Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week V

We managed a 4-3 mark in Week IV. We'll try to put together consecutive winning weeks for the first time this season. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 15-13

Iowa State +6.5 Texas
With the Big 12 looking unusually deep (Baylor and Kansas appear to be the only dead weight), this game is vital to the bowl hopes of both teams. Based on Bill Connelly's advanced stats, despite being ranked 49th, Iowa State is only favored in one game remaining on their schedule (granted they are projected to be within a touchdown in five other games). Similarly, while Texas is favored by the numbers in six of their nine remaining games, after a 1-2 start, they are just an upset or two away from potentially missing out on a bowl game. Suffice it to say, this Thursday night game will have a profound impact on the narrative for both teams going forward. Iowa State has been a lively home dog under Matt Campbell, going 4-1 ATS last season and earning either a push, close win, or close loss depending on the spread you bought the Iowa game at this year. Unfortunately, while the Cyclones have been close under Campbell, they have only won once as a home underdog. Outside of a season-ending blowout loss to West Virginia, their other five home losses under Campbell have come by a combined 26 points. The Cyclones could be in store for more of the same against Texas and Tom Herman. Herman has a fantastic overall record of 23-5 as a head coach, but he has struggled in the role of road favorite. Four of his five total losses have come as a road favorite and his teams have failed to cover the last three times in the role. The fan in me wants Iowa State to finally break through and get their first big win under Campbell, but I think the more likely result is another tight loss.

Illinois +6.5 Nebraska
I touted the benefits of Lovie Smith as a college underdog two weeks ago thanks to his defense and the Illini responded by giving up nearly 700 yards of offense to South Florida. Naturally, I'm back on them again. Let me explain my logic. South Florida has an athletic quarterback who carries the ball a lot (Quinton Flowers averages more than ten non-sack rushing attempts per game) and the Illini have a pair of quality defensive ends who excel at rushing the passer, but are not great at controlling running quarterbacks. Hence the devastation South Florida wrought. Nebraska comes to Champaign with a more traditional offense and a quarterback who is not a running threat. And perhaps not much of a passing threat either as Tanner Lee leads the nation in interceptions thrown. Illinois has offensive issues of their own, so they need this to be an ugly slog in the teens or low twenties to win. In fact, the Illini may have a quarterback controversy brewing. Despite their offensive struggles, Illinois is a good play here. They are coming off a bye while Nebraska is on a short week after an unimpressive performance against Rutgers last week. In addition, Nebraska has failed to cover as a favorite this season and are just 4-7 on the road under Mike Riley. This game probably won't be very aesthetically pleasing, but you can still make some cash if you back the Illini.

Vanderbilt +10 Florida
I'll say this for Jim McElwain, the man has been able to get it done in close games. In his three seasons at Colorado State and two and change at Florida, his teams are 17-4 in one-score games (12-2 in one-score conference games). Is this a repeatable trend or is he the proverbial hot hand at the craps table? It will be interesting to check back in a half-decade or so and see if this remarkable run continues. Thus far in 2017, it shows no signs of slowing down as the Gators have beaten Tennessee on a touchdown at the horn and escaped Kentucky in similar, but less dramatic fashion. Now the Gators try to move to 3-0 in the SEC for the second time in three years under McElwain. With Georgia looking strong, the Gators cannot afford to slip up against a team that typically resides at the bottom of the SEC East. A week ago, it looked like Vanderbilt might be a legitimate contender in the division. The Commodores were riding a five game regular season win streak dating back to 2016, with outright wins as a betting underdog against Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Kansas State. Alas, the resident conference bully came to Nashville and crushed the Commodores. However, based on the team's history under Derek Mason, a disheartening loss does not necessarily carry over to the following game. In 2014, Vanderbilt lost 51-0 to Dak Prescott and Mississippi State. They rebounded to lose by just a touchdown and easily cover in the season finale at home against Tennessee. In 2015, Vanderbilt was shut out by eventual Peach Bowl Champion Houston. In their next game, they traveled to Florida and nearly upset the Gators. Last season, Vanderbilt suffered a disappointing opening loss to South Carolina. In their next game, they crushed Middle Tennessee State. A week later, they lost by a large margin to Georgia Tech. They responded by upsetting Western Kentucky on the road in their next game. I wouldn't trust Vanderbilt to win this game, particularly with McElwain's resplendent record in close games, but I think they regroup and keeps this one close against a Florida team still reeling from a host of suspensions.

Northwestern +15 Wisconsin
Looking too far into the future is folly in college football, but the Wisconsin Badgers should be favored in each of their remaining games until Michigan comes to town in mid-November in the penultimate regular season contest. The Badgers breezed through the non-conference portion of their schedule, allowing just 30 points to their first three opponents while passing and rushing with equal aplomb. For Northwestern, non-conference play did not quite go according to plan. The Wildcats beat the Group of Five teams on their schedule, but were beaten soundly in Durham by an improved Duke team. Northwestern has rebounded from disappointing starts before, including last season when they opened 1-3 with losses home losses to Western Michigan, Illinois State, and Nebraska. Despite having five of their final eight games on the road, the Wildcats won three games away from Evanston (two as an underdog) and nearly upset Ohio State in Columbus as they secured a bowl bid. Northwestern has been a lively road dog recently, going 9-3 ATS in the role since 2014, including 5-1 as a double-digit road underdog. There is a legitimate question to how good Wisconsin actually is. While they have throttled their three opponents thus far, those three teams have combined for exactly one FBS win (Utah State over San Jose State). This spread should probably be closer to eleven or twelve points, so take the Wildcats here.

