Thursday, January 20, 2022

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 2021 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. 
I use a game and a half as the standard when determining whether a team significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR. By that standard, Tulane was the only AAC team to significantly under-perform. They also under-performed relative to their YPP numbers and we discussed some reasons why last week. 

Multiple Undefeated Teams
The AAC became the first Group of Five conference to place a team in the College Football Playoff in 2021, but they also accomplished something almost as rare and a little more under the radar. Cincinnati was not the only team to roll through AAC play with an unblemished record. After losing their opener to Texas Tech, Houston closed the regular season by winning eleven consecutive games. The Cougars fell to the Bearcats in the AAC Championship Game, but finished tied with the Bearcats at the top of the AAC regular season standings. How often do multiple teams from the same conference finish with pristine, undefeated records? 

Having multiple teams from the same conference finish with undefeated league records is a rare occurrence, but something that is more likely to happen in this day and age of bloated conference memberships. For most of the twentieth century, all conference opponents played each other ensuring there could be at most, one unbeaten standing at the end of autumn. However, as conferences have expanded, for the most part, conference schedules have not. This trend is poised to continue as the SEC will soon have a sixteen-team league or roughly double the size of most conferences that played last century (with a few exceptions). We're likely to see more conference seasons with multiple undefeated teams in the future. But back to our original question: How often has it happened (at least in this era of college football)? In the BCS/CFB Playoff era (since 1998), it has only occurred eight times, and two of those deserve pretty big asterisks. 
This is actually the second consecutive year the AAC has had two teams finish the regular season without a conference loss. Cincinnati and Tulsa were scheduled to play last season, but Covid got in the way, preventing the regular season matchup. As such, both teams finished with identical 6-0 league records and met in the AAC Championship Game. The Mountain West also saw two teams finish with unbeaten conference records in their abbreviated 2020 season. Boise State and San Jose State played eleven regular season Mountain West conference games and won all of them en route to their showdown in the Mountain West Championship Game. If you look at the other seasons on this list, you'll notice they nearly all came in conferences that used divisional formats. If we ignore the two pandemic shortened seasons we just mentioned, that means the AAC was the first non-divisional conference to boast two unbeaten teams in nearly twenty years! 2002 was a very odd year for the Big 10. Ohio State ended up winning the national championship with an amazing run in close games. Meanwhile, Iowa [checks notes incredulously] averaged over 37 points per game and had a Heisman trophy finalist (on the offensive side of the ball)! After losing to Iowa State in non-conference play, the Hawkeyes won all their Big 10 games (six of them by double digits) and famously tore down their opponent's goal posts in the regular season finale. Alas, there was no Big 10 Championship Game in 2002, so they had to share the title with Ohio State. 

The AAC should take great pride in becoming the first Group of Five league to put a team in the College Football Playoff. However, the bigger needle thread may have been producing two unbeaten teams in conference play without the benefit of divisions separating them. 

Thursday, January 13, 2022

2021 Yards Per Play: AAC

Well, the offseason is here. We had a more normal 2021 season with every FBS (regular season) game getting played. If you're new to this blog, first off, welcome. Secondly, this is the part of the year where we examine every FBS conference through the lens of Yards Per Play and the Adjusted Pythagorean Record. We go alphabetically, so if you came for the SEC, well, you'll have to wait until May. In the interim, enjoy a statistical analysis of the other FBS conferences and maybe learn a thing or two. 

Here are the 2021 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 2021 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 Houston significantly exceeded their expected record based on YPP while Tulane drastically under-performed. Counter intuitive to what you might expect, Navy actually had a losing record in one-score conference games, finishing 2-4. However, the Midshipmen had an in-conference turnover margin of +6 which helped keep many of those games closer than they otherwise would have been. In those six one-score conference games, Navy was outgained by 1.40 yards per play! Meanwhile, Houston was 3-0 in one-score conference games and boasted the best in-conference turnover margin (+11). Tulane was 0-3 in one-score conference games and finished tied with Tulsa for the worst in-conference turnover margin (-7). 

Big Time Underachievers
You may have noticed in the above chart that Tulane not only met the .200 threshold for underachievement, they blew past it, finishing with a winning percentage more than .340 points below where we would have expected based on their mediocre per play numbers. Are these big time underachievers more likely to rebound the next season that regular underachievers? Short answer: Yes. 

Between 2005 and 2020, 26 mid-majors (Group of Five or non-BCS) teams finished with a conference record at least .300 below their expected record based on YPP. Two teams joined Tulane in accomplishing the feat in 2021 (Colorado State and Wyoming). Those previous 26 teams finished with about 1.8 more conference wins the next season.
Nearly two thirds of the teams improved by at least one conference win and almost 40% of the teams saw major improvement (at least three additional conference wins) the next season. However, when I was sifting through the data, I noticed a few outliers that I felt needed to be addresses. Two of the teams in the sample played in Conference USA in 2020. If you don't remember the 2020 college football season, it was marred by postponements and cancellations. I felt it best not to include those two teams in the sample as they played just four (UTEP) and six (Southern Miss) conference games respectively. Finally, one of the teams in the sample finished with a phenomenal record. In 2010, Boise State finished 7-1 in WAC play, dropping an overtime game to Colin Kaepernick and Nevada, but rolling through the rest of their schedule. Based on their outstanding YPP numbers and the limitations of regression, their expected winning percentage is greater than 1. While they technically under-performed by more than .300, it doesn't make sense to include them in this sample (they were the only team in the sample with a .500 or better conference record). So, when we remove those three teams, the numbers improve slightly. 
The average improvement jumps to more than two conference wins and nearly 70% of teams in the sample improved. Willie Fritz is a good coach and the Green Wave have a very manageable non-conference schedule next year. Coupling that with this trend toward improvement in conference play, I would expect a return to postseason play in 2022. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

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

The college football season is over and the NFL regular season has finally ended as well. Let's take a look back and see how our predictions went. 

