Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

After a perfect Week II, regression was in order. We went 3-5, but the yearly total is right at the break-even percentage. We'll try to get above it this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-5
Overall: 11-10

UNLV +40 Ohio State
Last week, the spread was pretty much right on the money for Ohio State in their game against the Black Knights from Army. In my post, I picked the game (incorrectly) at +30 for Army, but at other outlets and on ESPN, I saw it at either 30.5 or 31, which is exactly where it ended up. I give that background to logically quantify this spread. Its not a direct apples to apples comparison, but if this spread is to be believed, then Army would basically be a ten-point favorite on a neutral field against UNLV. To be fair, the Rebels did endure perhaps the largest outright loss in gambling history earlier in the season. However, the Rebels responded to that disappointment by blowing out Idaho in Moscow and have had a week to prepare for their trip to Columbus. Meanwhile, Ohio State has had two Power Five games and a clash with Army's unique offense before facing the Rebels. With the Big 10's expanded conference schedule, this is the last non-conference game Ohio State will play before the postseason as conference play resumes next week with a challenging trip to Piscataway. Despite their loss to Howard, the Rebels actually have solid per play numbers through two games. They are averaging north of eight yards per play (granted against inferior competition) and have scored at least 40 points in each of their first two games. Precocious freshman quarterback Armani Rogers has thrown for over 400 yards and rushed for over 100 yards and will likely be the quarterback of the next bowl eligible UNLV team (it could happen this year!). I don't expect UNLV to come close to their seasonal averages against Ohio State, but if they can get to ten points they should be able to cover this bloated number.

Maryland -3.5 Central Florida
Through two games, and really just one, the public perception of Maryland has changed drastically. That the Terps crushed FCS Towson in their second game would not have moved the needle a great deal regardless of their performance in the opener. However, by beating Texas and the wunderkind Tom Herman in Austin, Maryland ratcheted expectations (at least marginally) in D.J. Durkin's second season. Despite losing their starting quarterback, Tyrrell Pigrome, to injury in the second half and allowing Texas to score two non-offensive touchdowns to keep the game close, Maryland beat the Longhorns for the first time ever (and also scored on Texas for the first time). With Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State in their division, to say nothing of improving Indiana and established Michigan State, anything beyond a bowl game is probably a pipe dream, but the Terps have served notice that they should be competitive. Contrast this to last season when they lost to the four teams on their schedule that finished ranked by a combined 160 points. With the tough road ahead, Maryland will need every victory they can get. Thus, they will likely not overlook a Central Florida team that took them to overtime in Orlando last season. The Knights are probably ready to play some football as they have not taken the field since the Thursday before Labor Day. In that game, the Knights dominated their in-state 'rival' from Florida International. The Knights led by 30 at the half before easing off the throttle in a 61-17 win. The offensive struggles from 2016 seemed to dissipate as quarterback McKenzie Milton averaged an obscene 17 yards per pass! However, it should be noted that Florida International struggled in their follow-up game against Alcorn State. I would be hesitant to read too much into the Knights' big win as they also laid 53 on the Panthers in 2016. Maryland has had a week off to prepare for this game and it will be the second started by freshman quarterback Kasim Hill who played well against Texas after entering the game and was not challenged against Towson. Couple that with the homefield advantage and Maryland should win this game by at least a touchdown.

TCU +13 Oklahoma State
Based on early returns there appears to be three legitimate contenders for the Big 12 title in 2017. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and TCU are all undefeated with a road win against a fellow Power Five team and glowing scoring margins. Of course, conference play has not even started yet so potential darkhorses like Kansas State, Texas, and West Virginia are still lurking in the weeds. However, methinks this conference opener will go a long way toward determining the participants in the new non-divisional Big 12 Championship Game. Oklahoma State has looked peerless in the early going, averaging 54 points per game and outscoring their opponents by 110 points through three games. The Cowboys were quite impressive in their most recent game, scoring touchdowns on their first seven possessions against Pitt before reeling the offense in. Despite their impressive start, I would posit the argument that Oklahoma State is probably overvalued here by close to a touchdown. The Cowboys have crushed their opponents, with two of the games coming away from Stillwater, but how good are the teams they have beaten? The Cowboys scored 59 points on Tulsa, but the Golden Hurricane allowed 96 points in their next two games against fellow mid-majors Louisiana-Lafayette and Toledo. The Cowboys scored 44 points against South Alabama, but the Jaguars allowed 47 points in their opener against Ole Miss. Finally, the Cowboys decimated Pitt, but the Panthers were beaten soundly by Penn State and narrowly edged FCS member Youngstown State (while allowing over seven yards per play to the Penguins). Suffice it to say, the competition has not been all that intense. TCU will be their toughest challenge yet, and while the Horned Frogs struggled a bit with SMU last week, keep in mind it was the dreaded 'sandwich game', coming between a trip to Arkansas and this foray to Stillwater. Plus, the Mustangs are usually the more motivated bunch in that game thanks to TCU's status as a Power Five program now. Since joining the Big 12, TCU is 9-3 ATS as a road underdog (2-0 as a double-digit road dog), with five outright upsets. Granted, two of those failures to cover came in Stillwater, but this line feels way too high. Take the Horny Toads to keep this one close.

Miami (Ohio) +2.5 Central Michigan
Assuming the Redhawks can overcome their fourth quarter collapse against Cincinnati last week, they should be a solid play in the conference opener for both teams. With a chance to claim the Victory Bell for the first time since 2005, Miami blew an eleven-point fourth quarter lead thanks to some questionable decisions by players and coaches. Miami may be disheartened by their rivalry loss, but the goal of a conference title is still in play. Remember, this team did not quit last season when they began 0-6. Instead, they rallied for an improbable bowl bid and nearly beat Mississippi State in the postseason. As long as their psyche is fine, I think the wrong team is favored in this game. The only thing Central Michigan has proven, as has pretty much every other FBS team since 2010, is that they can beat Kansas. Outside of their road whipping of the Jayhawks, the Chippewas have needed overtime (and six turnovers) to dispatch an FCS team and been blown out by a decent Power Five team. Central Michigan is the home team, but Miami has been a lively road dog under Chuck Martin, going 12-6 ATS with three outright upsets and a horde of near misses. Look for the Redhawks to take this one outright as well.

Wake Forest -4 Appalachian State
I must say, when examining Wake's schedule in the preseason, I assumed this game would be a loss. However, Wake has played their best football yet under Dave Clawson in the early going and seem to be pretty good this year. A second consecutive bowl game is certainly within reach, and who knows, perhaps the Deacons can upset one of the 'Big 3' (Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville) within their division. Through three games, Wake Forest has scored 131 points (granted against less than stellar competition). In Clawson's first year (remember the one that brought you the scoreless classic with Virginia Tech?), Wake did not score their 131st point until the ninth game! In took until the seventh game in 2015! Anyway, the offense, while it may not remain potent, is at least functional. The running game has me feeling particularly optimistic as the Deacons could average north of four yards per carry for the first time since 2010 and have a 1000-yard rusher for the first time since 2005. Don't get me wrong, Appalachian State still scares me, and I hate the fact that this game is in the mountains, but I feel much better about it than I did in July. Not only because of Wake's improvement, but also because the Mountaineers have not looked as strong as expected. Appalachian State opened the season traveling to Athens, and while I did not expect them to emerge from between the hedges with a victory, they were not very competitive. They trailed by 31 points entering the fourth quarter and outside of a few nice runs by quarterback Taylor Lamb, were not able to move the ball at all. They followed that up with an expected thrashing of Savannah State, but one shouldn't gleam much from that game as the Tigers were beaten just as soundly by Montana of the FCS. Finally, Appalachian State traveled to San Marcos to face a Texas State team with just a single FBS win since the start of the 2016 season. The Mountaineers were outgained by nearly 100 yards and averaged fewer yards per play while escaping with a 20-13 win. Historically, Appalachian State has given Wake fits, and even beaten them a number of times. My Wake Forest career began with a Thursday night loss to the Mountaineers. However, since joining FBS in 2014, Appalachian State is just 1-4 ATS against Power Five teams (I'm sure you remember the one cover). In addition, despite rarely being a home dog, they are 0-2 in the role since joining FBS, with both spreads clocking in below a touchdown (as this one does). I'm usually slow to come around, but I'm drinking the Wake Koolaid. The Deacons, even on the road, seem to be a touchdown better than the Mountaineers.

Georgia State Pick Em Charlotte
This game is the early favorite for least consequential final score of the season. Both Georgia State and Charlotte are relatively new to FBS and outside of a nice run at the end of 2015 for the Panthers, neither has had much success. Charlotte did pick up their first win as an FBS program against Georgia State two years ago, but these schools have combined for just twelve total wins against FBS programs in about six and a half combined years of play at the FBS level. Yuck. Anyway, I'm backing a team in this game that is currently averaging all of five points per game. Of course, had James Franklin not iced their kicker in the closing seconds, Georgia State could be averaging six and a half points per game. So there's that. Part of the reason for Georgia State's low offensive numbers is the fact they have only played two games and one of those came against Penn State. In the other game, when the Panthers reopened Turner Field, their quarterback, Conner Manning, was hurt and they fell to Tennessee State. Manning did play against Penn State, but put up dreadful numbers against the Nittany Lions. However, he played well for the Panthers last season and is likely licking his chops at the thought of playing a Charlotte defense that is allowing nearly nine yards per pass. Charlotte has played a strong team (Kansas State), but their secondary was also torched by Eastern Michigan and an FCS team (NC A&T). Their offense has not been much better, as they scored 14 total points against Eastern Michigan and Kansas State. College Football Final won't lead with the highlights from this game, but the money you can make from it spends just the same. All the Panthers have to do is win, and they should get Shawn Elliott his first win as a full-time head coach here.

