Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Optimal Playoff Size

Back in 2014, college football fans got what they had been clamoring for since the sport began –a playoff. No longer would computers and stodgy old newspapermen decide the best team in college football. The champion would be determined on the field and there would be no controversy. No split titles and no politicking in the press or on television. Just the best eight sixteen thirty two four teams deciding things between the lines. By most accounts, the playoff has been a massive success. There have been a few stinkers, but also some classics. The hoopla surrounding the games and the selection show has provided ESPN with countless topics and talking points for their on-air talent to pontificate on. Even the commercials have been pretty good. Of course, when somethings is successful, that inevitably leads to expansion, which in this case is bracket creep. Everyone knows it’s just a matter of time before the playoff expands. The big questions are, when it expands, how much will it grow, and who will be included? To try and come up with an optimal number of playoff teams, I looked to college basketball, a sport that has used a tournament to crown its champion for nearly 80 years.

Before we look at college basketball, let’s take a look at the FBS playoff. Currently, the playoff includes the four ‘best’ teams. ‘Best’ of course, can mean different things to different people, but let’s assume the four teams selected are indeed, the best of what’s around. Currently 130 teams play at the FBS level. So, the playoff includes about 3% of the FBS population.
But let’s be real here. New Mexico State and Alabama are not really playing football at the same level. New Mexico State could win every game on their schedule for the next ten years, and probably would not ever sneak into the four-team playoff. In fact, no team from the Group of Five has finished higher than twelfth in the final playoff rankings. For all intents and purposes, those teams outside the Power Five and Notre Dame are not eligible for the playoff. Therefore, the playoff includes about 6% of the playoff-eligible population.
In 2011, the NCAA basketball tournament expanded to 68 teams. I was not a huge fan of this development, but no one consulted me. About 350 teams have played Division I basketball each season since the field expanded, give or take. This means that roughly 20% of all teams playing DI basketball make the playoff.
Of course, as in football, most teams really have no shot of winning the national championship. A few years ago Jim Boeheim bitched about the tournament not expanding despite more teams moving up to Division I. Boeheim is partially right. Twenty years ago, there were only 305 teams playing collegiate basketball at the highest level. DI membership has increased by about 15% in the last two decades. However, those newcomers are not competing with Syracuse for a bid to the tournament. Teams like Longwood and Cal State Bakersfield are competing with teams of similar history and stature for one automatic ticket to the Big Dance. In April, I wrote a piece regarding at-large bids in the NCAA tournament. I’m still waiting on my Pulitzer, but the conclusion is that there are essentially eight leagues that dominate the pool of at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Those leagues are the Power Five football conferences, the Big East, the American, and the Atlantic-10. If you don’t play in one of those leagues (or are not a certain private institution located in Spokane, Washington), you don’t have much of a shot at the national title. However, if you do play in one of those leagues, there is basically a two in five five shot you will make the playoff.
Until I ran the numbers, I didn’t realize how much the NCAA tournament rewarded major conference mediocrity. Over 40% of teams in the top-eight conferences made the NCAA tournament each season since 2011. To me, this seems to invalidate a significant portion of the regular season. In addition, when you let the riff-raff in, you can end up with a bad champion.

The way I see it, the FBS playoff needs to strike a balance between being egalitarian and preserving the importance of the regular season. If FBS used the same 20% ratio as DI basketball, that would give us a playoff field of about 24 teams (which is the size of the FCS playoff). That is probably a little too big. Similarly, if FBS used the 40% ratio of Power Five teams, that would give us a playoff field of about 24 Power Five teams. This would render the regular season pretty much useless. The tone deaf fans and coaches angry at star players for sitting out glorified exhibitions would lose their minds if a star player sat out a regular season game with a playoff bid already secured.

So what is an optimal size for a playoff bracket? I have two suggestions, and since I am a mid-major apologist, they both include accommodations for Group of Five teams.

Proposal # 1:
Eight-team field with automatic bids to each Power Five conference champion, an automatic bid to the highest ranked Group of Five team, and two at-large spots.

I’m open to altering this one slightly to eight at-large spots with a guaranteed spot to the highest ranked Group of Five team. The past few seasons, nearly every Power Five champion has at least been in the conversation for a playoff spot, but in cases like say the ACC in 2008, a Power Five conference champion may not necessarily merit a bid. In addition, removing the conference champion provision gives Notre Dame a fairer shake.

Proposal #2:
Sixteen-team field with automatic bids to each FBS conference (ten total) and six at-large spots.

This is my personal preference because it guarantees the Sun Belt and MAC at least have a theoretical chance at winning the national championship. It also virtually guarantees every top-ten teams makes the playoff as the Power Five conference champions would likely account for at least four of the top-ten teams. Of course, this is probably the most unrealistic option as this would require the national champion to play seventeen games which would keep the student athletes away from classes for too long (wink wink) and also require them to play a physically taxing and potentially debilitating sport even longer for free.

Playoff expansion is coming and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Thankfully, the nature of football means expansion has its limits. The regular season will still matter, and even with an expanded bracket, we will probably never end up with a champion as bad as NC State or Villanova.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

We ended the regular season with a winning week to push us two games over .500 on the year. However, we are still be below the gambler's break even percentage of .524. A 5-2 record (or better) over bowl season will put us above that mark. Let's get it!

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 49-47-2

Cure Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
Georgia State +6.5 Western Kentucky
In his first season in charge in Atlanta, Shawn Elliott guided the Panthers to their second bowl game in school history. That second bowl game will be a return trip to the Cure Bowl where they fell to San Jose State two years ago. Georgia State doubled their win total from last season, but the Panthers have fielded pretty much the same team both seasons. Last year's team averaged 19.9 points per game and allowed 26.6. This year's team averaged 19.7 points per game and allowed 25.5. Last year's team finished 1-2 in close games while this year's team was 4-1 in such contests. In football, as in life, randomness plays a large role in success. Last year's average to poor luck cost Trent Miles his job. This year's fantastic luck has bought Shawn Elliott goodwill in Atlanta. That goodwill will likely dissipate somewhat if the Panthers lose the Cure Bowl as it would mark their third consecutive loss. It would also behoove the Panthers to score some points, as they have managed just twenty total points in their last two games. The good news for the Panthers is their opponent in the Cure Bowl declined significantly after losing their head coach. Western Kentucky went 23-5 (an even more impressive 23-2 against teams not in the SEC) in 2015 and 2016 with consecutive Sun Belt titles. In those 28 contests, the Hilltoppers averaged nearly 45 points per game! As is the case with all mid-major programs, that success got their head coach an ostensibly better job. The Hilltoppers turned to Mike Sanford Jr. to lead them in 2017. Some regression was to be expected with the Hilltoppers losing seven starters on offense including a pair of 1000-yard receivers and a 1500-yard running back. However, the Hilltoppers scoring average dropped by nearly twenty points per game and their scoring margin actually fell into the red. The Hilltoppers cannot blame a brutal schedule for their decline, as half their wins came against teams that won two or fewer games (Ball State, Charlotte, and UTEP) and they only beat one team that finished bowl eligible (Middle Tennessee State). Neither team in this bowl game is good, as they both rank in the triple digits in the Sagarin Ratings. Western Kentucky is better than Georgia State, but after consecutive double-digit win seasons, how motivated will they be to face a team with as little national cache as Georgia State? These teams are much closer in quality than this spread indicates. Take the Panthers to keep this one close.

