Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Magnificent Seven: Week V

Last week was another solid one as I went 5-2. However, the margin between genius and idiot is often razor thin. Case in point, Northern Illinois covered for me by a single point and Florida International covered thanks to Louisiana Tech taking a knee inside the ten in the final minutes. Methinks things will even out over the course of the season. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 18-10

Connecticut +18.5 BYU
Don't look now, but the Huskies could be putting a quality (or at least salty) product on the field for the first time in a while. The Huskies have already equaled last season's win total (granted they only won a pair) and appear to be playing quality defense under Bob Diaco. The offense is still a major work in progress, but with a schedule that includes South Florida, Central Florida, and Tulane, the Huskies have a real chance to double last season's win total. How do the Huskies stack up against a BYU team coming off a humiliating performance at Michigan? Give the Cougars credit, splitting four games against the likes of Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA, and Michigan (with three coming on the road) is the sign of a quality team. However, I think after facing a quartet of quality opponents with cache and name recognition, the Cougars could be in for a bit of a letdown playing late in the night on Friday. Plus, BYU was 0-5 against the number as a double-digit home favorite last season. Take the Huskies to keep this one relatively close.

Northern Illinois -2 Central Michigan
MAC play begins for the two teams that have combined to win nine of the last ten MAC West titles. That statement is a bit misleading as the Huskies have won the last five. However, beginning in the middle part of the last decade, Central Michigan won three of four MAC championships under Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. Alas, since finishing unbeaten in MAC play in 2009, the Chippewas have not finished better than 5-3 in conference play in any season and are just 18-22 against league foes in that span. The Chippewas have managed to upset Northern Illinois twice since 2011, which accounts for all (yes, I said all) of the Huskies' regular season conference losses since 2010! Do the Chippewas have their number again this year? Under head coach Rod Carey, the Huskies are 8-2 against the number as a road favorite and an even more impressive 5-0 as a single digit favorite. Northern Illinois has seen their typically high-powered offense be shut down the past two weeks in road games against Power Five opponents. Central Michigan does not have the defensive personnel of either Ohio State or Boston College. Combine that with their phenomenal track record as a small favorite and the Huskies are an easy play here.

Air Force +6 Navy
With apologies to Jay Z: If you having tackling problems, I feel bad for ya son. These teams got 99 problems, but a pitch ain't one. After starting their life in the American Athletic Conference with two victories, the Midshipmen step outside of league play to take on the Falcons of Air Force. These teams have played every year since 1972 and the rivalry has been quite streaky. Air Force won eleven in a row between 1982 and 1992 and 19 of 21 between 1982 and 2002. Navy responded by winning seven in a row beginning in 2003. The last five years have seen more parity with Air Force winning three, including last season's affair. Despite owning a loss, one could make the argument that Air Force is the better team here. In their last game, the Falcons actually averaged over seven yards per play against a stout Michigan State defense, but were done in by turnovers. The Midshipmen have not played a team near the quality of Michigan State, and have actually posted middling yards per play numbers in victories against East Carolina and Connecticut. This spread feels like it is at least a field goal too high.

Miami (Ohio) +10.5 Kent State
Since coming out of nowhere to win the 2010 MAC title, the other Miami has hit a rough patch. The Redhawks have not won more than four games in any season and are just 8-24 against conference opponents. They bottomed out in 2013, finishing 0-12 and finding themselves in the market for a new head coach. They chose Chuck Martin, the Notre Dame offensive coordinator, who also enjoyed a successful career at Division II Grand Valley State. The Redhawks went just 2-10 in Martin's inaugural campaign, included among the losses, a defeat to Eastern Kentucky of the FCS. The Redhawks are just 1-3 in after finishing non-conference play in 2015, but they did manage to beat their FCS opponent. They begin MAC play against a Kent State team that has come up just short of a signature win for coach Paul Haynes in the past two weeks. Two weeks ago, the Golden Flashes dropped a 10-7 decision to Minnesota and last week, they blew a double-digit lead and fell in overtime to Marshall. With the losses, Kent State must now win five conference games to get to their first bowl under Haynes. The Golden Flashes find themselves in unfamiliar territory here, entering the game as a double-digit favorite for the first time since...the last time Miami came to town. Miami has been pretty solid as a large road underdog with Martin at the helm, going 5-2 against the number. The Redhawks were bludgeoned by Wisconsin and Western Kentucky on the road, but Kent State does not have nearly the offensive firepower of those two squads. Trust the Redhawks to keep this within a touchdown.

