Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

Week III has another week to forget. As least we improved on Week II though. Little victories. As always, home teams in BOLD.


Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 9-10-2

Purdue -4 Nevada
Two decades from now, perhaps the most remembered aspect of the Darrell Hazell era will be the fact that two of his former quarterbacks started for ranked SEC teams. Barring a miracle, Hazell is on his way out sometime soon, but in the meantime, he is still receiving a paycheck and you can still place bets on his team. Despite the ineptitude that has hovered around the Purdue program for the duration of his tenure, the Boilermakers have showed some spunk this season. Against Eastern Kentucky (FCS) and Cincinnati, Purdue has averaged over six yards per. However, they lost to the Bearcats thanks to five interceptions courtesy of quarterback David Blough. If Blough can avoid excessive turnovers against the Wolfpack, the offense can put some points on the board. If nothing else, Blough should be well-protected as he is yet to be sacked in 100 pass attempts through two games and the Wolfpack have yet to secure a sack through three games. After Saturday, Purdue may not win another game all season, but they should beat Nevada by at least a touchdown.

Wake Forest +7.5 Indiana
I usually don't handicap my alma mater's games on this blog. My emotional attachment to the Deacons can prevent me from making a rational selection. That being said, I think they are a great play here. Against an admittedly light schedule, the Deacons are 3-0 for the first time since 2008. Bonus nugget of information: The Deacons beat Robert Griffin in his first college game to open the 2008 season. The offense, opener notwithstanding, while not great by any stretch, appears to be the best of the Dave Clawson era. However, the defense has been the real strength of the team in allowing less than five yards per play in each of the first three games. The Deacons will face a fellow undefeated team in the Indiana Hoosiers. After qualifying for their first bowl in nearly a decade last season, Indiana has quietly beaten a pair of mid-majors in their first two games. Like Wake Forest, the competition has been less than stellar in the early going, but for a program starved for success and barring realignment, one that shares a division with Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State (not to mention Penn State), wins will taken where they can be had. Indiana probably needs this game more than Wake for their bowl hopes and therefore could be hungrier. Still, this game was a one-possession affair last season when Wake has not as good. Despite the road venue, I think the Deacons will keep this one close and potentially leave with an outright win.

Florida +6.5 Tennessee
Can the Vols finally break through? Can they combat more than a decade of losing to the Florida Gators? The last time Tennessee defeated the Gators, the esteemed Ron Zook was coaching the team, Nick Saban was at LSU, and an SEC team was about to go undefeated and be shut out of the national title game. My, how times have changed. The Gators will certainly be at a disadvantage under center (or in shotgun) in this game after quarterback Luke Del Rio suffered an injury against North Texas. The good news for the Gators is that while his replacement is limited in his ability, he is experienced, having thrown nearly 500 career passes while suiting up for the Purdue Boilermakers. Still, can he be any worse than luminaries like Jeff Driskel, Tyler Murphy, or John Brantley who have already beaten the Vols? Probably not. That being said, the Gators will rely on their defense to win this game. While the competition has not been stiff, the Gators are allowing under three yards per play in the early going. In addition, consider that besides scoring just seven points and averaging just over three yards per play against the Gators, Kentucky has put 97 points on the board and averaged over eight yards per play in their other two contests. Their defense may not be among the best of all time, but it is good enough to stay close to (and even beat) a flawed Vols team. The Tennessee offense behind quarterback Josh Dobbs is averaging just a touch over five yards per play. Despite being a darkhorse preseason Heisman candidate, Dobbs has never averaged more than 6.8 yards per pass in a full season and is averaging the fewest yards per throw (6.5) since his freshman season (5.7). Beleaguered offensive coordinator Mike DeBord deserves some of the blame, but Dobbs has failed to take the proverbial next step to give Tennessee a dynamic offense. Keep an eye on Tennessee's fumble luck in this game, as the Vols have recovered an unsustainable 15 of 18 fumbles in their first three games. If a few of those balls had bounced a different way, Tennessee could have lost one or perhaps even two of their first three games. Tennessee has been awful as a home favorite under Butch Jones as they have gone just 4-10 Against the Spread (ATS) with four outright losses. This will be a tight game and Florida may well make it an even dozen against the Vols.

Kentucky -2 South Carolina
One of the signs of being an adult is being able to admit when you were wrong. And making predictions on this blog gives my a lot of chances to do that. Last week, I was dead wrong about the Gamecocks (yet still managed to get the game right). I figured they would be able to move the ball at will against East Carolina. And while the Gamecocks did score 20 points for the first time under Will Muschamp, the team was very fortunate to emerge victorious against the Pirates. Outside of their first two drives, the offense sputtered against the Pirates (just 219 yards and 4.8 yards per play after the first two touchdown drives). Meanwhile, East Carolina spent most of the final three quarters of the game in South Carolina territory, yet only managed to find the end zone once. This victory reminded me a lot of South Carolina's opening victory last season where North Carolina moved the ball seemingly at will against South Carolina while falling on their own swords once they got near the end zone. No one took that victory away from South Carolina, just as no one will remove this victory against East Carolina, but relying on red zone turnovers is a precarious defensive strategy. After their escape against North Carolina, the red zone turnovers disappeared the next week and Kentucky was able to win in Columbia. The Wildcats will look to make it three in a row against the Gamecocks while breaking a six-game SEC losing streak. Kentucky is not a good team and will certainly miss the postseason for the sixth consecutive year once all is said and done. However, I think they are set up nicely to beat the Gamecocks by at least a field goal at home. Oh, and if South Carolina can't score 30 against Kentucky, they may never hit that number in the Will Muschamp era.

UTEP +10.5 Southern Miss
Speaking of times when I was wrong, I also whiffed on UTEP last week. I figured the Miners would be competitive against Army as a small underdog and potentially win the game outright. Instead, the Miners allowed 66 points to the Black Knights! That marked the first time Army had eclipsed 60 points since 2006 in a game against VMI. So naturally, UTEP is the play this week. Army absolutely gashed the Miners in rushing for over 400 yards and averaging over 20 yards per pass on just eight attempts. However, Army runs an option offense, and presents a unique challenge. UTEP does not have a good defense by any means, but they should match up better against Southern Miss than they did against Army. UTEP has covered in their last four games as a double-digit home underdog and you may not have noticed, but Southern Miss dropped a home game last week to Troy. I like UTEP to bounce back and keep this one close.

Arkansas +6.5 Texas A&M @ Arlington
These former Southwest Conference rivals will have played in eight consecutive seasons once this game concludes early Sunday morning. Arkansas won the first three games of the renewed rivalry when the Aggies were still members of the Big 12, but Texas A&M has won each of the four meetings when both were SEC teams. After dismantling a John L. Smith coached team in 2012, the Aggies have won the last three by smaller margins and have not covered in any of the three. Arkansas is 9-4-1 ATS as a road or neutral field underdog under Bret Bielema, including a 9-1-1 run since failing to cover in his first three games in the role as coach of the Hogs. I expect another close battle in Arlington and I wouldn't be surprised with an outright Arkansas win.

Utah State +3.5 Air Force
Utah State is in rarefied air at least relative to their school history. If they can manage six wins in the regular season, they will be bowl eligible for the sixth consecutive year. While they will probably not reach the heights of 2012 anytime soon, this is quite an accomplishment for a team that won just 17 games between 2005 and 2010. Air Force has also enjoyed a great run of success. After a horrible 2013 reset, the Falcons have won 18 games over the past two seasons and if they can get to six wins, they will have been bowl eligible in nine of Troy Calhoun's ten seasons on the sideline. The marks the first real test and first road game for Air Force as they opened against an FCS school and Georgia State. Utah State is already battle-tested, having played at USC and are usually strong at home, posting a 17-3 record under head coach Matt Wells. This line should be closer to a pick 'em, so take the points and Utah State.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

Well, as good as Week I was, Week II was nearly as bad. 1-5-1 is not going to get it done. We will try to get back on track this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.