Wake Forest +7.5 Florida State
It seems I was a bit premature in my effusive praise of Wake Forest last week. The Deacons narrowly escaped Appalachian State in Boone thanks to a blocked extra point and a blocked field goal at the end of the game. Of course, the Deacons fared better than Florida State as the Seminoles dropped to 0-2 with a home loss to NC State. Quarterback James Blackman had a solid game in his first career start, throwing for nearly 300 yards and a touchdown. However, he was sacked four times by the Wolfpack defense, and the Seminoles managed only 21 points. Blackman will be making his first road start against the Deacons, albeit in admittedly not the most hostile environment. Still, Wake Forest has been solid at home under Dave Clawson, posting a 7-4 ATS mark as a home underdog. In addition, they have covered against the Seminoles in four of the last six games in Winston-Salem, including a pair of outright wins. Against competent teams, Wake Forest will have issues moving the football, but I think they can make this a low-scoring defensive slog. I don't think Wake Forest can simultaneously move to 5-0 while dropping the Seminoles to 0-3, but this one should be close.

Ole Miss +28 Alabama
I know this pick may seem ludicrous after Ole Miss was able muster all of 16 points in a loss at Cal and Alabama decimated what appeared to be a solid Vanderbilt team on the road. Let me explain my reasoning. For starters, the Cal game should be placed in proper context. ACC and SEC teams that make the trek west to face Pac-10/12 schools don't do well.
Since 2005, they are a cumulative 3-17 and have been outscored by about 17 points per game on average. This chart is a little deceiving for several reasons. I used conference affiliation at the time of the game or now as a determining factor so former ACC member Maryland's trip to Cal in 2009 is included as are Syracuse and Louisville's sojourns while they were Big East members. But should Texas A&M, a 'southeastern' team traveling to Los Angeles count? Probably not, but I included them anyway. In addition, many of these teams (Duke, Virginia, and Wake Forest for example) were huge underdogs in their games. However, I think it is telling that the only ACC/SEC underdog to win outright was LSU (against Arizona State as the slightest of underdogs in 2005). In addition, only four ACC/SEC teams have been favored in their road trips, and half of them lost outright (Ole Miss two weeks ago and Tennessee at the beginning of the Phil Fulmer death march in 2008). Anyway, I mention all that to posit that Ole Miss is probably a little undervalued after their loss to Cal. Similarly, Alabama is probably a little overvalued after their win against Vanderbilt. Its hard, even for a team like Alabama, to play at peak performance in every game. Here are just a few (cherry picked) examples from the past three seasons. In 2014, Alabama hammered Texas A&M 59-0. The next week, they failed to cover as a huge favorite at Tennessee. In 2015, Alabama was a slight underdog to Georgia and crushed the Bulldogs in Athens. They failed to cover the next week at home against Arkansas. Last season, Alabama beat Southern Cal 52-6. They failed to cover their next two games as large favorites against Western Kentucky and Ole Miss. The only thing the public loves more than a favorite is a heavy favorite, and they are paying about a four or five point premium to back the Tide here. Ole Miss does have some legitimate concerns here with leading receiver AJ Brown potentially missing the game and the Rebels having no running game to speak of. That would be a problem if I expected Ole Miss to win this game, but they don't even really have to keep it close. Expect a lot of Ole Miss punts, a few big passing plays by the Rebels, a glitchy Alabama offense, and a final margin of about three touchdowns.

Nevada +10 Fresno State
This line does not make a great deal of sense to me. Both these teams have faced arduous schedules in the early going with Fresno State battling a pair of top-ten teams (Alabama and Washington) on the road and Nevada playing two Power Five road games (Northwestern and Washington State) while also hosting a very good Group of Five team (Toledo). Fresno and Nevada have also faced one FCS school, and while the Bulldogs took care of business against Incarnate Word, the Wolfpack were shocked by Idaho State. That loss, plus the fact that they were annihilated by Washington State last week while Fresno enjoyed a bye is probably the reason for this inflated number. Keep in mind Fresno State has not been favored at home against an FBS foe, much less by double-digits, since 2014. Even more damning, the Bulldogs are also just 1-5 ATS in their last six games in that role. On the other side, Nevada is 10-4 ATS in their last fourteen games as double-digit underdog, albeit with most of those coming under Brian Polian, the previous coach (1-1 under Jay Norvell). Fresno State should not be laying double digits against any fellow Mountain West team. Take the Wolfpack to keep this one close.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

After a perfect Week II, regression was in order. We went 3-5, but the yearly total is right at the break-even percentage. We'll try to get above it this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-5
Overall: 11-10

