We slipped a little last week, but 3-4 is not a total disaster. We'll try to get back on track this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.
Last Week: 3-4
Louisiana-Lafayette +9 Georgia Southern
It appears as if the loss of head coach Willie Fritz neutered the offense in Statesboro. In their first two seasons in the Sun Belt, the Eagles of Georgia Southern ranked first and second respectively in the conference in yards per play. This season, they rank ninth in the eleven team league, and are averaging under five yards per play against Sun Belt foes! The running game has borne the blunt of the decline. After averaging nearly seven yards per play on the ground the past two seasons, the Eagles are averaging under four and half yards per carry. With three guaranteed games left (four if they qualify for a bowl), the Eagles are in danger of failing to have a 1000 yard rusher after producing three over the past two seasons. Not sure how else I can say it, but the offense is not that good. And the defense, head coach Tyson Summers area of expertise, has also declined, ranking a middling seventh in the Sun Belt in yards allowed per play after finishing second and third in the category the past two years. Of course, their opponent, Louisiana-Lafayette has also struggled in 2016. After winning more than three fourths of their conference games from 2011-2014, the Ragin' Cajuns have won just five of their last thirteen conference games and are in danger of missing out on a bowl for the second consecutive season. Louisiana-Lafayette needs this game more than Georgia Southern as they have Georgia on deck and two defeats will disqualify them from postseason play. Couple that with the fact that these teams appear to be pretty evenly matched and the Ragin' Cajuns are a solid play here.
SMU +7 East Carolina
Despite their embarrassing loss to Memphis last week, SMU still has an outside shot at getting to a bowl in their second year under Chad Morris. While Morris earned his acclaim as an offensive guru, the improvement for the Mustangs has been on the other side of the ball. In conference play last year, SMU ranked tenth (of twelve teams) in both yards per play and yards allowed per play. This season, the Mustangs still rank tenth in yards per play on offense (potentially thanks to losing quarterback Matt Davis early in the year), but have risen to fifth in yards allowed per play. That improvement has allowed the Mustangs to double their conference win total from last season. On the other sideline, East Carolina has struggled in their first season under Scottie Montgomery. The season began with promise as the Pirates opened 2-0 with an upset win over NC State in their second game. Since then, the Pirates have lost six of seven with just a single defeat coming by less than a touchdown. Unlike the Mustangs, the Pirates have cratered on defense, ranking last in the league in yards allowed per play. Outside of their showing against Connecticut, the Pirates have allowed at least 30 points in every conference game and while they run a lot of plays (ranking fourth in the nation in plays run), they are not very efficient. In league play, they rank just seventh in yards per play. This spread should be closer to a field goal and I wouldn't be surprised if SMU won the game outright.
West Virginia +2 Texas
This line has me a little perplexed. West Virginia stumbled on the road two weeks ago against Oklahoma State, but despite allowing 37 points, the defense played well. The Mountaineers held Oklahoma State to a little over five yards per play, but were done in by three turnovers. Despite the loss, West Virginia still controls their own destiny in regards to the Big 12 title, and with a little (actually a lot) of chaos in front of them could potentially get back into the playoff picture. For Texas, this game is big for another reason. A win would give Texas six wins, clinch bowl eligibility, and with Kansas up next, likely clinch a winning season for the seemingly perpetually embattled Charlie Strong. Texas has improved on defense since demoting defensive coordinator Vance Bedford. They had their best defensive showing of the season last week in beating Texas Tech in Lubbock. The Longhorns held the Red Raiders under five yards per play (which has happened three times in the last four games for the Red Raiders - just something to keep an eye on). Despite that showing, West Virginia still owns the best defense in the Big 12 and should be able to clamp down on a running attack that gained over 400 yards against the Red Raiders. This game should be close, but West Virginia is the better team and should be able to win on the road.
