Sunday, July 23, 2017

Strangers in the Field: III

The past two years, I have gone to Vegas and made some bets (and won a little money). I went again this year.

Over/Under Win Totals
The premise here is simple. These bets are on teams to either go 'over' or 'under' a baseline win total.

Bowling Green over 4 wins -135 ($30 to win $22.25)
After winning the MAC and losing their head coach in 2015, the 2016 season began rather inauspiciously for the Falcons. In their first four games, the Falcons allowed 221 points (including 77 points twice!), lost two blowout games to fellow G5 teams, and narrowly edged North Dakota of the FCS. That victory over the Fighting Hawks would stand as their lone win until early November. However, despite the poor start, the Falcons did not quit on first year head coach Mike Jinks. They closed the year with a three-game winning streak and actually finished as an average MAC team based on yards per play. The returning quarterback, James Morgan, is just a sophomore, but threw for over 2000 yards last season as a true freshman. The lumps the Falcons took in 2016, should start to pay dividends this season. The non-conference schedule is rough, with only one likely win (South Dakota) and three challenging road games (Michigan State, Northwestern, and Middle Tennessee), but the Falcons play in the easier MAC division (East) and should be able to get to .500 in conference play. That should be enough to push them over this low total. 

Buffalo over 3.5 wins even ($50 to win $50)
Speaking of disappointing MAC East teams. After narrowly missing out on a bowl game in Lance Leipold's first season, the Bulls slumped significantly last year. They finished with just two wins, their lowest total since 2010, and won just a single MAC contest. However, like Bowling Green, they got their freshman quarterback (Tyree Jackson) significant playing time which should pay dividends in 2017. Buffalo's non-conference schedule is significantly less challenging than Bowling Green's. The Bulls have a likely loss at Minnesota and a likely home win against Colgate. The Bulls could be underdogs in their other two games at Army and home against Florida Atlantic, but a split would not shock me. Despite their poor showing last season, the Bulls actually upset Army last season and beat Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton two years ago. If the Bulls manage two wins in the non-conference portion of their schedule, they should be able to find two additional ones in the MAC.

Central Florida under 7.5 wins -115 ($30 to win $26.10)
Scott Frost certainly impressed in his first season as a head coach. The Knights improved by six wins in the regular season, going from winless to bowl eligible and earning Frost a well-deserved contract extension. Can Frost get the Knights to improve again? I'm betting against it. For starters, the Knights had nowhere to go but up after their horrendous 2015 season. Even a generic coach could probably have guided a team with Central Florida's underlying talent (remember they won the Fiesta Bowl just three and a half years ago) to four wins. In addition, while the Knights did more than double their point production from 2015, they still finished last in the American in yards per play. With nine starters back and Frost's offensive resume, improvement can be expected, but that will probably be undermined by regression on defense. The Knights ranked second in yards allowed per play in the American last season, but return just four starters from that side of the ball. Thus, I would expect a relative wash and another 4-4 American record. Couple that with a somewhat challenging non-conference schedule (Georgia Tech and @Maryland), and I see Central Florida maxing out at seven regular season wins. 

Georgia Southern over 5 wins +110 ($30 to win $33)
Unlike Scott Frost, Tyson Summers did not endear himself to his school's fan base in his inaugural season. After winning 18 games in their first two seasons as an FBS program, the Eagles suffered their first losing season since 2009. Their dynamic run game averaged nearly 150 fewer yards per game and over two yards worse per carry. To say Summers is on the hot seat heading into 2017 is an understatement. In my 2016 Sun Belt APR piece, I did a little research on head coaches that struggle in their first season relative to expectations. On average, those coaches improve by about two regular season wins in their second season and almost 60% improve by at least two games. Doing so would put the Eagles over this low regular season win total. The Eagles face two P5 road games in non-conference play (Auburn and Indiana), but also have two very winnable games (New Hampshire and @ Massachusetts). The Eagles do have to play three of the Sun Belt favorites in 2017 (Appalachian State, Arkansas State, and Troy), but there are plenty of potential wins remaining on the conference schedule. If this number was five and a half, I would have been hesitant, but with the number at five, this should be a push at worse. 

