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 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.

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