The Magnificent Seven: Week IV
Last Week: 2-5
Georgia Tech +9 Virginia Tech
Last week was not a good one for the ACC, and it could have been even worse. While Virginia Tech lost at home as a large favorite to East Carolina, and Wake Forest lost on the road to Utah State (their second loss to a group of five opponent), Georgia Tech nearly lost at home to Paul Johnson's former charges, Georgia Southern. While the Yellow Jackets have been as leaky as ever on defense, their offense has remained potent, averaging nearly 40 points per game and nearly seven yards per play. Suffice it to say they won't reach those numbers against the Hokies, but they may not have to. Excluding their exhibition with William and Mary, the Hokies have averaged just 4.3 yards per play. Quarterback Michael Brewer has averaged under six yards per pass and thrown four interceptions against Ohio State and East Carolina. Virginia Tech appears to be exactly the same as they were last season: A strong defensive team (though East Carolina proved they can be beat through the air) that will have trouble being relevant nationally thanks to a shaky offense. No matter the venue, this game has usually been close since Paul Johnson arrived. While Georgia Tech has lost five of six to the Hokies under Johnson, five of the six games have been decided by seven points or fewer. I think after Saturday, it will be six for seven. Before we move on, just a comment on how unpredictable the ACC Coastal Division race should be this season. You could make a cogent argument for any of the seven schools (Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Pitt, Virginia, or Virginia Tech) serving as a sacrificial lamb to Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. Enjoy.
Utah State +2.5 Arkansas State
Why is Arkansas State favored in this game you ask? Because Chuckie Keeton, starting quarterback for Utah State, will miss it. While the oft injured Keeton has been a fine quarterback for the Aggies, and may go down as the best in school history, he hasn't really played all that well this season. After throwing just 13 interceptions in 777 pass attempts in his first three years on campus, Keeton has already tossed four in just 92 pass attempts this season, including an ugly Garo Yepremian-esque throw against Wake Forest (I couldn't find the video to share, but trust me, it was bad). Alas, I expected big things from Utah State this season, and it is clear they are not nearly as strong as they have been the past two seasons. Still, catching points against a solid, but hardly dominating Sun Belt team makes them a solid play this week.
Central Michigan +3.5 Kansas
Kansas fans, make sure to enjoy the days leading up to this game as it is truly a rare occasion. For just the fourth time since their program went off the rails following the 2009 season, the Jayhawks are favored against a IA team. Who were the other three teams that were bad enough to be underdogs to Kansas? New Mexico State in 2010, Rice in 2012, and Louisiana Tech last season. Kansas did win two of those three games (New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech), but only covered in one. Both teams here are looking to rebound from poor performances last week. The Jayhawks and Chippewas both lost by nearly identical scores, as Kansas fell to Duke 41-3 and Central Michigan lost to Syracuse 40-3. The Chippewas already own one victory over a Power 5 opponent, beating Purdue (who is still considered a Big 10 team by some) by three touchdowns two weeks ago. The win was the second for the Chippewas under Dan Enos, who while not nearly as successful as his predecessors Butch Jones and Brian Kelly, can surpass them in terms of victories of Power Five (formerly BCS) conference teams. Central Michigan is not quite as bad as they looked last week, and Kansas is much closer to Purdue in quality than they are to Syracuse. Look for the Chippewas to leave with an outright win.
North Carolina +2.5 East Carolina
East Carolina has certainly looked like one of the stronger teams from the Group of Five over the past two weeks. They fell on the road to South Carolina by ten, but slightly outgained the Gamecocks and averaged about a yard more per play. They followed that up by beating Virginia Tech for the first time since 2008. Now the Pirates return home to face another ACC team, and one they bludgeoned in Chapel Hill last season (double nickel sighting). Despite the home crowd, I think the Pirates are due for a letdown against a Tar Heel team that has been quite disjointed in the early going. The Tar Heels let Liberty (Valance) hang around until the second half, and should have lost to San Diego State if not for some huge turnovers by the Aztecs. Still, the Tar Heels have had a week to prepare, are in a revenge spot, and until last season, had won six of the previous seven meetings with the Pirates. If the line were reversed, I would seriously contemplate jumping on the Pirates, but as it is, the Tar Heels are the play.