Las Vegas Bowl @ Las Vegas, Nevada
Boise State +8 Oregon
The Boise State Broncos will be making their sixteenth consecutive bowl appearance when they take on the Oregon Ducks in fabulous Las Vegas. Since joining FBS in 1996, the Broncos have proven to be the most successful startup of all time. 2017 marks their twentieth consecutive winning season, their sixteenth consecutive year of appearing in the AP Poll at some point during the year, and their thirteenth conference title. The Broncos have dipped a little (by their standards) since Chris Petersen left for Washington, but they are still the most consistent mid-major program. The Broncos were solid on both sides of the ball this season, ranking third in the Mountain West in yards per play and fifth in yards allowed per play. Their per-play differential ranked third in the conference, but thanks to some shrewd negotiating tactics when they joined the Mountain West, they were allowed to host the conference championship game despite having the same record and losing to the other title game participant. The home field likely made the different as the Broncos won a tight defensive affair to claim their first conference title since 2014. While the Broncos are an underdog in this game, they did manage to retain their head coach. Unfortunately, for Oregon, that is not the case. When the Florida State job came open, Willie Taggart headed back east. The Florida State job is one of the best in college football, so you can hardly blame him for leaving despite spending just one season in Eugene. That one season was successful as the Ducks improved by three games over their 4-8 disaster in 2016. Most importantly, the Ducks were able to fix their defense. In 2016, they ranked eleventh in the Pac-12, allowing nearly seven yards per play to conference opponents. They improved that number by more than a yard and a half and ranked third in 2017. In fact, had their quarterback not missed significant time, during which they went 1-4, the Ducks could have contended in the rugged Pac-12 North. Of course, while the Ducks did lose just a single game with Justin Herbert taking snaps, that was the softer portion of their schedule. Five of those seven games were at home, and just three came against teams that finished with winning records (and the Ducks lost one of those). Despite the improvement from 2016, Oregon is not the dominant force they were under Chip Kelly and for a bit under Mark Helfrich. I'm surprised Oregon is laying more than a touchdown with their coaching situation in flux against a quality, motivated mid-major opponent. Boise State has had a unique track record against Power 5 opponents under Bryan Harsin. When the Broncos are favored, they have won four of six games, but have covered just twice. When they are an underdog, they are just 1-2 straight up, but 2-1 ATS. The lone game they did not cover as an underdog came in Harsin's first game against what turned out to be a very good Ole Miss team. The Broncos will be the more motivated, hungry team here, and with them catching more than a touchdown, they are an easy play.

Birmingham Bowl @ Birmingham, Alabama
South Florida -3 Texas Tech
South Florida's game with Texas Tech has high stakes, as the Bulls will attempt to become the first team to win three Birmingham Bowls. That statement is not entirely true. When South Florida won the inaugural edition, it was sponsored by Papa Johns. The Bulls became the first team to win two editions of this bowl game when they knocked off South Carolina in overtime last season. The win allowed the Bulls to finish in the final polls for the first time in school history, and a win here would see them finish ranked in back-to-back seasons. A win would also be their third in a row against Power Five conference teams. And unfortunately for the Bulls, win or lose, this will mark the final game for quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers has accounted for 107 touchdowns during his career in Tampa and is 28 yards short of rushing for 1000 yards for the second straight season. He will leave South Florida ranked fourth on the school's all-time passing yardage list and with 44 yards rushing, the all-time leading rusher! Don't get the narrative twisted though. The Bulls are not an imbalanced team. Their defense actually ranked first in the American Athletic Conference in yards allowed per play and the team improved their scoring defense by nine points per game from last season. The Bulls were very disruptive on defense, ranking ninth nationally in tackles for loss (fourth in tackles for loss per game) and three individual defenders racked up more than ten tackles for less (Bruce Hector, Greg Reaves, and Mike Love). The Bulls will take on a Big 12 team that is renowned for being imbalanced, but were actually mediocre on both sides of the ball. In Kliff Kingsbury's first four seasons in Lubbock, the Red Raiders ranked in the top half of the Big 12 in yards per play each season (twice finishing second) and in the bottom half in yards allowed per play (once finishing last and twice finishing second to last). The defense improved to fifth in yards allowed per play this season, their highest ranking since finishing third in the category in 2007. However, the offense regressed to sixth in yards per play and the net result was more of the same. The Red Raiders finished 3-6 in the Big 12 (same as 2016) and are now just 16-29 in conference play under Kingsbury. The Red Raiders did spring a pretty big bowl upset during his first year in charge, but the Bulls should be sufficiently motivated in facing a Power Five opponent and will want to send Flowers out in style. The Bulls should win this game by at least a touchdown.

Hawaii Bowl @ Honolulu, Hawaii
Fresno State +2.5 Houston
This Christmas Eve showcase features a pair of teams piloted by first year head coaches. For Houston, their first year head coach did a reasonable job guiding the team after Tom Herman departed for the more prestigious university in Austin. The Cougars went 7-4, but dropped three games by four points or less, so their record could have been much better. The Cougars ranked fifth in the American in yards per play and third in yards allowed per play. Their per-play differential ranked fourth in the conference behind the two participants in the conference championship game and South Florida. Meanwhile, Fresno State enjoyed a sensational season, especially considering the modest expectations they entered the year with. The Bulldogs went 1-11 last season and entered 2017 on a thirteen-game losing streak to FBS opponents. That number reached fifteen after the Bulldogs endured difficult road trips to Tuscaloosa and Seattle. However, once conference play started, the Bulldogs played exceptionally well under Jeff Tedford. They won seven of eight conference games and ranked second in the conference in per-play differential. Their defense was especially dominant, ranking first in yards allowed per play and permitting just eleven offensive touchdowns in eight conference games. The Bulldogs even crept into the top-25 of the AP Poll for a brief period. However, they dropped a tight game at Boise in the Mountain West Championship Game, missing out on their first conference title since 2013. One overlooked aspect of this game is that Fresno State has already played in Hawaii this season, beating the Warriors back in November. As the Bulldogs and Warriors have been in the same conference for a quarter century, they have made fourteen trips to the islands since 1992. Of course, that familiarity with the islands did not help them five years ago. Houston has only made one prior trip to Hawaii, losing to the Warriors in this very bowl game fourteen years ago. That game featured 102 combined points. With these two quality defenses, I would be very surprised if this total hit half of that. Houston came into their bowl game last season as a slight favorite against a Mountain West opponent. That didn't work out so well. This has been a trend for the Cougars, first under Herman and now under Applewhite. Each of their four losses under Herman came when the Cougars were favored and their five losses under Applewhite have come under similar conditions. Take the Bulldogs to not only cover, but win outright.

