Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week IX

We took a step back after three straight winning weeks, but we are still above water on the season. Let's try to keep it that way. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-4-1
Overall: 28-24-4

Iowa State +6.5 Kansas State
The latest edition of 'Farmageddon' has me going against my favorite college football coach. While Bill Snyder has excelled in winning games and covering the spread since he returned to the sidelines in 2009, Iowa State has been one team that has frequently frustrated him, at least when it comes to cashing tickets. Snyder is 7-0 straight up against the Cyclones, but just 3-3-1 Against the Spread (ATS) including 2-3-1 in the role of favorite. Six of the seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less, with the lone exception being three years ago in Manhattan. Kansas State has won the last two games in Ames by a combined 10 points with teams that appear to be markedly better than the one they are putting on the field this season. Iowa State has had a week off to prepare for the Wildcats while Kansas State has not had a break since early September. Kansas State plays at a slow pace, so the possessions will be limited here and the potential margin of victory will be depressed. Take the Cyclones to keep this one close.

Michigan State +23 Michigan
Michigan State, a program that had gone 36-5 over the past three seasons with a pair of Big 10 championships and one playoff appearance is dangerously close to missing out on a bowl game for the first time under Mark Dantonio. The Spartans are just 2-5 and with games remaining against Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State appear headed for 4-8 at best. The interesting fact about Michigan State is they have not been horrendous on a per play basis. In fact, in their Big 10 games, they have actually outgained their opponents in terms of yards per play despite their 0-4 mark. I would assume the football gods are debiting their account for their incredible record despite middling yards per play numbers last season. Michigan on the other hand, has been exceedingly dominant through the first two months of the season. Their only close win came against Wisconsin. Outside of that game with the Badgers, only Colorado has come within three scores of them. However, it is also important to note that Michigan has played just one road game thus far and it came against Rutgers. Despite their poor record, Michigan State will be up for their in-state rival. This spread is probably a touchdown too high thanks to Michigan State's record, which is not indicative of their play thus far and Michigan's 'brand' under Jim Harbaugh. Michigan is far from a sure thing on the road under Harbaugh, as they failed to cover as a large favorite against both Indiana and Minnesota last season and could have actually lost both games. I don't see a tenable path for Michigan State to win here, but this game will be closer than three touchdowns.

Notre Dame +2.5 Miami
Just three short weeks ago, Miami was back under Mark Richt. Since that 4-0 start, the Hurricanes have dropped three straight conference games to fall out of the Coastal Division race. While the competition was strong, Miami was actually favored in two of those games, which is a trend Richt has continued from his days at Georgia. In his final three seasons in Athens, Richt lost eight regular season games as a betting favorite (nine overall if we include the Gator Bowl against Nebraska). Four of those losses came in a role similar to where the Hurricanes find themselves on Saturday: as a small road favorite. Provided they have not mutinied against Brian Kelly, Notre Dame should be a desperate team playing at home off a bye. The Irish are 2-5 and need four victories in their final five games to qualify for a bowl. It won't be as lavish as the Fiesta Bowl they played in last season, but it would mark their seventh consecutive postseason appearance under Kelly. If you squint hard enough, you can see some defensive improvement since the Irish fired Brian VanGorder. The Irish have allowed under six yards per play to their last three opponents since jettisoning VanGorder. Of course, one of those games was played in a monsoon and the other was against the impotent offense of Stanford (more on them later), but we are all about positives here at Statistically Speaking. Other than Richt's history in this role and the homefield advantage for Notre Dame, I don't have a lot of overwhelming reasons to take the Irish, but this just feels like a game Miami and Richt are destined to lose.  

Ole Miss +4 Auburn
Will Ole Miss rejoin the polls with a 4-4 record should they win here? Has any coach gone from genius to hot seat back to genius faster than Gus Malzahn? Will Malzahn still be considered a genius if his team loses a tight game on the road against a quality foe? This game is dripping with storylines and should make Paul Finebaum's show on Monday must-see TV. I think Ole Miss is a solid play here for several reasons. Auburn will likely never be more overvalued than they are this week after their dismantling of Arkansas last week. However, before we go comparing Auburn to the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers, remember that Arkansas has allowed over ten yards per play to both Alabama and Texas A&M this season, meaning their showing against Auburn was only the third worst the defense has played this season. Plus, while Ole Miss was run over by LSU last week, Auburn is more of a finesse running team instead of a sledgehammer power team like LSU. And let's now forget this is only Auburn's second road trip of the season. Their other game away from Jordan-Hare came against Mississippi State, which is easily the West's worst team. Ole Miss is 6-2 ATS as a home underdog under Hugh Freeze and has three outright wins included among those six covers. Look for the Rebels to get back on track and slow Auburn's momentum on Saturday night.

