Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week I

The season is here folks. We will not be without college football again until the cold months of winter. Rejoice! As I have done for the past nine 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.

Oregon State +13 Minnesota
Older Oregon State fans are used to seasons like 2015. While the Beavers have had a solid run of success this century, playing in ten bowl games since 2000, the dam builders went nearly three decades without a winning season beginning in 1971. While 2015 was a struggle, in hindsight, it is easy to see why. For starters, the Beavers lost their coach as Mike Riley took the Nebraska job. Gary Andersen, his replacement, is no chump, but the coaching change compounded with the loss of their all-time leading passer, and a measly two returning starters on defense meant the Beavers were in for a long season. Things are looking up heading into 2016 though. For starters, the Beavers are in their second year with Andersen at head coach. Andersen also scored a coup in getting quarterback Darell Garretson to join him in Corvallis. Garretson saw playing time for Utah State in both 2013 and 2014 subbing for the oft-injured Chuckie Keeton and posted solid numbers. The Beavers will travel east with their new quarterback to take on another group of rodents. The Gophers are coming off their fourth consecutive bowl game (although the latest one probably deserves an asterisk). Minnesota was better than their 2-6 Big 10 mark last season, and in the likely parity filled Big 10 West, look to have a decent shot at getting to the Big 10 Championship Game for the first time. Minnesota has not done well in the role of a large favorite under the Kill/Claeys administration, putting up a 3-5 mark Against the Sread (ATS). Look for the Beavers to keep this one close as the season opens in earnest on Thursday.

Kansas State +16 Stanford
The Kansas State Wildcats have been a money-making machine for their backers since Bill Snyder made his return to Manhattan. As a road underdog, his Wildcats are a superb 15-7 (ATS) and 4-0 ATS (with a pair of outright wins) as a double-digit underdog since 2011. How does he do it? Well, for starters, the Wildcats score in unconventional ways. They also play at a plodding pace which is conducive to underdogs. Couple that with a little bit of luck, and you have a perfect recipe for springing some pretty big upsets. Can the Wildcats turn the trick again against a Stanford team that has cemented their place in the top-15 or so college football programs? Since Jim Harbaugh left to take the 49ers job following the 2010 season, all Stanford has done is win 54 games, three Pac-12 titles, and finish in the top-10 three times. They survived the loss of Harbaugh, Andrew Luck, Toby Gerhart, Trent Murphy, Ty Montgomery, and a host of other contributors. They will likely survive the loss of four-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan as well. However, breaking in a new quarterback against a team known for springing upsets makes me think Kansas State is a solid play here. Even in Palo Alto.

Georgia Tech -3 Boston College @ Dublin
Pop quiz. Who combined for more ACC wins last season: Georgia Tech and Boston College or Wake Forest and Syracuse? Well, the Demon Deacons and Orange actually tripled the combined win total for the Yellow Jackets and Eagles. Of course, that means they won only three conference games. Obviously, Georgia Tech and Boston College will win more than one combined conference game this season. In fact, if you believe preseason projections, they will both probably end up in a bowl game. Boston College was one of the most unbalanced teams last season, posting an excellent defense and terrible offense. The Eagles averaged just 3.77 yards per play against ACC foes (dead last in the conference), but allowed just 4.41 yards per play (second in the ACC). The Eagles offense will improve in 2016, especially with the addition of Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles. This is more a function of regression (or progression) to the mean as Towles did not set the football world aflame at Lexington. Alas, the defense will give back some of those gains as coordinator Don Brown left to take the same job at Michigan. In the follow-up to their Orange Bowl winning campaign, the Yellow Jackets struggled, losing eight of their final ten games (with the lone win coming in memorable fashion). The Yellow Jackets have a talented senior quarterback and are well-versed in Paul Johnson's option system. With even modest improvement on defense, they should return to contention in the Coastal Division. Georgia Tech will not run wild on the Eagles, but they should do enough to win this game by more than a field goal.

Western Michigan +6 Northwestern
Northwestern may not have been the worst ten-win team of all time last season, but they probably were the most offensively incompetent. The Wildcats averaged just over 19.5 points per game last season, and if we remove their games against Eastern Illinois and Ball State, that average drops to 17.2. Their per play numbers were not any prettier. They averaged just 4.25 yards per play against Big 10 opponents (last in the conference) and averaged more than six yards per play in just one game (Ball State). Now, the Wildcats were still able to win ten games thanks to their strong defense. They allowed just 18.6 points per game and in Big 10 action, they allowed the second fewest yards per play (4.61). Of course, the combination of putrid offense and good defense meant all three of their losses got out of hand. The good news for Northwestern is they are likely to improve on offense (it would be hard to be worse). However, they are also likely to decline on defense (it would be hard to be better). The end result should be a team of similar quality, but likely fewer wins as some of their close game luck (5-0 in one-score games) regresses to the mean. The Wildcats better be ready on opening weekend as they face a Western Michigan team looking for their first major scalp of the PJ Fleck era. The Broncos have won 16 games over the past two seasons, but only four of those wins have come against teams outside the MAC. While they are 0-7 under Fleck against Power 5 teams, they are 5-2 ATS. This is Western Michigan's best chance at their first win over a Big 10 team since 2008, and even if they don't win, they should cover.