Quicklane Bowl @ Detroit, Michigan
Northern Illinois +5 Duke
After a one-year hiatus both the Huskies and Blue Devils are returning to the postseason. The Huskies will be playing in their ninth bowl game in the last ten seasons. However, this was not your typical Northern Illinois team. The Huskies did average over 30 points per game for the eighth consecutive season, but they ranked just tenth in the MAC in yards per play. The good news for the Huskies is that their quarterbacks who received the most playing time in 2017, Daniel Santacaterina and Marcus Childers, are a sophomore and a freshman respectively, so the offense should improve over the next few seasons. The Huskies relied on their defense to get them back to a bowl game. The team ranked second in the MAC in yards allowed per play and held their opponents to under twenty-one points per game. The Huskies spent so much time in opponents' backfields they should be required to pay property taxes, as they posted the most tackles for loss per game in the nation! Duke also has issues on offense, ranking thirteenth in the ACC in yards per play. Their defense was not much to write home about either as they ranked just eleventh in yards allowed per play. Overall, their per play differential ranked twelfth in the ACC. So how did they qualify for a bowl game? David Cutcliffe has done his best Bill Snyder impression and maximized Duke's odds of winning despite poor peripherals. The Blue Devils made over 80% of their field goal attempts, went for it on fourth down more often and converted more often than the national average, and returned four interceptions for touchdowns. Those little things helped the Blue Devils finish 6-6 despite meh per play numbers. Can Duke keep doing the little things and win their second consecutive bowl game? Northern Illinois is just 4-4 against Power Five opponents under Rod Carey, but they are 7-1 ATS. The Huskies have been underdogs in seven of the eight games (their lone turn as a favorite was a blowout win against Purdue) and seven of the eight games have come away from DeKalb. Detroit is not a short jaunt from home, but it is certainly a more MAC friendly location for the Huskies. Rod Carey has yet to win a bowl game as a head coach, so that does concern me somewhat, but this spread should be closer to a pick em. Catching more than a field goal makes the Huskies the easy play here.

Independence Bowl @ Shreveport, Louisiana
Southern Miss +16 Florida State
After a brief and sudden sojourn into awful irrelevancy, Southern Miss has returned to their rightful place in the college football pecking order. The Golden Eagles are a quality mid-major, but not quite good enough to win their league. Southern Miss won or shared three of the first four Conference USA championships, but once the new Millennium began, they only managed to win the title once in between 2000 and 2010 despite winning posting a winning record each season. The continued mediocrity eventually cost Jeff Bower his job. The first few years under Larry Fedora were not much different, with the Eagles winning seven, seven, and then eight games. However, the Eagles finally broke through in 2011. They won their division and then upset Houston in the Conference USA Championship Game. Fedora parlayed that into the North Carolina job and the Eagles sank like a stone under Ellis Johnson in 2012. Todd Monken engineered a slow rebuild and the Eagles were division champs in his third season. He departed for the NFL and Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson took over the program.  The Eagles have won fifteen games in Hopson's two season, including a win against Kentucky is his first game. However, six of their ten losses under Hopson have come when they were favored, including five of their six conference losses! Those point spreads seem to indicate the Eagles have better underlying talent that their opponents, but are not necessarily maximizing it. The yard per play numbers agree, as the Eagles ranked second in Conference USA in yards per play and fourth in yards allowed per play. Their per play differential ranked second behind Florida Atlantic. The Eagles will face another team that under-performed relative to their per play numbers. By now, everyone knows that Florida State had to reschedule a game with Louisiana-Monroe just to eke out bowl eligibility. The Seminoles lost their quarterback in the opener and lost their head coach just before the season ended. In between, they posted a 3-5 ACC record, their first losing conference record since 2006, despite a positive per play differential. Under offensive guru Jimbo Fisher, the Seminoles ranked eighth in the ACC in yards per play, but were fourth in yards allowed per play. The Seminoles finished the season winning their final three by an average of nearly forty points per game. Those are very Florida State-like numbers. However, those wins came against Delaware State (FCS), a Florida team playing out the string, and Louisiana-Monroe. With the exception of Florida (and this year who knows) Southern Miss is better than all of those teams. The Eagles will have something to prove against a Power Five opponent, so they should be plenty motivated here. How motivated will Florida State be playing in Shreveport when they had hopes of ending the season in Atlanta? I don't think Southern Miss will win, but this number is way too high.

Citrus Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
Notre Dame +3 LSU
When I was perusing bowl spreads, this one stuck out like a sore thumb. LSU, a team that lost to Troy and was not competitive against Mississippi State is favored against a Notre Dame team that was ranked third in the nation at the beginning of November. Granted, Notre Dame did lose two of three down the stretch, but those games were on the road against top-fifteen teams. The Miami team they lost to did not lose at home this season. Ditto the Stanford team. Meanwhile, LSU did win six of seven to end the year after being upset by Troy, but outside of the Auburn win, none came against stout competition. In the SEC, LSU was solid, ranking sixth in yards per play and fifth in yards allowed per play. Their per play differential ranked fourth behind the three titans (Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia), but it was significantly behind those teams. Quarterback Danny Etling brought LSU above-average quarterback play for the first time since Zach Mettenberger was under center. Etling averaged over nine yards per throw and tossed just two interceptions on the year. Etling will be challenged by a Notre Dame defense that ranked fifteenth nationally by permitting just 6.2 yards per pass. Of course, Notre Dame will probably have issues of their own throwing against LSU. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush completed a little less than half of his passes, but made up for it by rushing for over 700 yards and 14 touchdowns. As a team, the Irish rushed for over 3000 yards and ranked third nationally averaging 6.37 yards per carry. All signs point to this being a close game, but it feels like the wrong team is favored. Under Brian Kelly, the Irish are just 3-3 in bowl games, but when they are not facing elite teams like the Alabama team that won the national title in 2012 and the Ohio State squad that may have been the best team in the country in 2015, they are 3-1 with a pair of outright upsets, including one over LSU three years ago. The teams entered that game under similar circumstances, with Notre Dame having lost five of six after a hot start and LSU entering as winners of four of six. I expect more a repeat here with the Irish springing the outright upset.

You didn't think the bowl preview would only include picks for a few games did you? No, dear reader I have a few extra bits of statistical minutia for you. We'll begin with a trivia question.

By my calculations, seven bowl games feature exhibitions between teams that were once members of the same conference at the same time. Teams that happened to be Independent at the same time are not counted. Can you name them all? Extra credit if you get the last one, as they were conference mates before World War II.

As you probably would have guessed, the common bond between most of these teams is the Sun Belt. Since forming in 2001, the Sun Belt has been the home to 18 different FBS teams at one point or another. It is typically a destination for teams just moving up to FBS as half of its all-time membership began their FBS lives in the conference. The defunct Western Athletic Conference also had a revolving door of membership around the turn of the century, so it is represented multiple times here as well. New Mexico State and Utah State are well acquainted, sharing a conference (and nickname) four separate times in a quarter century. Missouri and Texas is the obvious example involving Power Five teams, but yes, national semifinalists Alabama and Clemson once shared a conference. Back when the world has but a dark void and the almighty had yet to create the SEC, or ACC for that matter, Clemson and Alabama (along with a nearly literal cast of thousands) called The Southern Conference home.

And before we leave conference affiliation, the Independence Bowl also features a clash of former conference mates (on the hardwood). Back in the late 80's and early 90's Southern Miss and Florida State did battle in the old Metro Conference (both teams even made the NCAA tournament in 1991) before the Seminoles moved to the ACC.

Before we sign off for 2017, let's discuss the unique Rose Bowl pairing. As any college football fan knows, the Rose Bowl historically pairs the Big 10 and Pac-10/12 champion. Even with the Rose's inclusion in the BCS and later College Football Playoff, this tradition was mostly observed. However, with the Rose serving as a semi-final game and no Big 10 or Pac-12 teams in the playoff, this will be the first time since 2001 that both participants are not from the Big 10 or Pac-10/12. That national championship Rose Bowl marked the first non-Big 10/Pac-10 clash since the forties. Including that game and this one, there have been nine non-traditional Rose Bowl participants since World War II.
Amazingly, the Big 12 has accounted for five of those spots, with Oklahoma and Texas making multiple appearances. Georgia will be the first SEC team to play in the Rose Bowl since Alabama following the 1945 season.