Last Week: 1-5-1
Overall: 7-5-2

Kansas +20 Memphis
Well, I erroneously jumped on that Kansas football bandwagon. After looking good against a bad FCS team in their opener, Kansas was back to being Kansas in their second game. Ohio, granted a typically above-average MAC team, beat them by double digits at home. Now the Jayhawks go on the road against another mid-major that has enjoyed great success the past two seasons. So why on earth would they be a good play here? For starters, what do we know about Memphis that would make them a nearly three touchdown favorite against any FBS team? The Tigers, despite their 19-7 record the past two seasons are transitioning in 2016. Their head coach is now at Virginia Tech. His replacement certainly has bona fides, performing admirably as Arizona State's offensive coordinator the past four seasons. However, he is one game deep into his head coaching career. Secondly, the Tigers are without their most famous, and perhaps most important player from last season, quarterback Paxton Lynch. Thirdly, Kansas was hampered by turnovers in their loss to Ohio, a highly variable statistic. I don't think Kansas has what it takes to win this game, but this spread is probably about a touchdown too high.

Ohio +27.5 Tennessee
This is a dreaded 'sandwich' game for Tennessee. Last week, the Vols played in the highest attended game in college football history. Next week, they will attempt to end an eleven-game losing streak to the Florida Gators. In between, they host a MAC team in the early kickoff window. Despite dominating Virginia Tech on the scoreboard last week, a closer look at the box score reveals the Vols still have some areas of concern. For starters, Josh Dobbs threw for less than 100 yards. This is partly a function of a low volume of passes (19), but Dobbs still averaged under five yards per pass attempt. Dobbs did contribute over 100 yards on the ground, but against the better teams on the schedule, Dobbs will likely need to make some plays with his arm if the Vols are to win. Secondly, the Vols benefited from five Virginia Tech fumbles contributing to the somewhat misleading final score. The Vols allowed Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans to complete more than 70% of his passes and allowed running back Travon McMillian to run for over 100 yards on just 14 carries. The NCAA won't take the win away, but the defense will probably not force five turnovers per game either. Finally, Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord received some criticism in the offseason for his conservative play-calling in a few defeats last year. I looked into that a little more and found that in the last three years and two games that DeBord has been a college offensive coordinator, his teams have been favored by 20 points or more at home nine times against FBS competition. His teams have won each of those games, most of them comfortably, but have only covered the spread twice. Look for more of the same on Saturday.

Northern Illinois +11 San Diego State
Northern Illinois has never been a home underdog under head coach Rod Carey and this marks just their sixth turn in the role in the last decade. If you are curious, the Huskies are 5-0 Against the Spread (ATS) in that role with three outright upsets. Of course, this is not a 'normal' season for the six-time defending MAC West champs. The Huskies are 0-2 for the first time since 2008 (their first season under Jerry Kill) after travelling across the United States in their first two games from Laramie, Wyoming, to Tampa, Florida before finally returning to DeKalb, Illinois for their home opener. The defense has been suspect in the early going, allowing over six and half combined yards per play and 88 points to Wyoming and South Florida. Granted, 13 of those point came in some overtime frames against the Cowboys, but the Huskies have seen their points allowed per game increase each season since their historic Orange Bowl appearance. That being said, I think the Huskies are a great play here. San Diego State is coming off an emotional home win against a Power 5 school that embarrassed them in 2015. Now they must travel halfway across the country to face a hungry team playing their first home game. San Diego State has played five games in the Central or Eastern time zones under Rocky Long (not counting bowl games) and they are just 1-4 straight up and ATS in those games. San Diego State will be in for a fight and this game will be very close.

South Carolina -3.5 East Carolina
It's early, but Will Muschamp's South Carolina teams are playing a lot like his Florida teams...at least on one side of the ball. The Gamecocks have scored three offensive touchdowns and averaged just over four yards per play through two conference games. By comparison, in his 32 SEC games at Florida, his teams averaged 2.4 offensive touchdowns per game and between 4.67 and 5.11 yards per play each season. However, it should be noted, the Gamecocks have yet to play a home game and have played perhaps one of the SEC's better defenses (Vanderbilt) and in one of its more hostile environments (Starkville) so maybe the offense is not quite as bad as the numbers would indicate. The Gamecocks will host an East Carolina team fresh off an upset of NC State, but also one that may allow the Gamecocks to kick start their offense. Despite beating NC State 33-30, the Pirates allowed nearly eight yards per play to the Wolfpack while permitting over 200 yards both on the ground and through the air. The final score of that game, and that fact that East Carolina has won six straight against ACC foes has the Pirates a little overvalued here. The Gamecocks won't blow the Pirates out, but should win by at least a touchdown and score more than 20 points against an FBS foe for the first time under Muschamp.

UTEP +4 Army
After winning just six games in the first two seasons of the Jeff Monken era (just four against FBS competition), Army already owns a pair of wins early in the 2016 season. The Black Knights upset Temple as a huge underdog and made sure than win counted by avoiding a letdown against Rice the next week as a prohibitive favorite themselves. Could Army do the nearly impossible and win more than six regular season games for the first time since 1996? I can see it now. When the DVD for this historic Army season comes out, it will be entitled something like The Black Knight Rises. Ah, but lets not get ahead of ourselves. Army has a tricky road trip ahead this weekend. Prior to upsetting Temple in their opener, Army had won just a single true road game since 2011! If Marty Robbins is to be believed, El Paso is in west Texas, which is more than a stones throw away from West Point and the Miners have been pretty tough at home. If we discount Sean Kugler's Year Zero in 2013, the Miners are 8-4 straight up at home and 4-1 ATS as a home underdog with three outright wins. Keep an eye on UTEP running back Aaron Jones. Mr. Jones already has nearly 400 yards on the ground and is averaging over seven and a half yards per carry. I think he will have a big night against the United States Military Academy and lead the Miners to an outright win.

Oklahoma +2 Ohio State
If this spread holds until kickoff, it will mark the first time Oklahoma has been a home underdog since 2000! In the game of the new century, number three Oklahoma upset number one Nebraska on the way to the national title. I think Oklahoma could pull a similar trick here. Despite their loss to Houston, Oklahoma outgained the Cougars by nearly a yard and a half per play. The Sooners continually forced Houston and Greg Ward Jr. into third and long. yet gave up conversion after conversion (some via penalty). Overall, Houston converted nine third downs in the game, and an incredible seven were conversions of nine yards or more! Now, Ward and the Cougars deserved full credit for that, but I would imagine such a phenomenal number of third and long conversions would not be sustainable. Oh, and don't forget the Cougars added a 'Kick Six', one of the more random and non-repeatable plays in football, to their scoring margin. Suffice it to say, Oklahoma is probably a better team than Houston despite their loss on the field. That's not to say beating Ohio State will be a walk in the park, but let's examine the Buckeyes for a second. Ohio State crushed Bowling Green in their opener. While Bowling Green was a strong mid-major last year, this season in their only other game, they barely escaped North Dakota at home. Not North Dakota State, but North Dakota. Now, North Dakota was in the FCS top-25, but they have gone just 12-11 the past two seasons. In their second game, the Buckeyes again dominated a mid-major foe, but they managed under six yards per play against Tulsa and fourteen of their 48 points came via interception returns. This is Ohio State's first road game, Oklahoma has their backs to the wall, and the Sooners don't even have to win for you to cash this ticket.

Texas State +31 Arkansas
The Hogs, coupled with Central Michigan (with an assist from the officials) and Houston the week before, dealt the Big 12's playoff hopes a serious blow last weekend. The top three teams in the conference based on preseason consensus all have a loss now. In fact, only Baylor, Texas, and West Virginia remain unbeaten through two weeks of the college football season. The win was an emotional one for the Hogs as they saw a two-score fourth quarter lead evaporate, rallied to tie in the closing minutes, saw a game-losing touchdown nullified, blocked a field goal to stave off a loss in regulation, and then won in double-overtime. Fresh off that huge win, I think the Hogs are a good bet to disappoint this week. They host an FBS neophyte and have Texas A&M on deck next week. I don't think the Bobcats will have their full attention. Couple that with the fact that Arkansas has been outgained on a per play basis by both Louisiana Tech and TCU, and you have an easy recipe for a huge underdog play.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week II

In the nearly ten years I have been posting ATS picks on this blog, I have never had a perfect week. I suppose last week was not technically perfect, but it was the equivalent of the first man reaching via an error and then retiring 27 straight batters. 6-0-1 looks pretty good, but alas, we must move on.  Let's stay perfect this week. :) As always, home teams in BOLD.


