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Statistically Speaking

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

Well, it finally happened, we struggled, and I mean struggled. I went just 2-5 picking games which drops the overall mark to 11-10. As some degenerates may know, that is exactly the percentage you need to break even. Hopefully we can do better this week and get back to our winning ways. Before we get to the picks, I want to give Michigan State some dap. While the Spartans did not play this past weekend, three of their quarterbacks won games in the NFL on Sunday. Kirk Cousins replaced RG3 and led the R*dskins to an easy win over the Jaguars. Brian Hoyer held off Johnny Manziel for another week and got the Cleveland Browns just their second win in a home opener since returning to the league. Finally, Drew Stanton got the start in place of an injured Carson Palmer as the Cardinals won in New York against the Giants. On to the picks. I think you will see a general trend as you peruse them. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 11-10

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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

First off, let me apologize for the Eastern Michigan debacle. The Eagles were catching 38 points from the Gators and very nearly covered, losing by just 65. If you took my advice and the Eagles cost you your parlay card this week, I am truly sorry. However, I did manage another winning week (4-3) to move the yearly mark to 9-5. Let's see if we can keep the momentum going. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 9-5

Kansas +15.5 Duke
What difference a half decade makes. The last time these two teams met, Kansas was coming off two consecutive bowl appearances, ranked 22nd in the AP Poll, and favored by more than three touchdowns. Meanwhile, Duke was in the midst of a bowl drought that extended to the first term of President Clinton. Since beating Duke on that September day in 2009, Kansas has won just twelve more times, with only eight coming against IA opponents. On the other hand, Duke is the defending Coastal Division champion in the ACC, and seeking their third consecutive bowl bid. About the only thing that hasn't changed for Kansas is the relative heft of their head coach. Yep, I made a fat joke. Take the low hanging fruit when you can. Kansas comes into this game fresh off a tight 34-28 win over IA Southeast Missouri State. While the final score is close, it is a little deceiving. Kansas actually led 34-7 in the fourth quarter before a late surge by the Redhawks made the game close (their final touchdown came with a minute and a half to go). The misleading final score is artificially inflating this line for a Duke team that had a tough time dispatching Troy last week. Kansas will not win this game, but they will do enough to keep the final margin within two touchdowns.

Iowa State +10 Iowa
With an 0-2 start, Iowa State is in real danger of posting their fifth consecutive losing season. Granted, two of those seasons included bowl appearances, but its all in how you phrase things. The Cyclones have had a rough early schedule, losing at home to IAA power (and IA killer) North Dakota State and blowing a fourth quarter lead to lose Farmageddon to Kansas State. The Cyclones now travel to Iowa City, hoping to avoid on 0-3 start. Not to be outdone, Iowa is having some issues of their own, narrowly edging both Northern Iowa of IAA and Ball State in the season's first two weeks. Neither win elicited feelings of great satisfaction from the Hawkeye faithful. The Cyclones and Hawkeyes have split the fourteen games played this century, so this game will prove to be the rubber match, assuming the world ends before next year's game. The last three in this series have been decided six points or less. Look for this one to be close throughout as well.

Western Kentucky +1.5 Middle Tennessee State
Both these Conference USA squads (and former Sun Belt members), nearly made life even more miserable for the Big 10 last week. Western Kentucky lost a back-and-forth affair at Illinois 42-34 while Middle Tennessee State fell behind 28-0, but staged a somewhat furious rally (in that in made Minnesota backer's furious as the Blue Raiders went right in the back door for a cover) in losing 35-24. As both teams were bowl eligible in 2013, their early returns suggest another solid campaign for each. This game will likely serve as an eliminator of sorts in the East division of Conference USA. Both programs are expected to finish behind Marshall, and the loser will have an arduous task ahead of them to rebound and take the division. This game should feature plenty of points as both teams enter averaging more than 40 per game. Western Kentucky has been a little more impressive in the early going, as one of their games includes a shelling of Bowling Green, while Middle Tennessee State has padded their stats with a dismantling of IAA Savannah State. A two-game sample is not much, but Western Kentucky has posted better numbers against superior competition and should be favored here.

UNLV +10 Northern Illinois
Last week, Northern Illinois beat a Big 10 team on the road for the third time in a little over one season (their two victims last year were Iowa and Purdue). The win did not provide much cache for them however, as they did not receive a single vote in this week's AP Poll. Now the Huskies are in the dreaded sandwich spot, traveling to Sin City to take on UNLV immediately before a road trip to Arkansas. A victory over the Hogs, would perhaps give the Huskies more legitimacy, as they play in the rugged SEC West (though not very well I might add). Could the Huskies potentially sleepwalk through this game with the Rebels, a team that struggled to put away IAA Northern Colorado last week? I think so. UNLV has been a bonefide whiz as a home underdog under head coach Bobby Hauck. Since taking over in 2010, the Rebels are 12-5-1 ATS in the roll, with five outright upsets. I think the Rebels keep this one close, especially with no Jordan Lynch to contend with.