UNLV +40 Ohio State
Last week, the spread was pretty much right on the money for Ohio State in their game against the Black Knights from Army. In my post, I picked the game (incorrectly) at +30 for Army, but at other outlets and on ESPN, I saw it at either 30.5 or 31, which is exactly where it ended up. I give that background to logically quantify this spread. Its not a direct apples to apples comparison, but if this spread is to be believed, then Army would basically be a ten-point favorite on a neutral field against UNLV. To be fair, the Rebels did endure perhaps the largest outright loss in gambling history earlier in the season. However, the Rebels responded to that disappointment by blowing out Idaho in Moscow and have had a week to prepare for their trip to Columbus. Meanwhile, Ohio State has had two Power Five games and a clash with Army's unique offense before facing the Rebels. With the Big 10's expanded conference schedule, this is the last non-conference game Ohio State will play before the postseason as conference play resumes next week with a challenging trip to Piscataway. Despite their loss to Howard, the Rebels actually have solid per play numbers through two games. They are averaging north of eight yards per play (granted against inferior competition) and have scored at least 40 points in each of their first two games. Precocious freshman quarterback Armani Rogers has thrown for over 400 yards and rushed for over 100 yards and will likely be the quarterback of the next bowl eligible UNLV team (it could happen this year!). I don't expect UNLV to come close to their seasonal averages against Ohio State, but if they can get to ten points they should be able to cover this bloated number.

Maryland -3.5 Central Florida
Through two games, and really just one, the public perception of Maryland has changed drastically. That the Terps crushed FCS Towson in their second game would not have moved the needle a great deal regardless of their performance in the opener. However, by beating Texas and the wunderkind Tom Herman in Austin, Maryland ratcheted expectations (at least marginally) in D.J. Durkin's second season. Despite losing their starting quarterback, Tyrrell Pigrome, to injury in the second half and allowing Texas to score two non-offensive touchdowns to keep the game close, Maryland beat the Longhorns for the first time ever (and also scored on Texas for the first time). With Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State in their division, to say nothing of improving Indiana and established Michigan State, anything beyond a bowl game is probably a pipe dream, but the Terps have served notice that they should be competitive. Contrast this to last season when they lost to the four teams on their schedule that finished ranked by a combined 160 points. With the tough road ahead, Maryland will need every victory they can get. Thus, they will likely not overlook a Central Florida team that took them to overtime in Orlando last season. The Knights are probably ready to play some football as they have not taken the field since the Thursday before Labor Day. In that game, the Knights dominated their in-state 'rival' from Florida International. The Knights led by 30 at the half before easing off the throttle in a 61-17 win. The offensive struggles from 2016 seemed to dissipate as quarterback McKenzie Milton averaged an obscene 17 yards per pass! However, it should be noted that Florida International struggled in their follow-up game against Alcorn State. I would be hesitant to read too much into the Knights' big win as they also laid 53 on the Panthers in 2016. Maryland has had a week off to prepare for this game and it will be the second started by freshman quarterback Kasim Hill who played well against Texas after entering the game and was not challenged against Towson. Couple that with the homefield advantage and Maryland should win this game by at least a touchdown.

TCU +13 Oklahoma State
Based on early returns there appears to be three legitimate contenders for the Big 12 title in 2017. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and TCU are all undefeated with a road win against a fellow Power Five team and glowing scoring margins. Of course, conference play has not even started yet so potential darkhorses like Kansas State, Texas, and West Virginia are still lurking in the weeds. However, methinks this conference opener will go a long way toward determining the participants in the new non-divisional Big 12 Championship Game. Oklahoma State has looked peerless in the early going, averaging 54 points per game and outscoring their opponents by 110 points through three games. The Cowboys were quite impressive in their most recent game, scoring touchdowns on their first seven possessions against Pitt before reeling the offense in. Despite their impressive start, I would posit the argument that Oklahoma State is probably overvalued here by close to a touchdown. The Cowboys have crushed their opponents, with two of the games coming away from Stillwater, but how good are the teams they have beaten? The Cowboys scored 59 points on Tulsa, but the Golden Hurricane allowed 96 points in their next two games against fellow mid-majors Louisiana-Lafayette and Toledo. The Cowboys scored 44 points against South Alabama, but the Jaguars allowed 47 points in their opener against Ole Miss. Finally, the Cowboys decimated Pitt, but the Panthers were beaten soundly by Penn State and narrowly edged FCS member Youngstown State (while allowing over seven yards per play to the Penguins). Suffice it to say, the competition has not been all that intense. TCU will be their toughest challenge yet, and while the Horned Frogs struggled a bit with SMU last week, keep in mind it was the dreaded 'sandwich game', coming between a trip to Arkansas and this foray to Stillwater. Plus, the Mustangs are usually the more motivated bunch in that game thanks to TCU's status as a Power Five program now. Since joining the Big 12, TCU is 9-3 ATS as a road underdog (2-0 as a double-digit road dog), with five outright upsets. Granted, two of those failures to cover came in Stillwater, but this line feels way too high. Take the Horny Toads to keep this one close.

Miami (Ohio) +2.5 Central Michigan
Assuming the Redhawks can overcome their fourth quarter collapse against Cincinnati last week, they should be a solid play in the conference opener for both teams. With a chance to claim the Victory Bell for the first time since 2005, Miami blew an eleven-point fourth quarter lead thanks to some questionable decisions by players and coaches. Miami may be disheartened by their rivalry loss, but the goal of a conference title is still in play. Remember, this team did not quit last season when they began 0-6. Instead, they rallied for an improbable bowl bid and nearly beat Mississippi State in the postseason. As long as their psyche is fine, I think the wrong team is favored in this game. The only thing Central Michigan has proven, as has pretty much every other FBS team since 2010, is that they can beat Kansas. Outside of their road whipping of the Jayhawks, the Chippewas have needed overtime (and six turnovers) to dispatch an FCS team and been blown out by a decent Power Five team. Central Michigan is the home team, but Miami has been a lively road dog under Chuck Martin, going 12-6 ATS with three outright upsets and a horde of near misses. Look for the Redhawks to take this one outright as well.