Miami (Ohio) + 27.5 Iowa
While the Redhawks won an additional game in Chuck Martin's second season (three), the team regressed statistically mostly thanks to having just four starters returning on offense. The Redhawks averaged under 20 points per game for the third time in seven seasons, but did seem to improve as the year progressed. After averaging just over ten points per game in their first four MAC contests (all losses - go figure), the Redhawks averaged 25 points per game over their last four league games (of which they won two). Now the team returns ten starters and are in the third year of Martin's system, so the Redhawks can reasonably expect to field their best offense since 2005! Unfortunately, their non-conference schedule includes this clash with Iowa as well as a date with Western Kentucky and their annual battle with Cincinnati, so a bowl may not be on the horizon. For Iowa, a bowl game is expected, and the Hawkeyes will look to rebound from consecutive losses to end their magical 2015 season. The Hawkeyes famously finished without a loss in the 2015 regular season, but did not impress most advanced metrics. Their relatively weak schedule and spate of close wins did not seem to identify them as an elite team. Their Rose Bowl performance against Stanford reinforced that perception. Iowa is a better team than Miami, but asking them to beat the Redhawks by four touchdowns is probably asking too much. Iowa is just 2-6 ATS as a double-digit home favorite since 2012 and 6-15 ATS overall as a home favorite in that span. The Redhawks will put some points on the board and keep this one within four touchdowns.

Georgia -2.5 North Carolina @Atlanta
Believe it or not, these two southern foes separated by just one state have not faced each other since clashing in the Gator Bowl following the 1971 season. North Carolina will look to build on their Coastal Division title last season which saw them climb as eighth in the AP Poll and finish ranked for the first time since 1997. For Larry Fedora, the season cannot start soon enough, as he has certainly not won the offseason with his condescending comments to a female reporter and his curious defense of Tim Beckman's presence on the coaching staff (he has since resigned). For Georgia, the Bulldogs will begin the season with a head coach other than Mark Richt for the first time since 2000. Former Nick Saban assistant Kirby Smart has taken the reigns and will look to lead Georgia to their first SEC title since 2005. While the Tar Heels finished with the second highest Net YPP (my preferred rating system) in the ACC last season, those numbers were accumulated against an easy schedule. No other team in the Coastal boasted a positive Net YPP and the Tar Heels drew NC State (their permanent rival) and Wake Forest in their cross-division games. NC State ranked sixth in the ACC in Net YPP, but Wake Forest was dead last in the conference. Meanwhile, based on Net YPP in the SEC, Georgia was arguably the best team in the SEC East despite their disappointing season. You may remember North Carolina and their improved defense were last seen allowing a season's worth of rushing yards to Baylor in Art Briles' final game as coach. Of course, Georgia does not run the same type of offense as Baylor, but the Dawgs do have two of the country's best running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Chubb and Michel do have some injury concerns, but my guess is one or both will see action in this game. Even if they do not, Georgia has other talented backs to carry the rock. North Carolina has a checkered history against non-conference BCS/Power 5 foes under Fedora, going 2-6 straight up and just 3-5 ATS. While some of those losses have come to good teams, like South Carolina in 2013, they have also dropped games to Rutgers and last year's version of South Carolina. Clemson and Florida State (and maybe Louisville) are the only teams I currently trust in the ACC/SEC clashes. Take the Dawgs to cover this small number.

Wyoming +10 Northern Illinois
The rebuild in Laramie has gone a little slower than Craig Bohl probably hoped when he left North Dakota State. While the Bison have continued their winning ways, extending their streak to five consecutive national titles, Wyoming has gone just 6-18 under Bohl (just 4-12 in the Mountain West). Meanwhile, Northern Illinois has continued their unprecedented run of success in the MAC. While the Huskies failed to win ten games in 2015 for the first time since 2009, they still managed to win their sixth consecutive MAC West title. Can the Huskies make it lucky number seven? They will certainly be battle tested when MAC play starts in October. While the Huskies do not have any Power 5 teams on the schedule, they do play one of the stronger teams in the American (South Florida) on the road and host the defending Mountain West champion (San Diego State). But first, they have a tricky trip to the Cowboy State. Wyoming actually plays their home games at over 7000 feet above sea level, the highest in the FBS. I think the thin air will give the Cowboys a serious advantage in keeping this game close. Plus, Northern Illinois has not exactly dominated in non-conference road games against non-Power 5 foes of late. While the sample size is small, keep in mind Northern Illinois won by just a point in 2012 at Army (that would be the same Huskie team that played in the Orange Bowl) and then in 2013 in the midst of their 12-0 start, the Huskies won by just ten at a bad Idaho team. The Huskies will get all they can handle from a Wyoming team returning 17 starters.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

An Intro to College Football

College football starts in two days with a game in Australia. Do you find college football interesting, but are a little confused as to the ins and outs of the game and the culture? Well, then take a gander at this primer. I'll tackle three of the bigger aspects of college football: the coaches, the officials, and the conferences. Enjoy.