Florida -3 Kentucky
Kentucky is on a nice run, having gone 10-3 over their last thirteen regular season games since starting 0-2 in 2016. In that span, the Wildcats have won more road games (four) than they won from 2010-2015 (three). Can Kentucky take the proverbial next step and win some conference games to put them in contention in the SEC East? Beating the Gators would go a long way toward that goal, especially considering they have lost thirty in a row to Florida. So how good is Kentucky? Can they break that streak? Last week I opined that South Carolina might be the least statistically impressive 2-0 team in the country. With the Wildcats winning in Columbia last week, they may have taken that title. Kentucky won the game by ten points, but they were actually slightly outgained by the Gamecocks and averaged nearly a yard and a half less per play. The Wildcats pulled off two huge fourth down stops while South Carolina missed three field goals (granted none were chip shots) and an extra point to boot. Previously the Wildcats had beaten Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky with better, but similarly mediocre statistical performances. Expecting Kentucky to win another game, especially against a team with the pedigree of Florida does not seem wise. Florida is coming off an emotional win against Tennessee, so there could be concern for a letdown. However, Gator fans should be cautiously optimistic about the offense after their performance against Tennessee. Even when removing the (don't call it a) Hail Mary pass against the Vols, Florida averaged a healthy 5.67 yards per play against the Vols. That's not a great number by any stretch, but it shows their putrid showing against Michigan likely had more to do with the quality of opponent than general offensive ineptitude. Kentucky has played decent defense through their first three games, but they ain't Michigan. The defense did get gashed by the Vols on the ground, but even with a good showing against Eastern Kentucky, the Wildcats are averaging under four yards per carry through the first three games so its unlikely they can have similar success. With a line right at a field goal, I can't take the underdog unless I have a belief they can win the game outright. I don't get that feeling here. Kentucky has actually performed poorly as a home dog under Mark Stoops, going 2-10-2 ATS in the role. That plus the general trend of this rivalry (the smallest margin of victory for Florida in this run is three points in 2003) makes the Gators the play here.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

That is how you overcome a slow start. We were perfect (with an asterisk) last week. The South Florida/Connecticut game, which was one of our picks, was canceled. So that means you get eight games this week. Don't worry, no extra charge. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-0
Overall: 8-5

Illinois +17.5 South Florida
In just a little over one season, Lovie Smith has built Illinois in the image of the Chicago Bears teams he led for nine years. Don't believe me? Just look at the numbers. Over the 144 games Smith coached in Chicago, his teams scored an average of 20.9 points per game. In the modern NFL, that is not a great total. However, his defenses allowed only 19.2 points per game, which is a very good showing. Thus far in 2017, his Illini are 2-0 and are averaging 22 points per game while allowing 14 points per game. Illinois has played very safe football in the early going, running the ball nearly twice as often as they have thrown it (80 rushes to 44 pass attempts) and ranking in the bottom quartile nationally in plays per minute. The initial competition thus far has not been elite, so it is legitimate to question whether this strategy is sustainable once Big 10 play begins. Eventually, Illinois will have to score in the 30s to win a football game. While this may not be a viable long-term strategy for turning the Illini program around, it is a great strategy for holding down the margin of defeat. When I handicapped South Florida's game against Connecticut scheduled for last weekend, I gave some potential reasons for their offensive struggles in the early going. The staff changes with Charlie Strong and Sterlin Gilbert taking over The Gulf Coast Offense and Marlon Mack departing for the NFL were the main culprits in my opinion. Without another point of data to refute that hypothesis, I have to believe South Florida's offense will again disappoint relative to their performance last season. I also think this is a bad matchup for South Florida schematically. The Bulls love to run the ball, especially with quarterback Quinton Flowers. That plays right into the hands of a strong Illinois rush defense. The Illini have allowed under three yards per rush in their first two games and have a pair of quality freshmen defensive ends in Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay who have combined for four sacks in the early going. The Illini probably don't have the offensive production to win this game outright, but they should keep it close.

Baylor +14.5 Duke
What a difference two games can make. While The Golden Nugget did not put this contest on their 'Games of the Year' summer list, one has to believe Baylor would have been a significant favorite if this game was handicapped over the summer. Even last week, its conceivable Baylor would have been favored. Of course, when you lose to an FCS team (albeit one with designs on moving up) and an FBS newbie, you can expect for the public to overreact and downgrade you faster than the Greek economy. Duke also contributed to this bloated spread by upsetting Northwestern as a small home underdog last week. While Northwestern was viewed as a darkhorse contender in the Big 10 West, early returns indicate the Wildcats are indeed not who we thought they were. Remember, they were down at the half against Nevada despite being favored by more than three touchdowns. So, while Duke's win and margin were impressive in a vacuum, it pays to not jump to conclusions after one game. Plus, while Duke did roll up over 500 yards on the Wildcats, that had more to do with volume (104 plays) than explosiveness (just 5.17 yards per play). Here are a few more trends to keep in mind regarding this game. Matt Rhule is no stranger to rebuilding programs by tearing them down first. His first Temple team finished 2-10, but the Owls played hard all season, finishing 5-0 ATS as a road underdog and 4-0 as a double-digit road dog. Finally, the public seems to overvalue David Cutcliffe and Duke (legitimately never thought I would type that). After going 12-5-1 ATS as a home favorite from 2008-2014, the Blue Devils are just 1-6 ATS in the role since. Duke will ultimately move to 3-0, but it won't be easy.

Utah State +14 Wake Forest
If you don't delve too deeply into the numbers, this game appears to be a real mismatch. Wake Forest is averaging over 42 points per game while allowing under ten. The Deacons beat Boston College by 24 points last week, which was their largest margin of victory against an FBS foe since 2013 and their largest margin of victory in a road game since 2008! While the 34 points were nice, Wake still averaged under five yards per play and can thank the defense for a lot of those points. Wake forced four turnovers (while not giving the ball away themselves). One of those turnovers resulted directly in a touchdown via the return, another set up the Deacons for a 26 yard 'drive', and the other put the ball on the BC two-yard line. Even with conservative accounting practices, the defense contributed to half of Wake's points against Boston College. Don't get me wrong, I love it when defense and special teams make life easier for the offense, but don't be fooled into believing Wake Forest has conquered their offensive inequities. Barring a glut of turnovers by the Aggies, the Deacons will not score a ton of points in this game. In addition, a letdown is likely as this is not a conference game so the Deacons may be overlooking Utah State, particularly with the three-game gauntlet (Appalachian State, Florida State, and Clemson) directly in front of them. Utah State will be plenty motivated playing against a Power Five opponent (and one they did beat in 2014). Don't forget, the Aggies hung tough with Wisconsin for the first 28 minutes or so. I like for Wake to win this game, but this feels like it will be much closer than two touchdowns.

Army +30 Ohio State
This is probably not what Ohio State needs coming off a tough game against Oklahoma. Even if the Buckeyes had beaten the Sooners, hosting an improving Army team that runs a unique offense was never a good matchup. I don't think the Buckeyes are in danger of losing this game as their foundation is too strong, but 30 points is a lot, especially in a game likely to see a smaller than average number of possessions. Army was burned on some big plays last week against Buffalo, and I don't mean the Bills, as quarterback Tyree Jackson averaged over twelve yards per throw against the Black Knights. Thus, I would expect J.T. Barrett to quiet the horde of Buckeye fans calling for his demotion by posting solid passing numbers here. The real question in handicapping this game is how many points can Army score? Ohio State has not played too many option teams. In fact, the Buckeyes two clashes with Navy (in 2009 and 2014) represent the only two instances in the past decade. In both those games, Ohio State allowed an average of 22 points and 278 rushing yards per game. Both those Navy teams qualified for bowl games, so they may have been a little better than Army. However, both those games also took place on the season's opening weekend, so the Buckeyes had all offseason to prepare for the unique offense. This game comes a week after a tough home loss against a fellow national contender. I have a hard time believing Ohio State can cover this number unless they can shut Army out. Based on a limited sample size against a similar, but probably superior team with additional time to prepare, it is doubtful that Ohio State can hold Army scoreless. I don't know that Army will put a scare into Ohio State, but they should do enough to cover this number.