Wake Forest -4 Appalachian State
I must say, when examining Wake's schedule in the preseason, I assumed this game would be a loss. However, Wake has played their best football yet under Dave Clawson in the early going and seem to be pretty good this year. A second consecutive bowl game is certainly within reach, and who knows, perhaps the Deacons can upset one of the 'Big 3' (Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville) within their division. Through three games, Wake Forest has scored 131 points (granted against less than stellar competition). In Clawson's first year (remember the one that brought you the scoreless classic with Virginia Tech?), Wake did not score their 131st point until the ninth game! In took until the seventh game in 2015! Anyway, the offense, while it may not remain potent, is at least functional. The running game has me feeling particularly optimistic as the Deacons could average north of four yards per carry for the first time since 2010 and have a 1000-yard rusher for the first time since 2005. Don't get me wrong, Appalachian State still scares me, and I hate the fact that this game is in the mountains, but I feel much better about it than I did in July. Not only because of Wake's improvement, but also because the Mountaineers have not looked as strong as expected. Appalachian State opened the season traveling to Athens, and while I did not expect them to emerge from between the hedges with a victory, they were not very competitive. They trailed by 31 points entering the fourth quarter and outside of a few nice runs by quarterback Taylor Lamb, were not able to move the ball at all. They followed that up with an expected thrashing of Savannah State, but one shouldn't gleam much from that game as the Tigers were beaten just as soundly by Montana of the FCS. Finally, Appalachian State traveled to San Marcos to face a Texas State team with just a single FBS win since the start of the 2016 season. The Mountaineers were outgained by nearly 100 yards and averaged fewer yards per play while escaping with a 20-13 win. Historically, Appalachian State has given Wake fits, and even beaten them a number of times. My Wake Forest career began with a Thursday night loss to the Mountaineers. However, since joining FBS in 2014, Appalachian State is just 1-4 ATS against Power Five teams (I'm sure you remember the one cover). In addition, despite rarely being a home dog, they are 0-2 in the role since joining FBS, with both spreads clocking in below a touchdown (as this one does). I'm usually slow to come around, but I'm drinking the Wake Koolaid. The Deacons, even on the road, seem to be a touchdown better than the Mountaineers.

Georgia State Pick Em Charlotte
This game is the early favorite for least consequential final score of the season. Both Georgia State and Charlotte are relatively new to FBS and outside of a nice run at the end of 2015 for the Panthers, neither has had much success. Charlotte did pick up their first win as an FBS program against Georgia State two years ago, but these schools have combined for just twelve total wins against FBS programs in about six and a half combined years of play at the FBS level. Yuck. Anyway, I'm backing a team in this game that is currently averaging all of five points per game. Of course, had James Franklin not iced their kicker in the closing seconds, Georgia State could be averaging six and a half points per game. So there's that. Part of the reason for Georgia State's low offensive numbers is the fact they have only played two games and one of those came against Penn State. In the other game, when the Panthers reopened Turner Field, their quarterback, Conner Manning, was hurt and they fell to Tennessee State. Manning did play against Penn State, but put up dreadful numbers against the Nittany Lions. However, he played well for the Panthers last season and is likely licking his chops at the thought of playing a Charlotte defense that is allowing nearly nine yards per pass. Charlotte has played a strong team (Kansas State), but their secondary was also torched by Eastern Michigan and an FCS team (NC A&T). Their offense has not been much better, as they scored 14 total points against Eastern Michigan and Kansas State. College Football Final won't lead with the highlights from this game, but the money you can make from it spends just the same. All the Panthers have to do is win, and they should get Shawn Elliott his first win as a full-time head coach here.

Florida -3 Kentucky
Kentucky is on a nice run, having gone 10-3 over their last thirteen regular season games since starting 0-2 in 2016. In that span, the Wildcats have won more road games (four) than they won from 2010-2015 (three). Can Kentucky take the proverbial next step and win some conference games to put them in contention in the SEC East? Beating the Gators would go a long way toward that goal, especially considering they have lost thirty in a row to Florida. So how good is Kentucky? Can they break that streak? Last week I opined that South Carolina might be the least statistically impressive 2-0 team in the country. With the Wildcats winning in Columbia last week, they may have taken that title. Kentucky won the game by ten points, but they were actually slightly outgained by the Gamecocks and averaged nearly a yard and a half less per play. The Wildcats pulled off two huge fourth down stops while South Carolina missed three field goals (granted none were chip shots) and an extra point to boot. Previously the Wildcats had beaten Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky with better, but similarly mediocre statistical performances. Expecting Kentucky to win another game, especially against a team with the pedigree of Florida does not seem wise. Florida is coming off an emotional win against Tennessee, so there could be concern for a letdown. However, Gator fans should be cautiously optimistic about the offense after their performance against Tennessee. Even when removing the (don't call it a) Hail Mary pass against the Vols, Florida averaged a healthy 5.67 yards per play against the Vols. That's not a great number by any stretch, but it shows their putrid showing against Michigan likely had more to do with the quality of opponent than general offensive ineptitude. Kentucky has played decent defense through their first three games, but they ain't Michigan. The defense did get gashed by the Vols on the ground, but even with a good showing against Eastern Kentucky, the Wildcats are averaging under four yards per carry through the first three games so its unlikely they can have similar success. With a line right at a field goal, I can't take the underdog unless I have a belief they can win the game outright. I don't get that feeling here. Kentucky has actually performed poorly as a home dog under Mark Stoops, going 2-10-2 ATS in the role. That plus the general trend of this rivalry (the smallest margin of victory for Florida in this run is three points in 2003) makes the Gators the play here.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

