Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIV

Well, it appears we cannot stand prosperity. After consecutive winning weeks got us back to .500, a 2-5 week makes a winning season unlikely. Still, we press on. Home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 44-47

Texas +6.5 TCU
The Big 12 seems built for controversy regarding head-to-head versus body of work. In 2008, a three-way tie in the south among Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech had to be broken by the BCS rankings. Now, sans divisions, it appears we are headed toward more controversy regarding the inaugural College Football Playoff. Baylor beat TCU head-to-head on the field in Waco, but TCU has a tougher schedule, and arguably a superior body of work. Before we get ahead of ourselves, remember that potential controversies often have a way of working themselves out. That could certainly be the case on Thanksgiving night as TCU heads to Austin to take on the Longhorns. This is not a typical TCU team. The Horned Frogs have the best offense (in terms of yards per play) in the Big 12, and rank just sixth on defense. Meanwhile, Texas has the league's top-ranked defense and has shut down high-powered offenses like UCLA, Baylor, and Oklahoma already this season. Since joining the Big 12, TCU is just 1-6 ATS as a road favorite. Look for that trend to continue here as Texas keeps this one very close.

Rutgers +8.5 Maryland
The maiden voyage for both Rutgers and Maryland in the Big 10 has been marginally successful for both. Both have attained bowl eligibility, although most of Rutger's work was done in the non-conference. Rutgers did beat a down traditional power in Michigan, so there is something to be said for that. Maryland has already won four conference games and will be looking to post their first winning conference record since 2010 when Ralph Friedgen waddled the sideline. In a nice twist, Friedgen is now the offensive coordinator at...Rutgers of course. This spread is probably a field goal or so too high thanks to Maryland's upset win at Michigan last week. Rutgers has been pretty good as a road underdog under Kyle Flood, posting an 8-4 ATS mark with five outright upsets. Take the Knights to keep this one within a touchdown.

Penn State +13.5 Michigan State
As I mentioned earlier that this is not your typical TCU team, this is also not your typical Michigan State team. Most iterations of Sparty under Mark Dantonio are defense-oriented teams. This year's version ranks an above-average fifth in the Big 10 in yards per play allowed, but the offense has been the real strength of the team. Along with Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Spartans are the only Big 10 team averaging more than six yards per snap in league play. Penn State would kill for that kind of offensive firepower. Unfortunately, the Nittany Lions are dead last in the Big 10 in yards per play. The offensive line has been especially porous, allowing 39 sacks thus far on the year (122nd nationally). The Penn State defense has been nearly as robust as the offense has been putrid. The Nittany Lions lead the Big 10 in yards per play allowed, and against the dominant Ohio State offense in Happy Valley, held the Buckeyes to 17 points in regulation. Penn State probably lacks the offensive firepower to win here, but this spread is way too high.

BYU +4.5 Cal
For BYU, the 2014 season began with such promise. The Cougars opened the year by winning their first four games, rose to number 18 in the AP Poll, and had designs on an undefeated season. Alas, quarterback Taysom Hill was injured, and the defense had a few awful games. The Cougars lost four in a row at midseason, but have rebounded against a softer schedule to win their past three and clinch a ninth consecutive winning season under Bronco Mendenhall. While BYU goes for their eighth win of the season, Cal will be seeking their sixth and their first bowl bid since 2011. The Bears have significantly improved from their 1-11 campaign last season, but have lost five of their past six games after a 4-1 start. Cal has not covered as a home favorite since 2011! Granted, they have only been favored four times at home since then, but still, the Bears are far from a dominant home team. Take BYU to cover here and potentially keep the Bears home for the holidays.

Louisiana-Monroe +14.5 Georgia Southern
With a win here, Georgia Southern could attain the dubious distinction of being both the outright Sun Belt champion and not playing in the postseason. Since the Eagles are in their first season as a IA member, they are technically classified as a 'transitional' team and would need a waiver to play in a bowl. Unless some teams self-impose bowl bans in the last two weeks of the season, a scenario where the Eagles play in a bowl game us unlikely. Alas, they could take solace in becoming the first Sun Belt team to finish unbeaten in conference play since Arkansas State in 2011. Under first year coach Willie Fritz, the Eagles have gashed Sun Belt opponents and are averaging nearly seven yards per play against their conference brethren. I think the Eagles will get the win here, but Louisiana-Monroe is a healthy 10-5 ATS as a road underdog against teams from the Group of Five conferences since 2010. Take the Warhawks to keep this one within two touchdowns.

