Last Week: 5-2
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 Otherwise, the Knights may have had theirs rescinded.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.