That is how you overcome a slow start. We were perfect (with an asterisk) last week. The South Florida/Connecticut game, which was one of our picks, was canceled. So that means you get eight games this week. Don't worry, no extra charge. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-0
Overall: 8-5

Illinois +17.5 South Florida
In just a little over one season, Lovie Smith has built Illinois in the image of the Chicago Bears teams he led for nine years. Don't believe me? Just look at the numbers. Over the 144 games Smith coached in Chicago, his teams scored an average of 20.9 points per game. In the modern NFL, that is not a great total. However, his defenses allowed only 19.2 points per game, which is a very good showing. Thus far in 2017, his Illini are 2-0 and are averaging 22 points per game while allowing 14 points per game. Illinois has played very safe football in the early going, running the ball nearly twice as often as they have thrown it (80 rushes to 44 pass attempts) and ranking in the bottom quartile nationally in plays per minute. The initial competition thus far has not been elite, so it is legitimate to question whether this strategy is sustainable once Big 10 play begins. Eventually, Illinois will have to score in the 30s to win a football game. While this may not be a viable long-term strategy for turning the Illini program around, it is a great strategy for holding down the margin of defeat. When I handicapped South Florida's game against Connecticut scheduled for last weekend, I gave some potential reasons for their offensive struggles in the early going. The staff changes with Charlie Strong and Sterlin Gilbert taking over The Gulf Coast Offense and Marlon Mack departing for the NFL were the main culprits in my opinion. Without another point of data to refute that hypothesis, I have to believe South Florida's offense will again disappoint relative to their performance last season. I also think this is a bad matchup for South Florida schematically. The Bulls love to run the ball, especially with quarterback Quinton Flowers. That plays right into the hands of a strong Illinois rush defense. The Illini have allowed under three yards per rush in their first two games and have a pair of quality freshmen defensive ends in Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay who have combined for four sacks in the early going. The Illini probably don't have the offensive production to win this game outright, but they should keep it close.

Baylor +14.5 Duke
What a difference two games can make. While The Golden Nugget did not put this contest on their 'Games of the Year' summer list, one has to believe Baylor would have been a significant favorite if this game was handicapped over the summer. Even last week, its conceivable Baylor would have been favored. Of course, when you lose to an FCS team (albeit one with designs on moving up) and an FBS newbie, you can expect for the public to overreact and downgrade you faster than the Greek economy. Duke also contributed to this bloated spread by upsetting Northwestern as a small home underdog last week. While Northwestern was viewed as a darkhorse contender in the Big 10 West, early returns indicate the Wildcats are indeed not who we thought they were. Remember, they were down at the half against Nevada despite being favored by more than three touchdowns. So, while Duke's win and margin were impressive in a vacuum, it pays to not jump to conclusions after one game. Plus, while Duke did roll up over 500 yards on the Wildcats, that had more to do with volume (104 plays) than explosiveness (just 5.17 yards per play). Here are a few more trends to keep in mind regarding this game. Matt Rhule is no stranger to rebuilding programs by tearing them down first. His first Temple team finished 2-10, but the Owls played hard all season, finishing 5-0 ATS as a road underdog and 4-0 as a double-digit road dog. Finally, the public seems to overvalue David Cutcliffe and Duke (legitimately never thought I would type that). After going 12-5-1 ATS as a home favorite from 2008-2014, the Blue Devils are just 1-6 ATS in the role since. Duke will ultimately move to 3-0, but it won't be easy.

Utah State +14 Wake Forest
If you don't delve too deeply into the numbers, this game appears to be a real mismatch. Wake Forest is averaging over 42 points per game while allowing under ten. The Deacons beat Boston College by 24 points last week, which was their largest margin of victory against an FBS foe since 2013 and their largest margin of victory in a road game since 2008! While the 34 points were nice, Wake still averaged under five yards per play and can thank the defense for a lot of those points. Wake forced four turnovers (while not giving the ball away themselves). One of those turnovers resulted directly in a touchdown via the return, another set up the Deacons for a 26 yard 'drive', and the other put the ball on the BC two-yard line. Even with conservative accounting practices, the defense contributed to half of Wake's points against Boston College. Don't get me wrong, I love it when defense and special teams make life easier for the offense, but don't be fooled into believing Wake Forest has conquered their offensive inequities. Barring a glut of turnovers by the Aggies, the Deacons will not score a ton of points in this game. In addition, a letdown is likely as this is not a conference game so the Deacons may be overlooking Utah State, particularly with the three-game gauntlet (Appalachian State, Florida State, and Clemson) directly in front of them. Utah State will be plenty motivated playing against a Power Five opponent (and one they did beat in 2014). Don't forget, the Aggies hung tough with Wisconsin for the first 28 minutes or so. I like for Wake to win this game, but this feels like it will be much closer than two touchdowns.

