Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week VIII

We had another solid week, but one of our whiffs was really bad. I apologize for anyone who took my advice on Arizona. Email me your Social Security Number and I will reimburse you. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall 28-21

Memphis -1.5 Central Florida
Good thing the Big 12 didn't base their invites on performance in 2021. Otherwise, the Knights may have had theirs rescinded. Central Florida has dropped three of four since a 2-0 start and if not for a fourth quarter comeback against East Carolina would be winless in AAC play. Its also good the Big 12 didn't base their invites on ATS record since the start of 2020. Including their bowl loss last season, UCF was 3-7 ATS in 2020 and thus far in 2021, they have failed to cover a single spread against an FBS opponent, rocking a perfect 0-5 mark. Obviously, the Knights are unlikely to finish the season without a spread victory, but I still think they are overvalued by the betting market. How can you feel confident with this team, especially without quarterback Dillon Gabriel who has missed the past three games and is likely out for the year? The Knights have been held below six yards per play in all three games since losing Gabriel. While the most recent came against College Football Playoff contender Cincinnati, the other two were against Navy and East Carolina, teams that do not conjure images of the 1985 Chicago Bears. For comparison, between 2017 and 2020, the Knights were held below six yards per play eleven times in 49 games (three times versus Power Five opponents). You have to wonder if the Knights can score enough to beat a Memphis team that has scored at least 28 points in every game this season. The Tigers would probably be a fringe top-25 team if they had a little more luck in the turnover department. The Tigers have a turnover margin of -8 through seven games, but that is mostly due to them forcing just three turnovers all season (none in the past three games). Turnovers are relatively random, so I would expect the Tigers to do a better job of pouncing on some loose balls and getting their hands on a few more passes down the stretch. Its not guaranteed their turnover margin will improve, but since they have been successful despite their struggles in the turnover department, they are probably undervalued by the betting market. I'll take the Tigers as a slight road favorite to keep the Gus Bus stuck in neutral.  

Kansas State +1 Texas Tech
Kansas State has owned this series since the Big 12 scrapped divisional play following the 2010 season. In the ten meetings since 2011, Kansas State has won nine despite entering as an underdog six times. In their five previous visits to Lubbock since 2011, the Wildcats have been a slight underdog (between two and five points) as they are this weekend and have headed home with a win four times. The Wildcats do enter on a three-game skid, but most of that can be chalked up to the schedule. In their past three games, the Wildcats have faced two unbeaten teams from the state of Oklahoma as well as a strong Iowa State team in the midst of Brocktober. Texas Tech is 5-2, but they have already feasted on the chaff of the Big 12 (Kansas and West Virginia) as well some creampuffs in the non-conference (Florida International and Stephen F. Austin). Their neutral site victory over Houston is legitimately impressive, but that feels like a game that will puzzle college football historians as they look back on the 2021 season. Even with the statistical bump that comes from playing Kansas and West Virginia, Texas Tech is still underwater in yards per play in Big 12 action (allowing an unsightly 7.19 yards per snap) so Kansas State should be able to move the ball. I expect a typical Big 12 shootout with both teams scoring in the thirties. However, there is only once coach in the matchup you can trust. Since Chris Klieman arrived in Manhattan, the Wildcats are 11-6 ATS in the regular season as an underdog with eight outright wins. Texas Tech is 4-4 ATS as a favorite under Matt Wells, but just 2-4 ATS against Power Five opponents with three straight up losses. These teams are headed in opposite directions. Kansas State should do enough over the second half of the season to qualify for a bowl while Texas Tech may be looking down the barrel of a five-game losing streak. 

Miami (Ohio) +5 Ball State
The second half of MAC football should be a ton of fun. Both division races are wide open, with every team in the East sporting a conference loss and a suspect Northern Illinois team leading the West (3-0, but conference wins by a total of 17 points). And this matchup of the past two MAC champs will go a long way toward determining the final standings. Miami is tied atop the East division with a 2-1 record and after this clash with the Cardinals, closes with four consecutive division games, culminating with a road trip to Kent State that will likely decide the East's participant in the MAC Championship Game. Meanwhile, Ball State has won three in a row after a 1-3 start. Quarterback Drew Plitt has thrown for nearly 800 yards at 8.6 yards a pop in the past three games after averaging under five yards per throw in his first three games against FBS competition. Part of that improvement can be attributed to the schedule which has eased up as those first three games included Penn State and Wyoming as well as the best defense in the MAC (Toledo). Miami has had quarterback issues of their own with AJ Mayer playing the bulk of the past three games (and the opener) due to an injury to Brett Gabbert. Mayer struggled in the opener against Cincinnati and in a tight loss to Eastern Michigan, but Ball State has been torched by the non-Army passing offenses they have played, so I expect solid numbers out of Mayer should be have to start a third consecutive game. On the other side of the ball, Miami has been able to generate havoc in MAC play, accumulating 12 sacks in three games. This has the look of a typical tight MAC game and the trends point to Miami. Ball State is just 4-8 ATS as a home favorite under Mike Neu, losing six of their failed overs outright. Meanwhile, Miami of Ohio has been a covering machine under Chuck Martin, going 13-8 ATS as a road underdog in MAC play while pulling eight outright upsets. This game should be close and with Miami catching nearly a touchdown, they are the play. 

Oklahoma State +7 Iowa State
Whenever a ranked team is getting points from an unranked team, that always catches my attention. And in this game, the ranked team getting points happens to be in the top ten. The Cowboys are ranked eighth in the most recent AP Poll, which is their highest ranking since...last year?! Who remembered the Cowboys got as high number six last season? Good on ya. I backed the Cowboys last week, and they eked out a win at Texas as a slight underdog. That ticket was probably a bit lucky to cash as Texas threw a pick-six deep in Oklahoma State territory up fourteen. While the Longhorns missed their opportunity for a knock out punch, the Oklahoma State defense deserves credit for keeping them in the game. Even with the pick-six, Oklahoma State trailed by eleven points in the third quarter, but held Texas scoreless for the last 25 minutes to give their offense time to stage a rally. This play is all about my belief in Oklahoma State. I don't think the Cowboys have the offense to win the Big 12, but their defense should keep them in every game and since the team has been winning ugly, they are undervalued by the betting market. Recent history also suggest Oklahoma State is the side you should look at. Care to guess which Big 12 team has the best record against Iowa State since Matt Campbell came to Ames? Its not Oklahoma. 
The Cowboys are 4-1 against Iowa State in the past five seasons and have actually won each of their past four trips to Ames since their infamous 2011 loss. A few weeks ago in this space, I said Oklahoma State has transitioned into the Iowa of the Big 12 with a strong defense making up for an ugly offense. The Cyclones have struggled against the Hawkeyes because they don't play like a typical Big 12 team. And Oklahoma State doesn't either. Take the Cowboys and the touchdown they are being spotted. 

