Thursday, February 02, 2023

2022 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: ACC

Happy Candlemas to all who celebrate!

Last week we looked at how ACC teams fared in terms of yards per play. his week, we turn our attention to how the season played out in terms of the Adjusted Pythagorean Record, or APR. For an in-depth look at APR, click hereIf you didn’t feel like clicking, here is the Reader’s Digest version. APR looks at how well a team scores and prevents touchdowns. Non-offensive touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and safeties are excluded. The ratio of offensive touchdowns to touchdowns allowed is converted into a winning percentage. Pretty simple actually.

Once again, here are the 2022 ACC standings. 
And here are the APR standings with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded. Also, note Virginia and Virginia Tech's rankings are on a per game basis since they only played seven conference games due to a real world tragedy
Finally, ACC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
Georgia Tech (more on them later), Miami, and NC State significantly exceeded their expected APR while Wake Forest, Florida State, and Virginia underachieved. Georgia Tech, Miami, and NC State combined to finish 9-3 in one-score conference games. In addition, those three teams suffered ten double digit conference losses. If they weren't winning close, they were usually getting blown out. Meanwhile, Wake Forest, Florida State, and Virginia were a combined 2-8 in one-score conference games. Virginia was not able to get margin in any of their conference victories, but Wake Forest and Florida State combined to win seven ACC games by ten points or more. The Demon Deacons also finished with the worst in-conference turnover margin (-10) in the ACC which torpedoed their goal of repeating as division champs

Did Georgia Tech Improve?
The Geoff Collins era mercifully came to an end in late September after an ugly loss to UCF dropped the Yellow Jackets to 1-3. Under interim coach Brent Key, the team rallied, winning four of their final eight games to finish 5-7, their best record since Paul Johnson retired. Key's performance earned him the full time gig, and he appears to have the Yellow Jackets trending in the right direction. To illustrate this point, let's look at Georgia Tech's conference record under both men.
Under Key, Georgia Tech finished with a winning conference record, while they barely won more than a fourth of their games under Collins. At a minimum, Key should have the Yellow Jackets back in bowl contention over the next few seasons. But, just to be thorough, let's look under the hood. Here is how the Yellow Jackets fared in terms of Yards Per Play in ACC play under both men.
This has to be a misprint. The Yellow Jackets somehow put up a worse YPP Net under Key? Indeed they did. Their defensive improvement was more than offset by an offensive decline. What about my other favorite metric, APR? 
The Yellow Jackets scored and allowed touchdowns in ACC play at about the same ratio under Brent Key as they did under Geoff Collins. Under Collins, the Yellow Jackets won about one fewer conference game than we would expect based on the ratio of their touchdowns scored and allowed. Over 26 games they won seven league games instead of eight. Meanwhile, despite allowing more touchdowns than they scored under Key, the Yellow Jackets won four of the seven conference games he coached. 

How did Georgia Tech pull this off? While the Yellow Jackets did not fare any better under Key than they did under Collins in per play efficiency or scoring and allowing touchdowns, they were markedly improved in the oft ignored area of football: special teams.
The kicking game was a mess under Collins. In three plus seasons, Georgia Tech kickers made less than half their field goals. For comparisons sake, the median team field goal percentage in college football is about 75%. Key turned the kicking responsibilities over to Gavin Stewart after being named interim coach and he converted twelve of his thirteen kicks. Key also apparently allowed his special teams to practice kick and punt protection as the team did not allow any blocked kicks under his watch after allowing 16 under Collins, including four in their first four games of 2022. Did the team even practice special teams under Collins? Probably. That would seem like a pretty big oversight if they didn't, but based on their play, I can't definitively say they did. 

Another area where Georgia Tech improved under Key was turnover margin. 
In 26 ACC games under Collins, the Yellow Jackets finished in the red in the turnover department 14 times. They were 2-12 in those games. In games where they did not lose the turnover margin, Georgia Tech was a respectable 5-7. Under Key, the Yellow Jackets lost the turnover battle once. In the six games where they were even or in the black, they finished 4-2. 