Army +30 Ohio State
This is probably not what Ohio State needs coming off a tough game against Oklahoma. Even if the Buckeyes had beaten the Sooners, hosting an improving Army team that runs a unique offense was never a good matchup. I don't think the Buckeyes are in danger of losing this game as their foundation is too strong, but 30 points is a lot, especially in a game likely to see a smaller than average number of possessions. Army was burned on some big plays last week against Buffalo, and I don't mean the Bills, as quarterback Tyree Jackson averaged over twelve yards per throw against the Black Knights. Thus, I would expect J.T. Barrett to quiet the horde of Buckeye fans calling for his demotion by posting solid passing numbers here. The real question in handicapping this game is how many points can Army score? Ohio State has not played too many option teams. In fact, the Buckeyes two clashes with Navy (in 2009 and 2014) represent the only two instances in the past decade. In both those games, Ohio State allowed an average of 22 points and 278 rushing yards per game. Both those Navy teams qualified for bowl games, so they may have been a little better than Army. However, both those games also took place on the season's opening weekend, so the Buckeyes had all offseason to prepare for the unique offense. This game comes a week after a tough home loss against a fellow national contender. I have a hard time believing Ohio State can cover this number unless they can shut Army out. Based on a limited sample size against a similar, but probably superior team with additional time to prepare, it is doubtful that Ohio State can hold Army scoreless. I don't know that Army will put a scare into Ohio State, but they should do enough to cover this number.

Idaho +21 Western Michigan
After becoming perhaps the largest favorite to ever lose a game, UNLV rebounded by strolling into the Kibbie Dome and putting a hurting on Idaho. The Vandals allowed 550 yards at more than eight yards per snap to the Rebels while producing only 14 points of their own. With the team moving down in classification next year, it looks like they will be hard pressed to follow up on last season's surprising campaign. Did you know Idaho won nine games last year? Yes, they play in the Sun Belt, and none of the teams they beat were very good (at least in the regular season), but that was perhaps the quietest nine win season in recent memory. Anyway, this week the Vandals travel to Kalamazoo to take on a team that is also struggling in the early going. At least the Broncos can blame the schedule. While they have scored just three offensive touchdowns in their first two games, both of those contests came on the road against Power Five teams. Still, outside of some great runs by LeVante Bellamy, the Broncos have been pretty bad offensively. Take out a trick play touchdown, and the passing game has generated just three yards per pass (roughly equivalent to an Eddie George plunge up the middle at the end of his career). Even against quality defenses, those are not good numbers. I would expect Bellamy and the other backs (Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin) to have big games against an Idaho defense that was gashed by UNLV, but this spread just seems way too high considering Western Michigan's offensive struggles. Keep in mind, Idaho has been a solid road play under head coach Paul Petrino. The Vandals are 13-7 ATS as a double-digit road underdog, including an 11-3 mark since 2014. Plus, while the Vandals lost 20 of their first 21 road games under Petrino, they have actually won four of their last five. That might be stretching it here, but with a quality senior quarterback in Matt Linehan, Idaho should do enough to stay within two touchdowns.

Toledo -10 Tulsa
This Group of Five clash is only getting the streaming treatment on Saturday, but you might not find a game with more fireworks on Saturday. Toledo has consistently been the bridesmaid in the MAC West division, finishing no worse than second in six of the past seven years with no MAC Championship Game appearance to show for it. In a season without a prohibitive Group of Five favorite, can the Rockets break through and perhaps garner a New Year's Six bowl bid? Well, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, the Rockets will look to improve to 3-0 for the third consecutive year against an entertaining Tulsa squad. The Golden Hurricane have seen 191 total points scored in their first two games. Unfortunately, Tulsa has only scored 90 of those points. Tulsa lost by a large margin to a top-ten Oklahoma State team, but perhaps of greater concern was the 42 points they allowed at home to Louisiana-Lafayette. Both teams averaged north of seven yards per play with the Ragin' Cajuns actually edging the Golden Hurricane in that metric. With that defensive track record, its hard to see them slowing down Toledo and senior quarterback Logan Woodside. As long as this spread stays around ten points, the Rockets are a solid play here. They should not struggle at all moving the ball against Tulsa, and while Tulsa will do some scoring of their own, they won't be able to make enough stops to keep this one close.

