Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

We bounced back nicely last week. Obviously, as with any great week, fortune smiled upon us. We covered a few games by the slimmest of margins and had a nice backdoor cover by Texas A&M, but we'll take it. Hopefully our luck does not run dry this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall: 8-6

Ball State +2.5 Florida Atlantic
They say time is a flat circle and if you look at Lane Kiffin’s coaching career, you might be inclined to believe whoever they is (are?). After a double-digit win season at Southern Cal, Kiffin won just ten of his next 18 games as coach of the Trojans and was famously fired on the tarmac after a blowout loss to Arizona State. After a double-digit win season in his debut at Boca Raton, the Owls are just 5-9 over the past season and two games. Perhaps Kiffin was propped up by his initial offensive coordinator Kendal Briles? Consider that in his first season, the Owls were fantastic as favorites, finishing 8-2 overall ATS in the role and 3-1 ATS as a road favorite. Since Briles departed after the 2017 season, the Owls are just 1-5-1 ATS as a favorite, including 0-2 ATS on the road. Four of those non-covers have resulted in outright upset losses as well. While the Owls have not been favored yet in 2019, their first two performances have been lackluster at best. The Owls did manage a cover at Ohio State, but at home against an in-state rival, they looked listless in a five touchdown loss. The offense is averaging under three and a half yards per play under offensive coordinator and manifestation of white privilege, Charlie Weis Jr. Maybe this is the week the Owls get their act together, but Ball State has been relatively impressive against a decent Power Five team and an overmatched FCS opponent. I’ll take the Cardinals playing at home to continue FAU’s struggles as a road favorite.

Georgia Southern +15.5 Minnesota
I’m not sure why Minnesota was installed as such a large favorite here. The Gophers are quite fortunate to have won their first two games against South Dakota State and Fresno State. Both of their opponents averaged more yards per play than the Gophers and if not for some clutch play and a defensive score, Minnesota could well be 0-2. People might be reticent to back Georgia Southern after their poor showing against LSU when the triple option was bottled up to the tune of just 98 total yards in a 55-3 loss. But if you haven’t noticed, LSU is pretty good. The Tigers showed their offense may have indeed turned a corner by dropping 45 on Texas in Austin. Suddenly the double nickel Georgia Southern allowed in Baton Rouge doesn’t look so bad. Also keep in mind Minnesota was out in California last week and now must prepare for a unique offense without a bye week or offseason to gameplan. I wouldn't be too concerned if Georgia Southern quarterback  Shai Werts is unable to play for the second week in a row as his backup, put up solid numbers against Maine. Regardless of the trigger man, the Eagles should limit the possessions and do enough to keep this one within two touchdowns.

UNLV +19 Northwestern
I follow college football in two ways, as a fan and as a degenerate. That dichotomy certainly manifests itself in this game. In the non-handicapping world, UNLV coach Tony Sanchez is probably on his way out. Through four plus seasons in Sin City, Sanchez has guided the Rebels to a 17-33 overall record with nary a single bowl appearance. The Rebels famously lost as a massive favorite in the 2017 season opener to Cam Newton's little brother and Howard (the university, not the Duck). Ultimately, UNLV finished 5-7 that season, so that loss prevented them from qualifying for the postseason and perhaps buying Sanchez a little time. With two Power Five teams left on the schedule and the rugged Mountain West slate to follow, the Rebels are likely headed for a sixth straight losing season and Sanchez is likely headed to the unemployment line. However, in the eyes of a degenerate, UNLV has been a solid play away from home under Sanchez. The Rebels are 14-7 ATS as a road underdog and 8-3 ATS as a double-digit road underdog. The Rebels are also 4-0 ATS on the road against Power Five opponents. After UNLV's putrid home performance against Arkansas State last week, now is the perfect time to buy in. And you never want to lay a lot of points with Northwestern. Over the past five seasons, Northwestern is just 8-11 ATS as a home favorite including 2-6 ATS as a double-digit home favorite. In addition, the Wildcats are 1-5 ATS in that span as a home favorite against Group of Five teams. They have also lost three of those games outright, including last year to Akron. UNLV looked like trash last week against Arkansas State, but don't forget Northwestern did not exactly set the college world afire in their opener against Stanford. The Wildcats gained just over 200 yards and averaged just 3.5 yards per play against a Stanford defense that was just burnt to a crisp by a freshman quarterback making his first start. I'm not bold enough to predict an outright UNLV win, but don't be surprised if the fourth quarter score scrolls by while your're watching Alabama and South Carolina and shows a one-possession game.

Colorado State +10 Arkansas
I listen to a lot of college football podcasts in the hopes of improving my handicapping skills. I like hearing what successful handicappers think about teams and comparing them to my own thoughts and numbers. That being said, I'm not sure why a lot of handicappers I respect are down on Colorado State. Yes, the Rams were bad last season, but prior to their struggles, Mike Bobo had maintained a solid program in Fort Collins. I figured they were in for a bit of a bounce back in 2019 and nothing they have done thus far has changed my mind. In the opener, they failed to cover against Colorado, but the offense played well. In fact, they were quite comparable to what the ballyhooed Nebraska Cornhuskers did the next week against the Buffaloes. In their second game, the Rams pummeled a quality FCS team, which is much better than what happened last season. Suffice to say, Colorado State has improved in 2019. That is not necessarily the case for Arkansas. The Hogs edged Portland State in their opener and then lost their twelfth consecutive conference game last week to Ole Miss. The Hogs have scored 37 points in their first two games against two of the weaker teams on the schedule. There is a real chance the Hogs go winless in the SEC for the third time in seven seasons. I hate laying a lot of points and you should certainly hate doing so with an offense this bad. Oh, and I forgot to mention Colorado State actually won this game last season so playing an SEC team, albeit on the road, should not be intimidating. The moneyline for this game implies Arkansas has about a 75-80% win probability. I think Colorado State's chances to win are much closer to 40%. Take the Rams to keep this one close and potentially win outright.

Charlotte -19 Massachusetts
In their brief history as an FBS program, Charlotte has been favored against another FBS team just once. They did lose that game, but I digress. The 49ers look like one of the more improved teams in the country under first year head coach Will Healy. Healy rebuilt the Austin Peay program in the FCS ranks, and early returns are positive in the Queen City as well. Charlotte has scored at least forty points in consecutive games for the first time (as an FBS program) and the offense is averaging a pristine 7.1 yards per play. The 49ers have done all this despite a negative turnover margin (-4 through two games) and some special teams breakdowns (allowed three special teams touchdowns in two games). With Conference USA looking less than imposing, the 49ers have a great shot at getting to their first ever bowl game and perhaps challenging for the East division crown. Meanwhile, Massachusetts is in a certified Year Zero situation. In their opener, the Minutemen allowed nearly 50 points to a Rutgers team last seen gaining 47 yards on 27 pass attempts against Iowa. They followed that up by getting tattooed at home by an FCS team (and not a good one). I’m not going to proclaim Walt Bell a failure after two games as head coach, but the Minutemen are in for a long season and may be the worst FBS team of 2019. Charlotte should win and cover her with little difficulty.

TCU -2 Purdue
This line flipped from the opener when the Boilermakers were installed as slight favorites. Part of that probably means the line was incorrect and the other part is probably the health of quarterback Elijah Sindelar. Sindelar suffered a concussion against Vanderbilt and may not play against the Horned Frogs. As this is not the 70's, when this would have probably been classified as Sindelar having his 'bell rung', I would not expect him to play here. Even before the Sindelar news came out, I was thinking of taking the Horned Frogs to cover here. Now with Gary Patterson's team potentially facing a quarterback who has yet to throw a pass in his college career, and the line this low, I almost have to take them. Since 2005, TCU has played seventeen non-conference road games. They are 13-4 straight up in those games and 11-6 ATS. I know the Horned Frogs were less than impressive on offense in their opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and while that will probably prevent them from legitimate contention in the Big 12, their defense should play well enough to get them the win here. And with a spread this low, a win usually means a cover.