College Football Plays

Over/Under Win Totals

Air Force over 6.5 wins -125 ($50 to win $40)
This one was an easy winner. The Falcons won nine games in the regular season and were not particularly lucky in doing so (2-3 record in close games). 

Ball State under 7.5 wins -120 ($50 to win $41.65)
It looked like this one might be in trouble when Ball State won three in a row (two as an underdog) after a 1-4 start, but the Cardinals finished 6-6, giving me a one game buffer. 

Buffalo under 7.5 wins -145 ($50 to win $34.50)
Buffalo lost their last four games to finish 4-8 and make this an easy winner. 

Navy over 3.5 wins -105 ($50 to win $47.60)
This bet was not decided until the annual clash with Army, but thankfully the Midshipmen won their fourth game and pulled off their third upset of the year to cash this ticket. 

San Diego State over 6.5 wins -120 ($50 to win $41.65)
Over the summer, I said San Diego State had a shot at starting 9-0 before a road trip to Nevada. I was a little off. San Diego State won their first six games and easily cashed this ticket before Halloween. 

TCU over 7.5 wins -125 ($50 to win $40)
I only missed one standard college football over/under win total, but it was a pretty big whiff. This bet was dead and buried when TCU lost at home to SMU. The Horned Frogs had one of their worst defenses in school history and Gary Patterson did not finish the season. 

Over/Under Conference Win Totals

Coastal Carolina under 7.5 Sun Belt wins -135 ($100 to win $74.05)
The Chanticleers lost to Appalachian State on a last second field goal and also dropped a shootout to Georgia State to come safely below this number. 

East Carolina over 2.5 AAC wins -135 ($100 to win $74.05)
The Pirates doubled their expected conference wins, and while a few of them were close (beat Memphis and Navy by a combined four points), they also dropped a pair of tight games to Houston and UCF (margin of eleven points in those defeats).

Florida International over 2.5 CUSA wins +100 ($40 to win $40)
This was another big whiff. The Panthers lost all eight of their CUSA games by double digits. 

Indiana under 5 Big 10 wins -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
The easiest winner I ever had. The Hoosiers did not win a single Big 10 game. 

Marshall under 7 CUSA wins -140 ($100 to win $71.45)
Another easy winner. Marshall dropped their CUSA opener to clinch a push and then lost twice more for good measure. 

Middle Tennessee State over 2.5 CUSA wins -110 ($100 to win $90.90)
The Blue Raiders finished 4-4 in CUSA play with three of those four wins coming by double digits. 

Mississippi State over 2.5 SEC wins +100 ($40 to win $40)
This bet looked dicey after Mississippi State opened SEC play with a home loss to LSU, but they got back on track by winning at Texas A&M the next week and went over this number with some extra cushion.

Navy over 1.5 AAC wins -145 ($100 to win $68.95)
I double dipped on the Naval Academy and that worked out. Navy doubled their expected AAC wins. 

Ohio over 4.5 MAC wins +100 ($40 to win $40)
I'm embarrassed to say I had no idea Frank Solich had retired when I made this bet. Ohio started out 0-4 in non-conference play and this looked like a sure loser. The Bobcats played better once conference play began and at 3-3 in MAC play I held out hope they could get this ticket home. Alas, they lost to their last two finish well below their win total. 

Wyoming over 4.5 Mountain West wins ($40 to win $26.65)
I keep expecting big things from Wyoming and they continue to not deliver. The Cowboys went just 2-6 in Mountain West play to fall well below this number. 

College Football Futures

Appalachian State to win Sun Belt +350 ($10 to win $35)
The Mountaineers made it to the Sun Belt Championship Game and were even a slight favorite against Louisiana-Lafayette. Alas, the Ragin' Cajuns defense was too strong. 

Ohio to win the MAC +600 ($10 to win $60)
Once again, I did not know Frank Solich had retired when I made this bet. Ohio did not come close to winning the MAC. 

NFL Playoffs Yes/No

Atlanta Falcons YES +250 ($10 to win $25)
The Falcons were a horrible team by any metric, yet their close game luck from the past few seasons turned around and they were in the playoff chase until the penultimate Sunday. 

Baltimore Ravens YES -320 ($200 to win $62.50)
Ugh. Injuries and failed two point conversions will haunt me this offseason. 

Los Angeles Rams NO +160 ($10 to win $16)
Stafford played well with the talent surrounding him in LA. I was wrong. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers NO +450 ($10 to win $45)
Tom Brady defies Father Time yet again. 

NFL Over/Under Win Totals

Atlanta Falcons over 7.5 wins -120 ($30 to win $25)
As I mentioned earlier, the Falcons were bad. Yet they somehow managed to come within an eyelash of going over their win total thanks to fantastic luck in close games. 

Los Angeles Rams under 10.5 wins -130 ($20 to win $15.40)
When the Rams dropped three in a row to fall to 7-4, I thought this one had a shot. Alas, the Rams won three tough road games in December and January (Arizona, Minnesota, and Baltimore) to easily go over this total. 

Washington Football Team under 8.5 wins -125 ($20 to win $16)
This one looked like an easy winner when Washington started 2-6. Then a four game winning streak made it dicey. Thankfully, Washington returned to their early season roots and came in below this number with a game to spare. 

NFL Division Futures

New York Giants to win NFC East +400 ($10 to win $40)
Making predictions causes you to look real dumb sometimes. Gambling is a great way to stay humble. 