So what do we make of the Brent Key hire? Key's promotion certainly saved the 2022 season (as much as a 5-7 record can qualify as 'saving'). Had the team not fired Collins, its quite possible Georgia Tech would have finished 0-8 or 1-7 in the ACC. The team played hard under Key and although they did not play better on a per play basis, the special teams improved dramatically and the turnover margin reversed course. We should probably give Key credit for identifying the best kicker on the team and for shoring up punt and field goal protection, but turnovers are notoriously fickle. It is highly unlikely that Georgia Tech averages a +1 margin in each conference game going forward under Key. I would like to have seen a bigger swing when it came time to name the full time head coach. I want to stress I am not a journalist or Georgia Tech insider, so I don't know who was a realistic candidate when the school was searching for a head coach. Key is an alum who obviously wanted the job, but an unsustainable turnover margin and a 4-1 record in one-score games made Georgia Tech look better than they were. I wish Key the best, but I think the Yellow Jackets will be in the market for a new head coach by the time the 2025 season kicks off (if not before). 

Thursday, January 26, 2023

2022 Yards Per Play: ACC

Next up in our conference breakdowns is the ACC. 

Here are the 2022 ACC standings.
So we know what each team achieved, but how did they perform? To answer that, here are the Yards Per Play (YPP), Yards Per Play Allowed (YPA) and Net Yards Per Play (Net) numbers for each ACC team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by division by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games. Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings. It would be fantastic if college football teams played 100 or even 1000 games. Then we could have a better idea about which teams were really the best. Alas, players would miss too much class time, their bodies would be battered beyond recognition, and I would never leave the couch. As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s YPP. Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards Per Play and Yards Per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or under-performing by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2022 season, which teams in the ACC met this threshold? Here are ACC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Clemson significantly exceeded their expected record (more on them later) while Florida State and Virginia underachieved relative to their YPP numbers. Clemson won all their one-score ACC games, finishing 3-0 in such contests. Each close victory also came against division opponents, giving them a leg up in the conference race. Florida State was not terrible in one-score conference games, finishing 1-2. However, they were absurdly dominant in most of their conference wins. Four of their five ACC victories came by at least 25 points. Mike Norvell should have found a way to save some of those excess points for later. Virginia was 1-3 in close conference games and also finished with the second worst in-conference turnover margin (-6) making life rough for first year head coach Tony Elliott

Worst Unbeaten Power Five Teams
For all the talk of their demise, Clemson did win the ACC for the seventh time in eight seasons in 2022. They also finished unbeaten in ACC play for the first time since 2019. However, you didn't have to squint too hard to see this team's warts. While their defense was one of the best in the ACC, their offense was below average in league play. And their non-conference performance left a lot to be desired. Notre Dame whipped them in South Bend, South Carolina beat them for the first time since 2013, and Tennessee (sans their starting quarterback) handled them in the Orange Bowl. Their unbeaten ACC record probably says a lot more about the state of the conference in 2022 than it does bout their own prowess. In fact, as far as unbeaten Power Five teams go, Clemson was historically bad (or more accurately, mediocre) in 2022. 

As I often mention, I have been tracking YPP data back to 2005. In those 18 seasons, only six Power Five (formerly BCS) teams have finished unbeaten in conference play with a YPP Net of less than 1.00. Those six teams are listed in the following table sorted by YPP Net. 
There are technically six teams that qualified for this table, but Southern Cal should have a big ole asterisk. I know college football seasons can run together, but remember the 2020 season was played in the midst of a global pandemic. The Pac-12 initially decided not to play football, but eventually played an abbreviated campaign beginning in November. The Trojans won all five of their regular season games, including several in improbable fashion, all while barely outgaining their opponents on a per play basis. Had the Pac-12 played a standard schedule, its unlikely the Trojans could have continued their improbable run, but they did win all their scheduled regular season conference games. The Pac-12 Championship Game was a different story, but remember, I don't include championship games in the YPP stats. Anyway, whether or not we include Southern Cal in this analysis, its clear Clemson enjoyed an historic season in 2022. The Tigers became just the fourth team to finish unbeaten in conference play, finish with a YPP Net of less than 1.00, and win their conference championship game (Southern Cal and Iowa dropped their respective title games). I don't know if all of that will fit on a t-shirt, but Clemson fans can always check Tee Public to see. 