Texas State +10 Navy
After finishing bowl eligible last season, Texas State is looking earn their first bowl invite as a IA team. We didn't learn much from Dennis Franchione's team in their first game, as they bludgeoned IAA Arkansas Pine-Bluff 65-0. However, the schedule makers did them a huge favor by granting them a bye week between that game and their showdown with the Naval Academy. Navy is 1-1 after hanging with Ohio State for three quarters and holding off a pesky Temple team. Navy is one of college football's best stories year in and year out (a service academy with ten bowl appearances in the last eleven seasons). However, they have not been a good bet when they are favored. particularly away from Annapolis. When favored in either road or neutral games since 2009, the Midshipmen are just 5-10 ATS. Texas State is a quality opponent, has had an extra week to prepare for Navy's unique offense, and is catching double-digits at home. Take them cover here.

UCLA -7.5 Vs Texas (@ Arlington)
After poor performances (relative to expectations) last week, these two teams square off for the third time in the past five seasons. In their previous meetings in 2010 and 2011, the road team won handily each time. While both teams performed worse than expected last week, UCLA at least manged to stay unbeaten. The Bruins struggled with Memphis in a 42-35 win, but Texas was annihilated by BYU 41-7. The Texas offense has continued its drunken staggering since Colt McCoy departed, managing just 5.6 yards per pass attempt (excluding sacks) in the early going. The defense has remained (somewhat) stalwart, and is the only hope the Longhorns have of winning this game. The Longhorns have ten sacks in just two games and the UCLA offensive line has done a poor job protecting Brett Hundley, allowing eight combined sacks to Virginia and Memphis. UCLA was miscast as a national championship contender in the preseason, but they are good enough to beat a depleted Texas team by more than a touchdown at a neutral site.

Nebraska -10 Fresno State
Abdullah the Butcher prevented Nebraska from facing a potential sphincter-tightening overtime against McNeese State last week. His phenomenal catch and run broke a fourth quarter tie and provided the winning margin for the Huskers as well as visual evidence as to why you should 'bring your arms' when trying to tackle (I'm looking at you #21). While the game was close, Nebraska actually outgained the Cowboys by 99 yards and averaged almost two more yards per play. The big reason McNeese State was in the game was a long interception return when the Huskers were deep in McNeese State territory in the second quarter. Now the Huskers head west to take on a Fresno State team that is adjusting (poorly) to life without Derek Carr and Davante Adams. After winning 20 games in Tim DeRuyter's first two seasons in Fresno, the Bulldogs have lost their first two games by 39 and 32 points respectively. Southern Cal and Utah have moved the ball with ease against the Bulldogs, and there is no reason to believe Nebraska will not do the same. This spread is low thanks to Nebraska's close shave last week, but the Huskers should roll here.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

BYU: The Mid-Majors Last Hope

Well, we are just two weeks into the 2014 season, and any hopes of an interloper infiltrating the initial College Football Playoff appear to be almost null. Consider the following: In the American Conference, the only remaining unbeaten team is Cincinnati...who has yet to play a game. The Sun Belt has three unbeaten teams, but Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, and South Alabama are hardly college football royalty (and each also has at least one SEC team left on its schedule). Nevada and Wyoming are unbeaten in the Mountain West, but both play difficult Pac-12 teams this weekend and are unlikely to run the table. Central Michigan and Northern Illinois are unbeaten in the MAC, but Central Michigan has lost at least six games for the past four seasons, and Northern Illinois must win an SEC road game (Arkansas) and then navigate an improving MAC with an unblemished record. Marshall is unbeaten in Conference USA, but their schedule is one of the softest in the nation, and a group of Roadrunners may be waiting for them in the Conference USA Championship Game. But take heart underdog lovers everywhere, there is still a glimmer of hope, and it is in the form of a group of latter day saints.

On Saturday night, BYU throttled Texas for the second straight season, this time in Austin, by a score of 41-7. The win moves the Cougars to 2-0, and perhaps more importantly potentially sets the stage for an undefeated campaign. The Cougars still have ten games to play, but after their performance against Texas, no game appears unwinnable. Let's peruse their schedule starting with the home games.

Utah State
Savannah State

The Cougars have yet to play a home game, so they still have six left on the slate. On paper, the toughest test is probably Utah State out of the Mountain West. Houston, Nevada, and Virginia could also present some challenges, while UNLV and especially Savannah State are likely romps.

And here are their four remaining road games.

