Monday, December 12, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

The last week of the regular season pushed us just below the gambling break even line. a 4-3 mark in bowl season will push us back over. Let's get it.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 49-45-4

Cure Bowl
Arkansas State +6 Central Florida
Back in October, it looked like Arkansas State might see their bowl streak end at five. The Red Wolves lost their first four games (all non-conference) to good teams (Auburn and Toledo), mediocre teams (Utah State), and FCS teams (Central Arkansas). That start meant the Red Wolves would need six wins in Sun Belt play to get back to the postseason. They got seven, and a share of their second straight league title (their fifth Sun Belt title in the last six seasons). Arkansas State is in relatively uncharted territory as Blake Anderson just completed his third season as head coach. After Steve Roberts coached in Jonesboro for nine years, the next three Arkansas State coaches lasted just one year apiece before moving on to better jobs. Once conference play began, the typically dynamic Red Wolves were led by their defense. In Sun Belt action, Arkansas State ranked second in yards allowed per play and allowed just eleven touchdowns in eight league games. Their opponent in this game also played pretty good defense. Despite being led by Scott Frost, a former college quarterback at Nebraska and offensive coordinator for Oregon, the Knights were a defensively minded team in 2016. The Knights ranked dead last in the American Athletic Conference in yards per play (just like they did last year when they were 0-12), but ranked second in the league in yards allowed per play after finishing last in the category last season. Points will probably be scarce here, and despite the fact that this game is in Orlando, I like Arkansas State to keep it close.

Bahamas Bowl
Old Dominion -3 Eastern Michigan
This game features a team making its first ever bowl appearance and a team makings its first since the late 80s. Plus, I don’t even need to consult The Weather Channel to know that Nassau is a little warmer than Norfolk and Ypsilanti this time of year. Suffice it to say, motivation, or lack thereof, should not be a factor here. In their third season of play in Conference USA, Old Dominion tied with Western Kentucky for the East division crown and won nine games. The Monarchs ranked fourth in Conference USA in yards per play, but the reason they surged was their improvement on defense. In their first two seasons in Conference USA, the Monarchs finished twelfth and seventh respectively in yards allowed per play. This season, they moved up to third. Western Kentucky shredded the Monarchs, as they did to almost everyone, but they held up pretty well against the rest of their opponents. Meanwhile, Eastern Michigan won seven games for the first time since 1989. The seven wins were more than double the total from Chris Creighton's first two seasons. The improvement was mostly isolated to one side of the ball. While the defense did go from sieve to merely bad (moving from dead last in the MAC in yards allowed per play to tenth), it was the offense that carried the team. The Eagles soared to third in the MAC in yards per play, behind heavyweights Western Michigan and Toledo. When the Eagles are on defense, keep an eye on Pat O'Connor. The defensive lineman led the team with eight sacks and after toiling for bad teams through his first three seasons (6-30 record) and injuries in his fourth (missed all of the 2015 season with an injury), this bowl game will serve as a fine sendoff. Despite the presence of O'Connor, Old Dominion has by far the better defense and should win by at least a touchdown here.

Independence Bowl
Vanderbilt +4 NC State
Both these teams pulled off mild to large upsets in their regular season finales to get to 6-6 and qualify for postseason play. For Vanderbilt, this marks their first bowl under Derek Mason and for those who were not paying attention, the Commodores were pretty good on offense down the stretch. After averaging just 4.09 yards per play and scoring four offensive touchdowns in their first five SEC games, the Commodores averaged 6.76 yards per play and scored thirteen offensive touchdowns in their last three conference games. The passing game, led by quarterback Kyle Shurmur, improved dramatically, and was able to hit several explosive plays. In those first five conference games, Shurmur completed exactly half his passes and averaged just 4.82 yards per throw (excluding sacks). Over those last three conference games, Shurmur completed 59% of his throws and averaged over ten yards per pass. Overall, Vanderbilt still ranked twelfth in the SEC in yards per play, but that was primarily due to the how poorly they played over the first half of the conference season. The Commodores will face an NC State team that endured a very uneven season in 2016. The Wolfpack won at North Carolina, nearly won at Clemson, and pounded a solid Old Dominion team. However, they also lost at East Carolina and dropped a home game to a bad Boston College team. Overall, NC State was a pretty mediocre ACC team and quite deserving of their 6-6 record. Through over 1100 plays in ACC action, the Wolfpack were outgained by one one-hundredth of a yard per play. NC State has not done a good job of beating Power 5 teams not named Syracuse or Wake Forest under Dave Doeren. The Wolfpack are 6-2 against the Orange and Deacons, but just 4-22 against all other Power 5 foes. With Vanderbilt catching more than a field goal, they are a solid play here.

