Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fab Five: Week I

It's that time once again. The college football season is upon us, and I, your humble narrator will walk you through ten games each week where I think we can beat the Las Vegas line. Sit back and enjoy the best three months on the calendar. Home teams in Bold.

5 Dogs I Like

SMU +5.5 Texas Tech
As I mentioned in some off-season posts back when it seemed like the college football season would never arrive, SMU has developed a very strong homefield advantage under June Jones. This season, the Mustangs will be taking a small step-up in competition when they join the American Athletic Conference. But, first things first, the Mustangs will host a Texas Tech team breaking in a new coach, who just happens to be a former outstanding player at the school. The last time these two teams faced off was in 2010 in Lubbock when the Tommy Tuberville era began at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders won that game 35-27, but failed to cover as a nearly two-touchdown favorite. SMU has been a beast as a home underdog under Jones, compiling a 6-1 record Against the Spread (ATS) since 2009. Look for that trend to continue with the Mustangs having a decent shot at pulling the outright upset here.

Boise State +3.5 Washington
Since taking over as head coach of the Broncos prior to the 2006 season, Chris Petersen has posted a sterling 84-8 record. That is an absurd, Playstation-like winning percentage. Under his guidance, the Broncos have acquitted themselves quite well against teams from BCS conferences, going 8-2 both straight up and ATS. However, the Broncos two failings ATS have come against the Huskies. In 2007, Boise State ventured into Seattle as a field goal favorite, but lost 24-10, and in last year's Las Vegas Bowl, the Broncos were five point favorites over the Huskies, but won by just two. Still, despite that knowledge, Boise State seems to have value catching more than a field goal here. The Broncos were ridiculously inexperienced when they traveled to Michigan State to open the 2012 season and still managed to hang with the Spartans for the entire game. I think the Broncos will do more than just hang with the Huskies here. They have a great chance at upsetting the Huskies and getting themselves in the (way too) early conversation for a BCS bowl bid.

Washington State +16 Auburn
Just two years removed from a national championship, the Auburn Tigers fell on hard times last season, as they went winless in the SEC and won just three games overall. Seeking a return to their former glory, the Tigers hired Arkansas State head coach, and former Auburn offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn to guide them back to respectability. If Malzahn can have a debut similar to the last Arkansas State coach to land in the SEC, the Auburn faithful would probably take that. However, while there is optimism at Auburn, fans merely need to look on the visiting sideline to realize that rebuilding projects don't always happen over night. Mike Leach spent ten seasons at Texas Tech, averaging over eight wins per season, and never finishing worse than 7-6. In his first season seeking to revive a woebegone program in Pullman, Leach finished just 3-9 and won only a single conference game. Suffice it so say, Auburn fans should probably take a cue from Larry David and curb their enthusiasm this season. With the way they played last season, its hard to back Auburn giving more than two touchdowns, even if they are playing at home. Bank on the Cougars keeping this one relatively close.

TCU +4 LSU @ Arlington
As mentioned on numerous internet sites in recent years, Les Miles does not do a great job of covering the spread, particularly as a betting favorite. Against non-conference foes since 2008, LSU is just 6-12 ATS as a betting favorite. Now, the Tigers usually win those games, going 16-2 overall in such contests (with both losses coming in the postseason to Penn State in 2009 and Clemson in 2012), but covering the number is not their forte. TCU will present a formidable test for LSU despite the fact that they went just 7-6 last season in their return to a major conference. The Horned Frog defense should keep this one close and don't you just get the feeling that LSU wins this one by about a field goal?

Pittsburgh +10 Florida State
Welcome to the ACC Panthers. In their first conference game, the Pitt Panthers will host a Florida State team that appears to on the verge of returning to glory under Jimbo Fisher. In three seasons at the helm, Fisher has guided the Seminoles to 31 wins, a conference title (their first since 2005), and their first finish in the AP top-10 since 2000! However, as double-digit road favorites, the Seminoles have been less than imposing. Seven times last season, Florida State was a double-digit favorite away from Tallahassee. The Seminoles only covered once, in the bowl game against an over-matched Northern Illinois team. The Seminoles lost at NC State and escaped at Virginia Tech and versus Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game. Unlike Florida State, Pitt is hardly saddled with any preseason expectations. However, based on at least one objective rating system, Pitt has actually been quite solid despite their middling won/loss record over the past few seasons. Playing at home and getting double-digits against a team with a suspect history of covering as a big road favorite make the Panthers the pick here. This game has all the makings of a Florida State escape.