@ Boise State
@ Middle Tennessee State
@ Cal

The road schedule is a little dicier with UCF and Boise ranking among the premiere mid-major teams over the past few seasons. However, the Cougars nearly won at Boise two seasons ago in a 7-6 slugfest, and UCF is missing a few pieces from its Fiesta Bowl winning team of 2013.

So that is BYU's schedule. Now, let's go ahead and make the (grandiose) assumption they win out. Could they make the four-team playoff? I think so. Here is why. Their schedule is perfect. A few years ago, Luke Win wrote a Sports Illustrated article about gaming the RPI. While their is no RPI in football, the Cougars have done a great job of challenging themselves with their schedule, but not too much. There are three schools from Power 5 Conferences on the 2014 schedule (Texas, Virginia, and Cal). While none of the three project to be great, Texas will likely win seven or eight games (and more importantly has a great deal of name recognition), while early returns on Virginia and Cal make them appear improved over their ghastly 2013 iterations. The Cougars also did a great job of scheduling mid-majors. Boise State, Houston, Middle Tennessee, UCF, UNLV, and Utah State all played in bowl games last season. Plus, while Nevada missed a bowl last season, they played in eight straight from 2005-2012. This means their are no real anchors on BYU's schedule. Their lone guarantee game is Savannah State (which based on their first two forays against IA opponents should be very ugly).

Now what sort of help does BYU need to make the playoff assuming they win out? For starters, it would be nice for them if UCF beat Missouri this weekend. Having Boise State and Utah State dominate the Mountain West would also be big. Having their (assumed) Power 5 scalps do their some damage in their respective conferences would also be help. If Texas could upset either Baylor, Kansas State, or Oklahoma, that would bolster BYU's profile. In addition, having either Virginia or Cal get to bowl eligibility (with maybe a quality win or two along the way) would also strengthen public perception.

Of course, BYU also needs a little help from the Power 5 conferences as a whole. Well, the Big 10 has already done them a huge favor. Not only did the league's three marquee programs all lose by at least fourteen points in non-conference action over the weekend (Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State), but a pair of teams also went down to MAC foes (Northwestern and Purdue), and a few more narrowly escaped against lesser opponents (Iowa and Nebraska), further hurting the league's reputation. Barring an unbeaten season by Nebraska, the Big 10 champion will probably miss the playoff. What about the other major conferences? Well, the SEC champion is probably in unless they have three losses. Thus, BYU needs to hope SEC teams cannibalize each other enough so that every team except the champion has two losses. In the ACC, a loss by Florida State would do wonders for their playoff hopes (maybe at Louisville?). The Pac-12 champion, particularly if it is Oregon, Southern Cal, or Stanford is probably in with a loss, so again BYU needs some cannibalization, particularly an upset or two by upstarts such as Arizona or Utah. Finally, it would be nice for the Cougar's hopes if the eventual Big 12 champion also has a pair of losses.

To sum things up, assuming they get to the end of the season unbeaten, BYU needs at least three (and possibly four) of the following things to happen to get into the four-team playoff:

ACC champ has one loss
Big 12 champ has two losses
Big 10 champ has one loss
Only one SEC team has fewer than two losses
Pac-12 champ has two losses
Notre Dame has more than one loss

Does this mean I think BYU is one of the four best college football teams in 2014? No. Do I think they could navigate the SEC West with less than two losses? Again, no. However, there are pros and cons to every situation. Playing in the SEC gives you access to the best players in the nation. However, it also means you must navigate a tougher schedule. While BYU does not have as brutal a schedule, they do have systemic disadvantages when it comes to recruiting the nation's best players (some of course self-imposed by their religious affiliation and others a natural occurrence of not being associated with a major conference). Consequently, engaging in theoretical thought experiments such as 'If they played LSU's schedule', are not the point of this post anymore than 'If they had LSU's players' is. BYU will play BYU's schedule in 2014, and it is within the realm of possibility that if they finish unbeaten, they make the four-team playoff.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week II

Week I went rather swimmingly for your humble narrator. A 5-2 start will hopefully serve as a springboard to even better things as the calendar turns to September. There are a lot of big games for the second weekend of the college football season (Michigan State/Oregon, Virginia Tech/Ohio State, and Southern Cal/Stanford to name a few), but thanks to cowardice and no general read on those games, my picks will be more under the radar fare. In fact, a few of my picks involve the MAC, a conference with a great chance to beat a few Power 5 schools this weekend. Toledo hosts Missouri, Central Michigan travels to Purdue, Northern Illinois visits Northwestern, Ball State treks to Iowa, and Ohio is at Kentucky. There are others as well, but these five strike me as upset possibilities. Missouri, Central Michigan, and Northern Illinois are all underdogs of less than a touchdown, while Ball State and Ohio have beaten a few Power 5 teams under their current coaches. Sit back and enjoy the second week of college football. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 5-2