San Diego State +3 Air Force
I mentioned earlier that I am usually wary when an unraked team is favored against a ranked team. This is another spot where the ranked team is the underdog (there are four such games this week). Despite that apprehension, this is exactly the spot where you want to back San Diego State. The Aztecs have been a consistent bowl team for the past decade, coinciding nicely with the hire of Brady Hoke in 2009. Hoke was replaced by Rocky Long who guided the Aztecs for nine seasons and was then replaced by Hoke following his departure after the 2019 season. Since 2009, San Diego State is 20-12-1 ATS as a road underdog. They are an even more impressive 13-4-1 ATS as a road underdog in Mountain West play. Under Hoke and Long, the Aztecs have played good to great defense and this year is no exception. Opponents are averaging just a tick over four yards per play against them, good for second nationally behind Georgia. I won't make the absurd argument that they have the second best defense in the country, but this is a top twenty defensive outfit. Alas, in that same span, the they have struggled with the forward pass and again, this year is no exception. As a team, they are completing 52% of their passes and are making a quarterback change. Lucas Johnson tossed the winning touchdown last week against San Jose State and will get the start against Air Force. I wouldn't expect big changes though. The passing game, and probably the offense in general, will be a net negative. However, this defense travels and the Aztecs have played well against the Falcons recently. In the Hoke/Long era, they are 7-1 both straight up and ATS against Air Force and have won their past three games in Colorado Springs. I think that trend continues on Saturday.  

Louisiana Tech +6.5 Texas-San Antonio
A few spots up I talked about Central Florida's pending move to the Big 12. That of course, was a response to the Big 12 losing Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC. With Central Florida and others departing for the Big 12, the AAC recently announced its next move and one of the Conference USA teams that will begin play in the AAC is the newly ranked Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners. That is quite a comeup (I think I used that word correctly; let me know zoomers) for a team that played their first football game ten years ago. You can't beat being located in a major metropolitan area and getting good at just the right time. I don't think the news of joining the AAC will be a distraction for this team, but being ranked for the first time in program history might. The Roadrunners are 24th in the AP Poll and are just the third Conference USA team to enter the polls during the College Football Playoff era (joining Marshall and Western Kentucky). Now comes the hard part; maintaining focus when there is a target on your back. Louisiana Tech enters this game with a very odd collection of results. Halfway through 2021, the Bulldogs have nearly beaten an SEC team on the road, lost at home to a ranked team on a Hail Mary, and nearly beaten a ranked ACC team on the road. They have also scraped by an FCS team and a very bad FBS team at home and lost at UTEP. Volatility, thy name is Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have been great at home in conference play under Skip Holtz, posting a 22-10 outright record (21-7 from his second season onward). Despite a 2-4 record, Louisiana Tech is still in the West division race in Conference USA and a victory here would get them back on the path toward bowl eligibility. The home crowd plus the pressure the Roadrunners will face playing their first game as a ranked team makes Louisiana Tech the side. 

Miami +3.5 NC State
How good is NC State's defense? Through two conference games, the Wolfpack currently have the best per play defense in the ACC, permitting a paltry 4.18 yards per play to their opponents. However, lets take a step back and examine the teams they have played thus far. The Wolfpack opened conference play against Clemson, and while their upset shook up the balance of power in the ACC, Clemson's offense has been shall we say, less than potent this season. The Tigers have not scored more than 21 points against an FBS opponent this season and seem content to play football in the 21st century as if were the NFL in the 1970s. NC State's other conference opponent was Boston College. While the Eagles have won two of four games since starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec went down with a season-ending injury, they have scored just twenty combined points in games not involving Temple or Missouri. In other words, I think the jury is still out on the NC State defense. This will represent their biggest road test since they lost a Mississippi State in the season's second week. Miami has come close to turning things around, losing by a combined five points to Virginia and North Carolina while turning the offense over to Tyler Van Dyke. The Hurricanes nearly upset North Carolina despite three Van Dyke interceptions, the last of which came when they were knocking on the door in the final minute. Manny Diaz may end up in the unemployment line at season's end, but the team does not appear to have quit on him. And the Hurricanes have thrived in the underdog role under Diaz. 
Their two lone failures as an underdog came against Clemson and Alabama when both were number one in games away from Hard Rock Stadium. I also looked at how Miami performed as a home underdog in general since joining the ACC. While this is the first time they have been a home underdog under Diaz, they are solid 9-4 ATS in that role since joining the ACC in 2004, including 7-6 straight up. I think Miami puts it all together this week and throws more chaos into the ACC race. 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week VII

We had our first losing week in a month. As usual, it was a combination of bad picks and a little bad luck. We'll try and do better this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall 23-19

Nebraska -4 Minnesota
It looked like Saturday would be the night Nebraska finally overcame whatever voodoo curse was placed on them by Frank Solich when he was unceremoniously fired in 2003. The Cornhuskers were in position to notch the biggest win of the Scott Frost era, but a fumble by Adrian Martinez and a late field goal allowed Michigan to escape. The loss dropped Nebraska to an incredible 5-16 in one-score games under Frost. Despite yet another close loss, Nebraska's statistical profile is still that of a solid team. With a 1-3 Big Ten record, they have outgained their first four conference opponents by more than a yard and a half per play. Note those numbers have been accumulated against a schedule that includes two unbeaten teams (Michigan and Michigan State). It also includes games against Illinois and Northwestern, but those are still numbers unbecoming a team that wins a quarter of its conference games. With a 3-4 record, Nebraska must win this game and beat Purdue to have a chance at bowl eligibility as they should be underdogs in their final three games (Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa). As for the Golden Gophers, they have struggled to move the ball and score since losing senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim to injury in the opener against Ohio State. They have been held under 300 yards of total offense three times in four games since his season ending injury. And lets not forget in that span they have also lost as a thirty point favorite. This is a perfect buy low spot for Nebraska. Count on the Cornhuskers to go into the twin cities and leave with a comfortable win. Unless its close. If this game is tight in the fourth quarter, I suggest you go for a walk or catch up on Below Deck because chances are Nebraska will do something to blow it. 

Oklahoma State +4 Texas
Does Oklahoma State have the best defense in the Big 12? A few weeks back when I was previewing their game against Kansas State (a loser for me by the way), I noted Oklahoma State has quietly shifted into a Big 12 version of Iowa. They play a lot more game in the twenties instead of the forties and have been winning with defense for a little while now. This season, the Cowboys are 5-0 and have held three of their four FBS opponents to their lowest point total output (Baylor, Boise State, and Kansas State) and two to their lowest yards per play totals (Baylor and Kansas State). The offense remains a work in progress, with the running game averaging under four yards per carry. However, Texas may be just what the doctor ordered to get that offense out of neutral. The Longhorns have allowed over seven yards per play to three of the four Power Five teams they have faced this season. And if you watched any of the Oklahoma thriller, you know they have some issues tackling. The Texas offense is one of the nation's best, so I can see why oddsmakers have them laying almost a touchdown, but if Texas was winning by ten points late in the fourth quarter, would you have confidence in them keeping Oklahoma State out of the endzone to prevent a backdoor cover? Oklahoma State's offensive struggles will probably prevent them from winning the Big 12, but their defense is good enough to keep them in any game including this one against a flawed Texas team coming off an emotional loss in a game they probably thought they had won on several occasions. Take the Cowboys and the points. 