Idaho +21 Western Michigan
After becoming perhaps the largest favorite to ever lose a game, UNLV rebounded by strolling into the Kibbie Dome and putting a hurting on Idaho. The Vandals allowed 550 yards at more than eight yards per snap to the Rebels while producing only 14 points of their own. With the team moving down in classification next year, it looks like they will be hard pressed to follow up on last season's surprising campaign. Did you know Idaho won nine games last year? Yes, they play in the Sun Belt, and none of the teams they beat were very good (at least in the regular season), but that was perhaps the quietest nine win season in recent memory. Anyway, this week the Vandals travel to Kalamazoo to take on a team that is also struggling in the early going. At least the Broncos can blame the schedule. While they have scored just three offensive touchdowns in their first two games, both of those contests came on the road against Power Five teams. Still, outside of some great runs by LeVante Bellamy, the Broncos have been pretty bad offensively. Take out a trick play touchdown, and the passing game has generated just three yards per pass (roughly equivalent to an Eddie George plunge up the middle at the end of his career). Even against quality defenses, those are not good numbers. I would expect Bellamy and the other backs (Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin) to have big games against an Idaho defense that was gashed by UNLV, but this spread just seems way too high considering Western Michigan's offensive struggles. Keep in mind, Idaho has been a solid road play under head coach Paul Petrino. The Vandals are 13-7 ATS as a double-digit road underdog, including an 11-3 mark since 2014. Plus, while the Vandals lost 20 of their first 21 road games under Petrino, they have actually won four of their last five. That might be stretching it here, but with a quality senior quarterback in Matt Linehan, Idaho should do enough to stay within two touchdowns.

Toledo -10 Tulsa
This Group of Five clash is only getting the streaming treatment on Saturday, but you might not find a game with more fireworks on Saturday. Toledo has consistently been the bridesmaid in the MAC West division, finishing no worse than second in six of the past seven years with no MAC Championship Game appearance to show for it. In a season without a prohibitive Group of Five favorite, can the Rockets break through and perhaps garner a New Year's Six bowl bid? Well, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, the Rockets will look to improve to 3-0 for the third consecutive year against an entertaining Tulsa squad. The Golden Hurricane have seen 191 total points scored in their first two games. Unfortunately, Tulsa has only scored 90 of those points. Tulsa lost by a large margin to a top-ten Oklahoma State team, but perhaps of greater concern was the 42 points they allowed at home to Louisiana-Lafayette. Both teams averaged north of seven yards per play with the Ragin' Cajuns actually edging the Golden Hurricane in that metric. With that defensive track record, its hard to see them slowing down Toledo and senior quarterback Logan Woodside. As long as this spread stays around ten points, the Rockets are a solid play here. They should not struggle at all moving the ball against Tulsa, and while Tulsa will do some scoring of their own, they won't be able to make enough stops to keep this one close.

Kentucky +7 South Carolina
Is South Carolina the most statistically unimpressive 2-0 FBS team? No way. Take a look at the overall numbers for Illinois or Old Dominion. However, the Gamecocks are probably the most statistically unimpressive 2-0 team with a pair of legitimate wins. The Gamecocks have beaten a pair of Power Five opponents away from home despite being outgained by over 300 total yards and despite averaging nearly half a yard fewer per snap than their opponents. How have they done this? They have pretty much run the board in 'The Little Things Bingo'. The Gamecocks have returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, have a turnover margin of +4, and have stopped their opponents three on fourth down. While it is possible to walk this tight rope for a full season (hell my alma mater did it in 2006), expecting it to continue is a good way to be disappointed. Teams will eventually stop kicking to Deebo Samuel and for a few games here and there, the turnover margin will probably swing the other way. This team feels like a lite version of Muschamp's second Florida team. The defense is not nearly as good, but the passing game is better. That Florida team was able to skate by all season on middling per play numbers, but then 2013 happened. The bill usually comes due. Anyway, while that Florida team was able to keep winning all year, they were not very good against the number as a favorite, posting a 3-5 ATS mark in the role with two outright losses. Kentucky has flown under the radar in the early going with less than impressive wins against Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky. However, Kentucky has actually won the last three games in this series despite being an underdog twice and the Gamecocks have only covered once against the Wildcats since 2009 (the first game after Stephen Garcia was dismissed in 2011). Look for more of the same this week. South Carolina may move to 3-0, but the Wildcats will put up a fight.

Kansas State -4 Vanderbilt
Of all college football teams to have played at least two games, care to guess who ranks first in scoring defense? Its Vanderbilt. The Commodores have allowed just six points through two games, limiting Middle Tennessee to one touchdown pass (where they proceeded to miss the extra point) and holding Alabama A&M scoreless. Holding the Blue Raiders to six points is impressive as they traveled to Syracuse last weekend and upset the Orange while putting 30 points on the board. However, extrapolating anything from the big win over Alabama A&M is folly. The Bulldogs were shut out by the Commodores, but they also lost to a UAB team rebooting its football program over Labor Day Weekend. In fact, Alabama A&M has played eight FBS teams since 2012 and their smallest margin of defeat in that span is 27 points. Of course, Kansas State has not exactly faced an SEC West quality schedule in the early going. The Wildcats began the season in the top-25 for the first time since 2014 and responded by crushing Central Arkansas (FCS) and Charlotte by a combined 84 points. Consistently covering as a road favorite is about the only thing Bill Snyder has not done in his second stint as Kansas State coach, posting a mediocre 6-6-1 ATS mark in the role. However, I am extremely skeptical of Vanderbilt's offense in this game. The Commodores have been solid on defense under Derek Mason and their offense has averaged 40 points per game in their last four home games. However, two of those games came against FCS foes and the other two were against Ole Miss and Tennessee teams limping to the finish in 2016. Kansas State, like most Big 12 defenses, typically employs a bend, but don't break strategy, so quarterback Kyle Shurmur should post solid yardage totals. However, to win this game though, Vanderbilt will need to punch the ball in the endzone. I don't know if they can do that as running back Ralph Webb has struggled against low-level competition (under three yards per carry) in the early going. The Big 12 got two solid non-conference road wins by comfortable margins last weekend, and I believe they will add a third this Saturday.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week II

Not a great start picking games for us. The good new is, we have plenty of time to dig out of that hole. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 2-5

Connecticut +17.5 South Florida
Randy Edsall's return to Storrs opened with a closer than expected win against Holy Cross. However, it could have been much worse. The Huskies were down 20-7 at halftime, but scored three second half touchdowns behind quarterback Bryant Shirreffs to avoid the upset. The result continued a disturbing trend for Connecticut as it marked the fifth consecutive year they either lost to an FCS team or beat one by less than a touchdown. Now the competition ramps up as the Huskies will host a ranked team for the first time since they upset Houston in 2015. South Florida also struggled against an FCS opponent last week as they trailed Stony Brook at the half and were tied with the Seawolves early in the fourth quarter. This marked the second game in a row in which The Gulf Coast Offense struggled. After averaging north of seven yards per play over the course of 2016, the Bulls are averaging under five yards per play after games against San Jose State and Stony Brook. Methinks the reason for the struggle is the new administration (head coach Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert) and the loss of running back Marlon Mack. Mack rushed for over 1000 yards during each of his three seasons on campus and departed as the school's all-time leading rusher with a year of eligibility remaining. Mack was selected in the fourth round by the Colts and his replacements have not been able to recreate his explosiveness. The Bulls have a pretty soft schedule, so they may yet enter late October or early November with an unblemished record, but they do not appear to be nearly as strong as they were last season. Speaking of last season, the much stronger version of the Bulls only managed to beat the Huskies by 15 points in Tampa. Now, the Bulls are three-score favorites on the road. South Florida and Connecticut have been conference mates since 2005. This will mark the Bulls seventh trip north in that span. The Bulls are 2-4 in Storrs and have not won by more than eight points. Look for that trend to continue here as South Florida prevails in a tight game.

Buffalo +16.5 Army
While the end results could not have been more different, both teams from the Empire State played well in their opener. Buffalo lost at Minnesota, but the Bulls were in the game until late in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Army dominated Fordham, never punting and amassing 60 points for the fourth time since the beginning of the 2016 season. That is a far cry from Army's first few games against FCS competition under Jeff Monken when they lost two of their first four contests. Still though, Fordham is an FCS school, so it would be dangerous to extrapolate too much from that win. Keep in mind the Bulls actually beat the Black Knights last year, a result which accounted for half of their 2016 win total. Army should be favored here, perhaps even by double-digits, but this line appears to be about a touchdown too high. Count on the Bulls keeping this one close.

Iowa -2.5 Iowa State
The 2017 edition of !El Assico! kicks off at Noon eastern time Saturday. For the first time in a while, the Battle for The Cy-Hawk Trophy could involve two bowl teams. Iowa looks well on their way to another postseason trip after squeezing the life out of Wyoming and Josh Allen last week. Iowa State beat Northern Iowa of the FCS last week, which may not seem like a great accomplishment, but the Cyclones did lose to the Panthers last season and in 2013 (not to mention North Dakota State in 2014). The Cyclones won by 18 points, but Iowa represents a significant step up in competition. The Hawkeyes will probably allow their first offensive touchdown after holding Wyoming to three points and under four and a half yards per pass, but this defense appears quite stout. The Hawkeyes young quarterback, Nate Stanley, will probably not generate a ton of points, but this feels like an old-school game Iowa will grind out and win by about a touchdown. Iowa has been money in the bank as a road favorite recently, going 11-1 ATS in the role since 2013. Most of those have come in small spreads similar to this one. Iowa has been a road favorite of a touchdown or less seven times since 2013 and have covered each time. Look for more of the same on Saturday.

