Saturday, August 29, 2015

Five Questions: Conference USA

For our final group of questions we head to Conference USA. Rejoice friends, as this is the last Saturday we will be without football until next year.

1. Does Marshall rebuild or reload?
After a disjointed start to the Doc Holliday era (17-20 with one bowl appearance over his first three seasons), the Thundering Herd channeled their inner Bob Pruett by winning 23 games over the past two seasons, including their first conference title since 2002. While Marshall’s schedule was bereft of any heft last season, their scoring margin indicated they were a very good team. Their overtime loss to Western Kentucky prevented them from getting into one of the New Year’s Six bowls (even going undefeated, they may not have gotten in thanks to their soft schedule). I was quite disappointed by this development. While I don’t believe Marshall was good enough to hang with the true elites in college football last season, I really wanted to see how they matched up against a good, but not great Power 5 opponent like Arizona, Georgia Tech, Missouri, or Wisconsin. Alas, we had to settle for them pounding a fellow mid-major conference champion in Boca Raton. So where does Marshall go from here after losing their all-time leading passer, an NFL quality receiver, and six defensive starters. All told, the Herd return just eleven starters from last year’s squad. Will they suffer thanks to the loss of all that star power, or should we trust the recruiting rankings as most of the cognoscenti have and deem Marshall one of the teams to beat yet again in Conference USA?

2. Can Conference USA make any noise against Power 5 opponents?
Conference USA’s membership has been in flux over the past few seasons. Seven of their twelve members from the 2012 season now play in the American Athletic Conference. In replacing their ranks, Conference USA has called teams up from the Sun Belt, the FCS level, and like the Higgs boson particle, from nothing. As their better teams have flown the coop and been replaced by typically lesser squads, it is no surprise that Conference USA has struggled against Power 5 opponents over the past two seasons.
In the 2013 regular season, Conference USA teams went 3-21 against Power 5 opponents (not including the American even though that league maintained an automatic BCS spot in 2013) and lost by an average of 20.5 points per game. Two of those wins were courtesy of East Carolina, a team that is no longer part of Conference USA. The other came against Kansas, a team that barely qualifies as a Power 5 team. In 2014, Conference USA teams went 0-23 against Power 5 schools with the average margin of defeat coming by nearly 25 points. Now, Louisiana Tech did beat Illinois in the Texas Bowl, but well, I’ve already made the joke about a team barely qualifying as a Power 5 school, so I’ll just leave that one alone. In 2015, can the league be more competitive against Power 5 schools? Opening weekend presents a pair of opportunities with Western Kentucky traveling to Vanderbilt and Marshall hosting Purdue.

3. How will Charlotte fare in their FBS debut?
Yes, the Queen City has a college football team. The 49ers will begin their third season of play and first in the FBS in 2015. Charlotte added an FBS program at a very opportune time and has positioned themselves nicely as a future candidate for ACC expansion in 2022 (I’m only sort of kidding). What can we expect from an FBS neophyte?
Eight teams joined the FBS since 2007 and they compiled a rather respectable 43-54 record in their first season in the big leagues. However, a pair of teams (Western Kentucky and Texas-San Antonio) was able to pad their record with games against FCS or Division II schools thanks to their status as an independent and the WAC’s shrinking membership. It should be noted that Georgia State tried to do this as well, playing three non-FBS schools, but managed no wins whatsoever in their first FBS season. With that being the case, it is probably better to look at how these teams performed against FBS programs. Here, the picture is a little bleaker. These teams won a little more than a third of their games against FBS teams. Charlotte only plays one non-FBS team in 2015, the Presbyterian Blue Hose. If the 49ers win four games, they will be on about the same level as the most recent FBS newcomers.

4. Can Rice continue their outstanding home record?
After years of wandering in the proverbial desert, Rice has become somewhat of a reliable quantity in the college football world. The Owls have played in three consecutive bowl games, won a conference title (their first since 1957), and hung on to the head coach who has overseen this success. David Bailiff is not mentioned in the same breath as Urban Meyer or Nick Saban, but he has done a fantastic job at one of the smallest FBS programs, especially considering their less than stellar recent history. Part of that success can be attributed to absolutely owning their home field under Bailiff.
Bailiff became head coach prior to the 2007 season, and since then Rice is 29-16 in their home games and perhaps an even more impressive 27-15-2 against the Vegas line at home. Against conference foes, they have done even better on both counts, posting a 24-9 mark (including winning the 2013 Conference USA Championship Game on their home field) and a sizzling 23-8-2 record against the spread.

5. Can Southern Miss climb out of the pit?
Like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, Southern Miss has gone from mid-major playboy, billionaire, superhero to poor, imprisoned, and crippled. After winning the 2011 Conference USA title, the Eagles suffered a 23-game losing streak and have won just four games in three seasons. A fourth straight losing season would be the first in school history.
Look. Up in the sky.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Five Questions: MAC

In our penultimate preseason questionnaire, we examine the Mid-American Conference.