Last Week: 6-0-1
Overall: 6-0-1

Syracuse +15 Louisville
Prior to the season Louisville was a darkhorse candidate to unseat Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic Division of the ACC. Their performance on opening night did not tamper enthusiasm. The Cardinals torched FBS newcomer Charlotte 70-14, with quarterback Lamar Jackson accounting for eight touchdowns on his own. Now the Cardinals will try to follow up that performance with their first conference win. While Syracuse did not set any offensive records in their opener, the Orange opened the Dino Babers era with a comfortable win against Colgate from the FCS. As a team, the Orange completed 87% of their passes against the Raiders with sophomore Eric Dungey going 34 of 40 while averaging nearly nine yards per throw. While the Orange may struggle to get to a bowl in Babers' first season, I think they are a good play here. For starters, the Orange are 6-3 Against the Spread (ATS) as a home dog since joining the ACC in 2013. Secondly, Louisville has a pretty big game on tap next week when they host the Seminoles, so the Orange may not have their undivided attention. Finally, I think the Cardinals are a shade overvalued after their throttling of Charlotte. The last time Louisville scored more than 70 points, they were huge favorites on the road against a bad Temple team in their next game. While they won comfortably, they did not cover the 32-point spread. Syracuse will keep this one within two touchdowns.

Kansas -3 Ohio
After twelve consecutive losses to open his coaching career, David Beaty finally got his first career win last week as Kansas dropped the double nickel on Rhode Island. Now, Rhode Island is an FCS team, and typically a bad one, but Kansas lost to an FCS team last year, and won by just six against their FCS foe in 2014. The 55 points the Jayhawks scored marked the most they have put on the board since their magical 2007 season. Now, I am not suggesting the Jayhawks will wind up in the Orange Bowl, but I think they are good enough to beat a MAC team at home. You may not have noticed it with all the other excitement going on around college football over Labor Day Weekend, but Ohio played one of the more entertaining games. They fell in three overtimes to Texas State, which by itself may not seem too bad. However, the Bobcats were actually favored by nearly three touchdowns, so they are probably not as good as the numbers and general prognosticators may have believed. I know the competition was weak, but this Kansas team appears to be much better than last year's incarnation. The Jayhawks should easily cover this number.

Navy -4 Connecticut
Both these American Athletic Conference schools faced FCS programs in their opener. The results were quite dissimilar. Navy dominated Fordham (no blocks of granite could be found), but Connecticut needed a last second field goal to escape Maine. I know a few years back I posted about how teams that narrowly defeat FCS foes are usually good plays the next week. However, Vegas seems to have gotten wise to this little trend in recent years. Over the past two seasons, FBS teams that have scraped by FCS teams (win by eight points or fewer) are just 12-13-1 ATS in their next game. As an underdog, those teams are 7-10-1. Unfortunately for the Huskies, scraping by, or even losing to FCS teams has become an annual tradition. The Huskies dropped their opener to Towson in 2013, followed that up with a three-point win against Stony Brook in 2014, and then squeaked by Villanova last season. If this line was more than a touchdown, I would be hesitant to back the Midshipmen, but this line implies these two teams are roughly equal on a neutral field. Navy did lose their quarterback in the opener to a season ending injury, but at Navy, the offensive system has been in place for ages. The Midshipmen won't miss much of a beat in this game, and will be able to cover this small number.

Kentucky +16.5 Florida
Southern Miss over Kentucky was a trendy upset pick heading into opening weekend. And for a while, that pick looked really dumb. Kentucky jumped out to a big lead over the Golden Eagles, but then allowed the last 34 points of the game en route to the upset loss. With a non-conference game remaining against Louisville and a cross-division game against Alabama, the road to their first bowl game under Mark Stoops looks untenable. The good news is Kentucky probably won't tease their fans with a hot start only to suffer another losing season. That being said, Kentucky did do some good things on Saturday. The Wildcats averaged over eight yards per play and seemed to find themselves a quarterback in Drew Barker. Can the Wildcats end their 29-game losing streak to Florida and win in Gainesville for the first time since 1979? While Kentucky was busy losing at home to Southern Miss, Florida continued their offensive struggles and had their hands full with Massachusetts, a team widely regarded as among the worst in college football. The Gators held the Minutemen to seven points, but were only able to put 24 points on the board themselves while averaging less than five yards per play. The last two games in this series have been decided by six points (in overtime) and five points. Couple that with the fact that Florida is 1-4 ATS as a double digit home favorite under Jim McElwain and the Wildcats are a solid play here.

Middle Tennessee State +5.5 Vanderbilt
Optimism was high for the beginning of Derek Mason's third season in Nashville. The Commodores returned 15 starters from a team that won four games and was generally pretty competitive in 2015. At halftime, optimism was still high as the Commodores held a ten point lead as a small favorite against South Carolina. Alas, Vanderbilt went scoreless in the second half and the Gamecocks won on a late field goal. Vanderbilt failed to play 'modern' football against South Carolina. The Commodores completed just over a third of their passes and threw for less than 100 yards against a Gamecock defense that allowed opponents to complete nearly two thirds of their passes last season. I know South Carolina was bound to improve defensively by progression to the mean and the hiring of defensive minded Will Muschamp as head coach, but it would be hard for Vanderbilt to win football games with those numbers in the 1970s much less the offensive friendly contemporary environment. Things do not get easier for Vanderbilt. After facing the Blue Raiders, the Commodores travel to Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky before beginning SEC play in earnest. Suffice it to say, a home win against the Blue Raiders is a must if Vandy has any designs on getting to the postseason in 2016. This marks the fifth meeting between the Commodores and Blue Raiders, but just the second in the last decade. Vanderbilt scored two fourth quarter touchdowns last season to eke out an upset win in Murfreesboro. I think this game will look a lot like that one, and for that matter, like most Vanderbilt games. Both teams will finish with point totals coinciding with a bad opening Blackjack hand (13-17) and the end result will be determined by who plays better in the fourth quarter. I won't call for an outright Middle Tennessee win, but it would not shock me.

Iowa State +15 Iowa
Matt Campbell began his tenure in Ames rather inauspiciously as the Cyclones dropped their opener to Northern Iowa of the FCS. This marked the second time they have lost to Kurt Warner's alma mater in the past four seasons and their third overall loss to an FCS program in that span. Now the Cyclones must head to Iowa City to take on their arch-rivals. Iowa won their 13th consecutive regular season game last week against Miami of Ohio, but continued a disturbing trend for degenerates by failing to cover the spread. The spread loss dropped Iowa to 2-7 ATS as a double-digit home favorite since 2012 and 6-16 ATS overall as a home favorite in that span. I believe that trend will continue here. Iowa State is better than the final score showed last week, as they actually averaged nearly a yard and a half more per play than the Panthers, but were done in by four turnovers. Iowa State will not lack for motivation here, and have actually won three of the last five in this series despite not having been favored since at least 2003. Look for the Cyclones to keep this one respectable.

Cal +7.5 San Diego State
While Hawaii had to travel from Sydney, Australia the islands and then to Ann Arbor, Michigan in a week's time, Cal got to take a week off to let their bodies recover from the game (where they earned a modicum of revenge for their basketball team) and jet lag. While their second game is on the road, it is in their home state and same time zone. While Cal lost a number one draft pick at quarterback, they added an experienced transfer and appear to still be relatively prolific on offense. Defense was another story as the Bears allowed 31 points and more than six and a half yards per play to Hawaii, indicating this year will be a lot like last year when the average California game saw more than 68 combined points. On the other sideline, San Diego State is currently 30th in the latest AP Poll and will look to make their first foray into the rankings since 1995. The Aztecs are currently riding an eleven game winning streak after a rough 1-3 start to the 2015 season. Keep in mind these two teams played last season with Cal winning by four touchdowns at home and San Diego State has beaten one BCS/Power 5 conference team since the turn of the century (Washington State in 2011). The Aztecs have a real shot to win here, but this spread should be closer to a field goal instead of more than a touchdown.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week I

The season is here folks. We will not be without college football again until the cold months of winter. Rejoice! As I have done for the past nine seasons I will preview the week's upcoming games by picking some (formerly ten, and now seven) against the spread. Results so far have been hit or miss, but hope springs eternal. If nothing else, you might glean come insight into what is happening in the overlooked part of college football. Do I have too many road underdogs selected this week? Probably. Do I value your opinion? Probably not. As always, home teams in BOLD.


