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Statistically Speaking

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Rating the New Coaches: Pitt

For the curious, no this blog is not dead. The offseason is upon us, so it is time to look forward to 2015.

Sixteen FBS schools will have new head coaches when the 2015 season begins. This semi-regular piece will analyze the teams and the coaches they have hired in order to offer a prediction regarding the schools’ prospects for 2015 and beyond. We’ll begin in western Pennsylvania.

In many ways, the Panthers bowl game on the second day of 2015 was a microcosm not just of the 2014 season, but of their recent past as well. Since upsetting West Virginia in their final game of 2007, the Panthers have played in seven consecutive bowls, the second longest streak in school history. However, despite some impressive wins in that stretch, the Panthers have never been able to break through. They opened 2008 with a loss to Bowling Green of the MAC and closed it by losing a snoozer to Oregon State. They nearly won the Big East in 2009, but a missed extra point cost them a chance at overtime against Cincinnati. They lost to West Virginia with a chance at the Big East title in 2010. They gave Dave Wannstedt and his mustache the boot following the 2010 campaign and hired an up and coming mid-major coach in Mike Haywood. Things didn't exactly work out. They then tabbed Todd Graham (a realtor’s best friend) to be their head coach and while he lasted longer than Haywood, his longevity at the school was not quite the Bowden/Paterno persuasion. Next, they chose Paul Chryst to be their savior, and while he lasted three seasons, the Panthers never finished better than 7-6. The Chryst era opened rather inauspiciously with a loss to IAA Youngstown State and ended with a road upset against Miami that enabled the Panthers to qualify for a bowl. Before the bowl collapse, Chryst bolted for Wisconsin (after Gary Andersen left for Oregon State and Mike Riley left for Nebraska). Now the Panthers have selected Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to lead them.

Pat Narduzzi has been a defensive coordinator for Mark Dantonio since 2004. I have calculated Yards Per Play and APR numbers back to 2005, so nearly his entire record as a defensive coordinator is included in these numbers. The following table lists the Yards Per Play Allowed (YPPA) and Defensive Touchdowns Allowed (DTD) by Narduzzi’s defenses in conference play since 2005.
Since Narduzzi coordinated these defenses during this time period, this seems like a suitable method to rate his coordinating prowess. Personally, I think YPPA is superior to DTD because occasionally offense and special teams can put a defense in a precarious position, if drives start in their own territory thanks to turnovers or bad coverage units. I assume dear readers that you are able to think for yourself, so I have included them both.

As you can see, even a highly regarded defensive whiz like Narduzzi has a few blemishes on his record. The 2005 season at Cincinnati (his and Dantonio’s second in the Queen City) and his first two seasons at Michigan State produced bad defenses. Out of the ten year sample, I think we can safely say Narduzzi coordinated bad defenses three times (2005, 2007, and 2008), mediocre defenses once (2009), good defenses four times (2006, 2010, 2011, and 2014), and great defenses twice (2012 and 2013).

It stands to reason that in years where Narduzzi had the services of future professionals, his defenses performed much better. To determine if this is true, I looked at how many players from each defense were selected in the following year’s NFL draft. The table below lists the number of draft picks each defense produced and where they were drafted. For example, the 2007 Michigan State defense had one player selected in the 2008 draft. Obviously, this is not a perfect method because a defense may not have a player get drafted immediately afterward because they are an underclassman. Still, it gives us a good idea as to what kind of talent Narduzzi has been working with. Since the 2015 draft has not occurred yet, I used a time machine, the latest draft projections from CBS Sportsline.
As you can see, from 2005 through 2008, only a pair of players were drafted from Narduzzi defenses with neither being what one would classify as an elite-level talent. It should be noted that two players, Haruki Nakamura and Deangelo Smith, from his Cincinnati defenses were drafted after he and Dantonio departed. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are among the worst defenses Narduzzi coordinated. Over the past five seasons, Narduzzi has coached nine players who have either been drafted or are set to be drafted this spring (not including Shilique Calhoun who has elected to stay in school). His defenses have been either good or outstanding in that time frame. When Narduzzi has talent on defense, he has produced fantastic results. Obviously, he is not perfect, but when he is given great talent, he doesn't bury that talent in the ground.

So what does that mean for Pitt in 2015 and beyond? Well, Narduzzi will not be coordinating the defense himself. Even though he may not be calling the defense looks and plays, part of being a good defensive coach is training players to line up, read their keys, and use their instincts. With the relative talent level on the Panthers one would be hard pressed to believe they would finish in the bottom third of the ACC on defense next season with someone of Narduzzi’s caliber even tangentially involved.

So now that we know a little about Narduzzi, what do we know about programs that hire former defensive coordinators? This may come as a surprise, but Narduzzi is in somewhat rare company moving from a defensive coordinator to a head coach at a BCS/Power Five school. Since 2008, it has only happened ten times. However, only eight of those instances bared any similarity to this one. A pair of schools had to hastily promote their defensive coordinators in 2011 (Ohio State and North Carolina) after their head coaches were let go for one reason or another. For that reason, I have omitted Luke Fickell and Everett Withers from this analysis. We’ll tackle the other eight chronologically.

Bo Pelini, Nebraska, 2008 – Fresh off coordinating the defense for the national champion LSU Tigers, Nebraska hired Pelini to lead a program that had suffered two losing seasons in the past four years. Pelini led the Cornhuskers to seven consecutive bowl appearances and three conference title game appearances. He was fired because the school couldn’t reach the elite status they last attained a decade and a half prior (and some off the field stuff). All things considered, he was a pretty good hire.

Frank Spaziani, Boston College, 2009 – After Boston College foolishly fired Jeff Jagodzinski for interviewing for an open NFL job, the Eagles handed the reigns to their longtime defensive coordinator. The Eagles qualified for bowl games in Spaziani’s first two years, but their record declined during each of his four seasons, bottoming out at 2-10 in 2012. Bad hire.

Paul Rhoads, Iowa State, 2009 – In what ended up being a swap of sorts, Iowa State head coach Gene Chizik went to Auburn, and Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads took Chizik’s place in Ames. Thanks to Cam Newton and some dirty money, Chizik now has a national title (think about all the illustrious coaches that do not). Rhoads has led the Cyclones to some monumental upsets and three bowl appearances in six seasons. However, after going 5-19 the past two seasons, he is squarely on the hot seat heading into 2014. Decent hire.