Illinois over 3.5 wins +120 ($30 to win $66)
Illinois was a confounding team in 2016. The Illini were not 'good' by any stretch, but their yards per play numbers suggested a middling Big 10 team, not a team that won just two conference games. I'm not a huge fan of the Lovie Smith hire long-term as his resume as an NFL head coach did not involve a great deal of forward thinking (something that is probably required to win consistently at Illinois), but I think the Illini can strive to be bad in 2017 and not terrible. The Illini do not play any P5 teams in non-conference play, but could still be 1-2 once Big 10 action starts (likely underdogs to Western Kentucky and @ South Florida). If that comes to fruition, the Illini would need three league wins to hit the over here. They do have five league homes games with one likely win (Rutgers), three where they should be a slight underdog with a decent chance to pull off an upset (Nebraska, Indiana, and Northwestern), and one where they should be a heavy underdog (Wisconsin). Illinois will have to pull off an upset or two, but I don't think four wins is too much to ask here. A big key for the Illini will be the health of wide receiver Mike Dudek. As a freshman in 2014, Dudek led the Illini with over 1000 receiving, but has missed the last two seasons with ACL tears. If Dudek stays healthy and is able to recapture his 2014 form, the Illini could surprise in 2017 (and by surprise I mean not suck).

Marshall over 5 wins -130 ($30 to win $23.10)
I believe 2017 will serve as a referendum on the Doc Holliday regime in Huntington. After a three-year run that included a conference title, a top-25 finish, 33 wins, and three bowl victories, the Herd slumped to 3-9 in 2016. The three victories represented their lowest win total since 2007. His previous success has bought him a little time, but Holliday had better get the Herd back to a bowl in 2017 if he wants to remain head coach. When conducting a postmortem on the 2016 season, it is clear Marshall earned all of their losses. They were not exceptionally unlucky in any regard, as the formerly prolific offense finished dead last in Conference USA in yards per play. The defense was not quite as bad, but was certainly not a strength. The offense should see moderate improvement as quarterback Chase Litton begins his third year leading the Thundering Herd. Marshall does lose their top-four receivers, but has a pair of transfers from P5 programs (Miami and UCLA) coming in to provide reinforcements. Worse case, the Herd should be in the middle of the pack offensively in Conference USA. Defensively, the Herd's main problem last season was their inexperience. Marshall returned just three starters and allowed their most points per game since 2012. This season, they bring seven starters back and should return to the top tier of Conference USA defenses. So we can expect some improvement in league play, but what about the non-conference schedule? There is only one P5 team (@ NC State) and two home games against MAC schools (Miami and Kent State), along with a road game against Cincinnati. The Herd should be able to split those games then if they can get to four conference wins, that would push them over this number. 

Ole Miss over 5.5 wins -130 ($40 to win $30.80)
Oh boy. I knew this bet was risky before I made it. The Rebels already self-imposed a bowl ban and were under NCAA scrutiny before I made this bet. And then, two days after I made it the head coach resigned for (ahem) misdialing an escort service from his university phone. The lesson as always: use a damn burner phone. So obviously, motivation could play a major role in how this team performs in 2017, but here is why I thought it was a good bet at the time. The Rebels have a tissue soft non-conference schedule. Outside of a tricky road trip to Cal (where they will probably still be favored), the Rebels face South Alabama, UT-Martin, and Louisiana-Lafayette. That's two Sun Belt foes and an FCS team for those scoring at home. Many casual football fans may not know this, but the Rebels' permanent cross-division rival in the SEC is Vanderbilt. While the Commodores won last season, Ole Miss should send a fruit basket to the conference headquarters every holiday season to show their appreciation. So, Ole Miss faces Vanderbilt in one of their cross-division games. Care to guess who the other is this season? Kentucky. Unless the SEC expands southward and adds FAU and FIU, Ole Miss hit the jackpot in terms of SEC East opponents. Finally, while Ole Miss dropped their last two games to finish 5-7 last year, they did get quarterback Shea Patterson some valuable experience in both defeats. The Rebels are an archetypal wildcard in 2017 and this year could go a multitude of ways. Maybe they rally around each other and ride an 'us against the world' wave to a solid season or maybe an early-season loss at California takes the fire out of the team and they limp through SEC play going through the motions. Either way, Ole Miss will be one of the most interesting teams of 2017. 