Oregon State +13 Minnesota
Older Oregon State fans are used to seasons like 2015. While the Beavers have had a solid run of success this century, playing in ten bowl games since 2000, the dam builders went nearly three decades without a winning season beginning in 1971. While 2015 was a struggle, in hindsight, it is easy to see why. For starters, the Beavers lost their coach as Mike Riley took the Nebraska job. Gary Andersen, his replacement, is no chump, but the coaching change compounded with the loss of their all-time leading passer, and a measly two returning starters on defense meant the Beavers were in for a long season. Things are looking up heading into 2016 though. For starters, the Beavers are in their second year with Andersen at head coach. Andersen also scored a coup in getting quarterback Darell Garretson to join him in Corvallis. Garretson saw playing time for Utah State in both 2013 and 2014 subbing for the oft-injured Chuckie Keeton and posted solid numbers. The Beavers will travel east with their new quarterback to take on another group of rodents. The Gophers are coming off their fourth consecutive bowl game (although the latest one probably deserves an asterisk). Minnesota was better than their 2-6 Big 10 mark last season, and in the likely parity filled Big 10 West, look to have a decent shot at getting to the Big 10 Championship Game for the first time. Minnesota has not done well in the role of a large favorite under the Kill/Claeys administration, putting up a 3-5 mark Against the Sread (ATS). Look for the Beavers to keep this one close as the season opens in earnest on Thursday.

Kansas State +16 Stanford
The Kansas State Wildcats have been a money-making machine for their backers since Bill Snyder made his return to Manhattan. As a road underdog, his Wildcats are a superb 15-7 (ATS) and 4-0 ATS (with a pair of outright wins) as a double-digit underdog since 2011. How does he do it? Well, for starters, the Wildcats score in unconventional ways. They also play at a plodding pace which is conducive to underdogs. Couple that with a little bit of luck, and you have a perfect recipe for springing some pretty big upsets. Can the Wildcats turn the trick again against a Stanford team that has cemented their place in the top-15 or so college football programs? Since Jim Harbaugh left to take the 49ers job following the 2010 season, all Stanford has done is win 54 games, three Pac-12 titles, and finish in the top-10 three times. They survived the loss of Harbaugh, Andrew Luck, Toby Gerhart, Trent Murphy, Ty Montgomery, and a host of other contributors. They will likely survive the loss of four-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan as well. However, breaking in a new quarterback against a team known for springing upsets makes me think Kansas State is a solid play here. Even in Palo Alto.

Georgia Tech -3 Boston College @ Dublin
Pop quiz. Who combined for more ACC wins last season: Georgia Tech and Boston College or Wake Forest and Syracuse? Well, the Demon Deacons and Orange actually tripled the combined win total for the Yellow Jackets and Eagles. Of course, that means they won only three conference games. Obviously, Georgia Tech and Boston College will win more than one combined conference game this season. In fact, if you believe preseason projections, they will both probably end up in a bowl game. Boston College was one of the most unbalanced teams last season, posting an excellent defense and terrible offense. The Eagles averaged just 3.77 yards per play against ACC foes (dead last in the conference), but allowed just 4.41 yards per play (second in the ACC). The Eagles offense will improve in 2016, especially with the addition of Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles. This is more a function of regression (or progression) to the mean as Towles did not set the football world aflame at Lexington. Alas, the defense will give back some of those gains as coordinator Don Brown left to take the same job at Michigan. In the follow-up to their Orange Bowl winning campaign, the Yellow Jackets struggled, losing eight of their final ten games (with the lone win coming in memorable fashion). The Yellow Jackets have a talented senior quarterback and are well-versed in Paul Johnson's option system. With even modest improvement on defense, they should return to contention in the Coastal Division. Georgia Tech will not run wild on the Eagles, but they should do enough to win this game by more than a field goal.

Western Michigan +6 Northwestern
Northwestern may not have been the worst ten-win team of all time last season, but they probably were the most offensively incompetent. The Wildcats averaged just over 19.5 points per game last season, and if we remove their games against Eastern Illinois and Ball State, that average drops to 17.2. Their per play numbers were not any prettier. They averaged just 4.25 yards per play against Big 10 opponents (last in the conference) and averaged more than six yards per play in just one game (Ball State). Now, the Wildcats were still able to win ten games thanks to their strong defense. They allowed just 18.6 points per game and in Big 10 action, they allowed the second fewest yards per play (4.61). Of course, the combination of putrid offense and good defense meant all three of their losses got out of hand. The good news for Northwestern is they are likely to improve on offense (it would be hard to be worse). However, they are also likely to decline on defense (it would be hard to be better). The end result should be a team of similar quality, but likely fewer wins as some of their close game luck (5-0 in one-score games) regresses to the mean. The Wildcats better be ready on opening weekend as they face a Western Michigan team looking for their first major scalp of the PJ Fleck era. The Broncos have won 16 games over the past two seasons, but only four of those wins have come against teams outside the MAC. While they are 0-7 under Fleck against Power 5 teams, they are 5-2 ATS. This is Western Michigan's best chance at their first win over a Big 10 team since 2008, and even if they don't win, they should cover.

Miami (Ohio) + 27.5 Iowa
While the Redhawks won an additional game in Chuck Martin's second season (three), the team regressed statistically mostly thanks to having just four starters returning on offense. The Redhawks averaged under 20 points per game for the third time in seven seasons, but did seem to improve as the year progressed. After averaging just over ten points per game in their first four MAC contests (all losses - go figure), the Redhawks averaged 25 points per game over their last four league games (of which they won two). Now the team returns ten starters and are in the third year of Martin's system, so the Redhawks can reasonably expect to field their best offense since 2005! Unfortunately, their non-conference schedule includes this clash with Iowa as well as a date with Western Kentucky and their annual battle with Cincinnati, so a bowl may not be on the horizon. For Iowa, a bowl game is expected, and the Hawkeyes will look to rebound from consecutive losses to end their magical 2015 season. The Hawkeyes famously finished without a loss in the 2015 regular season, but did not impress most advanced metrics. Their relatively weak schedule and spate of close wins did not seem to identify them as an elite team. Their Rose Bowl performance against Stanford reinforced that perception. Iowa is a better team than Miami, but asking them to beat the Redhawks by four touchdowns is probably asking too much. Iowa is just 2-6 ATS as a double-digit home favorite since 2012 and 6-15 ATS overall as a home favorite in that span. The Redhawks will put some points on the board and keep this one within four touchdowns.

Georgia -2.5 North Carolina @Atlanta
Believe it or not, these two southern foes separated by just one state have not faced each other since clashing in the Gator Bowl following the 1971 season. North Carolina will look to build on their Coastal Division title last season which saw them climb as eighth in the AP Poll and finish ranked for the first time since 1997. For Larry Fedora, the season cannot start soon enough, as he has certainly not won the offseason with his condescending comments to a female reporter and his curious defense of Tim Beckman's presence on the coaching staff (he has since resigned). For Georgia, the Bulldogs will begin the season with a head coach other than Mark Richt for the first time since 2000. Former Nick Saban assistant Kirby Smart has taken the reigns and will look to lead Georgia to their first SEC title since 2005. While the Tar Heels finished with the second highest Net YPP (my preferred rating system) in the ACC last season, those numbers were accumulated against an easy schedule. No other team in the Coastal boasted a positive Net YPP and the Tar Heels drew NC State (their permanent rival) and Wake Forest in their cross-division games. NC State ranked sixth in the ACC in Net YPP, but Wake Forest was dead last in the conference. Meanwhile, based on Net YPP in the SEC, Georgia was arguably the best team in the SEC East despite their disappointing season. You may remember North Carolina and their improved defense were last seen allowing a season's worth of rushing yards to Baylor in Art Briles' final game as coach. Of course, Georgia does not run the same type of offense as Baylor, but the Dawgs do have two of the country's best running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Chubb and Michel do have some injury concerns, but my guess is one or both will see action in this game. Even if they do not, Georgia has other talented backs to carry the rock. North Carolina has a checkered history against non-conference BCS/Power 5 foes under Fedora, going 2-6 straight up and just 3-5 ATS. While some of those losses have come to good teams, like South Carolina in 2013, they have also dropped games to Rutgers and last year's version of South Carolina. Clemson and Florida State (and maybe Louisville) are the only teams I currently trust in the ACC/SEC clashes. Take the Dawgs to cover this small number.