Kentucky +7 South Carolina
Is South Carolina the most statistically unimpressive 2-0 FBS team? No way. Take a look at the overall numbers for Illinois or Old Dominion. However, the Gamecocks are probably the most statistically unimpressive 2-0 team with a pair of legitimate wins. The Gamecocks have beaten a pair of Power Five opponents away from home despite being outgained by over 300 total yards and despite averaging nearly half a yard fewer per snap than their opponents. How have they done this? They have pretty much run the board in 'The Little Things Bingo'. The Gamecocks have returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, have a turnover margin of +4, and have stopped their opponents three on fourth down. While it is possible to walk this tight rope for a full season (hell my alma mater did it in 2006), expecting it to continue is a good way to be disappointed. Teams will eventually stop kicking to Deebo Samuel and for a few games here and there, the turnover margin will probably swing the other way. This team feels like a lite version of Muschamp's second Florida team. The defense is not nearly as good, but the passing game is better. That Florida team was able to skate by all season on middling per play numbers, but then 2013 happened. The bill usually comes due. Anyway, while that Florida team was able to keep winning all year, they were not very good against the number as a favorite, posting a 3-5 ATS mark in the role with two outright losses. Kentucky has flown under the radar in the early going with less than impressive wins against Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky. However, Kentucky has actually won the last three games in this series despite being an underdog twice and the Gamecocks have only covered once against the Wildcats since 2009 (the first game after Stephen Garcia was dismissed in 2011). Look for more of the same this week. South Carolina may move to 3-0, but the Wildcats will put up a fight.

Kansas State -4 Vanderbilt
Of all college football teams to have played at least two games, care to guess who ranks first in scoring defense? Its Vanderbilt. The Commodores have allowed just six points through two games, limiting Middle Tennessee to one touchdown pass (where they proceeded to miss the extra point) and holding Alabama A&M scoreless. Holding the Blue Raiders to six points is impressive as they traveled to Syracuse last weekend and upset the Orange while putting 30 points on the board. However, extrapolating anything from the big win over Alabama A&M is folly. The Bulldogs were shut out by the Commodores, but they also lost to a UAB team rebooting its football program over Labor Day Weekend. In fact, Alabama A&M has played eight FBS teams since 2012 and their smallest margin of defeat in that span is 27 points. Of course, Kansas State has not exactly faced an SEC West quality schedule in the early going. The Wildcats began the season in the top-25 for the first time since 2014 and responded by crushing Central Arkansas (FCS) and Charlotte by a combined 84 points. Consistently covering as a road favorite is about the only thing Bill Snyder has not done in his second stint as Kansas State coach, posting a mediocre 6-6-1 ATS mark in the role. However, I am extremely skeptical of Vanderbilt's offense in this game. The Commodores have been solid on defense under Derek Mason and their offense has averaged 40 points per game in their last four home games. However, two of those games came against FCS foes and the other two were against Ole Miss and Tennessee teams limping to the finish in 2016. Kansas State, like most Big 12 defenses, typically employs a bend, but don't break strategy, so quarterback Kyle Shurmur should post solid yardage totals. However, to win this game though, Vanderbilt will need to punch the ball in the endzone. I don't know if they can do that as running back Ralph Webb has struggled against low-level competition (under three yards per carry) in the early going. The Big 12 got two solid non-conference road wins by comfortable margins last weekend, and I believe they will add a third this Saturday.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week II

Not a great start picking games for us. The good new is, we have plenty of time to dig out of that hole. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 2-5

Connecticut +17.5 South Florida
Randy Edsall's return to Storrs opened with a closer than expected win against Holy Cross. However, it could have been much worse. The Huskies were down 20-7 at halftime, but scored three second half touchdowns behind quarterback Bryant Shirreffs to avoid the upset. The result continued a disturbing trend for Connecticut as it marked the fifth consecutive year they either lost to an FCS team or beat one by less than a touchdown. Now the competition ramps up as the Huskies will host a ranked team for the first time since they upset Houston in 2015. South Florida also struggled against an FCS opponent last week as they trailed Stony Brook at the half and were tied with the Seawolves early in the fourth quarter. This marked the second game in a row in which The Gulf Coast Offense struggled. After averaging north of seven yards per play over the course of 2016, the Bulls are averaging under five yards per play after games against San Jose State and Stony Brook. Methinks the reason for the struggle is the new administration (head coach Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert) and the loss of running back Marlon Mack. Mack rushed for over 1000 yards during each of his three seasons on campus and departed as the school's all-time leading rusher with a year of eligibility remaining. Mack was selected in the fourth round by the Colts and his replacements have not been able to recreate his explosiveness. The Bulls have a pretty soft schedule, so they may yet enter late October or early November with an unblemished record, but they do not appear to be nearly as strong as they were last season. Speaking of last season, the much stronger version of the Bulls only managed to beat the Huskies by 15 points in Tampa. Now, the Bulls are three-score favorites on the road. South Florida and Connecticut have been conference mates since 2005. This will mark the Bulls seventh trip north in that span. The Bulls are 2-4 in Storrs and have not won by more than eight points. Look for that trend to continue here as South Florida prevails in a tight game.

Buffalo +16.5 Army
While the end results could not have been more different, both teams from the Empire State played well in their opener. Buffalo lost at Minnesota, but the Bulls were in the game until late in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Army dominated Fordham, never punting and amassing 60 points for the fourth time since the beginning of the 2016 season. That is a far cry from Army's first few games against FCS competition under Jeff Monken when they lost two of their first four contests. Still though, Fordham is an FCS school, so it would be dangerous to extrapolate too much from that win. Keep in mind the Bulls actually beat the Black Knights last year, a result which accounted for half of their 2016 win total. Army should be favored here, perhaps even by double-digits, but this line appears to be about a touchdown too high. Count on the Bulls keeping this one close.