TCU -2.5 Arkansas
Last season's overtime game in Fort Worth marked the first time these two former conference rivals had played since 1991! The series was dominated by Arkansas, with the Hogs winning 30 of the last 33 games, including 22 in a row from 1959 through 1980. Obviously, that has nothing to do with capping this game, but I did not realize how lopsided this rivalry was in the Southwest Conference. Anyway, last season TCU dominated Arkansas yardage wise, but were done in by turnovers and blocked kicks en route to an overtime loss that set the tone for their 6-7 season. Both teams opened their season with easy wins against FCS schools as the Horned Frogs and Razorbacks won by a combined 102-7 margin. TCU's brings back a ton of experience and will have revenge on their mind after last year's debacle. I would back them giving anything less than a field goal, so they are the play here.

Old Dominion -3 Massachusetts
For FCS teams that are looking to make the leap to FBS, these two teams provide a success story and cautionary tale. Old Dominion has gone 14-10 against Conference USA foes and 30-20 overall since joining FBS in 2013 (they were an Independent in 2013). Included in that total is their first ever bowl win against Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas last season. Meanwhile, Massachusetts joined FBS and the MAC in 2012, but have won just ten total games in five plus seasons. They were a little more competitive in the MAC, especially once Mark Whipple came on board, going 7-25 against conference foes. Unfortunately, the Minutemen are no longer in the MAC and must make their way as an Independent in FBS. Close games have been a particular bugaboo under Whipple, with Massachusetts posting a horrendous 2-13 mark in one-score games, including a blown two-touchdown second half lead in the 2017 season opener against Hawaii. With that loss and the subsequent road loss to FBS newbie Coastal Carolina, Massachusetts is pretty much already out of the running for a bowl bid. Tennessee, South Florida, Appalachian State, Mississippi State, and BYU remain on the schedule, so another double-digit loss season is not out of the question. Massachusetts allowed nearly 400 yards passing and over 10 yards per pass to Hawaii. They played better pass defense against Coastal Carolina, but allowed over 300 yards rushing at nearly seven yards per carry to the Chanticleers. Old Dominion did not light up the scoreboard in their opener against Albany of the FCS, but that game was played in poor weather and the Monarchs still averaged a yard more per play than their opponents. Massachusetts can do some damage through the air with quarterback Andrew Ford and tight end Andrew Breneman, but Old Dominion has been a solid play as a road favorite, posting a 3-1 ATS mark in their brief FBS life. I like for the Monarchs to win by about a touchdown here.

Michigan State -7.5 Western Michigan
This spread appears to be designed for drunken squares in Las Vegas who only look at final scores. Their rationale: Western Michigan almost beat Southern Cal last week and Michigan State is pretty bad. This is easy money. I think handicapping this game requires a little more nuance. Yes, Western Michigan was tied with Southern Cal in the fourth quarter last week, but outside of a trick play touchdown, the Broncos passed for 67 yards against the Trojans. They also returned a kickoff for a touchdown and intercepted Sam Darnold twice to keep them in the game. However, they also allowed nearly eight yards per play to the Trojans while averaging just north of five yards per play themselves. Now they return to the midwest after that fantastic effort to take on a Michigan State team that handled its business with relative ease in the opener. Thanks to a turnover, the Spartans fell behind Bowling Green early, but held the Falcons without an offensive touchdown in a 35-10 win. Michigan State's pass defense was particularly stingy, holding Bowling Green to under 150 yards through the air. That does not bode well for a Western Michigan team with a new starting quarterback. Think about the number this way: This line implies the Spartans are only about four or five points better than the Broncos on a neutral field. At worse, I see Michigan State grinding their way to a ten-point win here.

Boise State +10 Washington State
Boise State opened the 2017 season with a less than impressive 24-13 win over Troy. The Broncos managed just two offensive touchdowns and needed a punt return to break 20 points at home against a Sun Belt team. That poor offensive performance followed a rough end to 2016 where the Broncos lost their final two games and managed just 32 combined points against Air Force and Baylor. The Broncos may have a quarterback controversy on their hands as Kansas transfer Montell Cozart led them on a fourth quarter touchdown drive. The poor offensive showing and the fact that a former Kansas player played a prominent role in their win is the reason the Broncos are catching double-digits against the Cougars. However, despite the offensive struggles, Boise State's defense dominated a pretty good Troy offense. The Trojans did not score an offensive touchdown, and senior quarterback Brandon Silvers had his worst game quarterback rating wise since his freshman campaign. Boise State will need a similar defensive showing to win in Pullman against a Washington State team that avoided an opening loss to an FCS team for the first time in three years. Despite their recent struggles, Boise State is 5-2 straight up against Power 5 teams under Bryan Harsin with two of those wins coming on the road. Look for Boise to keep this one low-scoring and close.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week I

This past weekend served as a nice appetizer with five games involving FBS teams, but the season begins in earnest tomorrow. Our long national nightmare is over for 14 weeks or so. It's the best time of the year. For new readers, this weekly post will outline the seven games I deem as the best options for you to wager your hard earned money on. If you feel so compelled, send a little of your winnings my way. Let's get to it. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Florida International +17 Central Florida
College football's Week I kicks off in Orlando as Butch Davis looks to rebuild the FIU program. Since firing Mario Cristobal despite two bowl bids after a surprising 3-9 season in 2012, the Panthers have gone just 14-34 with no bowl appearances. Despite the poor record, the Panthers were competitive against teams of similar means. Over the past three years, they have gone 10-14 against Conference USA opponents and 11-17 against fellow Group of Five opponents. They are also an impressive 13-8-1 ATS as a betting underdog against Group of Five teams with seven outright upsets! The Panthers provide what I like to call 'sneaky value' as an underdog. And it just so happens their opponent in the opener is probably a little overrated heading into 2017. UCF rebounded from an 0-12 campaign in 2015 to finish bowl eligible in 2016. Scott Frost brought a fast-paced offense to Orlando, but it was the defense that led the turnaround. The Knights finished last in the AAC in yards per play and second in yards allowed per play. Their record was also buoyed by seven non-offensive touchdowns last season (versus just two allowed). Those events dramatically influence the outcome of a game, but are not consistent from year to year. UCF is the better team, but this spread is too high.

Buffalo +25 Minnesota
Butch Davis is not the only coach debuting on Thursday night. Human amphetamine PJ Flecks begins his Minnesota career after a very successful run at Western Michigan. The Gophers will be coached by a different man for the third consecutive opener. Jerry Kill guided the Gophers in 2015, but his health issues forced him to retire (for a while). His trusted lieutenant Tracy Claeys took over about halfway through 2015 and coached all of the 2016 season before being relieved of his duties. With the team on their third coach in 19 games there are bound to be some administrative and continuity issues. Plus, Fleck will be transitioning the Gophers from a run-first offense to a more balanced spread attack. If his (admittedly short) history is any guide, the transition may be a little bumpy. Fleck's first Western Michigan team went just 1-11 before winning 29 games in the next three seasons. Minnesota has a stronger foundation that the Western Michigan team Fleck took over, so anything less than bowl eligibility would be really surprising. However, expecting the dynamic offense Fleck nurtured at Kalamazoo to materialize immediately is folly. In addition, Minnesota is just 1-8 ATS as a double-digit home favorite since 2014. I know I didn't do a whole lot (or any) handicapping of the Bulls, but trust me, they are a solid play here.

Charlotte +14 Eastern Michigan
Outside of some Eastern Michigan alumni, no one was happier than me to see Eastern Michigan break their three decade bowl drought last season. The Eagles finished 7-5 in the regular season, but were a little lucky to do so, as they went 5-1 in one-score games. Of course, for a team with Eastern Michigan's history, just playing in some one-score games represented significant improvement. If the Eagles hope to return to the postseason, this game will go a long way toward getting them there. Their other non-conference games are road contests against Power 5 teams Rutgers and Kentucky as well as a road trip to Army. The Eagles will definitely be underdogs to both Rutgers and Kentucky, and a loss to Army would not be terribly surprising. So unless they plan on winning the MAC for the first time since 1987, they need to beat the 49ers to have any hopes of a bowl bid. The 49ers were competitive last season, winning three games in Conference USA, and losing three others by a combined nine points. This was marked improvement from their initial foray into FBS life when they lost all their conference games and came within a touchdown of winning just twice. This will be by far the best team Charlotte has fielded in their brief history and Eastern Michigan should not be a two touchdown favorite against any FBS opponent.

Utah State +28 Wisconsin
Wisconsin has been getting some love lately as a potential darkhorse entrant into the College Football Playoff. The Badgers project to be a pretty good team, but the main reason for this enthusiasm is their schedule. Like Iowa in 2015, the Badgers avoid the projected heaviest hitters from the Big 10 East until a potential conference title matchup. The Badgers do play Michigan (in Madison), but Penn State and Ohio State are nowhere to be found. Their toughest non-conference game is a road trip to BYU, where the Cougars will be coming off a Holy War battle with Utah. They probably won't make it to the end of the regular season unbeaten, but the Badgers are a team to keep an eye on in 2017. They open with a Utah State team looking to shake off a poor, but mostly unlucky 2016. The Aggies finished 0-4 in one-score games in 2016 and their three total wins were their fewest since 2008. The Aggies deceiving record and the ardor surrounding the Badgers has this line about a touchdown too high.