Before we close, I think it is helpful to see how those five previous teams performed the following season. Finishing unbeaten in conference play often requires at least a small amount of good fortune and with a YPP Net of less than 1.00, it probably required some additional good bounces. It would stand to reason then, that these teams would see some regression the following season. And that is exactly what we see (teams in the table are listed chronologically). 
If we include Southern Cal, this quintet declined from perfection to mediocrity. If we ignore Southern Cal, the decline is still significant, though not nearly as steep. However, the main thing to remember here is sample size. Five (or four) teams is hardly a representative sample. I'd bet against Clemson finishing with a perfect ACC record next year, but I don't think they are in store for a Tommy West style season. Despite his lofty hateability rating, Dabo is at least partially self-aware when it comes to football matters. He fired his offensive coordinator and replaced him with the OC from the national runner up. Clemson may not be as fortunate as they were this past season, but they will probably be better, much to the haters' (myself included) chagrin. 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

2022 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: AAC

Last week we looked at how AAC teams fared in terms of yards per play. his week, we turn our attention to how the season played out in terms of the Adjusted Pythagorean Record, or APR. For an in-depth look at APR, click hereIf you didn’t feel like clicking, here is the Reader’s Digest version. APR looks at how well a team scores and prevents touchdowns. Non-offensive touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and safeties are excluded. The ratio of offensive touchdowns to touchdowns allowed is converted into a winning percentage. Pretty simple actually. 

Once again, here are the 2022 AAC standings.
And here are the APR standings with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, AAC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
Cincinnati won two more games than we would have expected based on the number of touchdowns they scored and allowed in league play. The Bearcats were involved in a lot of close games, and while their 3-2 record in such AAC contests was not extraordinary, they failed to dominate their conference foes as they had in the past. Three of their six conference victories came by at least ten points, but none by more than twenty. In 2020 and 2021, Cincinnati won eleven conference games by at least nineteen points. Meanwhile Memphis and South Florida won significantly fewer games based on their respective touchdowns scored and allowed. Memphis and South Florida also underachieved relative to their YPP numbers and we went into some reasons for that last. 

The End of an Era
Between Cincinnati's loss to Tulane in their regular season finale and their rivalry renewal with Louisville in Fenway Park, Luke Fickell accepted the Wisconsin job. The Fickell era at Cincinnati was an unquestioned success. In Fickell's six seasons, the Bearcats won two conference titles, appeared in three league championship games, and became the first Group of Five team to qualify for the College Football Playoff. Each an impressive accomplishment. However, if the Bearcats had been able to beat Tulane or knock off Louisville in their bowl, they would have added one final feather to Fickell's cap. Had the Bearcats finished ranked in the final AP Poll, they would would have tied Boise State for the most consecutive ranked finishes among non-BCS/Group of Five teams in the BCS and Playoff eras.
Since 1998, five mid-major schools have finished ranked for at least three consecutive season (Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, TCU, and UCF). Once the 2023 college football season kicks off, only one will remain in the mid-major ranks, as BYU, Cincinnati, and UCF are set to join TCU in the Big 12. Three mid-major schools finished ranked in 2022 (Tulane, Troy, and Fresno State), but neither finished ranked in 2021, so Boise's run from 2008-2012 will remain the gold standard until at least the latter part of this decade. 

Thursday, January 12, 2023

2022 Yards Per Play: AAC

The 2022 season is over. As always, the college football season feels like it will never arrive, and then when it does, it ends in a flash. To help you navigate the dark and depressing offseason, we'll be reviewing the 2022 season for each FBS conference through the lens of Yards Per Play and the Adjusted Pythagorean Record. We go alphabetically, so Sun Belt fans, check back around Memorial Day. 