Kansas State +8 Oklahoma State
If you had made a wager for Kansas State in every regular season game against an FBS opponent since Bill Snyder began his second tenure, you would have a nice return on your initial investment. The Wildcats are an amazing 45-21-1 against the number since the beginning of the 2009 season. I have made no secret of my love for Bill Snyder on this blog, so when his team is catching more than a touchdown against a less than elite opponent, I have to jump on it. In their last game, the Wildcats needed overtime to hold off Louisiana Tech in Manhattan. While that may be damning on paper, Louisiana Tech is one of the better teams in Conference USA. Meanwhile, in their last game, Oklahoma State needed assistance from the officials and the Texas punter to beat the Longhorns in Austin. Kansas State failed to cover as an underdog away from Manhattan three times last season. Their opponents in those games? Baylor, TCU, and UCLA. Oklahoma State is not quite in that class. Take the Wildcats to cover and potentially eke out a win here.

Maryland +16 Michigan
After a rough start in Salt Lake City, the Michigan Wolverines appear destined for greatness under Jim Harbaugh. At least, that is the narrative the national media will be forcing down our throats in the coming weeks. Despite what is often written on this blog, I'm no fool. I know Michigan is likely to consistently have a good team under Harbaugh. However, I think Michigan is quite over-valued this week. For starters, Michigan is coming off a fantastic performance against a BYU team playing with a backup quarterback in their fourth consecutive tough game. Couple that fact with Maryland looking like absolute garbage last week against West Virginia, and you have all the ingredients for an inflated spread. Yes, Maryland was pummeled by the Mountaineers, but keep in mind, West Virginia might be pretty damn good. This is Michigan's first road trip in a month and they are in prime letdown position. Take the Terrapins to cover this large number.

Fresno State +9 San Diego State
Things can change almost overnight in college football, and one need look no further than head coach Tim DeRuyter of Fresno State to see an example of this. In his first two years on the job, he guided the Bulldogs to two Mountain West titles, one shared, and one outright. However, since the start of last season, his Bulldogs are just 7-11. Part of the reason for the decline is that both his quarterback and top receiver from those first two teams are now in the NFL. Give DeRuyter credit for staying in Fresno after his studs left town, but hopefully this doesn't torpedo his career like it did for Chris Lowery (different sport I know, but the general narrative fits). It appears Zack Greenlee will be quarterbacking the Bulldogs on Saturday night. He was suspended for the last game after being arrested for public drunkenness (kids these days). Fresno will face a fellow Mountain West team that has also lost three consecutive games. Both teams have posted poor numbers in the early going, but Fresno has the valid excuse that they have faced a pair of top-ten teams (Ole Miss and Utah). San Diego State has faced a pair of Power Five teams, but Cal and Penn State don't appear to be quite as stout as the Rebels and Utes. Oh, and they lost at home to a Sun Belt team. The logic behind this pick is that San Diego State should not be favored by more than a touchdown against any FBS school. Take the Bulldogs to keep this one close.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

It was bound to happen, and last week it did. I suffered my first losing week. Thankfully, it wasn't a horrific performance, as I managed a 3-4 record. The goal is to only look foolish once a week, and well, I looked foolish at least twice. My humblest apologies for believing in Auburn and South Carolina. I'll try and do better this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 13-8

Bowling Green -1 Purdue
This spread appears almost too good to be true. After a somewhat disappointing first season under Dino Babers (where they still won the MAC East and a bowl game), the Falcons have played well through a quarter of the 2015 season. The Falcons have put up 30 points in each game (eclipsing 40 twice) and already own a win over Maryland of the Big 10. The Falcons are now 2-1 against Big 10 foes under Babers and will look to make it three of four in West Lafayette. Here is what we know about these teams. Bowling Green is good enough to move the ball against an SEC team, good enough to beat a middling Big 10 team on the road, and good enough to challenge the reigning American Athletic Conference champion at home. What do we know about Purdue? They were good enough to hang with Marshall on the road (though Marshall has proven to be much weaker than they were last season), good enough to convincingly beat an FCS opponent, and good enough to be crushed at home by a Virginia Tech team playing with their backup quarterback. I can't for the life of me understand why this spread is so low. They say a sucker emcee is born every minute, and perhaps this spread will end up being made for such folk.