Colorado State +5.5 Colorado @ Denver
This line was about a touchdown prior to Colorado State's home evisceration of Oregon State in Week 0. The final was somewhat misleading as the Rams only outgained the Beavers by about 70 yards and averaged less than a half yard more per play than them. Turnovers were the big difference with the Beavers committing five to the Rams two. However, the big margin did not change this line very much. I was a believer in Colorado State in this game before that one kicked and my opinion has not changed with the small movement in Colorado State's favor. Colorado enjoyed a dream season last year, winning as many games as they had in coach Mike MacIntyre's first three seasons combined (10). The strength of last year's team was their defense as the Buffaloes ranked second in the Pac-12 in yards allowed per play. Alas, the Buffaloes lose eight starters from that unit, which is not a favorable matchup when facing an offense as potent as Colorado State's. Furthermore, while Colorado State might normally be in letdown mode after beating a Power Five opponent while opening their new stadium, revenge will surely be on their mind in this game. Last season, their in-state big brothers pounded them 44-7. The Buffaloes will have their full attention and an outright upset would not surprise me.

Iowa -11 Wyoming
I know. I know. Initially this line had me thinking the Cowboys might be a good play here, but let me explain to you how I came to my contrarian conclusion. Despite being a double-digit underdog, Wyoming is probably a little over-valued here. The public knows the Cowboys have an NFL prospect at quarterback (that is based more on physical skills than performance as his numbers have been good, not great) and were vastly improved in coach Craig Bohl's third season. What they may not know is that Wyoming has allowed over 30 points per game and finished second to last in yards allowed per play in the Mountain West in each of Bohl's three seasons as coach. The Cowboys did win their division last season, but that was all due to their improvement on offense. Josh Allen returns under center, but as I mentioned, his NFL stock is based on projection. Allen threw 15 interceptions last season and completed just 56% of his passes (89th nationally among qualified passers). In addition, the Cowboys will be without the services of running back Brian Hill (regrettably he is not the former Orlando Magic coach). Hill rushed for over 1800 yards last season after topping 1600 yards in 2015. He will be missed. Allen may yet take a step forward with another year of experience, but the defense will need to improve as well if the Cowboys are to be competitive in this game. In 38 games under Bohl, the Cowboys have allowed both 200 yards rushing and five yards per carry 15 times. Which, wouldn't you know it, fits right into the modus operandi of Iowa. The Hawkeyes will feed running back Akrum Wadley (over 1000 yards at over six yards per carry last year) early and often and should do enough to win comfortably here.

Florida State +7 Alabama @ Atlanta
The biggest opener of all time? Probably. A potential playoff preview? The college football season always has many twists and turns, so if you forced me to make a bet, I would probably bet against it. Regardless, these are two of the elite teams in the nation and this should be a fantastic game. Give Alabama credit. The Tide have challenged themselves in openers under Saban. Clemson, Michigan, Virginia Tech (twice), West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Southern Cal have all succumbed to the Tide in neutral site openers. For those keeping score at home, that's a 7-0 record for the Tide and a 6-1 mark ATS. So why could this game be any different? For starters, Florida State is probably the best team the Tide have faced in their opener. Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Michigan were in the top-ten at the time (and Clemson was even favored!), but the Tigers finished outside the top-25 and Michigan finished in the lower reaches of the poll. Virginia Tech did finish in the top-ten, but they were not in the Tide's class. Southern Cal also finished in the top-ten last season, but they were a much different team in January than they were in early September. I agree with Bill Connelly that the passing game will determine the winner here. While Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts put up fantastic numbers last season, he was limited against good defenses. Alabama played six teams that finished ranked in 2016 (Southern Cal, LSU, Auburn, Florida, Washington, and Clemson). In those six contests, he completed just 56.5% of his passes and averaged 140 passing yards per game. He did contribute on the ground, rushing for nearly 300 yards and five touchdowns in those games, but one would be hard pressed to expect his passing number to be much better against Florida State. The Seminoles had issues defending the pass at the beginning of 2016, allowing 9.86 yards per pass to their first four FBS opponents (they lost two of those games). However, over their last eight FBS games, the Seminoles allowed just 6.0 yards per pass. With nine starters back, including Derwin James who was injured early last season, the Seminoles should be able to contain Alabama's passing attack. Even if the Seminoles win this game, there is probably a loss hanging out somewhere on their schedule with road games against Clemson and Florida (and Wake Forest) as well as home games with Louisville and Miami and a potential ACC Championship Game. All in all, if this game is close, the loser may be able to afford an additional regular season loss and still qualify for the playoff. Look for Florida State to give Alabama their biggest challenge yet in a neutral site opener.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Revisiting Losses to FCS Teams

As I mentioned last week, three years ago I imparted some gambling advice. Teams that lost to FCS schools should be avoided like the plague in their next game in regards to the point spread. Teams that lost to FCS schools had a cumulative ATS record of 30-33 in their next game. This cover percentage of 47.6% meant that betting against them was nearly right on the break-even mark and provided no value. Has anything changed in the last three seasons?
Over the past three seasons, losing to an FCS school has meant positive value the next week. Over 25 games, these teams have covered 64% of the time. What if we further parse the ATS records by role?
Underdogs provide pretty much all the value here. Teams that lose to FCS teams have not been favorites often in their next game. In other news, water is wet.

Here are the ATS records for teams in such situations by year with a rolling three-year cover percentage thrown in.
Over the past twelve seasons, teams that lose to FCS teams have covered right around the break-even percentage in their next game. The rolling three-year cover percentage has been all over the place indicating this might be a random walk.

The next two tables will break out the yearly cover percentage for teams in this situation by their role. We’ll start with underdogs.
Underdogs make up the bulk of teams in this situation. Losing to an FCS team probably indicates a team is not very good (though there are some exceptions), so seeing them in an underdog role the next week is not surprising. Underdogs have covered slightly more often than the break-even percentage, but again the three-year cover percentage has been high and low in the last twelve years. What about favorites?
Teams that lose to FCS teams have been favored the next week just eighteen times since 2005 (one and a half times per year), so sample size is an issue here. In seven of the twelve seasons, either zero or one team fit the criteria as a betting favorite the next week. If you had bet against the favorites in every game since 2005, you would have turned a decent profit (about 16.7% if you had made equal bets), but the small sample size precludes any valid statistical extrapolation.

Finally, to provide a better visual representation, here is a graph of the overall, underdog, and favorite rolling three-year cover percentage. I also included the break-even percentage as a point of reference.
If nothing else, the rolling three-year cover percentage seems to be trending upward since 2005. There are a few dips after the peak in 2010, but FCS losers appear to have at least a little bit of value in their next game. As always, handicap each game individually, but don’t outright dismiss a team that lost to an FCS foe.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Revisiting Close Scrapes with FCS Teams

Three years ago in the summer of 2014, I imparted some gambling advice. Teams that struggled, but ultimately prevailed against FCS teams were pretty good value bets against the spread (ATS) in their next game. Specifically, teams that beat FCS teams by eight points or fewer (my definition of a close game) covered in their next game more than 63% of the time since 2005. Has that trend continued in the last three seasons? The short answer is ‘no’.
In a much shorter time frame and over a much smaller sample, the advantage appears to have disappeared. What if we further parse the ATS records by role?
When these teams that struggle with FCS teams are underdogs the next week, they have performed poorly ATS. Favorites have remained a positive value, but in a sample size of just ten games, a shift of one game in the other direction would wipe out all the value in backing these teams. Is this shift in value a sign that Las Vegas bookmakers have been anxiously following this blog and manually adjusting their numbers due to my advice (obviously) or is this just a random blip in an otherwise solid trend? Here are the ATS records for teams in their next game after winning a close game against an FCS team by year with a rolling three-year cover percentage thrown in.
In the past twelve seasons, teams in this situation have finished above the gambler’s break-even percentage (52.4% assuming -110) eight times. However, three of the four instances of teams not finishing with cumulative ATS records above the break-even percentage have occurred in the past three seasons. The rolling three-year cover percentage has also declined for four straight seasons and is the lowest it has been in this time period. The next two tables will break out the yearly cover percentage for teams in this situation by their role. We’ll start with underdogs.
Seven seasons of finishing above the break-even percentage are sandwiched around five seasons of falling below it (two in the beginning and three at the end). Overall, underdogs have still been slightly valuable over the past twelve seasons, but as in the aggregate, the rolling three-year cover percentage has declined for four consecutive seasons. What about favorites?
Favorites have finished above the break-even percentage in nine seasons, but there tend to be fewer teams in this role (about 3.7 per year versus 6.8 for underdogs). The rolling three-year cover percentage has never fallen below the break-even percentage. Finally, to provide a better visual representation, here is a graph of the overall, underdog, and favorite rolling three-year cover percentage. I also included the break-even percentage as a point of reference.
So what can we conclude from all this? A lot of data goes into creating the spread for football games. Casinos and bookmakers don’t typically lose money over the long run. This ‘trend’ of teams that struggle with FCS teams providing value in their next game could be a random blip. I did not look at an extremely large set of data. Even with twelve seasons worth, the number of observations is just 126. On the other hand, perhaps this three year period is the random blip in an otherwise solid trend. Or on a third hand, perhaps linemakers (without reading this blog) discovered this market inefficiency and have worked quietly over the past few years to correct it. Regardless, I am always fascinated by the point spread and this will be an area I follow closely not only in 2016, but for the rest of my football watching life.