So you want to coach college football eh? Do you have what it takes? Like a quiz in Cosmo (not that I know what that is), this chapter determines if you have the skills necessary to lead and mold young men while making more than a million dollars per year.
1. Are you male? This is perhaps the most important question. The intricacies of football are far too complicated to be understood by someone without a Y chromosome. Women can be doctors, lawyers, and perhaps even presidents, but we draw the line at football coach.
2. Are you white? This is arguably the second most important quality a head football coach can possess. Despite being comprised mostly of young minorities, studies have shown football teams tend to respond best to the prodding of a middle aged or older white coach. I’m not going to sugarcoat this, the road to becoming a head coach is much tougher if you are black or Hispanic (or one of the other races, I don’t know I don’t write the census), but do not lose heart, as you can become an interim coach if your boss gets fired.
3. Did you play football? Only someone who has played the game can understand the complexities of football. It is preferable that you at least walked on to an FBS program or played small college ball. However, if you were good enough to play professionally, this can hinder your chances at becoming a head coach. Of course, assuming you answered ‘Yes’ to the second question, there’s a good chance you did not play professionally.
4. Do you like exploiting unpaid labor? Technically, athletes are paid with scholarships and some are now even given real cash for the massive time commitments they give to their sport. You need to be comfortable berating them on national television for any mistake they may make. You also need to have little concern for their well-being. If you think they may have a concussion, send them back in the game. You can always make the excuse that you were ‘busy’ with other aspects of coaching. Also, the phrase ‘Rub some dirt on it’ should be something you say often.
5. Have you developed a new derivative or use of the work f*ck? Being a master of the most colorful word in the English language is vitally important.
6. Are you intensely competitive, enjoy working crazy hours, and don’t mind not seeing your family? Football coaches have to be at the office at 3 AM everyday to watch film. As I stated before, football is a complicated game. Your family can see you in the offseason when you are not recruiting or looking for other jobs. Basically, any trait that would make you a bad friend, coworker, or person in general will serve you well as a football coach.
7. Do you hate the media? Everybody knows the (liberal) media is out to get you. You have a team to coach. Be mildly dismissive or totally dismissive of people just doing their job who make a tenth of what you do.
8. Do you like to smooze with boosters? Trick question. No one likes this, but you have to do it anyway.
9. Do you enjoy lying to impressionable youth? This will serve you well in two areas. The first is recruiting. ‘Yes Johnny, you are the only quarterback we are recruiting this year.’ The second is when your name comes up for head coaching vacancies. ‘I intend to stay at ______ for the remainder of my career.’
 10. Do you enjoy not being held accountable and looking the other way? When a scandal erupts, it is important that you have plausible deniability. ‘I did not know the graduate transfer was a member of Sadam Hussein’s imperial guard.’ ‘You mean they don’t give crab legs away for free?’
11. Do you like making excuses? Sooner or later, no matter your circumstances, you will lose a game. A good coach will say he doesn’t have enough good players. A great coach will say he has too many good players who are distracted by the NFL (see Saban, Nick).
12. Are you bad at math? The game of football moves so fast. There are only 20 or 30 seconds of downtime between plays. It is hard to make quick decisions. The scoring system is weird. Touchdowns are worth six points, field goals are worth three, safeties two. And safety is also a position. Ugh, I’m confused already. Plus the clock counts down instead of up. How many seconds are in a minute? How many timeouts do we have left? Rest assured, you will either butcher the clock or go for two points (or not go for two points) at the wrong time. When this happens, remember to go back to question 7. Call the press conference a ‘witch hunt’ and walk out. Be sure to make some obscure references to Pablo Escobar, the faked Moon landing, or Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
If you answered ‘Yes’ to around eleven of these questions, you probably have what it takes to lead a group of young men into battle and teach them life lessons around football. Perhaps the most important lesson you can teach them is to never trust anyone because the second another school offers you a 3% raise, you are outta there buddy.

This is the worst part of college football. Like other sports, college football needs a group of unbiased arbitrators to make rulings during live action. The last section sought to determine if you had what it takes to coach football. If you don’t think you can cut it coaching, perhaps you could officiate at these events.
1. Are you male? This is perhaps the most important question. The intricacies of football are far too complicated to be understood by someone without a Y chromosome. Women can be doctors, lawyers, and perhaps even presidents, but we draw the line at football official. Yes, this is mostly cut and pasted from the previous section. I have a deadline.
2. Are you old? College football is played by athletic freaks between the ages of 18-23 (unless you are BYU). Who better to keep up with these wunderkinds than men with orthopedic issues, ocular degeneration, or cognitive impairment? Extra points if you are slightly pudgy.
 3. Are you bad at communicating? Turn your mic on when addressing the crowd. Turn it off when not. Seems simple enough. Also, when you make a controversial call at the end of a game, be sure to run off the field and not offer any explanation. That about does it. The requirements to be an FBS official are not high. Just don’t be young or female.

The Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) has ten conferences and a small group of independents. The conferences are divided into two groups: The Power Five (don’t call them a cartel) and the Group of Five (don’t call them mid-majors). The Power Five has access to the best bowls, best television contracts, and the College Football Playoff. However, they do throw the Group of Five a bone and allow their highest ranked member to play in one of the New Year’s Six bowls. Among the independents, Notre Dame is considered a Power Five team thanks to the Catholics that control this country (thank you very much John Fitzgerald Kennedy). This section will briefly discuss all ten conferences and their respective histories.