Here are the 2022 AAC standings. 
So we know what each team achieved, but how did they perform? To answer that, here are the Yards Per Play (YPP), Yards Per Play Allowed (YPA) and Net Yards Per Play (Net) numbers for each AAC team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games. Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings. It would be fantastic if college football teams played 100 or even 1000 games. Then we could have a better idea about which teams were really the best. Alas, players would miss too much class time, their bodies would be battered beyond recognition, and I would never leave the couch. As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s YPP. Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards Per Play and Yards Per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or under-performing by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2022 season, which teams in the AAC met this threshold? Here are AAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Navy and Tulane exceeded their expected record while Memphis, Temple, and South Florida underachieved relative to their per play performance. For Navy, being an overachiever is par for the course (more on that in a bit). The Midshipmen and Green Wave combined to go 5-2 in one-score conference games, buoying their record. Tulane also had the best in-conference turnover margin at +9. Meanwhile, Memphis, Temple, and South Florida combined to finish an amazing 0-10 in one-score conference games. Memphis finished a perfect 0-4 in such games while Temple and South Florida were each 0-3. 

Protect the Motherland
After the annual Army/Navy game, the United States Naval Academy rather unceremoniously fired longtime head coach Ken Niumatalolo. The firing may have been deserved. Navy has finished with a losing record in four of the past five seasons, but the timing and location were not a good look. But I'm not here to give Chet Gladchuk advice on handling his HR duties. Although, if he is a reader of this blog I do hereby offer my consulting services. No, I'm here to point out how great Ken Niumatalolo was at getting the most out of his Navy teams. Navy exceeded their expected record based on YPP the most of any AAC team in 2022. As I mentioned earlier, that was not unusual for the Midshipmen. Navy has been an AAC member since 2015 and in those eight seasons, they have consistently exceeded the meager expectations set by their YPP numbers. 
In those eight seasons, Navy has exceeded their expected record based on YPP by .179 points of winning percentage on average. A few paragraphs up, you'll note that I consider any one season deviation of .200 or greater significant. Over eight seasons under the same head coach, Navy nearly averaged a significant over-performance. In the long run, we would expect most teams to finish close to zero in terms of difference from their expected record. Outlier seasons in one direction tend to be evened out by more neutral seasons or outliers in the other direction. However, it appears Niumatalolo possessed some kind of secret sauce to get his teams to overachieve (it was probably the triple option). For comparison's sake, four other teams managed a positive differential between their actual record and their expected record based on YPP. If we combine those four teams average differential (.142), it would still be less than Navy's. 

Before we move on, a few things regarding the table. Connecticut has an asterisk because they left the AAC after the 2019 season. And the last column in the table is simply a way to contextualize the average difference in winning percentage. The number .179 may not intuitively seem large, in the context of an eight game conference schedule, it means nearly an extra game and a half in the standings. 

Not only was Navy better than the sum of their parts under Niumatalolo, they also sprung quite a few upsets. In fact, they pulled off the most upsets in AAC play since joining the conference in 2015.
What's that you say? This table is devoid of context. Perhaps Navy pulled so many upsets because they were an underdog more often than everyone else. You make a great point. Context is important.
Not only did the Midshipmen pull the most upsets as a conference underdog, they also had the second best winning percentage as an underdog in conference games. 

Navy pulled the most upsets, and they also pulled the most big upsets.
Navy won five conference games as an underdog of ten points or more, with four of the five victories coming over the past two seasons. And once again, it wasn't a function of them playing the most game as a double digit underdog. 
The Midshipmen also had the best winning percentage of any AAC team as a double digit underdog. Also, props to Memphis for avoiding being a double digit conference underdog for the past eight seasons. 