New Mexico State +16 San Diego State
After seeing what Boise State, Hawaii, Nevada, and Wyoming did, San Diego State decided to get in on the fun and beat a Power Five team. Their victory against UCLA marked the fourth straight year they have beaten a Pac-12 opponent and gave them a 5-1 record in that span against their supposed superiors. Despite the victory, something feels a little off about this San Diego State team. The defense is still salty as always, holding UCLA to under 300 yards and just 14 points (of course perhaps any functional defense could do that to UCLA). However, the running game, a Rocky Long staple, has not been good in the early going. In Long’s eight plus seasons in San Diego, he has built the Aztecs into a run-first explosive attack. However, the combustibility has been absent thus far in 2019. The following table lists the team’s leading rusher along with their attempts, yardage, and yards per carry for the duration of Long’s tenure.
Only once in the previous eight seasons did the Aztecs leading rusher average less than five yards per carry and half the time they averaged more than six yards per tote. With that track record, it’s stunning how bad the running game has been in the early going. I’m not going to pretend to have watched the All 22 feed of San Diego State’s first two games and broken down the film, but I’m guessing the issue is the offensive line. With Washington’s track record as a solid runner, I doubt he suddenly lost his effectiveness. That being said, San Diego State cannot blame a difficult schedule for their offensive struggles. Weber State and UCLA pale in comparison to the gauntlet New Mexico State has already faced two games into their season. Most Group of Five teams would be 0-2 after trips to Washington State and Alabama. In fairness, the Aggies did not acquit themselves well in either game, losing by a combined margin of more than 100 points. However, the Aggies probably went into those games with the realistic expectation they would lose so I doubt they opened up the playbook. The likely goal was to get in, get out with as few injuries as possible, and collect a sweet, sweet paycheck that the players are in no way entitled to. This is the Aggies home opener and they have a decent chance at victory here (as compared to their infinitesimal odds against Washington State and Alabama), so they should be plenty motivated despite their rough start. Meanwhile, the Aztecs are fresh off a victory against a Pac-12 team and have their conference opener next week, so they could very well be overlooking the Aggies. Also, keep in mind that San Diego State has scored all of two touchdowns this season. This is not a team you want to be laying a lot of points with. Take New Mexico State and the points.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week II

Last week was bad. And then Stanford made it a lot worse. But hey, bad beats happen. That's why its called 'gambling'. The good news is it happened in Week One, so we have all season to rebound. Here's hoping it starts on Saturday (actually Friday). As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 2-5

Wake Forest -19 Rice
This might be the first time I have ever taken a double-digit, much less three score, favorite to win on the road. But hear me out. Rice could not have asked for a more diverse set of opponents in their first two games in terms of both offensive system and tempo. Army runs the triple-option at a slow pace while Wake Forest runs a lightning fast spread. Rice's 14-7 loss to Army and Wake Forest's 38-35 win against Utah State may as well have been different sports. Discounting end of half kneel downs, the Rice game saw 17 combined possessions (nine for Rice and eight for Army) while the Wake game saw 31 (fifteen for Wake and sixteen for Utah State). While the Rice defense did acquit itself well against Army, it will be facing a much different foe, at a much faster pace, for more possessions. Nineteen points is a lot to lay with a defense as suspect as Wake's but the Demon Deacons will not be facing a potential NFL quarterback this week. Rice wants to become the G5 version of Stanford and use their girth to impose a power running game on their opponents. At the moment, that is very much a work in progress. Wake Forest is by far the better team so with a fast tempo and more possessions, they should be able to cover this large number.

Maryland -1 Syracuse
Am I really going to do it? Am I backing Mike Locksley in a game his team has to win in order to cover? Sure looks that way. Syracuse began the 2019 season by winning and covering as a road favorite for just the third time under Dino Babers. Despite the shutout victory over Liberty, the Orange look like they are going to miss departed quarterback Eric Dungey. His former understudy and current replacement Tommy DeVito managed to complete less than half his throws to go along with two interceptions against the less than formidable defense of the Flames. The Orange defense played reasonably well (as is usually the case in a shutout), but the Flames did miss a field goal and lose a fumble inside the Syracuse ten, so the Orange are probably not the '85 Bears. As for Maryland, they opened the Mike Locksley era with a dominating performance against Howard. I try not to read too much into blowouts of FCS opponents, but Howard has been competitive against FBS opponents over the past two seasons. I may end up regretting this immediately after kickoff, but I think Maryland can get the win here. Give me the Terps.

Rutgers +20.5 Iowa
Sometimes you have to do it. Despite the aesthetics, you have to back an ugly dog if there is some value. And dogs don't get any uglier than Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have toiled at the bottom of the Big 10 standings since joining the conference in 2014. Their 3-5 conference mark in their maiden voyage has been the pinnacle of their success in the Big 10. Since winning three of their first eight conference games, Rutgers has gone just 4-31 against Big 10 foes since. However, they have been at least marginally competitive when catching a big number. Under Chris Ash, Rutgers is a respectable 6-7 ATS as a double-digit road favorite. You won't win money consistently betting on them, but there is some value to be had if you pick your spots. Based on how well the offense played in the opener (I know it was against Massachusetts), this might be one of those spots. Against the Minutemen, Rutgers averaged more than seven yards per play for the first time since 2015! Quarterback McLane Carter did throw three interceptions, but he also averaged eleven yards per pass and two pass catchers gained more than one hundred yards receiving. Iowa has Iowa State on deck, so the perennial punching bag may not have the Hawkeyes full attention. In addition, Iowa is just 5-10 ATS as a double-digit home favorite since the start of the 2014 season. I don't know that I would recommend watching this game, but Rutgers should score enough to cover this large number.

Northern Illinois +21.5 Utah
Utah began the 2019 season with great expectations and did not disappoint in their opener. The Utes handily won the Holy War (their ninth victory in a row in the series) on the road. They were only marginally better than BYU in terms of yards and yards per play, but they won the turnover battle (+3) and scored twice on defense to get a relatively large margin against a quality opponent. Now the Utes return home and look to avoid a letdown against Northern Illinois. This is just the second all-time meeting between the two teams, with the first coming last year in DeKalb. Touchdowns were at a premium in that game and the Utes sealed the deal with a late pick six. Meanwhile, Northern Illinois opened the Thomas Hammock era by beating an FCS team, but it should be noted the Redbirds had beaten their last two FBS opponents. I don't expect Hammock and the Huskies to shock the world, but they are a good play catching more than three touchdowns. For starters, this game should be played at a snail's pace. Northern Illinois ran just 68 plays last week while Utah ran 64. This game should feature fewer possessions than your average FBS game and limit the scoring margin. In addition, Utah is coming off an emotional season opener and may not be as motivated facing the Huskies as they would for a conference opponent. The Huskies will keep this one relatively close in the first leg of their Power Five road trip (next two games are at Nebraska and Vanderbilt).