Seattle Seahawks to win NFC West +325 ($10 to win $32.50)
Russell Wilson has his first losing season. Perhaps I put the hex on him. 

Reckless Parlays

College Football ($10 to win $750 -- all must be correct)

Army +2.5 Georgia State -- Easy winner. 
Kansas State +1.5 Stanford @ Arlington -- Winner. 
Rice +20.5 Arkansas -- Arkansas was down early, but they came back to cover. 
Navy +3 Marshall -- Easy loser. 
Georgia +4 Clemson @ Charlotte -- Winner. 
Northern Illinois +17 Georgia Tech -- Easy Winner. 
Southern Miss -1.5 South Alabama Easy loser. 

To paraphrase Meatloaf, four out of seven ain't bad. But it doesn't cash. 

NFL ($10 to win $60 -- all must be correct)

Atlanta -4 Philadelphia -- Loser. 
New York Giants pick Denver -- Loser.
Chicago Bears +7 Los Angeles Rams -- Loser. 

So how did we do? Well, we killed it on the college football plays, going 12-4 on the over/unders. The NFL was much less kind. The only bet we hit was the under for the Washington Football Team. Still, it was a profitable trip. 

Money Wagered: $1360
Money Won: $1527.15
Return on Investment: 12.29%

Thanks for reading. We'll be back on Thursday with the first of our offseason recaps. 

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

We got back on track a bit with a solid 2-1 record over championship week. Now its bowl season. Hopefully we can put together a solid showing and end up with a winning record. In the new year, look for a Vegas trip futures recap and on the Thursday after the national title game, our annual conference YPP and APR recaps will begin. The offseason is long and arduous so enjoy every bowl game, no matter how superfluous they may seem. Happy Holidays!

Last Week: 2-1
Overall 50-43-1

Boca Raton Bowl
Western Kentucky +3 Appalachian State
The first game on the first Saturday of bowl season pits two conference runner-ups against each other. Both the Hilltoppers and Mountaineers entered their respective championship games as road favorites looking to avenge a regular season loss. Alas, both fell short in their attempts at revenge. Western Kentucky was mostly done in by turnovers (-3 margin), missed field goals (missed two kicks), and conservative decision making (attempted four field goals in a game where they allowed 49 points). Meanwhile, Appalachian State could not get their offense going. The Ragin' Cajuns limited them to 290 yards (the only team to hold them under 300 yards of total offense and they did it twice) and 16 points. The Mountaineers should have no trouble topping that point total against a Western Kentucky defense that improved as the season went on, but is not the strength of the team. That would be the other side of the ball. Tyson Helton imported the Houston Baptist offense and the results were fantastic. The team averaged 43 points per game and quarterback Bailey Zappe threw 56 touchdown passes. With a decent showing here, he should make it to 60 on the season. Unfortunately for Helton's long term prospects at Western Kentucky, the offensive coordinator he brought over from Houston Baptist, Zach Kittley is off to Texas Tech (although he will coach in this bowl game). Short term though, the Hilltoppers should be motivated to put up another big offensive showing in their last game together. Take the Hilltoppers and the points. 

Independence Bowl
The big question in handicapping this game is what do you consider BYU? Are the Cougars a Group of Five or Power Five program? The Cougars will be Big 12 members at some point in the near future, but I would argue the betting market and the college football culture at large treat them as a Group of Five team. Why is this relatively esoteric classification important? Under Bill Clark, UAB has dominated their Group of Five opponents as an underdog and for the most part, been beaten soundly by Power Five teams. 
The Blazers have a winning straight up record (12-11) as a betting underdog against Group of Five opponents. They covered their first game against a Power Five opponent under Clark, but have failed to cover their last six. I don't see why things would change in this spot. This is a vintage Clark UAB team. The Blazers had the best per play defense in Conference USA, so they should be able to hold BYU under their season average in points per game (33.5). If BYU has trouble scoring, they will obviously have trouble covering this number. In addition, BYU has not been great as a favorite under Kalani Sitake. Over his six season in charge, the Cougars are 20-24 ATS as a favorite and 9-13 ATS as a favorite on the road or at a neutral site. However, those numbers are buoyed by the 2020 season when BYU was a covering machine. They were 8-3 ATS as a favorite last season and 4-1 ATS away from Provo. Using my abacus, that means BYU is just 12-21 in Sitake's other five seasons as a favorite and 5-12 ATS as a road or neutral favorite. I think that trend will continue. Take UAB to keep this one close. 

Myrtle Beach Bowl
Old Dominion +9.5 Tulsa
As a resident of South Carolina and die hard college football fan, I will be in attendance for the second edition of this game. The inaugural Myrtle Beach Bowl was not very competitive, with Appalachian State running wild against North Texas. While technically possessing no true powers of clairvoyance, I have an inkling this one will be more competitive. Both teams played well down the stretch, with Tulsa winning three in a row to close the regular season and Old Dominion topping that with five consecutive wins to secure a postseason invite. Despite entering as a relatively prohibitive favorite, a recent trend points to Old Dominion being the right side. In the College Football Playoff era (since 2014), there have been twelve bowl games matching up teams where both have six or fewer wins (ignoring the weird 2020 bowl season where everyone was eligible). Favorites in those games are 7-5 straight up, but just 5-7 ATS. Of course, 5-7 is just one game from a perfectly random 6-6, so lets dig a little deeper. If we limit our sample to favorites of a field goal or more, that leaves us with nine total games. Favorites in those games are 5-4 straight up and just 3-6 ATS. The sample size is limited, but the logic behind it makes sense. A 6-6 team is usually mediocre at best (there are some exceptions), but laying points with a mediocre team (even against another mediocre team) at a neutral site would not seem to be a wise long term betting strategy. However, even if you don't trust that trend, consider which side is more motivated in this game. Tulsa played in the AAC Championship Game last season, yet barely eked out a low level bowl invite in 2021. Meanwhile, Old Dominion did not play football in 2020 and went 1-11 in 2019. The Monarchs are probably more excited to be playing football in luxurious Conway that the Golden Hurricane. Finally, consider Tulsa's margin in their wins this season. The Golden Hurricane won six games, but five of those victories came by a touchdown or less. Grab the points with Old Dominion. 