Wyoming +10 Northern Illinois
The rebuild in Laramie has gone a little slower than Craig Bohl probably hoped when he left North Dakota State. While the Bison have continued their winning ways, extending their streak to five consecutive national titles, Wyoming has gone just 6-18 under Bohl (just 4-12 in the Mountain West). Meanwhile, Northern Illinois has continued their unprecedented run of success in the MAC. While the Huskies failed to win ten games in 2015 for the first time since 2009, they still managed to win their sixth consecutive MAC West title. Can the Huskies make it lucky number seven? They will certainly be battle tested when MAC play starts in October. While the Huskies do not have any Power 5 teams on the schedule, they do play one of the stronger teams in the American (South Florida) on the road and host the defending Mountain West champion (San Diego State). But first, they have a tricky trip to the Cowboy State. Wyoming actually plays their home games at over 7000 feet above sea level, the highest in the FBS. I think the thin air will give the Cowboys a serious advantage in keeping this game close. Plus, Northern Illinois has not exactly dominated in non-conference road games against non-Power 5 foes of late. While the sample size is small, keep in mind Northern Illinois won by just a point in 2012 at Army (that would be the same Huskie team that played in the Orange Bowl) and then in 2013 in the midst of their 12-0 start, the Huskies won by just ten at a bad Idaho team. The Huskies will get all they can handle from a Wyoming team returning 17 starters.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

An Intro to College Football

College football starts in two days with a game in Australia. Do you find college football interesting, but are a little confused as to the ins and outs of the game and the culture? Well, then take a gander at this primer. I'll tackle three of the bigger aspects of college football: the coaches, the officials, and the conferences. Enjoy.

Coaches
So you want to coach college football eh? Do you have what it takes? Like a quiz in Cosmo (not that I know what that is), this chapter determines if you have the skills necessary to lead and mold young men while making more than a million dollars per year.
1. Are you male? This is perhaps the most important question. The intricacies of football are far too complicated to be understood by someone without a Y chromosome. Women can be doctors, lawyers, and perhaps even presidents, but we draw the line at football coach.
2. Are you white? This is arguably the second most important quality a head football coach can possess. Despite being comprised mostly of young minorities, studies have shown football teams tend to respond best to the prodding of a middle aged or older white coach. I’m not going to sugarcoat this, the road to becoming a head coach is much tougher if you are black or Hispanic (or one of the other races, I don’t know I don’t write the census), but do not lose heart, as you can become an interim coach if your boss gets fired.
3. Did you play football? Only someone who has played the game can understand the complexities of football. It is preferable that you at least walked on to an FBS program or played small college ball. However, if you were good enough to play professionally, this can hinder your chances at becoming a head coach. Of course, assuming you answered ‘Yes’ to the second question, there’s a good chance you did not play professionally.
4. Do you like exploiting unpaid labor? Technically, athletes are paid with scholarships and some are now even given real cash for the massive time commitments they give to their sport. You need to be comfortable berating them on national television for any mistake they may make. You also need to have little concern for their well-being. If you think they may have a concussion, send them back in the game. You can always make the excuse that you were ‘busy’ with other aspects of coaching. Also, the phrase ‘Rub some dirt on it’ should be something you say often.
5. Have you developed a new derivative or use of the work f*ck? Being a master of the most colorful word in the English language is vitally important.
6. Are you intensely competitive, enjoy working crazy hours, and don’t mind not seeing your family? Football coaches have to be at the office at 3 AM everyday to watch film. As I stated before, football is a complicated game. Your family can see you in the offseason when you are not recruiting or looking for other jobs. Basically, any trait that would make you a bad friend, coworker, or person in general will serve you well as a football coach.
7. Do you hate the media? Everybody knows the (liberal) media is out to get you. You have a team to coach. Be mildly dismissive or totally dismissive of people just doing their job who make a tenth of what you do.
8. Do you like to smooze with boosters? Trick question. No one likes this, but you have to do it anyway.
9. Do you enjoy lying to impressionable youth? This will serve you well in two areas. The first is recruiting. ‘Yes Johnny, you are the only quarterback we are recruiting this year.’ The second is when your name comes up for head coaching vacancies. ‘I intend to stay at ______ for the remainder of my career.’
 10. Do you enjoy not being held accountable and looking the other way? When a scandal erupts, it is important that you have plausible deniability. ‘I did not know the graduate transfer was a member of Sadam Hussein’s imperial guard.’ ‘You mean they don’t give crab legs away for free?’
11. Do you like making excuses? Sooner or later, no matter your circumstances, you will lose a game. A good coach will say he doesn’t have enough good players. A great coach will say he has too many good players who are distracted by the NFL (see Saban, Nick).
12. Are you bad at math? The game of football moves so fast. There are only 20 or 30 seconds of downtime between plays. It is hard to make quick decisions. The scoring system is weird. Touchdowns are worth six points, field goals are worth three, safeties two. And safety is also a position. Ugh, I’m confused already. Plus the clock counts down instead of up. How many seconds are in a minute? How many timeouts do we have left? Rest assured, you will either butcher the clock or go for two points (or not go for two points) at the wrong time. When this happens, remember to go back to question 7. Call the press conference a ‘witch hunt’ and walk out. Be sure to make some obscure references to Pablo Escobar, the faked Moon landing, or Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
If you answered ‘Yes’ to around eleven of these questions, you probably have what it takes to lead a group of young men into battle and teach them life lessons around football. Perhaps the most important lesson you can teach them is to never trust anyone because the second another school offers you a 3% raise, you are outta there buddy.

Officials
This is the worst part of college football. Like other sports, college football needs a group of unbiased arbitrators to make rulings during live action. The last section sought to determine if you had what it takes to coach football. If you don’t think you can cut it coaching, perhaps you could officiate at these events.
1. Are you male? This is perhaps the most important question. The intricacies of football are far too complicated to be understood by someone without a Y chromosome. Women can be doctors, lawyers, and perhaps even presidents, but we draw the line at football official. Yes, this is mostly cut and pasted from the previous section. I have a deadline.
2. Are you old? College football is played by athletic freaks between the ages of 18-23 (unless you are BYU). Who better to keep up with these wunderkinds than men with orthopedic issues, ocular degeneration, or cognitive impairment? Extra points if you are slightly pudgy.
 3. Are you bad at communicating? Turn your mic on when addressing the crowd. Turn it off when not. Seems simple enough. Also, when you make a controversial call at the end of a game, be sure to run off the field and not offer any explanation. That about does it. The requirements to be an FBS official are not high. Just don’t be young or female.


Conferences
The Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) has ten conferences and a small group of independents. The conferences are divided into two groups: The Power Five (don’t call them a cartel) and the Group of Five (don’t call them mid-majors). The Power Five has access to the best bowls, best television contracts, and the College Football Playoff. However, they do throw the Group of Five a bone and allow their highest ranked member to play in one of the New Year’s Six bowls. Among the independents, Notre Dame is considered a Power Five team thanks to the Catholics that control this country (thank you very much John Fitzgerald Kennedy). This section will briefly discuss all ten conferences and their respective histories.

The Power Five
Atlantic Coast Conference
The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) formed in 1953 when members from the Southern Conference were tired of being confused with Southern Comfort when people used the term ‘SoCo’. All the league’s members were on the southern east coast of the United States, hence the Atlantic Coast in the moniker. The conference has historically been associated with basketball, but in an effort to get football elitists (i.e. SEC fans) to take them seriously, they added perennial power Florida State in the early 90’s. A decade later the conference expanded again to get in on that lucrative championship game money the SEC and Big 12 were hogging. It worked out very well early on when traditional powers Wake Forest and Georgia Tech met in the 2006 ACC Championship Game that broke numerous records for television viewership. The game’s prestige and attendance continued to climb the next two seasons when Boston College played in the game despite their campus being roughly 8000 miles from the game site in Jacksonville. The league expanded again in 2013 when Pittsburgh from the coastal state of Pennsylvania and Louisville from the coastal state of Kentucky joined Syracuse from upstate New York to give the league 14 members.

Big 10
The Big 10 is the oldest of the Power Five conferences with the league having been technically formed in the late 19th century. They have been supplying the country with their brand of Midwestern slog for more than 100 years. Like the ACC, they got the urge to expand in the 90’s and added a traditional independent football power in Penn State. The Nittany Lions would prove to be a great addition to the conference and have not embarrassed them in the least or had any type of scandal regarding an assistant coach over the succeeding two and a half decades. Despite having eleven teams, the Big 10 stubbornly refused to change their name and when conference expansion heated up in the 00’s, they added Nebraska. Not being content with twelve teams, the conference went on one more buying spree where they purchased Maryland from the ACC and got Rutgers from the American. Despite numerous efforts to return the Scarlet Knights or at least exchange them for an item of equal or lesser value, the American Athletic Conference stood firm by their ‘No Returns’ policy.