South Florida +6 Georgia Tech
Neither the Bulls nor the Yellow Jackets looked good in their openers, which is why I am very surprised this line is so high. South Florida lost their seventh straight game dating back to last season in non-competitive fashion against Wisconsin while Georgia Tech opened the Geoff Collins era by losing at the defending champs. I know the South Florida program appears to be crumbling under Charlie Strong, but I don't understand how you can lay nearly a touchdown with Georgia Tech. For the past decade or so, the Yellow Jackets were one of my favorite teams to watch as they were the lone Power Five team to run the triple-option. Naturally, there will be growing pains as the team transitions from the triple to a more 'normal' college offense. That was certainly on display last week with the team completing under 40% of their eighteen pass attempts. Of course, as should be obvious from the zero points they scored against Wisconsin, South Florida is not exactly set at quarterback either. Blake Barnett passed like a triple-option quarterback, completing just 13 of his 30 passes against the Badgers. I don't think we'll see the offensive ineptitude the nation witnessed between Wake Forest and Virginia Tech five years ago (#neverforget), but this will probably be an ugly game. When two bad teams are playing, give me the one getting points.
Coming this summer, College Football Classics on ACCN!

Texas A&M +17.5 Clemson
I try not to be contrarian just for the sake of being contrarian, but I feel like Clemson might be a shade overrated this season. Not like they finish 8-4 overrated, just the consensus number one team overrated. I know they certainly looked the part after Trevor Lawrence took over last season, especially in the postseason, but the Tigers did lose a lot of talent to the NFL draft. The Tigers had six players selected in April's draft, including three in the first round. Five of the six players were from last season's stellar defense. With the ACC in shambles, the Tigers are still clear favorites, but perhaps they shouldn't be laying so many points against a quality opponent. The Aggies won their final four games in 2018, including two quality victories against LSU and NC State and opened the 2019 season by routing Texas State. The victory against the Bobcats could have been more impressive had the Aggies not thrown a pick and fumbled inside the Texas State ten. There is a great deal of randomness inherent in turnovers, and while there is no guarantee they won't happen again, all things being equal, Aggie fans would probably prefer they happened last last week. Jimbo Fisher has coached against Dabo Swinney in every season of his head coaching career. While he is just 4-5 straight up and ATS, the underdog in games between the coaches is 6-3 ATS, while the favorite is 8-1 straight up. I believe that trend will continue here. Clemson will win, but the Aggies will cover.

North Carolina +4 Miami
The Tar Heels and Hurricanes enter this conference opener fresh off non-conference games against SEC opponents. While the final score of both games was 24-20, with North Carolina winning and Miami losing by that final score, a look into the respective box scores reveal the Tar Heels were somewhat unfortunate to only win by four, while Miami was fortunate to only lose by four. North Carolina outgained South Carolina by over 200 yards and averaged nearly two more yards per play than the Gamecocks. Freshman quarterback Sam Howell vastly outperformed senior Jake Bentley and despite struggles to finish drives and some clock management issues from Mack Brown, the Tar Heels survived. Meanwhile, Miami was outgained by about a yard per play by Florida and needed a net turnover margin of +3 (and a foolish pass interference) to stay close with the Gators. Miami's porous offensive line allowed their freshman quarterback to be sacked a whopping ten times by Florida! Yet somehow, Miami enters this game favored by more than a field goal. Since joining the ACC, Miami has visited Chapel Hill seven times. They are 3-4 straight up and 1-6 ATS, losing three times as an outright favorite and never winning by more than six points. I expect another close game on Saturday, so take the home team getting points.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week I

We finally made it. College football is back. Another long offseason is in the books and now we get to kick back and enjoy the spoils of the world's greatest sport. 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. Last year, I hit on a personal best 55%, so we will try to keep the correct picks flowing. However, as Rod Serling once said this is 'not a prediction of what is to be, just a projection of what could be.' As always, home teams in BOLD.

UCLA +3 Cincinnati
Chip Kelly's first season in Los Angeles felt a lot like his first and only season in San Francisco. The Bruins went just 3-9, which marked their worst record since 1971. However, after a brutal start to the season, the Bruins were competitive over the second half. They won three of their final seven games and the offense was much more prolific. In their first five games, the offense averaged just north of 18 points per game and did not top 24 points in any contest. Over their final seven games, the Bruins averaged an even 29 points per game and scored more than 30 points four times. The defense was still problematic in the second half, but Kelly's offensive system appeared to take a foothold. The Bruins will look to build on that second half improvement against an upstart Cincinnati team coming of their best season since 2009 and their first ranked finish since 2011. Despite the success, it feels like Cincinnati might have arrived a bit too soon in 2018. After all, they did improve their regular season win total by six games in Luke Fickell's second year. I looked at all Group of Five teams that saw their regular season win total increase by at least five wins over the past five years. Eleven other teams fit that description. Those eleven teams appeared to be over-valued by the betting market the next season. They combined for a 36-38-3 ATS mark as favorites the next season. On the surface, there does not appear to be a lot of value in going against those rapidly improving Group of Five teams. However, if we take out the outliers, the numbers are much more damning. UCF improved by at least five games in two consecutive years, going from 0-12 in 2015 to 6-6 in 2016 to 11-0 in 2017. Their record as a favorite ATS in those two follow up seasons was 15-5-1. Once we drop them, the ATS mark of rapidly improving teams drops to a much less impressive 21-33-2. I think Cincinnati is in good hands under Fickell, but I think the market has over-corrected in regards to their power rating. In addition, keep in mind that although UCLA is heading east, this game is a night kickoff. Were this a Noon kick on Saturday, I would avoid it like the plague, but I don't expect the Bruins to take a quarter to wake up. Finally, I'll leave you with this nugget. The last time UCLA was as bad as they were last season (also under a first year coach), they responded by winning eight games the next season.

Rutgers -15 Massachusetts
I never saw the movie Dead Man Walking (no doubt it was a zombie flick with over the top violence), but that title could very well describe Rutgers coach Chris Ash. Ash enters his fourth season at the State College of New Jersey with a 7-29 overall record, including a 3-24 Big 10 mark. With a projected win total of just 2.5 at most sports books, Ash will likely be replaced at season's end, if not before. Despite the pessimism surrounding the program, for one weekend at least, the Scarlet Knights might have something to feel good about. Under Ash, Rutgers has been favored against an FBS opponent just three previous times. For what its worth, they did lose one of those games outright, but they covered the other two, including their only other turn as a double-digit favorite in the 2018 opener. For a team to be a double-digit underdog to Rutgers, they have to be pretty bad, and the Minutemen of Massachusetts have been one of the worst teams in the country since they made their return to FBS in 2012. In that span, they are just 18-66 overall, and while they were more competitive (especially on offense) under former coach Mark Whipple, he never managed to win more than four games in any season. Not only do the Minutemen lose Whipple, they also lose both quarterbacks that saw significant action over the past three seasons, and the nation's leading receiver from 2018. The Minutemen averaged over 30 points per game the past two seasons, but with all the changes on offense, that number may be cut in half in 2019. In addition, the Minutemen have allowed at least 30 points per game in every season since 2012, including nearly 43 points per game last season! The defense is unlikely to see significant improvement and the offense seems certain to regress. Couple those two factors together and Massachusetts might be the worst FBS team in 2019. Rutgers will not have many opportunities to feel good about themselves in 2019, so they will probably relish the chance to look like an actual Power Five opponent in their opener. Rutgers should roll here before reality sets in the following week against Iowa.