1. Is Western Michigan due for a regression or can they build on last season’s breakout?
Not to toot my own oboe, but I made a post a few months back on teams that ‘surge’ in their second year under a new regime. Western Michigan certainly surged in 2014. After a feckless (see what I did there?) 1-11 start to his coaching career. PJ Fleck guided the Broncos to the cusp of a MAC West title and 8-5 overall record. The skill position guys on the team are young and with additional offseason seasoning, could lead the Broncos to their conference title since 1988. However, the MAC West has been owned by Northern Illinois as of late and is the tougher division, with Toledo, Ball State, and Central Michigan all enjoying varying degrees of success over the past few years. Can the Broncos continue to climb or will the Plexiglass Principle rear its ugly head and tamper expectations in Kalamazoo?

2.Does Pete Lembo finally leave Ball State?
Quietly, Pete Lembo enters his fifth season coaching the Cardinals. I never thought he would last this long. After success at both Lehigh and Elon in the FCS ranks, Lembo guided Ball State to consecutive bowl appearances in 2012 and 2013. I figured he would be scooped up by some woebegone major college program following the 2012 season and then certainly after 2013. He was not, and that is great news for Ball State fans. Although the Cardinals dipped to 5-7 last season, they still managed a .500 record in the MAC for the fourth straight year which exceeded any historical precedent for a ‘down’ year. If Lembo coaxes another bowl appearance out of Ball State, will he still be around to coach the team in 2016, or will a Power 5 school like Illinois, Iowa State, Purdue, Vanderbilt, or Virginia pry him away?

3. Can Lance Leipold take Buffalo to the top of the MAC?
In the offseason, I also wrote about Buffalo’s hire of Lance Leipold from Wisconsin-Watergate Whitewater. Leipold enjoyed success at the Division III level unrivaled by any outside of an obsessed player’s Dynasty Mode in NCAA Football. Can Leipold continue his success at the FBS level or was his achievement a function of the Eagles moreso than any great coaching acumen on his part? I for one believe he is stepping into a great situation, and while he may lose more games in 2015 than he has in the past five years, a division title is certainly on the table.

4. Is there any hope for Eastern Michigan and Miami?
Last season both the Eagles and Redhawks brought in new coaches with successful resumes. Chris Creighton and Chuck Martin had great success at lower levels as head coaches. However, at their new schools, it was basically business as usual. Eastern Michigan won two games, something that has happened four other times in the new millennium. Miami also won two games, a mark they have hit two other times since Ben Roethlisberger matriculated. It’s easier to make a move in the MAC, than say the SEC West, but I don’t have the stones to predict breakthroughs for either team this season. That being said, I will wholeheartedly support one should it occur.

5. Can the MAC East win some games against the MAC West?
Over the past seven years, the MAC West has dominated the MAC East in intra-divisional play.
Aside from an outlier 2009 when the East actually won the season series, teams from the West have beaten teams from the east by a more than 2-1 margin. If we break this down even further by team, it’s clear every team in the West save from the traditional pushover has dominated in their games against the East.
Despite this overwhelming failure, the East has managed to win three of the past seven MAC Championship Games. However, each victory was an upset and the West has actually been favored in the last ten title games.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Five Questions: Sun Belt

Only two more Saturdays stand between us and the return of college football. Rejoice! In the meantime, satiate yourself with a quintet of questions about the Sun Belt.

1. Will the Southern Conference dominate the Sun Belt again?
The Sun Belt added four new members in 2014. Idaho and New Mexico State were former members left homeless by the dissolution of the WAC. They performed up (or down) as it were to their usual levels as second time Sun Belt members. The other two members were ‘call-ups’ from the farm system. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern moved up to the FBS from the Southern Conference. And despite the jump in competition, they did not disappoint. Appalachian State endured a rough start, beginning the year 1-5 before winning their final six games and presenting themselves as the trendy pick to win the Sun Belt in 2015. Georgia Southern was even better, going unbeaten in Sun Belt play and nearly upsetting a pair of ACC bowl teams. In fact, Georgia Southern was one of the stronger teams in Sun Belt history according to the Simple Rating System.
All together, the two newbies went 13-1 against Sun Belt opponents when not playing each other. Will the two former Southern Conference members be marquee players in the conference race once again in 2015?

2. How long will Mark Hudspeth remain in Lafayette?
Repetition is the sincerest form of flattery. Wait, no that’s not it. Your repetition precedes you. No, not it either. Anyway, repetition has become the norm for the Ragin’ Cajuns. Mark Hudspeth has been the coach for four seasons and the Cajuns have played in and won four New Orleans Bowls while finishing 9-4 four times. After no bowl appearances and a high-water mark of 6-5 as a Sun Belt member before his arrival, this is pretty damn good. The only thing missing from his resume is an outright conference title (the Cajuns shared the Sun Belt title in 2013). Before coming to the bayou, Hudspeth also enjoyed success at Division II North Alabama. If he keeps winning, how long can Lafayette hang onto him?