Charlie Strong, Louisville, 2010 – The Florida defensive coordinator took over for Steve Kragthorpe at Louisville and after a pair of 7-6 seasons to open his tenure, won 23 of his final 26 games at the school, including the Sugar Bowl following the 2012 season. Slam dunk hire.

Will Muschamp, Florida, 2011 – Following the departure of demigod Urban Meyer, the Gators tabbed the Texas coach in waiting Will Muschamp to be their guy. Outside of a banner 2012 season where the Gators rode a stout defense to a one-loss regular season, the Gators were never close to their elite pedigree. Not as bad as Ron Zook, but a bad hire.

Mark Stoops, Kentucky, 2013 – After leading the Florida State defense for three seasons, the third Stoops brother to be in charge of a major college football program headed west to the SEC East and Lexington, Kentucky. The Wildcats did not win a conference games in Stoops’ first season as coach, but improved to five wins in his second season. Too soon to say, but early returns are solid.

Scott Shafer, Syracuse 2013 – After head coach Doug Marrone led the Orange to a pair of bowl bids over four seasons (quality work considering his predecessor), he stayed in upstate New York, but moved to the pros. The Orange promoted Scott Shafer, their defensive coordinator under Marrone, to be their head coach. Shafer’s first season ended with a middling 7-6 mark and his follow-up campaign resulted in a dreadful 3-9 record. He is squarely on the hot seat entering his third season. Too soon to render a final judgment, but returns are not promising.

Derek Mason, Vanderbilt, 2014 – After the most successful run in school history since the Eisenhower administration, James Franklin finally cashed in his chips and headed north to Happy Valley. To replace him, the Commodores looked west to another institution with great academic integrity, Stanford. Mason was on the Stanford staff for four seasons and four BCS bowl games, the last two in the role of defensive coordinator. However, his first season in Nashville was a disaster. The Commodores went winless in the SEC and managed just three wins overall. One season is never enough time to properly judge a coaching hire, but it appears as if Mason is in over his head.

Of the eight defensive coordinators who became head coaches at BCS/Power Five programs since 2008, three have been fired (although one could argue Pelini’s struggles away from the sidelines were more of a factor in his demise), three more could be fired in 2014 (Rhoads, Shafer, and Mason), one has parlayed his success into a bigger job, and one has a tough task in front of him in the nation’s strongest conference. Each job and the expectations that come with it must be evaluated individually, but moving from defensive coordinator to head coach has not been a slam dunk proposition.

Selecting coaches is a crapshoot (for the most part). You never know which FCS or mid-major coach will struggle at the next level. You never know which coordinator will be unable to recruit enough top-shelf talent or talent that fits his particular scheme. You never know what others schools in the conference will make slightly better coaching hires the same year (or the previous year or the next year). Conference wins are a zero-sum game after all. Hell, if you’re Pitt, you never know which coach might commit a felony or leave after one season. That being said, the Panthers have hired a defensive-minded coach with a good track record. Narduzzi didn’t produce great defenses at an old-money program like Alabama or Ohio State. He did it at a nouveau riche school that was actually not even the best program in its own state when he arrived. His hiring may not work out, but the Panthers have certainly given themselves a shot to break out of the six or seven win rut.

Grade: B+

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

Well, the regular season didn't necessarily go as we hoped. But, like Fresno State, we were awarded a postseason invitation despite a losing record. I will use my handicapping skills to give you the seven best bowl bets I see on the board. Let's enjoy the last fortnight or so of football as the offseason is long and arduous.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Western Michigan -1 Air Force
On the first Saturday of bowl season, we are treated to a quintet of games on ESPN and ABC. In the penultimate game, a pair of teams that improved dramatically face off in Boise, Idaho. Western Michigan and Air Force combined to go 3-21 in 2013. Under first year head coach PJ Fleck, the Broncos endured a typical 'Year Zero', losing all their games save one as they transitioned to a new administration. Meanwhile, after six consecutive bowl appearances under Troy Calhoun, the Falcons won just two games, their fewest in a season since 1980. Coming into this game, the Broncos and Falcons have a combined 17-7 mark, a full 14-game improvement. Despite finishing behind both Northern Illinois and Toledo in the MAC West, the Broncos may have been the best team in the conference. Statistically, they averaged the most yards per play in the conference, and their yards per play differential was also tops among MAC teams. Alas, the Broncos lost on the field to both the Huskies and Rockets and will have to be content with their first bowl win in school history to cap the season. The Falcons played in a tougher conference, but were quite fortunate to finish with nine wins. In conference play, they were outgained by nearly three quarters of a yard per play. The Falcons used their home field to their advantage, finishing 6-0 at home, including wins over league heavyweights Boise State and Colorado State. Away from the friendly confines of Falcon Stadium, Air Force went just 3-3, with the wins courtesy of Army, Georgia State, and UNLV. That triumvirate was a combined 7-30 in 2014. In this battle of improved teams, take the Broncos to win and cover this small number. Before we leave this game, here is a bit of bonus trivia for both teams. Did you know Bill Parcells once coached the Air Force Academy? His 1978 squad went just 3-8. In other coaching minutia, Jack Harbaugh coached Western Michigan. Yes, the father of Super Bowl winning coach John Harbaugh and super a-hole Jim Harbaugh was the Broncos fearless leader for five seasons beginning in 1982.