Georgia State Pick Em' New Mexico State
At long last, the Georgia State Panthers are winners once again. Losers of 16 straight, the Panthers kicked a last second field goal to beat Abilene Christian in the season's first game (on Wednesday of last week). The win was their first as a IA team, and now they will seek to win their first game against a IA team (baby steps). This game also marks the first time in their history Georgia State is not a betting underdog (again, baby steps) against a fellow IA opponent (they were a small favorite last week). New Mexico State also won their opener against a IAA opponent, although the Aggies did not have to sweat it out, winning 28-10 against Cal Poly. A win would make the Aggies 2-0 for the first time since 1999! Alas, I don't think the Aggies will get it done. They are just 2-8-1 ATS on the road the past two seasons. While this figures to be a competitive affair, Georgia State is playing at home, giving no points, and showed some polish on offense last week. Look for the Panthers to earn their second win as a IA program and move into first place for the time being in the Sun Belt.

Central Michigan +3.5 Purdue
As you may or may not know, Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell was once the top guy at Kent State. In 2012, he led the Golden Flashes to a school-record eleven wins. However, his tenure at Purdue may prove that 2012 was a (Golden) flash in the pan. Last week's win over Western Michigan marked the first for Purdue over a IA team under Hazell. While the victory was nice, it was anything but resounding as the Broncos actually outgained the Boilermakers and averaged more yards per play. Now the Boilermakers take on another directional Michigan school that could potentially be the last game they are favored in all year (excluding their clash with IAA Southern Illinois). Central Michigan also struggled last week, falling behind IAA Chattanooga 16-0 before rallying to win 20-16. I like the Chippewas here, as their opponent last week, Chattanooga, may actually be a better team than Western Michigan despite being a lower-level football program. Look for the Chippewas to keep this one close and perhaps leave West Lafayette with an outright upset.

South Alabama -3 Kent State
Kent State opened the 2014 season by losing on a last second field goal to Ohio. Just nine months earlier, the Golden Flashes pounded Ohio into oblivion 44-13. Despite the narrow loss, Kent State was actually very lucky to be in the game at all. Ohio outgained Kent State by nearly 150 yards and averaged nearly two more yards per play. However, thanks to four fumbles (all recovered by Kent State), the game was tied in the closing moments. If the Golden Flashes have any designs on a bowl game, they must win this game as the next three are at Ohio State, at Virginia, and at Northern Illinois. An 0-5 start will be very difficult to overcome. South Alabama beat Kent State by 17 in Mobile (one) last season. The Jaguars, in just their sixth season of football, and third at the IA level, are though of as one of the top teams in the Sun Belt. Last season, they were one of the more statistically dominant Sun Belt teams, but suffered three losses by a single point, as well as a two-point loss, and a seven-point loss on their way to a 6-6 campaign. Despite this being the season opener for the Jaguars, I like them to cover this small number and open the year with a victory.

South Florida +12.5 Maryland
South Florida did not get off to the best start last week, edging IAA Western Carolina 36-31. However, it certainly beat the heck out of their start last season when they lost by 32 to IAA McNeese State. In fact, the six-point margin against the Catamounts was a bit misleading. South Florida averaged over eight yards per play to the Catamounts 4.7. Freshman running back Marlon Mack was the star of the show, rushing for 275 yards on just 24 attempts and scoring four touchdowns on the ground. Last season, the feeble South Florida offense managed four rushing touchdowns on the season! Mack and Co. Are catching double-digits at home against a Maryland team that took care of business against their IAA opponent, James Madison. Playing the role of Stephon, I mean William Marbury, the Terrapins racked up 52 points against the Dukes, their highest point total since hanging 62 on my Demon Deacons in 2010. Maryland is a little over-valued here, and the Bulls are under-valued, particularly playing at home. The offense is light years beyond last year's low-wattage unit, and should do enough to keep this game within single digits. If you are feeling very industrious, might I suggest a South Florida play on the moneyline.

Wyoming +2.5 Air Force
It wasn't easy, but the Cowboys won the debut of head coach Craig Bohl. Bohl, as you may or may not know, won the last three IAA national championships at North Dakota State. It wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing game, but the Cowboys won their opener for the first time since 2011. Now the Cowboys turn their focus to a conference opponent in the Air Force Falcons. Air Force ended a three-game skid that dated back to last season's win over Army in dispatching (Kid) Nicholls State. Now the Falcons look to end an even uglier skid that has seen them lose nine consecutive games in the Mountain West Conference. Befitting a team that has not won a conference game in over a year, the Falcons have been putrid on the road as a favorite, going 0-3 ATS in the role since 2012. They have also not covered against Wyoming since 2008. In my humble opinion, the wrong team is favored here. I expect this game to be close, and since they are catching nearly a field goal, Wyoming is the play here.

