Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The Magnificent Seven: Week I

Rejoice dear readers, the season is nearly upon us. As I have done for the past eight 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.

Western Kentucky +1 Vanderbilt
This line originally opened back in the summer with Vanderbilt as a field goal favorite, so the 'sharps' in Vegas have taken some of the value out of this line. However, I still like the Hilltoppers to give the Commodores a run for their money and eventually outlast them. Last season, Vanderbilt hosted three FBS teams from the Group of 5. They were big favorites over Temple and were blown out. They were huge favorites over Massachusetts and held on for dear life. And finally, they were a touchdown favorite over Old Dominion and won by 14. The cynic would point out that Old Dominion is pretty much a bargain basement version of Western Kentucky - a team with a powerful offense and suspect defense. With Vanderbilt likely to improve after last season's debacle, why expect anything different than a back and forth shootout eventually won by the Commodores? I for one believe a shootout is what we will have here. An average, yes average, Western Kentucky games featured more than 84 combined points last season! In fact, their last two games, both one point wins, featured 133 and 97 points respectively. While Vanderbilt is likely to improve over last season, at least in final record and overall performance, it should be noted they are breaking in a new defensive coordinator who also happens to be the head coach. Can Derek Mason pull double duty? Perhaps. However, Western Kentucky is not the type of team you want to face when breaking in a new defensive system. This is of course, the season's first game, so motivation (at least of the negative variety) should not be a factor here. However, one can be certain that Western Kentucky will be motivated to beat an SEC team for the third time in four seasons. Take the Hilltoppers to cover this small number and win the game outright.

Michigan +5.5 Utah
Am I drinking too much of the Jim Harbaugh Koolaid here? Perhaps. Just remember though, Jim Harbaugh turned Stanford from a Pac-10 bottom dweller into a bonafide national title contender. Plus, he made a white running back a Heisman finalist. All of that of course has minimal impact on Michigan's chances here. What does impact this game is the play of the Michigan defense, a unit that despite the offense's struggles last season still allowed under five yards per play (14th nationally). Playing a night road game against an inspired opponent could result in an avalanche that knocks Michigan out of this game early. However, I foresee a tight defensive struggle. I don't have the cajones to call for an outright Wolverine win here, but I think they will keep it close.

Charlotte +6.5 Georgia State
Welcome to FBS Charlotte! The 49ers will begin their foray into big-time college football against a team in just their third year of FBS play. For Georgia State, their FBS start has been inauspicious, to put it kindly. The Panthers have won just a single game since becoming an FBS member in 2013. That win came by a single point against Abilene Christian (a school transitioning from Division II to the FCS). In fact, their last victory by more than  point came nearly three years ago! They beat Rhode Island 41-7 in October of 2012. Playing your first FBS game has not been a death sentence the past few years. Since 2012, seven teams have begun play in the FBS. In their first game against a fellow FBS team, six were underdogs. Those six teams combined to go 5-1 against the number with a pair of outright upsets. I think this game will follow the same pattern. Charlotte will hang with the Panthers and cover, but fail to achieve an outright victory.

Northwestern +12 Stanford
I'm sure you already know this, but let me be the 50th person to tell you that these two schools rank in the top-15 of national universities. Suffice it to say, there should be some future engineers and hedge fund managers in the stands and perhaps on the field. On the field is what we care about here, and in that regard, Northwestern has disappointed over the past two seasons, going just 10-14. A 3-8 record in one-possession games has been a key contributor to this slide. Stanford also disappointed last year as they failed in their attempt to win three consecutive Pac-12 titles and lost five games for the first time since 2009. Stanford may well win the Pac-12 this season, but I think the Cardinal will struggle on the road against an unfamiliar opponent (these schools have not played since 1994).

Arkansas -33 UTEP
Arkansas is receiving quite a bit of hype for a team coming off a 7-6 season. Granted, most advanced stats had Arkansas as a very good team last year. However, the SEC West is not getting any easier. There are still seven very strong teams in the division. For a few weeks, Arkansas doesn't have to worry about that. They should be able to sleepwalk through this one and win by five touchdowns. Here's why. Under Bret Bielema, Arkansas is 3-1 against the number at home against mid-major programs. UTEP certainly fits the mid-major bill. While the Miners qualified for a bowl and finished with a winning record in Sean Kugler's second season, they were not very good. Five of their seven wins in 2014 came against teams that finished with losing records. Plus, under Kugler, the the Miners are a putrid 1-8 against the number as a double-digit road underdog. With a spread this large, the backdoor cover could certainly come into play, but I think Arkansas wins and covers easily.

Georgia Southern +19 West Virginia
Unlike their in-state brethren, Georgia Southern's transition to the FBS went quite well. The Eagles nearly upset a pair of ACC teams and went unbeaten in Sun Belt play all under a first year head coach. So what does Willie Fritz do for an encore? Well, to pull off a win against a Big 12 opponent, he will have to do so with a backup quarterback. Kevin Ellison was suspended for the first two games (the Eagles play fellow mid-major Western Michigan in their second game). Surprisingly, this spread did not budge despite that news. I think West Virginia is due for a modest decline this season as they are breaking in a new quarterback and will probably give back some of their outstanding defensive gains last season. Plus, the Mountaineers are 0-2 against the number as a double-digit home favorite the past two seasons. Georgia Southern played tight road contests against NC State and Georgia Tech last season and memorably beat Florida two years ago. They shan't be intimidated by the couch burners in Morgantown.

Virginia Tech +11 Ohio State
Care to hazard a guess as to how many times Virginia Tech has dropped their home opener since Frank Beamer took over the program in 1987? The answer is thrice. They fell to Clemson in 1987, Boston College in 1995, and quite memorably James Madison in 2010. Ohio State will probably mark the fourth such game, but methinks the Hokies will make them work for it. Despite their recent downtown over the past three seasons (22-17 record since 2012), the Hokies have still played quality defense under Bud Foster. They have ranked in the top quartile of scoring defense and yards per play allowed each season. Their offense has often been their Achilles' Heel. Though the offense does return eight starters including senior quarterback Michael Brewer, it may once again prevent them from being an elite team. Ohio State is an elite team, but they have been far from dominant as a road favorite under Meyer. As a road favorite, they are just 4-5 against the number and just 2-5 as a double-digit favorite. With the home crowd behind them, take the Hokies to cover here.
Foster. Australian for defense.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Welcome to another college football season!