Miami Beach Bowl
Memphis -1 BYU
Before quarterback Taysom Hill went down with an injury in early October, some, in particular one genius blogger, fancied BYU a darkhorse contender for the college football playoff. Alas, the Cougars suffered a four-game losing streak upon losing Hill, but quietly rebounded to win their final four games. Despite owning eight victories, including three over teams from Power Five conferences, the Cougars only defeated a pair of teams (Houston and Texas) that are playing in bowl games. Meanwhile, all four of their losses came to bowl participants (all from the Group of Five). While the Cougars are playing in their tenth consecutive bowl game under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Memphis Tigers are playing in their first since 2008. The end of the Tommy West era, the entirety of the Larry Porter era, and the first two years of the Justin Fuente era produced just twelve victories, so the 9-3 campaign is certainly cause for a celebration. In fact, in the latest edition of the AP Poll, the Tigers are 29th, so a victory here could have them sitting in the final poll for the first time in school history. The Tigers are no fluke either, ranking second in the American Conference in terms of yards per play differential. They also acquitted themselves reasonably well outside the conference, playing a tight game at UCLA and giving Ole Miss a decent game despite losing by three touchdowns. Memphis is the better team and with a spread under a field goal, should be able to cover this small number.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Penn State +2.5 Boston College
These former northeast rivals on the Independent circuit will be playing for just the third time since 1992, and the first time in ten years. And they will be doing it in New York City! Boston College enters the game with seven wins and will look to end the season with eight for the first time since 2009. The Eagles were once a bowl winning machine under Tom O'Brien, emerging victorious in eight consecutive bowl games from 2000-2007. Alas, their winning ways have eluded them of late as they have suffered four consecutive postseason setbacks, with last year's debacle against Arizona the most recent. The Eagles were imminently average in the ACC in 2014, ranking eighth in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed. Their primary strength was the running of quarterback Tyler Murphy who was the only non-triple option quarterback to rush for more than 1000 yards in 2014. Murphy and the Eagles will take on a Penn State team that was average in terms of their final record, but extreme in how they got there. The Nittany Lions ranked dead last in the Big 10 in yards per play, averaging a pathetic 3.72 yards per snap. However, the Nittany Lions also boasted a robust defense, ranking first in the conference in yards per play allowed. The Nittany Lions were particularly adept against the run as no team averaged four yards per carry against them in 2014. Look for the Nittany Lions to win a tight low-scoring affair in one of our nation's finest cities.

Texas Bowl
Texas +6 Arkansas
There really is no better time than bowl season to renew old acquaintances. These former Southwest Conference rivals, who once played every season from 1932 to 1991 will be getting together for the first time since 2008 and just the fifth time since Arkansas left for the SEC before the 1992 season. While Bret Bielema and Charlie Strong may not yet have the cache of Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles, their teams are better than their combined 12-12 records would indicate. While Arkansas managed just a pair of SEC wins, and are just 2-14 in the league under Bielema, the Hogs beat Ole Miss and LSU by a combined 47 points. In addition, four of their six conference losses were by a touchdown or less, and all six of their losses came to bowl bound teams. Outside the SEC, the Hogs dominated. The Hogs crushed eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois, beat a an improved UAB team by four touchdowns, and throttled another former Southwest Conference rival (Texas Tech) by three touchdowns on the road. So why are they not the play here? For starters, a solid Texas team is catching nearly a touchdown. After a dismal 2-4 start that included wins against North Texas and Kansas, the Longhorns won four of their final six games. Like the Razorbacks, each team to defeat Texas will be playing in the postseason, so the schedule is partially responsible for the .500 record. Plus, and this factoid may shock you, Texas boated the best per play defense in the Big 12. The Longhorns held the dynamic Baylor offense under five yards per play. They also held the other powerful offenses in the Big 12, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and TCU, under their season averages. Methinks this will be a low-scoring game that hearkens back to the old days of the Southwest Conference with a lot of running plays, and a game that is not decided until the final minutes.

Music City Bowl
Notre Dame +7 LSU
If you want to go by the always ephemeral 'momentum', neither team stands a very good chance of winning this game. The Irish began the year 6-0 before losing in controversial fashion to Florida State. They came out flat in their next gane, but still managed a double-digit win over Navy. Then the wheels came off. The Irish dropped a tough road game in the desert against Arizona State, were upset by Northwestern and Louisville in successive weekends at home, and capped their four-game losing streak with a blowout by the Trojans in Los Angeles. In their first five games, all wins, the Irish allowed an average of 12 points per game and 4.72 yards per play. Over their final seven games (2-5 record), the Irish allowed an average of 41.6 points per game and 5.88 yards per play. Granted, the competition improved, but allowing over 40 points per game over a half season's worth of games is not something one would expect from Notre Dame. The good news for the Irish is that LSU has struggled mightily moving the football, particularly late in the season. Before they 'exploded' (relatively speaking) against Texas A&M in the season finale the Tigers averaged just 4.43 yards per play over a six-game SEC stretch. Three of those games came against the strong defenses of Alabama, Florida, and Ole Miss, but Arkansas, Auburn, and Kentucky were also included in that set of games. Suffice it to say, Cam Cameron didn't exactly earn his money this season. LSU will probably win this game, as they nearly always defeat non-conference foes under Miles, but I think they pull this one out the Les Miles way.

Fiesta Bowl
Boise State +3 Arizona
The Boise State program did not implode upon the exit of Chris Petersen. After a somewhat down year in 2013 that saw the Broncos lose five games for the first time since 1998, Petersen followed the coaching carousel to Washington. In his stead, the Broncos tabbed Bryan Harsin from Arkansas State (the new cradle of coaches). Harsin led the Broncos to their first outright Mountain West title since joining the conference in 2011. These Broncos are likely a little different than the teams you are used to watching. After ranking either first or second in terms of yards per play allowed among their conference brethren for each season from 2005 through 2013, the Broncos fell all the way to fourth in 2014 (gasp), but more than made up for it by fielding an outstanding offensive attack (second in the Mountain West to Colorado State in terms of yards per play). Running back Jay Ajayi enters the bowl with nearly 1700 rushing yards on the season and 25 touchdowns. Boise will seek their third Fiesta Bowl victory (Penn State holds the record with six Fiesta Bowl wins) against the Arizona Wildcats. The Wildcats will be making their first major bowl appearance since 1993, when they last played in the Fiesta Bowl. The Wildcats won seven of their nine regular season Pac-12 games, but were not very proficient at any one area. They ranked eighth in the conference in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed. The Wildcats did fare quite well in more random aspects of play, finishing with a +9 turnover margin in Pac-12 play and winning six of their seven one score games. This was a phenomenal season for Arizona, and it is a shame they ran into an elite Oregon team in the Pac-12 Championship Game, denying the program their first outright conference title since they won the Border Conference in 1941. Arizona is a little over-valued here and Boise should enter this game reasonably motivated to knock off a major conference team. Look for the Broncos to pull off an outright upset here.