Holiday Bowl
Minnesota +6 Washington State
If Washington State did a better job of scheduling FCS cupcakes, the luster of these past two seasons would have been even shinier. However, after the horrors that began in 2008, most Cougar fans will settle for nine wins even if it includes an FCS loss. The Cougars were in contention for the Pac-12 title up until the final weekend of the regular season, but dropped their final two games to the Pac-12 Championship Game participants. Under Mike Leach, the Cougars are perhaps not surprisingly near the top of the Pac-12 in yards per play, ranking third. Defensively, the Cougars are more middle of the pack, ranking seventh in yards allowed per play. In the Holiday Bowl, the Cougars will take on a team that is almost exactly their total opposite. To me, Minnesota is a more likable Iowa since they are not paying Tracy Claeys a kings ransom to get to the Outback Bowl. The Gophers are not flashy, but with a few breaks here or there, could have enjoyed a special season. Minnesota played four teams that are currently ranked and lost all four, However, three of those losses came by a touchdown or less. As it were, the Gophers did not quite have the offense to pull those games out, averaging just under 17 points per game in those four defeats. I expect more of the same here with Washington State pulling out a close win and Minnesota covering.

Texas Bowl
Texas A&M -2 Kansas State
The only thing my main man has not been able to do since returning to the sideline in 2009 is win bowl games. The Wildcats are just 1-5 in postseason play since Bill Snyder’s return. I have a pet theory as to why this is so, if you will indulge me. Kansas State outperforms their peripheral numbers pretty much every season. For example, this year they had a negative per play margin in Big 12 action, but managed a 6-3 league record. For whatever reason, be it the snail’s pace they play at that reduces the number of possessions or their great play on special teams or some other reason, Bill Snyder appears to have hacked football. Against conference opponents they are familiar with, they consistently punch above their weight class. Since Kansas State is usually better than their record, they often end up playing a quality opponent in their bowl game. Once they get to a bowl game, the Wildcats play a team that is foreign to them and are unable to rely on that familiarity to pull off an upset. Again, just a theory. Anyway, Kansas State once again plays a team that, on paper, is superior to them. Remember when Texas A&M was fourth in the initial playoff rankings? What strange times those were. While the Aggies did lose their final four games against Power 5 opponents, two of them came against elite opponents (Alabama and LSU) and quarterback Trevor Knight missed one with an injury (Ole Miss). The Aggies were led by their offense this season as they ranked fourth in the SEC in yards per play, but a disappointing eighth in yards per play allowed. I'll point out here that defensive coordinator John Chavis is the highest paid assistant coach in the SEC. Trevor Knight's status for the bowl game is still somewhat uncertain, but even if Jake Hubenak is forced to play, the Aggies should continue Bill Snyder's postseason struggles.

Liberty Bowl
Georgia -1 TCU
In the preseason, a bowl pitting these two teams together would probably bring to mind an upper-tier game, or even a New Year’s Six contest as both were in the AP top 20. Both struggled in early season games against FCS competition that portended their eventual mediocrity. TCU went just 5-6 after failing to put away South Dakota State while Georgia went 5-5 after scraping by Nicholls State. TCU put up better numbers than their overall won/loss record would indicate, and will probably be due for a bounce back season next year, but this looked a lot like the 2012 and 2013 versions that struggled moving the ball when they joined the Big 12. The Horned Frogs ranked eighth of ten teams in the Big 12 in yards per play with Kenny Hill suffering through inconsistency and Foster Sawyer looking more like (Charles) Foster Kane when he was forced into action. Defensively, the Frogs remained stout, sort of, ranking first in the Big 12 in yards allowed per play. However, while they were competent against the pass, they showed a susceptibility to the running game, with Arkansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia combining to average 269 rushing yards per game and 5.99 per carry against them (not counting sacks). Georgia also struggled moving the ball, ranking thirteenth in the SEC in yards per play, but most of that was due to their anemic passing game. The Bulldogs averaged just over six per pass in SEC play (and that is not counting yardage lost from sacks). However, their duo of running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, averaged 4.70 yards per carry against SEC defenses. Georgia has their issues on offense, but they appear to be ready made to take advantage of TCU’s defensive weakness. Georgia was also solid defensively in SEC play, ranking fourth in yards allowed per play (you may want to do a little mental adjusting down as the Bulldogs played in the easier division), but it’s hard to see TCU scoring a lot against this defense. As a point of reference, Arkansas, holder of the worst SEC defense in yards allowed per play by a significant margin, shut TCU out in Fort Worth in the first half and held them under 30 points in regulation. When handicapping bowl games, I think it pays to look at motivation, and while Georgia is probably disappointed to be playing in this game, TCU is hardly pleased either, so there should not be any significant motivation asymmetry. With this spread being so low, a Georgia win likely means a Georgia cover, so take the Bulldogs here.

