Thursday, January 21, 2021

2020 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: AAC

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

Once again, here are the 2020 AAC standings.
And here are the APR standings with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded. Since teams played a varied number of games (everyone played at least six but only four played a full eight game schedule), the rankings are on a per game basis, not raw totals. 
Finally, AAC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine whether or not a team significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR. Using that standard, Memphis was the lone team to significantly exceed their expected record (although Tulane and South Florida just missed meeting the threshold for underperforming). The Tigers won five of their eight conference games in 2020, but four of those wins came by a total of eight points. Meanwhile, two of their three conference losses came by at least two touchdowns. 

Is Temple In Trouble?
Many college football fans may have forgotten how bad the Temple Owls were. After winning ten games and the prestigious Garden State Bowl in 1979, the Owls finished with a winning record just three times prior to the inauguration of Barack Obama (coincidence or Deep State conspiracy?). In that span, they lost at least ten games eight times, were politely asked to leave the Big East, and were generally one of the worst programs in FBS. All that changed in 2006 when Al Golden was hired. It took him a few years to right the ship, as the Owls went just 1-11 in his first season, but they won four games in his second, followed by five in his third, before winning seventeen over his final two seasons. That success helped him land the Miami job and the foundation he built helped Temple become a launching pads of sorts. The next three coaches to follow Golden in Philadelphia all enjoyed some modicum of success and used the Owls as a springboard to a Power Five job (Steve Addazio, Matt Rhule, and Geoff Collins). Current Temple coach Rod Carey seemed to be an ideal candidate to follow suit. Carey spent six seasons at Northern Illinois, leading the Huskies to four conference championship game appearances and a pair of MAC titles. And his first season in charge of the Owls was a solid success. Temple won eight games and defeated two Power Five opponents. The bowl game was disappointing, but Temple appeared to be in the same position that they had been in for the better part of a decade - an upper tier Group of Five program. Then 2020 happened.

Like every other team playing college football in 2020, the Owls dealt with cancelations and positive tests. Temple did not play their first game until October 10th, and while they were a disappointing 1-2 heading into a Halloween showdown at Tulane, they were at least competitive in each of their first three games. That was not the case over the final month of the season. Starting with Tulane, the Owls lost each of their final four games by at least 24 points. They were outscored 151-42 in that span and scored just four offensive touchdowns in those four games. Injuries and Covid-19 protocols account for some of that poor performance as the Owls had five different quarterbacks throw a pass in 2020. Even with the difficult circumstances, there is no doubt that for the first time in a long time, Temple was a bad team in 2020. The Owls lost four games by at least twenty points in 2020, giving Carey seven such defeats in his two seasons at the helm. That is already more than either of the three gentlemen who preceded him accumulated. 
Carey has already put up seven blowout losses in two seasons after his predecessors combined for thirteen such losses in eight. But not all blowout losses are created equal. Coaches at Group of Five programs don't have the resources or personnel of Power Five teams, so we shouldn't hold it against them if they are blown out by stronger programs. To account for this, lets adjust the data to only account for blowout losses to other Group of Five programs. How does Carey look once we make this adjustment?
Not any better. Temple played a conference only season in 2020, so all of their blowout losses came to other Group of Five programs. All together, Carey has six blowout losses to Group of Five programs whereas his three predecessors combined for seven in eight seasons. So, circling back around to the question I posed earlier: Is Temple in trouble? Is 2020 a sign of things to come or was it a one-off bad season made worse by a global pandemic? Obviously, no one can know for sure, and we'll learn a lot more in the 2021 season, but were I a Temple fan, I would be a little worried. Not only were the Owls unquestionably bad in 2020, they were not quite as good as their record in 2019. Take a look at last year's APR post on the AAC. The Owls won five conference games, but actually allowed more touchdowns than they scored. In addition, look no further than the program Carey piloted before landing the Temple job. Northern Illinois, the dominant MAC program for a decade has finished with a losing record for two straight years and actually went winless in 2020! Some of that could be the man the Huskies tabbed to replace Carey, a former Northern Illinois running back whose most recent job was coaching NFL running backs, is not very good, but it could also be that Carey left the program in a bad state. I'll refrain from making any bold proclamations, but it wouldn't shock me if Temple is bad in 2021 and has a new coach in 2022. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

2020 Yards Per Play: AAC

Despite my misgivings and doubts, the 2020 season happened. Since it did happen, we'll do what we have done for the past few years on this blog. Rundown the ten FBS conferences through the prism of Yards per Play and the Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Hopefully by the time this series commences, in about twenty weeks, the corona virus situation will have improved in this country and we can start fantasizing about a more normal 2021 season. And if it isn't, the powers that be have already shown the season will go on come hell or high water. 

We begin our offseason recaps with the American Athletic Conference. Here are the 2020 AAC standings.
So we know what each team achieved, but how did they perform? To answer that, here are the Yards Per Play (YPP), Yards Per Play Allowed (YPA) and Net Yards Per Play (Net) numbers for each AAC team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games (typically fewer in 2020). Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings. It would be fantastic if college football teams played 100 or even 1000 games. Then we could have a better idea about which teams were really the best. Alas, players would miss too much class time, their bodies would be battered beyond recognition, and I would never leave the couch. As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s YPP. Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards Per Play and Yards Per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or under-performing by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2020 season, which teams in the AAC met this threshold? Here are AAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Tulsa and South Florida were the two teams that saw their expected record differ significantly from their actual record. The Golden Hurricane exceeded their expected record thanks to an unblemished close game record (4-0) in one-score conference games and a phenomenal performance in the second half of games. Meanwhile, South Florida finished winless in AAC play despite poor, but hardly horrendous numbers. The Bulls were 0-2 in one-score conference games and finished with the worst in-conference turnover margin (-7). 