South Carolina +13.5 Tennessee
Being a resident of Columbia, I hear a great deal about the Gamecocks around the watercooler, on talk radio, and yes, even on the internet. The big talk around Columbia the past ten days or so has been the new Bentley the Gamecocks have been driving. Will Muschamp, in an effort to qualify for the, I don't know, Camping World Independence Bowl, burned the redshirt of quarterback Jake Bentley in an effort to jumpstart the offense. It worked to some extent as the Gamecocks scored a season high 34 points against Massachusetts last week. It was Massachusetts, who is not a burgeoning football power, but the Gamecocks had struggled to score against other poor defenses like East Carolina and Kentucky, so there is at least a little reason for optimism. Now, Tennessee comes to town to begin the JV portion of their SEC schedule. After opening conference play with Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, and Alabama, the Volunteers close with South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt in their quest to win the SEC East for the first time in nearly a decade. While the Vols are 5-2 and ranked 18th in the latest AP Poll, they have been far from dominant. The Volunteers needed overtime to survive Appalachian State at home, struggled with Ohio, and needed a Hail Mary conversion to beat an extremely flawed Georgia team before dropping two straight to a pair of SEC West powers. Even in their weakened state, South Carolina has been tough as a home underdog. Since 2014, they are 3-2 ATS in that span and have already covered at home against Texas A&M and nearly covered against Georgia if not for a fluke kickoff return touchdown (and an SEC conspiracy to move the game to Sunday when the atmosphere would be less raucous -- I am not even kidding, people I know who are otherwise intelligent folks believe this). Tennessee has won three straight in this series, but they have beaten South Carolina by more than a touchdown just once in the last decade. Take the Gamecocks to keep this one close, but 6-6 is probably still a pipe dream.

UNLV -3 San Jose State
This seemingly inconsequential Mountain West matchup occurring after most (even hardcore) college football fans have gone to bed seems to be between a pair of teams heading in opposite directions. San Jose State began the Ron Caragher era with a 6-6 record in 2013, but have failed to post a winning record since (despite a bowl win last season). Standing 2-6 this season, the Spartans are extreme longshots to win out and qualify for a bowl. Meanwhile, UNLV has already matched last season's win total in their second under Tony Sanchez and could conceivably get to a bowl game. Even if they don't manage a postseason invite, UNLV has set up a solid foundation for success in the future. After a 1-3 non-conference start, the Rebels handed the reigns to freshman quarterback Dalton Sneed. Sneed has been very hit or miss, completing just 47% of his passes, but averaging a healthy 7.7 yards per pass attempt. He has also been effective on the ground, rushing for over 300 yards including this spectacular run against Fresno State. The best defense in the conference, San Diego State, was able to hold the Rebels down, but in their other three league games, UNLV has averaged over 36 points per game and 6.77 yards per play. The bottom quartile of the Mountain West (Fresno State, Nevada, and San Jose State) is very bad. UNLV is not in the upper-echelon of Mountain West teams (yet), but they are firmly middle class and should be able to win by at least a touchdown even on the road against San Jose State.

Arizona +6 Stanford
Something very odd is happening in Palo Alto. The Stanford Cardinal have forgotten how to score points. Since beating Southern Cal 27-10 back on September 17th, Stanford has played five games. In those five games, they have scored a grand total of four...yes, four offensive touchdowns. For a team with Stanford's recent pedigree, that is a historic level of ineptitude. Stanford has somehow managed to win two of those five games thanks to a solid defense. Now Stanford hits the road to take on an Arizona team in danger of failing to qualify for a bowl game for the first time under Rich Rodriguez. The Wildcats are 2-5 and need to win four of their final five games to qualify for their fifth consecutive bowl game. Arizona has yet to win a conference game and has serious defensive issues, as they have allowed 41 points per game and 6.9 yards per play to Pac-12 opponents. Interestingly, the two teams that played in the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2014, Arizona and Oregon, currently rank last and second to last in defensive yards per play in the Pac-12. In other words, if Stanford cannot score here, they at least have another chance in two weeks. :) Arizona is coming off a bye and is in desperate need of win. In addition, the Wildcats are 6-2 ATS as a home underdog under Rodriguez with four outright wins. I don't know that they will be able to win this game outright, but they should be able to keep it close against a struggling offense.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week VIII