Syracuse +24 LSU
This is an interesting non-conference clash, and it marks the first time LSU and Syracuse have played in the regular season. The teams split two bowl games (one in the 60's and one in the 80's) and this will serve as the rubber match until Syracuse takes the return trip to Baton Rouge in 2017. By then, we'll be almost a year through the first term of the Trump presidency, so who knows if the world as we know it will still exist. I'm taking the Orange here because LSU is bound to suffer a letdown after their beatdown of Auburn last week. Leonard Fournette treated the Auburn Tigers like a JV squad grinding out 228 yards on the ground while averaging twelve yards per rush. The talent disparity screams LSU blowout, but I think the Tigers will be a tad disinterested in facing a non-conference opponent early in the Eastern Time Zone. Plus, LSU has not covered as a double-digit road favorite since their fantastic 2011 season. Take the Orange to cover here in a surprisingly competitive game.

Northern Illinois +4 Boston College
On Friday, Boston College turned in a phenomenal defensive performance in holding Florida State to under four yards per play and just a single offensive touchdown in a 14-0 loss. The next day, Northern Illinois may have done then one better in holding Ohio State under 300 yards at The Horseshoe. Alas, both teams failed to pull off large upsets thanks to their offensive struggles. Boston College was held to 195 yards and could not get on the scoreboard against the Seminoles. Northern Illinois averaged less than three yards per play against the Buckeyes, and employed some cowardly tactics in their 20-13 loss. Despite their apparent apathy toward actually winning the game against the Buckeyes, Northern Illinois is 3-2 against Power Five opponents under head coach Rod Carey and 4-1 against the number. Boston College has already dropped a home game to a Group of Five opponent under Steve Addazio, so an upset here would not stop the presses. Look for the Huskies to keep this one close and eke out another win for the MAC against the big boys.

Florida International +14.5 Louisiana Tech
The Panthers from Florida International have been one of the more pleasant surprises from outside the power conferences. After a dreadful start under Ron Turner in 2013, the Panthers improved to 4-8 last season, and are 2-1 in 2015 with a closer than it looked loss to Indiana their only blemish. The Panthers have one of the better mid-major defenses, holding a prolific Indiana attach to just over five yards per play. Louisiana Tech is a strong mid-major as well, taking Kansas State to overtime in their trip to Manhattan this past weekend. The Bulldogs are quarterbacked by former Florida scapegoat signal caller Jeff Driskel and have a dynamic running back in Kenneth Dixon who is currently averaging over seven yards per carry. The Bulldogs may have the star power and the homefield, but the Panthers are 5-1 against the number as a road underdog since the beginning of last season. I would be extremely surprised if this game is decided by more than a touchdown.

Eastern Michigan -2.5 Army
I was all in on Eastern Michigan last week and things were looking good early on as they jumped out to a 17-0 lead against Ball State before allowing four unanswered touchdowns. I still think Eastern Michigan is one of the more improved teams in the nation and are primed for their second win of the year as a winless Army squad comes to town. The Black Knights have lost three tight games to begin their second season under Jeff Monken. Of course, the competition in those three games has not exactly been elite competition. Fordham, Connecticut, and Wake Forest are not typically found in the upper-reaches of the college football polls. This is a unique spot for Eastern Michigan, as they have not been favored against an FBS team since 2011. Three consecutive 2-10 seasons will do that to you. Army is better than their record, but Eastern Michigan should be able to take advantage of Army's leaky defense and win this one by at least a field goal.

Missouri +3 Kentucky
Missouri opens conference play after giving the nation one of the uglier games of the third week of college football. The Tigers outlasted the Connecticut Huskies 9-6 in a game that remarkably, featured no field goals. Despite their unaesthetic early performances (they edged Arkansas State by a touchdown the week before), the Tigers appear to have the Wildcats right where they want them. Since the beginning of the 2013 season, Missouri has been a road underdog five times. They have covered in all five games and won each outright. In fact, Missouri is 10-1 against the number since 2013 on the road. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that Missouri has not lost a true road game (they lost both SEC Championship Games they appeared in) since facing Johnny Manziel in 2012. I'm having a hard time figuring out how Kentucky is favored in this game. Take the Tigers to continue their winning ways on the road.

