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.


Beak said...

Nice Read, Ga and North Carolina are Border States, yo

matt said...

Thanks man. I didn't realize that. I'll talk to my congressman and see if we can expand SC's border a little bit.