Orange Bowl
Florida State +7 Michigan
Michigan is perhaps the best team not in the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines have two losses, but Michigan led until the final play in both games. Now the Wolverines will have to settle for an Orange Bowl berth and with a win, a top five finish for the first time since 1999 (which is the last time they played in the Orange Bowl). Michigan was well-balanced, finishing second in the Big 10 in yards per play and first in yards allowed per play. The offense did struggle down the stretch, averaging just 3.86 yards per play and 20 points per game in their final three Big 10 games after averaging 6.90 yards per play and over 45 points per game through their first six. Part of that is competition, as Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio State rank in the top half of the Big 10 defensively, and part of it is the injury to quarterback Wilton Speight. Another aspect is the fact that two of those games came on the road, something Michigan avoided for the most part in 2016, as they played just four games away from home. This game will not be in Ann Arbor and it will be against a team that has coalesced over the second half of the season. Florida State is playing in their fifth consecutive BCS/New Year's Six Bowl under Jimbo Fisher. It looked like Florida State might endure a four or five loss regular season as they lost two of their first five games, with one defeat in particular coming in grisly fashion. However, following their last second loss to North Carolina, the Seminoles won six of their last seven games with the only loss coming in very competitive fashion to eventual playoff participant Clemson. These teams seem to be heading opposite directions and outside of their trip to Rutgers, Michigan has struggled away from home this season. With Florida State playing much closer to home and catching a touchdown, they are a solid play here.

Other Bowl Thoughts
No picks here, just some things to keep an eye on.

Las Vegas Bowl
Houston Vs San Diego State
With Tom Herman gone, will Houston stop dropping games to teams they are more talented than? Can Donnel Pumphrey break the NCAA rushing record?

Camellia Bowl
Appalachian State Vs Toledo
Great mid-major matchup. Perhaps the best team in the Sun Belt versus the second best team in the MAC. Will pollsters pay attention and rank the winner or will a four loss also ran from a Power 5 finish the year ranked 25th? You already know the answer.

Quick Lane Bowl
Boston College Vs Maryland
The two worst Power 5 bowl teams square off. Which fan base will have unrealistic expectations heading into 2017?

Citrus Bowl
LSU Vs Louisville
How will Lamar Jackson perform against an elite defense? If Louisville wins, will LSU be the best five-loss team in the country? Or will Auburn have an argument for that title?

Peach Bowl
Alabama Vs Washington
Alabama is good, and perhaps the best team of the modern era, but are they susceptible to elite quarterback play? Chad Kelly shredded the Crimson Tide back in September and Austin Allen moved the ball effectively through the air against them. Of course, the Tide defense scored four non-offensive touchdowns in those two games, so they made some big plays themselves. Can Jake Browning lead the Huskies to points and avoid mistakes (at least game-changing mistakes) against an Alabama defense that has not allowed more than 16 points in their last seven games?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Strangers in the Field II: How'd we Do?

I went to Vegas back in the summer and made some wagers. Here is how they turned out.

Over/Under Win Totals

Cincinnati over 7.5 wins -120 ($40 to win $33.35)
This was a big ol’ whiff. Cincinnati posted the best Yards per Play offensive numbers in the American in 2015, but was done in by a glut of turnovers. I figured the turnover luck would change, the Bearcats would stay near the top of the conference on offense, and cruise to at least eight regular season wins. The turnover margin did stabilize, but the Bearcats were near the bottom of the conference in offense and after opening 2-0 never threatened to come close to hitting this number. The only good thing to come out of this season for Cincinnati was Tommy Tuberville yelling at a heckler. In hindsight, the number was probably one win too high. Despite the fact that Cincinnati endured a horrible season, this one was hard to see coming. This was a bad bet, but if the win total was 6.5, betting the over could be forgiven.

Fresno State over 4 wins -115 ($40 to win $34.80)
I thought Tim DeRuyter would save his job and potentially return Fresno to a bowl game. Yes, the Bulldogs were bad in 2015, but the Bulldogs play in the weaker Mountain West division and only needed to equal last season’s win total to push this number. Like Cincinnati, Fresno never really threatened. I knew things were probably not going to turn out well when the Bulldogs blew a 31-0 (yes, you read that right) lead against Tulsa and lost in overtime. The Bulldogs finished the year losing eleven straight games and DeRuyter was let go. For those keeping score at home, that’s two bets and two coaches who were either fired or resigned. Fresno State was competitive, losing the OT game to Tulsa, losing to Nevada by five, and then closing the year with a one point loss to Hawaii and a two point loss to San Jose State. If Fresno had won all their close games, they would have hit the over. However, that does not change the fact that this was a bad bet.

Georgia Tech over 6.5 wins +125 ($40 to win $50)
Georgia Tech was extremely unlucky in 2015 and struggled to a 3-9 record. I was banking on them more than doubling their win total in 2016. If you look at Paul Johnson’s track record, with the exception of 2015, he always manages to win at least half of his conference games. If he did that this season and won all the non-conference games except Georgia, this one would hit. There were some nervous moments (the opener against Boston College in Ireland was extremely close), but the Yellow Jackets hit this number even before the finale where they upset Georgia. This was a good bet because the number was relatively low and the payout more than doubled the initial investment.