Dana's Bowl Struggles
Return with me to a simpler time. It was early January 2012. The nation was distraught that a pair of SEC teams would stage a rematch for the national title. But before that game in New Orleans, there would be an appetizer of sorts in the Orange Bowl. A young, mulleted, Red Bull chugging, offensive savant would lead West Virginia against a Clemson team that had been ranked as high as number six earlier in the season. The Mountaineers finished in a three-way tie for first in the Big East, but captured the penultimate Big East title and subsequent BCS bid thanks to owning the highest BCS ranking in the conference. West Virginia entered the game a slight underdog, but between the beginning of the second quarter and late in the third, the Mountaineers outscored the Tigers 49-3 en route to an easy 70-33 win. For Clemson, the loss likely set them on a path to win the national title as they fired Kevin Steele after the game and hired Brent Venables away from Oklahoma. For West Virginia, the victory propelled them into the national conscience. After middling preseason respect post Rich Rodriguez, the Mountaineers entered the 2012 season ranked eleventh in the AP Poll and rose as high as number five before their defensive issues were fully exposed in a 7-6 campaign. Over Dana Holgorsen's final seven seasons in Morgantown, the Mountaineers never really realized the expectations they set after the scintillating Orange Bowl performance. In Big 12 play, Holgorsen managed a winning record (33-30), but the Mountaineers only finished in the final AP Poll twice, and never higher than eighteenth. The primary reason for that? A deplorable bowl performance. And if you tuned in to college football on Christmas Eve, that trend continued at his new stop in Houston. 

Since winning that Orange Bowl nine years ago, Holgorsen's teams have lost six of seven bowl games and have not covered in any. Five of those losses, including the past four have all come by at least two touchdowns and West Virginia's only bowl win outside of the beatdown of Clemson came by a single point. Here is the carnage in table form.
Are there legitimate excuses for some of those egg-layings? Certainly. In 2017, his quarterback, Will Grier, was injured in the penultimate game of the regular season and missed the bowl. In 2018, many of his best players opted out of the bowl game against Syracuse. However, taken together this is a pretty strong indictment of Holgorsen's prowess to motivate and prepare his team for bowl games. Keep this in mind next December when Houston is laying points against a team they are vastly superior to on paper. 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Fab Five: Week XV

Last Week: 1-4
Overall: 30-38-2
The past two weeks have pretty much doomed us to a losing record this year. But there is no opting out this late in the season. We have some Championship Weekend picks and next week, we'll get some bowl picks out to you. Enjoy.
*Note this post has been updated with the cancelation of the Florida State/Wake Forest game. 

Ball State +13.5 Buffalo @ Detroit
While Power Five conference title games have pretty gone to form over the past few years, the MAC is a place where underdogs can still howl. Since 2005, the betting underdog in the MAC Championship Game is 11-4 Against the Spread (ATS) and an impressive 6-9 straight up. Double digit favorites have performed quite poorly, going 1-6 ATS in that span with three outright losses. In fact, this exact matchup occurred twelve years ago with the roles almost perfectly reversed. Ball State entered the game as a two touchdown favorite, sporting an undefeated record and the first ranking in school history. A few fluky turnovers by the Cardinals and an efficient passing game from Buffalo allowed the Bulls to win their first MAC title. Will history repeat it self, but different? Buffalo is unbeaten, rolling through their abbreviated MAC schedule with a 5-0 record, but a closer inspection of their record reveals the Bulls have pounded patsies. Three of their five opponents (Akron, Bowling Green, and Northern Illinois) combined for one victory and the best team they faced was Kent State. Of course, Jaret Patterson nearly set the NCAA rushing record against the Golden Flashes, but Ball State will probably represent Buffalo's strongest opponent to date. Buffalo has an efficient and explosive running game, but if they are ever forced into passing situations, I'm not sure they will be able to respond. The Bulls have attempted only five passes all season on third and long (at least seven yards to go for a first down). If the Cardinals can limit the running of the Bulls even a little, they have a great chance to keep this game close. 

Oregon +3.5 Southern Cal
With the Washington Huskies sidelined this week, Oregon will look to become the first Pac-12 team to repeat as conference champs since Stanford in 2013. The Ducks were the highest ranked Pac-12 team in the preseason and looked on their way to an unbeaten campaign. However, a loss to their arch-rivals in Corvallis begat a strange loss at Cal where the offense managed just seventeen points (the fewest the Ducks have managed since their date with Cal last season. The Bears are the only team over the past two seasons to hold the Ducks under twenty points. While Oregon stumbled, Southern Cal was clutch. The Trojans were far from dominant, as evidenced by their placement in the College Football Playoff rankings, but fourth quarter comebacks against Arizona, Arizona State, and UCLA have them sitting at 5-0 for the first time since 2006! Despite the glossy record, Southern Cal is barely above water in terms of Net Yards per Play. The Trojans have outgained their Pac-12 opponents by 0.06 yards per play while Oregon is at a more robust +1.52. I understand why the Trojans are favored, but the records of these two teams could easily be reversed. I like the Ducks to cover and win outright as they did in last season's Pac-12 Championship Game. 