The Power Five
Atlantic Coast Conference
The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) formed in 1953 when members from the Southern Conference were tired of being confused with Southern Comfort when people used the term ‘SoCo’. All the league’s members were on the southern east coast of the United States, hence the Atlantic Coast in the moniker. The conference has historically been associated with basketball, but in an effort to get football elitists (i.e. SEC fans) to take them seriously, they added perennial power Florida State in the early 90’s. A decade later the conference expanded again to get in on that lucrative championship game money the SEC and Big 12 were hogging. It worked out very well early on when traditional powers Wake Forest and Georgia Tech met in the 2006 ACC Championship Game that broke numerous records for television viewership. The game’s prestige and attendance continued to climb the next two seasons when Boston College played in the game despite their campus being roughly 8000 miles from the game site in Jacksonville. The league expanded again in 2013 when Pittsburgh from the coastal state of Pennsylvania and Louisville from the coastal state of Kentucky joined Syracuse from upstate New York to give the league 14 members.

Big 10
The Big 10 is the oldest of the Power Five conferences with the league having been technically formed in the late 19th century. They have been supplying the country with their brand of Midwestern slog for more than 100 years. Like the ACC, they got the urge to expand in the 90’s and added a traditional independent football power in Penn State. The Nittany Lions would prove to be a great addition to the conference and have not embarrassed them in the least or had any type of scandal regarding an assistant coach over the succeeding two and a half decades. Despite having eleven teams, the Big 10 stubbornly refused to change their name and when conference expansion heated up in the 00’s, they added Nebraska. Not being content with twelve teams, the conference went on one more buying spree where they purchased Maryland from the ACC and got Rutgers from the American. Despite numerous efforts to return the Scarlet Knights or at least exchange them for an item of equal or lesser value, the American Athletic Conference stood firm by their ‘No Returns’ policy.

Big 12
Back in the halcyon days of yore, big money boosters could surreptitiously drop some hundred dollar bills in the hands of recruits or current players and no one said anything. Alas, the corruption and vice eventually led to the demise of the Southwest Conference. As the same implies, the Southwest Conference featured a group of rag tag outfits from Texas and Arkansas. Arkansas saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship for the SEC in the early 90’s (yes a team from the Southwest Conference moved to the Southeastern Conference). The league held on for a few more years, but eventually folded after the 1995 season. In the midst of this tribulation, the Big 8, a Midwestern league with no controversies or off the field problems to speak of, threw a quartet of members a life preserver. Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech were invited to merge with the Big 8 and form, wait for it, the Big 12. The other members of the Southwest Conference were left to fend for themselves. Rest assured, there are still no hard feelings. Things were great until the late 00’s when some schools thought the Texas Longhorns wielded too much power. Nebraska, tired of being mediocre in the Big 12, decided to be mediocre in the Big 10. Colorado, tired of sucking in the Big 12, decided to suck in the Pac-12. Shortly thereafter, Missouri and Texas A&M decided they were now in the southeast and decided to join the Southeastern Conference. After losing those four members, the Big 12 invited former Southwest Conference member and current conference nomad TCU to join. TCU made them ask nicely, but eventually accepted the offer. The Big 12 also decided they needed their students to miss even more class time (especially in nonrevenue sports), so they added a team on the other side of the country in West Virginia. The Mountaineers gladly accepted as they had just signed up for the Capital One Venture Card with no blackout dates. The Big 12 is widely regarded as the most stable conference in the nation.

Pacific 12
The Pacific 12, or Pac-12 for short, started life as the Pac-8. The conference saw the need to add a few teams that were in the western time zone, but not really on the coast, so Arizona and Arizona State joined in the 70’s. The Pac-10 as it was now known held steady for the rest of the twentieth century. Upon hearing that Colorado was ready to get out of their relationship with the Big 12, they offered the Buffalos membership. Finally, needing a twelfth team to host a lucrative championship game, the league decided to call up Utah from the ranks of the mid-majors. The Utes gladly accepted and the conference now has twelve teams. Sorry for the lack of sarcasm and jokes here. Pac-12 games usually kickoff after I have entered REM sleep.

Southeastern Conference
The Southeastern Conference, or SEC as they are often called, is the mecca of college football conferences. If you don’t believe they are the best, just ask their fans. With little education, poor job prospects, and brutally hot summers, SEC fans cling to the one thing they can depend: being the best football conference in the nation (because Alabama won the national title). In one of life’s little ironies, on a typical college football Saturday, racist white men will sit in the stands and cheer on a team of mostly African-American players. But I digress. The SEC became the first conference to stage a championship game in 1992 after adding South Carolina and Arkansas. The premier event, held annually in the Georgia Dome (after a brief appearance in Birmingham), is broadcast nationally on CBS and is typically not very competitive. The SEC now includes a team from Missouri and Texas, so while the South may not rise again, it will at least extend westward.

The Group of Five
 American Athletic Conference
A conference known as the Big East once played football. This conference stretched from Miami to Syracuse with a number of hamlets in between from the cozy (Blacksburg) to the densely populated (Philadelphia). The conference was raided by the ACC in the early 00’s so the league responded by raiding other conferences (Conference USA for example). Finally, after the 2013 season, the Big East was read last rites. The conference does live on as a basketball entity for private Catholic schools. The football playing schools added a few members, including the Naval Academy in 2014, changed their name, and now have their own championship game.

Conference USA
In the mid-90’s being an independent in football was no longer en vogue. After the cool kids (Florida State, Miami, and Penn State) joined conferences in the early part of the decade, poseurs like Cincinnati and Southern Miss started feeling kinda lonely. So they decided to start their own conference. The league’s membership would shift dramatically over the new two decades based on the whims of the bigger conferences. The ACC would raid the Big East. The Big East would raid Conference USA. Conference USA would raid the WAC or the Sun Belt or stand there and take it like a man. The league has had a championship game since 2005 that you probably have not watched.