Frisco Bowl 
San Diego State +2.5 UTSA
Ah, the life of a Group of Five team. Win almost all your games and get rewarded with a spot at the bottom of the AP Poll. Lose and your out. Both teams know the ephemeral nature of rankings for teams not in the Power Five. UTSA began the season 11-0. Dropped a meaningless (for conference purposes) road game at North Texas and fell all the way out of the poll from 15th. San Diego State began the year 11-1, with a victory against the eventual Pac-12 champ included in that set of wins, but dropped their conference title game (with Covid issues impacting the result) and dropped out of the poll entirely. The winner of this game will finish ranked (UTSA for the first time ever and San Diego State for just the third time in school history). However, it shouldn't be that way. Both these teams may not technically be among the top 25 teams in college football this season, but its hard to win almost all of your games. A spot in the AP Poll should be a carrot for a Group of Five team that finishes with more than ten wins. Its something to brag about to your rivals and during fundraising efforts in the offseason. I guess we'll have to settle for a 9-4 Texas A&M taking the spot that should be reserved for one of these two. Anyway, as for the game itself. UTSA seemed to be wheezing toward the finish line, failing to cover their final three games before some turnovers, poor in-game coaching on the other sideline, and a raucous home crowd delivered a conference title to San Antonio. Despite the victory over Western Kentucky, the Roadrunners allowed north of seven yards per play for the second time in three games. San Diego State will not put up anywhere close to the offensive numbers of Western Kentucky, but they should be able to run the ball effectively against a Roadrunner defense that was gashed by UAB and North Texas. San Diego State has been great as an underdog this season, posting a 4-1 straight up and ATS record in the role. I expect more of the same here with the Aztecs rebounding from their poor showing in the Mountain West Championship Game. 

Armed Forces Bowl 
Army -3.5 Missouri
I'm normally not one to lay points when a Group of Five team is favored against a Power Five team, particularly one from the mighty SEC, but I think Army is undervalued in this spot. We all know Army's bread and butter is running the football. The Black Knights would be content if this game played out a lot like the Monday Night Football game from a week ago with the winning team attempting around three passes. They may be able to do just that against a Missouri defense that was horrendous against the run in 2021. On the season, the Tigers allowed 5.5 yards per rush and 30 touchdowns on the ground. And those numbers include two solid performances late in the year against South Carolina and Florida. The anemic Gamecocks and disinterested Gators combined to rush for 150 yards against Missouri. The other ten teams averaged more than 260 yards per game on the ground against them. While that does include six other SEC teams and Boston College, there are also two Group of Five squads (Central Michigan and North Texas) and an FCS team in the mix. Will a bad run defense have any interest in filling the necessary gaps and maintaining their discipline against a solid service academy looking for their first Power Five scalp since 2017? Army is usually an underdog against Power Five teams (and a good team to back in those instances), so the situation is a bit unusual, but this line is telling you everything you need to know. Army should run all over Missouri and as long as they get an occasional stop and don't lose the turnover battle by a significant margin, they should be able to cover this relatively small number. 

Military Bowl 
East Carolina +3 Boston College
If you just take a cursory look at the numbers, you would think Boston College's conference season took a massive turn for the better once quarterback Phil Jurkovec returned from injury. Jurkovec missed the first half of conference play and in that quartet of games, the Eagles averaged 4.07 yards per play and ten points per game. With those anemic offensive numbers, its no surprise they lost all four. Jurkovec returned in their fifth game, a Friday night clash with Virginia Tech. The Eagles won 17-3 and then dropped 41 points on Georgia Tech the next week. The narrative was written. With Jurkovec, Boston College was a threat down the stretch. Of course, reality does not always abide narratives and the Eagles lost their last two games to finish 6-6. Overall, Jurkovec's return did improve the offense, but that is a bit overstated. 
The team improved offensively by more than one and a half yards per play with him in the lineup and more than doubled their points per game. However, schedule strength also contributed to the improvement. 
Without Jurkovec, the Eagles faced the top two per play defenses in the conference and all four of their opponents in the first half of the conference schedule ranked in the top half of the ACC in that category. When Jurkovec returned, the Eagles faced one above average unit (Florida State), but also two of the worst per play defenses in the conference (Wake Forest and Georgia Tech). While the Eagles dominated Georgia Tech's overmatched defense, they scored just ten points against a very sketch Wake Forest unit. I mention all this because while Boston College certainly improved once Jurkovec returned, they are still below average as far as ACC offenses go. While I believe Boston College is overvalued by the betting market, I also think motivation favors the underdog. East Carolina has not played in a bowl game since 2014! The Pirates are no doubt ready for this game and the fact they are facing a Power Five team only adds to their motivation. Also keep in mind, while the Pirates have five losses, two of them came to the best teams in the AAC (Houston and Cincinnati), one came to one of the best teams in the Sun Belt (Appalachian State), and a fourth came to a Power Five opponent (South Carolina). The other loss came on the road to a solid Central Florida team. In addition, three of the losses came by less than a touchdown or in overtime. East Carolina has waited a long time for this. I expect them to cover the field goal spread and potentially win outright. 