Eastern Michigan +38 Florida
The debut of Chris Creighton at Eastern Michigan began rather inauspiciously, with his charges taking longer than expected to knock down a wall with sledgehammers. The end result was quality though, with the wall (sort of) tumbling down, though Joshua would have been disappointed, and the Eagles edging Morgan State 31-28. Before moving forward, let me be clear about one thing: Eastern Michigan has no shot (almost no shot) at winning this game outright. However, covering is another issue. The Florida Gators under Will Muschamp do set offensive records and dazzle with their passing acumen. They win games (less here as of late) with great defense. Eastern Michigan will have a hard time scoring and may in fact be shut out. However, expecting the Gators to score more than five touchdowns may not be the most logical assumption. Consider the following: As a double-digit home favorite under Muschamp, the Gators are just 4-7 ATS and lest you think those lack of covers come against SEC teams, they are also 2-3 ATS at home against non-BCS opponents. Despite the fact that they have been one of the worst IA teams in recent years, the Eagles are actually 4-2 ATS against BCS conference opponents the past three seasons. This has all the makings of a 31-3 Florida win.

Texas Tech -21 UTEP
How do you win a road game where you allow nearly eight yards per play? Allow Paydirt Pete to show you how. First, while you give up a lot of big plays, you don't allow many third down conversions (3 of 11). Second, don't allow them to convert on fourth down (1 of 3). Third, force turnovers (two fumble recoveries and an interception). Fourth, score some points of your own (31). That, dear friends, is how UTEP won at New Mexico despite showing very clear evidence that they are still not very good at football. While UTEP was winning in Albuquerque, Texas Tech was having a tougher than expected time putting away Central Arkansas. The Red Raiders averaged nearly three more yards per play than the Bears, yet only won by seven thanks to some red zone failures (just four scores in six opportunities) and turnovers (two interceptions). Of course, that all bodes well for you this week. This spread should be much closer to four touchdowns despite the fact that is is being played in the west Texas town of El Paso. The Red Raiders have played a non-BCS opponent on the road each of the past four seasons, and have covered each time with the average margin of victory clocking in at nearly 37 points. This one should get out of hand very quickly.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week I

Regular readers of this blog are probably expecting the first 'Fab Five' of the 2014 college football season where I give you five favorites and five underdogs I feel are most likely to cover. The Fab Five has been a weekly feature during the season since 2007. But alas, all good things must come to an end. Don't fret though. I will still deliver a weekly picks column. I'm just going to tweak the format a bit. Instead of picking ten games, I will just pick seven. And, instead of picking an equal number of underdogs and favorites, the picks can come on either side of the ledger. I hope you enjoy this new column and give a moment of silent reflection on the Fab Five era. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Penn State +2 Vs UCF (@ Dublin)
This of course, assumes the game is played and Krakatoa does not explode and postpone this game/end all life as we know. If the game is postponed, I'll have eight picks for you next week. If life as we know it ends, the odds of picks going up moves from certain to probable. These two teams met last season in State College, and after jumping out to a 28-10 lead, UCF held on for dear life in a 34-31 upset win. The win helped boost the national profile of the Knights who cemented the best season in school history with a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. So what do the Knights have for an encore? For starters, they must replace the second most famous quarterback in school history, Blake Bortles, who was drafted (too high) by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Knights were a good team last season, but also had their share of good fortune, finishing 7-1 in one-score games. Some regression is due, particularly without a great talent like Bortles. On the other sideline, Penn State will have its fourth coach in as many seasons (including interim coaches) after having one since football started in 1869. James Franklin performed miracles at Vanderbilt, including three consecutive bowl appearances, wins against Florida and Georgia in the same season, and consecutive finishes in the AP Poll. His teams were also pretty phenomenal ATS, going 23-13 against IA foes. His charges were particularly adept as a small betting line underdog, going 6-1 ATS when getting less than a touchdown from their opponent. These teams are pretty evenly matched, but Penn State is a little better and they are catching points her, so they are the pick. Remember, this game kicks off at 8:30 AM EST on Saturday, so don't catch too many pints yourself on Friday (see what I did there, a joke about using alcohol irresponsibly).

Georgia Southern +20.5 NC State
The Georgia Southern Eagles will play their first game as a IA team in Raleigh against NC State. While Georgia Southern will be looking to get off to a good start in their new era of football, NC State will be looking to erase horrible memories of 2013 when they went winless in the ACC. Georgia Southern has acquitted themselves quite well against IA foes as a member of IAA. Since 2010, they have lost to Navy by six, Alabama by 24, Georgia by 31, and beaten Florida by six. The Eagles do have a new coach in Willie Fritz, and will probably not run as much triple-option, but Fritz is arguably an upgrade over Jeff Monken (a fine coach in his own right). Fritz was successful at Central Missouri (a Division II school), and recently led Sam Houston State to back-to-back runner-up finishes in the IAA playoffs. He also won two national junior college championships at Blinn College. NC State will certainly be better in their second season under Dave Doeren, but against a good coach, and a funky offense, expect this one to be closer than three touchdowns.