East Carolina +17 NC State
This pick is a vote of confidence in East Carolina. I think the Pirates hit a homerun in the coaching carousel (mixed metaphors?) by hiring Mike Houston. Of course, I don't expect Houston to be their head coach three years from now. Houston has steadily climbed the coaching ladder from Division II (Lenoir-Rhyne) to FCS (The Citadel) to FCS power (James Madison) winning at each destination. Despite just nine victories over the past three seasons, East Carolina does have some interesting pieces, especially on offense. Quarterback Holton Ahlers needs to improve his completion percentage (just over 48% last year), but he threw for nearly 1800 yards and added nearly 600 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, for NC State, the Wolfpack will be replacing a three-year starter at quarterback as well as their offensive coordinator, who is now the head coach at Appalachian State. Despite eighteen wins over the past two seasons, it seems like NC State did not fully capitalize on the power vacuum (outside of Clemson of course) in the ACC. The Wolfpack lost three games as a favorite over the past two seasons, including one where they outgained their opponent by over 250 yards and another where they entered as a nearly three-touchdown favorite. One thing the Wolfpack were able to do was embarrass a lame duck East Carolina team last season. The Pirates had fired Scottie Montgomery and were led by an interim coach when they traveled to Raleigh for a rescheduled game on the first weekend of December last season. East Carolina has had all offseason to reflect on that beating and I think that extra motivation will serve them well here. In addition, Mike Houston has experience coaching against NC State in Raleigh. Last season, James Madison gave the Wolfpack a game in the season opener. Expected improvement at East Carolina, the revenge angle, and the rebuild of the NC State offense make the Pirates the play here. 

Toledo +12 Kentucky
Post-Bear Bryant, 2018 was the pinnacle of Kentucky football. The Wildcats won ten games for the first time since 1977 and finished the season in the final AP Poll for the first time since 1984. Its hard to win, especially consistently at Kentucky, so Mark Stoops deserves a great deal of credit for getting the Wildcats to three straight bowl games. However, a return to typical Kentucky form is probably in store for the team in 2019. For example, the Wildcats followed up their 1977 and 1984 campaigns with 4-6-1 and 5-6 records respectively. With a season win total of six or six and a half depending on the shop, oddsmakers have set bowl eligibility as the baseline. Considering the state of the program when Stoops was hired, that is progress. Despite their success in 2018, the Wildcats did not win bettors a lot of money as a favorite. Against FBS opponents, the Wildcats were 2-4 ATS as a favorite and 4-2 ATS as an underdog. That is not a new trend, especially against what would typically be thought of as over-matched opponents. Since 2014, the Wildcats are just 3-6 ATS as a home favorite against Group of Five opponents. In fact, the only time they have covered as a home favorite over the past two seasons was against South Carolina last year (spread had dipped to pick 'em by kickoff). With major attrition on defense, laying double-digits with the Wildcats is a mistake. I know I haven't said a great deal about Toledo in this write-up, and while the Rockets did suffer through a relatively down season in 2018, they have been one of the most consistent MAC programs over the past decade. I expect them to rebound in 2019, and with a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, a victory here could make the Rockets a darkhorse contender for a New Year's Six Bowl. I am not prepared to go out on that limb just yet, but they will keep this one close.

Ole Miss +6 Memphis
When I was initially perusing the lines for the first week of college football I figured this would be a pass for me. I like Memphis a lot this season. I think they could go undefeated, win the AAC, and represent the Group of Five in a New Year's Six Bowl. However, I have no interest in laying nearly a touchdown against an SEC opponent. Then I dove into the numbers. Peep the times since 2005 an SEC team has been an underdog to a non-BCS or G5 opponent (and yes, BYU is considered a G5 because they are). Note this table does not include the three times it has happened in bowl games where SEC teams are 3-0 ATS with two outright wins.
Before I comment on the aggregate results, I wanted to mention the oddest game on here. Somehow in 2006, a UAB team that would finish 3-9 was a double-digit favorite over Mississippi State. Wild. Anyway, SEC teams were 12-3 ATS as an underdog to a mid-major opponent and 9-6 straight up! In true road games, SEC teams were 8-1 ATS and 7-2 straight up! With a trend like this, its hard not to like Ole Miss here. I know the Rebels lost some big time receivers from last year's team, as well as their starting quarterback, but Matt Luke made two good coordinator hires and with a bowl bid now on the table, the team should be extra motivated. Plus, while the Rebels have lost by more than a touchdown nine times in two seasons under Luke, six of those defeats have come to teams that finished in the top-twenty of the final polls. Elite teams have pounded the Rebels, but they have been quite competitive against the proletariat of college football. Like I said earlier, I think Memphis could have a special season in 2019. In fact, if they win here, they will probably be 9-0 when they head to Houston in mid-November. However, this feels like a game where they will get all they can handle from Ole Miss.

Northwestern +6.5 Stanford
Obviously, wagering on football is a type of gambling, so nothing is a sure thing. However, one of the surest things over the last five years or so has been Northwestern catching points on the road. Northwestern alum and linebacker Pat Fitzgerald has been the head coach in Evanston since 2006. Here is how the Wildcats have performed ATS as road underdogs under his guidance.
30-15 is quite impressive, especially when you consider the Wildcats have pulled 23 outright upsets, meaning they are actually 23-22 straight up as a road underdog under Fitzgerald. Those numbers are even more impressive over the last half decade. Since 2014, the Wildcats are 14-3 ATS as a road underdog with twelve outright upsets. In fact, the Wildcats have covered ten straight games as a road underdog with their last non-cover coming against Michigan in 2015. Despite the cross-country road trip, the Wildcats should continue to provide good value as a road underdog. Since this is the opener, the Wildcats have more travel time to get adjusted to the west coast time zone. In addition, the game is kicking off at a decent hour (one local time), so the Wildcats shouldn't have to worry about their players taking shots of expresso or NoDoz on the sidelines. As for Stanford, while the Cardinal have been a consistent top-25 program over the past decade, they do lose a lot of talent from last year's team. Bryce Love, despite his injury plagued 2018 campaign, was a big play waiting to happen as was jump ball specialist JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Overall, Stanford ranks just 108th in returning production. While I expect those replacements to be productive eventually, asking them to contribute immediately against a feisty underdog like Northwestern seems like a recipe for losing money.

Michigan -33 Middle Tennessee State
Anyone who has ever read this blog or talked point spreads with me knows I hate laying a lot of points. This can occasionally be to my detriment as a talk myself into a big underdog that has no chance of covering. Despite laying nearly five touchdowns, I think this line is severely underestimating the final margin of this game. Allow me to explain. After attempting to dominate the Big 10 with 'bully ball', Jim Harbaugh changed course and hired Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator in the offseason. Gattis will always hold a special place in my heart as he was a key contributor to the 2006 ACC championship team. After a brief stint in the NFL, Gattis went into coaching. He was with James Franklin when he pulled off a miraculous turnaround in Nashville and followed Franklin to Penn State where he learned under Joe Moorhead. His final stop before coming to Michigan was Alabama, where as co-offensive coordinator, he helped lead arguably the best offense in Alabama history. Suffice to say, the Michigan offense should play faster and look more modern in 2019. Since this is the opener and not a random game sandwiched between Big 10 play, Michigan should be fired up and will likely keep their foot on the accelerator. Keep in mind the Wolverines are on a two game skid, having lost to Ohio State and Florida by a combined 103-54 score so they will be in the mood for a win. The Blue Raiders are being paid to be a punching bag, and that is likely what they will be here. This game means next to nothing to the Blue Raiders who will be replacing their all-time leading passer in Brent Stockstill. While it only seemed like Stockstill had been around Murfreesboro for as long as his father, his 106 career passing touchdowns will be missed. His replacement will have the less than enviable task of making his first career start in the Big House. However, as I noted, the first month of the season is an opportunity for Middle Tennessee State to set their roster for conference play. The Blue Raiders also play Duke and Iowa before beginning conference play in October when they host Marshall. While it would be tremendous for the program to upset one of those Power Five teams, the Blue Raiders know their season will be determined by how well they do in Conference USA. I'm not saying the Blue Raiders will throw this game in Ann Arbor, but I doubt they pull out all the stops to keep it close either. This will be a learning opportunity for Rick Stockstill to see what he has before conference play begins. Call it a curb-stomping, ass-cutting, or some other hyphenated metaphor, but I think this one gets out of hand early and stays that way.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Preseason Consensus: Unanimous Last Place Teams

Last week we looked at how teams that were unanimous preseason choices to win their conference or division (by mainstream magazines and computer models) performed. This week, we are going to look at how the unanimous last place teams pegged by the preseason consensus performed. Will their performance offer hope to unanimous last place selections in 2019 or should Illinois, Kansas, Oregon State, Rutgers, and San Jose State fans cryogenically freeze themselves until 2020 (or later)? Read on to find out.