3. Does Trent Miles have some more third year magic up his sleeve?
Ringo Starr once sang, ‘It don’t come easy’ and that has certainly been accurate for Georgia State since they moved up to the FBS in 2013. A decade ago, the Panthers were just a gleam in the eye of an administrator in downtown Atlanta. Now, though they do play real life games, they lose most of them and attendance has been less than stellar. The Panthers have won just a single game since joining the Sun Belt, and that affair was against Abilene Christian, a school making the transition from Division II to the FCS. Head coach Trent Miles has endured inauspicious starts before. In his previous coaching stop, the Indiana State Sycamores went just 1-22 in his first two seasons before surging to 6-5 in his third and posting winning records in his fourth and fifth. A similar surge would behoove Miles this season as one win in 24 games will not get it done, particularly with the Panthers playing in a mostly empty and cavernous Georgia Dome.

4. Can you go home again?
This question is actually a year late I suppose, but oh well. Skip it if you want. Last season Idaho and New Mexico State re-upped for another tour of duty in the Sun Belt. The Vandals and Aggies were original Sun Belt members way back in 2001 (before it was cool). They left for the WAC after the 2004 season, but returned after the dissolution of the WAC and one year of football independence. I took a look back through college football history and could only find five other instances of a team leaving (or being thrown out) of an FBS conference and returning.
Arkansas State was a Big West member for two seasons, left for football independence and came back for the Big West’s funeral march. Marshall was a founding MAC member back in 1962. They were jettisoned from the conference after the 1969 season. In their first season as an independent, one of the biggest tragedies in athletics occurred. The Thundering Herd were welcomed back into the league when they moved up from the FCS in 1997. They stayed for eight years before joining Conference USA. Michigan was a member of the precursor to the Big 10, the Western Conference back in ’96, 1896 that is. They were voted out after the 1906 season, remained an independent for a little over a decade before rejoining in 1917. As far as I can recollect, they are still a member today. Most college sports fans have heard of the Missouri Valley Conference thanks to the exploits of its basketball teams over the past decade; most notably Creighton, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois, and Wichita State. However, it is also an FCS football conference and its precursor was the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Nebraska was a founding member in 1907. The Huskers left after the 1918 season and returned in 1921. The conference remained the MVIAA until 1928 when it split. Six teams (Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma) formed the Big 6. Four other teams (Drake, Grinnell, Oklahoma State and Washington (MO)) were joined by Creighton and formed the Missouri Valley. The Big 6, which would later become the Big 7 and finally Big 8 before joining with four members of the Southwest Conference and becoming the Big 12. Incidentally, 1928 is likely more remembered for Al Capone dancing The Charleston on top of a flag pole.
The Temple Owls were a charter Big East member in 1991, but were booted from the conference thanks to their general ineptitude after the 2004 season. After a resurgence in the MAC under Al Golden, they were invited back just in time for the final Big East season in 2012. The Owls are still a member of the Big East’s spiritual succor, the American Athletic Conference. I am only an amateur college football historian, so if you notice any teams I left out, feel free to add them in the comments section.

5. Can Neal Brown replace a legend?
Legend may be a touch of hyperbole, but as far as mid-major coaches go, Larry Blakeney was one of the best, if not the most well-known. Blakeney guided the Troy Trojans from a Division II program, to the FCS, and finally up to the FBS and eventually the Sun Belt. Despite the uptick in competition, Blakeney was able to win 178 games in 24 seasons (though like most long-tenured coaches, he did struggle in his final seasons) and lead the Trojans to five Sun Belt titles. In the last decade, how many FBS coaches have had to replace someone who spent more than two decades as the head man? I’m sure you will guess two easily, but the third may elude you.
Obviously, this screams ‘small sample size’ and ‘do not extrapolate’, but the other three gentlemen who replaced long-tenured coaches all enjoyed success.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Five Questions: American Athletic Conference

Our second batch of questions takes us to the American Athletic Conference. Enjoy.

1. How will the divisions play out?
For the first time in the short history of the American Athletic Conference, there will be divisional play. No more shared conference titles. There will be one true champion. With the American now sporting twelve teams, eight of the current crop of ten FBS conferences will feature a conference championship game on the first weekend in December (only the Big 12 and Sun Belt are not in on the fun).

2. How will Navy enjoy conference life?
With Navy leaving the leisurely life of independence behind, Notre Dame is now the only current FBS team to have never enjoyed conference membership. Remember, Army was a member of Conference USA from 1998 to 2004. Navy’s maiden voyage into conference life has them in the west division of the American. Yes, a team stationed in Annapolis is in the ‘west’. With seven teams (eight if you count Memphis) in the (mostly) eastern part of the United States, some team had to draw the short straw of playing in the west. My preference would have been for Cincinnati to join Memphis in the west, but no one ever asked. I will be rooting for the Midshipmen, not because I am a closeted fan of the Village People, but because I think it would be quite unique if Navy played a regular season game (their annual tilt with Army) after playing a postseason game (the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship Game).