Big 12
Back in the halcyon days of yore, big money boosters could surreptitiously drop some hundred dollar bills in the hands of recruits or current players and no one said anything. Alas, the corruption and vice eventually led to the demise of the Southwest Conference. As the same implies, the Southwest Conference featured a group of rag tag outfits from Texas and Arkansas. Arkansas saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship for the SEC in the early 90’s (yes a team from the Southwest Conference moved to the Southeastern Conference). The league held on for a few more years, but eventually folded after the 1995 season. In the midst of this tribulation, the Big 8, a Midwestern league with no controversies or off the field problems to speak of, threw a quartet of members a life preserver. Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech were invited to merge with the Big 8 and form, wait for it, the Big 12. The other members of the Southwest Conference were left to fend for themselves. Rest assured, there are still no hard feelings. Things were great until the late 00’s when some schools thought the Texas Longhorns wielded too much power. Nebraska, tired of being mediocre in the Big 12, decided to be mediocre in the Big 10. Colorado, tired of sucking in the Big 12, decided to suck in the Pac-12. Shortly thereafter, Missouri and Texas A&M decided they were now in the southeast and decided to join the Southeastern Conference. After losing those four members, the Big 12 invited former Southwest Conference member and current conference nomad TCU to join. TCU made them ask nicely, but eventually accepted the offer. The Big 12 also decided they needed their students to miss even more class time (especially in nonrevenue sports), so they added a team on the other side of the country in West Virginia. The Mountaineers gladly accepted as they had just signed up for the Capital One Venture Card with no blackout dates. The Big 12 is widely regarded as the most stable conference in the nation.

Pacific 12
The Pacific 12, or Pac-12 for short, started life as the Pac-8. The conference saw the need to add a few teams that were in the western time zone, but not really on the coast, so Arizona and Arizona State joined in the 70’s. The Pac-10 as it was now known held steady for the rest of the twentieth century. Upon hearing that Colorado was ready to get out of their relationship with the Big 12, they offered the Buffalos membership. Finally, needing a twelfth team to host a lucrative championship game, the league decided to call up Utah from the ranks of the mid-majors. The Utes gladly accepted and the conference now has twelve teams. Sorry for the lack of sarcasm and jokes here. Pac-12 games usually kickoff after I have entered REM sleep.

Southeastern Conference
The Southeastern Conference, or SEC as they are often called, is the mecca of college football conferences. If you don’t believe they are the best, just ask their fans. With little education, poor job prospects, and brutally hot summers, SEC fans cling to the one thing they can depend: being the best football conference in the nation (because Alabama won the national title). In one of life’s little ironies, on a typical college football Saturday, racist white men will sit in the stands and cheer on a team of mostly African-American players. But I digress. The SEC became the first conference to stage a championship game in 1992 after adding South Carolina and Arkansas. The premier event, held annually in the Georgia Dome (after a brief appearance in Birmingham), is broadcast nationally on CBS and is typically not very competitive. The SEC now includes a team from Missouri and Texas, so while the South may not rise again, it will at least extend westward.

The Group of Five
 American Athletic Conference
A conference known as the Big East once played football. This conference stretched from Miami to Syracuse with a number of hamlets in between from the cozy (Blacksburg) to the densely populated (Philadelphia). The conference was raided by the ACC in the early 00’s so the league responded by raiding other conferences (Conference USA for example). Finally, after the 2013 season, the Big East was read last rites. The conference does live on as a basketball entity for private Catholic schools. The football playing schools added a few members, including the Naval Academy in 2014, changed their name, and now have their own championship game.

Conference USA
In the mid-90’s being an independent in football was no longer en vogue. After the cool kids (Florida State, Miami, and Penn State) joined conferences in the early part of the decade, poseurs like Cincinnati and Southern Miss started feeling kinda lonely. So they decided to start their own conference. The league’s membership would shift dramatically over the new two decades based on the whims of the bigger conferences. The ACC would raid the Big East. The Big East would raid Conference USA. Conference USA would raid the WAC or the Sun Belt or stand there and take it like a man. The league has had a championship game since 2005 that you probably have not watched.

Mid-American Conference
The Mid-American Conference or MAC, as in return of, is the oldest mid-major conference thanks to the dissolution of the WAC. Have you ever wished that Big 10 teams were not as good, but more fun to watch? Then the MAC is the conference for you. Their teams mostly play in the Big 10 footprint (i.e. the worst part of the country to live in for nine months out of the year) and can often be seen on an ESPN affiliated network on Tuesday or Wednesday night.

Mountain West
When I began watching football, the Western Athletic Conference, or WAC always played entertaining games late on Saturday night. The league was ahead of its time as it expanded to 16 teams in 1996 and became the first non-power conference to host a championship game. Alas, 16 proved too large a number, and the better teams left the conference to form the Mountain West in 1999. The WAC stayed afloat in one form or another, adding teams here or there before finally dissolving after the 2012 season. The Mountain West served as a landing strip for a few of those teams left in the WAC. The others went the independent route or joined the Sun Belt. Speaking of…

Sun Belt 
Technically, the American Athletic Conference is the newest mid-major conference, but we all know it is really just the Big East Part II. My vote for newest mid-major goes to the Sun Belt which began play in 2001. If you just recently created a football program or are a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school looking to move up, then the Sun Belt is the perfect landing spot for you.

Independents
There are currently only four FBS teams not affiliated with a conference. They are Army, Brigham Young, Massachusetts, and Notre Dame. Before the 90’s you couldn’t throw a stone across this great country of ours without hitting a team enjoying the status of an independent, unencumbered by the weight of conference obligations. Alas, their numbers are steadily shrinking and the remaining independents are either religious institutions (BYU and Notre Dame), a service academy (Army), or a program no one wants (Massachusetts).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What Does it Take to be Ranked?

One of my favorite aspects of college football is the poll system. It is a fun, flawed way to look at how those who (allegedly) closely follow the sport view certain teams. Many professional sports websites have their own ‘power polls’ that track who a given columnist believes is the best team. However, there is no ‘official’ body that conducts a poll of the best professional sports teams for a given season. College basketball also has a poll, but polls are more valued in college football. A top-ten ranking in college basketball means little to a team that flames out early in March Madness. Meanwhile, a top-ten ranking in college football is still worn as a badge of honor even if a team loses their bowl game. With this in mind, I wanted to take a semi-statistical analysis overview of polls in college football. More specifically, I wanted to answer the question: What exactly does it take for a team to be ranked? The next paragraph will outline the methodology if you are interested. Otherwise, skip on down.

I looked at the final AP Poll data for the eleven year period of 2005-2015 and identified the number of losses by each team ranked in the final poll. I used the AP Poll for no other reason than because it is easily available at sports-reference.com/cfb. I used the final AP Poll because it was much easier to look at one poll per year for eleven years than a weekly poll in the same period. I used the period beginning with 2005 because that is when the first era of modern realignment began. The ACC hosted their first title game and the Big East began life in its final form after raiding Conference USA. In addition, college football schedules have been pretty uniform (in length if not quality) since 2005. Schools played eleven regular season games in 2005 and have played twelve each season beginning with 2006.

Here are the number of teams from each of the Power 5/BCS conferences that have finished ranked with a certain number of losses in the past eleven seasons.
If you play in a Power 5 or BCS conference and you finish with two or fewer losses, congrats. You will finish in the final poll even if you lack a great football history. If you finish with three losses, there is a pretty good chance you will finish ranked. Lose four games and you are still better than 2:1 odds to finish in the final poll. However, lose one additional game and you can pretty much kiss your chances of finishing ranked goodbye. Speaking of, who was the highest ranked team of the last eleven years to finish with five losses? That would be a tie between South Carolina (2010) and Auburn (2014) at 22nd.

As you can see, I included each iteration of the Big East in this analysis because they were a BCS conference despite being diminished compared to their previous incarnation that included Miami and Virginia Tech. I also included the first season of the American Athletic Conference as they retained the Big East’s automatic BCS berth. While that year’s AAC champ actually won their BCS game and finished in the top-ten, there is a pretty good argument to be made they did not have the strength of a typical BCS conference. Here is the overall version of the previous table with the Big East and American Athletic Conference removed.
The results are a little different. Only a single team from a Power 5/BCS conference has not finished ranked with three of fewer losses. Care to guess who it was? It happened just last season and they play in what is widely regarded as the toughest conference. The Georgia Bulldogs. Home of The Hedges, Vince Dooley, and Herschel Walker apparently don’t get the benefit of the doubt from the national media. Once the Big East and American are removed, you still have a nearly eight in ten chance of finishing ranked with four losses. The percentage with five losses is relatively unchanged.