Between 2005 and 2018, only seven G5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to finish last in their respective conference or division. They are listed below.
Were I Chris Creighton’s agent, I might use this list to show just how much he has accomplished (two bowl bids in the last three seasons) since taking over at Eastern Michigan in 2014. Since 2005, Eastern Michigan has been the consensus unanimous last place team in the MAC West five times. In the totality of the mid-major universe, only two other teams have been unanimous last place selections. So how did those unanimous selections do?
It’s hard to gleam a great deal from a sample of seven teams, especially when five of them are the same program, but six of the seven teams lived down to their preseason expectations by finishing in last place. The best finish of any of the seven teams was by Eastern Michigan in 2007. The Eagles went 3-4 in MAC play (MAC teams did not play a uniform schedule of eight conference games in 2007) and finished tied for third in the West division.

Between 2005 and 2018, 24 P5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to finish last in their respective conference or division. They are listed below.
If you are keeping score at home, Baylor, Kansas, Vanderbilt, and Washington State all finished tied for the most unanimous last place selections with three apiece (although Kansas has unofficially added a fourth in 2019 based on preliminary data). Duke, Colorado, and Indiana are the only other P5 teams with multiple appearances. So how did these P5 teams do?
17 of the 24 teams finished last, with 15 finishing alone in last place. Another four teams finished second to last meaning only three finished a safe distance from the basement. However, four of the unanimous selections for last place played in bowl games, so I thought it might be useful to examine them to see if they shared any common trait that might provide hope to the 2019 teams.

2011 Wake Forest 6-7 overall, 5-3 ACC, tied for second in ACC Atlantic
While the Demon Deacons finished with a losing overall record, they nearly won the Atlantic Division. Wake led eventual champ Clemson 28-14 late in the third quarter, but the Tigers scored the last 17 points to take the game and division. Wake had cratered the year before (3-9 overall and 1-7 in the ACC) to tamp down expectations, but the Deacons had been a consistent bowl threat under then-coach Jim Grobe, winning at least five games in seven of his previous ten season heading into 2011.

2011 Vanderbilt 6-7 overall, 2-6 SEC, tied for fourth SEC West
After making their first bowl game since 1982 in 2008, the Commodores had lost 15 of 16 SEC games between 2009 and 2010. New coach James Franklin began his tenure in Nashville by winning his first three games, but the Commodores dropped six of their next eight (with four of those defeats coming by six points or less) to stand 5-6. The Commodores would need to win their season finale at Wake Forest (see previous entry) to clinch bowl-eligibility (in a game I attended). It’s been almost eight years, but I am still a little bitter. The Commodores led 27-7 at halftime and my dad and I left late in the third quarter after the Commodores scored to go up by 27 points. All we missed on the two hour ride back home was another Vanderbilt touchdown.

2012 Ole Miss 7-6 overall, 3-5 SEC, tied for fifth SEC West
After returning to relative prominence in 2008 and 2009 (remember when some prominent folks picked Ole Miss to win the SEC West in 2009?), the Rebels lost 15 of 16 SEC games between 2010 and 2011. The hired Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze to turn the program around and win with integrity. Despite the six losses, the Rebels came very close to shaking up the national landscape. They nearly beat Texas A&M in Johnny Manziel’s Heisman season and almost upset LSU in Baton Rouge. They did clinch bowl eligibility by beating a ranked version of their hated rival in the Egg Bowl.

2014 Arkansas 7-6 overall, 2-6 SEC, last SEC West
Bret Bielema’s second team entered the 2014 season on a nine-game losing streak. They finished the year as probably the best last place team of all time. Some metrics placed the Hogs in the top-fifteen that season. The Hogs lost by one point to eventual SEC champ Alabama, by seven to then top-ranked Mississippi State, by seven to SEC East champ Missouri, while beating ranked LSU and Ole Miss teams by a combined score of 47-0.

So what can we take away from this exercise? Preseason publications and computer models have done a good job when they coalesce around a unanimous last place selection. That does not bode well for Kansas, Illinois, Oregon State, Rutgers, or San Jose State. However, for G5 teams, the sample size is so small (just seven teams total and two outside of Eastern Michigan) that San Jose State fans (if any) should not abandon all hope. As for P5 teams, four of 24 were able to beat the odds and qualify for a bowl game. This should give fans of Kansas, Illinois, Oregon State, and Rutgers a modicum of hope. Of those four, which is most likely to surprise in 2019? Three of the four unanimous last place selections to surprise were led by relatively new coaches (Franklin and Freeze were in their first seasons at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss while Bielema was in his second at Arkansas) and the fourth was led by a coach with a previous track record of success at his school (Grobe at Wake). Lovie Smith and Chris Ash are entering their fourth season at Illinois and Rutgers so I would throw those two out. Les Miles is in his first season at Kansas and has successful stints at Oklahoma State and LSU on his resume, but one of those is a true blue blood program and the other, while certainly a rebuilding job, is nothing like the task he faces at Kansas. Plus, his offenses at LSU were antiquated and boring despite the great talent he brought in. Thus, were I forced to choose, Oregon State would be my selection. The Beavers are coached by Jonathan Smith, who happens to be an alum, so he is familiar with the limitations of the program. He is in his second season, so he is still fresh, and his expertise is on the offensive side of the ball (played quarterback in college and was offensive coordinator prior to getting this job), an area where underdogs stand a better chance of outperforming their pedigree and recruiting rankings. This is in no way a prediction of Oregon State eking out a bowl bid in 2019, just an acknowledgement that of the other teams expected to be awful, they have the best chance of exceeding those low expectations.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