Sugar Bowl 
Ole Miss Pick Baylor
I'm a fan of the nouveau riche in college football. I like it when the havenots finally get to 'have' even if it may only be for a little while. And it doesn't get much more havenot than these two programs. Prior Art Briles (I know, he sucks), Baylor won eleven conference games in the first twelve years of the Big 12. When the conference first formed, they were basically what Kansas is now. Of course, Briles got them to the brink of the College Football Playoff before scandal pulled back the curtain on his hypocrisy. Since his departure the Bears have bottomed out a few times, but also made two appearances in the Big 12 Championship Game, the most recent of which they won thanks to two great goal line stands and Oklahoma State turnovers. Meanwhile, Ole Miss is another perennial havenot, having never played in the SEC Championship Game despite 30 cracks at it. The Rebels played in the Sugar Bowl six years ago, but prior to that season they had not finished in the AP top ten since the year of the (fake) moon landing! Suffice to say, both teams should be motivated to play in this game and finish with one of the highest rankings in school history. I think Baylor is overvalued thanks to their upset win against Oklahoma State. The Bears got up big on Oklahoma State thanks to some interceptions by Spencer Sanders, but they gained just 242 total yards and since upsetting Oklahoma, have averaged just 4.66 yards per play. Those offensive numbers won't cut it against Ole Miss. I expect a good defensive showing by the Bears, but a good defensive showing probably means Ole Miss scores at least 24 points. Can the Bears match that? I have my doubts. Its rare you can get an SEC team as an undervalued asset. That is the case here. Take the Rebels to win in SEC country. 

Thursday, December 02, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Championship Week

After posting our best week of the year, we follow it up with our worst week. The gambling gods giveth and taketh away. Since there are only eleven games this week (ten title games plus a zombie Pac-12 game that means absolutely nothing), we have an abbreviated number of picks as well. Accept my apologies, but be prepared to be led astray with seven picks in bowl season. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 1-5-1
Overall 48-42-1

Utah State +6 San Diego State
Utah State's over/under win total entering the 2021 season was three. The Aggies tripled that meager projection and are in the Mountain West Championship Game for the first time since the very first one played back in 2013. San Diego State had slightly higher expectations (6.5 was their over/under win total), but their presence in the title game for the first time since 2016 is also a bit surprising. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this game is that despite their 13 combined Mountain West victories, neither team dominated the competition. Utah State finished dead even in terms of Net YPP in conference play, while San Diego State outgained their Mountain West foes by exactly .01 yards per play! Both teams won all their one-score conference games (combined 8-0) and had positive turnover differentials (combined +9 in conference play). They also beat three Pac-12 teams between, including one that may play in the Rose Bowl. San Diego State is a defense (and punting) first team with a bad offense, so it is hard for them to get margin, even against the dregs of FBS. And while their defense is the strength of the team, the better passing offenses on the schedule have been able to move the ball against them. Fresno State, Nevada, and UNLV all threw for more than 300 yards and averaged north of seven yards per pass against their secondary. Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner, who followed Blake Anderson from Arkansas State, is good enough to make some plays against the San Diego State defense. It may not be enough to win, but it should be enough to cover. 

Louisiana-Lafayette +3 Appalachian State
Since an opening loss at the hands of Texas, the Ragin' Cajuns have won eleven straight. Included in that eleven game winning streak was a home victory against their opponent in this game. Louisiana-Lafayette laid the proverbial wood to the Mountaineers, blasting them 41-13. The loss was the largest for Appalachian State since Miami pounded them 45-10 in Boone in 2016 and their largest ever to a Sun Belt opponent. Somehow, two months later at the scene of the crime, the Mountaineers are field goal favorites. Perhaps that is due somewhat to the departure of head coach Billy Napier, who was recently hired to coach the Florida Gators. Napier is sticking around to coach this game, hoping to emulate Scott Frost (at least somewhat) who coached the NY6 Bowl at UCF after being named the head coach at Nebraska. While both the Mountaineers and Ragin' Cajuns are known more for their offensive prowess, they are the two best per play defenses in the Sun Belt with both allowing under five yards per play in conference action. Louisiana-Lafayette has been a home underdog on two occasions under Billy Napier and they have won and covered both games. That's a very small sample size, but it speaks to the unique circumstances surrounding this game. I expected the Ragin' Cajuns to be favored and to have no opinion on this game. Since they are catching a field goal, they are the team to back. 

Houston +10.5 Cincinnati
After seven years of excluding the little guy, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee may be forced to include a Group of Five team in their bougie playoff. Cincinnati is currently ranked fourth by the committee and if the season ended today, which it does not, would be in the College Football Playoff. While that is a once in a lifetime opportunity, it could also make a team play a little tight. I haven't done any full fledged research on the issue (perhaps an offeason topic), but anecdotally, Kansas State and their 1998 Big 12 Championship Game loss to Texas A&M sticks out in my memory. The Wildcats were on the verge of going from the worst major conference program to playing for a national title in a decade until a fourth quarter collapse relegated them to the Alamo Bowl. Once again, this is entirely anecdotal, but it makes sense that a team with little history of competing for national titles might struggle when they are on the door step of something historic, especially when they are facing a pretty good opponent. And rest assured, Houston is easily the second best team in the AAC. The Cougars have not lost since their perplexing collapse against Texas Tech in the opener, with eight of their eleven victories coming by double digits. In addition, should they manage to pull off the upset, Houston would probably be the highest ranked Group of Five team and play their way into a NY6 bowl. Since this spread is more than a touchdown, Houston is a good play. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

We caught some breaks (thanks for the backdoor Illinois) and posted our best week of the year. Let's follow that up with another winning week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall 47-37