Ole Miss -2 LSU
LSU at Florida was Exhibit A for why I was disappointed the ACC gave Clemson and Notre Dame the week off before their rematch in the ACC Championship Game. No matter how likely a victory seems on paper, college football has a habit of delivering unexpected results. LSU won in Gainesville despite allowing over 600 yards of offense (the third time an opponent has gained at least 600 yards against the Tigers this season) at over eight yards per play thanks to some timely turnovers (+3 in the game with a pick six), a clutch field goal, and of course, a shoe toss. While the victory gives LSU bragging rights against Florida for another year, their defense was just as bad (if a little more opportunistic) as they have been all season. With Vanderbilt's game against Georgia canceled and the Commodores season complete, the Tigers have a chance to finish with the worst per play defense in the SEC. They are currently a miniscule 0.05 yards per play better than Vanderbilt. With the explosive Ole Miss offense coming to Baton Rouge, they certainly have a shot at passing them. Ole Miss has lost four straight in this series, with each loss coming by at least sixteen points, but beating LSU would serve as a nice coda to Lane Kiffin's first year in Oxford. The Tigers are getting too much credit for a fluky win last week. Take the Rebels to win and force LSU to drop the axe on Bo Pelini. 

Missouri -1.5 Mississippi State
Mercifully, Mike Leach's first season in the SEC will come to an end on Saturday. After exposing the defending national champs in their opener, the Bulldogs have fallen on hard times. Their offense has averaged just fourteen points per game since that opening salvo, and the team has not scored more than 24 points in any other game this season. I'm not an Air Raid skeptic, and I expect Leach to eventually have success in Starkville, but for this season, it sure seems to be a square peg/round hole situation. That being the case, I am shocked the Bulldogs are basically a pick 'em against a Missouri team enjoying a solid first season under Eli Drinkwitz. The Tigers are 5-4, but three of their losses have come to the best teams in the conference (Alabama, Florida, and Georgia). The other came to Tennessee and their really is no excuse for that. I think recency bias is playing a role in this spread as their most recent game was against a suddenly explosive Georgia team where they were mostly non-competitive. Luckily, explosive does not begin to describe Mississippi State's offense. The Tigers should win easily and close the regular season with win number six. 

Notre Dame +10.5 Clemson @ Charlotte
While the previous games I picked don't have really any national consequences, this game could be quite impactful. A victory by Notre Dame could keep Clemson out of the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2014, while a victory by Clemson could see the ACC net two playoff bids. Everyone remembers what happened in the first game, where Clemson, without Trevor Lawrence, lost in overtime at South Bend. Despite the victory, many in the college football universe were not impressed. Notre Dame's blowout losses at the hands of Alabama and Clemson in 2012 and 2018 respectively seem to be what is driving this number north of double digits. I know the Irish had the homefield and an experience advantage at quarterback in the last meeting, but beating the Tigers in any venue under any circumstances in this era is impressive. Clemson has won five consecutive ACC titles, with their past three championship game victories coming by an average of just over 37 points per game. Perhaps that is also contributing to this big number. The betting market remembers Clemson dominating in this spot the past few seasons. If this game were in Death Valley, double digits might be justified. However, on a neutral field, the Irish are the play. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Fab Five: Week XIV

Last Week: 2-4
Overall: 29-34-2
Our first losing week since Halloween undoes most of the good we did in November. There are just two weeks left in the regular season and then the bowls start. It will take a spirited effort to get back to .500, but here goes.

Louisville -1 Wake Forest
What a difference a year makes. Scott Satterfield built up a great deal of equity with the Louisville faithful in 2019, going 8-5 and finishing with a winning record in the ACC after the team bottomed out in 2018. However, his recent flirtations with and denials about the open South Carolina job, to go along with a disappointing 3-7 record, have likely signaled the end of the honeymoon period. Of course, on a per play level Louisville has improved in his second season. Last year, the Cardinals paired a strong offense with a poor defense, but won all their close games (3-0 in one-score games) to finish with a winning record despite being outscored on the year. This season, the Cardinals still have a powerful offense, and a weak defense, but are 0-4 in close games. Despite their 3-7 record, they have actually outscored their ten opponents and this is without the usual benefit of an FCS non-conference slaughter. Louisville is better than their record and should probably be a larger favorite against a Wake Forest team playing its first game in nearly a month. The Demon Deacons were last seen blowing a three touchdown lead in a loss at North Carolina. Wake plays fast and has a solid offense and an even worse defense than the Cardinals, so expect a lot of possessions and a lot of points. What more could you ask for from two mediocre teams playing a meaningless game in the midst of a global pandemic? With an expected high point total, this minuscule spread should not come into play. Take the Cardinals to close the year with their fourth victory. 

Northern Illinois +6 Eastern Michigan
One of the more shocking, if under the radar results, from last week was winless Eastern Michigan drilling their directional rivals in Kalamazoo 53-42. The Eagles, as they always are under Chris Creighton, had been competitive in 2020, but had dropped their first four games and seemed headed for a potential 0-6 campaign. However, they scored more than fifty points against an FBS opponent for the first time since 2017 and beat the Broncos for the second straight season. The win was pretty emblematic of what Eastern Michigan is under Chris Creighton, great as an underdog. Against MAC competition, Eastern Michigan is 21-15-2 Against the Spread (ATS) as a betting underdog. They are even better if we look at what they have done since 2016. In Creighton's first two seasons as head coach, he didn't give much indication that he would be different than his predecessors, winning just a single conference game outright while posting a 4-11-1 ATS mark (all as an underdog). However, since 2016, the Eagles are 17-4-1 ATS as an underdog against MAC teams. Of course, while the Eagles have been great as an underdog under Creighton, they have not done nearly as well laying points. The Eagles were not favored against a conference opponent until their 21st game under Creighton (they lost that game). Since then, they have been favored here and there, but have not done well covering the number, posting a 4-10 ATS mark as a conference favorite (2-7 ATS at home). I expect that trend to continue as they are laying too many points, even against Northern Illinois. 