3. When is South Florida going to amount to anything?
Maybe my question is a little harsh. After all, South Florida did play in six consecutive bowl games between 2005 and 2010. However, try and remember back to mid-October of 2007. South Florida was ranked 2nd in the country and visiting Rutgers on a Thursday night. In the long ago pre-expansion days, the Bulls and Knights were conference opponents in the Big East. South Florida lost a close game to the Knights to start a three-game skid and fall out of the national and conference championship picture. Why do I bring up 2007? Well, that was the last time South Florida posted a winning conference record.
Yes, despite bowl trips the next three seasons, the Bulls never managed to win more than they lost in Big East play. That trend has continued through three coaches and two conferences. Yes, a team that was touted as a sleeping giant back in 2007 has failed to finish with a winning conference record for the duration of Barack Obama’s presidency. Is this the year? Can the Bulls finally shatter the .500 glass ceiling or is more heartbreak in store for the other directional Florida school?

4. What does Memphis do for an encore?
It would not be hyperbole to suggest that 2014 was perhaps the finest football season in school history for the Memphis Tigers. The feisty felines played relatively tight games with UCLA and Ole Miss, won a share of the American, brawled with BYU in the bowl game, won ten games, and finished ranked for the first time ever. Not bad for a team that averaged just over two wins per season between 2009 and 2013. Perhaps the best news for Memphis is that they were able to hang on to their head coach, Justin Fuente. Now the Tigers will look to post consecutive winning seasons for the first time since Tommy West road DeAngelo Williams to three straight bowls from 2003 to 2005. The Tigers return eleven starters including quarterback Paxton Lynch, a towering player who would not look out of place in the team picture for Josh Pastner’s squad. Do the Tigers have what it takes to win consecutive American Athletic Conference titles?

5. How fast will SMU play?
The June Jones era in Dallas ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. Jones resigned two games into last season and the Mustangs won only a single game under interim coach Tom Mason. If we take away Jones’ first season (2008) and his last (2014), in between the Mustangs enjoyed their greatest success since receiving the Death Penalty. To replace Jones, SMU hired Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Morris was the offensive coordinator at Clemson for four seasons and under his watch, the Tigers played with tempo. They averaged at least 75 plays per game each season, which represented a significant improvement in speed over the years prior to his arrival.
Can SMU expect a similar pace? To answer that question, it would be helpful to know how fast the Mustangs played under Jones. To put it succinctly, it varied.
That is a pretty big spread between the slowest and fastest seasons under Jones. Certainly, the 2008 team was poor offensively and thus likely endured a lot of three and outs, but the 2013 team was not an offensive dynamo and still managed to average nearly 79 plays per game. The Mustangs will play at a faster pace in 2015, but that will probably not result in significantly more plays if the offense does not improve enough to stay on the field.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Five Questions: Mountain West

19 days friends. That is all that separates us from the malaise of summer and real college football. Most of the major storylines in college football are covered (much better) elsewhere. Thus, I will focus on a few under the radar storylines for the five mid-major conferences. We'll begin in the Mountain West.

1. Can Tony Sanchez succeed at UNLV fresh out of high school?
Tony Sanchez is not literally fresh out of high school. By my estimation, he matriculated a little more than two decades ago. However, he is going from a high school coach to a head coach of an FBS program. To be fair, there are not many examples of coaches jumping from high school to the college ranks without a stop as a coordinator or position coach along the way. However, the few that do exist offer Faustian tales of caution. Still, it makes sense for UNLV to take a calculated risk on a local high school coach who enjoyed absurd success. Sanchez probably won’t turn the Titanic around in one season, but a competitive team could have the locals optimistic about something besides progressive jackpots.
Hey. I'm looking for Tom Walker. Have you seen him?

2. Can San Jose State capitalize on their SEC-esque recruiting rankings?
Ron Caragher’s seat is getting a little warm on the California coast. After debuting with a 6-6 mark, his Spartans fell to 3-9 in his second season, with losses in their final six games. Their statistical profile was interesting to say the least as their Yards Per Play numbers were befitting a team that should have won two or three more games in the Mountain West.
Alas, wins are the most important commodity in college football (and sports in general) so Caragher should probably refrain from touting those solid numbers at the next Spartan Club meeting. While wins are the most valuable commodity in college football, Caragher appears to be doing a great job of acquiring the second most valuable commodity – talent. His latest recruiting class ranked 58th in the nation and second in the Mountain West, hardly suitable for a team that is just 9-15 under his guidance. Will the reinforcement of talent (and some better luck) make the Spartans contenders this year? Furthermore, will Caragher be around to further coalesce and consolidate his talent if it does not pay immediate dividends?