UAB -1 Troy
These two Yellowhammer mid-majors have developed quite the rivalry since joining IA football in the relatively recent past. The Blazers and Trojans have squared off nine times since 2002, with 2014 marking the sixth consecutive season these two have butted heads. The games have tended to be tight, competitive affairs, with the average scoring differential coming in a just north of eight points. The last four games have all been one-score affairs, and while Troy has won three of them, the Blazers have actually covered three times. Both these teams had major issues on defense last season, with Troy ranking dead last in the Sun Belt in yards per play allowed and UAB doing the same in Conference USA. The Blazers may have done more to rectify their current situation by hiring Bill Clark to be their new head coach. Clark came from Jacksonville State where he guided the Gamecocks to the IAA playoffs in his first season at the helm. Clark's predecessor, Garrick McGee, did little to improve the fortunes of UAB before abandoning ship and becoming Louisville's offensive coordinator after a posting a 5-19 record over two seasons. I like the Blazers here for several reasons. I think Bill Clark was a great hire, the Blazers are playing at home in Birmingham, and Troy must replace the Sun Belt's career passing leader (Corey Robinson) under center. The Blazers don't even have to worry about winning by a comfortable margin. Take them to beat the Trojans at home.

Virginia +21 UCLA
If you read my post on teams I thought were poised to go under their projected win totals, you already know that I am not extremely high on UCLA. The Bruins are getting a great deal of preseason love, including a top-10 AP ranking (first time in the preseason top-10 since 1998), but posted rather middling per play numbers last year. While UCLA was middling, Virginia posted downright awful numbers, going winless in the ACC and enduring their first season of two or fewer wins since 1982. The heat is on Mike London, and I don't know if he will do enough to earn a sixth season, but playing at home, against a team from the west coast, with a Noon kickoff, I think the Cavaliers will do enough to cover this large number.

Oklahoma State +17.5 Vs Florida State (@ Arlington)
For the ninth consecutive time, Florida State enters a game as a double-digit favorite. When was the last time Florida State was not a double-digit favorite? It was a game against a fellow top-ten team on the road. Oh, and they won that game by 37 points. Last season, Florida State was a double-digit favorite eleven times (not including the bowl game). The Seminoles covered an amazing nine times (and pushed once). Despite that overwhelming performance last season, Florida State does not have a strapping track record as a heavy favorite under Jimbo Fisher. The Seminoles were just 10-12 ATS as a double-digit favorite in Fisher's first two seasons, including 2-7 as a double-digit favorite away from Tallahassee. Plus, Oklahoma State is not exactly a cream puff. The Cowboys have finished ranked in the AP Poll in four of the past six seasons, and by a more objective measure, have finished in the SRS top-fifteen five times in that span. Since the beginning of the 2010 season. Oklahoma State has lost just once by more than seventeen points (in a turnover-filled debacle at Arizona in 2012). After winning games so comfortably last season, I think it might be hard to motivate Florida State for every game in 2014, particularly one where they are a huge favorite. I can't see Oklahoma State actually winning this one, but they should make the final margin respectable.

Arkansas +20 Auburn
On the surface, this may seem like an easy Auburn win. After all, the Tigers nearly won the national championship last season, while Arkansas faded into obscurity, finishing 0-8 in the SEC. Let me give you a few reasons why this game might be more competitive than you imagined. For starters, while Auburn did win the SEC last year, and came very close to becoming the eighth consecutive SEC team to win the national title, they still finished just eleventh in the SEC in yards per play allowed. Until they stiffened against Florida State, their final three regular season opponents (Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri) all averaged at least seven yards per play against the Tigers. Arkansas has the potential to gash the Tigers, particularly on the ground, where they averaged 5.69 yards per rush against SEC foes last season. And let's not forget that Arkansas played much better over their final few games despite having no carrot to chase. They took Mississippi State to overtime before falling in their penultimate game, and nearly upset LSU to close the regular season. Plus, the Hogs were actually 3-2 ATS as a double-digit underdog last season. Auburn is light years behind elite SEC defenses like Alabama, so Arkansas will be able to score in this game. If the spread was closer to ten points or even two touchdowns, I might be inclined to take the Tigers. However, with the number at nearly three touchdowns, Arkansas is the play here.