Citrus Bowl
Minnesota +6 Missouri
For the second consecutive year, SEC newcomer Missouri won their division. And then were summarily trounced in the SEC Championship Game. There is no shame in losing to Alabama, but the Missouri Tigers are now 0-4 in conference title games under Gary Pinkel as they seek their first conference title since they shared the Big 8 with Nebraska in 1969. Missouri was led by their defense in 2014, ranking first in the SEC in yards per play allowed. That number is likely a function of their easier eastern division schedule, but the defense was legitimately nasty. The offense on the other hand, was a slowly decomposing husk. After averaging 6.1 yards per play in their four non-conference games, the Tigers struggled mightily moving the ball in the SEC, averaging under five yards per play. That figure ranked ahead of winless (in the conference) Vanderbilt, and no one else. The Tigers will be challenged by a Minnesota team playing in their third consecutive bowl under Jerry Kill. The Gophers somehow lost to Illinois (much like the Tigers somehow lost to Indiana), but otherwise performed admirably in 2014, beating Iowa, Michigan, and Nebraska, and losing to Ohio State, TCU, and Wisconsin. Minnesota does not do a anything particularly well, but against an offense as limited as Missouri's, they should be able to keep the margin in this game to a less than a touchdown.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XV

Alas, we have posted yet another subpar week, and with just one week to go in the regular season, it appears we will not finish the year with a winning record. Still, we have had a good time, and hopefully have not lost you too much money. Home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 47-51

Central Florida +7 East Carolina
The race for the crown in the American conference is yet to be decided. Memphis is in the clubhouse with a 7-1 mark and has clinched at least a share of the title. However, with one loss apiece, Central Florida and Cincinnati are still alive for a share of the title as well. If you are like me, and are pulling for sheer zaniness this weekend, Central Florida, Cincinnati, or Memphis could potentially grab one of the New Year's Six bowl games should Boise State lose in the Mountain West Championship Game. Yes, it is a long shot, but crazier things have happened. As for capping this game, were I a betting man, I would wager a significant amount on Central Florida. The Knights have one of the best mid-major defenses, and since losing to Connecticut on November 1st, have allowed just two offensive touchdowns in three games. East Carolina won't be held without an offensive score, but this spread should be closer to a pick 'em.

Arizona +14.5 Oregon @ Santa Clara
For the first time in the brief history of the Pac-12, the title game will be held at a neutral site instead of at the home of the team with the better conference record. A win by the Wildcats would not only give them their first outright Pac-10/12 title since joining the conference in 1978, it would also give them three wins over the Ducks in the past two seasons. For Oregon, a win certainly vaults them into the inaugural College Football Playoff, and would also give them their first conference title since 2011. It is unfair that some teams have to wait so long between championships. Arizona will keep this one close, but the Ducks will prevail sans a cover.

Marshall -12 Louisiana Tech
Despite their home loss to Western Kentucky last week, Marshall still has an incredible (unadjusted) profile. They outgained Conference USA opponents by over three yards per play (7.88 to 4.86)! Unfortunately, their dream season was shredded on a two-point conversion. Still, the Thundering Herd have a great deal to play for. A win here would give them their first conference championship since 2002. Plus, a solid performance by quarterback Rakeem Cato could land him an invite to New York for the Heisman ceremony. The Thundering Herd will be opposed by an improved Louisiana Tech team. The Bulldogs finished just 4-8 in Skip Holtz's first season in charge, but improved to 8-4 this season behind the best defense in Conference USA. Holtz has won a pair of Conference USA Championship Games, both times as an underdog, but I think the Herd will be too much here, particularly at home.

Iowa State +33.5 TCU
With the release of the latest college football rankings, TCU appears to be just a win away from locking up a playoff spot. Now all they have to do is get by an Iowa State team that has not won a conference game since the end of last season. Iowa State has played TCU tough in their two contests as Big 12 members, with the Cyclones upsetting the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth two years ago, and losing a close contest in Ames last season. This one won't be as competitive, but the Cyclones should hold the margin of defeat under 30.

Missouri +14.5 Alabama @ Atlanta
The newbies from the Big 12 have now won twice as many SEC East titles in three seasons as Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt have combined to win in 23 seasons. The Tigers will be looking to exorcise a few demons from last year's title game when Auburn shredded their previously stout defense with nearly 700 yards of offense, including 545 on the ground. The Tigers enter this game once again boasting a stout defense, in fact the best in the SEC by yards per play. To be fair, the Tigers play in the SEC East, so some adjustment for strength of schedule is necessary, but the defense is still the strength of the team. This is especially true when considering quarterback Maty Mauk completed less than half his passes in five of eight SEC games. Alabama is clearly the better team, but as a double-digit favorite away from home, the Tide are 0-3 ATS this season. I think Missouri loves company, and keeps this one within two touchdowns.

Georgia Tech +4 Florida State @ Charlotte
I feel a little nervous jumping on that Georgia Tech bandwagon after their upset over Georgia last week. Everyone has been waiting patiently for Florida State to lose all season, and yet the Seminoles are unbeaten (and disrespected) as Championship Weekend approaches. If noting else, this game should be entertaining with two of the best offense in the ACC going head to head. The last time these two teams met was a classic (although no one was there to see it). Take the Jackets to win a tight one and open the door for either Ohio State or Baylor to sneak into the playoff picture.