San Jose State +7.5 Fresno State
The Spartans and Bulldogs enter this game off an unusual late season bye. Since both teams played in Week Zero, it was actually the second bye week for each, so neither team should come in with a rest advantage. In addition, despite differing records, both teams still have a lot to play for. Fresno State can win the West division if they beat San Jose State and San Diego State loses to Boise on Black Friday. Meanwhile, San Jose State needs a victory to become bowl eligible for the second consecutive season. That would be quite an accomplishment for a program that has played in back to back bowl games just once in school history. The Spartans have struggled offensively after their championship winning 2020 campaign, but they still play good defense, having held all eleven of their 2021 opponents below six yards per play. In fact, they have done so in their last twenty games since the penultimate game of the 2019 season! They gave up 48 points in their last outing, but that was mostly due to Utah State's excellent starting field position. The Aggies returned an interception for a touchdown and had two touchdown drives under ten yards and a third that began in plus territory. If the Spartans don't offer up room service turnovers, Fresno State should struggle to score. San Jose State is 8-5-1 ATS as a home underdog under Brent Brennan, and are 7-2-1 when catching at least a touchdown as they are here. Bowl eligibility is a big deal, so I don't expect motivation to be an issue despite the fact the other side is arguably playing for more (a potential conference title). Take the Spartans to keep this one close. 

Boise State -2.5 San Diego State
This game kicks off at 9 AM local time on Black Friday. While the players may be a little drowsy from the tryptophan, this game will be televised by regular CBS, so the two of the better teams in the Mountain West will be getting national exposure. This game means a great deal to both teams as San Diego State will clinch a spot in the Mountain West Championship Game with a win (they could also make it with a loss pending the results of the Fresno State game on Thanksgiving) while Boise will keep their division title hopes alive with a win. The Broncos have four regular season losses for the first time since 2015, but have won four in a row in dominant fashion (outscored last four opponents by more than twenty points per game). They have also been better away from the Smurf Turf, posting a 4-1 straight up and (5-0 ATS) record on the road with the lone defeat coming in the opener against a UCF team at full strength. Meanwhile, San Diego State has punted and clawed their way to ten wins, with six of the victories (including the last five) all coming by a touchdown or less. Their defense is one of the best in the Mountain West, but the offense is the worst on a per play basis outside of New Mexico. I've been rooting for the Aztecs and their unaesthetic style all season, but I think they will struggle to keep up with a Boise State team that is rounding into form. 

Miami (Ohio) +1 Kent State
These in-state rivals did not play last season due to Covid. It marked the first season they did not play since the FBS formation of the MAC in 1962. So they are probably chomping at the bit to get a piece of each other. Oh, and lest I forget, this game will also decide the MAC East. And considering a very flawed Northern Illinois team has won the West, the winner of this game will probably be favored at the MAC Championship Game next week at Ford Field. While Kent State is favored by the bookmakers, I rate Miami as the better team. Both teams have prolific offenses, with Kent State having scored 32 offensive touchdowns in seven MAC games. Miami is not far behind, having scored 28 offensive touchdowns in their seven league games. However, on defense, there is no comparison. Miami has allowed 16 offensive touchdowns in MAC play while Kent State has allowed more than double that amount (33). The Golden Flashes play fast, so there should be possessions aplenty in this game. More possessions mean the better team has more opportunities to assert their dominance. In this instance, that team appears to be Miami. In addition, Miami has played well as a road underdog under Chuck Martin, posting a 14-8 ATS record in the role in MAC play. Those numbers also include nine outright wins by the Redhawks. I think the same thing happens here. Miami should win the game and take the division crown. 

Wyoming -10 Hawaii
The Cowboys experienced one of the weirder college football seasons in 2021. They opened the year needing a late comeback to beat FCS Montana State. Then, after scoring just 19 points against the Bobcats, their offense exploded for 95 points in the next two games (the third best two game point total of the Craig Bohl era). Then they went on the road and barely beat Connecticut. Despite the close call with the Huskies, the Cowboys entered Mountain West play with a 4-0 record. They proceeded to drop their first three conference games while scoring a combined 17 points. The Cowboys then changed starting quarterbacks, going from the inaccurate Sean Chambers to the slightly more accurate (but still kind of inaccurate) Levi Williams. The Cowboys have split the four games with Williams as starting quarterback, but the offense has improved significantly. After averaging 5.7 points per game and 4.26 yards per play in their first three conference games, the Cowboys have averaged 27.3 points per game and 6.9 yards per play in their past four. I believe that offense is much more indicative of what we will see on Saturday, especially against a Hawaii defense that is the second worst in the conference in yards allowed per play. In addition, this is Hawaii's seventh consecutive travel weekend. They have alternated home and road games since a bye in early October. 
After upsetting Colorado State last week, I think the Warriors are out of gas and will lay down in this spot. Plus the trends also point to an easy Wyoming win. The Cowboys are 10-4 ATS as a home favorite under Bohl while the Warriors are 1-6 ATS as a road underdog under Todd Graham. Take the Cowboys to win easily. 