We got back on track in a big way last week, posting a 6-1 mark. Be wary of some regression to the mean this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall: 26-20-3

North Texas +18 Army
After combining for a 3-21 mark in 2015, which included a pair of losses to FCS teams, the colorful Mean Green and Black Knights have combined for a 7-5 record in 2016 and if things break right, both could end up in bowl games. Army has enjoyed a somewhat unique season as they opened the 2016 campaign with a win against Temple as a double-digit underdog. The Black Knights won their next two games against Conference USA dumpster fires Rice and UTEP by a combined 69 points! Then they traveled to their closest FBS opponent, Buffalo, and lost as a double-digit favorite. They dropped their next game to Duke, but pulled out of their tailspin by crushing an FCS school last week. With four wins through the first half of the season, Army is well positioned to finish with a winning record and potentially end their 100 year or so drought against Navy. Meanwhile, North Texas has quietly jumped out to a 3-3 record after a dismal 1-11 season in 2015. Not much was expected of the Mean Green in the preseason under first year head coach Seth Littrell. The offense is not a great deal different than it was last season, but the defense has been much better. After finishing second to last in Conference USA last season in yards allowed per play, the Mean Green are currently second in the conference in that category. With Army running the option, this game will feature a running clock and fewer possessions than your standard college football game. Couple that with defensive improvement in Denton and a bye week to prepare for Army, and North Texas is an easy pick here.

Kansas +24 Oklahoma State
Since firing Mark Mangino, Kansas has been bad. Real bad. The Jayhawks have won just three conference games since firing the big man and current head coach David Beaty has yet to beat an FBS team. That being said, Kansas has played some close games at home, particularly against Oklahoma State and TCU. Since the Big 12 added TCU and West Virginia prior to the 2012 season, Kansas has played 19 home games. Five of those games have come against Oklahoma State and TCU. Kansas has lost those games by an average of 6.4 points per game, with only one loss coming by more than a single score. In their other 14 home games, Kansas has won two, but their average scoring margin even including those wins is -24.7 points per game. For whatever reason, the Cowboys and Horned Frogs struggle in Lawrence. Plus, since nearly playing for the national title in 2011, Oklahoma State is just 1-7 Against the Spread (ATS) as a double-digit road favorite. I won't call for a monumental Kansas win, but they should keep this one closer than expected.

Indiana +2 Northwestern
Northwestern has rebounded from a pair of early defeats to get back into bowl if not division contention (the Wildcats did beat Iowa, but with Ohio State and Wisconsin left on the schedule, a division title is probably a pipe dream). In their past two games, Northwestern beat both of last year's Big 10 Championship Game participants on the road. In those two games, the Wildcats have put up 92 points despite averaging under six yards per play in both contests. Special teams have helped, with the Wildcats starting a drive on the five-yard line against Iowa thanks to a punt return and returning a kickoff for a touchdown against Michigan State. With offensive numbers like that, the Wildcats have been a little fluky in scoring so many points. The Wildcats also allowed over seven yards per play to a Michigan State team that had struggled moving the ball outside of their game with Notre Dame. Now the Wildcats host a fellow 3-3 team in the Indiana Hoosiers who are looking to qualify for their second straight bowl for the first time since Bill Mallory was leading the team in the early 90's. Indiana has played well despite their 3-3 mark, losing one-score games to Wake Forest and Nebraska and giving Ohio State a decent game in The Horseshoe. Indiana is surprisingly decent on defense this season. After ranking twelfth in the Big 10 in each of Kevin Wilson's first five seasons in charge (sometimes that would be last in the league and other times it was good enough for third to last), with Tom Allen coordinating the defense, the Hooisers are currently seventh in that category (and that is not adjusted for schedule which includes powerful offenses at Nebraska and Ohio State). Northwestern is probably a little overvalued following their win against a weak Michigan State team. Take the Hoosiers to cover and win outright here.