Kansas over 1.5 wins -155 ($40 to win $25.80)
The Jayhawks opened with an FCS opponent (and a bad one at that), so in my mind they just needed to find one more win in their next eleven games to hit the over here. Well, they easily beat Rhode Island and I thought they might cash the ticket the next week as they were favored at home against Ohio. But, like most good things, Kansas made me wait. And wait. And wait. They teased with a close loss to TCU. They were competitive for three quarters at home against Oklahoma State. They led Iowa State at home in the second half. After they lost to the Cyclones, I figured this this ticket was destined for the landfill. Then Texas came to town. I didn’t really like their chances in that game, but I flipped back and forth for a while. In the fourth quarter Texas could never ice the game thanks to some Devonta Freeman fumbles, some questionable decisions by Charlie Strong, and a great strip on a sure interception. Kansas forced overtime with a last second field goal, and then intercepted Texas on their first OT possession. I kept waiting for a fumble or blocked kick, but Kansas methodically moved inside the ten yard line and drilled an easy field goal for the win. In hindsight, Kansas did not improve by nearly as much as I thought they would. Still, it is very hard to lose every game you play. Even in a Power 5 league. We’ll call this one a decent bet.

Maryland over 5 wins -120 ($40 to win $33.35)
Maryland was a little better than their record in 2015 and would be bringing in a new coach and a soft non-conference schedule in 2016. The schedule proved to be a little tougher than I initially though as Central Florida returned to playing competent football and actually took the Terps to overtime in Orlando. Maryland prevailed and after their 3-0 start, waxed Purdue to open Big 10 play. With Rutgers remaining on the schedule in the season finale, the Terrapins just had to find one more win to hit the over. And well, they barely found it. The Terrapins were not competitive in losses to Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, but they were able to beat Michigan State at home to make the game with Rutgers mean a shot at a bowl bid as well as a shot at the over. This was a decent bet, but I probably should have abstained once the number climbed above 4.5. Maryland was not a good team, and was fortunate to win six games.

NC State over 3 wins -120 ($25 to win $20.85)
I hadn’t planned to bet on NC State, but I was perusing the totals and was struck by how low this number was. I immediately hit the web to see if NC State had joined the AFC West or had their entire team suspended and replaced by NC A&T players. Neither of those things happened so I placed a wager on the Wolfpack here. There was not a great deal of handicapping excellence that went into this bet. NC State played an FCS school, East Carolina, and Old Dominion in the non-conference. They did lose to East Carolina to give me a little indigestion, but they made up for it by beating Notre Dame and even though it looked like they might miss a bowl, they had four wins by mid-October. This was easily a good bet.

New Mexico under 7 wins -145 ($40 to win $27.60)
My lone under bet of the season came courtesy of Los Lobos. New Mexico won seven games in 2015, but still had a bad defense. I didn’t foresee that changing in 2016 and by playing in the tougher division of the Mountain West, I figured the Lobos would top out at 6-6 at best. Congrats to Bob Davie and company as they won eight games. Their option offense remained devastating and their defense remained poor making for some high-scoring games. The Lobos were also extremely fortunate as they won nearly all their close games, going 4-1 in one-score contests. All I needed was one game flipped the other way to generate a push. Despite not cashing this ticket, I had New Mexico pegged correctly, so we’ll classify this as a good bet.

Old Dominion over 5 wins even ($40 to win $40)
I follow college football, particularly mid-major programs closer than most. Thus, when I saw this total, I knew I had to bet it. Old Dominion rebooted their football program in 2009 and immediately became an FCS power before transitioning to FBS. They won six games in their inaugural season in Conference USA (2014), but were ineligible for the postseason as a transitional team. In 2015, their all-time leading passer departed, so the Monarchs were due for some growing pains. Still, they finished 5-7 and narrowly missed out on a bowl game. Heading into 2016, I figured they were a cinch to qualify for a bowl and they did not disappoint. This ticket was never really in doubt as the Monarchs won nine games and tied Western Kentucky at the top of the East division of Conference USA. I am not sure why Bobby Wilder’s name has not come up in any coaching hot stove talk.

Games of the Year

September 10th South Carolina +10.5 Mississippi State -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
I figured Mississippi State would struggle in their first year sans Dak Prescott (they did) and thought the Gamecocks catching double-digits early in the season would be a good play. I bought at a good price as this line was about 7 points thanks to Mississippi State’s loss to South Alabama the week before this game kicked. The Bulldogs took out their frustrations on the Gamecocks, leading 24-0 at halftime. The Gamecocks looked like they might get a backdoor cover when they cut the lead to 13 in the fourth quarter, but alas it was not to be. For those keeping score at home, I have bet on two South Carolina ‘Games of the Year’ odds the last two years and lost them both. In the other games, I’ve done pretty well.

September 17th Ole Miss +6 Alabama -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Ole Miss had beaten Alabama each of the past two seasons and this game was in Oxford. I bought at a bad price as Alabama was a double-digit favorite when the game kicked. However, despite buying at a bad price, Ole Miss actually outplayed Alabama and had a decent shot to win this game as they led 24-3 in the second quarter. The Tide eventually pulled ahead and Ole Miss backdoored their way to a cover. However, if you look at the stats, Ole Miss probably deserved to cover as the Rebels torched a heretofore and since impenetrable defense to the tune of 43 points and 7.15 yards per play.

September 17th UCLA -1.5 BYU -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Thankfully this game occurred early in the year before Josh Rosen got hurt. I figured this line was small enough that all UCLA had to do was win and they would cover. The Bruins were up comfortably most of the second half. BYU scored a late touchdown to get the final margin within three, but UCLA won by enough to cover.