Western Kentucky +1 Marshall
Last week's marque Conference USA game was confined to ESPN+ (and ended up being one of the best games of the weekend). At least this week, the game will be on cable as CBS College Sports gets this battle for the East division crown in Conference USA. Since Western Kentucky joined Conference USA in 2014, the Hilltoppers and Thundering Herd have both won two East division crowns (FAU also has two), so this will break the tie. The series has also been pretty competitive with Marshall winning four of the seven contests outright (the past four), but only covering once (last year). Western Kentucky is actually 2-2 in Huntington (covering all four times), which includes an instant classic from their first meeting in 2014. Obviously, those games from several years ago will have little impact on this one, but it does show that a victory by Western Kentucky would not be the most shocking result of the weekend. That is especially true when you note how well the Hilltoppers have played since they began the season 1-4. Two of those losses were to teams currently ranked in the AP Poll, another was a tight home loss to a Power Five team, and the fourth was on the road against a service academy. Since that 1-4 start, the Hilltoppers have averaged 44 points per game and their defense that was a liability in the early going, has allowed under twenty points per game. Granted the competition has not been strong, but that is what you get in Conference USA, arguably the weakest FBS conference. Marshall has handled their business against the dregs of Conference USA as well, winning their five conference contests by an average of 22 points per game. However, they also dropped a home game to the best Conference USA team they have faced thus far (UAB), so don't be afraid to back a road team in Huntington. Western Kentucky will score a lot and their defense has improved enough to get the stops needed to win this game. 

Penn State -1 Michigan State
Ohio State peeled back the curtain last week and exposed Michigan State for a fraud. The Spartans entered with one loss, but probably should have had two or three more (Nebraska, Indiana, and Michigan) if not for some non-offensive scores and questionable officiating. The great start made Mel Tucker a hot commodity. His bank account is certainly better for it, but we'll see how happy Michigan State is in a few years when they realize they broke the back for a coach with a 7-12 overall record heading into 2021. James Franklin also added some money to his coffers, but at least he is the proud owner of a Big 10 title (not to mention unprecedented success at Vanderbilt). But I digress. After a hot start, Penn State has lost four of their past six games. But lets look at the teams that beat Penn State. Every team that has beaten Penn State this season either plays pretty good defense (Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State) or is one of the best teams in the country (Michigan and Ohio State). I can hear the Michigan State fans now. But we beat...Yes, you did beat Michigan. That is one of eleven data points for both teams. The other ten all point to Michigan being the superior team. And in case you missed last week's game, Michigan State is not very good at defense. There are four Big 10 teams with a worse per play defense in (Big 10 games) than the Spartans. Those teams are Maryland, Northwestern, Purdue, and Rutgers. Meanwhile, Penn State has the second best per play defense in the Big 10 (Wisconsin). I think they shut down the explosive Michigan State run game and leave East Lansing with a win. 

California +7 UCLA
College football fans were a little too eager to jump on the UCLA bandwagon this year. The Bruins were better than their record a year ago, having posted a 3-4 record with the four defeats coming by a combined fifteen points. When they opened 2021 by blowing out Hawaii and upsetting LSU, we figured they were back. Well, about that. It's great that UCLA has clinched a winning record for the first time under Chip Kelly, but take a look at who those wins have come against. I'll wait. 
The best team they have beaten is either LSU or Southern Cal. Their other Pac-12 victories (and Hawaii) have all come against bad teams. Give the Bruins credit for winning those games (something they hadn't done in Kelly's first three seasons), but is this a team you really want to lay a touchdown with? The defense is still below average (we'll be kind and not call them bad) and the Bruins have a history of losing home games they were supposed to win under Kelly. The Bruins are 4-9 ATS as a home favorite and have lost outright seven times (three times this season)! Meanwhile, Cal still has the stench of their Covid aided loss to Arizona hovering around the team. However, even with that loss factored in, the Bears have been better than the Bruins on a per play basis in the Pac-12. Cal has outgained their conference foes by more than a yard per play while UCLA is barely above water in that statistic. In addition, Cal has been superb as a road underdog under Justin Wilcox, posting a 14-4 ATS record with seven outright wins. With their rescheduled game with Southern Cal on deck next week, Cal still has a shot at getting to a bowl game, so they should be motivated against their more hyped ursine rivals. Take Cal to cover and potentially win the game outright.  

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

Finally, we returned to our wining ways. Let's close the season strong. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall 41-36

Western Kentucky -10 Florida Atlantic
When it comes to making picks, I am pretty averse to laying double digits. However, in this instance, I can't figure out why this line is not at least two touchdowns. Western Kentucky has quietly won five in a row after a 1-4 start and has scored at least 42 points in five of their six conference games (they only managed 34 in the other). The offense, particularly the passing side, is fantastic. Bailey Zappe has thrown 42 touchdown passes and Jerreth Sterns has an absurd 111 catches. The defense is nothing special, but should be able to get stops against an FAU offense that has not shown up against good teams on the road. The Owls put 38 on the board against a very bad Charlotte defense, but in their other four road games (Florida, Air Force, UAB, and Old Dominion), they have averaged under 13 points per game. For the season, they have decent per play offensive numbers in Conference USA, but that is heavily influenced by games against the aforementioned Charlotte and FIU (winless against FBS foes). In those two games, the Owls averaged a robust 8.98 yards per play and scored 96 points. In their other four conference games, they averaged 4.81 yards per play and scored 71 total points. Even with a good defensive showing, Western Kentucky is getting to thirty. Can FAU get to twenty to cover? I don't think so. This one has blowout written all over it.   

Boston College -1.5 Florida State
It is dangerous to oversimplify things, but I think in this case, it really is that simple. Without quarterback Phil Jurkovec, Boston College is one of the worst ACC teams this side of Duke. In four league games without their starting quarterback, the Eagles scored forty total points and four offensive touchdowns. In two conference games since Jurkovec returned from injury, the Eagles have scored 58 points and seven offensive touchdowns. I don't think this line is fully accounting for what the Eagles are with Jurkovec taking snaps. Jurkovec does not play defense and the Eagles have certainly had their issues on that side of the ball (fifth worst per play defense in ACC play), but their offense is good enough to win a shootout. Florida State is 1-6 straight up on the road under Mike Norvell and has covered as a road underdog just two times in those seven games. In fact, this represents the smallest road spread they have faced under Norvell. They have typically been catching double digits (five times). If Boston College wins, they should cover this small number.  