South Florida +8.5 Tulsa
South Florida has yet to defeat an FBS team in Jeff Scott's second season. The Bulls knocked off The Citadel in their pandemic delayed opener last season and beat Florida A&M a month ago. However, they are 0-12 against FBS opponents. Don't let those ugly numbers scare you away though. The Bulls have quietly played better on offense the past few weeks behind freshman quarterback Timmy McClain. McClain is averaging eight and a half yards per throw despite a rough opening schedule. The Bulls have faced four teams currently ranked in the AP Poll (BYU, Florida, NC State, and SMU). Tulsa is significantly worse than those four teams and should not be laying more than a touchdown on the road. The Golden Hurricane won all three of their conference road games last season and nearly upset Cincinnati on the road in the AAC Championship Game. I'm inclined to believe their 2020 success was due to the unique circumstances surrounding the season and general good fortune (four of their six conference wins were by one score). From 2017 through 2019, the Golden Hurricane were 1-11 in AAC road games, losing six of the eleven by double digits. Tulsa did scrape by Memphis at home last week, but Memphis outgained them by nearly 200 yards. The Tigers turned the ball over three times (to zero for Tulsa) and missed three field goals in the six-point loss. Tulsa is overvalued by the betting market and I expect a solid performance from South Florida off their bye. 

Texas State +7.5 Troy
On the surface, this a pretty nondescript Sun Belt clash. But to me, a college football superfan, it is a battle of two teams led by trendy former offensive coordinators who are in their third season as head coaches and might be about to get fired. Chip Lindsey is the head coach of Troy. He steadily climbed the offensive coordinator ranks from Southern Miss to Arizona State and finally to Auburn. However, in his two plus seasons at Troy, the Trojans are 13-16. On the surface that doesn't seem too bad, but before he arrived, they had won at least ten games for three consecutive seasons. And their offenses have gotten progressively worse each season. His first team averaged nearly 34 points per game. Last year's team averaged about 27 and a half and this year's team has averaged just over 24 per game. Take out the double nickel they dropped on Southern, and the average drops to about 18 per game against FBS competition. Oh, and his team lost to Louisiana-Monroe. What about Texas State? Well, they are led by Jake Spavital, former offensive coordinator at West Virginia. Under Spavital, the Bobcats are 7-22 in two plus seasons. That's clearly worse than Lindsey, but I should point out Texas State averaged just two and a half wins per season in the four years before Spavital arrived in San Marcos. And their offense has actually improved since he arrived. The Bobcats averaged under 19 points per game in his first season, jumped to over 27 per game last season, and are averaging just north of 26 per game this season. Their bigger issues have been on the other side of the ball where they have not allowed fewer than 30 points per game in any season under Spavital. With that background out of the way, I suggest you back Texas State because the Bobcats have been relatively frisky as a home underdog (5-2 ATS since the start of last season) and because Troy will probably not be scoring a lot of points. Their defense is legitimately solid for a Sun Belt unit, but Lindsey wasn't hired to squeak by Sun Belt teams while scoring in the teens. Take Texas State to keep this within a touchdown. 

Miami +7.5 North Carolina
Call it the Disappointment Bowl. Or if you have a thesaurus handy, maybe the Despondency Duel. Either way, neither of these teams figured to be .500 or worse in mid-October. The Hurricanes and Tar Heels have an incredible six losses between them despite being underdogs just a single time (Miami's opener with Alabama). Miami will be without the services of quarterback D'Eriq King, but metaphorically, they have been without his services all season. I hate to critique a player who suffered a gruesome injury in their bowl game and battled back to return the next season, but King was clearly diminished as both a passer and dynamic runner. Turning the offense over to freshman Tyler Van Dyke (maybe he can get some advice from Luther) is what Miami needed both for the short and long term success of the program. While Miami enters this game with a losing record, North Carolina has arguably been the bigger disappointment. The Tar Heels wee ranked tenth in the preseason AP Poll, but dropped their opener to Virginia Tech and also dropped conference games to Georgia Tech and Florida State. After Saturday, North Carolina will somehow be 75% done with their conference schedule (they have a non-conference game with Wake Forest in a few weeks)! Thanks to their rough start, the Tar Heels are practically eliminated from division and conference title contention in the ACC. With that carrot buried in the ground, you have to wonder how motivated they will be over the second half of the season. Meanwhile, after their embarrassing performance against North Carolina last season, I don't think Manny Diaz will have to work very hard to motivate the Hurricanes. In addition, while Miami has three losses, only one of them has come in ACC play, so the Hurricanes are very much alive in the division race. Miami has done well as a road underdog under Diaz, at least when not facing the number one team in the country. Miami is 4-1 ATS in that role under Diaz with four outright victories. Their lone loss came to Clemson last year in Death Valley. Off a bye, I think Miami adds to North Carolina's disappointing campaign.  

Arizona +6 Colorado
On the surface, this line makes sense. Arizona is winless, having started the Jedd Fisch era with five consecutive losses, including one to Northern Arizona of the FCS. On the other hand, Colorado is winless against FBS teams, having scored 34 total points in their four games against FBS competition. They did throw a scare into Texas A&M, but their other three FBS opponents outscored them by 75 combined points. As I am want to mention in this section of the internet, it is hard to cover when you can't score. And Colorado matches that description. You couldn't install Arizona as a favorite in this game, but I am shocked Colorado is laying more than a field goal. I wouldn't worry about the altitude (or elevation) affecting Arizona too much either. Since joining the Pac-12, Colorado has been favored in 13 home conference games (out of 42 total home conference games). They are a middling 7-6 ATS in those games. In addition, Arizona has won their past four visits to Boulder, including twice as an underdog. In fact, the last game Arizona won came almost exactly two years ago in this very venue (on a night eerily similar to this). Arizona is bad, but they have been feisty despite their 0-5 record, covering in two of the three games where they entered as underdogs. The Wildcats may well finish 0-12 in 2021, but if they are going to win a game this season, it probably comes on Saturday. 