Mid-American Conference
The Mid-American Conference or MAC, as in return of, is the oldest mid-major conference thanks to the dissolution of the WAC. Have you ever wished that Big 10 teams were not as good, but more fun to watch? Then the MAC is the conference for you. Their teams mostly play in the Big 10 footprint (i.e. the worst part of the country to live in for nine months out of the year) and can often be seen on an ESPN affiliated network on Tuesday or Wednesday night.

Mountain West
When I began watching football, the Western Athletic Conference, or WAC always played entertaining games late on Saturday night. The league was ahead of its time as it expanded to 16 teams in 1996 and became the first non-power conference to host a championship game. Alas, 16 proved too large a number, and the better teams left the conference to form the Mountain West in 1999. The WAC stayed afloat in one form or another, adding teams here or there before finally dissolving after the 2012 season. The Mountain West served as a landing strip for a few of those teams left in the WAC. The others went the independent route or joined the Sun Belt. Speaking of…

Sun Belt 
Technically, the American Athletic Conference is the newest mid-major conference, but we all know it is really just the Big East Part II. My vote for newest mid-major goes to the Sun Belt which began play in 2001. If you just recently created a football program or are a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school looking to move up, then the Sun Belt is the perfect landing spot for you.

There are currently only four FBS teams not affiliated with a conference. They are Army, Brigham Young, Massachusetts, and Notre Dame. Before the 90’s you couldn’t throw a stone across this great country of ours without hitting a team enjoying the status of an independent, unencumbered by the weight of conference obligations. Alas, their numbers are steadily shrinking and the remaining independents are either religious institutions (BYU and Notre Dame), a service academy (Army), or a program no one wants (Massachusetts).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What Does it Take to be Ranked?

One of my favorite aspects of college football is the poll system. It is a fun, flawed way to look at how those who (allegedly) closely follow the sport view certain teams. Many professional sports websites have their own ‘power polls’ that track who a given columnist believes is the best team. However, there is no ‘official’ body that conducts a poll of the best professional sports teams for a given season. College basketball also has a poll, but polls are more valued in college football. A top-ten ranking in college basketball means little to a team that flames out early in March Madness. Meanwhile, a top-ten ranking in college football is still worn as a badge of honor even if a team loses their bowl game. With this in mind, I wanted to take a semi-statistical analysis overview of polls in college football. More specifically, I wanted to answer the question: What exactly does it take for a team to be ranked? The next paragraph will outline the methodology if you are interested. Otherwise, skip on down.

I looked at the final AP Poll data for the eleven year period of 2005-2015 and identified the number of losses by each team ranked in the final poll. I used the AP Poll for no other reason than because it is easily available at sports-reference.com/cfb. I used the final AP Poll because it was much easier to look at one poll per year for eleven years than a weekly poll in the same period. I used the period beginning with 2005 because that is when the first era of modern realignment began. The ACC hosted their first title game and the Big East began life in its final form after raiding Conference USA. In addition, college football schedules have been pretty uniform (in length if not quality) since 2005. Schools played eleven regular season games in 2005 and have played twelve each season beginning with 2006.

Here are the number of teams from each of the Power 5/BCS conferences that have finished ranked with a certain number of losses in the past eleven seasons.
If you play in a Power 5 or BCS conference and you finish with two or fewer losses, congrats. You will finish in the final poll even if you lack a great football history. If you finish with three losses, there is a pretty good chance you will finish ranked. Lose four games and you are still better than 2:1 odds to finish in the final poll. However, lose one additional game and you can pretty much kiss your chances of finishing ranked goodbye. Speaking of, who was the highest ranked team of the last eleven years to finish with five losses? That would be a tie between South Carolina (2010) and Auburn (2014) at 22nd.

As you can see, I included each iteration of the Big East in this analysis because they were a BCS conference despite being diminished compared to their previous incarnation that included Miami and Virginia Tech. I also included the first season of the American Athletic Conference as they retained the Big East’s automatic BCS berth. While that year’s AAC champ actually won their BCS game and finished in the top-ten, there is a pretty good argument to be made they did not have the strength of a typical BCS conference. Here is the overall version of the previous table with the Big East and American Athletic Conference removed.
The results are a little different. Only a single team from a Power 5/BCS conference has not finished ranked with three of fewer losses. Care to guess who it was? It happened just last season and they play in what is widely regarded as the toughest conference. The Georgia Bulldogs. Home of The Hedges, Vince Dooley, and Herschel Walker apparently don’t get the benefit of the doubt from the national media. Once the Big East and American are removed, you still have a nearly eight in ten chance of finishing ranked with four losses. The percentage with five losses is relatively unchanged.

Here are the number of teams from each of the non-BCS/Group of 5 conferences that have finished ranked with a certain number of losses in the past eleven seasons. The two most recent seasons of the American, when they have not had access to an automatic BCS bowl berth are included. You should recognize the other five conferences and lets hold a moment of silence for the WAC.
If you do not play in a BCS/Power 5 conference and you want to guarantee you finish the season in the final poll, you have little margin for error. If you finish unbeaten or have just a single loss, a spot in the final poll is reserved for you. However, with two losses, there is a one in four chance you will not have a shiny number beside your name at the end of the season. A closer inspection of the table will show that as long as you don’t play in one of the very bottom leagues (MAC or Sun Belt), you should be alright with two losses. The only other team that failed to finish ranked with a pair of defeats was Fresno State (and they were walloped in their bowl game). Three losses means you should probably give up the dream of a ranked finish and if you lose four or more games, you can pretty much forget it.