UAB -7 Rice
I mentioned Eastern Michigan dropping fifty was one of the more shocking results from last week, but without a doubt, the most shocking result was Rice shutting out Marshall on the road as a more than twenty point underdog. The Owls didn't do a whole lot on offense, racking up just over 200 yards while averaging just over 3.5 yards per play. However, they forced numerous turnovers, intercepting Grant Wells five times, while returning one for a touchdown. Now the Owls will look to build on that victory against a UAB team that has not played in six weeks thanks to numerous cancellations. The Blazers have won all three games against Rice by double digits since their rebirth in 2017. This spread is lower than it should be thanks to Rice's inexplicable win last week. I think the Owls revert to form this week and drop this game by more than a touchdown. 

Navy +7 Army
America's Game, like most things in 2020, will look a little different. For starters, the academies will not have the stage to themselves. Instead, they will square off while a litany of other college football games are contested at the same time. This is the first time since 2008 that Army and Navy are not the only game in town. In addition, instead of a neutral site, this game will be played at West Point for the first time since 1943. Apparently, there were some pretty important things going on in the world during that time. Oh, and the other unique thing is that Army is favored for just the fourth time this century (and just the second time since 2002). The Black Knights will finish with a winning record for the fourth time in five seasons, but their schedule is light on quality wins. Three of their seven wins have come against FCS competition and two of their four FBS victories have come against the worst the 2020 season has to offer (Louisiana Monroe and Middle Tennessee). Navy is not a good team, but the Midshipmen are AAC bad, not Sun Belt bad. Army should be favored, but this is too many points, especially going against an opponent that is intimately familiar with Army's offense. The underdog has done quite well in this series of late, covering eight of the last twelve and five of the last six. I expect more of the same with the Midshipmen giving a spirited effort. 

Baylor +5.5 Oklahoma State
The Bears and Cowboys will look to end their disappointing seasons on a high note in Waco. Baylor could never get going in Dave Aranda's first season at the helm. The Bears lost five of their first six games and enter the regular season finale having beaten the two Big 12 teams from the Sunflower State and no one else. For Oklahoma State, their potential Big 12 title dreams have evaporated along with their dominant defense since Halloween. In their first four conference games, the Cowboys allowed a minuscule 4.29 yards per play. However, since losing to Texas, in a game they dominated in the stat sheet if not the scoreboard, the Cowboys have allowed 6.83 yards per play. To make matters worse for degenerates, the Cowboys have not covered a point spread since laying waste to Kansas in early October. They are on a run of six consecutive point spread losses and with nothing to play for, how can you lay points with them on the road? Since Mike Gundy arrived in Stillwater, this has been a weird series. The Cowboys are 8-7 against the Bears under Gundy, but have lost six of the past eight and have not won in Waco since 2009. In addition, despite only six of the games having a double digit point spread, thirteen have resulted in a double digit margin of victory. For whatever reason, these games have tended to get ugly, no matter which team is favored. I think the Bears will give a good effort at home before going into hibernation for the offseason. Take Baylor and the points. 

Thursday, December 03, 2020

The Fab Five: Week XIII

Last Week: 3-1*
Overall: 27-30-2
We closed November strong with our best week of the year. Of course, part of that is due to one of the games being canceled. To make up for it, we have six picks for you this week. Enjoy.
*Please note this post has been updated. The Buffalo at Ohio game was canceled on Friday, so it has been replaced with another pick (free of charge of course). 

Auburn +7 Texas A&M
Is the College Football Playoff Committee really going to put Texas A&M in the field if one of the top four stumble (or don't play enough games)? I know they have an impressive home win against Florida, but outside of the Gators, what is their best win? LSU last week or perhaps Arkansas on Halloween? If the Aggies do happen to win out and one of the current top four don't make it in, I would hope the committee would err on the side of an unbeaten Group of Five team like Cincinnati or BYU. The Aggies have already proven they don't belong on the same field as Alabama. Let some other team have the opportunity. Anyway, Auburn could do us all a big favor and wreck the Aggies playoff dreams by winning on Saturday. Like Texas A&M, the Tigers were not competitive against what could be Nick Saban's best Alabama team. Now they return to the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare, where they have done well as an underdog under Gus Malzahn. The Tigers are 8-3 Against the Spread (ATS) as a home underdog, with six outright wins. And the underdog has performed well in this series overall. In the eight meetings since Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, the underdog has gone 6-1-1 ATS and won five games outright. Texas A&M is the fifth best team according to the CFB Playoff rankings, but they should not be laying a touchdown on the road.  