Utah State +6.5 Tennessee
These are prosperous times in Logan, Utah. After winning just 32 games in the first decade of this century, the Aggies have won 20 in the past two seasons and are looking to continue a three-year bowl streak (best in program history). Since Gary Andersen (now at Wisconsin) took over in 2009, the Aggies have been beasts ATS against BCS (now Power 5) conference opponents. The Aggies are 6-1 ATS in such contests, including 5-1 ATS on the road. While the Aggies have only managed one outright win in that span (2012 at home against Utah), they have been very tough outs, losing by one score to Texas A&M (2009), Oklahoma (2010), Auburn (2011), Wisconsin (2012), Utah (2013), and Southern Cal (2013). They may not break through in Knoxville, but with stud quarterback Chuckie Keeton healthy, they should give the Vols a great game. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Season Preview: Conference Affiliation in 1995

For our final edition of ‘Where Were They Then?’ we go back to 1995. Alternative rock was all the rage on the radio, the Playstation was about to take the video game world by storm, and the Big 12 did not exist (neither did Conference USA, the Mountain West, or the Sun Belt for that matter). It’s hard to believe 1995 was nearly two decades ago and a lot has changed since then. Where were the current crop of college football teams playing in 1995? Once again, we start with the Power 5 (P5) conferences.

Atlantic Coast Conference
Back in 1995, the ACC had nine members (Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia, and Wake Forest). Eight of the nine remain with the league today (Maryland is the lone dissenter). Their other six members were in the Big East (Boston College, Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Virginia Tech) and on the Independent circuit (Louisville) in 1995.

Big 10 Conference
The Big 10 had eleven teams in 1995 (Penn State was the last team added in 1993). The three Big 10 newbies were playing in the ACC (Maryland), Big East (Rutgers) and Big 8 (Nebraska) in 1995.

Big 12 Conference
The Big 12 would not hold its first football game until 1996. Half of the current Big 12 membership was playing the final season of the Big 8 in 1995 (Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State). Forty percent of the conference was closing out the Southwest Conference (Baylor, Texas, TCU, and Texas Tech). TCU would be a bit of a college football nomad, bouncing around a few mid-major leagues before finally rejoining their old in-state mates in 2012. Finally, West Virginia, under Don Nehlen, was a member of the Big East in 1995.

Pac-12 Conference
The Pac-12 was still known as the Pac-10 in 1995. Its membership included Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, Southern Cal, Stanford, UCLA, Washington, and Washington State. Those ten teams remain in the league today and have been joined by Colorado (Big 8) and Utah (WAC).

Southeastern Conference
The SEC played its fourth season as a twelve-team league in 1995. The league would hold steady at twelve teams, despite expansion rumors, until 2012 when they added Missouri (Big 8) and Texas A&M (Southwest Conference).

Now we can turn our attention to the Group of 5 (G5) conferences. Where were their members in 1995?

American Athletic Conference
Nearly half of the teams in the American were Independents in 1995 (Cincinnati, East Carolina, Memphis, Tulane, and Tulsa). In fact, the number of teams playing as Independents in 1995 (12) is three times the number in 2014 (4). Three American members were not even playing IA football in 1995 (Connecticut, South Florida, and UCF), two were part of the final season of the Southwest Conference (Houston and SMU), and one was trying to compete in the Big East (Temple).

Conference USA
Like the Big 12, Conference USA did not play football in 1995. In its current form, the league features an amazing eight members that did not play IA football in 1995 (Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, Texas-San Antonio, UAB, and Western Kentucky)! That number will increase when Charlotte joins next season. Two members were Independent in 1995 (North Texas and Southern Miss), and three conferences shared the distinction of producing one future Conference USA member apiece (Big West – Louisiana Tech, Southwest Conference – Rice, and the WAC – UTEP).

Mid-American Conference
The MAC featured ten members in 1995 (Akron, Ball State, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Miami, Ohio, Toledo, and Western Michigan). Those ten teams are still members. Two current MAC members were not playing IA football in 1995 (Buffalo and Massachusetts). Amazingly, one member was in the Big West (Northern Illinois). Obviously, that was a very liberal interpretation of the word ‘west’.

Mountain West Conference
The Mountain West did not exist in 1995. Seven of its current members were part of the WAC (Air Force, Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii, New Mexico, San Diego State, and Wyoming). Four members would eventually join the WAC (remember the WAC was the first mega-conference in 1996), but were Big West members in 1995 (Nevada, San Jose State, UNLV, and Utah State). As hard as it may be to believe, Boise State was not playing IA football in 1995.

Sun Belt Conference
Like several other conferences on this list, the Sun Belt was merely an idea in 1995. Seven current Sun Belt members were not playing IA football back in the mid-90’s (Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Idaho, South Alabama, Texas State, and Troy). Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, and New Mexico State were members of the Big West, and Louisiana-Monroe was an Independent.

And finally, the let’s look at the Independents.

Army, Navy, and Notre Dame were Independents in 1995 and remain Independents today (although Notre Dame has an open relationship with the ACC). BYU was a WAC member in 1995.