Niumatalolo was replaced as head coach by defensive  coordinator Brian Newberry. Newberry has been the defensive coordinator for the past four seasons (three of which were losing campaigns I might add). Will the Midshipmen continue to overachieve (at least relative to YPP) under Newberry or did Niumatalolo have some Bill Snyder magic that is impossible to replicate? We'll find out over the next few years. Or maybe we won't. 

Monday, January 09, 2023

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

The college football season is almost over the the NFL regular season is done. Let's take a look back and see how the predictions from our Vegas trip went. 

Games of the Year
Things were not looking great after the first few weeks of the season, but our luck improved as the season continued. 

College Football Win Totals
Time to brag a little here. The record is actually 15-5, but the San Jose State bet was refunded since they had a game canceled. 

NFL Bets
Move along. Nothing to see here. Might be time to consider not making season long plays on the NFL. Most of these missed by a wide margin (Cincinnati and Philadelphia were really good) and I was extremely lucky the Panthers fired Matt Rhule and were able to cash that ticket. 

Miscellaneous
I blame the Mets for this catastrophe. They choked in late September and conceded the division to the Braves. 

Money Wagered: $2020
Money Won: $2462.35
ROI: 21.90%

Not a bad trip if I do say so myself. Hopefully we can keep picking winners on this year's trip. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

All good things are bound to come to an end and our six-week run did just that over championship weekend. We'll try and get back on track with a solid bowl season. 

Last Week: 1-2
Overall: 54-40

Lending Tree Bowl @ Mobile, Alabama
Rice +6.5 Southern Miss
I know it seems like Southern Miss has been in the Sun Belt for ages, but the Eagles just completed their first season in the league. Before that, they were charter members of Conference USA and spent 17 seasons as conference mates with Rice. The Owls and Eagles were even closer once the College Football Playoff era started, as they shared a division and played each season from 2014-2021. Rice has won the past two games in this series after dropping five straight between 2015 and 2019. Overall, the series is tied at six games apiece, with each contest coming since Rice joined Conference USA in 2005. Do the games played during the George W. Bush administration have an impact on the result here? Probably not, but I just wanted to point out these teams are more familiar with each other than you might have initially thought. For Southern Miss, this is their first bowl appearance since 2019 and first under second year head coach Will Hall. For Rice, this is their first bowl game since 2014! While they were not technically bowl eligible at 5-7, their academic performance moved them to the front of the line for five win teams. I expect both teams to be motivated to cap their seasons on a positive note. I'm backing Rice because Southern Miss has had trouble scoring since conference play started. They scored twenty or fewer points in six of their eight Sun Belt games and scored more than 23 points in just one league game. Their most famous player is the scion of an NFL great, but they ranked thirteenth of fourteen Sun Belt teams in yards per carry. Its hard to cover a spread of nearly a touchdown when you struggle to score more than twenty points. Take the Owls to keep this one close. 

Armed Forces Bowl @ Fort Worth, Texas
Air Force +6 Baylor
Last season Baylor played in the Sugar Bowl and the Bears were expected to contend in the Big 12. Instead the Bears finished 4-5 and even lost a non-conference game to a future conference opponent to finish 6-6. Through three season, the Bears are a perfectly mediocre 14-13 in Big 12 play under Dave Aranda. I know nine of those games came in the odd pandemic season, but if you are inclined to just throw that season out, shouldn't we look at last year's Big 12 title with a little more skepticism after what we saw in 2022? Despite winning the league title, last year's team ranked fifth (of ten teams) in Net YPP. This year's team was slightly worse, but not terribly so, ranking seventh in Net YPP. Obviously we need a few more data points before we can accurately evaluate Aranda's tenure, but that didn't stop some national writers from crowning him last season. But I digress. Air Force also failed to meet expectations in 2022. The Falcons had a relatively soft schedule in front of them and per the betting market, were expected to win every game they played. In fact, the Falcons have not been an underdog since the middle of last season. Alas, they suffered three defeats this season as a betting favorite (Boise State, Utah State, and Wyoming) and will have to settle for a potential second consecutive ten win season (and third in four years). Being a service academy, I don't expect motivation to be an issue for the Falcons, while it could potentially be a problem for Baylor. After playing an SEC team last bowl season, will Baylor be inspired to face a Group of Five team that runs a triple option variant? Oh, and Baylor fired their defensive coordinator less than two weeks ago. I don't think that is a winning recipe for facing Air Force. Take the Falcons and the points.   