Colorado +2.5 Stanford
After winning just a pair of conference games in his first three seasons in Boulder, Mike MacIntyre has positioned the Buffaloes to be contenders in the Pac-12 South. Colorado has three league wins and just one defeat, and after this game three of their final four contests come in the thin air of home. Southern Cal already has two conference losses and UCLA has three, so if the Buffaloes can pull out a win here, they would arguably be the division favorite over the final month of the regular season! The transitive property would make you think Stanford is an easy play here. The Cardinal scored a relatively easy win against Southern Cal in the season's third week and the Trojans beat Colorado two weeks ago. However, since that win against the Trojans, Stanford has struggled putting points on the board. In their next four games, of which they lost two, the Cardinal have averaged just over 15 points per game while averaging under five yards per play and scoring just four offensive touchdowns. Some of that has to do with the absence of running back Christian McCaffrey, but the quarterback play has been subpar. Regardless of the venue, Stanford will need to score points to beat Colorado as the Buffaloes have topped 40 points five times in seven games. I understand why Stanford is favored, but Colorado is a great play here and can easily leave with an outright road win.

Memphis -2.5 Navy
Fans of the Houston Cougars will probably be keeping a close eye on this game as Houston needs the Midshipmen to lose a pair of games in order to get to the American Championship Game. They will also have an opportunity to scout a future opponent and another potential contender in the West division. Memphis is unbeaten in conference play with victories against Temple and Tulane and the Tigers actually host Houston on Black Friday. Navy is probably a little overvalued here after their win against Houston two weeks ago. The Midshipmen have not had time to lose any luster from that win thanks to their game scheduled for last weekend being postponed. Prior to beating Houston, Navy struggled in putting away Connecticut and Tulane before dropping a two-score game to Air Force. Navy is due for a letdown and with Memphis currently favored by under a field goal, they are a good play here.

Louisiana-Monroe +17 New Mexico
This large spread marks the third time this season that New Mexico has been favored by double-digits. For a team that was mired in futility for nearly a decade, that is pretty remarkable. Consider that between the time Mike Locksley took over the team in 2009 and the end of the 2015 season, New Mexico was favored by double-digits just three times. Perhaps not coincidentally, all of those games were against in-state rival New Mexico State, one of the nation's worst FBS programs. Under Bob Davie, New Mexico is much improved and has a real chance at appearing in their second consecutive bowl game. However, they are still not able to consistently stop anyone and that is a real problem when you are giving more than two touchdowns. The Lobos have allowed over seven yards per play to their last three opponents, and have allowed at least 32 points to every FBS opponent they have faced this season. Louisiana-Monroe has already matched their win total from last season under first year coach Matt Viator and have already covered twice as a huge underdog. New Mexico should win, but both teams will score and Louisiana-Monroe should score enough to cover.

Fresno State +16 Utah State
I mentioned this in my handicapping of Utah State two weeks ago, but these are not the Aggies of 2012-2013. Utah State has won just two of their last eight conference games and has averaged just 19 points per game against FBS opponents this season. Now, their opponent in this game, Fresno State, is a bad team, and Tim DeRuyter is probably in danger of losing his job, particularly if the Bulldogs finish 1-11 or 2-10, but this is too large a number for a bad favorite to cover.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Cinderella in Coal Country?

With the college football season halfway over (frowny face emoji), conventional wisdom has the four participants in the college football playoff as Alabama (or Texas A&M if they manage to win the SEC), Clemson, Washington, and the winner of the Michigan/Ohio State game. Ah, but college football is usually not so predictable. In the first two editions of the College Football Playoff, here are where the eventual participants ranked through seven weeks of play.
As you can see, the top ten of the AP Poll is a good place to start looking, but even in that elite company, only a single team (Florida State) ranked within the top four halfway through the season. Plus, each season has seen a 'Cinderella' of sorts emerge with Ohio State and Oklahoma ranking in the teens at the halfway point of their respective seasons. So who could crash the fancy soiree in 2016? Let's consider a team from a conference that was left for dead after the opening weeks of the college football season.

