Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week VIII

We got back on track in a big way last week, posting a 6-1 mark. Be wary of some regression to the mean this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall: 26-20-3

North Texas +18 Army
After combining for a 3-21 mark in 2015, which included a pair of losses to FCS teams, the colorful Mean Green and Black Knights have combined for a 7-5 record in 2016 and if things break right, both could end up in bowl games. Army has enjoyed a somewhat unique season as they opened the 2016 campaign with a win against Temple as a double-digit underdog. The Black Knights won their next two games against Conference USA dumpster fires Rice and UTEP by a combined 69 points! Then they traveled to their closest FBS opponent, Buffalo, and lost as a double-digit favorite. They dropped their next game to Duke, but pulled out of their tailspin by crushing an FCS school last week. With four wins through the first half of the season, Army is well positioned to finish with a winning record and potentially end their 100 year or so drought against Navy. Meanwhile, North Texas has quietly jumped out to a 3-3 record after a dismal 1-11 season in 2015. Not much was expected of the Mean Green in the preseason under first year head coach Seth Littrell. The offense is not a great deal different than it was last season, but the defense has been much better. After finishing second to last in Conference USA last season in yards allowed per play, the Mean Green are currently second in the conference in that category. With Army running the option, this game will feature a running clock and fewer possessions than your standard college football game. Couple that with defensive improvement in Denton and a bye week to prepare for Army, and North Texas is an easy pick here.

Kansas +24 Oklahoma State
Since firing Mark Mangino, Kansas has been bad. Real bad. The Jayhawks have won just three conference games since firing the big man and current head coach David Beaty has yet to beat an FBS team. That being said, Kansas has played some close games at home, particularly against Oklahoma State and TCU. Since the Big 12 added TCU and West Virginia prior to the 2012 season, Kansas has played 19 home games. Five of those games have come against Oklahoma State and TCU. Kansas has lost those games by an average of 6.4 points per game, with only one loss coming by more than a single score. In their other 14 home games, Kansas has won two, but their average scoring margin even including those wins is -24.7 points per game. For whatever reason, the Cowboys and Horned Frogs struggle in Lawrence. Plus, since nearly playing for the national title in 2011, Oklahoma State is just 1-7 Against the Spread (ATS) as a double-digit road favorite. I won't call for a monumental Kansas win, but they should keep this one closer than expected.

Indiana +2 Northwestern
Northwestern has rebounded from a pair of early defeats to get back into bowl if not division contention (the Wildcats did beat Iowa, but with Ohio State and Wisconsin left on the schedule, a division title is probably a pipe dream). In their past two games, Northwestern beat both of last year's Big 10 Championship Game participants on the road. In those two games, the Wildcats have put up 92 points despite averaging under six yards per play in both contests. Special teams have helped, with the Wildcats starting a drive on the five-yard line against Iowa thanks to a punt return and returning a kickoff for a touchdown against Michigan State. With offensive numbers like that, the Wildcats have been a little fluky in scoring so many points. The Wildcats also allowed over seven yards per play to a Michigan State team that had struggled moving the ball outside of their game with Notre Dame. Now the Wildcats host a fellow 3-3 team in the Indiana Hoosiers who are looking to qualify for their second straight bowl for the first time since Bill Mallory was leading the team in the early 90's. Indiana has played well despite their 3-3 mark, losing one-score games to Wake Forest and Nebraska and giving Ohio State a decent game in The Horseshoe. Indiana is surprisingly decent on defense this season. After ranking twelfth in the Big 10 in each of Kevin Wilson's first five seasons in charge (sometimes that would be last in the league and other times it was good enough for third to last), with Tom Allen coordinating the defense, the Hooisers are currently seventh in that category (and that is not adjusted for schedule which includes powerful offenses at Nebraska and Ohio State). Northwestern is probably a little overvalued following their win against a weak Michigan State team. Take the Hoosiers to cover and win outright here.

Colorado +2.5 Stanford
After winning just a pair of conference games in his first three seasons in Boulder, Mike MacIntyre has positioned the Buffaloes to be contenders in the Pac-12 South. Colorado has three league wins and just one defeat, and after this game three of their final four contests come in the thin air of home. Southern Cal already has two conference losses and UCLA has three, so if the Buffaloes can pull out a win here, they would arguably be the division favorite over the final month of the regular season! The transitive property would make you think Stanford is an easy play here. The Cardinal scored a relatively easy win against Southern Cal in the season's third week and the Trojans beat Colorado two weeks ago. However, since that win against the Trojans, Stanford has struggled putting points on the board. In their next four games, of which they lost two, the Cardinal have averaged just over 15 points per game while averaging under five yards per play and scoring just four offensive touchdowns. Some of that has to do with the absence of running back Christian McCaffrey, but the quarterback play has been subpar. Regardless of the venue, Stanford will need to score points to beat Colorado as the Buffaloes have topped 40 points five times in seven games. I understand why Stanford is favored, but Colorado is a great play here and can easily leave with an outright road win.

Memphis -2.5 Navy
Fans of the Houston Cougars will probably be keeping a close eye on this game as Houston needs the Midshipmen to lose a pair of games in order to get to the American Championship Game. They will also have an opportunity to scout a future opponent and another potential contender in the West division. Memphis is unbeaten in conference play with victories against Temple and Tulane and the Tigers actually host Houston on Black Friday. Navy is probably a little overvalued here after their win against Houston two weeks ago. The Midshipmen have not had time to lose any luster from that win thanks to their game scheduled for last weekend being postponed. Prior to beating Houston, Navy struggled in putting away Connecticut and Tulane before dropping a two-score game to Air Force. Navy is due for a letdown and with Memphis currently favored by under a field goal, they are a good play here.

Louisiana-Monroe +17 New Mexico
This large spread marks the third time this season that New Mexico has been favored by double-digits. For a team that was mired in futility for nearly a decade, that is pretty remarkable. Consider that between the time Mike Locksley took over the team in 2009 and the end of the 2015 season, New Mexico was favored by double-digits just three times. Perhaps not coincidentally, all of those games were against in-state rival New Mexico State, one of the nation's worst FBS programs. Under Bob Davie, New Mexico is much improved and has a real chance at appearing in their second consecutive bowl game. However, they are still not able to consistently stop anyone and that is a real problem when you are giving more than two touchdowns. The Lobos have allowed over seven yards per play to their last three opponents, and have allowed at least 32 points to every FBS opponent they have faced this season. Louisiana-Monroe has already matched their win total from last season under first year coach Matt Viator and have already covered twice as a huge underdog. New Mexico should win, but both teams will score and Louisiana-Monroe should score enough to cover.

Fresno State +16 Utah State
I mentioned this in my handicapping of Utah State two weeks ago, but these are not the Aggies of 2012-2013. Utah State has won just two of their last eight conference games and has averaged just 19 points per game against FBS opponents this season. Now, their opponent in this game, Fresno State, is a bad team, and Tim DeRuyter is probably in danger of losing his job, particularly if the Bulldogs finish 1-11 or 2-10, but this is too large a number for a bad favorite to cover.

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