Independence Bowl @ Shreveport, Louisiana
Louisiana-Lafayette +6.5 Houston
The Cougars and Ragin' Cajuns combined to go 16-0 against conference opponents in the regular season in 2021. The Ragin' Cajuns won their conference title game while Houston fell to an historically strong Cincinnati. Both teams finished ranked in the AP Poll and while Louisiana-Lafayette lost their head coach to Florida, Houston kept Dana Holgorsen and seemed poised to contend for a New Year's Six Bowl, if not a playoff spot. Things didn't quite work out that way. Houston dropped two games to Big 12 teams in non-conference play and then lost three conference games to finish a disappointing 7-5. Louisiana-Lafayette also dropped two non-conference games and half their Sun Belt clashes to finish 6-6. While both teams are probably disappointed to be in this spot, I think the Ragin' Cajuns will be the more motivated squad. The school did not play in a bowl game until 2011 and they are 5-1 straight up in bowl games played in the state of Louisiana. Meanwhile, Dana Holgorsen's teams are 3-6 straight up in bowl games and 2-7 ATS, including 1-3 straight up and 0-4 ATS in games where they entered as the favorite. Houston has also been awful as a favorite this season, posting a 1-7 ATS mark in the role. If you're looking for a favorite to crap the bed this bowl season, take a look at the Houston Cougars. They check all the boxes. The Cougars are potentially unmotivated, have a coach with a bad track record in bowls, and are facing a plucky underdog in their home state. 

Military Bowl @ Annapolis, Maryland
Duke -2.5 Central Florida
To beat Central Florida, you need to be able to shut down their ground game. The Knights averaged 236 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry this season. In their four defeats, they averaged 142 yards per game and right at four yards per carry. The Knights were moderately successful running against Louisville (208 yards and 5.5 per carry), but in their other three losses they averaged 120 yards per game and just 3.5 yards per carry. The Duke Blue Devils happen to have the third best rush defense (based on yards per carry) in the ACC. Duke also likes to run the ball, ranking second in the ACC in yards per carry. Like the Knights, Duke has a mobile quarterback that contributes to the team's rushing total. In fact, Riley Leonard led the Blue Devils in rushing yards (636) and rushing touchdowns (11) this season. Duke has not played in a a bowl game since 2018 and this is just their seventh bowl appearance since 1994, so I expect their fans to travel the relatively short distance to Maryland to take in the action. Meanwhile, Central Florida was on the precipice of a New Year's Six bid before losing to Tulane in the AAC Championship Game. The Knights probably don't want to be here and they have no quarterback depth as their backup entered the transfer portal. Plus, Gus Malzahn does not have a great track record in bowl games. His teams are 3-5 straight up. Two of his wins came at Auburn against an overmatched Group of Five team (Memphis) in 2015 and an overmatched Purdue in 2018. He did win his bowl debut for the Knights last season, but that game came against a decimated in-state rival. Duke should roll here. 