UCLA +1.5 Washington
We were all probably a little too quick to jump on the UCLA bandwagon after they beat LSU. The Tigers may end up finishing in the basement of the SEC West, but we all wanted to believe so badly. Consequently, UCLA got up to 13th in the AP Poll and there were even some whispers about a potential College Football Playoff appearance. Then the Bruins fell on their face in a home loss to Fresno State. They rebounded to beat Stanford, but got rolled at home by Arizona State. While the final score against the Sun Devils was not pretty, Arizona State may wind up being the best team in the Pac-12 and also the conference champion (remember their loss to BYU was not a conference game). The losses to Fresno State and Arizona State exposed the UCLA defense as not quite ready for primetime. Fresno State gained 569 yards and while Arizona State 'only' gained 463, they averaged nearly nine yards per snap. Of course, if you have defensive issues, Washington can do a lot to build your confidence. The Huskies looked potent against Arkansas State, scoring 52 points against one of the worst FBS defenses, but in their other four games, they have averaged just 18 points per game. That includes an FCS loss, an overtime game against Cal (where they managed just 24 points in regulation), and a loss to Oregon State (not exactly a defensive stalwart). A standard Washington team should be able to make up for those offensive deficiencies by playing really good defense. That has not been the case for this one, especially against the run. The Huskies were able to bottle up Montana and Arkansas State, but Michigan ran for 343 yards against them and Oregon State nearly ran for 250. UCLA has averaged over 200 yards per game rushing through the first half of 2021 so even if their volatile quarterback, Dorian Thompson-Robinson struggles throwing the ball, the Bruins should still be able to move the ball on the ground. UCLA hosts Oregon next week, but the Bruins and Ducks have already played two times since Chip Kelly took the UCLA job, so I don't think you have to worry about them looking ahead. UCLA will leave their trip to the Pacific northwest with a minor upset. 

Thursday, October 07, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week VI

We had our best week in a long time. Sure seems like a market correction is in store, but hopefully it waits a few weeks. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall 20-15

Tennessee -10.5 South Carolina
Am I putting too much stock into Tennessee's win against Missouri last week? Probably. The Vols rolled up nearly 700 yards and 62 points against what may end up being one of the worst SEC defenses we have ever seen. However, given that dominating performance, I expected this spread to be over two touchdowns. Despite dropping 62 points on the road in a conference game, I believe Tennessee is still undervalued by the betting market. The Vols have lost to the two best teams they have played but it may be time to reevaluate that loss to Pittsburgh. A month ago, Pittsburgh looked to be a middling Power Five team, but according to FPI, they are the second best team in the ACC (tenth best in the country) and the favorite to win the conference. Are you prepared to live in a world where Pittsburgh is an 11-2 ACC champion with a loss to Western Michigan that prevents them from making the playoff? I sure am. Anyway, that competitive loss to the Panthers suddenly looks better and better, and while I don't expect Tennessee to have any shot at beating Alabama or Georgia, they can certainly handle an SEC team with a deficient offense led by a rookie head coach. How many points can South Carolina realistically expect to score in this game? Ignoring their game against Eastern Illinois, the Gamecocks have scored 66 points in their four FBS games. Georgia and Kentucky have elite and good defenses respectively, but the Gamecocks also scored twenty points against East Carolina and 23 against Troy. Seems like they probably max out in the mid-twenties. Tennessee has a pretty good offense, not up to the standards in Tuscaloosa, but pretty good. And they are able to maximize that offense by playing at a fast pace. This game should have more possessions than an average college football game, so Tennessee will have extra opportunities to get margin. To handicap this game, I also looked at how Josh Heupel's teams performed in home games while he was at Central Florida. His teams were a mediocre 8-7 ATS as home favorites, but that was more a function of them laying a lot of points. Here is the chronological margin of victory in home games against FBS competition for his teams at Central Florida. 
The loss by eight points came against Tulsa when the Knights blew a big lead and the three point loss was to unbeaten Cincinnati. His teams won their other 14 home games by at least eleven points. As I mentioned earlier, they did not cover a lot of those games because they were laying three and four touchdowns. I will probably regret this around 12:30 or so Saturday, but you have to lay it with Tennessee. 

Syracuse +6 Wake Forest
Wake Forest has pretty much nailed its last two football coaching hires (wish I could say the same about basketball). The Demon Deacons have enjoyed an unprecedented run of success the past twenty years, playing in ten bowl games, entering the AP Poll in six different seasons, and even winning the conference in 2006. Despite all that success, you would almost (I said almost) have been better off investing in Enron in 2001 than backing Wake Forest as a road favorite. 
I don't expect those numbers to improve much after Saturday. Wake Forest is 5-0, but their schedule has been rather light in the early going. Their best victory is either the road domination of Virginia or the close scrape with Louisville last week. Syracuse is not a great team, but they are much better than the smoldering crater they were last season. They have been pretty strong on defense, holding two Power Five opponents and Liberty to 314 yards per game and 4.69 yards per play. Despite being coached by Dino Babers, the passing game is pedestrian, but the Orange are able to run the ball with running back Sean Tucker averaging nearly six yards per carry and quarterback Garrett Shrader (a Mississippi State transfer) contributing 234 yards on the ground. Wake Forest has a great chance to start 8-0 if they can get by the Orange, but they will struggle to put Syracuse away in the Carrier Dome.  

Wyoming +6 Air Force
People tend to remember the last thing they saw. Erudite folks call that recency bias. And that is probably why Air Force is laying more than a field goal against the Cowboys. In Wyoming's last game, they had to survive a two point conversion to avoid going to overtime against Connecticut. The Cowboys trailed for most of the game before staging a second half rally to take the lead and ultimately prevail. While barely beating Connecticut is never something you should brag about, I will point out the Huskies have played much better since Randy Edsall retired. After taking Wyoming to the wire, they nearly won on the road against an SEC opponent, so Wyoming's result is not quite as bad as it would initially appear. Compare their performance to Air Force which has rolled its past two opponents by a combined 52 points. Keep the competition in mind though. Their first victim was a team from Florida playing in altitude (or at elevation, I forget which is the proper phrasing) and the other came against perhaps the worst team in the Mountain West. Give the Falcons credit for blasting those two teams, but Wyoming represents their stiffest test to date. The Falcons have rolled up over 1200 yards on the ground in their past three games, so the big question will be how well Wyoming plays against their triple-option variant offense. Their history under Craig Bohl suggests the defense will play well. 
The Cowboys have won four of six outright in this series since Bohl took over with the loss two years ago coming in a game where the Cowboys had major quarterback issues (starter hurt, inept backup) and managed just six points. Air Force has had some defensive issues this season, allowing 49 points and over 600 yards to Utah State three weeks ago. The Cowboys probably don't have the horses to get to those numbers, but they can still win this game outright. 

Southern Miss +2 UTEP
If it turns out our reality is not a simulation, there sure are a lot of coincidences. UTEP has been pretty bad for the past decade and a half (just one winning season since 2005). In fact, in the past ten seasons, this game marks the fifth time they have been road favorites. Three came against New Mexico State (including this season) and the other before this weekend came against...Southern Miss in 2012. The Eagles were led by a first-year head coach that season. Ellis Johnson took over for Larry Fedora and drove the program directly into the ditch. The Eagles went winless in 2012, Johnson was fired, and it took his successor until 2015 to get the team back to a bowl game. The Eagles are once again led by a first-year head coach, and while a winless season is not on the table, thing have not been great in Hattiesburg. The Eagles are 0-4 against FBS opponents despite being thought of as a middling Conference USA team before the season started. However, if you squint, you can see signs of progress. The offense finally moved the ball reasonably well against Rice last week and would likely have won if not for four interceptions. In addition, outside of their performance against Alabama, the defense has played well all season, holding their other three FBS opponents to 306 yards per game and 4.97 yards per play. UTEP is 4-1, but that is more a function of their schedule than anything else. You should never be at a point where you feel comfortable laying points on the road with the boys from El Paso. Take the Eagles to pull off the Miner (see what I did there?) upset.  