Three years ago, I also included ATS information for teams that actually lose to FCS schools. Have those trends changed in the past three years? That’s what we in the business call a ‘tease’. Tune in next week to find out.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Summer of Polls Part IV: Under and Overrated Teams

Ever looked at the final AP Poll rankings for a particular year (say a year you don’t remember well thanks to drunken tailgate shenanigans) and thought: Man, [insert team name] was overrated. Or vice-versa. Have you ever scoured the final rankings and though: Man, [inserted team name] was ranked that low? I have. Many times. And, in the interests of being somewhat scientific, I wanted to quantify whether a team was ranked too high or too low in the final AP Poll. To do that I looked at the final AP Poll ranking of every Power 5 team since 2005. I then ran a regression analysis based on their record and final poll position. This regression spit out a formula. I used this formula to reverse-engineer the poll ranking of all the ranked Power 5 teams and determined which teams were the most over or underrated. If you want the results, skip on down, but I wanted to give some background and caveats before delving into them.

I only looked at teams that were in either the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-10/12, or SEC during the season in question. The Big East, with future Power 5 members Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, and West Virginia, was a BCS conference during this time frame, but I left those teams out when they were Big East members because I thought it would skew the results. Similarly, when Utah and TCU were Mountain West members, their final rankings were not included in this analysis. Other current mid-majors like Boise State, BYU, and Central Michigan were also left out. The regression analysis produced an R squared value of .7868 between winning percentage and final ranking with a regression formula of: -74.675*(win %) +71.347.

With that out of the way, here are the top-ten most overrated Power 5 teams since 2005.
In this analysis, teams tended to be overrated in bunches. The 2007 and 2016 seasons produced eight of the top-ten overrated teams. In 2016, pollsters were chomping at the bit to rank Southern Cal in the top-five despite the Trojans not winning their conference and losing by 46 points to Alabama. Southern Cal did close the year by winning nine consecutive games, with seven coming by double-digits, but if Arizona had a similar resume, I doubt they end up third in the country. Other notables from this list include last year’s LSU who are dinged by missing out on an assumed victory over South Alabama that would have given them nine wins, Tim Tebow’s Heisman winning Florida Gators (along with three other SEC teams from 2007 including that year’s national champion) who lost to a team that lost to an FCS team, Charlie Weis’ first Notre Dame squad, and another pair of teams from last season that lost blowouts, but closed the season strong.

And here are the most underrated Power 5 teams since 2005. Keep in mind, in order to make this list teams must finish ranked. So these teams finished ranked, but probably should have been ranked higher.
A rational explanation can be given for the relatively low finish for most of these teams. 2015 Northwestern won a lot of close games, but was blown out in their bowl game. 2010 Virginia Tech lost to an FCS team and was blown out in their bowl game. 2015 Florida won a weak division. 2012 Nebraska gave up 70 points in their conference championship game and then lost their bowl game for good measure. 2012 Ohio State was banned from the postseason. Undefeated teams also throw the model off as only four teams in addition to Ohio State have finished unbeaten (Texas 2005, Alabama 2009, Auburn 2010, and Florida State 2013). 2015 Oklahoma State was blown out in the Sugar Bowl in the last hurrah for Ole Miss. 2006 Boston College played in the ACC in 2006. You get the idea.

And finally here is a list of teams that probably should have finished ranked based on their record, but ultimately did not.
This is basically a list of every Power 5 team since 2005 that finished either 8-4 or 9-4 and did not factor into the final polls. Some of these teams are non-traditional powers that enjoyed solid seasons (Duke, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi St, Wake Forest, Washington State, and Virginia), but others are a little more curious. Not sure which pollsters’ wife Bo Pelini slept with (all of them?), but Nebraska finished unranked three times during his tenure despite 9-4 records. That bias also carried over to his successor. Pollsters may have been rankled by curmudgeon (and later sexual assault enabler) Joe Paterno as his teams finished unranked twice despite 9-4 records. However, the team with the biggest beef appears to be Georgia. The Bulldogs finished 10-3 in 2015 and even won their bowl game, but couldn’t wrangle a ranked finish despite playing in the SEC.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Strangers in the Field: III

The past two years, I have gone to Vegas and made some bets (and won a little money). I went again this year.

Over/Under Win Totals
The premise here is simple. These bets are on teams to either go 'over' or 'under' a baseline win total.

Bowling Green over 4 wins -135 ($30 to win $22.25)
After winning the MAC and losing their head coach in 2015, the 2016 season began rather inauspiciously for the Falcons. In their first four games, the Falcons allowed 221 points (including 77 points twice!), lost two blowout games to fellow G5 teams, and narrowly edged North Dakota of the FCS. That victory over the Fighting Hawks would stand as their lone win until early November. However, despite the poor start, the Falcons did not quit on first year head coach Mike Jinks. They closed the year with a three-game winning streak and actually finished as an average MAC team based on yards per play. The returning quarterback, James Morgan, is just a sophomore, but threw for over 2000 yards last season as a true freshman. The lumps the Falcons took in 2016, should start to pay dividends this season. The non-conference schedule is rough, with only one likely win (South Dakota) and three challenging road games (Michigan State, Northwestern, and Middle Tennessee), but the Falcons play in the easier MAC division (East) and should be able to get to .500 in conference play. That should be enough to push them over this low total. 

Buffalo over 3.5 wins even ($50 to win $50)
Speaking of disappointing MAC East teams. After narrowly missing out on a bowl game in Lance Leipold's first season, the Bulls slumped significantly last year. They finished with just two wins, their lowest total since 2010, and won just a single MAC contest. However, like Bowling Green, they got their freshman quarterback (Tyree Jackson) significant playing time which should pay dividends in 2017. Buffalo's non-conference schedule is significantly less challenging than Bowling Green's. The Bulls have a likely loss at Minnesota and a likely home win against Colgate. The Bulls could be underdogs in their other two games at Army and home against Florida Atlantic, but a split would not shock me. Despite their poor showing last season, the Bulls actually upset Army last season and beat Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton two years ago. If the Bulls manage two wins in the non-conference portion of their schedule, they should be able to find two additional ones in the MAC.

Central Florida under 7.5 wins -115 ($30 to win $26.10)
Scott Frost certainly impressed in his first season as a head coach. The Knights improved by six wins in the regular season, going from winless to bowl eligible and earning Frost a well-deserved contract extension. Can Frost get the Knights to improve again? I'm betting against it. For starters, the Knights had nowhere to go but up after their horrendous 2015 season. Even a generic coach could probably have guided a team with Central Florida's underlying talent (remember they won the Fiesta Bowl just three and a half years ago) to four wins. In addition, while the Knights did more than double their point production from 2015, they still finished last in the American in yards per play. With nine starters back and Frost's offensive resume, improvement can be expected, but that will probably be undermined by regression on defense. The Knights ranked second in yards allowed per play in the American last season, but return just four starters from that side of the ball. Thus, I would expect a relative wash and another 4-4 American record. Couple that with a somewhat challenging non-conference schedule (Georgia Tech and @Maryland), and I see Central Florida maxing out at seven regular season wins. 

Georgia Southern over 5 wins +110 ($30 to win $33)
Unlike Scott Frost, Tyson Summers did not endear himself to his school's fan base in his inaugural season. After winning 18 games in their first two seasons as an FBS program, the Eagles suffered their first losing season since 2009. Their dynamic run game averaged nearly 150 fewer yards per game and over two yards worse per carry. To say Summers is on the hot seat heading into 2017 is an understatement. In my 2016 Sun Belt APR piece, I did a little research on head coaches that struggle in their first season relative to expectations. On average, those coaches improve by about two regular season wins in their second season and almost 60% improve by at least two games. Doing so would put the Eagles over this low regular season win total. The Eagles face two P5 road games in non-conference play (Auburn and Indiana), but also have two very winnable games (New Hampshire and @ Massachusetts). The Eagles do have to play three of the Sun Belt favorites in 2017 (Appalachian State, Arkansas State, and Troy), but there are plenty of potential wins remaining on the conference schedule. If this number was five and a half, I would have been hesitant, but with the number at five, this should be a push at worse. 

Illinois over 3.5 wins +120 ($30 to win $66)
Illinois was a confounding team in 2016. The Illini were not 'good' by any stretch, but their yards per play numbers suggested a middling Big 10 team, not a team that won just two conference games. I'm not a huge fan of the Lovie Smith hire long-term as his resume as an NFL head coach did not involve a great deal of forward thinking (something that is probably required to win consistently at Illinois), but I think the Illini can strive to be bad in 2017 and not terrible. The Illini do not play any P5 teams in non-conference play, but could still be 1-2 once Big 10 action starts (likely underdogs to Western Kentucky and @ South Florida). If that comes to fruition, the Illini would need three league wins to hit the over here. They do have five league homes games with one likely win (Rutgers), three where they should be a slight underdog with a decent chance to pull off an upset (Nebraska, Indiana, and Northwestern), and one where they should be a heavy underdog (Wisconsin). Illinois will have to pull off an upset or two, but I don't think four wins is too much to ask here. A big key for the Illini will be the health of wide receiver Mike Dudek. As a freshman in 2014, Dudek led the Illini with over 1000 receiving, but has missed the last two seasons with ACL tears. If Dudek stays healthy and is able to recapture his 2014 form, the Illini could surprise in 2017 (and by surprise I mean not suck).