November 5th NC State +15 Florida State -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Florida State has struggled in Raleigh since around the turn of the century (remember Mike O’Cain's signature win in 1998?) and I figured this year would be no different. By gametime this line was around six points. NC State led for much of the game and easily covered despite losing straight up.

November 26th Georgia Tech +13 Georgia -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Prior to 2016, the previous three games in this series had been decided in overtime, overtime, and by six points. I figured more of the same was in store and with Georgia Tech undervalued after a 3-9 season and Georgia going through a coaching transition, I couldn’t resist. I bought at a good price as the line on this game was about four points once it kicked. There were some nervous moments as Georgia had a 13 point lead in the fourth quarter. Once Georgia Tech cut it to six, I figured the margin for this ticket might come down to a two-point conversion (if Georgia scored, there would be no need to kick the extra point and go up 13 at that late juncture). Thankfully, Georgia Tech intercepted a pass and scored with under a minute left to win outright.

December 10th Army +11.5 Navy @ Baltimore -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Navy was losing their best quarterback since Roger Staubach and this figured to be Army’s best team in a while. Catching double digits in a rivalry game? Sign me up. The actual line for this game was about six points, but that is because Navy lost their quarterback to injury the week before in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. Winning their division of the AAC may have cost Navy in this game, as they not only lost their starting quarterback, but did not have an extra week to prep for their arch-rival. Army broke their 14-year losing streak and won outright.

Conference Champion Bets

Cincinnati to win the American +450 ($10 to win $45)
I already wrote about Cincinnati’s awful season. No need to rehash it here. Go back and watch the video though.

Eastern Michigan to win the MAC +30000 ($10 to win $3000)
This was obviously a longshot, but I thought it was worth it. As I mentioned earlier, I follow mid-major football closer than most rational humans. I knew this was Chris Creighton’s third season and I thought he might be due for a breakout campaign. Eastern Michigan did win seven regular season games, but that other directional Michigan school was a little better this season. Still, this was a pretty good bet considering the potential payout.

Marshall to win Conference USA +350 ($10 to win $35)
Heading into 2015, Marshall lost a lot. In fact, they only returned nine starters! Yet they managed to follow up a 13-1 season with a 10-3 record. With 11 starters back in 2016, I figured Marshall was built to last and would return to the throne in Conference USA. Non-conference play was rough with the Herd losing to Louisville and Pitt, and also to Akron. At the time, I figured the Akron loss was just a blip. Alas, it was not. The Herd dropped their conference opener to North Texas and it didn’t get any better from there. The Herd managed just a 2-6 mark in league play and was never in contention for a bowl bid, much less the conference title.

Miscellaneous Bets

Los Angeles Dodgers to win World Series +150 ($10 to win $150)
I thought the Dodgers had an outside shot at stealing the division from the Giants and with Clayton Kershaw potentially returning, I figured they were worth a look. The Dodgers did win the divison, then the Division Series against the Nationals, and finally led the Cubs 2 games to-1 before dropping the final three games as the Cubs won the National League pennant.

St Louis Cardinals to win World Series +250 ($10 to win $250)
The Cardinals were in no position to win their division with the Cubs holding a commanding lead through the summer. However, they were within striking distance of the Wild Card and were actually tied for the second Wild Card spot as late as September 21st. They wound up finishing one game out of the second Wild Card spot.

Miami Marlins to win World Series +400 ($10 to win $400)
I didn’t think Miami was very good, but they were actually leading the Wild Card at the time of this wager, and well, stranger things have happened. The Marlins reverted to their peripherals and then suffered a devastating blow when Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident.

Reckless Parlay
$10 to win $400

Game 1: August 26th Hawaii +21 Cal @ Sydney

Game 2: September 1st Tulane +17 Wake Forest

Game 3: September 2nd Army +16 Temple

Game 4: September 3rd Georgia Tech -3.5 Boston College @ Dublin
Loser (by half a point) :(

Game 5: September 3rd Wyoming +10.5 Northern Illinois

Game 6: September 4th Notre Dame -4.5 Texas
Loser (thankfully, I would have hated to lose the parlay by half a point)

So here is the tale of the tape.

Money Wagered: $525
Money Won: $593.75
Return on Investment: 13.10%

Well, we won a little money. In fact, we won more than last year. Not quite enough to retire on, but enough to lure me back next summer.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Playoff Thoughts

With the regular season now over, here are my playoff thoughts.