Appalachian State +1 Troy
While this game will not receive a tenth of the hype of Alabama/LSU, make no mistake, this is the Game of the Century in the Sun Belt. My heart wants Troy to win this game as the Trojans are 29th in the latest AP Poll, and with a win could become the first Sun Belt team to ever enter the poll. Of course, Appalachian State could find their way into the polls too if they win out, but an 11-2 Appalachian State team was denied entry into the polls last season, so it is far from guaranteed. Both these teams performed admirably in non-conference play. Troy lost a one-score game at Clemson (and made us all wonder what was wrong with the Tigers) and won on the road at Southern Miss, while Appalachian State took Tennessee to overtime in Knoxville, beat a pair of potential bowl mid-majors in Old Dominion and Akron, and then played Miami at home. Maybe let's not talk about that game. Once conference play began, these two have dominated. Appalachian State is 5-0 with no win coming by fewer than 14 points while Troy is 4-0 with a touchdown win over South Alabama and three dominant victories. These teams rank first and second in the Sun Belt respectively in yards per play, but the difference is on the other side of the ball. While Troy has been solid on defense, ranking fifth in yards allowed per play in the Sun Belt, Appalachian State ranks first by a large margin, in allowing nearly a yard and a half fewer per play than the Trojans. You will have to watch this game on your phone, tablet, or laptop, but tune in to watch Appalachian State take control of the Sun Belt.
Illinois +26 Wisconsin
Let me preface this by saying that Wisconsin is good. Real good. The Badgers are 7-2 with their defeats coming to Michigan and Ohio State by a combined 14 points (with one loss coming in overtime). That being said, Wisconsin is not a team that tends to blow opponents out. The spread in this game is 26 points. The Badgers have scored more than 26 points twice this season. They dropped 54 on Akron and scored 30 against Michigan State. Illinois is not a good team, although they technically still have a shot at a bowl game in their first season under Lovie Smith. The Illini do have the excuse that four of their losses have come to teams currently ranked in the top-25. Of course, they also lost to Purdue. If Illinois can get to one touchdown, or even just a pair of field goals against a stout Wisconsin defense, that means the Badgers will have to score at least four touchdowns to cover. Illinois won't threaten to win this game, but they should cover easily.
Maryland +29.5 Ohio State
This a literal ton of points to lay for an Ohio State team that has had their fair share of offensive glitches this season. I know the Buckeyes dropped 62 on Nebraska last week, but they also averaged just over 28 points per game in their previous four. Maryland is not a Sun Belt school that will roll over for the Buckeyes. The Terrapins are not national title contenders, but with five wins, they will probably qualify for a bowl in D.J. Durkin's first season. This spread is about a touchdown too high thanks to the respective blowouts on both sides last week. Maryland went into Ann Arbor and lost 59-3 to an elite Michigan team. However, Maryland did a few good things in that game. The Terrapins averaged over five and half yards per play, which is the most Michigan has allowed this season at home. I will omit the fact that they allowed ten yards per play to the Wolverines, but returning to the friendly confines of College Park should help them a little. I'm not sure if he said it first, but I know Lou Holtz said you have 'a different team every week'. Ohio State won't play as well as they did last week (perhaps due to motivation) and Maryland won't play as bad. Like, Illinois above, the Terrapins won't threaten to win this game, but they will easily cover.
California +14.5 Washington State
Since opening the season 0-2, Washington State has been on a roll. The Cougars have won seven straight games for the first time since 2002. While the Cougars have won seven in a row, they have not been quite as dominant as that unblemished record would indicate as three of the wins have come by six points or less. The most recent game for both teams is inflating this line by about a field goal or so. Washington State dominated a bad Arizona team while Cal lost to the Pac-12's best shot at getting into the playoff. Washington State is rightly favored in this game, but the difference on a per play basis is not that great, especially once you adjust for strength of schedule. In Pac-12 play, both schools have three common opponents: Arizona State, Oregon, and Oregon State. In Washington State's other three conference games, they have played Arizona, Stanford, and UCLA. Arizona is bad, Stanford is alright, but not as strong as they were over the past few seasons, and UCLA was without quarterback Josh Rosen in their game with the Cougars. Meanwhile, Cal has played Southern Cal, Utah, and Washington. Southern Cal was embarrassed by Alabama to open the year, but is playing its best football in a long time. Utah is not quite as good as their sterling record would indicate, but is a quality team, and Washington is probably the best team in the league. Cal does not have the defense to beat Washington State in Pullman, but they should keep this one within two touchdowns.