Rutgers +6 Navy
Yikes, another road underdog. I can understand if you have some trepidation about taking yet another road team. Hear me out though. While Gary Nova did his best Gary Nova impersonation last week in the Scarlet Knights' Big 10 debut against Penn State, throwing five interceptions, the defense held Penn State in check until a late touchdown allowed the Nittany Lions to escape with a victory. Now Rutgers travels to Annapolis to take on a Navy team that has won two straight after hanging with Ohio State in the Horseshoe on the season's first Saturday. The Knights first traveled to Annapolis to take on the Midsheipmen back in 1891 when the great Benjamin Harrison was in charge of the country. The schools played once more in the 19th century, but wouldn't play again until after Woodstock. After playing just ten times in the 19th and 20th century, this will mark the tenth meeting in the new millennium. Rutgers has won seven of the first nine played since 2000, and has been a pretty solid road underdog under Kyle Flood, posting a 6-2 ATS mark with four outright wins. Meanwhile, Navy is just 6-11-1 ATS as a home favorite since 2009. I like the Knights to salvage a bit of the Big 10's reputation by covering and potentially winning outright against the Naval Academy.
Indiana +13 Missouri
The rebuild in Indiana continues. While Kevin Wilson has done an admirable job in a very difficult situation in Bloomington, improving his win total each season, non-conference losses may once again limit Indiana's postseason chances. In Wilson's first season, 2011, his Hoosiers lost to mid-majors Ball State and North Texas (the Hoosiers were favored by by five to six points in both games). In 2012, the Hoosiers lost non-conference games to mid-majors Ball State and Navy, To be fair, the Hoosiers were slight underdogs to Navy, but it continued a disturbing trend of the Hoosiers failing to start conference play with some margin for error. Last season, the Hoosiers once again lost to Navy. This time, they were a double-digit favorite. They also lost to Missouri, but that loss was understandable. As you may have heard, the Hoosiers lost last week to Bowling Green to put a damper on their bowl hopes in 2014. Now they travel to Columbia, Missouri to face an undefeated team that beat them by 17 in Bloomington last season. So why in the name of Bill Mallory, should you take the Hoosiers to cover this week? For starters, Indiana is a shade under-valued after last week. They lost to Bowling Green, but averaged nearly two and a half more yards per play than the Falcons. The defense has, is, and will likely continue to be an issue under Wilson, but the offense has been quite explosive from 2012 on. The Hoosiers will be able to move the ball on the Tigers. The question will be, can they finish drives? Even if the Hoosiers don't make this game ultra-competitive, the possibility is certainly there for a backdoor cover. Take the Hoosiers to keep this once close.
Northern Illinois +14.5 Arkansas
Arkansas appears to be much improved from their dreadful 3-9 campaign last season. However, with the general robustness of the SEC West, they may not improve a great deal on their 0-8 conference record. As such, the Razorbacks will need to win all the non-conference games they can if they have designs on breaking a two year bowl drought. The Razorbacks welcome mid-major darling Northern Illinois and hope to avoid the embarrassment of losing to a MAC team. Arkansas has absolutely wrecked teams on the ground in the early going, averaging nearly eight yards per carry. After nearly fielding two 1000-yard rushers last season, the Razorbacks on pace to accomplish that with ease in 2014. Outside of their opener against Auburn, the defense has also played better, limiting Texas Tech to just 5.6 yards per pass last week. However, before we go heralding Arkansas as a worthy contender/spoiler in the SEC West, remember, Texas Tech won their first two games against Central Arkansas and UTEP by seven and four points respectively. Meanwhile, Northern Illinois has already won a pair of road games, including a win at Northwestern. Since 2009, the Huskies have beaten six teams from power conferences, with five of the wins coming on the road. In addition, as an underdog against power conference teams away from home in the regular season, the Huskies are 10-2 ATS. Joe Novak, Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren, and Rod Carey have crafted quite a mid-major power in DeKalb. The Huskies might not beat the Hogs, but I expect this game to be close.