Here are the number of teams from each of the non-BCS/Group of 5 conferences that have finished ranked with a certain number of losses in the past eleven seasons. The two most recent seasons of the American, when they have not had access to an automatic BCS bowl berth are included. You should recognize the other five conferences and lets hold a moment of silence for the WAC.
If you do not play in a BCS/Power 5 conference and you want to guarantee you finish the season in the final poll, you have little margin for error. If you finish unbeaten or have just a single loss, a spot in the final poll is reserved for you. However, with two losses, there is a one in four chance you will not have a shiny number beside your name at the end of the season. A closer inspection of the table will show that as long as you don’t play in one of the very bottom leagues (MAC or Sun Belt), you should be alright with two losses. The only other team that failed to finish ranked with a pair of defeats was Fresno State (and they were walloped in their bowl game). Three losses means you should probably give up the dream of a ranked finish and if you lose four or more games, you can pretty much forget it.

Obviously this analysis failed to include some important variables: Teams that win their bowl game probably tend to finish ranked more often than teams that lose their bowl game despite having the same number of losses. Teams with a better scoring margin (more blowout wins and fewer blowout losses) probably tend to finish ranked more often than teams with a poorer scoring margin despite having the same number of losses. Teams that lose in a conference title game probably tend to finish ranked more often than teams that don’t reach their conference title game despite having the same number of losses. Those are just three that come to mind. I’m sure there are others. That being said, I was still a little disappointed, being a mid-major apologist and all, that non-BCS/Group of 5 teams had such a small margin for error in being ranked. Even if they are not ‘really’ one of the 25 best teams in the country, a poll ranking should be a ‘Gold Star’ congratulating them on a fine season despite systematic disadvantages. Here’s hoping Appalachian State or Georgia Southern can break the glass ceiling in 2016 and become the first ever Sun Belt conference member to finish the season ranked.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Strangers in the Field: II

Last year I went to Vegas and made a few bets. I made a little money (emphasis on little). So I decided, why not go back? Enjoy.

Over/Under Win Totals
The premise here is simple. These bets are on teams to either go 'over' or 'under' a baseline win total.

Cincinnati over 7.5 wins -120 ($40 to win $33.35)
You know who had the best offense in the American last season (based on Yards per Play)? It wasn't Houston. It wasn't Memphis. It wasn't South Florida. It wasn't Navy. Obviously based on this bet, it was Cincinnati. The Bearcats limped to a 7-5 regular season and then were embarrassed on Christmas Eve by San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl. The Bearcats primary issues were on defense last season where they finished ninth in the twelve team American in Yards per Play and in regards to turnovers where they committed 23 in eight league games (second worst to UCF's 25). 16 of those were interceptions thrown by Gunner Kiel and Hayden Moore. The defense returns eight starters so there should be improvement on that side of the ball, and if Kiel and Moore can limit their mistakes, the Bearcats could be in for a special season in 2016. The non-conference schedule features a road game at Purdue and a home game against BYU, but an undefeated run outside of American action would not be too surprising. In conference play, the Bearcats get Houston, Memphis, and South Florida at home where they are 15-3 under Tommy Tuberville. If things break right, the Bearcats could find themselves in discussion for the Group of 5's NY6 bowl bid when the calendar turns to November. It wouldn't be the first time Tuberville enjoyed a fantastic season seemingly out of nowhere

Fresno State over 4 wins -115 ($40 to win $74.80)
Tim DeRuyter might be the poster child for why you want to leave a mid-major job too early rather than too late. During his first two years in charge of the Bulldogs, they went 20-6 with a pair of Mountain West titles (one shared). However, since Derek Carr and Davante Adams left following the 2013 season, the Bulldogs are 9-17. Last season, the Bulldogs finished 3-9, which was their lowest win total since 1978! Per Yards per Play, the Bulldogs had the worst offense in the Mountain West last season. However, some of that can be attributed to injuries at the quarterback position where two starters were lost for the season. With better health and improved play at the most important position, the Bulldogs should move closer to the middle of the conference on offense. Another reason for optimism is the non-conference schedule. Over the past two seasons, Fresno State faced, BYU, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Southern Cal, and Utah (twice) in non-conference play. The Bulldogs lost those six games by an average of 37 points! Nebraska is on the schedule again in 2016, but the other three non-conference games are against Sacramento State, Toledo, and Tulsa. Toledo and Tulsa were bowl squads last season, but the Bulldogs at least have hopes of finishing better than 1-3 in non-conference play. I think the Bulldogs will get to four wins, and a surprise bowl season would not surprise me.

Georgia Tech over 6.5 wins +125 ($40 to win $50)
I'll be honest, Paul Johnson is one of my favorite college football coaches. So I am probably a bit biased in making this bet. I love the fact that the triple option is being featured at a BCS/P5 school. And regardless of how Johnson's career ends in Atlanta, there is really no argument the option has worked. His offense has ranked in the top half of the ACC in terms of Yards per Play seven times in his eight seasons. The defense on the other hand, has been the Achilles Heal (Stinger?) for the Yellow Jackets. The defense has finished in the bottom half of the ACC seven times in his eight seasons. Now, he is culpable for their struggles on defense, be it poor recruiting, poor development, or bad hires at coordinator positions, but lets just remember the option can work at the BCS/P5 level. But I digress. The Yellow Jackets finished 3-9 last season, which marked their fewest wins since 1994. However, six of their nine defeats came by eight points or less. When a team loses that many one-score games, they usually improve the following season. Of course, Vegas expects Georgia Tech to improve. In fact, for this bet to cash, the Yellow Jackets have to more than double their 2015 regular season win total. Before bottoming out at 1-7 last season, Paul Johnson had developed a pretty consistent track record in conference play. Here are his conference won/loss records through his first seven seasons. 
If Johnson can guide the Yellow Jackets to a 4-4 league record, I feel pretty confident they will get to seven wins. Georgia and Georgia Southern will present a challenge in non-conference play, but home games against Mercer and Vanderbilt should be wins. Maybe this is the end of the line for Johnson at Georgia Tech. Maybe the quality of coaches in the ACC Coastal (Cutcliffe, Fedora, Fuente, Mendenhall, Narduzzi, and Richt) and his inability to field an above average defense will lead to a second consecutive losing season, but I think Johnson has a rebound in him even if I am a bit biased.

Kansas over 1.5 wins -155 ($40 to win $25.80)
Outside of NC State (see a few lines down) this is probably the wager I am most confident in. Make no mistake, Kansas is bad and should once again be the worst team in the Big 12, but even if they lose all their conference games, the Jayhawks have a good shot at cashing this ticket. They face Rhode Island (not only an FCS team, but a bad one) and Ohio in non-conference home games, so they may hit the over before mid-September. Even if they fall to Ohio, I feel pretty assured Kansas will pull off at least one upset in their last ten games. 

Maryland over 5 wins -120 ($40 to win $33.35)
After four and a half years of the milquetoast Randy Edsall, maybe Ralph Friedgen wasn't so bad eh? To replace Edsall, the Terrapins tabbed Michigan defensive coordinator DJ Durkin. Durkin is under 40, has worked for successful head coaches like Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, and filled out his staff with a few former FBS head coaches (Pete Lembo and Mike London). There is a lot to like here despite the fact that Maryland plays in the tougher Big 10 division and must endure annual clashes with Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State (to say nothing of Penn State). Still, the Terrapins were not as bad as their 1-7 Big 10 record would indicate last season and the non-conference schedule is very soft in 2016. The Terrapins do make the unusual double mid-major road trip when they travel south to Florida to take on FIU and UCF in back-to-back weeks. Even though those games are on the road, the Terrapins should finish non-conference play 3-0 and just need a pair of Big 10 wins to hit the push. Home games against Purdue and Rutgers should do the trick and I wouldn't be surprised if Maryland steals another game somewhere and finishes bowl eligible. 

NC State over 3 wins -120 ($25 to win $20.85)
Out of all the over under totals I saw in Sin City, this one was the most perplexing. Outside of Dave Doeren's first season in 2013, the Wolfpack have won at least five (but never more than eight) regular season games since 2007. Their non-conference schedule is tougher than usual by NC State's typical low standards (the Wolfpack host Notre Dame), but they open with William and Mary, East Carolina, and Old Dominion before the difficulty ratchets up. I could see NC State dropping the road game at East Carolina, but at worst that would leave them needing just a single conference win to push. Even with the loss of quarterback Jacoby Brissett, it is very hard to see NC State going under this number.