Texas-San Antonio +3.5 Western Kentucky
When the oddsmakers throw out a line that seems weird on the surface like this one, I am inclined to avoid it or back the team that is favored. Why is this line weird? Let me set the scene for you. Texas-San Antonio (or UTSA) is 5-0. They have beaten a Power Five team on the road (granted it was Illinois) and won another road game against a team from a superior Group of Five conference (Memphis). Meanwhile, Western Kentucky is 1-3, with zero wins against FBS competition. The Hilltoppers have come close, losing tight games to Army and Indiana. Western Kentucky does one thing well. Throw the football. The Hilltoppers relocated the Houston Baptist passing game in the offseason and the results have been phenomenal. Quarterback Bailey Zappe is completing nearly three quarters of his passes and averaging about nine and a half yards per throw. Two receivers are on pace for 1000 yards and the team is averaging 39 points per game. However, football teams also have to play defense and special teams and this is where Western Kentucky is lacking. Their three FBS opponents have averaged nearly 40 points and 480 yards per game against them. The Hilltoppers have also given up a punt return touchdown for good measure. UTSA can't compete with those robust offensive numbers, but the Roadrunners are much more balanced than the Hilltoppers, Their defense has generated 13 sacks in the past three games and is allowing just 40 rushing yards per game against Group of Five competition. I expect a high-scoring affair and Western Kentucky will likely have the lead at some point on Saturday night. However, their suspect defense will ultimately be their undoing. 

LSU +3 Kentucky
With SEC expansion, the Wildcats and Tigers don't play that often. This is their first meeting since 2014 and just their second in the past decade. With their divergent football histories and infrequent meetings, you probably wouldn't be surprised to hear this is the first time Kentucky has been favored against the Tigers this century. The last time the Wildcats were favored versus LSU was 1999. They won that game by the odd score of 31-5. Kentucky finished 6-6 that season under Hal Mumme, but the bigger story was LSU. The Tigers won a solitary SEC game that season, and wrapped up the Gerry DiNardo era with a 3-8 record. They made a pretty good hire after jettisoning DiNardo and returned to elite status quickly. I bring up that game from more than two decades ago because situations where a perennial have not is favored against a perennial have involve either the have not being historically good or the have being historically bad. That LSU team was historically bad. This LSU team may be mediocre, but they are not bad. So if LSU is not historically bad, does this Kentucky team strike you as transcendent (at least by their standards). Not really. They have won each of their last four games against vastly different competition by a touchdown or less. The victories against Missouri, Chattanooga, and South Carolina are not impressive. The victory against Florida is impressive in the abstract, but the Wildcats were outgained by more than 150 yards and needed a blocked field goal return to provide the winning margin. My sources in Birmingham tell me league officials are unlikely to take that victory away from them, but its best to ignore random, high leverage events like that when projecting forward. Kentucky is a good team, with a quality defense, but they are unlikely to blow LSU out. This is likely to be a one-score game in the fourth quarter, so I like to back the team catching points. In addition, for all his potential faults, Ed Orgeron has killed it as a road underdog during his time at LSU. His teams are 7-1 ATS in the role with four outright wins. He may end up being fired by season's end, but I think he is able to rally the Tigers to pull the minor upset. 

Memphis +3 Tulsa
Both these teams lost last week in rather surprising fashion, but the betting market has only punished Memphis. The Tigers did fall as double-digit favorites, but its possible we were too pessimistic about Temple. I certainly sounded the alarm in the offseason, as the Owls were very bad in 2020. However, they may have been more about Covid and depth chart issues than anything fundamentally wrong with the program. The Owls were blown out by the two Power Five teams they played in non-conference action this year, but that was largely a function of turnovers (-5 versus Rutgers) and an inability to block Boston College (allowed four sacks and rushed for just over two yards per carry). The Owls may end up being a decent AAC team before the year is out and the game between Memphis and Temple may end up saying more about Temple (doesn't suck) than it does about Memphis. Meanwhile, the team we really should have been worried about in the offseason was Tulsa. Despite three consecutive losing seasons, the Golden Hurricane brought back Phillip Montgomery in 2020. He rewarded their faith with an unbeaten run through the AAC regular season. However, that mirage was built upon miraculous second half comebacks and the play of linebacker Zaven Collins. Collins is in the NFL now and it seems like regression might be reaching out for Tulsa. They were blasted at home by Houston last week to drop to 1-4 and put their bowl hopes on life support. I think Montgomery will be fired by the end of the year, if not sooner, and his road to unemployment will continue with another home loss as a betting favorite on Saturday. 

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week V

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

Last Week: 4-3
Overall 14-14

Eastern Michigan +2.5 Northern Illinois
If you don't follow the MAC or even the Group of Five in general and you glanced at Chris Creighton's overall record at Eastern Michigan, you would probably wonder why he hasn't been fired yet. Creighton has won less than 40% of his games (33-52 heading into Saturday), has just two winning seasons, and has never won more than seven games in any one season. While all those facts are true, they are also devoid of context. Eastern Michigan was a smoldering crater before he arrived. To put his win total in perspective, consider that Eastern Michigan won 35 total games in the 21st century (13 seasons) prior to his tenure. In about half the time (six full seasons, a Covid-shortened campaign, and a third of the way through 2021), Creighton has basically equaled that win total. He has also taken the Eagles to three bowl games, where they have come agonizingly close to capping their season with a victory. Not only has Creighton delivered for woebegone Eastern Michigan fans, he has also delivered for bettors. His teams are 24-11-1 ATS as a road underdog during his tenure and a spectacular 13-1 ATS as a road underdog in MAC play since 2016. Meanwhile, the Huskies have fallen on hard times in recent years. After winning six consecutive MAC West titles between 2010 and 2015 and another in 2018, the Huskies are just 4-10 in MAC play under former Northern Illinois running back Thomas Hammock. The Huskies have shown signs of progress in the early going by winning at Georgia Tech, but with each passing week, that result seems more fluky than proof of concept. Northern Illinois dominated this series before Hammock took over as head coach, winning 17 of 18 contests between 2001 and 2018. However, Eastern Michigan has won the past two and these teams appear to be on opposite trajectories. Take the Eagles and the points and don't be surprised if they pull an outright upset. 