SMU over 5.5 wins -110 ($30 to win $27.30)
SMU is ready to make the proverbial leap in Year 3 of the Chad Morris era. The former Clemson offensive coordinator and Texas high school coach has quickened the pace in Dallas with the Mustangs averaging about nine more plays per game under his guidance than they did in 2014. However, success and efficiency have been slower to come around. The Mustangs have finished just tenth in the American in both 2015 and 2016 in yards per play. Of course, this represented a massive improvement from their inept 2014 showing, but the Mustangs have not revived the 'Pony Express' moniker yet. That should change in 2017 with SMU returning nine starters on offense and bringing in transfer quarterback Rafe Peavey to challenge incumbent Ben Hicks. The Mustangs are also poised for a strong start with four of their first five games coming at home, including non-conference clashes with Stephen F. Austin, North Texas, and Arkansas State. A sweep of that trifecta and a likely loss to TCU would have the Mustangs halfway to a bowl bid and an 'over' hit with a whole conference campaign to go. SMU has won eight games over the past three seasons and I would not be surprised if they matched that number in 2017. 

Texas-San Antonio under 6.5 wins even ($30 to win $60)
Call this a hunch that regression's ubiquitous pull will even catch up to the vaunted Roadrunner. In his first season as head coach, Frank Wilson helped UTSA double their win total from 2015 and guided them to their first bowl appearance in school history. The accomplishment was impressive, particularly considering the Roadrunners faced three challenging non-conference games (@ Colorado State, Arizona State, and @ Texas A&M). UTSA won five conference games despite middling numbers (ninth in yards per play and sixth in yards allowed per play), so improvement in the product, but a setback in the record would not be surprising. UTSA only has two challenging non-conference games this season (Houston and @ Baylor), so a repeat of last year's conference record would push them over this number. Methinks regression from the Roadrunners and improvement elsewhere in Conference USA (Rice and UTEP) will see UTSA top out at 6-6 and potentially miss out on a second bowl appearance altogether. 

UNLV over 5.5 wins +125 ($30 to win $37.50)
Like Chad Morris at SMU, I think Tony Fernandez has some 'third year magic' up his sleeve in Sin City. The Rebels have improved their win total (overall and conference play) in both of his seasons at the helm and the Rebels were practically an average Mountain West team last season based on yards per play despite their losing record. If the Rebels do get to a bowl in 2017,it will be on the back of the offense. That side of the ball returns nine starters while the defense undergoes wholesale changes with just two starters returning. The pivotal game for this team will probably come in the season's second week at Idaho. With Howard in the season opener and Ohio State and BYU coming later in the non-conference schedule, the Rebels desperately need the win against the Vandals. Earning two wins in non-conference play will make getting to the requisite six wins much easier. The schedule makers did do the Rebels a few favors in their cross-division games as they avoid both Boise State and Colorado State (favorites in the Mountain division). Couple that with occupying the easier division (San Diego State is a prohibitive favorite in the West, but the other five teams are virtually interchangeable) and UNLV has a realistic path to a bowl bid even if they lose to Idaho. 