3. Will Boise State fans forget Chris Petersen?
As far as debuts go, Bryan Harsin could not have asked for much more. While the Broncos were not able to take out another SEC heavyweight and despite an early season upset at Air Force, they played in a BCS New Year's Six Bowl for the first time since 2009. Their dramatic win against Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl gave them three such victories and raised the stakes for Harsin’s follow up. Under the new rules, one member from the Group of 5 (American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt) must be invited to play in a New Year's Six Bowl, so it may as well be Boise right? The Broncos were not quite on the level of vintage Petersen teams whether judging by the Simple Rating System (how many points better a team is than a hypothetical ‘average’ team on a neutral field) or Yards Per Play numbers, but they were good enough.
Can they improve and perhaps even join the conversation for getting in the actual playoff?

4. Can New Mexico make the leap from competitive ‘dust in your brakes’ to bowl team?
Bob Davie was (rightfully) given a great deal of leeway when he took over in Albuquerque. His predecessor won exactly two games in two and a half seasons before being fired for off the field reasons. Thus far, Davie has won a few more games, featured an exciting run-based offense, and not committed sexual harassment or had a teen arrested for DWI while driving his car (that we know of). Now would be a good time to start winning more. While the Lobos have not played in the postseason since the twilight of the George W. Bush administration, they were a consistent bowl team throughout the late 90’s and early 00’s. Another season of competitive play, but few breakthrough wins will not be enchanting for fans of the program.

5. Can Nevada survive without the services of Cody Fajardo?
While Fajardo did not quite have the college (and likely pro) career of his predecessor, he was a four-year starter who led the Wolfpack to three bowl appearances and accounted for over 13000 yards of total offense, and 101 touchdowns. Nevada continues to run the quarterback-friendly Pistol as installed by former coach and College Football Hall of Famer Chris Ault, but after eight years of more or less uninterrupted quality quarterback play, the Wolfpack could learn how the other half lives in 2015.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

MACtion: When is a Point not a Point

While a pair of teams have dominated the MAC over the past decade (Northern Illinois and Central Michigan have combined for six MAC titles and nine MAC Championship Game appearances), fortunes for other teams in the conference seem to change on a regular basis. For example, in Frank Solich’s second season, Ohio improved from 3-5 in conference play to 7-1 and won the division. They dropped to 4-4 and 3-5 over the next two seasons before rebounding once again to 7-1. Miami of Ohio has enjoyed several zeniths and nadirs, finishing 2-6 in 2006, 5-2 (and division champ) in 2007, and back to 1-7 in 2008. They were 1-7 again in 2009 before jumping to 7-1 (and conference champion) in 2010. Buffalo jumped from 1-7 to 5-3 in a single season and Bowling Green fell from 6-2 to 1-7 before rebounding to 6-2 just two years later. Even entrenched powers like Northern Illinois and Central Michigan have seen losing seasons begat bowl trips and conference titles begat losing campaigns. I could go on, but you get the idea. In the MAC, very little is permanent. Why? Could it be because MAC school are fighting for the scraps of (mostly) Big 10 schools that their talent levels are very close together thereby making randomness a much bigger determinant of success in the MAC than other conferences? That is certainly a possibility. One idea I had was to look at the average point differential in conference games for each of the ten conferences playing in the FBS last season. The results are summarized below with commentary to follow.
The table should be pretty easy to read, but I’ll explain. In 2014, the average Big 12 conference game resulted in the winning team having about 19 more points than the losing team. This includes all the blowouts (i.e. all games involving Kansas), nailbiters, and overtime affairs. Obviously, the fewer blowouts a conference has, the lower the scoring margin will be. Lo and behold, look who is bringing up the rear. The average MAC conference game saw the winning team finish with about 13 more points than the losing one, the lowest in the FBS last season. These numbers were painstakingly compiled by me by hand, so I have not done any additional seasons. Therefore, the theory I am about to postulate could be totally invalidated with further research (probably an offseason project), but here goes. It is easier to improve or decline in the MAC because a point is more valuable. Since conference games are closer (pending further research) than the average conference, an additional point scored or fewer point allowed makes a bigger difference. For example, in 2014, a point in the MAC was worth about 40% more than a point in the Big 12. Of course, this could all be rendered moot by further research, but as it is, keep an eye on the downtrodden (Eastern Michigan, Kent State, and Miami) in 2015 to see if they can reverse course and make the MAC unpredictable.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Strangers in the Field

A few years ago I read Trading Bases, a book about a former Wall Street trader who decided to try his hand at investing in a different type of commodity. The book inspired me to work harder on my own regression formulas with college football and see if I could turn a profit in Sin City. Not being financially independent enough (or bold enough) to quit my job and move to Las Vegas and realizing how difficult it is to beat the casino by betting individual games, I decided to visit during the summer and use my preseason ratings to, in effect, bet every game a team plays via over/under win totals. I also decided to bet a few 'Games of the Year' where the line appeared off based on my preseason ratings. I just returned from my trip to Vegas, and in the interest of ensuring my bets win, I decided to post them here. Enjoy.