Ball State +18.5 Northwestern
Northwestern closes their non-conference season when they host Ball State on Saturday night. After a pair of disappointing 5-7 seasons, the Wildcats have beaten two Power 5 foes in their first three games and are currently ranked 17th in the latest AP Poll. The Wildcats have played outstanding defense in their first three games, holding Stanford, Eastern Illinois, and Duke to just 16 combined points and less than four yards per play. With no cross-division games against Michigan State or Ohio State, Northwestern appears to be a real threat to win the Big 10 West. Despite lauding the Wildcats for their performance thus far, I think Ball State is a good play. For starters, despite their fine defensive play through the first three games, the Wildcats have only scored 16 and 19 points respectively against the two FBS opponents they have faced. In addition, after upsetting Duke last week, and with their conference opener against Minnesota on tap next week, the Wildcats could be in prime letdown position here. Plus Ball State is 8-3 against the number under head coach Pete Lembo as a double-digit road underdog. They are also 5-2 against the number versus Power 5 foes under Lembo with three outright upsets. I don't think they can pull off the outright win here, but they should cover.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

Before I recap last week, I first want to give a shout out to cowardly Jacksonville State coach John Grass. With the ball at his own 35-yard line in a tie game against heavily favored Auburn, Grass wisely chose to take a knee and play for overtime. I can only hope that come March a scrappy 14th seed finds themselves tied in the closing seconds with a heavily favored major conference foe in the NCAA tournament and chooses to dribble out the shot clock and play for overtime. Full disclosure, my buddy texted me a pic of the Cowardly Lion after Jacksonville State employed that strategy. I don't have many friends as it is, and I didn't want to lose one for passing their stuff off as my own.

Pictured: John Grass calling plays in the final minute (and also B*tch Jones kicking a 19-yard field goal).

Last week was phenomenally successful as I posted a 6-1 mark. Be sure to fade my picks this week if you are interested in making money. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall: 10-4

Air Force +26.5 Michigan State
When I was first perusing this week's spreads, this one stuck out to me. It just screamed letdown. Instead of just assuming a team coming off a marquee victory would suffer a letdown, I decided to comb through the data and see what the numbers said. Last week, as you may have heard, Michigan State beat a fellow top-10 team in the Oregon Ducks. Since 2012, the winner of a top-10 matchup has been favored 19 times in their next game. Those teams went just 4-13-2 against the spread. If we break those numbers down even further, double-digit favorites are just 1-10-2 against the number. This seems to imply the betting public is paying a premium on for these highly ranked teams the following week. Air Force is a competent team with a funky offense and this game is at high noon on Saturday. Look for Air Force to hang around against the Spartans.

Eastern Michigan +6 Ball State
This blog (usually) without exception roots for the down trodden, and there is no more down trodden than the Eagles from Eastern Michigan. Two weeks into 2015 though, is there a ray of hope in Ypsilanti? The Eagles opened by covering at home against Old Dominion and followed that up with a road win against Wyoming. Granted, the competition has not been great, but for a team with just one winning season since 1995, this represents significant progress. Now the Eagles return home from their trip to the Cowboy State and open conference play against Ball State. The Cardinals are also returning from a westward road trip (or was it southeast?), albeit one with vastly different results. Of course, the competition was a tad stronger. Ball State gave up 56 points to the Aggies, but perhaps more concerning, a week prior they gave up 36 points and allowed over seven yards per play to VMI of the FCS. Two games in, Ball State appears to have a very leaky defense, and this may in fact be the best Eastern Michigan offense we have seen (or haven't seen based on the attendance in their opener) in quite some time. This should be an entertaining, high-scoring affair, and I for one will have ESPN3 queued up at 3:00. Fly Eagles fly!

Auburn +7.5 LSU
In my mini-rant I already touched on Auburn's struggles last week against Jacksonville State. Still, despite their best efforts, Auburn did win the game. And as I discovered last summer, that means they could provide some value. While Auburn fans were biting their nails, LSU fans were doing the same as a missed Mississippi State field goal allowed the Tigers to escape Starkville with a win. In that game, Les Miles does what he always seems to do: win, but not cover. I posted this two and a half years ago and decided I would provide an update to the stats here. Miles is now 33-45-3 against the spread versus SEC foes (regular season only) as head coach at LSU. That works out to a winning percentage (or cover percentage) of .423. And if we remove the phenomenal 2011 season when LSU was 7-1 against the number versus the SEC, his record drops to 26-44-3 (.371 cover percentage). I know your eyes are begging you to take LSU, but while Auburn's offense has sputtered in the early going, their defense has been much improved over their poor 2014 numbers. Plus, LSU quarterback Brandon Harris threw just 14 passes last week and averaged just north of five yards per pass. If Auburn can contain stud running back Leonard Fournette, this could turn into a defensive battle (hopefully not one this epic). I don't know if Auburn can win in Death Valley, but they provide pretty good value here.

