Three straight 3-4 weeks have us on the brink. The previews will be a little short this week as I head home for the holidays. Enjoy. As always, home teams in BOLD.
Last Week: 3-4
NC State +12 North Carolina
While North Carolina has had more success over the past few years than their in-state brethren, the Wolfpack have actually won six of the last nine in this rivalry. In fact, North Carolina has not won by enough to cover this large number since 2006. North Carolina is playing for a longshot at a second consecutive division title, but they need to win and have Virginia Tech lose (as a large favorite) to their in-state rival Virginia. Meanwhile, NC State is playing for a bowl bid and potentially for their coach's job. NC State has had a very odd season, nearly beating Clemson (on the road) and Florida State, but losing to East Carolina and Syracuse. I think good NC State will show up and keep this one close against their rival.
Michigan +6.5 Ohio State
Last year in Ann Arbor, this game was a pick 'em. However, if you looked at the numbers, you could see that Michigan's elite defense was showing some cracks late in the year. This season, the Wolverines are nearly a touchdown underdog, but the defense remains elite. There is some concern on the other side of the ball as Michigan could be without quarterback Will Speight. Even without Speight, I think Ohio State will find scoring very difficult on this defense. This line should be closer to a field goal, and despite the rooting interest at State College, Pennsylvania, and perhaps from the College Football Playoff Committee, I think Michigan could win their first game in Columbus since 2000.
Fresno State +3.5 San Jose State
Fresno State has won just a single game in 2016. Their poor performance got their head coach canned just three years after winning the conference title and just two years removed from playing for another. The Bulldogs have eschewed waiting until the season ended and landed Jeff Tedford as their next head coach. The Bulldogs hope the former Cal coach can revitalize an offense that ranks dead last in the Mountain West in yards per play. Despite their struggles on offense, the Bulldogs have played well at home, covering in the four games in which they were a betting underdog. San Jose State is suffering through their third straight losing season and is also pretty poor on offense, ranking eleventh (of twelve teams) in the Mountain West in yards per play. Their defense is also bad, ranking tenth in the conference in yards allowed per play. San Jose State is not a good team, and having them favored by more than a field goal provides some value for Fresno State.
UNLV -7.5 Nevada
UNLV has a chance to improve by two games in Tony Sanchez's second season. In fact, the Rebels will probably be kicking themselves in the offseason for losing to Idaho in late September. If not for that loss, UNLV would be playing for bowl eligibility against their in-state rivals. While Nevada has the same record as UNLV, a closer look at the statistics reveals their flaws. Nevada has won three of their games by a combined seven points and have lost seven consecutive road games dating back to last season with only two losses coming by fewer than a touchdown. Look for UNLV to roll here.
North Texas -3 UTEP
Last week, I was on UTEP as they traveled to take on in-state rival Rice. The Miners played horribly, and maybe this pick is just sour grapes. However, I can come up with a few reasons to like the Mean Green. For starters, North Texas is playing for bowl eligibility. By winning in El Paso, the Mean Green will get to six wins in the first season under Seth Littrell. The Mean Green are not particularly proficient on offense, but they do play solid defense, ranking sixth in Conference USA in yards allowed per play. UTEP has the second worst defense in Conference USA. They rank ahead of Rice, a team that beat them by 20 points last week. UTEP has failed to cover in three attempts as a home underdog this season. I think they will be four for four after Saturday.
Vanderbilt +7.5 Tennessee
One of the bigger upsets that came out of nowhere last week was Vanderbilt knocking off Ole Miss to put themselves in position to crash the postseason. The Commodores averaged over six yards per play against an FBS opponent for the first time since their victory against Old Dominion two years ago. It was the first time they averaged over six yards per play against an SEC opponent since their game against a deplorable South Carolina defense in 2014. The defense also held a potent Ole Miss offense to under five yards per play and put the Rebels bowl hopes in jeopardy (they need to win the Egg Bowl to become eligible). Can Vanderbilt pull two consecutive upsets and their fourth of the season as at least a touchdown underdog? Tennessee is ostensibly better than Vanderbilt, but what is their motivation here? The SEC East is lost after Florida upset LSU last week. Sure, this is a rivalry game, but I think Vanderbilt will have more motivation, not to mention the homefield advantage. Tennessee has not covered as a road favorite this year, while Vanderbilt is 7-3 Against the Spread (ATS) and 5-1 the last two seasons as a home underdog under Derek Mason. Vandy will keep this one close and potentially get themselves a bowl bid on Saturday night.
Utah State +18.5 BYU
After an exciting beginning to the season where BYU played six Power Five teams and Boise State, the Cougars are cruising to the finish line against a slew of bad mid-majors and an FCS team. Since losing at Boise State 28-27, the Cougars have won their last three games against Cincinnati, Southern Utah, and Massachusetts by a combined 89 points. Now they take on a Utah State team enduring a rough 2016. The Aggies are 3-8 on the year and finished just 1-7 in the Mountain West. However, Utah State is not your average 1-7 also-ran. The Aggies lost four games by a touchdown or less and based on yards per play, actually rank in the top half of the Mountain West. Their defense in particular, was strong, ranking second in the conference in yards allowed per play. While this has been a lost season for Utah State, this a rivalry game so the Aggies should be motivated. Utah State is better than their record and is a good value catching three scores against BYU.