Nevada +6.5 Boise State
The Nevada Wolfpack have had a week off to stew about their poor performance as road favorites against Kansas State. The Wolfpack entered with designs on a second road Power Five win, but left with a three-touchdown loss. Their NY6 Bowl hopes are likely dashed, but they still have all their Mountain West goals in front of them. With two losses in September, Boise State can kiss their NY6 dreams goodbye as well. While the Broncos won last week, their victory against Utah State was much closer than the final score. The Aggies slightly outgained the Broncos and averaged more yards per play, but turned the ball over three times and managed only a solitary field goal in four redzone trips. While the Broncos won and covered, its a little concerning they managed just 27 points against a suspect defense. Those offensive issues may be what prevents the Broncos from adding another Mountain West championship to the trophy case. The Broncos have averaged 5.33 yards per play this season, and that includes their relative explosion against UTEP when they churned out nearly seven and a half yards per play. Boise State still plays good defense, especially by Group of Five standards, but if they don't put up a lot of points it will be hard to cover spreads as a favorite. Nevada probably won't hang half a hundred on Boise State, but their quarterback should be playing on Sunday next year. He and the Wolfpack have already played two Power Five road games this season, so they shouldn't be intimidated by the Smurf Turf. I like Nevada to keep this one close and potentially steal one on the road. 

Bowling Green +16.5 Kent State
If you want to be competent at football, the best thing you can do is have Brian VanGorder leave, either voluntarily or involuntarily. I won't delve into BVG's full history as a coach (both as a coordinator and head man), but he has not been very successful, yet somehow continued to get work. I guess like most things, its important who you know and that who you know doesn't care about performance. Not to be too mean to BVG, but the Bowling Green defense is leaps and bounds better than it was the previous two seasons he was coordinating it. In 2019, the Falcons allowed nearly 39 points per game. Last season, the Falcons allowed an absurd 45 points per game in their abbreviated campaign. You can probably chalk some of that up to the pandemic, with the MAC starting late and Covid wrecking havoc on rosters and practice time. However, the results thus far in 2021 have been amazing. Through four games, Bowling Green is allowing just 20 points per game. Even if we take out their game against an FCS opponent, they have allowed just over 23 points per game to FBS competition. Despite facing two Power Five opponents, the Bowling Green defense is allowing roughly half as many points per game as they did against an all-MAC schedule last season. The team still has issues on the other side of the ball (and probably always will as long as Scott Loeffler is the head coach) as they have scored just 39 points in their three FBS games. However, the betting market has not caught up to how good this defense is. Case in point, the Falcons won as 30 point underdogs last week at Minnesota when they held the Gophers to ten points and 241 total yards. In their conference opener, that defense will be put to the test against a Kent State team that averaged nearly 50 points per game last season! The small sample size (just four games) and competition (Flashes scored 131 combined points against Akron and Bowling Green) contributed to those absurd scoring numbers, but Kent State pushes the tempo and has put up at least 30 points in nine of their last twelve MAC games. The fast pace makes me a little uneasy as more possessions mean more opportunities for Kent State to get margin in this game, but I'm a believer in the Bowling Green defense. Plus Kent State will probably be the worst FBS defense Bowling Green has faced this season, so they should be able to get their own point total above their season average. Despite their win last week, nobody seems to realize how improved Bowling Green is. Use that to your advantage and back the Falcons this week. 

Georgia Southern -1.5 Arkansas State
The team that is favored in this game is 1-3 on the season and has been outscored by 75 total points against the three FBS teams they have faced. They also just fired their head coach and suspended a defensive lineman for pulling a Jackass type stunt before their game last week. The oddsmakers couldn't make it any more clear what will happen. Do you have the stones to back Georgia Southern with an interim coach as a slight home favorite? Here's why you should. Arkansas State used to have one of the best defenses in the Sun Belt. Those days are long gone. Since the start of the 2020 season, the Red Wolves have played eight road games. In those games, they have given up 37, 31, 52, 45, 27, 47, 52, and 41 points. On average, they have surrendered more than 40 points per game! Just this season, they have made Washington's offense look functional and helped Tulsa to their highest point total in nearly a year. Think they want anything to do with defending the triple option, even against a team that may not run it well? I doubt it, especially with Coastal Carolina on deck just five days after this one. Arkansas State will score some points of their own against a porous Georgia Southern defense (I'm shocked the over/under is only 66), but I think Georgia Southern circles the proverbial wagons and gets their first FBS win of the year. 

Mississippi State +7 Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher's reputation as a quarterback whisperer has taken a beating since Hayes King was injured. His replacement, Zach Calzada put up good passing numbers against New Mexico, but against the two FBS teams he has faced, the Aggies have scored a grand total of twenty points. They managed to win one of those games because they held Colorado to seven, but unless Calzada figures it out soon, the Aggies could be on their way to a Kevin Sumlin number of losses. Alabama is still on the schedule (next week in fact) as are trips to Ole Miss and LSU as well as a home date with Auburn. I think the Alabama game next week will loom large here. Its never easy to face an 'Air Raid' offense, especially with the Crimson Tide on deck. And lets not forget the Aggies are coming off a tough loss to upstart Arkansas. Of course, Mississippi State is coming off a tough loss of their own against LSU. The Bulldogs outgained the Tigers by over 150 yards, but turnovers, red zone struggles, and a 'leaping the shield' penalty ultimately did them in. Despite the loss, the Bulldogs have thrown the ball well in their second season under Mike Leach. The turnover bugaboos may keep them from winning this game, but with the Texas A&M offense struggling, I can't fathom how you can lay a touchdown with them against any SEC opponent other than Vanderbilt. 

South Alabama +12.5 Louisiana-Lafayette
Since opening the 2020 season with a win at Iowa State, Louisiana-Lafayette has been one of the betting markets more overrated teams. Since beating the Cyclones, the Ragin' Cajuns have been favored in eleven of their last thirteen games against FBS opponents. While they are 10-1 straight up in those games, they are just 4-7 ATS and 3-7 ATS when laying more than a touchdown. In addition, eight of those eleven games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The only teams Louisiana-Lafayette blew out in that span were South Alabama and Louisiana-Monroe last season and the rotting corpse of Ohio this season. One of those teams should sound familiar because that is who the Ragin' Cajuns face this week. However, South Alabama is in a much better place than they were last year. When these teams faced off in 2020, South Alabama was in the midst of closing out the Steve Campbell era by losing five of their last six games while fielding an impotent offense (under ten points per game in those five defeats). This season, they are 3-0 while being led by the youngest head coach in FBS (Kane Wommack) and one of the oldest quarterbacks (Jake Bentley). Bentley began his career at South Carolina five years ago and also spent time at Utah last season. Bentley never lived up to the unrealistic expectations the South Carolina fanbase set for him, but he is an above average passer and should thrive against the questionable defenses currently operating in the Sun Belt. This spread should be closer to a touchdown, so snatch up the points with the Jaguars. 