The Preseason Consensus: Unanimous First Place Teams

The college football season is less than one month away and as the season draws near, major sporting news outlets and computer models will be releasing their predictions. While each entity will be higher or lower on certain teams, occasionally a unanimous consensus will develop around a few teams. This year, those teams are Alabama, Appalachian State, Boise State, Clemson, and Georgia. According to preliminary results from the Stassen Preseason Consensus, all those teams are unanimous choices to win their respective divisions. How accurate have previous unanimous selections been? Is this an example of preseason Groupthink or have previous teams been in a different class than their conference or division rivals? Using the Stassen site, I went back and looked at fourteen years worth of preseason data (2005-2018) to determine how these unanimous selections performed. I also divided the unanimous selections into BCS/Power Five and non-BCS/Group of Five to see if there was any difference in how they performed. My thoughts behind separating P5 and G5 are that certain G5 teams (Boise State for example) might be a unanimous selection more because of the quality of their conference rather than their underlying strength whereas a P5 team (like Alabama) might be a unanimous selection because they are supposed to be really, really good. Anyway, we’ll start with the G5. Between 2005 and 2018, twelve G5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to win their respective conference or division. They are listed below.
Boise is the only G5 team to appear multiple times, with the Broncos being a unanimous preseason choice on four occasions. All six ‘mid-major’ conferences that have suited up since 2005 (American, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, and the now defunct WAC) have seen at least one preseason unanimous selection (Louisiana-Lafayette really shocked me). So how did those unanimous selections do?
Only two teams won their respective conference or division title outright. Bowling Green and Marshall both did so in 2014, although Bowling Green’s victory was by default as the Falcons finished 5-3 in a division where no other team was better than 4-4. Four other teams finished tied for first, and for reasons that I’ll discuss more in the P5 section, I thought it was important to separate outright and tied finishes. Five teams finished second in their division or conference and the worst finish by any of these unanimous selections was third place (Houston in 2016). That’s a decent showing, with fully half of the unanimous selections winning at least a share of their conference or division title. Now let’s check in on the big boys. Between 2005 and 2018, nineteen P5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to win their conference or division title.
Surprisingly, the most dominant program of the past decade plus, Alabama, has never been a unanimous selection (until this season). Of course, that speaks more to the strength of the SEC West than to any shortcoming in Tuscaloosa. Southern Cal has the most unanimous selections with four, including three before the conference split into divisions. Ohio State is second with three and Florida State, Oregon, and Virginia Tech are the only other schools with multiple unanimous selections. So how did these P5 teams do?
Ten teams won their conference or division title outright with another seven capturing at least a share of the conference or division crown. Speaking of shared titles, Ohio State in 2015 was the main reason I differentiated between outright and shared titles. The Buckeyes entered 2015 as the defending national champion, ranked first in the AP Poll, and were a prohibitive favorite to win their half of the Big 10. The Buckeyes stumbled just once all season, but unfortunately for them, it was to Michigan State, a team that finished with the exact same conference record. The Spartans won the tiebreaker and advanced to the Big 10 Championship Game where they dispatched Iowa in an entertaining low-scoring affair. Big 10 title in hand, the Spartans were selected for the College Football Playoff where they have still yet to score against Alabama. Despite being arguably one of the top-four teams in the country, Ohio State was forced to settle for a New Year’s Six Bowl Game instead of a playoff appearance. The worst finish for these unanimous selections was second place. Louisville in 2005 and Florida State in 2011 were the only teams to not win at least a share of their division or conference title.

So what can we take away from this exercise? Preseason publications and computer models have a much better track record when they tab P5 teams as unanimous selections to win their conference or division. Nearly 90% of those teams won at least a share of their conference or division title versus just half of the unanimous G5 five selections. Why is this? Are the creators of these publications and models going out for drinks instead of scouting the backup linebackers for G5 teams? Possibly, but I think the more likely reason is there is simply more volatility at the G5 level. Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia are unanimous selections in 2019 because they recruit at such a high level. Appalachian State and Boise State recruit well for G5 programs, but their raw talent levels are not in the same stratosphere as those at the top of the P5. Thus in the small sample size that is the college football conference season, they are more likely to be upset and fail to live up to their lofty preseason expectations. Based on recent history, Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia will likely live up to their lofty preseason expectations, while some as of yet unidentified usurpers have a good shot at derailing Appalachian State and Boise State in their respective division races.

Check back next week when we look at how unanimous preseason last place teams have performed and see if we can offer any hope to Kansas.

*Update* 08/04/19
Stassen has updated its preseason consensus page and Alabama and Clemson now stand as the lone unanimous selections.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Strangers in the Field: V

Another summer, another Vegas visit. What follows are the bets I made and the justifications I had for making them (other than edibles). See previous posts here, here, here, and here.

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

Auburn over 7.5 wins -115 ($30 to win $26.10)
I like Auburn heading into 2019 for a few reasons. First, they began last season ranked in the AP top-ten and finished unranked at the end of the season. Teams that do that tend to improve the following season. Second, they have reached at least eight regular season wins in four of Gus Malzahn's six seasons at the helm. Third, while the schedule is brutal, the Tigers get to host both Alabama and Georgia. I think there is a decent shot the Tigers upset at least one of those teams (more on that in the Games of the Year write up). In addition, despite the presence of Oregon on the schedule, the Tigers should finish 3-1 at worst in the non-conference. Auburn always seems to zig when the preseason consensus has them zagging. I'll take the Tigers to improve by one game over last season's regular season win total. 

Boise State under 10 wins -120 ($30 to win $25)
What I like about this bet is that worst case scenario, I am probably looking at a push. Take a look at last season's Mountain West YPP numbers. Despite winning the Mountain division for the third time in five seasons under Bryan Harsin, the Broncos did not have a profile befitting a dominant team. This season, the Broncos will be breaking in a new quarterback and facing a challenging non-conference schedule. The Broncos open the season against Florida State in Jacksonville before returning home against Marshall. About halfway through their Mountain West slate, they hit the road to face BYU. There is a good chance the Broncos drop at least one of those games. If that is the case, they must finish Mountain West play unblemished to beat you, which is something they have not done since 2009. Under Harsin, the Broncos have lost eight regular season Mountain West games. In each of those games, the Broncos were favored by at least nine points. I wouldn't dare take a stab at predicting which conference game the Broncos lose, but I feel strongly a loss is waiting for them. 

Colorado over 3.5 wins -155 ($20 to win $12.90)
After a 5-0 start and brief dalliance in the top-twenty of the AP Poll, Colorado dropped their last seven games and fired their coach. The 5-7 finish marked their twelfth losing season in the past thirteen years! I won't be so bold to predict a bowl game this season, but i think the Buffs can at least come close to matching last season's win total. For starters, they were actually not that bad last season and they return a senior quarterback along with a breakout receiver. Quarterback Steven Montez has thrown twice as many touchdowns (46) as interceptions (23) in significant action over the past three seasons and receiver Laviska Shenault averaged over 100 yards per game last season. Steadiness on offense should offset some defensive regression (just four starters back on that side of the ball) and keep Colorado at about the same level overall they were last season. The non-conference schedule is challenging with in-state rival Colorado State, former Big 12 foe Nebraska, and always pesky Air Force. However, the Buffs have handled Colorado State the past four times they have played (the last three with relative ease) and get to host both Nebraska and Air Force. They should win two of three in the non-conference which means two conference wins would win this bet. There are no gimmes on the Pac-12 slate, but this Colorado team is better than people think and will get to at least four wins. 

Florida State over 7.5 wins -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
Give Willie Taggart credit, he knows how to lower expectations. Florida State is the fourth FBS school Taggart has coached. In his first year at each school, his teams have a combined record of 16-32. At his previous stops, his teams improved by five and two wins respectively in his second season (he didn't stick around for season two at Oregon). Taggart knew the heat was on for his second season, so he abandoned whatever integrity he had to hire Kendal Briles as his offensive coordinator in hopes of improving the offense which averaged just under 22 points per game last season. Briles gets results, as three of the previous four teams he was in charge of averaged at least 40 points per game (and the other averaged just under 35) and this is theoretically his first time coordinating truly top-shelf talent. The Seminoles have two very challenging road games (Clemson and Florida), but should be no worse than a slight underdog in their other ten games. I think they can win eight of them and start a new bowl streak

Indiana under 6 wins +110 ($30 to win $33)
Since 2013, Indiana has finished with five, four, six, six, five, and five regular season wins. With that track record, I think the worst thing you would be looking at here is a push. The Hoosiers should petition the Big 10 to institute a pod system or switch divisions as they are compelled to face Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State each season. Since the Big 10 scrapped the whole Leaders and Legends debacle and went with the current East/West set up, the Hoosiers are 1-19 against that quartet and a respectable 10-13 against other Big 10 opponents. I would expect more of the same in 2019. The Hoosiers are likely to lose their four games with the behemoths of the division and in cross-division games, they must travel to Nebraska and Purdue. Even with an easy non-conference schedule, it seems like 6-6 is the most an Indiana fan can hope for. 