Marshall over 5 wins -130 ($30 to win $23.10)
I believe 2017 will serve as a referendum on the Doc Holliday regime in Huntington. After a three-year run that included a conference title, a top-25 finish, 33 wins, and three bowl victories, the Herd slumped to 3-9 in 2016. The three victories represented their lowest win total since 2007. His previous success has bought him a little time, but Holliday had better get the Herd back to a bowl in 2017 if he wants to remain head coach. When conducting a postmortem on the 2016 season, it is clear Marshall earned all of their losses. They were not exceptionally unlucky in any regard, as the formerly prolific offense finished dead last in Conference USA in yards per play. The defense was not quite as bad, but was certainly not a strength. The offense should see moderate improvement as quarterback Chase Litton begins his third year leading the Thundering Herd. Marshall does lose their top-four receivers, but has a pair of transfers from P5 programs (Miami and UCLA) coming in to provide reinforcements. Worse case, the Herd should be in the middle of the pack offensively in Conference USA. Defensively, the Herd's main problem last season was their inexperience. Marshall returned just three starters and allowed their most points per game since 2012. This season, they bring seven starters back and should return to the top tier of Conference USA defenses. So we can expect some improvement in league play, but what about the non-conference schedule? There is only one P5 team (@ NC State) and two home games against MAC schools (Miami and Kent State), along with a road game against Cincinnati. The Herd should be able to split those games then if they can get to four conference wins, that would push them over this number. 

Ole Miss over 5.5 wins -130 ($40 to win $30.80)
Oh boy. I knew this bet was risky before I made it. The Rebels already self-imposed a bowl ban and were under NCAA scrutiny before I made this bet. And then, two days after I made it the head coach resigned for (ahem) misdialing an escort service from his university phone. The lesson as always: use a damn burner phone. So obviously, motivation could play a major role in how this team performs in 2017, but here is why I thought it was a good bet at the time. The Rebels have a tissue soft non-conference schedule. Outside of a tricky road trip to Cal (where they will probably still be favored), the Rebels face South Alabama, UT-Martin, and Louisiana-Lafayette. That's two Sun Belt foes and an FCS team for those scoring at home. Many casual football fans may not know this, but the Rebels' permanent cross-division rival in the SEC is Vanderbilt. While the Commodores won last season, Ole Miss should send a fruit basket to the conference headquarters every holiday season to show their appreciation. So, Ole Miss faces Vanderbilt in one of their cross-division games. Care to guess who the other is this season? Kentucky. Unless the SEC expands southward and adds FAU and FIU, Ole Miss hit the jackpot in terms of SEC East opponents. Finally, while Ole Miss dropped their last two games to finish 5-7 last year, they did get quarterback Shea Patterson some valuable experience in both defeats. The Rebels are an archetypal wildcard in 2017 and this year could go a multitude of ways. Maybe they rally around each other and ride an 'us against the world' wave to a solid season or maybe an early-season loss at California takes the fire out of the team and they limp through SEC play going through the motions. Either way, Ole Miss will be one of the most interesting teams of 2017. 

SMU over 5.5 wins -110 ($30 to win $27.30)
SMU is ready to make the proverbial leap in Year 3 of the Chad Morris era. The former Clemson offensive coordinator and Texas high school coach has quickened the pace in Dallas with the Mustangs averaging about nine more plays per game under his guidance than they did in 2014. However, success and efficiency have been slower to come around. The Mustangs have finished just tenth in the American in both 2015 and 2016 in yards per play. Of course, this represented a massive improvement from their inept 2014 showing, but the Mustangs have not revived the 'Pony Express' moniker yet. That should change in 2017 with SMU returning nine starters on offense and bringing in transfer quarterback Rafe Peavey to challenge incumbent Ben Hicks. The Mustangs are also poised for a strong start with four of their first five games coming at home, including non-conference clashes with Stephen F. Austin, North Texas, and Arkansas State. A sweep of that trifecta and a likely loss to TCU would have the Mustangs halfway to a bowl bid and an 'over' hit with a whole conference campaign to go. SMU has won eight games over the past three seasons and I would not be surprised if they matched that number in 2017. 

Texas-San Antonio under 6.5 wins even ($30 to win $60)
Call this a hunch that regression's ubiquitous pull will even catch up to the vaunted Roadrunner. In his first season as head coach, Frank Wilson helped UTSA double their win total from 2015 and guided them to their first bowl appearance in school history. The accomplishment was impressive, particularly considering the Roadrunners faced three challenging non-conference games (@ Colorado State, Arizona State, and @ Texas A&M). UTSA won five conference games despite middling numbers (ninth in yards per play and sixth in yards allowed per play), so improvement in the product, but a setback in the record would not be surprising. UTSA only has two challenging non-conference games this season (Houston and @ Baylor), so a repeat of last year's conference record would push them over this number. Methinks regression from the Roadrunners and improvement elsewhere in Conference USA (Rice and UTEP) will see UTSA top out at 6-6 and potentially miss out on a second bowl appearance altogether. 

UNLV over 5.5 wins +125 ($30 to win $37.50)
Like Chad Morris at SMU, I think Tony Fernandez has some 'third year magic' up his sleeve in Sin City. The Rebels have improved their win total (overall and conference play) in both of his seasons at the helm and the Rebels were practically an average Mountain West team last season based on yards per play despite their losing record. If the Rebels do get to a bowl in 2017,it will be on the back of the offense. That side of the ball returns nine starters while the defense undergoes wholesale changes with just two starters returning. The pivotal game for this team will probably come in the season's second week at Idaho. With Howard in the season opener and Ohio State and BYU coming later in the non-conference schedule, the Rebels desperately need the win against the Vandals. Earning two wins in non-conference play will make getting to the requisite six wins much easier. The schedule makers did do the Rebels a few favors in their cross-division games as they avoid both Boise State and Colorado State (favorites in the Mountain division). Couple that with occupying the easier division (San Diego State is a prohibitive favorite in the West, but the other five teams are virtually interchangeable) and UNLV has a realistic path to a bowl bid even if they lose to Idaho. 

Utah State over 4.5 wins even ($40 to win $40)
Utah State was one of the most unlucky teams in the nation in 2016. The Aggies had the statistical profile of a bowl team, but finished 3-9 thanks to four losses by a touchdown or less. All signs point toward a rebound in 2017, and the Aggies don't even have to qualify for a bowl game to cash this ticket. Non-conference action will be tough with two P5 road games (Wisconsin and Wake Forest) as well as a home date with in-state rival BYU. The Aggies do get a little respite with Idaho State, but 1-3 is a realistic proposition in non-conference play. That being said, once conference play starts, the Aggies will probably be substantial underdogs in just two games (Colorado State and Boise State), but it should be noted both those games are in Logan and two years ago the Aggies beat both those teams by a combined 41 points. Even assuming the Aggies lose all five of those tough games, I think they can win four of the remaining six (they avoid San Diego State in cross-division games) and hit the 'over' here. 

Wake Forest under 5.5 wins -145 ($40 to win $27.60)
Dave Clawson has a history of ramping things up in his fourth season in charge. His fourth year teams at Fordham, Richmond, and Bowling Green combined to go 29-11. So why bet against this solid trend? Take a look at that schedule. The Deacons open with Presbyterian, but that is the only sure win on the slate. The other non-conference games come against Utah State, @ Appalachian State, and @ Notre Dame. The Deacons will probably beat Utah State, but losing the other two would not be a surprising development. And then there is conference play. When the Deacons won the ACC eleven years ago, Clemson and Florida State did not have their acts together. Now they do. Plus in the interim, the division swapped Louisville for Maryland, who just happens to return the Heisman Trophy winner. Even NC State appears to be on the upswing. And the two lesser teams in the division (Boston College and Syracuse)? Well, Wake Forest has to play both of those teams on the road. Plus, while I don't expect Boston College to be significantly better than last season (when they beat Wake by the way), Syracuse could see significant improvement in Dino Babers' second season. In cross-division play, Wake must travel to Georgia Tech and host Duke. The cross-division games could be worse, but of their eight conference games, Wake will probably only be favored in one (Duke) or two (@ Boston College). The Boston College game is probably the biggest game of the year. It comes immediately after the scrimmage opener against Presbyterian and its easy to see the season going right off the rails should the Deacons lose that game. Even if they win, I think the ACC is too deep for Wake to qualify for a second consecutive bowl.  

Games of the Year
Typically betting lines are set on Sunday for games beginning the following week. However, sportsbooks set a few 'Game of the Year' lines for certain games that are months away from occurring. The home team in these games is listed in bold.