Over/Under Win Totals
The premise here is simple. These bets are on teams to either go 'over' or 'under' a baseline win total.

Miami over 6 wins -200 ($150 to win $75)
The Miami Hurricanes were the great enigma of the 2014 season. After an inauspicious 3-3 start, the Hurricanes seemed like a team coalescing over the second half of the season with three consecutive wins over bowl teams (Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina) by a combined 72 points. Heading into their mid-November showdown with Florida State, the Hurricanes were nearly even money to end the Seminoles 25-game winning streak. As was seemingly the case in every Florida State game in 2014, the 'Noles fell behind early before rallying to pull one out of the fire. Whether or not the Hurricanes were emotionally damaged by that blown opportunity, they struggled down the stretch, losing by double-digits to two ACC also-rans (Virginia and Pitt) before losing a tight Independence Bowl to South Carolina. The four-game skid gave Miami its first losing season under Al Golden, and had many questioning how far the program has come under his guidance. 2015 will likely serve as a referendum on his tenure. Either the Hurricanes will improve and set the stage for a few more years of white shirts and ties on the sidelines or regress and start looking to make a change. Despite their late-season struggles, the Hurricanes actually rated as the top team in the ACC based on their conference only Yards Per Play (YPP) numbers. In fact, if we plot Miami's YPP numbers for each year of Golden's tenure, we can see pretty clear improvement.
The Hurricane's defense has gone from a weakness to a strength, while the offense has maintained its standing near the top of the conference. If you didn't know Miami's record last season, and just looked at these numbers, it wouldn't take much to project them for at least seven wins in twelve games. Granted, wins and losses are pretty important in college football (and sports in general), but the Hurricanes appear destined to improve this season. The schedule is a bit tricky, as it includes non-conference clashes with Cincinnati and Nebraska as well as the toughest draw from the Atlantic Division (Clemson and Florida State), but this low number is too good to pass up even if you do have to pay a bit of a premium to get it.

South Carolina over 6.5 wins -125 ($50 to win $40)
Last year at this time, South Carolina was coming off three consecutive eleven win campaigns and was ranked in the preseason top-10. Despite the loss of some key pieces from perhaps the most successful multi-year run in school history, including Jadeveon Clowney, Connor Shaw, and Bruce Ellington, the optimism in Columbia was unbridled. And then Texas A&M came to town and eviscerated any hope that the Gamecocks would be a contender in the SEC East. The Gamecock defense elevated a player that would not finish the year as his team's starter into a premature Heisman candidate. And now, with memories of the year long struggle to tackle and hold leads fresh in the public's mind, I think the Gamecocks are undervalued. Keep in mind, although they finished 3-5 in SEC play, four of their losses were by a touchdown or less. In fact, despite their struggles, the Gamecocks were good enough to beat Georgia (at home) and Florida (on the road), not to mention mid-major bowl teams in East Carolina and South Alabama. I don't expect South Carolina to win the SEC East this season, but the Gamecocks have finished with at least seven regular season wins eight times in Spurrier's ten seasons as coach. There are some challenging non-conference games on the slate, including a pair of tilts with ACC foes Clemson and North Carolina, but I think the Gamecocks get to at least seven wins.

Syracuse over 4.5 wins -120 ($40 to win $33.35)
The Orange were a team that suffered through a second year stagnation. After a 7-6 maiden voyage that included a bowl upset over Minnesota, Syracuse saw their regular season win total cut in half as they struggled through a 3-9 season. The Orange were especially poor down the stretch as they lost their last five games while averaging just over nine points per game. In fact, if not for the presence of Wake Forest and their historically poor offense, Syracuse would have ranked last in the ACC in Yards Per Play by a significant margin. Some of their offensive struggles can be blamed on the loss of Terrel Hunt to injury in the fifth game. While Hunt only threw a single touchdown pass on the year, he did run for six scores and threw just four interceptions. If Hunt can stay healthy, Syracuse could double or triple last season's conference win total. The non-conference slate includes a pair of likely wins (Rhode Island and Central Michigan), a sure loss (LSU), and a tricky road game against another coach on the hot seat (South Florida). If the Orange are able to take care of the Bulls on the road, they stand a great chance at getting to another bowl game. While that may seem like faint praise, its important to remember that success is relative lest we forget the Greg Robinson era.

Texas over 6.5 wins +105 ($30 to win $31.50)
Charlie Strong begins his second season in the Lonestar state attempting to return the Longhorns to an elite level of football. Hard to believe, but since playing in the BCS National Championship Game following the 2009 season, Texas has finished the season in the final poll just once. Those are David McWilliams' numbers. There were some bright spots in Strong's first season, including a late three-game winning streak to become bowl eligible, and a near upset of UCLA. However, the Longhorns also lost five games (including the bowl) by at least three touchdowns. An optimist would point out that most of those losses came to elite teams (Arkansas, Baylor, BYU, TCU, and Kansas State), but that is still unbecoming of a team with the pedigree of Texas. Realistically, with Notre Dame and a tricky Cal on the non-conference schedule, I think Texas will probably end up with exactly six wins, but I figured I would roll the dice anyway. Hook 'em baby!