Fresno State +21 Boise State
At the beginning of November, things looked bleak for the Fresno State Bulldogs. Fresh off a Mountain West title, the Bulldogs stood just 3-6 and were a loss away from missing a bowl for the first time under Tim DeRuyter. Then the Bulldogs reeled off three straight wins and thanks to their earlier win over San Diego State actually won the West division of the Mountain West. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, it looks like they will enter bowl season with a losing record like Georgia Tech did in 2012. A win here would be a major upset, but a cover would not be unprecedented.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIV

Well, it appears we cannot stand prosperity. After consecutive winning weeks got us back to .500, a 2-5 week makes a winning season unlikely. Still, we press on. Home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 44-47

Texas +6.5 TCU
The Big 12 seems built for controversy regarding head-to-head versus body of work. In 2008, a three-way tie in the south among Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech had to be broken by the BCS rankings. Now, sans divisions, it appears we are headed toward more controversy regarding the inaugural College Football Playoff. Baylor beat TCU head-to-head on the field in Waco, but TCU has a tougher schedule, and arguably a superior body of work. Before we get ahead of ourselves, remember that potential controversies often have a way of working themselves out. That could certainly be the case on Thanksgiving night as TCU heads to Austin to take on the Longhorns. This is not a typical TCU team. The Horned Frogs have the best offense (in terms of yards per play) in the Big 12, and rank just sixth on defense. Meanwhile, Texas has the league's top-ranked defense and has shut down high-powered offenses like UCLA, Baylor, and Oklahoma already this season. Since joining the Big 12, TCU is just 1-6 ATS as a road favorite. Look for that trend to continue here as Texas keeps this one very close.

Rutgers +8.5 Maryland
The maiden voyage for both Rutgers and Maryland in the Big 10 has been marginally successful for both. Both have attained bowl eligibility, although most of Rutger's work was done in the non-conference. Rutgers did beat a down traditional power in Michigan, so there is something to be said for that. Maryland has already won four conference games and will be looking to post their first winning conference record since 2010 when Ralph Friedgen waddled the sideline. In a nice twist, Friedgen is now the offensive coordinator at...Rutgers of course. This spread is probably a field goal or so too high thanks to Maryland's upset win at Michigan last week. Rutgers has been pretty good as a road underdog under Kyle Flood, posting an 8-4 ATS mark with five outright upsets. Take the Knights to keep this one within a touchdown.

Penn State +13.5 Michigan State
As I mentioned earlier that this is not your typical TCU team, this is also not your typical Michigan State team. Most iterations of Sparty under Mark Dantonio are defense-oriented teams. This year's version ranks an above-average fifth in the Big 10 in yards per play allowed, but the offense has been the real strength of the team. Along with Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Spartans are the only Big 10 team averaging more than six yards per snap in league play. Penn State would kill for that kind of offensive firepower. Unfortunately, the Nittany Lions are dead last in the Big 10 in yards per play. The offensive line has been especially porous, allowing 39 sacks thus far on the year (122nd nationally). The Penn State defense has been nearly as robust as the offense has been putrid. The Nittany Lions lead the Big 10 in yards per play allowed, and against the dominant Ohio State offense in Happy Valley, held the Buckeyes to 17 points in regulation. Penn State probably lacks the offensive firepower to win here, but this spread is way too high.

BYU +4.5 Cal
For BYU, the 2014 season began with such promise. The Cougars opened the year by winning their first four games, rose to number 18 in the AP Poll, and had designs on an undefeated season. Alas, quarterback Taysom Hill was injured, and the defense had a few awful games. The Cougars lost four in a row at midseason, but have rebounded against a softer schedule to win their past three and clinch a ninth consecutive winning season under Bronco Mendenhall. While BYU goes for their eighth win of the season, Cal will be seeking their sixth and their first bowl bid since 2011. The Bears have significantly improved from their 1-11 campaign last season, but have lost five of their past six games after a 4-1 start. Cal has not covered as a home favorite since 2011! Granted, they have only been favored four times at home since then, but still, the Bears are far from a dominant home team. Take BYU to cover here and potentially keep the Bears home for the holidays.

Louisiana-Monroe +14.5 Georgia Southern
With a win here, Georgia Southern could attain the dubious distinction of being both the outright Sun Belt champion and not playing in the postseason. Since the Eagles are in their first season as a IA member, they are technically classified as a 'transitional' team and would need a waiver to play in a bowl. Unless some teams self-impose bowl bans in the last two weeks of the season, a scenario where the Eagles play in a bowl game us unlikely. Alas, they could take solace in becoming the first Sun Belt team to finish unbeaten in conference play since Arkansas State in 2011. Under first year coach Willie Fritz, the Eagles have gashed Sun Belt opponents and are averaging nearly seven yards per play against their conference brethren. I think the Eagles will get the win here, but Louisiana-Monroe is a healthy 10-5 ATS as a road underdog against teams from the Group of Five conferences since 2010. Take the Warhawks to keep this one within two touchdowns.

UTEP -4 Middle Tennessee State
Well, we whiffed on UTEP last week, but the one facet we should have considered regarding that game was the location. UTEP was on the road at Rice. Now they return home to try and solidify a bowl bid and clinch their first winning season since 2005. The Miners are unbeaten ATS at home this season, and are 4-0 ATS as a home favorite. Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee State is 1-4 straight up on the road and in their last road game fell to feeble Florida International. UTEP has a great deal to play for and in El Paso should win this game by at least a touchdown.

Utah State +9 Boise State
If you want to discuss perseverance, Utah State has it in spades. The Aggies are down to their fourth string quarterback thanks to a spate of injuries. However, like Kurt Warner before him, freshman Kent Myers has risen to the occasion and arguably played better than the man (or in this case men) he was replacing. The Aggies are a few closes losses (to Arkansas State and Colorado State) away from being in position to grab the big-time bowl berth that goes to the highest ranked member from the Group of Five. Ironically, one of the teams that beat Utah State will be pulling hard for the Aggies as the Rams from Colorado State need another Boise loss (in conjunction with their own win over Air Force) to gain entry to the Mountain West Championship Game. Boise State is just 7-15 ATS as a home favorite since joining the Mountain West in 2011. This game should be very close, and an upset by the Aggies would not shock me.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

Two winning weeks in a row has us back to .500 for the year. There are only three weeks left in the college football regular season. It always leaves us to soon. As always, home teams in bold.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 42-42

UTEP +9 Rice
Not to brag or anything, but I am currently reading a book. The book in question, Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, is a good read for anyone interested in the history of amateur sports. Obviously, the title is a little verbose, but the book is a great historical analysis of the integration of college sports. One thing I discovered in reading the book (not related to integration at all), is that Bum Phillips coached UTEP for one season in 1962. Before he was 'Luv ya Blue', he was 'Luv ya U(TEP)'. Perhaps Bum saw the writing on the wall more than a half-century ago. It is hard to win in El Paso. However, perhaps the tide could be turning. Second year head coach Sean Kugler has the Miners bowl eligible with two games left to play. This is a stark improvement from last season, when the Miners won just a single conference game for their eighth consecutive losing season. Seeking to clinch their first winning season since 2005, the Miners head to Houston to take on a Rice team that is bowl eligible for the third consecutive season. Rice is probably the better team, and is playing at home, but this spread should be less than a touchdown. Take the Miners to dig in and keep this one close.