Indiana -1.5 Western Kentucky
Last week I picked Indiana and they covered at home as a seven and a half point favorite. However, with a late long interception return touchdown, it was kind of a frontdoor cover. The win meant Indiana opened 2-0 for just the second time under Kevin Wilson. With a victory against the Hilltoppers, the Hoosiers would be halfway to bowl eligibility and would be 3-0 for the first time since 2010. The Hoosiers were somewhat stymied by Florida International last week (the Panthers may end up with one of the better mid-major defenses) in averaging just over five yards per play. Offense should not be a problem against the Hilltoppers as they just finished allowing north of seven yards per play in a close home win over Louisiana Tech. I'm not mad if you watched the NFL's opening night and missed that Conference USA clash. I expect this one to look a lot like that one. Both Indiana and Western Kentucky should pile up the yards and points, and this should be an entertaining game. With a spread this small, Indiana should be able to cover unless they are looking ahead to their massive showdown with my alma mater next weekend.

South Carolina +16.5 Georgia
As has often been the case for the past few seasons, this game has huge ramifications in the SEC East. A Georgia win all but eliminates the Gamecocks from contention. On the other hand, a South Carolina upset would give the preseason favorite a conference loss and give hope to conference mates in Columbia (the other one), Gainesville, Knoxville, and Lexington?! For South Carolina, being an underdog this large is relatively uncharted territory. Last season, the Gamecocks were two-touchdown underdogs at Auburn, but before that game, the last time they were catching double-digits on the road was 2009 against Alabama! Overall, Spurrier has been a double-digit road underdog eight times in his tenure at Columbia. He is 6-2 against the number. Plus, South Carolina has been pretty competitive in each of their trips to Athens under Spurrier. They have won two of five games and their largest margin of defeat was just eleven points. Georgia fans, lest you worry too much about a Gamecock win, while he is 6-2 versus the spread as a double-digit road underdog, Spurrier's teams have won outright just once.

Old Dominion +18.5 NC State
NC State has had some pretty soft non-conference schedules as of late, and this year is no exception with two Sun Belt teams, a Conference USA squad, and an FCS school on the slate. However, I will give the Wolfpack some credit for going on the road against a team that has adapted quite well to FBS life. Head coach Bobby Wilder has guided the Monarchs since they rebooted their football program in 2009 and has never had a losing season with two FCS playoff appearances. This marks the first time Old Dominion has hosted a Power 5 program so the atmosphere should be electric at cozy Foreman Field. NC State has not been a double-digit road favorite since 2004 and are just 1-7 against the number as a road favorite since 2010. I won't predict an outright Monarch victory, but NC State will be challenged here.

Texas +6.5 Cal
I understand why everyone is throwing dirt on the Texas Longhorns. They looked absolutely atrocious against Notre Dame. However, they looked significantly better against Rice. I know it was Rice, I know most of the country was watching other games during this window, and I know the Longhorns were outgained by nearly 200 yards. However, on a per play basis, Texas dominated the Owls (as they should) by averaging nearly two and a half more yards per play. They also got much better quarterback play with Jerrod Heard looking like a competent FBS player. On the other sideline, Cal does not have any quarterback issues. After throwing for nearly 4000 yards last season, Jared Goff has torched an FCS and a Mountain West defense and currently ranks fifth nationally in averaging 11.3 yards per pass. However, before we fill up the Cal bandwagon, let's consider a few things. Under Sonny Dykes, Cal has three road wins in two plus seasons. Those road wins came against Northwestern (5-7 record), Washington State (3-9), and Oregon State (5-7). In addition, only one of those wins came by more than a touchdown. Cal has looked better than the Longhorns through the first two games of the season, but the Bears have played a much lighter schedule to date and this represents their first road game. Take the Horns to keep this one close.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Magnificent Seven: Week II

The first weekend of the college football season was a successful one. While I gave you a few duds (sorry if you took Georgia Southern against West Virginia), three of my underdog picks won outright. Hooray! A 4-3 week is nothing to sneeze at. It will probably just get worse from here. Looking at these picks, there are probably way too many road underdogs selected. However, as the recently departed Joaquin Andujar once said: "There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, 'You never know'." As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 4-3

Utah State +13.5 Utah
The first thing I'd like to point out about this Beehive State showdown is the toll injuries appear to have taken on Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton. The quarterback who led Utah State to a bowl in 2011 and a conference title in 2012 has suffered season-ending injuries in each of the past two seasons. Here are Keeton's numbers from 2011-2013 contrasted with his (truncated) numbers from the past two seasons.