Texas A&M under 8 wins -120 ($40 to win $33.35)
Peruse a few college football coaching hot seat lists and either Kevin Sumlin's name will be close to the bottom, or not on them at all. However, if you take a closer look at his record, you can start to see some diminishing returns. Whether it be the actual record (11-2 in his first year to 9-4 in his second to 8-5 in his third) or the in-conference YPP numbers.
In order to address their critical deficiency on the defensive side of the ball, the Aggies hired John Chavis, an SEC lifer, to be their defensive coordinator. Chavis has coordinated some fine defenses during his time at Tennessee and LSU (see below), but asking for miracles like feeding the 105,000 at Kyle Field might be a bit much.
As a point of reference, the Aggies would have failed to go over this number last season (finished 7-5). They do have the good fortune of trading Missouri for Vanderbilt in one of their cross-division games, but they make up for it by adding Arizona State to the non-conference schedule. Give the Aggies a hand for challenging themselves outside the league as their first 12 non-conference games as SEC members included SMU (3 times), Rice (2 times), Sam Houston State (2 times and an FCS school), Lamar (FCS), Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, South Carolina State (FCS), and UTEP. In the rugged SEC West, the Aggies look headed for a 6-6 or 7-5 finish.

West Virginia under 7.5 wins -115 ($40 to win $34.80)
Last year was a crucial one for the health of the West Virginia program and for the future employment opportunities of coach Dana Holgorsen. After guiding the Mountaineers to an historical Orange Bowl rout of Clemson in his first season and a 5-0 start and top-5 ranking in his second, the veneer of the program had cracked. The Mountaineers lost six of their final eight games in 2012 before cratering to 4-8 in 2013 with losses to both Kansas and Iowa State. Needing a rebound in 2014, the Mountaineers opened the season by hanging with Alabama in the Georgia Dome, then won six of their next seven, including a decisive home win over Baylor. Once again, the Mountaineers limped to the finish, losing four of their last five, albeit with close losses to TCU and Kansas State. With nine starters back from a defense that ranked second in the Big 12 in Yards Per Play allowed last season, I think West Virginia can get to a bowl in 2015. However, the odd year conference schedule will likely keep West Virginia from improving on last season's regular season win total. The Mountaineers must travel to Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and TCU this season. If the Mountaineers steal one of those games, it would qualify as a large upset. Throw in the depth of the Big 12, with Kansas and Iowa State as the only 'gimmes' on the schedule (and keep in mind West Virginia lost to both just two seasons ago) plus a non-conference game with Maryland (and Georgia Southern) and I can't see the Mountaineers doing better than 7-5.

Games of the Year
Typically betting lines are set on Sunday for games beginning the following week. However, sportsbooks set a few 'Game of the Year' lines for certain games that are months away from occurring. The home team in these games is listed in bold.

October 3rd
South Carolina +6.5 Missouri -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
These teams have played three times as SEC foes, with the Gamecocks winning two (a blowout and an overtime affair when Connor Shaw pulled a Willis Reed - although Shaw actually did something instead of just providing the always ephemeral motivation and inspiration) and losing a one-point decision when the OBC was asleep at the wheel in regards to two-point strategy. These teams did play a fourth time during the respective tenure of both coaches, but that came during the 2005 Independence Bowl, during which Missouri twice rallied from a 21-point deficit to upset the Gamecocks. While Missouri has won the SEC East the past two seasons, they only have a middling Against the Spread (ATS) performance as a home favorite, going 5-4 in that span. The real money to be made on Missouri has been when they are catching points. As an underdog of any kind (excluding postseason games), the Tigers are an incredible 7-1 ATS with seven outright victories. As I wrote earlier, I think the Gamecocks will improve this season and with them catching nearly a touchdown here, they are a good play.

October 31st
Oregon State +16 Utah -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Is there a better team to back on Samhain than one that looks a little like a candy corn? Obviously, my analysis is a little deeper than that (but not much). Oregon State has a new head coach for the first time since 2002. Gary Andersen has already proven his coaching prowess at Utah State and Wisconsin, and while this year will probably be one of transition for the Beavers (in other words, no bowl game), they should be improved enough two months into the season to stay within two touchdowns of Utah. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah is just 5-7 ATS as a home favorite against conference foes and 1-4 as a double-digit home favorite. I think that trend will continue here.