Purdue +2.5 Northwestern
The fates finally smiled on Northwestern last week. After losing eight of their previous ten one-score games, the Wildcats used a late surge, and questionable coaching by Brian Kelly, to stun the Irish in South Bend in overtime. The win bolstered Northwestern's bowl chances as they merely need to sweep Purdue and Illinois to reach six wins. With the Boilermakers and Illini combining for a 2-10 Big 10 record, that would seem a forgone conclusion. Ah, but let's not start licking our own lollipops just yet. Not only could a letdown be in store for the Wildcats, but the Boilermakers have also been exceedingly competitive in their second season under Darrell Hazell. In fact, since the ugly loss to Iowa, during which Austin Appleby replaced Danny Etling under center (or in the shotgun), Purdue has been a downright average football team. Unfortunately, the schedule has featured a quartet of teams that are either currently ranked, or were ranked at some point in the season (Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin). The Boilermakers lost all four of those games, but covered three times, and also pounded Illinois for good measure. Northwestern struggles big time moving the football, so don't be surprised if Purdue is able to pull off an outright upset here.

Western Michigan -1 Central Michigan
Don't look now, but statistically, these could be the two best teams in the MAC. For Central Michigan, the Chippewas have steadily improved over the half decade that Dan Enos has been in charge. At 7-4, they have already achieved the most regular season wins under his guidance, and a win here, coupled with a lot of help could send them back to the MAC Championship Game for the first time since 2009. The other directional Michigan school has risen rapidly under second year coach P.J. Fleck. After winning just a single game (by a single point) in Fleck's first season, the Broncos are 7-3 and winners of five straight. The last four wins in the streak have all come by at least twelve points. The Broncos still need some help to notch their first ever berth in the MAC Championship Game, but with this spread hovering below a field goal, they are an easy play here.

Ole Miss -2.5 Arkansas
Last week, I advised you to go against the Hogs as they were somehow laying points against LSU. Please accept my sincerest apologies for that mistake. I failed to realize that Cam Cameron was somehow coaching worse than he did as head man of the Dolphins. Ole Miss, even without receiver Laquon Treadwell, should be able to move the ball against one of the worst defenses in the SEC. Despite the shutout win over LSU, Arkansas only managed 264 yards of their own, at just over four yards per play. The Ole Miss defense has slipped a bit since their early season domination, but they should do enough to win this game by at least a touchdown.

New Mexico State +8 Louisiana-Monroe
Louisiana-Monroe, the underdog darlings of the 2012 football season, have clinched a losing season. However, despite already owning seven losses, the Warhawks did defeat a Power Five conference team for the third consecutive season. Granted, that team was Wake Forest (my alma mater's second loss to the Warhawks in as many seasons), but it is a solid achievement nonetheless considering the Warhawks won just three such games from 1994 through 2011 (although the one in 2007 was quite infamous). The Warhawks have a hard time moving the ball, even against Sun Belt foes, ranking last in the conference in yards per play. Their defense is average by Sun Belt standards, but with such a low-wattage offense, they should not be favored by more than a touchdown, especially on the road. In fact, the Warhawks have not won a game by more than a touchdown since last Halloween. Look for the Aggies to keep this one close.

Missouri +3.5 Tennessee
You want a crazy, I mean, really ridiculous stat? Missouri, a team that finished 2-6 in their inaugural season in the SEC, has won seven straight SEC road games! Under Nick Saban, Alabama won nine straight from 2008 through 2010 and eleven straight from 2011 through 2013. Under Urban Meyer, Florida won ten straight from 2007 through 2010. Those are the only other more lengthy road winning streaks over the last decade in the SEC. Since joining the SEC in 2012, the Tigers are 7-2 ATS as a road underdog, with six outright road upsets. Missouri is still in control of its destiny in regards to the SEC title, so motivation should not be a factor here. Look for the Tigers to continue their stellar road play and make Tennessee have to sweat out one more week before becoming bowl eligible.

Oregon State +6.5 Washington
2014 has not played out exactly how the Beavers and Huskies had hoped in the preseason. Coming off consecutive bowl appearances, the Beavers, even with the loss of stud receiver Brandin Cooks to the NFL, hoped to continue shredding west coast defenses with senior quarterback Sean Mannion. Without Cooks the offense has declined and the team still needs a win in one of its final two games to qualify for a bowl (probably don't want to head into the Civil War with Oregon needing a win to get bowl eligible). The Huskies have had similar issues on offense sans quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey. The Huskies opened the year with four consecutive wins against a good IAA team (Eastern Washington) and a trio of IA bottom dwellers (Hawaii, Illinois, and Georgia State). Once conference play began, the Huskies offensive difficulties outweighed their defensive acumen, and they too need to win one of their final two games to be assured of a postseason invite. Both these teams are about as statistically equivalent as one can get. Consequently, take the team catching nearly a touchdown, even though they are on the road.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

Well, we finally came through with a winning week, finishing 4-3. We were just a half a point away from a 5-2 week before LSU folded in overtime against Alabama. C'est la vie. We are now 37-40 with four weeks to go. Let's try and even that record this week. As always, home teams in bold.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 37-40

Western Kentucky -8 Army
This spread has been falling since it was released on Sunday. It started out at ten points or so, and is now just above a touchdown. I'm a little confused at the love Army is receiving after their 'upset' of Connecticut last week. The win was the third of the season for the Black Knights, which matches their total from last season and is tied for their highest seasonal win total since 2010. The Black Knights should eclipse that threshold next week against Fordham, but I don't see them keeping this one especially close. Western Kentucky has been outstanding on offense this season, scoring at least 34 points in every game except one. However, they have also allowed at least 27 points in every game. Hence their 4-5 record. Army has been pretty forgiving on defense themselves, allowing nearly 33 points per game and over six yards per play. Even the historically bad Wake Forest offense averaged over five yards per play against the Black Knights. I expect this to be a high-scoring game, but Western Kentucky should win this one by double-digits.