2011-2013: 66.5% completion percentage, 7.67 yards per pass, 56 TDs, 13 Ints
2014-2015: 53.6% completion percentage, 4.29 yards per pass, 2 TDs, 5 Ints

Keeton and the Aggies failed to score an offensive touchdown in their first game, with a punt return touchdown providing the winning margin against Southern Utah of the FCS. Despite the offensive struggle, the defense was its usual dominant self, holding the Thunderbirds to just one touchdown and under three yards per play. The defense will need an encore against a Utah team riding high after spoiling Jim Harbaugh's Michigan's debut. Despite the apparent mismatch here, I like the Aggies as they will be motivated against their in-state 'big brother' and have covered in three of their last four trips to Sack Lake City (and the non-cover was a four-point loss).

South Florida +27.5 Florida State
I know it was an FCS foe, but South Florida scored 51 points on Saturday in their victory over Florida A&M. The 51 points represented the most the Bulls have scored in 25 games under Willie Taggert and is the most points they have scored since scoring 52 on UTEP in 2011. In addition, the Bulls have never scored more than 55 points in any two game stretch under Taggert. Suffice to say, unless things go very poorly in Tallahassee, they should exceed that number. The Seminoles started out rather sluggishly in their first game without Jameis Winston, leading Texas State 21-10 at the half before scoring 38 second half points in a blowout win. The kickoff time for this game is 11:30 EST on Saturday, so another slow start for Florida State would not be surprising here. Plus, South Florida has covered both previous games with the Seminoles (including one outright win) and are 5-1 against the number under Taggert as a double-digit road underdog.

Eastern Michigan +13.5 Wyoming
Craig Bohl's jump from FCS powerhouse to FBS also-ran has been a bit bumpy. After guiding North Dakota State to three consecutive national titles, Bohl took his talents to Laramie and the results thus far have not been up to his usual standards. The Cowboys went 4-8 in his first season, including losing seven of their last eight games. His second season began rather inauspiciously with a loss to North Dakota of the FCS. The Sioux are far from an FCS power, having gone 5-7 last season and owning just one winning season since 2010. Bohl may yet turn the Cowboys into winners, and it could very well happen, much to my dismay, as soon as this weekend. On the other sideline, perpetual loser Eastern Michigan lost yet again last week, but hung with Old Dominion in a tight loss. Though the Eagles gave up 38 points to Old Dominion, they allowed under six yards per play, something they did only twice last season. Baby steps people. Why do I like the Eagles here? I don't know. I think they made a great hire in Chris Creighton, but this might be more wishing, and hoping, and dreaming, and praying than rational analysis.

Kentucky +7.5 South Carolina
Full disclosure, I live in Columbia, so I watch a lot of South Carolina games and hear a lot about the Gamecocks on talk radio. With that being said, I didn't see a great deal of improvement on Thursday night. Yes, the Gamecocks didn't allow more than 50 points at home. Yes, they held a (probably) potent offense to 13 points. Both valid points. However, dig a little deeper into the box score and notice that South Carolina allowed nearly seven yards per play to the Tar Heels. The Gamecocks kept the Tar Heels off the scoreboard thanks to red zone turnovers. Red zone turnovers are great for winning a game, but that is not the kind of high-wire act you want to rely on to win consistently. I would practically guarantee the Wildcats score at least 24 in Columbia. Speaking of the Wildcats, they needed a late score to get by Louisiana-Lafayette in Lexington. While the Wildcats squeaked by the Ragin' Cajuns, they actually led 21-0 and 33-10 and averaged over seven yards per play. South Carolina will have their hands full with the Wildcats on Saturday night.
Pictured: Jon Hoke and the Gamecock defense. 