Notre Dame under 9.5 wins -140 ($40 to win $28.55)
Brian Kelly has coached at Notre Dame for nine seasons and outside of undefeated regular seasons in 2012 and 2018, the Irish have finished with less than two regular season losses just once (2015). Notre Dame has two very difficult road games on their schedule: Georgia and Michigan. The Irish do have a bye before facing Michigan (and the Wolverines have Peen State the week before), but they are likely to lose both of those games. If they do, they would need to run the table in their remaining ten games to beat you. Since 2014, Notre Dame has lost 18 times in the regular season. Eleven of those losses have come in games the Irish were favored in. I think a loss in one of those ten is a pretty safe bet. 

Oklahoma State over 7 wins -130 ($40 to win $30.75)
In Mike Gundy's first three seasons, his teams never won more than six regular season games. However, in the eleven season since, his teams have won at least seven games nine times. Last season was one of those times they did not. Still, despite the 6-6 regular season, you could see the potential the Cowboys had. They whipped Boise State, upset Texas and West Virginia, and nearly knocked off Oklahoma in Norman. Of course, they were also drubbed by Texas Tech and Kansas State, so their overall record was probably indicative of their total performance. The last time Oklahoma State endured a 6-6 regular season, they pulled off a minor bowl upset and started the next season 10-0. The Cowboys already have the minor bowl upset in their back pocket and with an innovative hire at offensive coordinator, I think they can be a sleeper in the Big 12 and easily top seven wins. 

Pittsburgh over 5.5 wins -165 ($30 to win $18.20)
What's the most fun you can have in a season where you finish 7-7 and lose three games by at least 31 points? You're looking at it. 2018 was a weird season for Pitt. Befitting a team that finished 7-7, there were a lot of ups and downs. When the Panthers fought out of their weight class, things were not pretty. Six of their seven losses came against teams that were ranked at some point in 2018 (Clemson, Miami, Notre Dame, Penn State, Stanford, and UCF). In those six games, the Panthers scored a grand total of 60 points. In their other seven games against FBS opponents, the Panthers averaged 38 points per game. Overall, the Panthers finished second in the ACC in yards per play and I would expect them to remain near the top of the conference in that regard. New offensive coordinator Mark Whipple seemed overwhelmed as a head coach in his second go-round at Massachusetts, but the Minutemen were a better offensive team the moment he returned. The Panthers do have a challenging non-conference slate with a trip to Penn State and home games against Ohio and UCF to go along with their FCS punching bag (Delaware). Still, the Panthers should be 2-2 at worst outside the ACC, and with the Panthers currently occupying the easier division and no Clemson on the cross-division schedule, the Panthers should be able to get back to a bowl. 

Rutgers over 2.5 wins -165 ($20 to win $12.10)
Heading into the 2019 season, Rutgers has lost twelve straight Big 10 games by an average of 23 points per game. So why in the world am I backing them? For starters, the Scarlet Knights seem to have two wins on the non-conference schedule. They open against Massachusetts and in late-October, the Liberty Flames pay a visit. Liberty could certainly threaten Rutgers, especially with the pious Hugh Freeze in charge. However, two wins seems like a safe assumption. Now Rutgers just needs to find one more among their Big 10 slate or against Boston College in the non-conference. I think they can do it. Rutgers was bad last season, but really only on one side of the ball. Their defense was about average by Big 10 standards, but the offense averaged under four yards per play in Big 10 action and freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski threw 18 interceptions. As coaches say, the good thing about freshman is they become sophomores and Sitkowski should improve after being thrown to the wolves last season. I'm not expecting big things from Rutgers in 2019, but with home games against Maryland and Minnesota and winnable road games at Illinois and Indiana, I am expecting the Big 10 losing streak to end. 

Southern Cal over 7 wins -130 ($50 to win $38.45)
While the Trojans famously lost their splash offensive coordinator hire to the NFL, they made a good follow-up hire in nabbing Graham Harrell from North Texas. Like Kliff Kingsbury, Harrell starred at Texas Tech under Mike Leach and has done great things as a coordinator on the offensive side of the ball. North Texas ranked third and first in Conference USA in yards per play over the past two seasons under his guidance and the Trojans desperately needed to improve on that side of the ball after ranking ninth in the Pac-12 in yards per play last season. With the addition of Harrell and the maturation of quarterback JT Daniels, I expect a much improved offense in 2019. The Trojans are (justifiably) behind Utah in the preseason consensus, but they should have no trouble getting to eight wins. Whether that saves Clay Helton's job is another issue entirely. 

Texas under 9 wins -110 ($20 to win $18.20)
I can't offer a take on Texas or Tom Herman that has not been made by many others on the internet or over the airwaves over the past few seasons. Herman's teams always play well as an underdog and tend to not do so well as a favorite. Now, with the Longhorns facing legitimate expectations for the first time in what seems like a decade, can they win the games they are favored in? And, should they be favored in those games in the first place? Despite their top-ten finish last season, Texas ranked a middling fifth in the Big 12 in net yards per play. Other advanced metrics were also not as rosy on the Longhorns. They were 22nd in SRS and 32nd in S&P+. Your eyes did not deceive you, yes Texas beat both Oklahoma and Georgia in 2018 (perhaps two of the five best teams in the country). However, they also lost to Maryland and Oklahoma State and scraped by Kansas State, Baylor, Texas Tech, and Kansas. While I am skeptical of Texas, I won't be backing LSU in Week Two, especially if the Tigers are favored. However, even if the Longhorns are able to beat the Tigers, there are enough landmines on this schedule for three and possibly four losses. 

TCU over 7.5 wins +110 ($30 to win $33)
In 2018, TCU did pretty much what they have done since joining the Big 12. They finished first in yards allowed per play (their third consecutive first place finish) and eighth in yards per play. In seven seasons of play in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs have never finished worse than third in yards allowed per play, but they have only finished better than third once in yards per play. Perhaps not coincidentally, the year the Horned Frogs boasted their best offense was also the year they nearly made the CFB Playoff. TCU did have to deal with a litany of injuries  and a crucial dismissal last season, so improvement is not that far-fetched. The Horned Frogs have six true road games in 2019, so they will need to win at least two in order to cash this ticket. The good news for TCU is that their two road wins in 2018 marked their fewest since 2013. From 2014 through 2017, the Horned Frogs were 16-6 in true road games. The Horned Frogs have too many questions on offense and have to replace too much on defense to be true Big 12 contenders, but I think they can do enough to get to eight wins. 

Wake Forest over 5.5 wins -160 ($50 to win $31.25)
This is uncharted territory for Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson. Wake Forest marks the fourth stop of his head coaching career and his sixth season in Winston-Salem is the longest he has ever been in one place. This is not to say Clawson is a job hopper. He spent five seasons at both Fordham and Bowling Green with a four-year stint at Richmond sandwiched in between. Clawson will look to take the Demon Deacons to their fourth straight bowl game for the first time in school history. While the Deacons have enjoyed moderate success under Clawson, they have not had what I would deem a breakthrough campaign yet. A loss to Duke in the 2017 regular season finale prevented the Deacons from finishing with nine wins and potentially a ranking in the final AP Poll. Wake's best win under Clawson, the thriller with Virginia Tech notwithstanding, was probably their road win against a ranked NC State team last year. The ACC being down means there are not a lot of opportunities for marquee wins, but it also means the Deacons have a reasonable shot at victory in most of their games. Road trips to Clemson and Virginia Tech are probably out of reach, but with the exception of their home game against Florida State, the others are winnable. Wake has a unique schedule in 2019 as they face nine ACC opponents, with the game against North Carolina counting as a non-conference game. Including North Carolina, Wake also faces, Utah State, Rice, and Elon in the non-conference. The Deacons should be 3-1 or perhaps 4-0 once ACC play technically begins with a trip to Boston College (where the Deacons have won two in a row). It's not likely, but with a little luck the Deacons could be 6-0 (and have this ticket already cashed) when they host Florida State in mid-October. 