1. Conference titles should matter, but not to the degree they do (or to the degree the most analysts think they do). Yes, winning your conference is important and is the goal of every college football team when the season begins. They hang banners for that sort of thing. However, a conference title in today’s world does not, and should not mean the same thing as it did just a decade or so ago. Remember the ACC as it was formatted in the 90s and early 00s? Yes, Florida State had their way with the conference, but it was also a round-robin league. Every team played every other team. No team enjoyed any scheduling advantages, save for the venue of the game. No team got to duck Florida State. Before the new century, winning your conference meant that you were probably the best team in it most years. Even when conferences went to divisions, beginning with the SEC in the early 90s, teams still had to play most of the teams in their conference. For example, SEC teams from 1992 through 2011 played eight conference games. This means they faced eight of eleven potential conference opponents in the regular season. Percentage wise, that is about 73%. Same with the Big 12 from 1996 through 2010 and the ACC from 2005 through 2012. However, with conferences totaling 14 teams for the ACC, Big 10, and SEC, today ACC and SEC teams only play eight of thirteen potential conference opponents in the regular season (62%). The Big 10 and Pac-12 at least play nine conference games so they face 69% (Big 10) and 82% (Pac-12) respectively. In the modern era of college football, conferences are really just a revenue sharing entity consisting of teams in the same (sort of) region. Penn State may have won the Big 10, but while their victory was partly the result of their fine play down the stretch, it was also impacted by the format of the conference. Yes, Penn State beat Ohio State head-to-head to win that tiebreaker and get to the conference title game, but let’s not pretend the conference title automatically makes Penn State the better team. And that brings me to my next point.

2. Head-to-head results matter…to a certain extent. Yes, Penn State beat Ohio State on the field and that should matter. Let’s consider a few extenuating factors though. The game was at Penn State. It was close. It was won on a blocked field goal. Now, Penn State certainly deserves credit for winning the game and inflicting the only loss of the season on the Buckeyes, but homefield advantage matters in college football (and all sports). Consider a little thought exercise. If this game had been in Columbus, could the outcome conceivably been different? I certainly think so. Secondly, the game was close. Penn State did not dominate the Buckeyes. They trailed for much of the game, and won with a late fourth quarter score. Finally, they won via a blocked field goal. Blocking a field goal is part skill, but also requires a great deal of luck. Maybe for the sake of simplicity, let’s say 80% luck 20% skill. That sound about right? Blocking a field goal and returning it for a touchdown requires a great deal more luck. Let’s not completely devalue the play and result of the game, but let’s keep in mind that Penn State was fortunate to win the game at home. And another thing…

3. All the games have to matter. I haven’t heard a lot of pundits mention this, but you know Penn State lost to Michigan right? Yep. They did. They also lost to Pitt, and while the Panthers did beat Clemson on the road, Pittsburgh still has four losses. Granted, none of Pitt’s losses are bad (Miami, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, and Virginia Tech), they still have four of them. College football teams only play twelve or thirteen games before bowl season. Consider other sports. College basketball teams play more than 30 games before they are evaluated for a subjective postseason tournament. Twelve or thirteen games is not a very large sample, so you really can’t exclude any when evaluating a team. You have to consider them all. Yes, Penn State beat Ohio State, but Ohio State beat Oklahoma in Norman (probably the best non-conference win next to Alabama’s curb-stomping of Southern Cal). And their win in Norman was not via a late field goal. They won by three scores. They also beat a pretty good Wisconsin team on the road, pummeled Nebraska, and beat Michigan. Even one of their non-conference games against a mid-major opponent ended up looking pretty good. No one will confuse Tulsa with the 85 Bears, but the Buckeyes beat them handily and that is a quality win. The Buckeyes won most of their games by a very large margin, which brings me to…

4. Margin of victory matters. I know margin of victory can bring with it cries of lack of sportsmanship, but there is no question there is a difference between beating a team 24-21 and beating a team 49-10. Obviously, those two scores were not arbitrarily chosen. The first is the margin by which Penn State beat Ohio State and the second is the margin by which Michigan beat Penn State. Yes, in case you had forgotten, Michigan beat Penn State by more than five touchdowns. Sure, sometimes a game can get out of hand late, and not be indicative of the actual closeness of the contest. That being said, playoff committee members have access to the internet I assume and can easily read write-ups and view box scores of games they may have missed viewing live. I don’t think teams should be rewarded for running up the score. There is no real difference between a 30-point win and a 50-point win, but there is a huge difference between a win by a field goal and a win by five touchdowns. And one more thing.

5. Venue matters. Alabama played six of their thirteen games away from home (four road and two neutral site games). Ohio State played five true road games in their twelve game schedule, including games at Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Penn State. Clemson played six road or neutral site games including games at Auburn, Florida State, and Georgia Tech. Washington played six road or neutral site games including games at Utah and Washington State. Penn State holds up well by this measure, playing six road or neutral site games including road games against Pittsburgh and Michigan. This is where Michigan's schedule does not hold up. The Wolverines played twelve games. Eight of them were at home, and nine were in the state of Michigan. They lost half of those games. Had the Wolverines beaten Ohio State and played in the Big 10 Championship Game, they would have played five road or neutral games and be more comparable to the other playoff contenders.