The Big 12, the most unstable of the Power Five conferences, did not have a good start to the 2016 season. After three weeks, league favorite Oklahoma had dropped non-conference games to Houston and Ohio State. Former mid-major and darkhorse contender TCU had dropped a home game to Arkansas. Oklahoma State, a team enjoying the best multi-season run in school history had lost at home to a MAC school, in a most improbable way. Texas, after opening the season with what Longhorn faithful felt was a program defining win over Notre Dame, lost on the road to a mediocre Pac-12 team. Need I go on? Kansas State lost to Stanford, Texas Tech lost to Arizona State, Iowa State lost to an FCS school, and Kansas, well, was Kansas. Only Baylor, a team that fired their coach in the offseason and hemorrhaged recruits left and right in the aftermath and West Virginia, a team that entered the conference with much aplomb, but never managed better than a 5-4 league mark made it to October unscathed. Pundits, particularly dumb jock archetype Jason Sehorn (statistics are for losers) wrote the Big 12 off and have ignored the conference in their coverage of potential playoff teams. However, if you are looking for a longshot candidate for the College Football Playoff, allow me to introduce you to West Virginia. 

West Virginia is coached by Dana Holgorsen, a disciple of the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Air Raid school of coaching. In his first season as head coach, the Mountaineers won the Big East and laid waste to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, setting up great expectations for their foray into the Big 12. However, the Mountaineers neglected to bring a defense to their new conference. Here are West Virginia's rankings in Yards per Play Allowed (YPA) and Touchdowns Allowed (TDA) in Big 12 play through their first four seasons. 
Whether you look at efficiency (yards allowed per play) or allowing drives to finish (touchdowns allowed) West Virginia was bad in their first two seasons as they were either second to last or third to last in both categories. Something changed in 2013 though. The Mountaineers realized if you play a little defense in the Big 12, you can win games. So they made perhaps the most underrated coordinator hire in the country when they tabbed their safety coach, Tony Gibson to lead the defense. The results have been fantastic. The Mountaineers went from the bottom of the conference to the top in terms of defensive acumen and their great play has continued in 2016. The Mountaineers just went to Lubbock, Texas and held Texas Tech to 17 points. That is the lowest point total for the Red Raiders in a home game in nearly two years!

So we know West Virginia is probably better than most people think, but can they win out? The Mountaineers have only played five games, meaning they have seven remaining, so it is more likely to not happen, but here are a few reasons why it can. 

West Virginia has a unique homefield advantage...at least relative to their Big 12 peers. I'm not talking about couch burning, I'm talking about distance and isolation. The rest of the Big 12 either plays in Texas or flyover states. West Virginia is located all by itself in the eastern part of the United States. The Mountaineers get Baylor, Oklahoma, and TCU at home this season. Remember, two seasons ago, West Virginia kept Baylor out of the playoff by beating them in Morgantown. That same season, TCU needed a late field goal to escape Morgantown with a win. This year's version of both teams are not as good as those 2014 teams. In addition, both of Oklahoma's trips east have resulted in close Sooner wins. Now take a look at their remaining road schedule. The Mountaineers go to Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and Texas. Any road trip, especially in conference play is dicey, but with the exception of replacing Texas with Kansas, West Virginia could not have asked for a better road slate.

Now, perhaps the more important question. If West Virginia wins out, do they deserve a spot in the playoff? The Mountaineers did challenge themselves in non-conference play, in hosting Missouri and playing a semi-home game against BYU. Now, Missouri may not qualify for a bowl, but I think the Mountaineers deserve a little credit for playing an SEC team versus a member of the Sun Belt. And the BYU win will probably end up looking pretty good. Even if the Cougars lose to Boise State this week, they will probably end up 8-4. The SEC champion, barring a gigantic upset by the eventual east winner in the championship game is probably in the playoff, but every ACC team save Clemson already has a loss and the Tigers have been playing with fire as of late. The Michigan/Ohio State winner is probably in, but Washington has several tough games left on the schedule (@Utah, Southern Cal, @Washington State), not to mention the Pac-12 Championship Game. Barring a great deal of chaos, West Virginia probably has to win out to make the playoff, but if they do, I think they get in. I don't know if the Big 12 schedule makers are clairvoyant, but putting Baylor @ West Virginia on Championship Saturday may turn out to be one of the best moves they ever made.  