Obviously this analysis failed to include some important variables: Teams that win their bowl game probably tend to finish ranked more often than teams that lose their bowl game despite having the same number of losses. Teams with a better scoring margin (more blowout wins and fewer blowout losses) probably tend to finish ranked more often than teams with a poorer scoring margin despite having the same number of losses. Teams that lose in a conference title game probably tend to finish ranked more often than teams that don’t reach their conference title game despite having the same number of losses. Those are just three that come to mind. I’m sure there are others. That being said, I was still a little disappointed, being a mid-major apologist and all, that non-BCS/Group of 5 teams had such a small margin for error in being ranked. Even if they are not ‘really’ one of the 25 best teams in the country, a poll ranking should be a ‘Gold Star’ congratulating them on a fine season despite systematic disadvantages. Here’s hoping Appalachian State or Georgia Southern can break the glass ceiling in 2016 and become the first ever Sun Belt conference member to finish the season ranked.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Strangers in the Field: II

Last year I went to Vegas and made a few bets. I made a little money (emphasis on little). So I decided, why not go back? 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.

Cincinnati over 7.5 wins -120 ($40 to win $33.35)
You know who had the best offense in the American last season (based on Yards per Play)? It wasn't Houston. It wasn't Memphis. It wasn't South Florida. It wasn't Navy. Obviously based on this bet, it was Cincinnati. The Bearcats limped to a 7-5 regular season and then were embarrassed on Christmas Eve by San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl. The Bearcats primary issues were on defense last season where they finished ninth in the twelve team American in Yards per Play and in regards to turnovers where they committed 23 in eight league games (second worst to UCF's 25). 16 of those were interceptions thrown by Gunner Kiel and Hayden Moore. The defense returns eight starters so there should be improvement on that side of the ball, and if Kiel and Moore can limit their mistakes, the Bearcats could be in for a special season in 2016. The non-conference schedule features a road game at Purdue and a home game against BYU, but an undefeated run outside of American action would not be too surprising. In conference play, the Bearcats get Houston, Memphis, and South Florida at home where they are 15-3 under Tommy Tuberville. If things break right, the Bearcats could find themselves in discussion for the Group of 5's NY6 bowl bid when the calendar turns to November. It wouldn't be the first time Tuberville enjoyed a fantastic season seemingly out of nowhere

Fresno State over 4 wins -115 ($40 to win $34.80)
Tim DeRuyter might be the poster child for why you want to leave a mid-major job too early rather than too late. During his first two years in charge of the Bulldogs, they went 20-6 with a pair of Mountain West titles (one shared). However, since Derek Carr and Davante Adams left following the 2013 season, the Bulldogs are 9-17. Last season, the Bulldogs finished 3-9, which was their lowest win total since 1978! Per Yards per Play, the Bulldogs had the worst offense in the Mountain West last season. However, some of that can be attributed to injuries at the quarterback position where two starters were lost for the season. With better health and improved play at the most important position, the Bulldogs should move closer to the middle of the conference on offense. Another reason for optimism is the non-conference schedule. Over the past two seasons, Fresno State faced, BYU, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Southern Cal, and Utah (twice) in non-conference play. The Bulldogs lost those six games by an average of 37 points! Nebraska is on the schedule again in 2016, but the other three non-conference games are against Sacramento State, Toledo, and Tulsa. Toledo and Tulsa were bowl squads last season, but the Bulldogs at least have hopes of finishing better than 1-3 in non-conference play. I think the Bulldogs will get to four wins, and a surprise bowl season would not surprise me.

Georgia Tech over 6.5 wins +125 ($40 to win $50)
I'll be honest, Paul Johnson is one of my favorite college football coaches. So I am probably a bit biased in making this bet. I love the fact that the triple option is being featured at a BCS/P5 school. And regardless of how Johnson's career ends in Atlanta, there is really no argument the option has worked. His offense has ranked in the top half of the ACC in terms of Yards per Play seven times in his eight seasons. The defense on the other hand, has been the Achilles Heal (Stinger?) for the Yellow Jackets. The defense has finished in the bottom half of the ACC seven times in his eight seasons. Now, he is culpable for their struggles on defense, be it poor recruiting, poor development, or bad hires at coordinator positions, but lets just remember the option can work at the BCS/P5 level. But I digress. The Yellow Jackets finished 3-9 last season, which marked their fewest wins since 1994. However, six of their nine defeats came by eight points or less. When a team loses that many one-score games, they usually improve the following season. Of course, Vegas expects Georgia Tech to improve. In fact, for this bet to cash, the Yellow Jackets have to more than double their 2015 regular season win total. Before bottoming out at 1-7 last season, Paul Johnson had developed a pretty consistent track record in conference play. Here are his conference won/loss records through his first seven seasons. 
If Johnson can guide the Yellow Jackets to a 4-4 league record, I feel pretty confident they will get to seven wins. Georgia and Georgia Southern will present a challenge in non-conference play, but home games against Mercer and Vanderbilt should be wins. Maybe this is the end of the line for Johnson at Georgia Tech. Maybe the quality of coaches in the ACC Coastal (Cutcliffe, Fedora, Fuente, Mendenhall, Narduzzi, and Richt) and his inability to field an above average defense will lead to a second consecutive losing season, but I think Johnson has a rebound in him even if I am a bit biased.