New Mexico State +27.5 San Jose State
The biggest game of Saturday night involves a renewal of old acquaintances. The Aggies and Spartans were conference brethren in two defunct leagues (PCAA/Big West, and WAC) for several years until the dissolution of the WAC in 2012. San Jose State became a member of the Mountain West, but New Mexico State has been mostly a college football nomad since. They were members of the Sun Belt for a few seasons, but were politely asked to leave and have been on the independent circuit since 2018. The Aggies actually passed on football last fall and played a very abbreviated spring season where they lost to Tarleton State and defeated Dixie State. Props if you know where those two schools are located (Dixie State is not where you think). In their first fall season in two years, the Aggies have struggled and may end up being the worst FBS team in 2021. They are 0-4 against FBS competition, with their lone victory coming South Carolina State. So why on earth should you risk your hard-earned money on the boys from Las Cruces? Well, for starters, San Jose State has played three FBS teams in 2021. In those three games, they have scored a grand total of 27 points. And their starting quarterback was injured in their last game and is unlikely to play against the Aggies. The Spartans have played well defensively in 2021, limiting their opponents to under five yards per play through four games. However, based on the current rules of football, it is impossible to hold an opponent to negative points in a game. San Jose State will have to score more than 28 points to cover this number and I don't think they can. I am always wary of backing an underdog I believe has no shot of winning the game outright (and that certainly appears to be the case here), but San Jose State has the bulk of their conference season remaining after this game, so I expect a conservative game plan with their backup quarterback and a low-scoring, boring victory. Something along the lines of 20-3 or similar. Plus, while New Mexico State is bad, they have already covered twice this season as massive road underdogs against both San Diego State and New Mexico. This is an ugly dog, but they sometimes make the best pets. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

Finally, a winner. Or five winners as it were. We had our first winning week of the season and will look to make it two in a row. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall 10-11

Boston College +2 Missouri
I am a little reticent to back Boston College for three reasons.
  1. This is an ACC/SEC tilt and if you haven't noticed, the ACC has struggled so far in 2021. 
  2. Boston College has played an easy schedule through three games. Most teams would be 3-0 after facing Colgate, Massachusetts, and Temple.
  3. Boston College will be starting their backup quarterback after losing Phil Jurkovec to an injury against the Minutemen. 
Despite those misgivings, I think you still have to give the benefit of the doubt to the Eagles at home. While quarterback Dennis Grosel is a downgrade from Jurkovec, he has experience. He saw significant action in 2019, leading the team in pass attempts, and started the season finale last season. While he has his limitations, this is not a freshman being thrown to the wolves. In addition, Grosel may not need to throw the ball too much. Take a look at Missouri's horrid rush defense. The Tigers allowed 174 on the ground in their opener against Central Michigan and then were shredded by Kentucky for 341 yards. But the coup de grace was last week when a directional Missouri school rolled up nearly 300 yards at more than eight yards per rush! Grosel can do some damage with his legs and as a team, the Eagles are averaging over 200 rushing yards per game and over five yards per carry against their soft schedule. Finally, what puts Boston College over the top for me is Missouri's poor road record following the departure of Gary Pinkel. In four seasons under Barry Odom and a year plus of Eli Drinkwitz, the Tigers are 8-18 in true road games and the eight scalps they have collected are not that impressive. 
The victory at Florida in 2018 was legitimately impressive, but there is not a lot of beef in those other wins. Some highlights include the Tigers closing out both the Bret Bielema and Chad Morris (he was already fired, but you get the idea) eras at Arkansas and beating South Carolina in their first game under interim coach Mike Bobo. Boston College has a pulse, so I think even with a back up quarterback, they can do enough on the ground to win this game outright. 

Texas Tech +8 Texas
Elite quarterback play is something Texas Tech has been missing since Patrick Mahomes left Lubbock following the 2016 season. That may have changed with the arrival of Oregon transfer Tyler Shough. Its quite early, and the schedule has not been formidable, but Shough has posted impressive numbers. If he can continue to post quality passing numbers in Big 12 play, the Red Raiders could be a dark horse contender in the conference, especially considering they put up surprisingly good per play defensive numbers last season. I'm buying the early season improvement for Texas Tech, but more importantly, I'm selling Texas. Since playing for the national title following the 2009 season, Texas has been one of the worst home favorites you could possibly back. In Big 12 play, under three different head coaches, the Longhorns are 11-21 ATS as a home favorite with eleven outright losses. 
Will that trend continue under Steve Sarkisian? The Longhorns have dominated two Group of Five opponents in Austin, put the only Power Five team they have played thus far ate their lunch. That game was on the road, but the Longhorns still entered as a decent sized favorite and failed to do much of anything on either side of the ball. Texas Tech should keep this one close and continue the home woes for favored Texas teams. 

Toledo -4.5 Ball State
One of the more shocking results from last week was Toledo falling at home to Colorado State. The Rockets were favored by two touchdowns, but struggled mightily on offense in a 22-6 loss. The Rockets allowed six sacks to a Colorado State team that came in winless on the season with a pair of home losses to a Power Five program (excusable even though it was Vanderbilt) and an FCS team (inexcusable). Perhaps we can chalk it up as a huge letdown following Toledo's close loss at Notre Dame the week before and the inherent randomness in college football. Despite the loss, Toledo's defense played well, limiting the Rams to 4.14 yards per play and no offensive touchdowns (the Rams lone touchdown came on a punt return). The good news for Toledo is the loss does not impact their goal of winning the MAC as this is the conference opener for both teams. And with a non-conference game against Massachusetts looming next week, you can be sure the Cardinals will have their full attention. Ball State, the defending MAC champs in case you have forgotten, have won the past two games in this series. However, the Cardinals have looked nothing like their championship selves through three games in 2021. They have been outgained in all three of their games and while that is understandable against Penn State, their closer than expected opening win against Western Illinois probably deserves additional scrutiny. And their most recent game, a drubbing at the hands of Wyoming, does not inspire a lot of confidence. Perhaps most concerning has been the play of quarterback Drew Plitt. Plitt averaged over eight yards per pass and threw 41 combined touchdowns in 2019 and 2020. Through three games in 2021, he is averaging just 5.2 yards per pass and thrown a pair of touchdowns. Like Toledo, Ball State still has all their conference goals intact despite the rough start. Unlike Toledo, we have not seen them play a good game yet this season. Ball State has also not been a good home underdog under Mike Neu, even during last season's run to the MAC title (were never a home underdog in 2020), posting a 2-7 ATS mark in the role with the seven ATS losses all coming by at least a touchdown and six coming by double digits. Laying points on the road always makes me nervous, but I'm willing to consider last week's result against Colorado State an aberration and back the Rockets. 