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week VII

We have put together a nice little two week run. A 4-3 mark gets us above .500 on the year. Lets see if we can post another solid week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 20-19-3

Mississippi State +7.5 BYU
For the second time in three weeks, BYU will host a Friday night game. Hopefully, Mack Brown won't have to leave before the game is over this time. I'll say this for BYU, they have played mostly entertaining and exciting games. Prior to their most recent victory against Michigan State, their first five games were all decided by three points or less. They ranged from defensive struggles to offensive shootouts and occasionally featured two point conversion attempts. After this game, BYU travels to Boise State, but then closes with a relatively easy stretch of Cincinnati, Southern Utah, Massachusetts, and Utah State , so they should get to at least seven wins after a rough 1-3 start. First things first though: Can they beat an SEC team for the first time since 2011? If BYU is going to win this game, it will be with the running game. Running back Jamaal Williams and quarterback Taysom Hill have combined for over 1100 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Mississippi State has been decent against the run thus far, but BYU should be able to move the ball and score some points. However, asking them to win by more than a touchdown is a little much. BYU is a little overvalued after their win against Michigan State (who by the way is probably not very good this year) while Mississippi State is undervalued after their home loss to Auburn (who is probably pretty good this year). BYU will be motivated to take down an SEC team, but Mississippi State should be motivated too. The Bulldogs have four ranked teams left on their schedule, so they probably need this game to become bowl eligible for the seventh consecutive year.

NC State +17.5 Clemson
Most prognosticators have identified Clemson's road trip to Tallahassee as their last remaining test until at least the ACC Championship Game (obviously ignoring their precarious trip to Winston-Salem). However, NC State appears to have emerged as a legitimate threat to at least offer Clemson some semblance of a challenge. After stubbing their toe against East Carolina, the Wolfpack have reeled off three consecutive wins with quarterback Ryan Finley emerging as a perhaps the Pack's best quarterback since Russell Wilson. Finley has yet to throw an interception and has completed nearly 70% of his passes. Granted, Clemson represents by far the toughest defense he has faced, but I think he and the Wolfpack will be able to move the ball against the Tigers. Clemson will not have the benefit of a nationally televised prime time setting they enjoyed against Louisville. I think the Tigers could come out a little flat and NC State is probably a little undervalued after their slog against Notre Dame last week.

North Carolina +9 Miami
This line seems like a huge overreaction to North Carolina's performance last week. The Tar Heels and Hokies played in the remnants of Hurricane Matthew and North Carolina posted their worst offensive showing under Larry Fedora, in failing to find the end zone. I would take the numbers and statistics from that game, both offensive and defensive, and throw them out the window. Barring another weather event, North Carolina should be able to move the ball against Miami. Plus, the Hurricanes come into this game in a huge letdown spot. Last week, they lost their seventh consecutive game to their bitter in-state rivals in gut-wrenching fashion. Plus, Miami's schedule has been quite soft up to this point. They have posted great numbers through the first half of the season, but against the two Power 5 teams they have played, they needed two defensive scores to provide the winning margin against Georgia Tech and managed just two offensive touchdowns against a Florida State team that was allowing over 40 points per game to FBS teams. I think North Carolina provides great value here and could even win outright.

Oregon State +9 Utah
Last week, I was set on fading the Utes as a big home favorite and despite the fact that it didn't work out, I am all set to do the same this week as they travel to Corvallis. Outside of the smoldering crater in Eugene, Utah has the worst defense in the Pac-12, allowing all three conference opponents (Arizona, Cal, and Southern Cal) to average north of seven yards per play against them. The Utes have been winning games with timely offense and a great punter. That would seem to be an untenable long term strategy, especially on the road at an improving Oregon State team. The Beavers won their first conference game under Gary Anderson last week when they knocked off Cal in overtime. After playing the role of sieve on defense last season, the Beavers have shown flashes on that side of the ball this season. They did allow 47 points at Colorado, but they held both Cal and Minnesota under five yards per play. Utah is just 3-7 Against the Spread (ATS) as a road favorite since joining the Pac-12, and I think they are ill-equipped to dominate Oregon State on the road.

New Mexico State +6 Idaho
Call it the Relegation Bowl if you will. The Sun Belt, yes, the Sun Belt, has decided they are too good for both of these teams and will be giving them das boot following the 2017 football season. Idaho has decided to drop down to FCS while New Mexico State will tough it out as an FBS independent. Godspeed Aggies. Despite their poor histories, the winner of this game will actually have an outside shot at bowl eligibility. If Idaho wins, they would need to beat two more teams (looking at you Georgia State and Texas State) to get to six wins while New Mexico State would need three additional wins to get to six. Anyway, on to handicapping this game, which I can't believe College GameDay is not at. Idaho has won three games with each victory coming by exactly three points. However, in their five games against FBS opponents, the Vandals have allowed at least six yards per play. Conversely, they have not averaged more than six yards per play against any FBS opponent. New Mexico State has been solid offensively thus far, averaging 5.5 yards per play against their five FBS opponents. The Aggies have been competitive in every game save for their turnover debacle at Troy (who by the way may win the Sun Belt). This line is about a field goal too high. Take the Aggies to cover and potentially win outright.