Alamo Bowl @ San Antonio, Texas
Washington +5 Texas
The Alamo Bowl features Steve Sarkisian's former team against his current team. While Sarkisian deserves a lot of credit for reviving the Washington program after it hit rock bottom, he was never able to win more than eight regular season games in Seattle, something Kalen DeBoer accomplished in his first season. While that comparison is a little unfair to Sarkisian, it should be noted that Washington won just four games last season and was completely inept on offense. Transfer quarterback Michael Penix helped solved those offensive issues by throwing for over 4300 yards this season. Penix also had excellent protection as Washington quarterbacks were sacked just seven times all season. Only three teams were sacked less often and every service academy, despite throwing sparingly, gave up more sacks than Washington. The Huskies offensive bona fides will be put to the test against a Texas defense that led the Big 12 in yards allowed per pass. Only two Big 12 teams scored more than 30 points against the Longhorns (Oklahoma State and Texas Tech) and those happened to be two of the three conference games they lost. On the other side of the ball, Texas led the Big 12 in yards per rush behind the uber-talented Bijan Robinson. While Washington struggled at times defensively this season, their major weakness was against the pass. Only Colorado allowed more yards per pass to Pac-12 opponents. The Huskies were actually third in yards allowed per rush. Oregon shredded their rush defense with a spread attack, but the Huskies were stout against the more basic rush offenses. While Sarkisian has a reputation as an offensive tactician, his offenses are not as exotic as the one run by Oregon. I expect Washington to hold up well against the Texas rush offense. Plus, Texas has been overrated by the betting market this season. The Longhorns were favored in every game this season except their home date with Alabama. They were favored by more than a field goal in ten of those other eleven games. Yet they lost three of them. I think Washington has a great chance to make it four. 

Duke's Mayo Bowl @ Charlotte, NC
Maryland -2 NC State 
I've made my thoughts for Mike Locksley known in this space before, but I have to give the man credit. If Maryland wins this game, the Terrapins will have their most wins (8) since Ralph Friedgen's final campaign when they finished with nine. Maryland had mediocre overall numbers in Big 10 play, being outgained by 0.01 yards per play through nine conference games. However, against teams not currently ranked in the AP top ten (Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State), Maryland outgained conference foes by 0.68 yards per play. While NC State is currently in the lower reaches of the AP Poll, their per play profile is not nearly as strong. The Wolfpack finished ACC play ranked dead last in yards per play. Part of that is due to the season ending injury to quarterback Devin Leary.  Three quarterbacks took snaps over the final six games of the season with MJ Morris playing the best. However, over those six games, the Wolfpack averaged just over twenty points per game against a less than imposing slate of defenses. Five of the six teams were below average per play defenses in the ACC, with four (Louisville, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest) ranking tenth or worse in the league in the category. Their defensive numbers were better, as they ranked sixth among ACC teams in yards allowed per play. However, their per play net in ACC games ranked twelfth, ahead of Boston College and Virginia Tech. Neither of those teams even sniffed a bowl bid. Last year, a similarly mediocre Maryland team dominated Virginia Tech in Yankee Stadium. The circumstances are a little different this year, as NC State does not have an interim coach and the Wolfpack appear to have some sort of homefield advantage with the game taking place in Charlotte. However, NC State is operating at a major deficiency at the most important position on the field. Maryland should be laying more than a field goal so take the Terps to win this renewal of old ACC rivals

Arizona Bowl @ Tucson, Arizona
Wyoming +1 Ohio
These two teams overachieved in 2022. Wyoming was decimated by the transfer portal and were not given much chance to contend in the Mountain West. While the Cowboys finished three games behind Boise State in the Mountain Division, they won five league games for the first time since 2017. Meanwhile, Ohio won just three games last season and the Bobcats were expected to finish in the middle of the MAC East. The Bobcats began MAC play with a loss to Kent State, but reeled off seven consecutive league wins to secure a spot in the MAC Championship Game. They were unable to win their first MAC title since 1968, but they won nine games for the first time since 2018. While both teams overachieved, they are also dealing with some personnel issues on offense. Ohio lost their quarterback, Kurtis Rourke, to injury and had to win the season finale with his backup to clinch the MAC East. Wyoming's leading rusher, Titus Swen, is no longer with the team after a violation of team rules. While Swen topped 1000 yards on the ground and averaged over five yards per carry, Wyoming's ground based offense will probably not miss him as much as Ohio misses Rourke. Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl fancies the running game, and while his inability to field a competent passing attack without Josh Allen has limited their upside, they have remained a consistent bowl team. Speaking of bowls, Bohl is 3-1 straight up and 4-0 ATS in bowl games at Wyoming, winning the past three by nearly twenty points per game. Wyoming struggles with the forward pass, but they may not need it. They should run roughshod over Ohio and win fairly handily. 