UTEP -4 Middle Tennessee State
Well, we whiffed on UTEP last week, but the one facet we should have considered regarding that game was the location. UTEP was on the road at Rice. Now they return home to try and solidify a bowl bid and clinch their first winning season since 2005. The Miners are unbeaten ATS at home this season, and are 4-0 ATS as a home favorite. Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee State is 1-4 straight up on the road and in their last road game fell to feeble Florida International. UTEP has a great deal to play for and in El Paso should win this game by at least a touchdown.

Utah State +9 Boise State
If you want to discuss perseverance, Utah State has it in spades. The Aggies are down to their fourth string quarterback thanks to a spate of injuries. However, like Kurt Warner before him, freshman Kent Myers has risen to the occasion and arguably played better than the man (or in this case men) he was replacing. The Aggies are a few closes losses (to Arkansas State and Colorado State) away from being in position to grab the big-time bowl berth that goes to the highest ranked member from the Group of Five. Ironically, one of the teams that beat Utah State will be pulling hard for the Aggies as the Rams from Colorado State need another Boise loss (in conjunction with their own win over Air Force) to gain entry to the Mountain West Championship Game. Boise State is just 7-15 ATS as a home favorite since joining the Mountain West in 2011. This game should be very close, and an upset by the Aggies would not shock me.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

Two winning weeks in a row has us back to .500 for the year. There are only three weeks left in the college football regular season. It always leaves us to soon. As always, home teams in bold.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 42-42

UTEP +9 Rice
Not to brag or anything, but I am currently reading a book. The book in question, Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, is a good read for anyone interested in the history of amateur sports. Obviously, the title is a little verbose, but the book is a great historical analysis of the integration of college sports. One thing I discovered in reading the book (not related to integration at all), is that Bum Phillips coached UTEP for one season in 1962. Before he was 'Luv ya Blue', he was 'Luv ya U(TEP)'. Perhaps Bum saw the writing on the wall more than a half-century ago. It is hard to win in El Paso. However, perhaps the tide could be turning. Second year head coach Sean Kugler has the Miners bowl eligible with two games left to play. This is a stark improvement from last season, when the Miners won just a single conference game for their eighth consecutive losing season. Seeking to clinch their first winning season since 2005, the Miners head to Houston to take on a Rice team that is bowl eligible for the third consecutive season. Rice is probably the better team, and is playing at home, but this spread should be less than a touchdown. Take the Miners to dig in and keep this one close.

Purdue +2.5 Northwestern
The fates finally smiled on Northwestern last week. After losing eight of their previous ten one-score games, the Wildcats used a late surge, and questionable coaching by Brian Kelly, to stun the Irish in South Bend in overtime. The win bolstered Northwestern's bowl chances as they merely need to sweep Purdue and Illinois to reach six wins. With the Boilermakers and Illini combining for a 2-10 Big 10 record, that would seem a forgone conclusion. Ah, but let's not start licking our own lollipops just yet. Not only could a letdown be in store for the Wildcats, but the Boilermakers have also been exceedingly competitive in their second season under Darrell Hazell. In fact, since the ugly loss to Iowa, during which Austin Appleby replaced Danny Etling under center (or in the shotgun), Purdue has been a downright average football team. Unfortunately, the schedule has featured a quartet of teams that are either currently ranked, or were ranked at some point in the season (Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin). The Boilermakers lost all four of those games, but covered three times, and also pounded Illinois for good measure. Northwestern struggles big time moving the football, so don't be surprised if Purdue is able to pull off an outright upset here.