Utah State over 4.5 wins even ($40 to win $40)
Utah State was one of the most unlucky teams in the nation in 2016. The Aggies had the statistical profile of a bowl team, but finished 3-9 thanks to four losses by a touchdown or less. All signs point toward a rebound in 2017, and the Aggies don't even have to qualify for a bowl game to cash this ticket. Non-conference action will be tough with two P5 road games (Wisconsin and Wake Forest) as well as a home date with in-state rival BYU. The Aggies do get a little respite with Idaho State, but 1-3 is a realistic proposition in non-conference play. That being said, once conference play starts, the Aggies will probably be substantial underdogs in just two games (Colorado State and Boise State), but it should be noted both those games are in Logan and two years ago the Aggies beat both those teams by a combined 41 points. Even assuming the Aggies lose all five of those tough games, I think they can win four of the remaining six (they avoid San Diego State in cross-division games) and hit the 'over' here. 

Wake Forest under 5.5 wins -145 ($40 to win $27.60)
Dave Clawson has a history of ramping things up in his fourth season in charge. His fourth year teams at Fordham, Richmond, and Bowling Green combined to go 29-11. So why bet against this solid trend? Take a look at that schedule. The Deacons open with Presbyterian, but that is the only sure win on the slate. The other non-conference games come against Utah State, @ Appalachian State, and @ Notre Dame. The Deacons will probably beat Utah State, but losing the other two would not be a surprising development. And then there is conference play. When the Deacons won the ACC eleven years ago, Clemson and Florida State did not have their acts together. Now they do. Plus in the interim, the division swapped Louisville for Maryland, who just happens to return the Heisman Trophy winner. Even NC State appears to be on the upswing. And the two lesser teams in the division (Boston College and Syracuse)? Well, Wake Forest has to play both of those teams on the road. Plus, while I don't expect Boston College to be significantly better than last season (when they beat Wake by the way), Syracuse could see significant improvement in Dino Babers' second season. In cross-division play, Wake must travel to Georgia Tech and host Duke. The cross-division games could be worse, but of their eight conference games, Wake will probably only be favored in one (Duke) or two (@ Boston College). The Boston College game is probably the biggest game of the year. It comes immediately after the scrimmage opener against Presbyterian and its easy to see the season going right off the rails should the Deacons lose that game. Even if they win, I think the ACC is too deep for Wake to qualify for a second consecutive bowl.  

Games of the Year
Typically betting lines are set on Sunday for games beginning the following week. However, sportsbooks set a few 'Game of the Year' lines for certain games that are months away from occurring. The home team in these games is listed in bold.

September 9th
Boise State +6.5 Washington State -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
If you go looking for undervalued mid-majors, Boise is typically not your first stop. The Broncos are a known national brand, having spent at least one week in the polls during each of the past fifteen seasons. However, I think this visit to Pullman is an exception. There has not been a lot of buzz around Boise this year thanks to their underwhelming bowl performance. As a solid favorite, the Broncos were crushed by a Baylor team playing for a lame duck coach entering on a six-game losing streak. Bowl performances are notoriously flaky so its best to just look at the regular season numbers for the Broncos. 2016 was a typical Boise performance. The Broncos ranked second in the Mountain West in yards per play on both sides of the ball and were a solid second overall (to San Diego State). They did lose twice in conference play, but both defeats came by a combined nine points. In non-conference play, the Broncos beat Washington State and BYU at home and won at Louisiana-Lafayette and Oregon State. With a little better luck, the mid-major story of 2016 could have been which group of Broncos were more deserving of a New Year's Six Bowl bid: Boise State or Western Michigan. As it was, Boise State underachieved and the Broncos enter 2017 with little hype. Since Chris Petersen left following the 2014 season, Boise State has remained a thorn in the side of P5 opponents, posting a 5-2 overall record (3-2 away from the Smurf Turf). Washington State has steadily improved in five seasons under Mike Leach, which is tough considering they play in a division with Oregon, Stanford, and Washington (otherwise known as the last eight Pac-10/12 champions). If they could manage to hold serve against FCS schools, the national media might start paying attention to the Cougars before November. Washington State has sandwiched bad starts and finishes around fantastic play in the past two seasons. In 2015, the Cougars lost their first and last regular season games, but in between went 8-2. In 2016, the Cougars lost their first two and final two regular season games, but in between won eight games in a row. This gambler for one, would enjoy another slow start by Washington State. Both teams have prolific and efficient offenses, but despite playing in the Mountain West, Boise has a better defensive pedigree. With them catching nearly a touchdown here, I'll take that defensive acumen over the homefield advantage. 