Illinois +12.5 Iowa
Don't look now, but Bret Bielema has quietly built a quality defense in Champaign. After fielding very bad defenses during his final few seasons at Arkansas (his last two teams both allowed more than 30 points per game), Bielema selected Ryan Walters to be his defensive coordinator. Not only has Walters coordinated a better than average Big 10 defense, his former employer (Missouri) has fallen off a cliff defensively since he left. The Illini allowed 101 points in their first three games, but following the loss at Virginia where they allowed 42 points to the Cavaliers, the Illini have stiffened. They have allowed 115 points in their past seven games and have held six of those seven opponents to twenty points or fewer (only Wisconsin eclipsed twenty).Couple that solid defense with a struggling Iowa offense and you have a recipe for a low scoring affair. The oddsmakers agree, setting the over/under at 38.5. With an over/under that low, it will be hard for Iowa to get margin. The over/under implies a score of about 25-13 and I don't think Iowa will be able to do their part. If Illinois can get to ten points, they should cover this number.  

Virginia +14.5 Pittsburgh
Is Pittsburgh the best team in the ACC? Probably. Does that mean I trust them in any way to cover a big number in a conference game? Absolutely not. While the Panthers are statistically speaking, the best team in the ACC, not all best teams are created equal. To quote Dave Matthews, they are the best of what's around. They are not in the same class as the past few Clemson teams and should not be treated as such by the oddsmakers. Remember, this team has already lost twice at home as a large favorite, including once to a MAC team. Virginia has a bad defense and scored just three points in a showcase home loss to Notre Dame last week, but they were without quarterback Brennan Armstrong. His status for this game is still up in the air, but I think the Cavaliers held him out last week since it was not a conference game. Despite four total losses, Virginia has only lost twice in the ACC and can actually get to the ACC Championship Game if they win their final two against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh has struggled as a home favorite under Pat Narduzzi, posting a 7-10-1 ATS record in ACC play and they have never covered as a double digit home conference favorite (0-3). Take the Cavaliers to keep this one close and don't be surprised if the ACC Wheel of Destiny makes an appearance Saturday afternoon. 

The battle of acronyms in Conference USA will most likely decide the west division. A UTSA win will clinch the division for the Roadrunners while a victory by UAB will put the Blazers in position to win their fourth consecutive division crown if they can also beat UTEP in an acronym under card next week. Unfortunately for Conference USA, this marquee game will be given the ESPN+ treatment. The conference's television deal is a disaster (last week's marquee game between UAB and Marshall was at least on CBS Sports Network) which is probably why it is being held together with duct tape and rubber bands. But I digress. If you happen to have an ESPN+ subscription or know someone who does, tune in. UTSA is ranked, but UAB has been better on a per play basis (in conference play). The Blazers have allowed under four yards per play to their conference opponents this season and have been great as a road underdog under Bill Clark. Against fellow Group of Five opponents, the Blazers are 10-3 ATS with nine outright victories! UTSA has had a dream season, but I think UAB is in position to upset the Roadrunners and seize control of the division race.  

Louisiana-Lafayette +4.5 Liberty
Liberty is 7-3 this season after posting a 10-1 record and top twenty finish in the AP Poll last season. Hugh Freeze is doing a great job of using the Flames as a stepping stone to get back to the SEC. Grift recognize grift. However, the Flames have built their solid 2021 record on a weak schedule. Using ESPN's FPI as a metric to rate teams, Louisiana-Lafayette is the second best team the Flames will have faced this season. 
They have beaten up on bad Conference USA and Sun Belt teams. The Flames were legitimately impressive last season, beating two ACC teams on the road and nearly beating a third before upsetting unbeaten Coastal in the Cure Bowl. The Flames do have a somewhat impressive road win against UAB, but otherwise their victories have been lackluster, and they somehow lost to Louisiana-Monroe as a massive favorite. The culprit for their decline is the offensive line which has allowed 38 sacks this season. Only five teams have allowed more. Louisiana-Lafayette isn't great at rushing the passer, but they do have 26 sacks on the season (tied for 34th nationally). They should get to Malik Willis a few times and stall out some Liberty drives. Plus, while the Ragin' Cajuns already have their half of the Sun Belt locked up for the fourth straight year, Billy Napier is also auditioning for bigger jobs, so they should be motivated to win this late season non-conference game and maintain their national ranking. Under Napier, the Ragin' Cajuns are 5-1-1 ATS as a road underdog against Group of Five teams with three outright wins. I think they get their fourth in Lynchburg. 

Cal-1.5 Stanford
Why is this line so low? I think Cal should be favored by at least a field goal despite travelling to Stanford for The Big Game. The rivals managed to squeeze the game in last season despite the abbreviated schedule. Cal lost a heartbreaker thanks to a missed extra point. The Bears head into this game off an embarrassing loss to Arizona and a Covid-related postponement against Southern Cal. The loss to Arizona, while embarrassing, can be mostly blamed on Covid. The Bears were missing a lot of their roster and Arizona still had to sweat out a win at home. Most of those players are expected to be back this week, so if Cal is at full strength, or at least a partial approximation of it, they should handle Stanford. The Cardinal somehow managed to take down Oregon almost two months ago, but have not won since, dropping five straight. Their defense has been particularly ghastly in the losing streak, allowing nearly 34 points per game and 6.7 yards per play. With seven losses, the Cardinal are out of bowl contention, while Cal still has a faint shot at bowl eligibility. Cal should bounce back after their Covid struggles and win their fourth game of the season.