Western Michigan -1 Central Michigan
Don't look now, but statistically, these could be the two best teams in the MAC. For Central Michigan, the Chippewas have steadily improved over the half decade that Dan Enos has been in charge. At 7-4, they have already achieved the most regular season wins under his guidance, and a win here, coupled with a lot of help could send them back to the MAC Championship Game for the first time since 2009. The other directional Michigan school has risen rapidly under second year coach P.J. Fleck. After winning just a single game (by a single point) in Fleck's first season, the Broncos are 7-3 and winners of five straight. The last four wins in the streak have all come by at least twelve points. The Broncos still need some help to notch their first ever berth in the MAC Championship Game, but with this spread hovering below a field goal, they are an easy play here.

Ole Miss -2.5 Arkansas
Last week, I advised you to go against the Hogs as they were somehow laying points against LSU. Please accept my sincerest apologies for that mistake. I failed to realize that Cam Cameron was somehow coaching worse than he did as head man of the Dolphins. Ole Miss, even without receiver Laquon Treadwell, should be able to move the ball against one of the worst defenses in the SEC. Despite the shutout win over LSU, Arkansas only managed 264 yards of their own, at just over four yards per play. The Ole Miss defense has slipped a bit since their early season domination, but they should do enough to win this game by at least a touchdown.

New Mexico State +8 Louisiana-Monroe
Louisiana-Monroe, the underdog darlings of the 2012 football season, have clinched a losing season. However, despite already owning seven losses, the Warhawks did defeat a Power Five conference team for the third consecutive season. Granted, that team was Wake Forest (my alma mater's second loss to the Warhawks in as many seasons), but it is a solid achievement nonetheless considering the Warhawks won just three such games from 1994 through 2011 (although the one in 2007 was quite infamous). The Warhawks have a hard time moving the ball, even against Sun Belt foes, ranking last in the conference in yards per play. Their defense is average by Sun Belt standards, but with such a low-wattage offense, they should not be favored by more than a touchdown, especially on the road. In fact, the Warhawks have not won a game by more than a touchdown since last Halloween. Look for the Aggies to keep this one close.

Missouri +3.5 Tennessee
You want a crazy, I mean, really ridiculous stat? Missouri, a team that finished 2-6 in their inaugural season in the SEC, has won seven straight SEC road games! Under Nick Saban, Alabama won nine straight from 2008 through 2010 and eleven straight from 2011 through 2013. Under Urban Meyer, Florida won ten straight from 2007 through 2010. Those are the only other more lengthy road winning streaks over the last decade in the SEC. Since joining the SEC in 2012, the Tigers are 7-2 ATS as a road underdog, with six outright road upsets. Missouri is still in control of its destiny in regards to the SEC title, so motivation should not be a factor here. Look for the Tigers to continue their stellar road play and make Tennessee have to sweat out one more week before becoming bowl eligible.

Oregon State +6.5 Washington
2014 has not played out exactly how the Beavers and Huskies had hoped in the preseason. Coming off consecutive bowl appearances, the Beavers, even with the loss of stud receiver Brandin Cooks to the NFL, hoped to continue shredding west coast defenses with senior quarterback Sean Mannion. Without Cooks the offense has declined and the team still needs a win in one of its final two games to qualify for a bowl (probably don't want to head into the Civil War with Oregon needing a win to get bowl eligible). The Huskies have had similar issues on offense sans quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey. The Huskies opened the year with four consecutive wins against a good IAA team (Eastern Washington) and a trio of IA bottom dwellers (Hawaii, Illinois, and Georgia State). Once conference play began, the Huskies offensive difficulties outweighed their defensive acumen, and they too need to win one of their final two games to be assured of a postseason invite. Both these teams are about as statistically equivalent as one can get. Consequently, take the team catching nearly a touchdown, even though they are on the road.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

Well, we finally came through with a winning week, finishing 4-3. We were just a half a point away from a 5-2 week before LSU folded in overtime against Alabama. C'est la vie. We are now 37-40 with four weeks to go. Let's try and even that record this week. As always, home teams in bold.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 37-40

Western Kentucky -8 Army
This spread has been falling since it was released on Sunday. It started out at ten points or so, and is now just above a touchdown. I'm a little confused at the love Army is receiving after their 'upset' of Connecticut last week. The win was the third of the season for the Black Knights, which matches their total from last season and is tied for their highest seasonal win total since 2010. The Black Knights should eclipse that threshold next week against Fordham, but I don't see them keeping this one especially close. Western Kentucky has been outstanding on offense this season, scoring at least 34 points in every game except one. However, they have also allowed at least 27 points in every game. Hence their 4-5 record. Army has been pretty forgiving on defense themselves, allowing nearly 33 points per game and over six yards per play. Even the historically bad Wake Forest offense averaged over five yards per play against the Black Knights. I expect this to be a high-scoring game, but Western Kentucky should win this one by double-digits.