November 12th
Virginia Tech +6 Georgia Tech -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Last season, Georgia Tech rode an outstanding offense and an opportunistic defense to a win over Georgia, an ACC Championship Game appearance, an Orange Bowl win, and a top-ten finish. However, despite their success, Georgia Tech continued their defensive struggles under Paul Johnson. I have been a huge fan of the former Georgia Southern and Navy head coach since the day he was hired. I love seeing the archaic triple option being run by a major conference program. And the option has not disappointed. However, after a solid showing during his first season, the defense has been a consistent liability for the Yellow Jackets under Johnson.
Even last season, the Jackets ranked second to last in the ACC in yards per play allowed. When they were not forcing turnovers, the Yellow Jackets struggled mightily in stopping opponents. The defense may improve this season, but they will be hard pressed to repeat their proclivity in the turnover department. For that reason, I think Georgia Tech is overrated heading into the 2015 season. And this spread in particular, seems way off. Since Johnson took over as head coach prior to the 2008 season, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have played seven times. Six of those games have been decided by seven points or less, and the one that was not was won by the Hokies. In addition, Virginia Tech has done a phenomenal job of holding the Georgia Tech option in check. In those seven games, Georgia Tech has averaged just under 21 points per game (compared to the 32.2 points per game the Yellow Jackets have averaged for the duration of the Johnson era). I like the Hokies to keep this one close even though the game is in Atlanta.

October 17th
Pittsburgh +11 Georgia Tech -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
I already summed up my reasons for fading Georgia Tech in the previous paragraph, but even with those qualifiers, this spread seems egregiously high. Georgia Tech did beat Pitt by four touchdowns last season, but keep in mind the Panthers lost five fumbles in the first quarter! Even though the game is in Atlanta, I'll take the Panthers to stay within double-digits.

November 21st
Miami +3 Georgia Tech -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
This appears to be another Georgia Tech spread that is artificially high. In last season's game, Miami only scored 17 points, but they moved the ball efficiently, averaging eight yards per play. In three previous trips to south Florida under Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets are 0-3, with each loss coming by at least 15 points. With the Hurricanes catching points here, this is too good to pass up.

Miscellaneous Bets
This is a college football blog, but there were a few other events I wanted to bet on.

Pittsburgh Pirates 10-1 to win World Series ($15 to win $150)
Hard to believe I bet on a team with the tatted AJ Burnett playing a prominent role to win the World Series. Maybe I had one too many midori sours. While the risk here is minimal, this could wind up being something I regret more than when I signed up for Ashley Madison. Yes, the Pirates will likely have to win a do or die Wildcard Game to even get in the 'real' playoffs, but they have the 3rd best record in baseball, strong pitching and defense combo (fourth in the NL in runs allowed behind Burnett, Gerrit Cole, and Francisco Liriano), and one of the best players in baseball manning center field. I would't hold my breath on Pittsburgh winning their first title since 1979, but at 10-1, I thought the odds were solid.

Toronto Blue Jays 30-1 to win World Series ($10 to win $300)
With Jamie Moyer retired, I decided to bet on the team that employs my other favorite soft-tossing lefty. I made this bet because I felt like the Blue Jays were due for a market correction of sorts as their run differential is one of the best in baseball and belies their mediocre record. I made this bet in the morning on the 30th, and later that afternoon they acquired one of the best arms available in David Price. I can't take credit for having inside information on that one. At least, that's my story. The addition of Price bolsters the Blue Jays starting rotation that was one of the weaker links on the team. They are probably too far behind to catch the Yankees for the division (six games, but more importantly seven losses behind as of this writing), but the Wildcard and a potential one game playoff are certainly on the table. The Blue Jays have a long way to go, but at 30-1, I couldn't pass this up. Oh, and one more thing. With the addition of Price, the Blue Jays now have both 2012 Cy Young Award winners in the rotation.

Reckless Parlay
I couldn't leave Las Vegas without buying at least one lottery ticket. This is your standard seven team parlay. All games must be correct for the parlay to pay out and each game occurs over Labor Day Weekend.
$10 to win $900

Game 1: September 3rd
South Carolina -3 North Carolina (@Charlotte)
I think South Carolina will be better than they were last year. Plus, the Gamecocks have performed quite well against ACC teams over the last half-decade.

Game 2: September 3rd
Michigan +5.5 Utah
Am I putting too much stock in the Jim Harbaugh Effect? Probably.

Game 3: September 3rd
Western Kentucky +2.5 Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt was bad last year. They will probably be better this season. However, Western Kentucky could win Conference USA. Regardless, I think this will be one of the more entertaining game on the season's first Thursday.

Game 4: September 5th
Northwestern +12 Stanford
NERDS! Stanford travels to the Central Time Zone and gives double-digits.

Game 5: September 5th
Arizona State +3 Texas A&M (@ Houston)
Can the Aggies fix the defense in their first game under John Chavis? I certainly hope not.

Game 6: September 5th
BYU +5.5 Nebraska
These two teams have a long and storied rivalry. Just kidding. They have never played each other except in NCAA Football.

Game 7: Georgia Southern +19 West Virginia
The Eagles nearly upset a pair of ACC teams last year. If you got tackling problems I feel bad for ya son, the Eagles got 99 problems, but a p*tch ain't one.