NFL Win Totals
Tampa Bay over 6.5 wins +105 ($30 to win $31.50)
Count me as a believer in the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2019. I think Bruce Arians can get the most out of Jameis Winston and an offense with some playmakers like Mike Evans and OJ Howard. The Bucs won five games last year and with better coaching, I think they can get to seven in 2019. 

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 13th 
Houston +7 Washington State @NRG Stadium (Houston) -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
I would venture no team wants to get the 2019 season underway more so than Houston. When we last saw the Houston Cougars, they were being obliterated by Army and their triple option attack. That loss ended up getting their coach fired and resulted in the Cougars nabbing Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia. In the short term, at the very least, this move should pay dividends for both parties. Houston gets a proven offensive coach to shepherd a roster with great talent on that side of the ball and Holgorsen gets to leave West Virginia on his own accord rather than being fired. Houston will face a Washington State team coming off its best season yet under Mike Leach. The other Cougars won eleven games and finished a nice four year run with a cumulative Pac-12 record of 26-10. Of course, the Cougars have also lost six straight to that team in Seattle, including at home last season with the division title on the line. The Cougars are once again starting over under center with a transfer (Gage Gubrud) likely to win the job. It worked out well for the Cougars last season, but this game will mark their first game away from Pullman in 2019. While not technically a home game for Houston, NRG Stadium is the home of the Houston Texans, so I'll take the pseudo home team catching a touchdown. 

September 21st
Oklahoma State +9.5 Texas -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
I guess you can thank the Sugar Bowl for this line. How else to explain Texas being favored by nearly ten points here? Let me throw a few stats at you. Oklahoma State has won seven of nine and four in a row in this series. They have won five in a row at Texas and they have covered five of the last six in Austin. The last time Texas both won and covered against the Cowboys in Austin was 2006! If you read the over/under write ups, you know I'm down on Texas and high on Oklahoma State, so I can't resist catching nearly ten points here. 

October 26th
TCU +3.5 Texas -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
Since joining the Big 12, TCU is 5-2 against the Longhorns, with their lone home loss coming in their forgettable 2013 campaign. TCU has been underwhelming as a home underdog since joining the conference, posting just a 3-5 ATS mark, but I expect TCU to be favored by the time this game kicks. As mentioned previously, I am down on Texas, and the Longhorns could have two or three losses by the time they make the trip to Fort Worth. 

November 2nd
Southern Cal +1 Oregon -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
This bet is an amalgamation of several things. I am (relatively) high on the Trojans this season with their offensive coordinator hire and expected improvement at the quarterback position. I am a little skeptical of the preseason love Oregon is receiving. Keep in mind, since making the CFB Playoff in 2014, the Ducks are just 8-13 in true road games, including just 4-12 the past three seasons. In addition, Southern Cal is rarely a home underdog. They have been in the role just once under Clay Helton, in last year's season finale. They covered, but did not win as a double-digit underdog against Notre Dame. Like the TCU/Texas spread, I expect Southern Cal to be favored by the time this game actually kicks off. And all they need to do is win to cash this ticket. 

November 16th
Auburn +6.5 Georgia -110 ($50 to win $45.45)
Georgia is not the type of potential juggernaut I like to get in front of, but I think this is a good spot for Auburn for several reasons. For starters, the Tigers have a bye before this game, while Georgia will be playing their third straight opponent off a bye (Florida and Missouri the prior two weeks). If you're curious, Auburn is 8-0 off a regular season bye under Gus Malzahn with two wins as an underdog, including the Kick Six. They are a little less impressive 4-3-1 ATS, but that has more to do with them failing to cover as a moderate to sizable favorite. In addition (note this is an insanely small sample size, but this is football and almost all we deal with is small sample size), Georgia is 0-3 under Kirby Smart in road games against SEC West opponents. And the results have not been all that close. Despite entering as a betting favorite in two of the games, the Bulldogs have dropped all three by at least twenty points. I'm not saying Auburn is going to roll here, but there is value in them catching almost a touchdown. 

November 23rd
Baylor +6 Texas -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
Another Game of the Year bet, another home dog. Sensing a trend? I don't have much to say here about Texas that I haven't already devoted numerous grammatical errors to. I'll just add that Baylor coach Matt Rhule is 11-5 ATS in the home underdog role (8-3 at Temple and 3-2 at Baylor). 

November 30th
Stanford +4 Notre Dame -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
David Shaw is entering his ninth season as head coach of the Cardinal. Over the previous eight seasons, Stanford has been a home underdog four times. They have won each of those games outright, including their most recent turn as a home underdog in 2017 against...Notre Dame. In addition, Stanford has not lost at home to Notre Dame since their legendary pillow fight in 2007. Notre Dame will travel to the west coast after having faced four consecutive teams coming off of byes (Virginia Tech, Duke, Navy, and Boston College) and while the Cardinal will be fresh of their Big Game with Cal, they won't be switching time zones. Don't be surprised if this number is much closer to a pick em by the time the game kicks off. 

November 30th 
Florida State +13.5 Florida -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
I contemplated betting Florida under nine wins, but it was heavily juiced (around -180), so I stayed away. Despite not betting the Gators to go under their projected win total, I am skeptical of their preseason hype heading into 2019. Like Texas, I think they are getting way too much credit for their bowl win. I'll remind you, the Gators lost to both Kentucky and Missouri at home by double-digits last season. Remember that when they finish a 'disappointing' 8-4. 

December 14th 
Navy +8 Army @Philadelphia -110 ($50 to win $45.45)
When I saw this line open at Army -13, I knew I had to bet it. Unfortunately, by the time I got to Vegas, a lot of the value had been drained from this number. Sill, with Navy catching more than a touchdown, I like them a lot. The last five games in this series, and seven of the last eight, have been decided by a touchdown or less. And when the blowouts come, its typically been Navy doing the blowing (may need to change that wording). In the last three decades, Army has won by enough to cover this number just twice (by ten in 1990 and by nine in 2001). I don't see how you can be comfortable backing a favorite in this series where the underdog has covered eight of the last ten years. 

Division Champion Bets
I decided to put a few dollars down on a team to win their division in the NFL. 

Tampa Bay Bucs to win the NFC South +1000 ($10 to win $100)
I extolled what I think are the virtues of the Bucs earlier, so I decided to take a flyer on them to win the division too.

Reckless Parlay(s)
I made two reckless parlays this year. One for college football and one for the NFL. All games must be correct for the parlay to pay out.

Parlay 1:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 24th 
Miami +7 Florida @ Orlando
Getting some more money down on the Gators disappointing. 

Game 2: August 30th
Wake Forest -3.5 Utah State
The Deacons pounded Utah State two years ago. Here's hoping for a repeat. 

Game 3: August 31st
Michigan -31.5 Middle Tennessee State
Michigan will look to run it up as they debut their new offensive coordinator

Game 4: August 31st
Auburn -2.5 Oregon @Arlington
The SEC always wins these games right?

Parlay 2:
$10 to win $60

Game 1: September 8th

Tennessee +5.5 Cleveland
Doesn't it seem like Cleveland is getting a bit too much preseason love

Game 2: September 8th
Arizona +2 Detroit
I know Arizona was bad last season, but they overhauled everything and when have you ever trusted the Lions, especially on the road? 

Game 3: September 9th
Denver +2.5 Oakland
As a point of reference, these two teams played this exact game in December, and the line was reversed. 

That's all the damage I can do. Check back in December when we are hopefully recapping a winning trip.