Iowa -3.5 Illinois
Perhaps this spread is an overreaction to the transitive property (which does not exist in sports by the way). In one of their few solid performances under Tim Beckman, the Illini upset Minnesota at home three weeks ago. Then last week, those same Golden Gophers eviscerated the Hawkeyes. The betting public is still down on Iowa for that egg they laid. Illinois has the worst defense in the Big 10, as they are currently allowing over seven yards per play to their Big 10 opponents. The spread should be about a touchdown. Take the Hawkeyes to cover here.

South Carolina +6.5 Florida
If I had told you before the season that one of these teams would enter this game needing to spring an upset in their final three games to qualify for a bowl, most would probably have pegged the Gators as that underachiever. Certainly, Florida is not where they were at their peak under Urban Meyer, but the Gators can clinch a winning season with a victory against the Gamecocks (assuming they beat Eastern Kentucky next week). The Gators enter having won two in a row, and still have an outside shot at getting to the SEC Championship Game, which is more an indictment of the SEC East than praise for the Gators. South Carolina enters having lost four of five (and four in a row in the SEC) after a 3-1 start. The defense is among the worst in the SEC, allowing more yards per play than every team except Texas A&M and Arkansas. Despite Florida's offensive struggles, the Gators should be able to move the ball against the Gamecocks as comparable bad offenses (Vanderbilt and Tennessee) certainly have. Despite the failings of the defense, the Gamecocks have been competitive thanks to their fantastic offense. The offense has racked up at least 35 points in six of their past seven SEC games. Despite their poor record, South Carolina has been effective as an underdog ATS in a small sample size this season, winning outright against Georgia and fighting Auburn to the bitter end. Florida is just 4-8 ATS as a home favorite since 2012, and with this spread close to a touchdown, I expect the Gamecocks to keep it close.

Wisconsin -6 Nebraska
This game will go a long way toward determining the Big 10 West's division. Currently these two teams are tied with Minnesota at 4-1. Unfortunately for the Gophers, they play both of these teams on the road to close the regular season, as well as Ohio State this weekend, so the winner of this game will be in the driver's seat. After a rough start to the conference season that saw them lose to Northwestern for the first time since 2009 and struggling with Illinois in a ten-point home win, the Badgers have gone on their usual Big 10 steamrolling tour. They have won their past three games against Maryland, Rutgers, and Purdue by a cumulative 123-23 score. Nebraska has quietly won eight of nine, with the lone loss coming at Michigan State. The Huskers are looking to lose less than four games for the first time under head coach Bo Pelini. In their three previous meetings as Big 10 foes, the home team has won each game, with the Badgers taking the rubber match in the 2012 Big 10 Championship Game. Wisconsin's two wins came by 31 and 39 points respectively, while Nebraska's win was a much closer three-point margin. This is the smallest home spread for Wisconsin under second-year coach Gary Andersen. Under Anderson, the Badgers are a healthy 7-3 ATS as a home favorite (typically large number). Look for the Badgers to win this one by at least double-digits.

Auburn +2.5 Georgia
As I discussed over the summer, Auburn should be expected to be less than stellar ATS as a double-digit favorite. The Tigers are just 2-3 ATS as a large favorite, including last week's outright home loss to Texas A&M. They are also just 3-5 overall ATS as a favorite of any kind. However, when the Tigers are catching points, they have been money in the bank under Guz Malzahn. Including last year's BCS Championship Game, Auburn is a healthy 6-0 ATS with four outright upsets, including one two weeks ago against Ole Miss. This line is probably too much of an overreaction to Auburn's loss at home to Texas A&M. Plus, while Mark Richt has not developed the reputation Les Miles enjoys in regards to failing to cover the spread, the Bulldogs are just 33-42-4 ATS since 2005. Bank on Malzahn and the Tigers getting back on track here.