Iowa -3.5 Illinois
Perhaps this spread is an overreaction to the transitive property (which does not exist in sports by the way). In one of their few solid performances under Tim Beckman, the Illini upset Minnesota at home three weeks ago. Then last week, those same Golden Gophers eviscerated the Hawkeyes. The betting public is still down on Iowa for that egg they laid. Illinois has the worst defense in the Big 10, as they are currently allowing over seven yards per play to their Big 10 opponents. The spread should be about a touchdown. Take the Hawkeyes to cover here.

South Carolina +6.5 Florida
If I had told you before the season that one of these teams would enter this game needing to spring an upset in their final three games to qualify for a bowl, most would probably have pegged the Gators as that underachiever. Certainly, Florida is not where they were at their peak under Urban Meyer, but the Gators can clinch a winning season with a victory against the Gamecocks (assuming they beat Eastern Kentucky next week). The Gators enter having won two in a row, and still have an outside shot at getting to the SEC Championship Game, which is more an indictment of the SEC East than praise for the Gators. South Carolina enters having lost four of five (and four in a row in the SEC) after a 3-1 start. The defense is among the worst in the SEC, allowing more yards per play than every team except Texas A&M and Arkansas. Despite Florida's offensive struggles, the Gators should be able to move the ball against the Gamecocks as comparable bad offenses (Vanderbilt and Tennessee) certainly have. Despite the failings of the defense, the Gamecocks have been competitive thanks to their fantastic offense. The offense has racked up at least 35 points in six of their past seven SEC games. Despite their poor record, South Carolina has been effective as an underdog ATS in a small sample size this season, winning outright against Georgia and fighting Auburn to the bitter end. Florida is just 4-8 ATS as a home favorite since 2012, and with this spread close to a touchdown, I expect the Gamecocks to keep it close.

Wisconsin -6 Nebraska
This game will go a long way toward determining the Big 10 West's division. Currently these two teams are tied with Minnesota at 4-1. Unfortunately for the Gophers, they play both of these teams on the road to close the regular season, as well as Ohio State this weekend, so the winner of this game will be in the driver's seat. After a rough start to the conference season that saw them lose to Northwestern for the first time since 2009 and struggling with Illinois in a ten-point home win, the Badgers have gone on their usual Big 10 steamrolling tour. They have won their past three games against Maryland, Rutgers, and Purdue by a cumulative 123-23 score. Nebraska has quietly won eight of nine, with the lone loss coming at Michigan State. The Huskers are looking to lose less than four games for the first time under head coach Bo Pelini. In their three previous meetings as Big 10 foes, the home team has won each game, with the Badgers taking the rubber match in the 2012 Big 10 Championship Game. Wisconsin's two wins came by 31 and 39 points respectively, while Nebraska's win was a much closer three-point margin. This is the smallest home spread for Wisconsin under second-year coach Gary Andersen. Under Anderson, the Badgers are a healthy 7-3 ATS as a home favorite (typically large number). Look for the Badgers to win this one by at least double-digits.

Auburn +2.5 Georgia
As I discussed over the summer, Auburn should be expected to be less than stellar ATS as a double-digit favorite. The Tigers are just 2-3 ATS as a large favorite, including last week's outright home loss to Texas A&M. They are also just 3-5 overall ATS as a favorite of any kind. However, when the Tigers are catching points, they have been money in the bank under Guz Malzahn. Including last year's BCS Championship Game, Auburn is a healthy 6-0 ATS with four outright upsets, including one two weeks ago against Ole Miss. This line is probably too much of an overreaction to Auburn's loss at home to Texas A&M. Plus, while Mark Richt has not developed the reputation Les Miles enjoys in regards to failing to cover the spread, the Bulldogs are just 33-42-4 ATS since 2005. Bank on Malzahn and the Tigers getting back on track here.

Missouri +5.5 Texas A&M
It's amazing how one week can shift your perception of a team. Last week at this time, the Aggies were coming off a less than decisive win against Louisiana-Monroe, had lost three straight SEC games by at least 15 points, and were three touchdown underdogs against the defending conference champion. Then the Aggies jumped out a big lead, made a timely special teams play, enjoyed a little snapping good fortune, and now are 7-3 with two home games left. But has anything really changed with the Aggies? Sure, they score a lot of points (sometimes), but they also have one of the worst defenses in the SEC. On the other sideline, Missouri is the polar opposite of Texas A&M. They combine the worst offense in the conference with the best defense. Texas A&M's SEC games have seen about 69 points scored on average between the Aggies and their opponents. Meanwhile, Missouri's SEC games have seen the Tigers and their opponents combine for roughly 40 points per game. Missouri's defense should be able to hold the Aggies in check and the Tigers have been money in the bank as a road underdog since joining the SEC, going 6-2 ATS in the role.

LSU +2.5 Arkansas
So let me get this straight. One of these teams is ranked in the top-25 of the current AP Poll and the other has not won an SEC game since 2012. And of course, the team currently riding a 17-game conference losing streak is favored. During their 17-game skid, Arkansas has had a few close calls, losing seven games by a touchdown or less, including their last two against LSU. In both of those games LSU was a double-digit favorite. They struggled, but won the Les Miles way. Were LSU giving points, I would advise you to avoid this game at all costs. However, since the Tigers are catching nearly a field goal here, they should be a solid play. LSU will be able to move the ball against an Arkansas defense that is statistically the worst in the SEC. After playing Ole Miss and Alabama in their last two games, LSU should get out some of their collective offensive frustrations on the Hogs.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XI

A second consecutive 2-5 mark has your humble narrator scrambling to just finish with a .500 record for the season. The yearly mark is now a poor  33-37. We'll try and do better this week. As always, home teams in bold.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 33-37