November 4th
TCU +2.5 Texas -110 ($20 to win $18.20)
The biggest worry I have in this game is the 'look ahead' factor. TCU has Oklahoma on deck, while Texas just has their revenge game with Kansas to look forward to after this one. TCU is playing at home against a 'big brother' type rival whom they have beaten four of five times since joining the Big 12. In fact, they have won three in a row in this series by a total of 103 points. Texas is favored in this game thanks to their hiring of Tom Herman in the offseason. While Herman did good things at Houston, all four of his losses as coach (including three last season) came as a betting favorite on the road. I think TCU wins this game outright, so them catching any number of points provides value here. 

November 4th
Iowa +16 Ohio State -110 ($20 to win $18.20)
For Ohio State, this is the dreaded 'sandwich game'. In between this visit to Iowa City, the Buckeyes host Penn State in a revenge spot and then host Michigan State. I think they won't bring their 'A' game to take on the Hawkeyes. While the Buckeyes have been successful overall as a double-digit road favorite under Urban Meyer, going 14-1 straight up, they are just 6-9 Against the Spread (ATS). Iowa has only been a double-digit home underdog three times in the last thirteen years, and while they have won just one (last year versus Michigan), they have covered each time. 

November 11th
TCU +15 Oklahoma -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
I think Oklahoma is due for some regression in 2016. While the Sooners were statistically the best team in the Big 12 last season, their profile did not necessarily befit a team that wins all their conference games. The offense was superb, ranking first in the offensive-friendly Big 12 in yards per play, but the defense ranked just fourth in yards allowed per play. That is above-average, but hardly elite. If the Sooners have any sort of offensive regression, which is a definite possibility thanks to the surprise retirement of Bob Stoops, a few of those blowouts could get closer and some of those close games could flip the other way. Oklahoma has won four of the five contests with TCU since the Horned Frogs joined the Big 12, but every game has been decided by seven points or fewer with an average margin of just 4.2 points. Before last season's shootout, TCU held Oklahoma to under six yards per play in their first four meetings. I think that historical trend continues with TCU keeping this one close. 

November 25th
West Virginia +20.5 Oklahoma -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
Since promoting Tony Gibson to the defensive coordinator position prior to the 2014 season, West Virginia has quietly become one of the better defensive teams in the Big 12. In their first two seasons in the Big 12 with Gibson not coordinating the unit, the Mountaineers finished ninth in the conference both times in yards allowed per play. They also allowed nearly 41 points per conference game! Since Gibson's promotion, the Mountaineers have finished second, third, and second in yards allowed per play and given up about 27 points per conference game. The two touchdown per game improvement has allowed the Mountaineers to go from 6-12 in their first two seasons of Big 12 play to 16-11 over the past three. Of course, West Virginia has yet to beat Oklahoma since joining the conference and on the national stage with the conference title on the line, the Mountaineers were bludgeoned by 28 points last year in Morgantown. However, the final score was a bit misleading as West Virginia turned the ball over three times and actually outgained Oklahoma by almost three yards per play. As I mentioned in the previous write-up, Oklahoma is probably due for some regression with the coaching change. I don't think West Virginia has the goods to upset them in Norman, but I think they keep this game within three touchdowns. 