San Jose State -1.5 Nevada
So here's the deal: San Jose State is 1-5 and has not beaten an FBS team this season. How in the heck are they favored here? For starters, three of their five losses have been on the road. Secondly, one of their home losses came to a ranked team from the Pac-12 (Utah). Thirdly, the Spartans have a -8 turnover margin in their five FBS games. Turnovers are not totally random, like say coin flips or roulette spins, but there is a high degree of randomness inherent in them. The Spartans are unlikely to continue performing as poorly in committing and failing to gain turnovers the rest of the season. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, their opponent, Nevada, is not very good. While the Wolfpack are 3-3 on the year, their wins have all come at home against teams that have combined for just a single FBS win. The Wolfpack have failed to average more than six yards per play against any FBS opponent (including just 5.36 against what we now know is a bad Notre Dame defense). The Wolfpack have also allowed at least six yards per play to every FBS opponent except Fresno State (to whom they allowed 5.95). The Wolfpack are very fortunate to be 3-3 and this line should probably be more than a field goal. If San Jose State wins, they are very likely to cover, and I think they have a great shot at winning here.

UCLA +7 Washington State
This line has steadily climbed all week with the status of UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen in doubt. Even if Rosen does not play, I think the Bruins are a good bet to keep this one close. They own the best defense in the Pac-12 and have yet to surrender more than 24 points to any team in regulation. Washington State has never been more overvalued than they are now, coming off a dismantling of Stanford on the road. Remember the Cougars have played better as of late, but they did drop a home game to an FCS opponent a little more than a month ago. UCLA will be the more desperate team as they already have two conference defeats and another would put them squarely behind the 8-ball in the Pac-12 South race.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week VI

Last week was our first winning week in a month. It could have been even better if not for a frontdoor push from Pitt. Lets see if we can post another solid week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-2-1
Overall: 16-16-3

Texas-San Antonio +17 Southern Miss
Southern Miss has followed up their breakthrough 2015 season with a solid campaign thus far. The Golden Eagles are 4-1 with a victory over Kentucky from the SEC. However, if you look at the rest of their wins, there is not a lot of heft on their resume. Besides Kentucky, Southern Miss has beaten an FCS team and a pair of conference opponents (Rice and UTEP) that have combined for a 1-9 record. The Roadrunners are probably a little better than those two teams, particularly at home, where they have already given Arizona State a significant challenge. The Roadrunners have had a week off to prepare for Southern Miss and should be able to keep this game within three scores.

Georgia Tech +7 Pittsburgh
No one is happier to see Pittsburgh on the schedule than Georgia Tech and Paul Johnson. After facing a pair of good to great defenses in back-to-back home games, the Yellow Jackets should get their option attack rolling against a Pittsburgh team that has serious issues defensively. While the Panthers are 3-2 in the early going, they have allowed 37 points per game to FBS foes and over 40 points per game to Power 5 opponents. On the surface, Pitt's run defense looks solid as they have allowed just 2.36 yards per rush. However, once we remove their 19 sacks and the resulting lost yardage, the Panthers have actually allowed 4.05 yards per rush. That is hardly terrible, but Pitt will not be nearly as stout as the Clemson unit Georgia Tech faced two weeks ago. Of course, the reason Pitt is 3-2 despite the defensive struggles is because their offense has been pretty potent. The Panthers have scored at least 36 points against each of their FBS opponents and have averaged under six yards per play just once. Georgia Tech has been hot or miss thus far on defense, so Pitt will be able to move the ball and score points against them. However, keep this in mind. Elite defense can shutdown the triple option offense (see Clemson two weeks ago), but this type of attack can absolutely shred an undisciplined unit. From 2012-2015, against defenses that finished in the top 25 nationally in terms of yards per play allowed, Georgia Tech scored 20.75 points per game. Against all other defenses, they averaged 34.89 points per game. Barring a scheduling snafu where they only play Kent State the rest of the way, Pitt will not finish in the top 25 defensively. There may not be as much scoring if Georgia Tech is able to control the clock and limit possessions, but this will be an offensive showcase and I wouldn't be surprised if Georgia Tech not only covers, but emerges victorious.