Kansas over 1.5 wins -155 ($40 to win $25.80)
Outside of NC State (see a few lines down) this is probably the wager I am most confident in. Make no mistake, Kansas is bad and should once again be the worst team in the Big 12, but even if they lose all their conference games, the Jayhawks have a good shot at cashing this ticket. They face Rhode Island (not only an FCS team, but a bad one) and Ohio in non-conference home games, so they may hit the over before mid-September. Even if they fall to Ohio, I feel pretty assured Kansas will pull off at least one upset in their last ten games. 

Maryland over 5 wins -120 ($40 to win $33.35)
After four and a half years of the milquetoast Randy Edsall, maybe Ralph Friedgen wasn't so bad eh? To replace Edsall, the Terrapins tabbed Michigan defensive coordinator DJ Durkin. Durkin is under 40, has worked for successful head coaches like Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, and filled out his staff with a few former FBS head coaches (Pete Lembo and Mike London). There is a lot to like here despite the fact that Maryland plays in the tougher Big 10 division and must endure annual clashes with Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State (to say nothing of Penn State). Still, the Terrapins were not as bad as their 1-7 Big 10 record would indicate last season and the non-conference schedule is very soft in 2016. The Terrapins do make the unusual double mid-major road trip when they travel south to Florida to take on FIU and UCF in back-to-back weeks. Even though those games are on the road, the Terrapins should finish non-conference play 3-0 and just need a pair of Big 10 wins to hit the push. Home games against Purdue and Rutgers should do the trick and I wouldn't be surprised if Maryland steals another game somewhere and finishes bowl eligible. 

NC State over 3 wins -120 ($25 to win $20.85)
Out of all the over under totals I saw in Sin City, this one was the most perplexing. Outside of Dave Doeren's first season in 2013, the Wolfpack have won at least five (but never more than eight) regular season games since 2007. Their non-conference schedule is tougher than usual by NC State's typical low standards (the Wolfpack host Notre Dame), but they open with William and Mary, East Carolina, and Old Dominion before the difficulty ratchets up. I could see NC State dropping the road game at East Carolina, but at worst that would leave them needing just a single conference win to push. Even with the loss of quarterback Jacoby Brissett, it is very hard to see NC State going under this number.

New Mexico under 7 wins -145 ($40 to win $27.60)
I know a few lines up I professed my love for the option and New Mexico fits the bill of an exciting option team. Consider that the average New Mexico game since Bob Davie became the coach in 2012 has featured over 63 combined points! Unfortunately, more than 34 of those points have come courtesy of New Mexico's opponent. Hence their 18-32 record (which is of course marked improvement over the previous regime). It says a lot when a defense that ranked tenth in Yards per Play (6.11 per play) represents the high water mark for the team under Davie. 
The Lobos went 5-3 in Mountain West play last season and conservatively assuming a 3-1 non-conference record in 2016 (likely loss is a road game at Rutgers), they would need to do at least that well to hit the over. New Mexico won three games as a double-digit underdog last season and with a conference schedule that includes Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, and Utah State (not to mention a road date with Hawaii), I see a push as best case scenario for the Lobos.

Old Dominion over 5 wins even ($40 to win $40)
If it wasn't for the great success of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in the Sun Belt, Old Dominion would be one of the better examples of teams transitioning from FCS (is there a bathroom for that?). In fact, the Monarchs rebooted their program in 2009 after laying dormant since the 1940s. Despite being a newcomer to FBS and football in general, 2015 marked the first losing season for the Monarchs. Despite the losing record, the Monarchs were in position to nab their first ever bowl bid before losing their season finale to FAU 33-31. The Monarchs accomplished this despite losing their all-time leading passer (Taylor Heinicke) after the 2014 season. After a rough start on offense to open 2015 (just over 16 points per game through their first five), the Monarchs scored at least 30 points in six of their last seven games. The offense should remain in the upper half of Conference USA in 2016. Couple that with non-conference games against Hampton and Massachusetts (a cautionary tale for moving up to FBS), and Old Dominion should participate in their first bowl game following the 2016 regular season. 

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.

September 10th
South Carolina +10.5 Mississippi State -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
South Carolina burned me last year as they tanked while the Ol' Ball Coach slipped into retirement. So naturally, I am on them again. This line just feels a tad too high especially with Mississippi State replacing the best quarterback in school history. Dan Mullen has raised the profile of Mississippi State football, but prior to Dak Prescott becoming one of the best players in college football in 2014, the Bulldogs never ranked higher than fifth in the SEC in Yards per Play under Mullen. 
I think their offense will see a significant decline in 2016, and with what should be an improved defense at South Carolina, this line is about a field goal too high.

September 17th
Ole Miss +6 Alabama -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Alabama has lost three games over the past two seasons. If you are any type of college football fan, you know Ole Miss has inflicted two of those defeats. Can the Rebels make it three in a row? The last team to beat Alabama in three consecutive seasons was LSU which beat the Tide in five consecutive seasons from 2003 to 2007. Thankfully, Ole Miss does not have to actually win this game to cash the ticket. The Rebels are 5-2 against the line as a home underdog under Hugh Freeze and with this game coming early in the season before Alabama usually gets rolling, I like the Rebels to cover here. 