I bring these things up to say that outside of Alabama, who is a clear cut playoff entrant, the Ohio State Buckeyes are the team most deserving of a college football playoff invite. If the Buckeyes do not make the playoff, the committee will go against their stated goal of choosing the four best teams. Ohio State has a slew of good to great wins, including Michigan, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, no bad losses, and a good scoring margin. If the Buckeyes do not make the playoff, the committee should be honest and say they are simply choosing four of the five best Power 5 conference champions, not the four best teams in college football. With Alabama and Ohio State accounted for, filling out the rest of the playoff bracket is pretty easy. Clemson is obviously in. The Tigers won at Auburn, Georgia Tech, and Florida State while beating Louisville at home and Virginia Tech at a neutral site. Their only loss was on a field goal as time expired. Either way, they should be the number two or three seed and face Ohio State. Finally, Washington is the easy final choice. Big 10 fans may want to penalize the Huskies for a soft non-conference schedule, but in their thirteen games, they played eleven Power 5 teams. Yes, Rutgers is bad, but three other playoff contenders share the same division as Rutgers and got to play them as well. Washington has half as many losses as Penn State, with their loss coming to perhaps the hottest team in college football. Penn State also lost to a very good team, but they were not competitive at all. If that was their only defeats, they would probably be in, but the additional loss to Pittsburgh should doom them to the Rose Bowl.

Finally, as a mid-major apologist, I want to address Western Michigan. The Broncos enjoyed a fantastic season and with their unbeaten record will get to play in a New Years Six Bowl. In the first few sets of rankings, they never sniffed the top four, and they shouldn’t have. Western Michigan beat a pair of Big 10 teams, but Northwestern and Illinois were middling and bad respectively. Had the Broncos beaten a team on par with the likes of Oklahoma or Colorado and finished unbeaten, I think they would merit consideration for the top four spots, but even then I think the top teams have resumes that are too strong this season. That being said, I can’t wait to see how they match up against their Power Five opponent. The rankings and bowl matchups will take shape over the next few hours. Let’s enjoy these last 41 college football games before the nine month offseason ahead.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIV

We finally broke our string of losses by posting a solid 5-2 mark. This is the penultimate pick piece of the year as only bowl season will be left after this weekend. Enjoy. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 46-41-4

TCU -4 Kansas State
Who can say for sure if TCU did indeed land the killing shot to the Charlie Strong era at Texas? Perhaps Texas had decided to move on from Strong after a third straight season with at least six losses or perhaps a win in the home finale would have granted him another year of clemency. As it is, the loss to TCU was the last game Strong would coach at Texas and in an interesting little bit of trivia, TCU was the only Big 12 team that Strong did not both beat and lose to while in Austin. Strong won and lost at least once to every other Big 12 team save the Horned Frogs, against whom he went 0-3. Now TCU heads home to try and salvage a winning record from a disjointed season. The Frogs began the year ranked 13th nationally, struggled in the opener with South Dakota State, lost to Arkansas, nearly lost to Kansas and have not looked the part of a national contender. Still, I think they are a good play at home. Kansas State runs the ball well, but they are extremely limited when they are forced to throw. The Wildcats rank 110th nationally in yards per pass. While TCU was gashed in the running game by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, they have held up pretty well against the run otherwise. As long as Kenny Hill does not gift wrap a few interceptions that lead to short fields for Kansas State, TCU should win this one by at least a touchdown.

Louisiana Tech +10 Western Kentucky
If you are in the market for a head coach, you could probably do a lot worse than Jeff Brohm, particularly if you like offense. All Brohm has done in his three seasons is win 29 games, a conference title, and finish in the final polls for the first time in school history. I for one, expected 2016 to be a small step back after the Hilltoppers lost quarterback Brandon Doughty. The quarterback threw an amazing 97 touchdown passes the past two seasons! His replacement is Mike White, who seemed barely able to throw a forward pass in his previous stop at South Florida. But lo, the quarterback whisperer Brohm, has seen White toss 31 touchdown passes and average over ten yards per throw! Aside from a defeat to Alabama, which everyone has these days, the Hilltoppers lost by just a single point to Vanderbilt and by just three points to these same Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. Were the Hilltoppers more fortunate in close games, they might be playing for a New Year's Six Bowl bid. As it is, they will attempt to win their second consecutive conference title against a Louisiana Tech team that has won at least eight games for three consecutive seasons. Skip Holtz has revitalized his career in Ruston and has the Bulldogs in the Conference USA Championship Game for the second time in three seasons. Louisiana Tech lost at a motivated Southern Miss team in a meaningless game for them last week, giving them value as a big underdog here. Otherwise, they have been nearly as dominant as Western Kentucky in Conference USA play this season. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, they actually beat the Hilltoppers this season! Louisiana Tech put a scare into Marshall on the road two years ago on Championship Saturday, and I think they will do the same this weekend.