Indiana -7.5 Florida International
You may have missed it with all the other action going on Thursday night, but Florida International had one of the quieter double-digit underdog upsets of the weekend. The Panthers beat their in-state rival Central Florida 15-14 by blocking a last second field goal. The Panthers have come a long way in Ron Turner's third season. In 2013, they were arguably the worst FBS team, and last season, despite improvement, they still lost to an FCS team. Now they head to the nation's heartland to face an Indiana team that narrowly avoided losing to an FCS team themselves. The Hoosiers bested Southern Illinois 48-47 when the Salukis failed on a last second two-point conversion. As has been the case for seemingly all of the Kevin Wilson era, the Hoosiers put up a lot of points, but also failed to prevent their opponents from doing the same. However, that narrow escape may serve to put some extra money in your pocket. As I famously mentioned last year, teams that avoid close calls against lower-division opponents have a phenomenal record against the number in their next game. Indiana should probably be closer to a two-touchdown favorite here. Florida International will score some points against the Hoosiers, but the final result will be a comfortable Indiana win.

Georgia State +6.5 New Mexico State
My logic for this game follows very similar logic to my notion to fade Georgia State last week when they were a touchdown favorite at home against Charlotte. That logic was that Georgia State should not be favored by a touchdown against any FBS team. I feel the same way about New Mexico State. Last season the Aggies and Panthers played an exciting game with New Mexico State getting a late touchdown to win 34-31. Alas, the game was buried on ESPN3. I think television ratings for this one will be comparable to last year's. In other words, I don't think the M*A*S*H record will be threatened. Last week didn't tell us a whole lot about these teams we didn't already know. Georgia State can't win games when their opponents score touchdowns on defense and New Mexico State is not better than Florida. I think this game will play out a lot like last year's. Expect more than 30 points for each side and a margin of victory of three or four points.

San Jose State +6.5 Air Force
What do we know about these two teams? We know they can trounce FCS teams. San Jose State crushed New Hampshire (where Chip Kelly made a name for himself) and Air Force bludgeoned Morgan State. We also know that last year, these two teams enjoyed vastly different fates. Air Force won ten games and yet another Commander in Chief Trophy, while San Jose State finished 3-9 with losses in their last six games. Personally, I thought San Jose State would be much improved this season as their Yards Per Play numbers were solid last season. Not great, but befitting a 6-6 or 5-7 team versus a 3-9 team. The first game provided no reason for me to stray from that opinion. Of course, this one might.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The Magnificent Seven: Week I

Rejoice dear readers, the season is nearly upon us. As I have done for the past eight seasons I will preview the week's upcoming games by picking some (formerly ten, and now seven) against the spread. Results so far have been hit or miss, but hope springs eternal. If nothing else, you might glean come insight into what is happening in the overlooked part of college football. Do I have too many road underdogs selected this week? Probably. Do I value your opinion? Probably not. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Western Kentucky +1 Vanderbilt
This line originally opened back in the summer with Vanderbilt as a field goal favorite, so the 'sharps' in Vegas have taken some of the value out of this line. However, I still like the Hilltoppers to give the Commodores a run for their money and eventually outlast them. Last season, Vanderbilt hosted three FBS teams from the Group of 5. They were big favorites over Temple and were blown out. They were huge favorites over Massachusetts and held on for dear life. And finally, they were a touchdown favorite over Old Dominion and won by 14. The cynic would point out that Old Dominion is pretty much a bargain basement version of Western Kentucky - a team with a powerful offense and suspect defense. With Vanderbilt likely to improve after last season's debacle, why expect anything different than a back and forth shootout eventually won by the Commodores? I for one believe a shootout is what we will have here. An average, yes average, Western Kentucky games featured more than 84 combined points last season! In fact, their last two games, both one point wins, featured 133 and 97 points respectively. While Vanderbilt is likely to improve over last season, at least in final record and overall performance, it should be noted they are breaking in a new defensive coordinator who also happens to be the head coach. Can Derek Mason pull double duty? Perhaps. However, Western Kentucky is not the type of team you want to face when breaking in a new defensive system. This is of course, the season's first game, so motivation (at least of the negative variety) should not be a factor here. However, one can be certain that Western Kentucky will be motivated to beat an SEC team for the third time in four seasons. Take the Hilltoppers to cover this small number and win the game outright.

Michigan +5.5 Utah
Am I drinking too much of the Jim Harbaugh Koolaid here? Perhaps. Just remember though, Jim Harbaugh turned Stanford from a Pac-10 bottom dweller into a bonafide national title contender. Plus, he made a white running back a Heisman finalist. All of that of course has minimal impact on Michigan's chances here. What does impact this game is the play of the Michigan defense, a unit that despite the offense's struggles last season still allowed under five yards per play (14th nationally). Playing a night road game against an inspired opponent could result in an avalanche that knocks Michigan out of this game early. However, I foresee a tight defensive struggle. I don't have the cajones to call for an outright Wolverine win here, but I think they will keep it close.

