Golden in his efforts to revive the Hurricane program. Miami finished the year with an interim coach (winning four of their last five regular season games) and in the offseason, an accomplished coach (who also happened to be an alum) fell right into their lap. Since hiring Richt, the Hurricanes have gone 12-4 in the ACC (just 51-45 in their first twelve seasons in the ACC) and are playing in their first ever conference championship game. Of course, it hasn't been smooth sailing for the Hurricanes in 2017. They seemed to struggle with motivation in the middle part of the season, beating three teams that finished with losing records (Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and North Carolina) by a combined fourteen points. The Hurricanes seemed to focus after that three-game stretch as they waxed Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. However, their struggles with lesser teams did not abate as they looked lost against Virginia before pulling away and then suffered an upset loss at Pitt. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, the Pitt loss meant absolutely nothing. If they beat the Tigers, they will be in the College Football Playoff. I think they have a chance. Despite a lackluster scoring margin, Miami actually had the best per-play differential (+1.13) of any ACC team and boasted the conference's best defense. When Miami is motivated, they are tough to beat. They should be on Saturday night.