Boston College +6 Virginia
While it appears Boston College will once again finish with either six or seven wins when the 2020 season is in the books (would be the eighth time they have done that in the past eleven seasons), the Eagles have exceeded expectations under first year head coach Jeff Hafley. All four teams to beat the Eagles were ranked at the time of the game, and two stand a pretty good chance at getting into the College Football Playoff. The Eagles have done well in the underdog role this season, covering four times in six games, while winning two of the games outright. I expect them to perform well against a Virginia team that has won three in a row, but is fraudulent. The Cavaliers have been outgained by more than a full yard per play by ACC opponents and have the worst per play defense in the ACC outside of Tallahassee. This game is a toss up and with Boston College catching nearly a touchdown, they are the play. 

Indiana +14 Wisconsin
This line is probably an overreaction to the injury Michael Penix suffered last week that will cause him to miss the rest of the season. Penix was a solid quarterback for the Hoosiers, but he was not a Heisman contender nor the solitary driving force behind Indiana's success. His backup, Jack Tuttle, while inexperienced, was a good recruit coming out of high school. And speaking of inexperienced quarterbacks, this will mark Graham Mertz fourth start for Wisconsin. Mertz dazzled in his first start against Illinois (again, I repeat, Illinois), but struggled in his next two starts against Michigan and Northwestern. Indiana has a pretty good defense, so I don't expect Mertz to dominate. The Hoosiers are middle of the pack in yards allowed per play (seventh in the Big 10), but if we take out the Ohio State game, where they allowed over 600 yards and 42 points, those numbers look a lot better. Against their other five Big 10 opponents, they are allowing under five yards per play and about eighteen points per game. Wisconsin is one of the better Big 10 programs, but they are not in Ohio State's class. The Hoosiers should be able to make this a low-scoring affair and do enough on offense to cover this two touchdown spread. 

Florida Atlantic +2 Georgia Southern
Many college football fans, myself included, expected Florida Atlantic to take a step back in 2020 after losing head coach Lane Kiffin and replacing him with failed Florida State coach Willie Taggart. The Owls didn't play their first game until early October and then went three weeks before playing their second. They lost that second game to Marshall and it seemed like the Owls were destined to finish in the middle of the pack in Conference USA. However, since that loss to Marshall, the Owls have won four in a row and have a chance to finish the abbreviated regular season with just one loss. And with the struggles continuing in Tallahassee, it makes you think maybe Willie wasn't the problem. The Owls are led by a stout defense, coordinated by Jim Leavitt, who also worked for Willie in his lone season coaching the Oregon Ducks. The Owls have not played a rugged schedule, but they are allowing just 4.5 yards per play and eleven points per game. They have not allowed more than twenty points in any game this season (the undefeated Thundering Herd got to twenty) and have held three opponents (Massachusetts, UTSA, and Western Kentucky) out of the endzone entirely. They should probably be favored in this game, especially when you consider that Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts is dealing with a shoulder injury. Georgia Southern may also lack the requisite motivation to get up for this game. This is not a conference game, and the Eagles have dropped back-to-back close games to a former coach and their in-state rivals. Take the Owls to cover this small number and win outright. 

California +10 Oregon
Both the Bears and Ducks lost in the final minutes last week against their arch rivals. Cal lost at home to Stanford thanks to a blocked extra point and Oregon, despite some help from the officials, fell at Oregon State for just the second time since 2007. While Cal's loss was more heartbreaking, Oregon's was more damaging. Whatever pipe dreams the Ducks had for advancing to the College Football Playoff are dashed, and they must win out to have a shot at defending their Pac-12 title. Truth be told, the Ducks probably should have lost the week before at home to UCLA, but some timely turnovers, especially one at the end of the first half helped them edge the Bruins. The betting market loves the Ducks, as this is the eighth straight (regular season) game where they have been a double digit favorite. The Ducks are 3-4 ATS in the previous seven, but the market does not appear to have adjusted to how poor the Oregon defense is this season. Last year, the Ducks finished second in the Pac-12 in yards allowed per play. Thus far, they are tenth in 2020. Oregon is dealing with a host of opt outs, especially in the secondary, so this performance is not that surprising. Having the Ducks continue to lay big numbers, especially on the road, is surprising. Cal is desperate for a win, having lost three straight to open the season. In addition, they have done well as a big home underdog under Justin Wilcox, covering all three times they have been catching at least ten points in Berkeley, while winning two of the games outright. I expect Cal to get back on track and keep this game close. 

South Carolina +11.5 Kentucky
For what its worth, I'm already regretting taking the hometown Gamecocks to cover this number. After upsetting Auburn in mid-October to pull even at 2-2, the Gamecocks have dropped five in a row with four of the five losses coming by seventeen or more points. The lone competitive affair in that stretch came two weeks ago against Missouri, in their first game after firing Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks held Missouri to seventeen points in that game, which is an amazing feat considering they allowed 204 points in the other four games of the skid. I think the Gamecocks may be able to give a similar defensive effort against a Kentucky team that ranks second to last in the SEC in yards per play and third to last in scoring offense. As I've mentioned a few other times, its very hard to cover double digits if you can't score. Obviously, Kentucky will not be shut out by a South Carolina defense that is leaking oil and probably ready to start the offseason, but Kentucky has not done well as a large favorite under Mark Stoops. As a double digit home favorite, they are just 6-8 ATS, and all of the covers have come against Group of Five teams. Against SEC opponents, the Wildcats are 0-3 ATS (all against Vanderbilt). In fact, the Wildcats have not been a double digit favorite against an SEC team other than Vanderbilt since 2007 (they lost that game by the way). And they have not been a double digit favorite against South Carolina since 1998, when the Gamecocks were on the front nine of a nearly two year losing streak (they won, but didn't cover by the way). I know there is always the potential for South Carolina to quit on the season with no coach and no postseason to play for, but what is Kentucky's motivation? After winning eighteen games the past two seasons, the Wildcats have clinched a losing record in 2020. They should win, but I don't expect them to blow the Gamecocks out. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Fab Five: Week XII

Last Week: 2-2-1
Overall: 24-29-2
Last week was a perfect example of why they call it gambling. I was staring down the barrel of a 4-1 week, but Tulane not defending a Hail Mary and Coastal returning an interception for a touchdown with the game in hand gave me a push and a loss respectively. Oh well, only a few more weeks left. Hopefully we catch some breaks this week. 