One thing I noticed when making these charts is the number of teams that have either moved up to IA football or started football teams from scratch in the last twenty years. By my calculations, there have been 21 teams that have joined the ranks since 1995. In 1995, there were 108 IA teams. Now there are 128 (Pacific dropped football after 1995 if you were wondering why 108 + 21 = 128). That means there are more than 18% more teams playing IA football now than there were in 1995. Some have been successful (Boise State and UCF), others not so much (Massachusetts), and the jury is still out on many (Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to name two). Will more teams continue to make the jump over the next two decades or has the bubble effectively burst with the autonomy the P5 conferences have gained (remember no new IA program is in a P5 conference since Connecticut and South Florida were demoted from the Big East)? I won’t pretend to read the tea leaves in regards to this area, but I know that whatever the future holds for conference realignment, expect the unexpected.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Season Preview: Conference Affiliation in 2000

Last time out, we looked at the current composition of each conference and where its members were in 2009 (the season before the realignment tremors began). Now I want to look back a little further, to the turn of the century. Why the year 2000? That represented the swan song for the Big West as a football conference and was the final season before the Sun Belt began playing football. As we did last time, we’ll start with the Power 5 (P5) conferences.

Atlantic Coast Conference
Back in 2000, the ACC was a nine-member league. Remember those days? Eight of those nine teams remain in the conference (Maryland joined the Big 10). The ACC’s other six members were in the Big East (Boston College, Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia Tech) and Conference USA (Louisville) back in 2000.

Big 10 Conference
In 2000, the Big 10 still had eleven members (don’t bother asking them to change the name). Just like in 2009, the three members they have added were in the ACC (Maryland), Big East (Rutgers), and Big 12 (Nebraska) back in 2000.

Big 12 Conference
The Big 12 had twelve members in the year 2000, including the eventual national champion. Eight of the original twelve remain, and the two teams they have added were playing in the Big East (West Virginia) and WAC (TCU) in 2000.

Pac-12 Conference
The Pac-12 was still known as the Pac-10 in 2000. The ten teams from that season remain on board. Their newest members played in the Big 12 (Colorado) and Mountain West (Utah) in 2000.

Southeastern Conference
The SEC had twelve teams in 2000. Both of its new members (Missouri and Texas A&M) played in the Big 12 that season.

Now we can turn our attention to the Group of 5 (G5) conferences to see where their members were playing at the turn of the century.

American Athletic Conference
Nearly half of the teams in the American were in Conference USA in 2000 (Cincinnati, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, and Tulane). Three teams were not part of any conference and were relatively new to IA football (Connecticut, South Florida, and UCF), two were in the WAC (SMU and Tulsa), and one was in the Big East (Temple). Temple was of course booted from the Big East, wandered through life as an independent, was scooped up by the MAC, and finally rejoined the Big East before it was completely torn asunder and for all intents and purposes, rechristened the American.

Conference USA
The current version of Conference USA is a true melting pot. Its current membership was in vastly different places in 2000. Southern Miss and UAB are the only two current conference members who were also members in 2000. Five members were not even playing IA football in 2000 (Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Old Dominion, Texas-San Antonio, and Western Kentucky)! Two current members were independents (Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee State), although they would join the WAC and Sun Belt respectively before joining Conference USA. Two teams were in the WAC (Rice and UTEP), one was in the MAC (Marshall), and one was even in the Big West (North Texas).

Mid-American Conference
Of the MAC’s current thirteen members, the only one that was not a part of the league in 2000 was Massachusetts, which had yet to move up to IA football.

Mountain West Conference
Of the twelve current Mountain West Conference members, half were part of the league in 2000. In fact, these six teams (Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, and Wyoming) were original members when the league formed by breaking away from the WAC. Speaking of the WAC, four current members (Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, and San Jose State) were playing in the WAC in 2000. The other two current members were both involved in the final season of the Big West (Boise State and Utah State). In fact, Boise won the final Big West football championship, giving them their second conference title as a IA program.

Sun Belt Conference
The Sun Belt did not exist in 2000, so it makes sense that all its members came from somewhere else. More than half of its current membership was not playing IA football in 2000 (Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, South Alabama, Texas State, and Troy). Three current members watched as the Big West faded away (Arkansas State, Idaho, and New Mexico State). Who knew Arkansas was in the west? I guess a school from the state was once in the Southwest Conference. And last, but not least, the two Louisiana schools (Lafayette and Monroe) were independents in 2000.

And finally, the let’s look at the Independents.

Even hard-core college football fans may have forgotten about this one. Yes, for a brief time period, Army was a conference member. The Black Knights played football in Conference USA from 1998-2004. They never won more than two conference games in any season before returning to Independent status. Navy and Notre Dame were independents in 2000 and BYU was a member of the Mountain West Conference.
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