Charlotte +6.5 Georgia State
Welcome to FBS Charlotte! The 49ers will begin their foray into big-time college football against a team in just their third year of FBS play. For Georgia State, their FBS start has been inauspicious, to put it kindly. The Panthers have won just a single game since becoming an FBS member in 2013. That win came by a single point against Abilene Christian (a school transitioning from Division II to the FCS). In fact, their last victory by more than  point came nearly three years ago! They beat Rhode Island 41-7 in October of 2012. Playing your first FBS game has not been a death sentence the past few years. Since 2012, seven teams have begun play in the FBS. In their first game against a fellow FBS team, six were underdogs. Those six teams combined to go 5-1 against the number with a pair of outright upsets. I think this game will follow the same pattern. Charlotte will hang with the Panthers and cover, but fail to achieve an outright victory.

Northwestern +12 Stanford
I'm sure you already know this, but let me be the 50th person to tell you that these two schools rank in the top-15 of national universities. Suffice it to say, there should be some future engineers and hedge fund managers in the stands and perhaps on the field. On the field is what we care about here, and in that regard, Northwestern has disappointed over the past two seasons, going just 10-14. A 3-8 record in one-possession games has been a key contributor to this slide. Stanford also disappointed last year as they failed in their attempt to win three consecutive Pac-12 titles and lost five games for the first time since 2009. Stanford may well win the Pac-12 this season, but I think the Cardinal will struggle on the road against an unfamiliar opponent (these schools have not played since 1994).

Arkansas -33 UTEP
Arkansas is receiving quite a bit of hype for a team coming off a 7-6 season. Granted, most advanced stats had Arkansas as a very good team last year. However, the SEC West is not getting any easier. There are still seven very strong teams in the division. For a few weeks, Arkansas doesn't have to worry about that. They should be able to sleepwalk through this one and win by five touchdowns. Here's why. Under Bret Bielema, Arkansas is 3-1 against the number at home against mid-major programs. UTEP certainly fits the mid-major bill. While the Miners qualified for a bowl and finished with a winning record in Sean Kugler's second season, they were not very good. Five of their seven wins in 2014 came against teams that finished with losing records. Plus, under Kugler, the the Miners are a putrid 1-8 against the number as a double-digit road underdog. With a spread this large, the backdoor cover could certainly come into play, but I think Arkansas wins and covers easily.

Georgia Southern +19 West Virginia
Unlike their in-state brethren, Georgia Southern's transition to the FBS went quite well. The Eagles nearly upset a pair of ACC teams and went unbeaten in Sun Belt play all under a first year head coach. So what does Willie Fritz do for an encore? Well, to pull off a win against a Big 12 opponent, he will have to do so with a backup quarterback. Kevin Ellison was suspended for the first two games (the Eagles play fellow mid-major Western Michigan in their second game). Surprisingly, this spread did not budge despite that news. I think West Virginia is due for a modest decline this season as they are breaking in a new quarterback and will probably give back some of their outstanding defensive gains last season. Plus, the Mountaineers are 0-2 against the number as a double-digit home favorite the past two seasons. Georgia Southern played tight road contests against NC State and Georgia Tech last season and memorably beat Florida two years ago. They shan't be intimidated by the couch burners in Morgantown.

Virginia Tech +11 Ohio State
Care to hazard a guess as to how many times Virginia Tech has dropped their home opener since Frank Beamer took over the program in 1987? The answer is thrice. They fell to Clemson in 1987, Boston College in 1995, and quite memorably James Madison in 2010. Ohio State will probably mark the fourth such game, but methinks the Hokies will make them work for it. Despite their recent downtown over the past three seasons (22-17 record since 2012), the Hokies have still played quality defense under Bud Foster. They have ranked in the top quartile of scoring defense and yards per play allowed each season. Their offense has often been their Achilles' Heel. Though the offense does return eight starters including senior quarterback Michael Brewer, it may once again prevent them from being an elite team. Ohio State is an elite team, but they have been far from dominant as a road favorite under Meyer. As a road favorite, they are just 4-5 against the number and just 2-5 as a double-digit favorite. With the home crowd behind them, take the Hokies to cover here.
Foster. Australian for defense.