Missouri +5.5 Texas A&M
It's amazing how one week can shift your perception of a team. Last week at this time, the Aggies were coming off a less than decisive win against Louisiana-Monroe, had lost three straight SEC games by at least 15 points, and were three touchdown underdogs against the defending conference champion. Then the Aggies jumped out a big lead, made a timely special teams play, enjoyed a little snapping good fortune, and now are 7-3 with two home games left. But has anything really changed with the Aggies? Sure, they score a lot of points (sometimes), but they also have one of the worst defenses in the SEC. On the other sideline, Missouri is the polar opposite of Texas A&M. They combine the worst offense in the conference with the best defense. Texas A&M's SEC games have seen about 69 points scored on average between the Aggies and their opponents. Meanwhile, Missouri's SEC games have seen the Tigers and their opponents combine for roughly 40 points per game. Missouri's defense should be able to hold the Aggies in check and the Tigers have been money in the bank as a road underdog since joining the SEC, going 6-2 ATS in the role.

LSU +2.5 Arkansas
So let me get this straight. One of these teams is ranked in the top-25 of the current AP Poll and the other has not won an SEC game since 2012. And of course, the team currently riding a 17-game conference losing streak is favored. During their 17-game skid, Arkansas has had a few close calls, losing seven games by a touchdown or less, including their last two against LSU. In both of those games LSU was a double-digit favorite. They struggled, but won the Les Miles way. Were LSU giving points, I would advise you to avoid this game at all costs. However, since the Tigers are catching nearly a field goal here, they should be a solid play. LSU will be able to move the ball against an Arkansas defense that is statistically the worst in the SEC. After playing Ole Miss and Alabama in their last two games, LSU should get out some of their collective offensive frustrations on the Hogs.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XI

A second consecutive 2-5 mark has your humble narrator scrambling to just finish with a .500 record for the season. The yearly mark is now a poor  33-37. We'll try and do better this week. As always, home teams in bold.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 33-37

Georgia Tech -3.5 NC State
Last week, NC State finally ended a rather long streak of futility, in winning their first conference game since 2012 (a streak of 12 consecutive conference defeats). Thanks to an incredibly soft non-conference slate, the Wolfpack need just a single victory to become bowl eligible. Despite their upset win over Syracuse, the Wolfpack remain a below average team that is superlative at nothing. They rank twelfth in the fourteen-team ACC in yards per play (ahead of Syracuse and Wake Forest) and eighth in the conference in yards per play allowed. Their opponent on Saturday is an extreme team. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are bowl eligible yet again, and have a chance to play in the ACC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons. The Yellow Jackets have the best offense in the ACC in terms of yards per play, but are dead last in the conference in yards per play allowed. Their defense has particularly let them down in their two defeats. The Yellow Jackets allowed 31 and 48 points in consecutive losses to Duke and North Carolina that may eventually cost them the Coastal Division title. NC State will be able to move the ball against the Georgia Tech defense, but the Yellow Jackets should be able to outscore the Wolfpack and win by at least a touchdown.

Tulane +17.5 Houston
Two upsets last week (Temple over East Carolina and Connecticut over Central Florida) threw the American Athletic Conference into chaos. Five teams, Cincinnati, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, and UCF, are all 3-1 in the league at the halfway point. This should make for an exciting final month. Unfortunately, the champion will probably not be able to snatch a major bowl bid for the Group of Five conferences. Of the teams currently tied atop the American Conference, Houston is probably the weakest. The Cougars have real issues moving the football, averaging under five yards per play in conference games (eighth among eleven teams). This spread appears to be about a touchdown too high. Take the Green Wave to cover this large number.