November 25th
Utah -1.5 Colorado -110 ($50 to win $45.45)
Colorado was one of the biggest surprises in all of college football last season. After ten consecutive losing seasons and just ten wins in Mike MacIntyre's first three seasons, the Buffaloes won ten games, spent a few weeks in the top-ten, and played for the Pac-12 title. Now comes the hard part, sustaining that success. The Buffaloes lose eight starters from their defense which ranked second in the Pac-12 in yards allowed per play. That coupled with some natural regression should preclude any thought of consecutive division titles. The fact that this game is in Salt Lake City, a place where the Utes are 10-3 over the past two seasons (and 46-16 over the past decade), and the very low spread makes this a must play for the home team. 

Conference Champion Bets
I decided to put a few dollars down on a team to win their league.

TCU to win the Big 12 +1000 ($10 to win $100)
I expect TCU to improve upon their 6-7 record from last season and I expect Oklahoma to come back to the pack a little. If the Horned Frogs finish in the top-two, they will qualify for the Big 12 Championship Game and have a chance to cash this ticket.

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

Milwaukee Brewers to win World Series +1500 ($10 to win $150)
At the All-Star break, this would have looked pretty good. The Brewers were up 5.5 games on the Cubs. Milwaukee has hit a bit of tailspin since the break and as of this writing, while they have a one game lead, they are actually behind the Cubs in the loss column. Personally, I think the Brewers will fade unless they are able to add another bat to plug the gaping hole at second base, but figured they were worth taking a flyer on.

Minnesota Twins to win World Series +3000 ($10 to win $300)
By any statistical measure, the Minnesota Twins are not a good baseball team. Yet, there they are in late July, trailing the Cleveland Indians by 1.5 games in the AL Central (and 2 games back of the second Wild Card). The World Series seems destined to be a showdown between the powerhouses in Houston and Los Angeles, but the baseball playoffs are often unpredictable and very random. If Minnesota gets in, this lottery ticket will be worth hanging on to. Plus, it wouldn't be the first time Minnesota won the World Series while actually being a pretty bad team.

Tampa Bay Rays to win World Series +5000 ($10 to win $500)
Not sure how the Rays have much worse odds than the Twins, but I'll take it. Tampa Bay is only 3.5 games back of Boston in the AL East and tied with the Yankees for the Wild Card. They field well (fourth in the majors in Defensive Efficiency) and actually have an above average adjusted OPS despite ranking in the middle of the pack in the American League in runs scored. The Rays are probably the most likely of these three teams to make the playoffs (despite the long odds on the betting ticket), and once they get there, anything can happen. 

Reckless Parlay(s)
I made two reckless parlays instead of one this year. However, I decreased the number of teams, so this should pretty much guarantee it hits. All games must be correct for the parlay to pay out.

Parlay 1:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 26th 
Massachusetts +1 Hawaii
Hawaii travels across the country to play a Minutemen team that...will probably still be bad, but that's a long flight.

Game 2: September 1st
Utah State +29 Wisconsin
Utah State was better than their record last season and will prove it here by losing by less than four touchdowns.

Game 3: September 2nd
Florida International +17.5 Central Florida
The Butch Davis era kicks off with a 'rivalry' game against the overrated Knights. 

Game 4: September 2nd
Middle Tennessee State +6 Vanderbilt
This could be Rick Stockstill's best team in Murfreesboro and they are playing at home against a beatable SEC opponent.

Parlay 2:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 31st
Buffalo +27.5 Minnesota
Buffalo will be much improved in 2017 and the PJ Fleck era at Minnesota will begin with a closer than expected win.

Game 2: September 1st
Charlotte +12.5 Eastern Michigan
No one was happier to see Eastern Michigan break a three-decade bowl drought last season than me. However, they should not be giving double-digits to nearly any FBS program. 

Game 3: September 1st
Florida Atlantic +14 Navy
Lane Kiffin and his Owls have had all offseason to prepare for the option. Hopefully he has not spent all his time posing with coeds and trolling Ole Miss

Game 4: September 2nd
Marshall +1 Miami (Ohio)
Marshall typically plays very well at home, going 29-7 in Doc Holliday's first six seasons before last year's surprising 3-4 home record. The Herd are undervalued this season. 

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