Five Faves I Like

Oklahoma State -12.5 Mississippi State @ Houston
In 2012, Oklahoma State was one of the best five-loss teams in recent memory, losing three games by a touchdown or less while winning seven games by at least three touchdowns. Meanwhile, Mississippi State was one of the softest 7-0 teams in mid-October, compiling wins against a trio of Sun Belt teams, a IAA lackey, and three SEC teams that would not taste the postseason (and also fire their respective coaches). The Bulldogs came back to earth, winning just once in their final six games, with each of their five losses coming by at least two touchdowns. The Cowboys have a chance to win their second Big 12 title in three seasons and are a healthy 16-10 ATS as a double-digit favorite the past five seasons, so laying this large number should not scare potential backers away. By the same token, the Mississippi State Bulldogs are just 3-7 under Dan Mullen as double-digit underdogs. This should be a high-scoring affair that may be close for awhile, but Oklahoma State has too much firepower to win this game by fewer than two touchdowns.

Cincinnati -10.5 Purdue
When the music stopped (for now), the best team (outside of Boise State) without a seat at the BCS conference table has to be Cincinnati. The Bearcats have been consistently good, and occasionally great since Mark Dantonio took over in 2004. The Bearcats have won at least ten games five times in the past six seasons and have won outright or shared four of the last five Big East crowns. But alas, like Rodney Dangerfield, they cannot seem to acquire any respect, or something to that effect. The Bearcats begin the Tommy Tuberville era as double-digit favorites against a Purdue team that fired its coach despite back-to-back bowl appearances. However, truth be told, Purdue was never really what one might call a good team in either of those seasons. Now the Boilermakers are breaking in a new coach as well as a new backfield. Look for the Bearcats to win this one handily, not that many folks will notice.

Penn State -8.5 Syracuse @ New Jersey
Doesn't this game just feel right? Other than the fact that it is happening on Labor Day Weekend. This game feels like it should be played in more wintry weather. The two northeast schools with the most tradition battling for supremacy on a neutral site can give one a sense of nostalgia. While these two played a home-and-home series in 2008 and 2009 (both games won by Penn State), they actually played each season from 1944 to 1990. Both team's were surprisingly good last season, with Penn State shaking off the effects of a scandal, a new coach, and an 0-2 start to win eight of their final ten games with the only losses coming to Ohio State and Nebraska. Meanwhile, Syracuse regrouped from an 0-2, 1-3, and 2-4 start to win six of their last seven, including over Missouri of the SEC, and former conference-mate West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl. Syracuse lost their head coach and quarterback to the NFL and appear to be in a rebuilding mode. Penn State is a solid 11-3 ATS as a favorite away from home since 2008 and should be able to handle their business here.
Georgia -1.5 Clemson
Perhaps the biggest game of the first weekend pits a pair of teams harboring legitimate darkhorse national title hopes. This game is huge for Clemson. Lose here, and they're just another ACC team that can't compete with the heavy weights of college football. Outside of this game, they only have two more opportunities at big-time scalps (Florida State and South Carolina). Win, and outside of a tricky road trip to NC State in three weeks, they can gear up for their mid-October battle with Florida State that should decide the Atlantic Division. For Georgia, there is no rest for the Bulldogs. After dealing with Clemson, the dogs will travel back home to Athens to take on South Carolina next week and LSU two weeks after that. Both those games are at home, but they are also infinitely losable. I'm sure Mark Richt has no desire of a repeat of 2011 when his Bulldogs began the season 0-2 before rebounding to win the SEC East. Georgia is a solid 7-3 ATS as a road favorite since 2009 and 5-1 ATS over that same span in the regular season as a single-digit favorite. Clemson is rarely a home underdog in Death Valley, but they are 0-3 ATS in such situations under Dabo Swinney.

Colorado State -3 Colorado @ Denver
2013 marks the first time the Rams have been favored in this series since 2006. However, despite being underdogs the previous six seasons, the Rams have actually beaten the Buffaloes twice. The Buffaloes have fallen on hard times lately, winning just four games over the past two seasons, and not posting a winning record since 2005. The Buffaloes probably upgraded at the head coaching position by tabbing Mike MacIntyre, the miracle worker from San Jose State, to lead their squad. However, while MacIntyre did great things as San Jose State, his first season featured only one win in thirteen games and a 5-6 record ATS. Colorado State returns 17 starters and appears to be on the upswing. They should be able to beat their in-state rivals by about a touchdown. 

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