Wyoming +10.5 Air Force
I know its dangerous to project things, particularly in early October, but take a gander at Air Force's schedule. I'll wait. The Falcons have four road games in their next seven and a neutral site game with New Mexico, but Air Force will probably be favored in each game. With a little luck, they could enter the final weekend of the regular season undefeated! That would make their game with Boise State huge, not just in terms of Mountain Division supremacy, but in terms of a potential New Year's Six Bowl bid. Just something to keep in mind. First things first though, the Falcons will have to get by a Wyoming team looking to qualify for a bowl game in Craig Bohl's third season. The Cowboys are unbeaten thus far at home, including an opening weekend win as a double-digit underdog. Running back Brian Hill is well on his way to another 1000-yard season and he is already the leading rusher in school history. His performance will go a long way toward determining if Wyoming can be competitive here. The Falcons have held each of their first four opponents under 100 yards rushing and are allowing just 1.84 yards per carry. If we remove the sacks they have accumulated, the Falcons are still allowing just over three yards per rush. Air Force should win, but asking them to win by double-digits on the road against a quality opponent is too much.

Buffalo +1.5 Kent State
Someone is going to have to explain this line to me. Looking at the schedule for the upcoming weekend, I figured Buffalo would be a small favorite against Kent as neither of these teams are very good and the Bulls are hosting the game. Both these teams have just a single win and they have both dropped games to FCS opponents. Buffalo at least has the excuse of being in the second year of a rebuild under Lance Leipold while Kent State is in their fourth year of poor play under Paul Haynes. The Golden Flashes have been road favorites just once under Haynes, and while they did win and cover in that game, they have just three total road wins under Haynes. Kent State should not be favored on the road against anyone. Take Buffalo to win here.

Texas State +10 Georgia State
After qualifying for their first ever bowl game last season, Georgia State lost the best quarterback in (their brief) school history when Nick Arbuckle exhausted his eligibility. Their offense has taken a significant downturn without Arbuckle under center. The Panthers have scored more than 20 points just once through their first four games and are averaging just 5.4 yards per pass. Yet somehow, they are favored by double digits in this game. To be fair, Texas State does not appear to be a threat to win the Sun Belt this season, but at least their poor scoring margin (outscored by 67 points through four games), is due in part to games against Arkansas and Houston. The Bobcats also beat Ohio, a potential division champion and probably bowl team, on the road. Georgia State has been favored three times at home in their short history. They have covered only once and have lost two of those games outright. This spread represents the largest margin by which they have ever been favored. Take Texas State to keep this one close.

Colorado State +6 Utah State
Utah State appears to be favored in this game on reputation alone. Just a few short years ago, in 2012, Utah State finished the year ranked 16th in the final poll. Their lone losses that season came by two points at Wisconsin and three points at BYU. Their coach left for Wisconsin following the arguably the best year in school history. The 2013 team was still strong, losing one score games on the road at Utah, Southern Cal, and Fresno State. However, since 2014, the Aggies have gone from an elite Mountain West team to a middling Mountain West bowl team. They are just 5-6 in their last eleven conference games and have lost eight of their last nine road games, including three losses as a favorite. This line should be closer to a pick 'em as Colorado State is a little undervalued after their disappointing home loss to Wyoming last week. Look for the Rams to keep this one close and potentially even their record at 3-3.

Arizona +10.5 Utah
Standing at 2-3, and with three ranked teams, including Utah on the schedule, Arizona is in danger of missing out on a bowl game just two seasons after playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The most realistic path to a bowl game involves pulling at least three upsets over their next five games and then winning their last two against Oregon State and Arizona State (the Wildcats could be favored in both games). Can they start by beating Utah in Salt Lake City? I think this game will be closer than the odds makers might have you believe. Utah, despite standing 1-1 in the Pac-12 and better goal-line execution from 2-0, has not played well defensively against Southern Cal and Cal. The Trojans and Bears both averaged north of seven yards per play against the Utes. Conversely, the Utes averaged less than six yards per play against both, including less than five yards per play against a Cal defense that does not exactly draw comparisons to the '85 Bears. Also, consider that Arizona is 4-1 against Utah since the Utes joined the Pac-12, including two wins in Salt Lake City. Finally, Utah is 2-7 ATS as a double-digit home favorite since joining the Pac-12. Utah is not built to blow teams out. This will be a touchdown game that is decided in the fourth quarter.