New Mexico under 7 wins -145 ($40 to win $27.60)
I know a few lines up I professed my love for the option and New Mexico fits the bill of an exciting option team. Consider that the average New Mexico game since Bob Davie became the coach in 2012 has featured over 63 combined points! Unfortunately, more than 34 of those points have come courtesy of New Mexico's opponent. Hence their 18-32 record (which is of course marked improvement over the previous regime). It says a lot when a defense that ranked tenth in Yards per Play (6.11 per play) represents the high water mark for the team under Davie. 
The Lobos went 5-3 in Mountain West play last season and conservatively assuming a 3-1 non-conference record in 2016 (likely loss is a road game at Rutgers), they would need to do at least that well to hit the over. New Mexico won three games as a double-digit underdog last season and with a conference schedule that includes Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, and Utah State (not to mention a road date with Hawaii), I see a push as best case scenario for the Lobos.

Old Dominion over 5 wins even ($40 to win $40)
If it wasn't for the great success of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in the Sun Belt, Old Dominion would be one of the better examples of teams transitioning from FCS (is there a bathroom for that?). In fact, the Monarchs rebooted their program in 2009 after laying dormant since the 1940s. Despite being a newcomer to FBS and football in general, 2015 marked the first losing season for the Monarchs. Despite the losing record, the Monarchs were in position to nab their first ever bowl bid before losing their season finale to FAU 33-31. The Monarchs accomplished this despite losing their all-time leading passer (Taylor Heinicke) after the 2014 season. After a rough start on offense to open 2015 (just over 16 points per game through their first five), the Monarchs scored at least 30 points in six of their last seven games. The offense should remain in the upper half of Conference USA in 2016. Couple that with non-conference games against Hampton and Massachusetts (a cautionary tale for moving up to FBS), and Old Dominion should participate in their first bowl game following the 2016 regular season. 

Games of the Year
Typically betting lines are set on Sunday for games beginning the following week. However, sportsbooks set a few 'Game of the Year' lines for certain games that are months away from occurring. The home team in these games is listed in bold.


September 10th
South Carolina +10.5 Mississippi State -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
South Carolina burned me last year as they tanked while the Ol' Ball Coach slipped into retirement. So naturally, I am on them again. This line just feels a tad too high especially with Mississippi State replacing the best quarterback in school history. Dan Mullen has raised the profile of Mississippi State football, but prior to Dak Prescott becoming one of the best players in college football in 2014, the Bulldogs never ranked higher than fifth in the SEC in Yards per Play under Mullen. 
I think their offense will see a significant decline in 2016, and with what should be an improved defense at South Carolina, this line is about a field goal too high.

September 17th
Ole Miss +6 Alabama -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Alabama has lost three games over the past two seasons. If you are any type of college football fan, you know Ole Miss has inflicted two of those defeats. Can the Rebels make it three in a row? The last team to beat Alabama in three consecutive seasons was LSU which beat the Tide in five consecutive seasons from 2003 to 2007. Thankfully, Ole Miss does not have to actually win this game to cash the ticket. The Rebels are 5-2 against the line as a home underdog under Hugh Freeze and with this game coming early in the season before Alabama usually gets rolling, I like the Rebels to cover here. 

September 17th
UCLA -1.5 BYU -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
After back-to-back ten win seasons, the Bruins slumped to an 8-5 record in 2015. Despite this drop-off, the Bruins were statistically one of the better teams in the Pac-12. They boasted the best defense in the Pac-12 in Yards per Play despite losing linebacker Myles Jack before conference play even began. There should not be much if any regression on that side of the ball in 2016 with nine starters returning. Oh, and UCLA has one of the better young quarterbacks in the nation. The 'Rosen One' if you will. Plus, UCLA is an amazing 17-6 in true road games under Jim Mora. UCLA enters this game off what should be a glorified scrimmage against UNLV. Meanwhile, BYU will be coming off their 'Holy War' battle with Utah. I don't usually like to play team psychologist, but BYU will probably be emotionally spent and this spread is too low to pass up.

November 5th
NC State +15 Florida State -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
NC State has covered against the Seminoles in each of the last five games in Raleigh. The Wolfpack have also won three of those five games. I don't think they have a very realistic shot to win here, but Florida State will be in prime letdown mode after playing in what will likely be the ACC Atlantic Championship Game the week before against Clemson. I think NC State will keep this within two touchdowns.

November 26th
Georgia Tech +13 Georgia -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
This line is probably inflated after Georgia Tech's 3-9 season in 2015 and as I stated earlier, I think Georgia Tech will be much improved in 2016. Once this game actually kicks off, Georgia will probably be favored, but giving nearly two touchdowns against a quality opponent is too much. 

December 10th
Army +11.5 Navy @ Baltimore -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Is this the year? Can Army finally end the nearly decade and a half run of dominance by Navy? While the Midshipmen have won 14 in a row against the Cadets, they have not covered in four of the last five. In fact, Army has kept the game within one score in those four games. I would expect more of the same this season as Army has perhaps their best team since 1996 and Navy loses the all-time NCAA touchdown scorer

Conference Champion Bets
I decided to put a few dollars down on a few teams to win their respective leagues.

Cincinnati to win the American +450 ($10 to win $45)
See the earlier write up on the Bearcats. They may end of having to beat league favorite Houston twice, but I thought they were too good a value to pass up.

Eastern Michigan to win the MAC +30000 ($10 to win $3000)
Yes. You read that right. Eastern Michigan has pretty much no chance to win the MAC, but I liked the hire of Chris Creighton in 2014 and I think the Eagles will be much improved in his third season. Their first bowl since 1987 wouldn't shock me, and these odds were too absurd to pass up.

Marshall to win Conference USA +350 ($10 to win $35)
Despite massive attrition on both sides of the ball following their 2014 league title, Marshall still had a chance to play in the Conference USA Championship Game heading into the final weekend of the regular season in 2015. Marshall does return only four starters from one of the best defenses in Conference USA, but the Herd are 20-4 against league foes the past three seasons. The East division of Conference USA may once again come down to Marshall and Western Kentucky over Thanksgiving weekend.

Miscellaneous Bets
This is a college football blog, but there were a few other events I wanted to bet on.

Los Angeles Dodgers to win World Series +150 ($10 to win $150)
Despite the best pitcher of his generation not playing for the last month, the Dodgers have surged and are within striking distance of the Giants in the NL West. If Kershaw can return this season (or postseason), the Dodgers are a threat to win it all.

St Louis Cardinals to win World Series +250 ($10 to win $250)
Despite a rather pedestrian record, St Louis is highly regarded by several advanced metrics. The 538 ELO Ratings rank them seventh in all of MLB. The Simple Rating System over at Baseball Reference has them tied for fourth. They are too far behind to catch the Cubs, so to win the World Series, they will have to start by winning the NL Wild Card Game. Still, these long odds were too good to pass up.

Miami Marlins to win World Series +400 ($10 to win $400)
The Marlins are the anti-Cardinals. They also have a middling record (currently good enough for the second Wild Card in the NL), but are just 18th in the 538 ELO Ratings and tied for 15th in the Simple Rating System. Baseball is a weird game though, particularly with the new Wild Card format. Bad teams have won the World Series before, and with them already sitting in playoff position, I had pull the trigger here. 

Reckless Parlay
I couldn't leave Las Vegas without buying at least one lottery ticket. This is your standard six team parlay. All games must be correct for the parlay to pay out and each game occurs over Labor Day Weekend.
$10 to win $400

Game 1: August 26th 
Hawaii +21 Cal @ Sydney
Yes, college football kicks off about a week earlier than normal. Might as well burn this ticket early.

Game 2: September 1st
Tulane +17 Wake Forest
Can't believe my alma mater is giving this many points. 

Game 3: September 2nd
Army +16 Temple
I think this is the best Army team in quite awhile. Might as well take them getting a lot of points from a team that could be a little overrated. 

Game 4: September 3rd
Georgia Tech -3.5 Boston College @ Dublin
Another college football game in a foreign country. This line is probably half a point too high, but I had to throw a favorite in there somewhere.

Game 5: September 3rd
Wyoming +10.5 Northern Illinois
Wyoming plays their home game at more than 7000 feet above sea level. We'll see if the Huskies have problems adjusting.

Game 6: September 4th
Notre Dame -4.5 Texas
I immediately regretted making this bet after the ticket printed.