Iowa State -1 Texas
Since arriving in Ames prior to the 2016 season, Matt Campbell has done the unthinkable at Iowa State. He has guided the Cyclones to four consecutive winning conference records and has them in position to qualify for the Big 12 Championship Game for the first time. The Cyclones are 24-19 in Big 12 play under Campbell and the only two teams the Cyclones have failed to beat multiple times are Oklahoma State and Texas. All five games against the Cowboys have been decided by a touchdown or less, but Texas has proven to be more vexing. The Longhorns have beaten the Cyclones three times with Campbell as coach and each of those victories came by at least ten points. In fact, the Longhorns nearly won in Ames last season, but a field goal on the final play gave Iowa State the victory. Despite Iowa State's struggles in this series (the Cyclones have only won once in Austin), I feel like they are being undervalued by the betting market. If you look at how both teams have performed in Big 12 play this season, Iowa State has dominated on a per play basis, averaging about 1.70 more yards per play than they have allowed. Meanwhile, despite their 4-2 league record, Texas is slightly underwater on a per play basis. They have not had the benefit of playing Kansas to pad their statistics, but if you replaced the burnt orange jerseys with purple or green, Iowa State would be laying at least a field goal. It's always scary betting against Tom Herman as an underdog, but I'll take Iowa State to win outright at Texas and clinch a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. 

Vanderbilt +14 Missouri
I know they might finish 0-10, or some other record starting with '0', but Vanderbilt has played better the past few weeks. In their first four conference games, the Commodores were outgained by more than three yards per play (7.50 to 4.41) after becoming the first SEC team to do that last season. They were outscored in those four games by nearly 27 points per game. However, over their past three games, the Commodores have only been outgained by about one yard per play (6.64 to 5.61). Those aren't great numbers, but they represent massive improvement and the scoreboard has also been much closer as well. The Commodores have lost those three by about ten points per game. Give credit to Derek Mason for not losing his team despite a horrible start in unenviable circumstances. I have been on the Commodores in two of those games when they covered as double digit road underdogs at Mississippi State and Kentucky. That brought their Against the Spread (ATS) record in such conference games to 13-5 under Mason. I see no reason to back off of them in this spot. While the Commodores were originally slated to host in-state rival Tennessee, they will now hit the road to face Missouri. Those Tigers are getting a lot of love from the betting market despite scoring seventeen points against a South Carolina team that came in having allowed 159 points in its past three games (and also playing under an interim coach). If you can't score, its hard to cover big numbers and outside of their showing against LSU, Missouri has not scored more than twenty points in any other game this season. Vanderbilt has been a double digit underdog against Missouri three times since the Tigers joined the SEC. They have covered each time and won outright last year (last conference game they won). If Vandy is going to score a victory this season, I think it comes on Saturday. And we might even get to see something historic

Navy +14 Memphis
A month ago, Navy was in the midst of a ten game conference win streak, having opened 2020 with three conference victories after winning their final seven in 2019. Unfortunately, games against Temple and East Carolina gave way to Houston and SMU and the Midshipmen have now lost back-to-back conference games. Can the Midshipmen right the ship (apologies) against a Memphis team that despite a 5-2 record has been a bit of a disappointment in 2020? If by right the ship (again, apologies), you mean stay within two touchdowns, I think the answer is 'Yes'. Navy is 18-4 straight up in home conference games since joining the AAC in 2015, including a pair of victories against Memphis as a betting underdog. In fact, Navy is 4-1 both straight up and ATS against Memphis since joining the AAC, despite being an underdog in each game. This not one of Ken Niumatalolo's better Navy teams (take a look at that ugly point differential), but they are still dangerous especially against a bad defense. And make no mistake, this is a bad Memphis defense. The Tigers rank last in the AAC in yards allowed per play in conference games. In fact, their defense is the primary reason they have failed to cover all three times they have been double digit favorites in 2020. The Tigers opened the season with a solid defensive showing against a quality Arkansas State offense when they allowed 24 points, but failed to cover as eighteen point favorites. However, the defense did not play nearly as well in their other two games as large favorites. Against Temple, a team with one win this season, the Tigers allowed 29 points to a team that is averaging about twenty points per game. And against South Florida, a team with zero FBS wins this season, the Tigers allowed 33 points to another team that scores about twenty per game. The Tigers will not struggle to score against Navy, but I don't think their defense will offer much resistance either. Take the Midshipmen to cover this large number. 