Well, that's all I have for you. Enjoy bowl season and check back a week or so after the National Championship Game for the first of the annual offseason posts examining each of the ten FBS conferences using YPP and APR. Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Strangers in the Field Part III: How'd We Do?

I went to Vegas back in the summer and made some wagers. Here is how they turned out.

Over/Under Win Totals

Bowling Green over 4 wins -135 ($30 to win $22.25)
The Falcons managed a 3-5 conference record in 2016 under a first year coach and I figured they could at least match that in 2017. If they managed three conference wins in 2017 and beat their FCS opponent, the Falcons would at least push. Alas, the Falcons lost to their FCS opponent (a team that at least made the FCS playoffs) and managed just a par of conference wins. We’ll call this a decent to poor bet, but it was far from the worst one I made.

Buffalo over 3.5 wins even ($50 to win $50)
Head coach Lance Leipold, a massively successful Division III coach, would be entering his third season and just needed to win a third of his games to cash this ticket. The Bulls made me sweat a bit, losing a pair of one-point games and a seven overtime thriller, not to mention their close loss to Army, but won their final three to finish 6-6. One of the benefits of making these bets is that I watch more games involving the teams I bet on than I normally would. Buffalo was a lot of fun to watch this season. I’m no pro scout, but Anthony Johnson seems like a name you may want to remember. He averaged over 100 yards receiving per game despite the Bulls being forced to play their backup and third-string quarterback for a significant portion of the year. The deep ball to Johnson was the highlight of MACtion 2017.

Central Florida under 7.5 wins -115 ($30 to win $26.10)
This was a major whiff. Despite improving by six games in Scott Frost’s first season, the Knights were not a good offensive team in 2016. I figured the team would stagnate and then surge in Frost’s third season in charge. The Knights featured one of the best mid-major offenses in 2017 and finished the regular season undefeated. However, despite this poor wager, I still earned a push thanks to Hurricane Irma, which resulted in the Knights only playing eleven regular season games

Georgia Southern over 5 wins +110 ($30 to win $33)
Another major whiff. Georgia Southern also lost to their FCS opponent (unfortunately, a common refrain for teams I bet on) and began the season 0-9. They did show some spunk late in the year, winning two of their final three games. If they would have fired Tyson Summers last year, maybe this ticket would have cashed.

Illinois over 3.5 wins +120 ($30 to win $66)
Another whiff. As I mentioned earlier, one thing I like about making these bets is that it forces me to watch these teams more than I normally would. Watching the Illini made me thankful I don’t have to watch them regularly. The program appears to be hopeless as a winless Big 10 season would attest. I know the team was young, but I did not see improvement throughout the year. Lovie Smith is allegedly coaching the team, but it would not shock me if his face fell off in a postgame presser and a Men In Black style alien (with no knowledge of football) was actually controlling his him.
Sorry. I thought we had five downs.

Marshall over 5 wins -130 ($30 to win $23.10)
Marshall represented the inverse (or converse, I haven’t had a logics class in a while) of the Plexiglas Principle. The Herd fell hard and fast in 2016, and I expected a bit of a rebound in 2017. Marshall won three of four non-conference games, including an extremely lucky win against Miami (Ohio) and had this ticket cashed by Halloween. Thank goodness, as the schedule toughened in November and the Herd finished 7-5. The Herd did lose their last two regular season games by a combined three points, so Marshall was closer to finishing with nine wins than they were to less than five.

Ole Miss over 5.5 wins -130 ($40 to win $30.80)
Matt Luke did make a few questionable coaching decisions in the Ole Miss games I watched and the Rebels appeared to be quite undisciplined, but give him credit for keeping this team together. After a 2-3 and later a 3-5 start with no bowl to play for, the Rebels never quit and competed until the very end. It did take Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald wrecking his ankle for this ticket to cash, but Ole Miss should have beaten Arkansas rendering the Egg Bowl irrelevant in determining whether or not this was a winner. At one point in the second quarter, the Rebels had a 96% chance of winning their home game with the Hogs.

SMU over 5.5 wins -110 ($30 to win $27.30)
The Mustangs seemed like easy money after their 4-1 start, but they made me sweat a little before cashing this ticket. They did top six wins before Halloween, but a tough November stretch (Central Florida, Navy, and Memphis) made me nervous. Thankfully, I could watch those games with a detached indifference. SMU was a lot of fun to watch in 2017, but their defense prevented them from winning big.

Texas-San Antonio under 6.5 wins even ($30 to win $60)
Like Central Florida, this ticket ended up being a push thanks to a canceled game. I had a much better read on the Roadrunners though. They finished with six wins and they would have been a decent-sized underdog in their cancelled game. This was a decent bet that probably would have cashed without the weather interruption.

UNLV over 5.5 wins +125 ($30 to win $37.50)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but a team I bet on lost to an FCS opponent. Some have said it was the largest point spread defeat in college football history. Even with that loss, UNLV still had a chance to win go over this number as they stood at 5-6 heading into their annual rivalry game with Nevada. The Rebels even had a second half lead, but eventually lost by a touchdown. Even though they didn’t cover, this was a decent bet. UNLV also lost to Air Force despite owning a 27-0 lead and lost at home to the worst BYU team (perhaps) ever. I’m glad I’m not a UNLV fan as this was a season of missed opportunities.

Utah State over 4.5 wins even ($40 to win $40)
Unlike UNLV, Utah State took advantage of a down BYU team and cashed this ticket relatively easily. You can make the argument Utah State should have won seven or eight games as they held fourth quarter leads against both Wyoming and Air Force.

Wake Forest under 5.5 wins -145 ($40 to win $27.60)
I didn’t mind being wrong about this one. Dave Clawson’s teams typically have great success in his third and fourth season. However that trend was going up against a brutal schedule. All told, the Deacons faced ten teams that won at least six games in 2017 (with five of those games coming on the road). I figured that tough schedule would have them sitting at 5-7 or worse. Wake Forest finished with 7 wins and could have actually won eight or nine considering they lost at home to Duke and a down Florida State.

Game of the Year

September 9th Boise State +6.5 Washington State -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
By kickoff, this line had moved a little after Boise’s less than impressive showing in their opener against Troy. The line was around nine or ten points, so I didn’t buy at a good price. However, the Broncos were in command of this game with a 21-point fourth quarter lead until quarterback Montell Cozart threw a ridiculously stupid pass that Washington State returned for a touchdown. This serves as exhibit A in evidence that you may leave Kansas, but a little bit of Kansas always stays with you. The Cougars tied it in regulation and nearly gave me an awful bad beat as they scored first in the second overtime to lead by seven. Thankfully Boise responded and forced a third overtime where they lost by three. I didn’t buy at good price, but this was a good bet as Boise appeared to be the better team.

November 4th TCU +2.5 Texas -110 ($20 to win $18.20)
TCU was favored by around a touchdown when this game kicked, so I bought at a good price. TCU jumped out to a 17-0 lead and while Texas trimmed the lead to 17-7, they would never really threaten again. This was a great bet.

November 4th Iowa +16 Ohio State -110 ($20 to win $18.20)
At kickoff, the line for this game was about the same, so I didn’t buy a good price. I was very worried Ohio State would wax the Hawkeyes, but thanks to some Kinnick Stadium magic, Iowa put an inexplicable beating on the Buckeyes. This was probably a decent bet with the home team catching double-digits, but never in my wildest dreams did I foresee this outcome.

