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.

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