Western Michigan -3 San Jose State
What am I missing here? Why is this spread only three points (reflecting roughly a pick 'em on a neutral field). Western Michigan is coming off a big upset of Pittsburgh and does start conference play next week, so this could be considered the dreaded 'sandwich' spot. Yes, Western Michigan was fortunate to beat the Panthers last week, benefitting from a turnover margin of +3, but the Broncos moved the ball quite well against a Power Five defense. The Broncos averaged 9.4 yards per pass against the Pittsburgh defense. By comparison, the Panthers allowed 7.2 yards per pass on the road against an SEC team the week before. It was Tennessee, but for the time being, they are still in the SEC. And while it may be tough for Western Michigan to be ready to play after pulling that shocker, their opponent may well be at a disadvantage due to travel. The Spartans clawed their way to a tight win at Hawaii last week, with the game ending well after midnight on the east coast. Now after returning to California, the Spartans must travel more than halfway across the continental United State for a two o'clock eastern kick at Kalamazoo, Michigan. I'll also point out that after an impressive Week Zero shellacking of Southern Utah, the Spartans have struggled to move the ball and score points. They scored seven against Southern Cal in a game where they had a decided disadvantage in talent, but they also managed just 17 against Hawaii despite having a bye week to prepare for the long trip to the islands. Perhaps more concerning, they averaged under four yards per play against the Warriors. Western Michigan is going to score points. They have averaged at least 32 per game in each of Tim Lester's first four seasons and are just south of 29 per game thus far in 2021. And suddenly, their poor showing in the opener against Michigan doesn't look so bad. Perhaps I am overreacting to their win against Pittsburgh, but with the spread below a field goal, you have to back the Broncos against a struggling offense facing a ridiculous travel challenge. 
Update: After writing this entry, news broke that Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester has tested positive for Covid-19 and will not coach on Saturday. While this is less than ideal, it has not impacted the point spread at all, and there is precedent for a team with a Covid-positive head coach playing well. I'll ride with the Broncos despite the diagnosis. 

South Carolina +5 Kentucky
Through three games of the Shane Beamer era, consider me pleasantly surprised. The Gamecocks dominated a bad FCS team in their opener, won on the road with a backup quarterback (as an underdog in a game they fell behind by two touchdowns), and didn't look completely helpless on the road against one of the best college football teams in the country. The Gamecocks never threatened to beat Georgia, but they hit a few big plays against an elite Georgia defense and perhaps more importantly, covered the large point spread. Now they return home to face a team that has given them real problems for the past seven years. South Carolina began the 21st century by dominating this series, winning 13 of 14 matchups between 2000 and 2013. However, since 2014 (which coincidentally was the second year of the Mark Stoops era in Lexington), the Wildcats have won six of seven with half their wins coming in the underdog role. As you can tell by scrolling back up, Kentucky is not an underdog in this game. In fact, they are actually a road favorite, which is a position they have not been in very often under Stoops. The Wildcats have been road favorites in SEC play just three previous times under Stoops. In that limited sample, they are 1-2 both straight up and ATS. If you are going to lay points on the road with Kentucky, you obviously need to have a lot of confidence in them. Should you? They have beaten one of the worst teams in FBS, an SEC opponent with a horrendous rush defense, and escaped against an FCS opponent with each of the victories coming at home. Should they really be laying more than a field goal in their first road game of the season against a team that needs to win this game if they have hopes of qualifying for a bowl? I don't think so. I like the Gamecocks to win this one outright and generate very pragmatic expectations for their rational fan base. 

Kansas State +6 Oklahoma State
Both these Big 12 squads pulled off minor upsets against Mountain West teams last week. Kansas State beat Nevada at home and Oklahoma State beat Boise on the Smurf Turf. The victory moved Kansas State into the AP top 25 for the third consecutive season. Wildcat backers hope they can end the season there; something they have failed to do in the previous two campaigns. Oklahoma State is currently in the 'others receiving votes' category (technically 29th), but would certainly move into the real poll if they can beat Kansas State at home. While Oklahoma State is known for their prolific offenses under head coach Mike Gundy, the team has actually been rather pedestrian on that side of the ball for the last year or so. After averaging at least six yards per play each season between 2015 and 2019, the Cowboys slipped to 5.53 yards per play last season and are averaging under five yards per play in 2021 (4.82) despite facing no Power Five teams through their first three games. Thankfully the defense has improved and I would argue Oklahoma State looks more like a non-elite Big 10 outfit (say Iowa or good Northwestern) than a typical high-flying Big 12 team. While that formula has worked on the field (10-3 in the regular season since the start of 2020), it has not been a winning strategy at the betting window. The Cowboys are just 3-6-1 ATS as a betting favorite in that span. The betting public has visions of Mason Rudolph, Brandon Weeden, James Washington, and Justin Blackmon lighting up scoreboards when they wager on the Cowboys, but that simply has not come to fruition with the current crop of players. Oklahoma State has scored 23, 28, and 21 points thus far in 2021. Its hard to get margin if you top out under 30 points. I would be more confident in the Wildcats if their starting quarterback were not injured two weeks ago. Of course, were Skylar Thompson not injured, this spread would likely be different. Last week against Nevada, the Wildcats threw 13 passes and I expect that will be the game plan going into Stillwater. I expect a lot of runs, especially from the quarterback position, and a conservative passing game. While Oklahoma State's defense has played well early, Kansas State's should not be ignored either. Last week, they held a team led by a future NFL quarterback to 17 points and while they allowed 306 yards passing, it took Nevada 41 throws to reach that threshold. While I think the numbers point to Kansas State in this spot, the series history also favors the Wildcats. Since the Big 12 dropped their division format after the 2010 season and these two teams resumed this series on an annual basis, Kansas State has covered eight of ten meetings, including four of the past five in Stillwater. They lost by 13 their last trip here, but the previous four were all decided by a touchdown or less. I expect another tight game on Saturday and don't forget Kansas State is 6-3 ATS as a road underdog under Chris Klieman, with four outright wins. 

Nebraska +5 Michigan State
We'll find out a lot about Michigan State on Saturday night. For the first time under Mel Tucker, there are expectations. The Spartans are ranked for the first two in nearly two years and are home favorites for just the second time under Tucker. Their first foray as a home favorite didn't go too well. Three weeks ago, Michigan State entered their opener at Northwestern as an underdog. They won that game handily, although that may say more about Northwestern. Their next game was a warmup against an FCS opponent which they won with no trouble. Then last week, they traveled to Miami as about a touchdown underdog. They won the game by 21 points, but the game itself was much closer than that, with the Spartans tacking on two touchdowns in the last five minutes. The Spartans averaged about a yard more per play than the Hurricanes and were also the beneficiary of four Miami turnovers. Once again, the result may say more about their opponent. Miami looks janky so far in 2021 and they have a penchant for blowing games they should win under Manny Diaz. In his two plus seasons on the job, the Hurricanes have posted a 15-10 record in the regular season. Seven of those ten losses have come when the Hurricanes entered the game as a betting favorite, with four of the seven coming in Hard Rock Stadium. The Spartans join elite company like Georgia Tech in 2019 by winning at Miami. Meanwhile, Nebraska has quietly rebounded from their disastrous start in Week Zero. They have won two of three and acquitted themselves quite well in Norman last week. In fact, Nebraska has averaged more yards per play than each of their first four opponents. The public threw them in the trash following their loss to Illinois, but I think they still have some value. In addition, Michigan State has made bettors hemorrhage cash as a home favorite over the past few seasons. Since qualifying for the College Football Playoff in 2015, the Spartans are just 3-9 ATS as a home favorite in Big 10 play with five outright losses. Nebraska's schedule is arduous from here, and any hopes for a bowl game (and potentially saving Scott Frost's job) likely hinge on winning this game. I'll take the undervalued and desperate team.