November 11th TCU +15 Oklahoma -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
This looked like easy money at kickoff, as TCU was an underdog by about a touchdown or so, meaning I had roughly eight points to play with. Alas, Oklahoma obliterated TCU’s defense, scoring 38 first half points before putting it in cruise control in the second half. The Horned Frogs only lost by 18, so there was always a chance for a backdoor cover, but this was not a good bet.

November 25th West Virginia +20.5 Oklahoma -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
I definitely underestimated Oklahoma’s offense heading into the season. I figured under a young, first-year head coach that the Sooners would suffer some offensive regression. Negative. The Sooners scored on pretty much every drive in this game and won by 28. I was a little unlucky as West Virginia lost their starting quarterback in the previous game and while his absence could have meant a few more points for the Mountaineers, Oklahoma dominated this game from start to finish and deserved to cover.

November 25th Utah -1.5 Colorado -110 ($50 to win $45.45)
After a season’s worth of data, this line moved more than a touchdown with Utah hosting Colorado as a ten-point favorite, so I bought at a good price. Needing a win to lock up bowl eligibility, the Utes jumped out to a 28-0 lead and were never threatened. This was a great bet.

Conference Champion Bets

TCU to win the Big 12 +1000 ($10 to win $100)
TCU advanced to the Big 12 Championship Game, but the Horned Frogs were manhandled for the second time in less than month by Oklahoma. Still, the Horned Frogs were one game away from cashing this ticket, so it was a decent bet.

Miscellaneous Bets

Milwaukee Brewers to win World Series +1500 ($10 to win $150)
By the time I returned from Vegas, the Brewers were effectively tied with the Cubs in the NL Central. The Brewers made a little run at the second Wild Card late in the year, but were never in playoff position after late-July.

Minnesota Twins to win World Series +3000 ($10 to win $300)
The Twins made the playoffs as the second Wild Card in the AL and actually had an early lead on the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game. This was a decent bet considering the long odds.

Tampa Bay Rays to win World Series +5000 ($10 to win $500)
The Rays never really made a run, which was surprising to me as I thought they were much more likely to make the playoffs than Minnesota. I suppose this wasn’t a terrible bet given the long odds, but it wasn’t very good either.

Reckless Parlay I:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 26th Massachusetts +1 Hawaii
Game 2: September 1st Utah State +29 Wisconsin
Game 3: September 2nd Florida International +17.5 Central Florida
Game 4: September 2nd Middle Tennessee State +6 Vanderbilt
If I had done the opposite on all these games it would have cashed.

Reckless Parlay II:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 31st Buffalo +27.5 Minnesota
Game 2: September 1st Charlotte +12.5 Eastern Michigan
Game 3: September 1st Florida Atlantic +14 Navy
Game 4: September 2nd Marshall +1 Miami (Ohio)
Not even close to cashing, but much better than my other parlay.

So here is the tale of the tape.

Money Wagered: $680
Money Won: $669.40
Return on Investment: -1.56%

After two mildly profitable excursions, I lost about ten bucks this year. I'll hold UNLV personally responsible and be sure not to bet on them when I go back next summer.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIV

One weekend undid almost all the good work from the previous three weeks. Alas, this is the final weekend of the regular season and penultimate Magnificent Seven post. Where does the time go indeed? As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 45-44-2

Massachusetts +2 Florida International
Obviously, this game sticks out like a sore thumb on Championship Saturday. The Minutemen and Panthers are far from college football royalty, but both have enjoyed solid seasons in 2017. Florida International has won seven games for the first time since 2011 and with a win here and a victory in their bowl game, the Panthers would set the school record for wins in their first season under Butch Davis. The Panthers are not necessarily a good team, but they have taken advantage of a weak conference and solid play in close games (4-1 record in one-score games) to clinch a winning record after averaging under four wins per season over the past five years. The Panthers will look to win their eighth game against a Massachusetts team having their best season since joining FBS. The Minutemen are 4-7, but have won four of five since an 0-6 start. Massachusetts has to regret how poorly they played over the first half of the season. The Minutemen lost winnable games to Hawaii, Coastal Carolina, and Old Dominion, not to mention tight contests with Ohio and Tennessee. Had the Minutemen won one of those games, they would be in position to become bowl eligible with a win here. Quarterback Andrew Ford has quietly enjoyed a fine season, tossing eighteen touchdown passes against just three interceptions. Massachusetts is off a bye and for a team that will not be participating in the postseason, this is their bowl game. The Minutemen are 4-0 ATS as a road underdog in 2017 and Florida International has yet to cover in two chances as a home favorite this season. Take the Minutemen to not only cover, but win outright here.

Louisiana-Monroe +27 Florida State
In an effort to keep their bowl streak alive, Florida State rescheduled their game with Louisiana-Monroe that was initially canceled due to Hurricane Irma back in September. The Seminoles have endured a disappointing campaign that began with Deondre Francois going down in the opener and continued with a 3-5 ACC record. The Seminoles struggled dramatically on offense this season, scoring just nineteen offensive touchdowns in ten games against FBS teams. The Seminoles did put the hammer down on Delaware State, but otherwise were pretty impotent on offense. Louisiana-Monroe should provide a remedy for Florida State's offensive struggles. The Warhawks ranked dead last in the Sun Belt in terms of yards allowed per play and permitted over forty points per game over the course of the season. However, the Warhawks were able to win four games because their offense was able to move the ball effectively. The Warhawks ranked first in the Sun Belt in yards per play and averaged north of thirty-six points per game. Florida State is the better team, but how motivated will they be for a Noon kick in a game they should win without much effort? Oh, and let's not discount the rumors swirling around their head coach. Meanwhile, for a Louisiana-Monroe team that will not have a thirteenth game, this is their bowl. I don't think Louisiana-Monroe will ever stand a legitimate chance of winning, but they should keep this within four touchdowns.

Idaho +6 Georgia State
With a 3-8 record, and subsequently no bowl hopes, this will be Idaho's last game as an FBS program. After posting a surprising 9-4 mark last season, the Vandals have regressed in 2017. Their offense which ranked second in the Sun Belt in yards per play last season is currently last in the conference. Their per game scoring has also fallen by ten points. Regression should have been expected with the team losing five of their top-six receivers from last season. However, this precipitous fall is outside the realm of reasonable expectations. Thankfully though, the defense has improved, ranking third in the Sun Belt in yards allowed per play and keeping the Vandals in games. Five of their eight losses (and all of their conference losses) have been by a touchdown or less. I expect another close game in Atlanta on Saturday. Georgia State will be looking to clinch their first winning season at the FBS level under first-year head coach Shawn Elliott. The Panthers have rebounded after a rough opening night loss to an FCS team and have actually won six of eight since on 0-2 start. However, four of those wins have come by a touchdown or less and all have come against teams that will finish 2017 with a losing record. Idaho has been money in the bank as a road underdog. In Paul Petrino's first year as head coach in 2013, the Vandals produced a 1-6 ATS mark in the role. Since then, they are 18-4 ATS as a road dog including a perfect 17-0 against Group of Five teams! Look for the Vandals to keep this one close and potentially win outright in their FBS swan song.