Texas +3.5 West Virginia
The maiden voyage for the Longhorns under Charlie Strong has seen its share of ups and downs. The Longhorns were blown out by BYU, but hung close with UCLA and Oklahoma, and limited Baylor's explosive offense in a closer than the score indicated defeat. Can the Longhorns finally break through against a ranked team under Strong? The opponent, West Virginia, has three losses, but those defeats have come at the hands of three of the best teams in college football: Alabama, Oklahoma, and TCU. The Mountaineers also have three road wins this season, matching their total for their first two seasons in the Big 12. The key point to remember is that two of those wins were very close and were decided on last second field goals (Maryland and Texas Tech). Also keep in mind Texas obliterated that same Red Raider team (on the same field) just last week and that West Virginia could be in a letdown spot after nearly upsetting TCU last week. Take the Longhorns here, and don't be surprised if they pull off an outright upset.

UNLV +6 Air Force
One season after playing in their first bowl game in thirteen years, the encore has not gone according to plan for UNLV. The Rebels are just 2-7 and have clinched their tenth losing season in the last eleven years. On the other sideline, Air Force has rebounded from a winless Mountain West campaign in 2013 to become bowl eligible for the seventh time in eight seasons under Troy Calhoun. The Falcons have also wrapped up the Commander in Chief Trophy by beating their service academy rivals Army and Navy. However, despite their 6-2 start, Air Force is probably a little over-valued. The Falcons are last in the Mountain West in yards per play and only middle of the pack (seventh) in yards per play allowed. Plus, UNLV has been stellar as a home underdog under Bobby Hauck, going 13-6-1 ATS in those situations. Take the Rebels to cover here, and don't be surprised if they pull off the outright upset.

LSU +6.5 Alabama
Les Miles and the LSU Tigers find themselves in both an unfamiliar situation and a position they are very acquainted with. Under Miles, the Tigers have been home underdogs just five other times. However, three of those instances came against Alabama (as led by Nick Saban). LSU has covered three of those five games, including two of three against Alabama. In fact, their non-covers have also been close as Alabama needed overtime to dispatch LSU as a field goal favorite in 2008 and Florida won by ten as an eight point favorite in 2009. LSU has steadily improved as the year has gone on, and is certainly not the same team that was obliterated by Auburn a month ago. Also keep in mind that Alabama is just 3-6 ATS away from Tuscaloosa since the start of the 2013 season. Take the Tigers to keep this one close.

Ohio State +3.5 Michigan State
Can a Big 10 team crack the initial College Football Playoff? The best chance for the conference probably lies with a Michigan State win here. If Ohio State wins here, and wins out, their inexplicable loss to Virginia Tech will likely serve to keep them out of the playoffs barring some other unlikely results. Along with Wisconsin, these are clearly the two best teams in the conference, but their lack of non-conference accomplishments will likely shut the Big 10 champion out of the playoffs. Ohio State has been a betting underdog exactly twice under Urban Meyer, and once was two seasons ago against these Spartans, in this very stadium. The spread was about the same too, with the Buckeyes getting about a field goal. The Buckeyes won a tight game, and a similar result here would not be too surprising.

New Mexico State +17 Louisiana-Lafayette
The Ragin' Cajuns have had quite a four-year run under Mark Hudspeth. They have played in (and won) three consecutive New Orleans Bowls and are just a win away from attaining bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season. However, 2014 began rather inauspiciously. After opening with an expected beatdown of IAA Southern, the Cajuns lost at home to Louisiana Tech by four touchdowns (they entered the game as a double-digit favorite). They then went on the road to Ole Miss and Boise State and lost by a combined 66 points. With Captain Hindsight as our guide, we can see that while the Cajuns were not competitive in those three losses, each of those teams has ended up being pretty good. Once conference play began, the Cajuns rebounded and are now 4-0 in the Sun Belt. Their overall Sun Belt record under Hudspeth is a sterling 21-6, yet they have yet to win an outright conference title, finishing third in 2011, second in 2012, and tied for first last season. Even if they win out, they may not be alone at the top of the standings as Georgia Southern is also unblemished through six conference games and does not face the Cajuns. Despite their sterling won-loss record, the Cajuns have been far from a sure thing as a favorite. In conference games in which they entered as the betting favorite, the Cajuns are just 7-10 ATS. They are also just 2-4 ATS in all games as a road favorite under Hudspeth and 2-6-1 ATS as a double-digit favorite. All these trends are compelling reasons to take the Aggies from Las Cruces on Saturday night.