September 17th
UCLA -1.5 BYU -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
After back-to-back ten win seasons, the Bruins slumped to an 8-5 record in 2015. Despite this drop-off, the Bruins were statistically one of the better teams in the Pac-12. They boasted the best defense in the Pac-12 in Yards per Play despite losing linebacker Myles Jack before conference play even began. There should not be much if any regression on that side of the ball in 2016 with nine starters returning. Oh, and UCLA has one of the better young quarterbacks in the nation. The 'Rosen One' if you will. Plus, UCLA is an amazing 17-6 in true road games under Jim Mora. UCLA enters this game off what should be a glorified scrimmage against UNLV. Meanwhile, BYU will be coming off their 'Holy War' battle with Utah. I don't usually like to play team psychologist, but BYU will probably be emotionally spent and this spread is too low to pass up.

November 5th
NC State +15 Florida State -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
NC State has covered against the Seminoles in each of the last five games in Raleigh. The Wolfpack have also won three of those five games. I don't think they have a very realistic shot to win here, but Florida State will be in prime letdown mode after playing in what will likely be the ACC Atlantic Championship Game the week before against Clemson. I think NC State will keep this within two touchdowns.

November 26th
Georgia Tech +13 Georgia -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
This line is probably inflated after Georgia Tech's 3-9 season in 2015 and as I stated earlier, I think Georgia Tech will be much improved in 2016. Once this game actually kicks off, Georgia will probably be favored, but giving nearly two touchdowns against a quality opponent is too much. 

December 10th
Army +11.5 Navy @ Baltimore -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Is this the year? Can Army finally end the nearly decade and a half run of dominance by Navy? While the Midshipmen have won 14 in a row against the Cadets, they have not covered in four of the last five. In fact, Army has kept the game within one score in those four games. I would expect more of the same this season as Army has perhaps their best team since 1996 and Navy loses the all-time NCAA touchdown scorer

Conference Champion Bets
I decided to put a few dollars down on a few teams to win their respective leagues.

Cincinnati to win the American +450 ($10 to win $45)
See the earlier write up on the Bearcats. They may end of having to beat league favorite Houston twice, but I thought they were too good a value to pass up.

Eastern Michigan to win the MAC +30000 ($10 to win $3000)
Yes. You read that right. Eastern Michigan has pretty much no chance to win the MAC, but I liked the hire of Chris Creighton in 2014 and I think the Eagles will be much improved in his third season. Their first bowl since 1987 wouldn't shock me, and these odds were too absurd to pass up.

Marshall to win Conference USA +350 ($10 to win $35)
Despite massive attrition on both sides of the ball following their 2014 league title, Marshall still had a chance to play in the Conference USA Championship Game heading into the final weekend of the regular season in 2015. Marshall does return only four starters from one of the best defenses in Conference USA, but the Herd are 20-4 against league foes the past three seasons. The East division of Conference USA may once again come down to Marshall and Western Kentucky over Thanksgiving weekend.

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

Los Angeles Dodgers to win World Series +150 ($10 to win $150)
Despite the best pitcher of his generation not playing for the last month, the Dodgers have surged and are within striking distance of the Giants in the NL West. If Kershaw can return this season (or postseason), the Dodgers are a threat to win it all.

St Louis Cardinals to win World Series +250 ($10 to win $250)
Despite a rather pedestrian record, St Louis is highly regarded by several advanced metrics. The 538 ELO Ratings rank them seventh in all of MLB. The Simple Rating System over at Baseball Reference has them tied for fourth. They are too far behind to catch the Cubs, so to win the World Series, they will have to start by winning the NL Wild Card Game. Still, these long odds were too good to pass up.

Miami Marlins to win World Series +400 ($10 to win $400)
The Marlins are the anti-Cardinals. They also have a middling record (currently good enough for the second Wild Card in the NL), but are just 18th in the 538 ELO Ratings and tied for 15th in the Simple Rating System. Baseball is a weird game though, particularly with the new Wild Card format. Bad teams have won the World Series before, and with them already sitting in playoff position, I had pull the trigger here. 

Reckless Parlay
I couldn't leave Las Vegas without buying at least one lottery ticket. This is your standard six team parlay. All games must be correct for the parlay to pay out and each game occurs over Labor Day Weekend.
$10 to win $400

Game 1: August 26th 
Hawaii +21 Cal @ Sydney
Yes, college football kicks off about a week earlier than normal. Might as well burn this ticket early.

Game 2: September 1st
Tulane +17 Wake Forest
Can't believe my alma mater is giving this many points. 

Game 3: September 2nd
Army +16 Temple
I think this is the best Army team in quite awhile. Might as well take them getting a lot of points from a team that could be a little overrated. 

Game 4: September 3rd
Georgia Tech -3.5 Boston College @ Dublin
Another college football game in a foreign country. This line is probably half a point too high, but I had to throw a favorite in there somewhere.

Game 5: September 3rd
Wyoming +10.5 Northern Illinois
Wyoming plays their home game at more than 7000 feet above sea level. We'll see if the Huskies have problems adjusting.

Game 6: September 4th
Notre Dame -4.5 Texas
I immediately regretted making this bet after the ticket printed.