South Alabama +10 New Mexico State
Without hyperbole, this is probably the biggest game for New Mexico State since the 1960s. A win here would make the Aggies bowl eligible, and while a bid would not be guaranteed, word is the Arizona Bowl is making eyes at them. The Aggies have progressed in baby steps under Doug Martin, who has one of the most thankless jobs in FBS (something he should be familiar with based on his other head coaching job). A bowl would also be a nice parting gift as the Aggies embark on life in the FBS wilderness as an independent next season. The Aggies are solid on both sides of the ball, ranking in the top half of the Sun Belt in yards per play and yards allowed per play. However, ten points is a lot for them to be giving against a South Alabama team that should be plenty motivated to send their coach out on a positive note. About two weeks ago, Joey Jones, the only coach the Jaguars have ever known, announced he would be resigning at season's end. The Jaguars never achieved great heights under Jones, but he did guide them to six wins in three of the past five seasons. This is no small feat for a new program. Look for South Alabama to keep this one close in Jones' last game as head coach.

Troy Pick Arkansas State
The Sun Belt should have picked a different time to play this game as most will probably ignore this game in favor of the Big 10 or ACC Championship tilts which kick around the same time. These are probably the two best teams in the conference and the winner will clinch at least a share of the Sun Belt title (Appalachian State will clinch a share with a win against Louisiana-Lafayette despite not playing the Trojans or Red Wolves). Winning the Sun Belt has become old hat for the Red Wolves. Arkansas State has won outright or shared five of the last six Sun Belt titles. Troy was used to the spotlight (relatively), winning or sharing five consecutive Sun Belt titles between 2006 and 2010. However, the program grew a little stale under Larry Blakeney and Neal Brown was selected to lead the Trojans back to prominence (relatively). Brown actually had the Trojans in the lower reaches of the top-25 last season and will notch a second consecutive ten win season with a win here. Outside of a glitchy home loss to South Alabama, Troy has been dominant this season. They rank second in the Sun Belt in yards per play and first in yards allowed per play. Oh, and they also beat LSU. Arkansas State also somehow lost to South Alabama (though this one was in Mobile), and while they have been good (as usual), they have not been nearly as dominant as Troy. Arkansas State is tough in Jonesboro, but Troy has been the stronger team this season. Take the Trojans to win a close one here.

Fresno State +8.5 Boise State
Fresno State's reward for beating Boise State last week in The Valley? A rematch with the Broncos for the league championship, with this one taking place in Idaho. A win by the Bulldogs would represent a worst-to-first turnaround as they did not win a single conference game last season. New coach Jeff Tedford seems to have recaptured the magic he had at Cal a decade and a half ago when he generated a similar turnaround. At Cal, Tedford was never quite able to win a conference title (no shame in that), so a win here would have to be extra satisfying. These teams developed a decent rivalry in the old Western Athletic Conference, with Boise State taking the league by storm in the early part of this century. Fresno State snuck up on people this season after their 1-11 campaign in 2016 and tough early schedule that included trips to Tuscaloosa and Seattle. However, since that loss to the Huskies, the Bulldogs have been great. They have won eight of nine, with six wins coming by double-digits. In conference play, the Bulldogs allowed the fewest yards per play of any Mountain West team and allowed opponents just eleven offensive touchdowns in eight games. Boise State has not performed well as a home favorite under Bryan Harsin, going just 7-16-1 ATS in the role under his tutelage. This line should be closer to a field goal, so take the Bulldogs here and don't be surprised if they win outright.

Miami +10 Vs. Clemson @ Charlotte
Sometimes a devastating loss can lead to great things down the road. For Clemson, the Tigers should send Jim Grobe and Wake Forest a 'Thank You' card for getting Tommy Bowden fired after a Thursday night defensive battle in 2008. At that moment, Clemson has not won the ACC since 1991. Since canning Tommy and hiring a relative unknown in Dabo Swinney, the Tigers have won the conference three times and appeared in the championship game five times (counting this appearance) in the last nine seasons. Oh, and they also won a pretty big game last year (technically this calendar year, but you get the idea). Perhaps Miami will need to send Clemson a similar card or fruit basket soon. A little more than two years ago, Clemson decimated Miami in Coral Gables. That was the last straw for Al Golden in his efforts to revive the Hurricane program. Miami finished the year with an interim coach (winning four of their last five regular season games) and in the offseason, an accomplished coach (who also happened to be an alum) fell right into their lap. Since hiring Richt, the Hurricanes have gone 12-4 in the ACC (just 51-45 in their first twelve seasons in the ACC) and are playing in their first ever conference championship game. Of course, it hasn't been smooth sailing for the Hurricanes in 2017. They seemed to struggle with motivation in the middle part of the season, beating three teams that finished with losing records (Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and North Carolina) by a combined fourteen points. The Hurricanes seemed to focus after that three-game stretch as they waxed Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. However, their struggles with lesser teams did not abate as they looked lost against Virginia before pulling away and then suffered an upset loss at Pitt. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, the Pitt loss meant absolutely nothing. If they beat the Tigers, they will be in the College Football Playoff. I think they have a chance. Despite a lackluster scoring margin, Miami actually had the best per-play differential (+1.13) of any ACC team and boasted the conference's best defense. When Miami is motivated, they are tough to beat. They should be on Saturday night.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

Three winning weeks in a row. Let's see if we can make it make it a full month. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-2-1
Overall: 43-39-2

SMU -8 Tulane
Regardless of the outcome of this game, SMU is headed back to a bowl for the first time since 2012. The Mustangs have increased their win total in each season under Chad Morris, rising from two wins in his first, to five in his second, and now six in his third. Morris is oft mentioned as a candidate for other coaching jobs, and he would probably make a Power Five school happy, but his accomplishments thus far do not seem to merit such a job. True, SMU was in dire straits when he was hired, but June Jones turned the program around faster than Morris, who has yet to have a winning campaign in Dallas. The problem for Morris since he arrived on campus has been the defense. The Mustangs ranked tenth in the American Athletic Conference in yards allowed per play in his first season, improved marginally, but still ranked tenth in his second season, and are currently eleventh. To illustrate this point, the Mustangs scored more than 40 points in each of their last two games, but lost both, the most recent in blowout fashion, thanks to a defense that allowed over 100 combined points. The good news for SMU is that while both of those games were on the road, this one is in the friendly confines of Gerald J. Ford Stadium. It also helps that their opponent this week, Tulane, is not nearly as proficient on offense as Navy and Memphis. The Green Wave have improved in their second season under Willie Fritz, but they still rank in the bottom half of the American in yards per play. They also struggle on defense, ranking just ahead of SMU in yards allowed per play. Tulane will have plenty to play for as a win will make them bowl eligible, but SMU has been solid under Morris as a home favorite, posting a 5-1 ATS record in the role. In addition, this spread is just north of a touchdown, and I expect SMU to do plenty of scoring with a chance to clinch a winning season. Take the Mustangs to win comfortably here.

North Carolina +17 NC State
Sometimes in college football, one game can make all the difference. Last season, NC State entered their annual clash with the Tar Heels as a ten point underdog with a 5-6 record. Had the Wolfpack lost that game, Dave Doeren may have been fired and Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden could be leading the team now. Of course, the Wolfpack pulled the upset, pounded Vanderbilt in their bowl game, and entered 2017 with reasonably high expectations. Those expectations were somewhat tempered after the opener, but the Wolfpack won six in a row after their loss to the Gamecocks, and were in contention for the Atlantic Division title. Then the season took another turn as the Wolfpack lost three of four, the most recent in heartbreaking fashion, to fall out of contention. Now the Wolfpack will have to turn their goals to a finish in the final polls and their most wins since 2010. To get there, the they will first need to handle their business against a Tar Heel team that has struggled in 2017. Prior to beating Pittsburgh two weeks ago, North Carolina's only win had come against Old Dominion. The Tar Heels can blame injury, the loss of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, and the putrid play of transfer quarterback Brandon Harris. With Chazz Surratt or Nathan Elliott taking snaps, the Tar Heels have been more competitive recently, losing by just five to Miami, while beating Pittsburgh and Western Carolina. NC State will provide a little more resistance than the Catamounts, but the road team has been a strong play recently in this series, with the visitor winning the last four meetings outright. North Carolina is not nearly as bad as they looked in the middle of the season, and while I don't think they will pull off the massive upset, they should keep this one close.