Temple +3 Navy
For the second year in a row Temple will play in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game as they seek to win the first conference title in school history. To be fair, the Owls did not join a conference until 1991, but this would still be an historic achievement. Navy will also be trying to win its first ever conference title, but the Midshipmen joined a conference even later than Temple. As far as actually handicapping this game, Navy is doing something perhaps never seen before with the triple option. Despite being a run oriented offense, the Midshipmen averaged over seven yards per play in conference play ranking second behind South Florida. Nationally, when including all games, the Midshipmen rank tenth! This is absolutely incredible. And yet, their defense prevented this from being perhaps an even more spectacular season. In conference play, Navy ranked dead last in yards allowed per play, permitting more than six and a half yards per pop. Their offensive scheme did allow them to control time of possession (20th nationally) and face a low volume of plays (15th nationally in plays faced), but opponents were able to move the ball effectively against the Midshipmen. Navy presents a unique challenge for a Temple team with the best defense in the American. However, Temple does have experience in facing the triple option this season, having already played Army in the season opener. Of course, Temple did lose that game, but it was more due to turnovers (three interceptions) than Army running the ball down their throats. Temple has won six in a row with the last four coming in dominant fashion against bad teams (combined margin of 100 points) and while Navy is not a bad team, they are quite poor defensively. Senior quarterback Phillip Walker should play well in the penultimate game of his Temple career that began with a 2-10 campaign. Look for Temple to win this game outright and perhaps enter the AP Poll.

Oklahoma State +12 Oklahoma
Oklahoma appears to be getting a great deal of unearned respect from the College Football Playoff Committee and the betting market. The Sooners are 9th in the most recent set of CFP rankings, yet they have only one win against other teams currently ranked in the top 25. The Sooners have not been especially dominant against their schedule either, as they have one score wins against the three Big 12 schools from Texas (Texas, Texas Tech, and TCU), each of which has at least five losses on the season. Perhaps their most recent game, a four touchdown win at West Virginia is the catalyst behind their ascent in the minds of committee members and degenerates. However, keep in mind the Sooners were actually outgained in that game and allowed nearly nine yards per play to the Mountaineers. The big difference in the game was turnovers, of which the Sooners forced four (including a pick six), while committing only one themselves. Oklahoma State has quietly won seven in a row after a 2-2 start and would like nothing more than to steal the Big 12 title from the Sooners in their own stadium. The home team has won the last three in this rivalry, and while I don't know that the Cowboys can win outright, they should score enough to cover this large number.

Georgia State +6.5 Idaho
Sometimes I wonder what schools are thinking. Georgia State, a program that just began playing football in 2010 and qualified for their first bowl game last season, fired their coach after a 2-8 start to 2016. The Panthers won their first game under interim coach Tim Lappano by beating in-state rival Georgia Southern. Despite their poor record this season, Georgia State actually has solid per play numbers. They rank a middling sixth in the Sun Belt in yards per play, but boast the second best yards allowed per play in the conference. The schedule is partially to blame for their record as the Panthers faced Wisconsin and Air Force in the non-conference and had the misfortune of playing the three best teams in the Sun Belt (Appalachian State, Arkansas State, and Troy) once conference play began. The Panthers conclude their season with a road trip to Moscow, Idaho to take on a Vandal team looking to win eight games in the regular season for the first time since 1998. In their penultimate FBS season before returning to the FCS, Idaho has won more games this year than they did in their first three under coach Paul Petrino. The Vandals have won four games by a touchdown or less, and are far from a dominant team. The line in this game should be closer to a field goal and if Georgia State is motivated for a meaningless road trip to the middle of nowhere, this game should be close until the very end.

Wyoming +6.5 San Diego State
The computers have spoken! With the Cowboys and Aztecs both dropping games last week to back into the Mountain West Championship Game, the league had to use computers to determine which school would get to host. These teams played two short weeks ago with Wyoming emerging victorious when San Diego State failed on a two-point conversion after scoring as time expired. San Diego State came into the game a prohibitive favorite, so maybe Rocky Long should have read some of my stuff before making that call. Regardless, San Diego State still boasts the best defense in the Mountain West in yards allowed per play, but they were last seen being thrashed by Colorado State and have their numbers somewhat inflated (or deflated in this case) by playing in the far weaker West division. On the season Mountain teams went 14-4 against their West division opponents. Wyoming has not lost at home this season and four of their six wins have come in the role of underdog. Take the Cowboys to at least keep this one close and potentially take the league crown.

Virginia Tech +10 Clemson @ Orlando
The stakes for this game could be much different if Virginia Tech did not suffer a few head scratching losses this season. Their loss to Tennessee was understandable at the time, but with what we know now about the Vols and their collapse, it has to be looked at as a missed opportunity. The Syracuse loss was bad when it happened and looks even worse now as the Orange went just 1-4 after upsetting the Hokies. Finally, their home loss to Georgia Tech came against a Yellow Jacket team starting their backup quarterback and center. That being said, the Hokies still won the most games in the regular season (nine) that they have since the last time they played in the ACC Championship Game (2011) when they lost to Clemson (symmetry!). Justin Fuente did a fine job in his first season in Blacksburg. The Hokies improved from twelfth in the ACC in yards per play to eighth and their defense remained the rock of the team, finishing second in the ACC in yards allowed per play. Clemson is not as dominant as they were last season when they ran roughshod over the ACC winning just a single conference game by one-score. This year featured three one-score wins and a home loss to Pitt. I don't know that Virginia Tech can win this game, but their defense will keep them in it and with the game being moved from Charlotte, I think some of the homefield edge Clemson might otherwise enjoy has been diluted. Take the Hokies to keep this one close.