Kansas State +5 Baylor
Kansas State has been one of the most profitable underdogs over the past decade or so. Under Bill Snyder and Chris Klieman, the Wildcats have routinely not only covered, but won outright as underdogs. Despite that solid track record, I was a little hesitant to back the Wildcats in this spot as they appear to be leaking oil. After a 4-1 start, they have dropped three straight with a pair of blowout losses on the road to West Virginia and Iowa State. The most recent loss to the Cyclones was particularly demoralizing as it represented the largest margin of defeat in Klieman's illustrious career (even dating back to his time at Division III Loras). While the forty five point loss is a stain on their ledger, the Wildcats can take solace that they lost to one of the best teams in the Big 12. By contrast, their opponent on Saturday is not one of the best teams in the Big 12. After playing in the Big 12 Championship Game last season, Baylor has struggled under first year head coach Dave Aranda. After opening with a dominant win against Kansas, the Bears have dropped five in a row, though three of the losses have come by a touchdown or less. Baylor should probably be favored in this game, but I think this line is a bit of an overreaction to how poorly Kansas State played against Iowa State. The Cyclones were playing for a shot at the Big 12 title last week, while Baylor is merely playing out the string. Take Kansas State to get back on track and hang tough with the Bears. 

Florida State +9 Virginia
If a young Mike Norvell had a acquired a cursed monkey's paw and wished to one day be head coach of Florida State, you have to imagine his first season is how that wish would have played out. The Seminoles are 2-6 with just a single victory against an FBS opponent and five losses by double digits. The team (at least the administration) was even shamed by a tone deaf Dabo Swinney for refusing to play Clemson last week after the Tigers played fast and loose with the COVID protocols and brought a symptomatic player (who would eventually test positive) on the trip to Tallahassee. To show you how bad things are, take a look at the following table. It lists all previous instances of the Seminoles being a home underdog since 2000. 
This marks just the eleventh time that has happened, but the sixth time in the past five seasons. Florida State has not performed well in the role, posting a 2-8 straight up record and a slightly better 4-6 ATS mark. However, go back and look at the quality of teams that were favored against them. All of the teams came in ranked in the AP Poll, with seven ranked in the top ten. In addition, five of the teams (those highlighted in darker blue) would go on to win the national title the year they were favored against the Seminoles. Virginia is not in that class. While the Cavaliers have won three straight to even their record at 4-4, all those victories came at home and their wins against North Carolina and Louisville came despite allowing over 1000 combined yards at more than eight yards per play. In addition, this is the most points Virginia has been favored by away from Charlottesville under Bronco Mendenhall. This is Virginia's 25th true road game under Mendenhall and marks just the fifth time they have been favored in a road contest. In the previous four games, the most they were favored by was a measly four points. They lost that game for what its worth. This is uncharted territory for both Florida State and Virginia and I believe the controversy surrounding their cancellation can galvanize Florida State into a strong showing at home. Take the Seminoles to cover and don't be shocked if they pull an outright upset. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Fab Five: Week XI

Last Week: 3-2
Overall: 22-27-1
We were able to grind out another winning week. That's two in a row. Unfortunately, there are probably not enough weeks left in the season to get back to .500. But we shall make a valiant attempt nonetheless.

Tulane +6 Tulsa
Unless you are a legend, and even then, not always, college football coaches that go into a tailspin don't often get the chance to pull out of the spin. Instead, the school usually blows the plane up and hires a new pilot to fly the smoldering wreckage (metaphor may need a little work). However, Philip Montgomery appears to have done just that. After winning ten games in 2016 and appearing on his way to an eventual Power Five job, Montgomery's next three Tulsa teams went 9-27, including just 5-19 in AAC play. Widely assumed to be a dead man coaching in 2020, Tulsa has opened conference play with four consecutive wins after giving Oklahoma State all they could handle in Stillwater. In the process, Tulsa has set themselves in prime position to face Cincinnati in the AAC Championship Game (assuming college football survives for another month). Half of Tulsa's conference victories have come against teams that were ranked at the time they played the Golden Hurricane (UCF and SMU) and now the Golden Hurricane have entered the AP Poll for the first time since 2010. Outside of Cincinnati, the Golden Hurricane have played the best defense in the AAC, holding the explosive offenses in Orlando and Dallas to well below their scoring averages in their upset wins. Now Tulsa must contend with a Tulane team that is cresting at the right time. The Wave have won three in a row and have scored at least 30 points in seven consecutive games I think Tulsa is in a bit of a flat spot off that upset win against SMU and the Golden Hurricane are just 3-5 Against the Spread (ATS) as a conference home favorite under Montgomery. Take the Green Wave to keep this one close. 

Georgia Southern +4 Army
If you are an habitual viewer of college football who likes to post up (or down) on the couch and consume a good twelve hours on a fall Saturday, you know that games typically extend past their allocated three and half hour window. Those 3:30 kicks on an ESPN affiliate usually end up starting on the ESPN app or some other alternate network because the games just last so damn long. CBS Sports Network may not have that problem this Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for Noon and I would place a wager this one wraps before San Diego State and Nevada kick at 3:30 (that game is now getting a national broadcast on CBS). If I can evoke a baseball analogy, these two triple option teams are like a vintage Greg Maddux start on The Superstation. Barring weather delays or overtime, this game should fly by. And since both teams are intimately familiar with the offense the other runs, I expect a close game as well. While they have enjoyed success under Jeff Monken, (who previously coached at Georgia Southern) Army has not performed well as a home favorite, posting an 8-11 ATS mark in the role against FBS teams. In addition, most of their covers have come against the dregs of FBS. They have only covered twice against teams that finished with non-losing records. Both those covers came in 2018, when Army had one of their best seasons in recent memory. And the teams they covered against were far from great. Liberty (6-6) was in their first season as an FBS program and Hawaii (8-6) was playing a Noon game on the east coast. Georgia Southern is a quality program that has done nothing but play close games in 2020 (six of eight decided by a touchdown or less) and both of their losses on the year have come to teams currently in the AP Poll (Coastal and Louisiana-Lafayette). Army has six wins, but due to the nature of their pandemic altered schedule, three have come against barnstorming FCS opponents, and two others have come against the worst FBS has to offer in 2020 (Louisiana-Monroe and Middle Tennessee State). I expect a tight game and an outright Georgia Southern win. 