September 9th
Boise State +6.5 Washington State -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
If you go looking for undervalued mid-majors, Boise is typically not your first stop. The Broncos are a known national brand, having spent at least one week in the polls during each of the past fifteen seasons. However, I think this visit to Pullman is an exception. There has not been a lot of buzz around Boise this year thanks to their underwhelming bowl performance. As a solid favorite, the Broncos were crushed by a Baylor team playing for a lame duck coach entering on a six-game losing streak. Bowl performances are notoriously flaky so its best to just look at the regular season numbers for the Broncos. 2016 was a typical Boise performance. The Broncos ranked second in the Mountain West in yards per play on both sides of the ball and were a solid second overall (to San Diego State). They did lose twice in conference play, but both defeats came by a combined nine points. In non-conference play, the Broncos beat Washington State and BYU at home and won at Louisiana-Lafayette and Oregon State. With a little better luck, the mid-major story of 2016 could have been which group of Broncos were more deserving of a New Year's Six Bowl bid: Boise State or Western Michigan. As it was, Boise State underachieved and the Broncos enter 2017 with little hype. Since Chris Petersen left following the 2014 season, Boise State has remained a thorn in the side of P5 opponents, posting a 5-2 overall record (3-2 away from the Smurf Turf). Washington State has steadily improved in five seasons under Mike Leach, which is tough considering they play in a division with Oregon, Stanford, and Washington (otherwise known as the last eight Pac-10/12 champions). If they could manage to hold serve against FCS schools, the national media might start paying attention to the Cougars before November. Washington State has sandwiched bad starts and finishes around fantastic play in the past two seasons. In 2015, the Cougars lost their first and last regular season games, but in between went 8-2. In 2016, the Cougars lost their first two and final two regular season games, but in between won eight games in a row. This gambler for one, would enjoy another slow start by Washington State. Both teams have prolific and efficient offenses, but despite playing in the Mountain West, Boise has a better defensive pedigree. With them catching nearly a touchdown here, I'll take that defensive acumen over the homefield advantage. 

November 4th
TCU +2.5 Texas -110 ($20 to win $18.20)
The biggest worry I have in this game is the 'look ahead' factor. TCU has Oklahoma on deck, while Texas just has their revenge game with Kansas to look forward to after this one. TCU is playing at home against a 'big brother' type rival whom they have beaten four of five times since joining the Big 12. In fact, they have won three in a row in this series by a total of 103 points. Texas is favored in this game thanks to their hiring of Tom Herman in the offseason. While Herman did good things at Houston, all four of his losses as coach (including three last season) came as a betting favorite on the road. I think TCU wins this game outright, so them catching any number of points provides value here. 

November 4th
Iowa +16 Ohio State -110 ($20 to win $18.20)
For Ohio State, this is the dreaded 'sandwich game'. In between this visit to Iowa City, the Buckeyes host Penn State in a revenge spot and then host Michigan State. I think they won't bring their 'A' game to take on the Hawkeyes. While the Buckeyes have been successful overall as a double-digit road favorite under Urban Meyer, going 14-1 straight up, they are just 6-9 Against the Spread (ATS). Iowa has only been a double-digit home underdog three times in the last thirteen years, and while they have won just one (last year versus Michigan), they have covered each time. 

November 11th
TCU +15 Oklahoma -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
I think Oklahoma is due for some regression in 2016. While the Sooners were statistically the best team in the Big 12 last season, their profile did not necessarily befit a team that wins all their conference games. The offense was superb, ranking first in the offensive-friendly Big 12 in yards per play, but the defense ranked just fourth in yards allowed per play. That is above-average, but hardly elite. If the Sooners have any sort of offensive regression, which is a definite possibility thanks to the surprise retirement of Bob Stoops, a few of those blowouts could get closer and some of those close games could flip the other way. Oklahoma has won four of the five contests with TCU since the Horned Frogs joined the Big 12, but every game has been decided by seven points or fewer with an average margin of just 4.2 points. Before last season's shootout, TCU held Oklahoma to under six yards per play in their first four meetings. I think that historical trend continues with TCU keeping this one close. 

November 25th
West Virginia +20.5 Oklahoma -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
Since promoting Tony Gibson to the defensive coordinator position prior to the 2014 season, West Virginia has quietly become one of the better defensive teams in the Big 12. In their first two seasons in the Big 12 with Gibson not coordinating the unit, the Mountaineers finished ninth in the conference both times in yards allowed per play. They also allowed nearly 41 points per conference game! Since Gibson's promotion, the Mountaineers have finished second, third, and second in yards allowed per play and given up about 27 points per conference game. The two touchdown per game improvement has allowed the Mountaineers to go from 6-12 in their first two seasons of Big 12 play to 16-11 over the past three. Of course, West Virginia has yet to beat Oklahoma since joining the conference and on the national stage with the conference title on the line, the Mountaineers were bludgeoned by 28 points last year in Morgantown. However, the final score was a bit misleading as West Virginia turned the ball over three times and actually outgained Oklahoma by almost three yards per play. As I mentioned in the previous write-up, Oklahoma is probably due for some regression with the coaching change. I don't think West Virginia has the goods to upset them in Norman, but I think they keep this game within three touchdowns. 

November 25th
Utah -1.5 Colorado -110 ($50 to win $45.45)
Colorado was one of the biggest surprises in all of college football last season. After ten consecutive losing seasons and just ten wins in Mike MacIntyre's first three seasons, the Buffaloes won ten games, spent a few weeks in the top-ten, and played for the Pac-12 title. Now comes the hard part, sustaining that success. The Buffaloes lose eight starters from their defense which ranked second in the Pac-12 in yards allowed per play. That coupled with some natural regression should preclude any thought of consecutive division titles. The fact that this game is in Salt Lake City, a place where the Utes are 10-3 over the past two seasons (and 46-16 over the past decade), and the very low spread makes this a must play for the home team. 

Conference Champion Bets
I decided to put a few dollars down on a team to win their league.

TCU to win the Big 12 +1000 ($10 to win $100)
I expect TCU to improve upon their 6-7 record from last season and I expect Oklahoma to come back to the pack a little. If the Horned Frogs finish in the top-two, they will qualify for the Big 12 Championship Game and have a chance to cash this ticket.

Miscellaneous Bets
This is a college football blog, but there were a few other events I wanted to bet on.

Milwaukee Brewers to win World Series +1500 ($10 to win $150)
At the All-Star break, this would have looked pretty good. The Brewers were up 5.5 games on the Cubs. Milwaukee has hit a bit of tailspin since the break and as of this writing, while they have a one game lead, they are actually behind the Cubs in the loss column. Personally, I think the Brewers will fade unless they are able to add another bat to plug the gaping hole at second base, but figured they were worth taking a flyer on.

Minnesota Twins to win World Series +3000 ($10 to win $300)
By any statistical measure, the Minnesota Twins are not a good baseball team. Yet, there they are in late July, trailing the Cleveland Indians by 1.5 games in the AL Central (and 2 games back of the second Wild Card). The World Series seems destined to be a showdown between the powerhouses in Houston and Los Angeles, but the baseball playoffs are often unpredictable and very random. If Minnesota gets in, this lottery ticket will be worth hanging on to. Plus, it wouldn't be the first time Minnesota won the World Series while actually being a pretty bad team.

Tampa Bay Rays to win World Series +5000 ($10 to win $500)
Not sure how the Rays have much worse odds than the Twins, but I'll take it. Tampa Bay is only 3.5 games back of Boston in the AL East and tied with the Yankees for the Wild Card. They field well (fourth in the majors in Defensive Efficiency) and actually have an above average adjusted OPS despite ranking in the middle of the pack in the American League in runs scored. The Rays are probably the most likely of these three teams to make the playoffs (despite the long odds on the betting ticket), and once they get there, anything can happen. 

Reckless Parlay(s)
I made two reckless parlays instead of one this year. However, I decreased the number of teams, so this should pretty much guarantee it hits. All games must be correct for the parlay to pay out.

Parlay 1:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 26th 
Massachusetts +1 Hawaii
Hawaii travels across the country to play a Minutemen team that...will probably still be bad, but that's a long flight.

Game 2: September 1st
Utah State +29 Wisconsin
Utah State was better than their record last season and will prove it here by losing by less than four touchdowns.

Game 3: September 2nd
Florida International +17.5 Central Florida
The Butch Davis era kicks off with a 'rivalry' game against the overrated Knights. 

Game 4: September 2nd
Middle Tennessee State +6 Vanderbilt
This could be Rick Stockstill's best team in Murfreesboro and they are playing at home against a beatable SEC opponent.

Parlay 2:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 31st
Buffalo +27.5 Minnesota
Buffalo will be much improved in 2017 and the PJ Fleck era at Minnesota will begin with a closer than expected win.

Game 2: September 1st
Charlotte +12.5 Eastern Michigan
No one was happier to see Eastern Michigan break a three-decade bowl drought last season than me. However, they should not be giving double-digits to nearly any FBS program. 

Game 3: September 1st
Florida Atlantic +14 Navy
Lane Kiffin and his Owls have had all offseason to prepare for the option. Hopefully he has not spent all his time posing with coeds and trolling Ole Miss

Game 4: September 2nd
Marshall +1 Miami (Ohio)
Marshall typically plays very well at home, going 29-7 in Doc Holliday's first six seasons before last year's surprising 3-4 home record. The Herd are undervalued this season.