Thanks for your continued support of this blog. We'll be back in January with a betting futures recap from my annual Vegas trip and then on Thursday following the national championship game, we'll begin our YPP and APR conference recaps. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 01, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Championship Week

We closed the regular season with another solid week. This week, there is an abbreviated schedule, so you get abbreviated picks. Check back again in two weeks for a full size Magnificent Seven as we go over the best bets in bowl season. Home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 53-38


Akron +11.5 Buffalo
I actually wrote this game up two weeks ago before it was postponed due to the Buffalo Blizzard. Back then, the spread was 14.5, but I still like Akron even at this deflated number. While this isn't a conference title game, it does have significant repercussions for one team. Having lost three consecutive games, Buffalo needs to win to qualify for their first bowl game under head coach Maurice Linguist. While the Bulls are in contention for a bowl game, Akron has actually gained more yards per play and allowed fewer yards per play than the Bulls against MAC opponents. Buffalo may have the motivation edge, but Akron has been the better team in conference play. Akron has also done well as an underdog this season against teams with similar talent levels. The Zips are 3-1 ATS as a road underdog against other Group of Five opponents. Buffalo is just 1-3 ATS as a home favorite under Linguist, losing twice outright, including last year as a double digit favorite to Bowling Green. I'm not bold enough to call for an outright upset, but Akron should keep this one close. 

North Texas +9 Texas-San Antonio
The Roadrunners are going for their second straight Conference USA title before they move to the AAC. In fact, both participants in this title game will be playing in the AAC next year. UTSA closed their Conference USA membership on quite a run, winning eighteen of their final nineteen regular season league games. Who was the lone team to beat them in that span? North Texas, in the regular season finale last year. The Mean Green dominated UTSA, got their sixth win, and likely saved head coach Seth Littrell's job. The Mean Green also nearly beat the Roadrunners in the Alamo Dome this year, losing a back and forth affair six weeks ago. These two teams have the best passing offenses (by yards per play) in Conference USA, so I expect a high-scoring affair, similar to last year's title game when UTSA knocked off Western Kentucky 49-41 as a slight home underdog. The Roadrunners built a big lead and held off a furious Hilltopper rally to win last year, buoyed in part by three Western Kentucky turnovers. Six weeks ago, the spread in this game was about the same (UTSA favored by ten) and the Mean Green easily covered. I expect a repeat performance and even if the Roadrunners get ahead, North Texas is more than capable of getting in the backdoor with their prolific offense. Take the Mean Green and don't be surprised if they prevent UTSA from repeating as conference champs. 

Central Florida +3.5 Tulane
Based on the most recent College Football Playoff Rankings, the winner of this game will be playing in the Cotton Bowl. Central Florida appeared in back to back New Year's Six bowl games in 2017 and 2018 and also played in a BCS bowl game in 2013. Tulane on the other hand, has not played in a major bowl game since the 1930's when they played in a Rose and two Sugar Bowls. These two teams faced off three weeks ago in the same venue with Central Florida emerging victorious. The Knights rushed for over 300 yards in that game and scored 38 points (the most the Green Wave have given up all season). Based on resumes and advanced statistics, Tulane is probably the better team. However, Central Florida's running game, particularly their mobile quarterback, is a bad matchup for Tulane. Just last week, Tulane struggled against Cincinnati's mobile backup quarterback as the Bearcats rushed for a season high 235 yards. Central Florida and Tulane have shared a conference for much of the past two decades, meeting eleven times as league opponents since 2005. The Green Wave are just 2-9 straight up in those games, with one of the victories coming against a winless Central Florida team in 2015. The Green Wave have been a little better against the spread, posting a 5-6 ATS record, but most of those covers have come when they were catching double digits. The Green Wave have been favored in two of the previous eleven contests and have not covered either time (including earlier this season). As much as I want to see Tulane in the Cotton Bowl, the matchup and the history point to the Knights.