Appalachian State +5 Coastal Carolina
After three rather mediocre years as an FBS program, Coastal Carolina has surged in 2020. The Chanticleers are 7-0 and ranked fifteenth in the latest AP Poll, the highest position ever for a Sun Belt program. And yet, despite their fantastic start, a loss to the Mountaineers would practically eliminate them from title contention in the Sun Belt. While the Mountaineers have dropped a game in 2020, it was a non-conference clash with another unbeaten Group of Five team. That loss seems to have thrown the betting public off the scent of the Mountaineers. Consider this: In their first season as an FBS program, Appalachian State was an underdog against Sun Belt opponents five times. In the five and a half seasons since, this will mark just the third time the Mountaineers have entered a game against a conference opponent getting points. While I expected Coastal to be a slight favorite, I think the line is a little high because Appalachian State struggled at home last week against Georgia State in a potential lookahead spot. The Mountaineers needed a fourth quarter comeback to edge the Panthers 17-13. The defense played well, as it has since midway through the 2014 season, but the offense struggled and the backup quarterback had to lead the winning touchdown drive after Zac Thomas (different guy) went down with an injury. Thomas is probably going to play on Saturday, so you may be catching a few points of value if this line is a reaction to his injury. In addition, with the recent firing a hundred miles or so inland, the speculation surrounding Jamey Chadwell's future at Coastal Carolina may impact the team. The Chanticleers are a great story, but Appalachian State is the proven brand in the Sun Belt and when they are catching points, you have to take them. 

South Alabama +3.5 Georgia State
Earlier, I mentioned Appalachian State might be getting a few extra points in the betting market because they struggled with Georgia State last week. I think something similar is going on in this game. Georgia State is probably a little overvalued by the market because they hung tough with the Mountaineers last week. However, they are not the type of team you want to be laying points with on the road. Under Shawn Elliott, the Panthers have been conference road favorites four previous times (1-2-1 ATS in those games), so this is not a position they are used to. In addition, after winning four conference road games in Elliott's first season (2017), the Panthers are just 2-9 straight up in their last eleven conference road games. On the other sideline, the Jaguars are playing their first home game in nearly a month after three consecutive road trips against the better teams in the Sun Belt (Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina, and Louisiana-Lafayette). While they have struggled in Sun Belt play under Steve Campbell, posting a 5-16 conference record under his watch, they are actually a respectable 5-5 at home. I think they continue their respectable home performance with an outright upset against Georgia State. 

Mississippi State +25 Georgia
Mississippi State is the poster child for not making bold proclamations after one game. Remember back when the SEC was playing a full slate of games on Saturdays? It wasn't that long ago. And on that opening Saturday in late September, Mississippi State stunned the defending national champs, putting up 44 points on LSU in Baton Rouge. Mike Leach let you know there was plenty of room on the bandwagon, and with Arkansas and Kentucky up next, it looked like the Bulldogs would be hosting Texas A&M in mid-October with a top ten ranking on the line. But then reality got in the way. Since scoring 44 points against LSU, the Bulldogs have scored a total of 54 points in their last five games. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Bulldogs have lost four of those games, with the lone victory coming against one of the worst SEC teams in recent memory. The passing offense, a specialty of Mike Leach, has averaged 4.53 yards per attempt since beating LSU and an even uglier 6.61 yards per completion. The SEC average for both is 7.83 yards per pass attempt and 12.05 yards per completion meaning Mississippi State's average completion since the LSU game is below the SEC average for a passing attempt! And yet here I am recommending you wager your hard earned money on the Bulldogs from Starkville instead of the Bulldogs from Athens. Why would I do such a thing? For starters, Mississippi State's defense has actually been pretty good this season. The Bulldogs rank third in the SEC in yards allowed per play and while their points per game numbers are mediocre (sixth in the SEC), keep in mind those scoring numbers are influenced by four defensive touchdowns opposing teams have scored via interception returns. In addition, the Bulldogs have been put in precarious positions a few other times, as they have allowed three touchdown 'drives' of less than ten yards. Obviously, there is a chance those turnovers continue in this game. One can envision a scenario where Georgia's defense sets them up with short fields or scores a touchdown or two on their own. However, turnovers tend to be pretty random, so while a Georgia blowout of epic proportions is certainly a possibility, that is probably a tail event. I also understand wanting to fade Mississippi State based on motivation. Running back Kylin Hill has opted out and Leach may be inching closer to a full on mutiny, but I would argue motivation may be an issue on the other sideline as well. Barring an epic collapse at Florida, Georgia's streak of three consecutive SEC East titles will come to an end. How motivated will Georgia be to stick it to an SEC West team they have played just five times this century? I don't think Georgia is in any real danger of losing this game, but I don't think they roll over Mississippi State either. This has the look and feel of a double digit win where the defense looks great and the offense disappoints.