Arizona -1 Arizona State
After combining for an 8-16 record last season (just 3-15 in Pac-12 play), the Wildcats and Sun Devils have rebounded (somewhat) in 2017. Arizona State is 6-5 with solid wins over Oregon, Utah, and Washington, while Arizona is 7-4 and appear to have found their quarterback of the future. Both teams leave a lot to be desired defensively, as they rank in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in terms of yards allowed per play. Arizona State is similarly mediocre offensively, but Arizona has torched opponents, especially on the ground. The Wildcats have rushed for over 3600 yards on the season, and lead the nation averaging a robust seven yards per carry. That is not a good matchup for Arizona State. The Sun Devils have been gashed on the ground, particularly when you remove their (impressive) 32 sacks from the equation. Once proper accounting is made for actual rushing plays, the Sun Devils permit over six yards per carry! The venue of this game will provide a significant advantage for the Sun Devils, but Arizona is the better team. I expect a close game, and I would not make any play if the line were around a field goal, but Arizona should do enough to leave with the win on Saturday afternoon.

South Carolina +14 Clemson
Clemson is on their way to the ACC Championship Game for the third consecutive season. However, if you look closely at the numbers, this Clemson teams appear to be a notch below the previous two squads. Offensively, Clemson ranks sixth in the ACC in yards per play. After torching what was a bad Louisville defense in their conference opener, Clemson has failed to average more than six yards per play against any other ACC opponent. Defensively, the Tigers are still one of the strongest teams in the ACC, ranking second in the conference in yards allowed per play. However, their offensive struggles will probably prevent them from covering this large number against their arch rivals. South Carolina ranks fourth in the SEC in yards allowed per play (behind the three uber-defenses at Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia). No team has scored more than 28 points on the Gamecocks this season, and the Gamecocks are unbeaten ATS as an underdog this season (6-0 with four outright upsets). Clemson has not beaten South Carolina by more than five points in Columbia since 2003. Remember, just two years ago, a very bad South Carolina team lost 37-32 to a Clemson team that nearly won the national title. I am extremely wary of backing Will Muschamp when his teams are giving points, but I think he will do a great job of dragging Clemson into a low-scoring defensive battle here. I don't think South Carolina will be able to pull off the outright upset and shake up the College Football Playoff, but they should cover.

Texas A&M +10.5 LSU
Two years ago there were coaching rumors swirling around this game. Les Miles was all but finished at LSU as the Tigers came in on a three-game losing streak. The Tigers were able to right the ship against the Aggies, and Miles was retained..for five more games. The game ended up being a band-aid on a bullet would as the underlying issues (lack of creativity on offense mostly) remained and LSU parted ways with the enigmatic Miles. Now Texas A&M enters amid coaching uncertainty. Despite winning at least eight games each season he has been in charge, Kevin Sumlin is squarely on the hot seat. He set the bar too high in his first season which included a Heisman winner, an upset over Alabama, and a top-five final ranking. Since then, the Aggies have finished ranked just once and have not finished with a wining conference record. The Aggies typically start off great and then stagger to the finish leaving fans with thoughts of what might have been. This year has been a little different. The Aggies opened with an epic choke job at UCLA, rebounded to win four in a row against the soft part of their schedule, and then lost in competitive fashion to Alabama. The Aggies then upset Florida in Gainesville, but lost two in a row at home to Mississippi State and Auburn to ratchet up the heat. However, since those two defeats, the Aggies have played well. They dominated New Mexico from start to finish and then won as a slight underdog at Ole Miss. With no expectations, the Aggies have played better. Most are not giving the Aggies a chance against the Tigers despite LSU's deficiencies. Remember, the Tigers struggled at home against Syracuse and lost to Troy. They have won five of six since the loss to Troy, but four of those wins have come against teams likely to finish with losing records (Florida, Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Tennessee). The Aggies are perfect this season ATS as a road underdog, with two outright wins, and catching double-digits against a flawed LSU squad makes them a valuable play.

Louisiana Tech -1.5 Texas-San Antonio
2017 has been weird and disappointing for Louisiana Tech. After playing for the Conference USA title last season and winning nine games for the third straight year, the Bulldogs enter their finale with a 5-6 mark. The Bulldogs have sought to give their fans congenital heart failure, playing four games decided by a single point. Louisiana Tech has been on the wrong side of three of those games, including one at South Carolina. Overall, the Bulldogs are just 1-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. If the Bulldogs make a few more plays here or there, perhaps they are preparing for yet another trip to the Conference USA Championship Game. As it stands, they need to beat the Roadrunners to get to back to a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season. If you look closely at this number, it implies Texas-San Antonio would actually be favored at a neutral site. While the Roadrunners did get a quality win at home against Marshall last week, the five FBS teams they have beaten have combined for an 11-44 overall record. Louisiana Tech will be desperate and they are a solid 10-6 ATS as a home favorite under Skip Holtz. Once again, a spread of a field goal or more might scare me away, but with a number this low, the Bulldogs are the pick.

Utah State +2 Air Force
After last week's results for both teams, I expected Utah State to be a slight favorite (which would have resulted in a pass for me). The Aggies dominated a bad Hawaii team in Logan and Air Force was dominated by a surging Boise State team on the Smurf Turf. The win made Utah State bowl eligible for the sixth time in seven seasons, and ensures the Aggies will at least double last season's win total. Meanwhile, Air Force will miss out on a bowl for the first time since 2013. The Falcons have the worst per play defense in the Mountain West, permitting over seven yards per snap against league foes. Utah State ranks around the middle of the pack offensively in the Mountain West, but their defense is in the upper tier, ranking fourth in yards allowed per play. They have already contained one option offense this season, when they held New Mexico to ten points a few weeks ago. Look for more of the same here. Air Force is 0-3 ATS as a home favorite this season with two outright losses. Utah State should be favored in this game and will win outright.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

Two winning weeks in a row. Let's see if we can make it three. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 39-37-1

Cincinnati -3.5 East Carolina
You think maybe East Carolina is regretting their decision to fire Ruffin McNeill? Scottie Montgomery began his career in Greenville on a positive note, winning his first two games, including a home upset of NC State. However, since that 2-0 start, the Pirates are just 3-17 over their last twenty games! Against teams not located in Storrs, Connecticut, the Pirates are 1-17! Most of their losses have not been competitive, with fifteen of the seventeen coming by at least ten points. Last week's loss to Tulane was one of the few that did not come in blowout fashion. The Pirates took the Green Wave to overtime, but were outgained and averaged nearly a yard and a half less per play than Tulane. On the season, the Pirates have the worst defense in the American by far. They have allowed 45 points per game and more than seven and a half yards per play. For a Cincinnati team that has struggled moving the ball in Luke Fickell's first season, East Carolina is just what the doctor ordered. With East Carolina and Connecticut remaining on the schedule, the Bearcats have a chance to finish the year strong. East Carolina has nothing to play for here and the Noon kick will probably dilute what little homefield advantage they have. Since upsetting NC State fourteen months ago, the Pirates are just 1-5 ATS as a home underdog. Cincinnati should win easily here.