Georgia Tech -3.5 NC State
Last week, NC State finally ended a rather long streak of futility, in winning their first conference game since 2012 (a streak of 12 consecutive conference defeats). Thanks to an incredibly soft non-conference slate, the Wolfpack need just a single victory to become bowl eligible. Despite their upset win over Syracuse, the Wolfpack remain a below average team that is superlative at nothing. They rank twelfth in the fourteen-team ACC in yards per play (ahead of Syracuse and Wake Forest) and eighth in the conference in yards per play allowed. Their opponent on Saturday is an extreme team. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are bowl eligible yet again, and have a chance to play in the ACC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons. The Yellow Jackets have the best offense in the ACC in terms of yards per play, but are dead last in the conference in yards per play allowed. Their defense has particularly let them down in their two defeats. The Yellow Jackets allowed 31 and 48 points in consecutive losses to Duke and North Carolina that may eventually cost them the Coastal Division title. NC State will be able to move the ball against the Georgia Tech defense, but the Yellow Jackets should be able to outscore the Wolfpack and win by at least a touchdown.

Tulane +17.5 Houston
Two upsets last week (Temple over East Carolina and Connecticut over Central Florida) threw the American Athletic Conference into chaos. Five teams, Cincinnati, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, and UCF, are all 3-1 in the league at the halfway point. This should make for an exciting final month. Unfortunately, the champion will probably not be able to snatch a major bowl bid for the Group of Five conferences. Of the teams currently tied atop the American Conference, Houston is probably the weakest. The Cougars have real issues moving the football, averaging under five yards per play in conference games (eighth among eleven teams). This spread appears to be about a touchdown too high. Take the Green Wave to cover this large number.

Texas +3.5 West Virginia
The maiden voyage for the Longhorns under Charlie Strong has seen its share of ups and downs. The Longhorns were blown out by BYU, but hung close with UCLA and Oklahoma, and limited Baylor's explosive offense in a closer than the score indicated defeat. Can the Longhorns finally break through against a ranked team under Strong? The opponent, West Virginia, has three losses, but those defeats have come at the hands of three of the best teams in college football: Alabama, Oklahoma, and TCU. The Mountaineers also have three road wins this season, matching their total for their first two seasons in the Big 12. The key point to remember is that two of those wins were very close and were decided on last second field goals (Maryland and Texas Tech). Also keep in mind Texas obliterated that same Red Raider team (on the same field) just last week and that West Virginia could be in a letdown spot after nearly upsetting TCU last week. Take the Longhorns here, and don't be surprised if they pull off an outright upset.

UNLV +6 Air Force
One season after playing in their first bowl game in thirteen years, the encore has not gone according to plan for UNLV. The Rebels are just 2-7 and have clinched their tenth losing season in the last eleven years. On the other sideline, Air Force has rebounded from a winless Mountain West campaign in 2013 to become bowl eligible for the seventh time in eight seasons under Troy Calhoun. The Falcons have also wrapped up the Commander in Chief Trophy by beating their service academy rivals Army and Navy. However, despite their 6-2 start, Air Force is probably a little over-valued. The Falcons are last in the Mountain West in yards per play and only middle of the pack (seventh) in yards per play allowed. Plus, UNLV has been stellar as a home underdog under Bobby Hauck, going 13-6-1 ATS in those situations. Take the Rebels to cover here, and don't be surprised if they pull off the outright upset.

LSU +6.5 Alabama
Les Miles and the LSU Tigers find themselves in both an unfamiliar situation and a position they are very acquainted with. Under Miles, the Tigers have been home underdogs just five other times. However, three of those instances came against Alabama (as led by Nick Saban). LSU has covered three of those five games, including two of three against Alabama. In fact, their non-covers have also been close as Alabama needed overtime to dispatch LSU as a field goal favorite in 2008 and Florida won by ten as an eight point favorite in 2009. LSU has steadily improved as the year has gone on, and is certainly not the same team that was obliterated by Auburn a month ago. Also keep in mind that Alabama is just 3-6 ATS away from Tuscaloosa since the start of the 2013 season. Take the Tigers to keep this one close.

Ohio State +3.5 Michigan State
Can a Big 10 team crack the initial College Football Playoff? The best chance for the conference probably lies with a Michigan State win here. If Ohio State wins here, and wins out, their inexplicable loss to Virginia Tech will likely serve to keep them out of the playoffs barring some other unlikely results. Along with Wisconsin, these are clearly the two best teams in the conference, but their lack of non-conference accomplishments will likely shut the Big 10 champion out of the playoffs. Ohio State has been a betting underdog exactly twice under Urban Meyer, and once was two seasons ago against these Spartans, in this very stadium. The spread was about the same too, with the Buckeyes getting about a field goal. The Buckeyes won a tight game, and a similar result here would not be too surprising.

New Mexico State +17 Louisiana-Lafayette
The Ragin' Cajuns have had quite a four-year run under Mark Hudspeth. They have played in (and won) three consecutive New Orleans Bowls and are just a win away from attaining bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season. However, 2014 began rather inauspiciously. After opening with an expected beatdown of IAA Southern, the Cajuns lost at home to Louisiana Tech by four touchdowns (they entered the game as a double-digit favorite). They then went on the road to Ole Miss and Boise State and lost by a combined 66 points. With Captain Hindsight as our guide, we can see that while the Cajuns were not competitive in those three losses, each of those teams has ended up being pretty good. Once conference play began, the Cajuns rebounded and are now 4-0 in the Sun Belt. Their overall Sun Belt record under Hudspeth is a sterling 21-6, yet they have yet to win an outright conference title, finishing third in 2011, second in 2012, and tied for first last season. Even if they win out, they may not be alone at the top of the standings as Georgia Southern is also unblemished through six conference games and does not face the Cajuns. Despite their sterling won-loss record, the Cajuns have been far from a sure thing as a favorite. In conference games in which they entered as the betting favorite, the Cajuns are just 7-10 ATS. They are also just 2-4 ATS in all games as a road favorite under Hudspeth and 2-6-1 ATS as a double-digit favorite. All these trends are compelling reasons to take the Aggies from Las Cruces on Saturday night.
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