Pittsburgh +16 Virginia Tech
What more does Virginia Tech have to do to convince the nation they are not an elite team? After opening the 2017 season 7-1 with one quality win, the Hokies have lost back-to-back games to Miami and Georgia Tech. The Hokies were mostly non-competitive against Miami, and lost to Georgia Tech despite returning an interception for a touchdown and converting a third and long via a miraculous catch. Some dominant home wins against bad teams (Old Dominion, North Carolina, and Duke) by a margin of 111 points seem to be etched in the mind's of voters and oddsmakers. However, overall the Hokies have been pretty bad offensively. The Hokies rank twelfth of fourteen ACC teams in yards per play. Their running game in particular, has been nonexistent in conference play. When removing sacks from their rushing attempts, the Hokies have averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and just 144 yards per game in ACC play. If the Hokies can score on defense or special teams, they have a chance to cover this number, but that is a dangerous assumption to make. The Panthers are 8-3-1 ATS as a road underdog under Pat Narduzzi with five outright wins. The Panthers are still technically alive for a bowl game as they need to sweep their final two games to qualify, so they should be motivated. I don't know if they can pull the outright upset, but this game should be much closer than sixteen points.

Tulane +9.5 Houston
It's a long shot, but bowl eligibility is still on the table for Tulane. The Green Wave need to sweep their final two games against Houston and SMU to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2013 and just the second time since 2002. Realistically, the Green Wave should probably start making postseason plans for 2018. That will mark the third year of the Willie Fritz funky triple option regime. Tulane has improved offensively in their second year under Fritz, averaging an extra yard per play in conference games and improving their complimentary passing game. Last season, the Green Wave, despite not throwing often, averaged a putrid 5.3 yards per pass. This season, the Green Wave are averaging 7.3 yards per pass. Defensively, the Green Wave have had issues, allowing over six and half yards per play to conference foes. This has tampered down their record despite the offensive improvement. The Green Wave have played well in New Orleans, in their relatively new stadium, where they have won three of five homes games this season with both losses coming by a combined seven points. Look for more of the same here. The Green Wave probably don't have the firepower to beat Houston outright, but they should keep this one close.

Army +3 North Texas
Army and North Texas are developing quite a rivalry. This will mark the third meeting between the two teams since last October. The Mean Green won the first game in West Point and the Black Knights won the rematch in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. For the degenerates out there, the Black Knights failed to cover each time as they were double-digit favorites in both. If I had told you prior to their first meeting last October that a little more than a year later both of these teams would be a combined 15-5, you probably would have nodded politely and then not listened to another word I said. That's where we are though. The Black Knights have won six in a row after a 2-2 start and are even receiving a few votes in the latest AP Poll. Meanwhile, the Mean Green are 7-3 and have already clinched the West division of Conference USA. North Texas is led by their offense, which ranks third in Conference USA in yards per play. They are also averaging over 36 points per game, which is amazing considering just two seasons ago they averaged just a shade more than fifteen points per game and maxed out at thirty points in their lone win. Unfortunately, their defense is a little leaky. They are also allowing north of thirty points per game and only three Conference USA teams allow more yards per play. The Mean Green have also been a little fortunate, posting a 4-0 record in one-score games. A leaky defense is not something you want when facing a unique, deliberate offense like Army's. Army is 7-4-2 ATS as a road underdog under Jeff Monken and North Texas has yet to cover this season in two attempts as a home favorite. North Texas is much better in the underdog role (4-1 ATS with three outright wins) and I think it will be tough for them to get up for a non-conference game one week after clinching the division. Don't be surprised if Army wins outright.

Texas A&M +3 Ole Miss
If Texas A&M has designs on a winning regular season, they probably need to win this game in Oxford. The Aggies close with a road trip to Baton Rouge, so a loss here probably means a 6-6 regular season and perhaps a new coach. The Aggies have disappointed this season, especially considering their schedule. It is now mid-November, and the Aggies have left the state of Texas twice this season (and just once since Labor Day Weekend). Yet, they still have four losses, with three coming in College Station. This otherwise forgettable game in Oxford will be a battle between a mediocre team that doesn't really do anything well (Texas A&M) against an Ole Miss team that does one thing really well (throw the football). The Rebels, despite playing a backup quarterback for the fourth straight game, are averaging 9.3 yards per pass. Their deep stable of receivers, led by AJ Brown, are big plays waiting to happen. Unfortunately, the Landshark defense is nowhere to be found in Oxford. The Rebels are consistently gashed on the ground, allowing over six yards per rush when removing sacks from the equation. This should be an entertaining game, but I would never trust this incarnation of Ole Miss giving points against any Power Five opponent.

Wake Forest -1.5 NC State
Wake Forest is my alma mater, and I may be a little biased, but I want to take a moment to marvel at how far the Deacons have come under Dave Clawson. In Clawson's first season in charge, the Deacons won three games and averaged under fifteen points per game. In this, his fourth season, the Deacons are averaging over 35 points per game and are already bowl eligible with a chance for their most regular season wins in a decade. Quarterback John Wolford has evolved from a sack taking machine to one of the best (and most underrated) dual threat quarterbacks in the country. Wolford is averaging nearly nine yards per pass attempt and has thrown twenty touchdowns against just three interceptions in 2017. Oh, and he's also rushed for over 500 yards and ten touchdowns. He's not Khalil Tate or Lamar Jackson, but he ain't half bad. Anyway, back to the Deacons. Wake Forest was not favored against an FBS opponent in Winston-Salem until the first game of Dave Clawson's third year in charge. This will mark the seventh time in their last ten home games that they have been favored, so the oddsmakers and the betting public have come around to how good the Deacons are. I was actually hoping the Deacons would be catching a few points here, but with this line under a field goal, I think they are still a good play. In recent history, the home team usually wins in this rivalry. Wake Forest has won six of the last seven in Winston-Salem and the Wolfpack have won all but one meeting in Raleigh since 1984. Look for that home team trend to continue here in a Wake Forest win.

Air Force +17.5 Boise State
A win by Boise State would clinch their first division title since 2014 and put them in position to finish ranked. However, a New Year's Six bid is probably a pipe dream thanks to the number of ranked teams in the American Athletic Conference. The Broncos have won six in a row after a 2-2 start, with their latest win coming via a miraculous comeback against Colorado State. The Broncos channeled the New England Patriots and came back from a pair of 25-point deficits to force overtime, where they eventually prevailed and actually covered, much to the chagrin of those who wagered on the Rams. The Broncos are clearly the better team, but can they come down from that emotional high and handle a team that runs a peculiar offense? After winning 28 games over the previous three seasons, Air Force has struggled in 2017, losing to both Army and Navy for the first time since 2012 and in need of a sweep of their final two games to become bowl eligible. The Falcons have one of the worst defenses in college football, but they do a good job of hiding it with their ball-control offense that limits the number of possessions. The Falcons have been a perennial thorn in Boise State's side since the Broncos joined the Mountain West. The teams have faced off four times and the Falcons have covered each time (as a double-digit underdog) winning the last three outright. Air Force is 7-1 ATS as a road underdog since the start of the 2015 season (3-0 as a double-digit underdog) and Boise State is just 2-13-1 ATS as a home favorite in the same span. Boise State will win, but Air Force will cover.