Iowa -2.5 Iowa State
The 2017 edition of !El Assico! kicks off at Noon eastern time Saturday. For the first time in a while, the Battle for The Cy-Hawk Trophy could involve two bowl teams. Iowa looks well on their way to another postseason trip after squeezing the life out of Wyoming and Josh Allen last week. Iowa State beat Northern Iowa of the FCS last week, which may not seem like a great accomplishment, but the Cyclones did lose to the Panthers last season and in 2013 (not to mention North Dakota State in 2014). The Cyclones won by 18 points, but Iowa represents a significant step up in competition. The Hawkeyes will probably allow their first offensive touchdown after holding Wyoming to three points and under four and a half yards per pass, but this defense appears quite stout. The Hawkeyes young quarterback, Nate Stanley, will probably not generate a ton of points, but this feels like an old-school game Iowa will grind out and win by about a touchdown. Iowa has been money in the bank as a road favorite recently, going 11-1 ATS in the role since 2013. Most of those have come in small spreads similar to this one. Iowa has been a road favorite of a touchdown or less seven times since 2013 and have covered each time. Look for more of the same on Saturday.

TCU -2.5 Arkansas
Last season's overtime game in Fort Worth marked the first time these two former conference rivals had played since 1991! The series was dominated by Arkansas, with the Hogs winning 30 of the last 33 games, including 22 in a row from 1959 through 1980. Obviously, that has nothing to do with capping this game, but I did not realize how lopsided this rivalry was in the Southwest Conference. Anyway, last season TCU dominated Arkansas yardage wise, but were done in by turnovers and blocked kicks en route to an overtime loss that set the tone for their 6-7 season. Both teams opened their season with easy wins against FCS schools as the Horned Frogs and Razorbacks won by a combined 102-7 margin. TCU's brings back a ton of experience and will have revenge on their mind after last year's debacle. I would back them giving anything less than a field goal, so they are the play here.

Old Dominion -3 Massachusetts
For FCS teams that are looking to make the leap to FBS, these two teams provide a success story and cautionary tale. Old Dominion has gone 14-10 against Conference USA foes and 30-20 overall since joining FBS in 2013 (they were an Independent in 2013). Included in that total is their first ever bowl win against Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas last season. Meanwhile, Massachusetts joined FBS and the MAC in 2012, but have won just ten total games in five plus seasons. They were a little more competitive in the MAC, especially once Mark Whipple came on board, going 7-25 against conference foes. Unfortunately, the Minutemen are no longer in the MAC and must make their way as an Independent in FBS. Close games have been a particular bugaboo under Whipple, with Massachusetts posting a horrendous 2-13 mark in one-score games, including a blown two-touchdown second half lead in the 2017 season opener against Hawaii. With that loss and the subsequent road loss to FBS newbie Coastal Carolina, Massachusetts is pretty much already out of the running for a bowl bid. Tennessee, South Florida, Appalachian State, Mississippi State, and BYU remain on the schedule, so another double-digit loss season is not out of the question. Massachusetts allowed nearly 400 yards passing and over 10 yards per pass to Hawaii. They played better pass defense against Coastal Carolina, but allowed over 300 yards rushing at nearly seven yards per carry to the Chanticleers. Old Dominion did not light up the scoreboard in their opener against Albany of the FCS, but that game was played in poor weather and the Monarchs still averaged a yard more per play than their opponents. Massachusetts can do some damage through the air with quarterback Andrew Ford and tight end Andrew Breneman, but Old Dominion has been a solid play as a road favorite, posting a 3-1 ATS mark in their brief FBS life. I like for the Monarchs to win by about a touchdown here.

Michigan State -7.5 Western Michigan
This spread appears to be designed for drunken squares in Las Vegas who only look at final scores. Their rationale: Western Michigan almost beat Southern Cal last week and Michigan State is pretty bad. This is easy money. I think handicapping this game requires a little more nuance. Yes, Western Michigan was tied with Southern Cal in the fourth quarter last week, but outside of a trick play touchdown, the Broncos passed for 67 yards against the Trojans. They also returned a kickoff for a touchdown and intercepted Sam Darnold twice to keep them in the game. However, they also allowed nearly eight yards per play to the Trojans while averaging just north of five yards per play themselves. Now they return to the midwest after that fantastic effort to take on a Michigan State team that handled its business with relative ease in the opener. Thanks to a turnover, the Spartans fell behind Bowling Green early, but held the Falcons without an offensive touchdown in a 35-10 win. Michigan State's pass defense was particularly stingy, holding Bowling Green to under 150 yards through the air. That does not bode well for a Western Michigan team with a new starting quarterback. Think about the number this way: This line implies the Spartans are only about four or five points better than the Broncos on a neutral field. At worse, I see Michigan State grinding their way to a ten-point win here.

Boise State +10 Washington State
Boise State opened the 2017 season with a less than impressive 24-13 win over Troy. The Broncos managed just two offensive touchdowns and needed a punt return to break 20 points at home against a Sun Belt team. That poor offensive performance followed a rough end to 2016 where the Broncos lost their final two games and managed just 32 combined points against Air Force and Baylor. The Broncos may have a quarterback controversy on their hands as Kansas transfer Montell Cozart led them on a fourth quarter touchdown drive. The poor offensive showing and the fact that a former Kansas player played a prominent role in their win is the reason the Broncos are catching double-digits against the Cougars. However, despite the offensive struggles, Boise State's defense dominated a pretty good Troy offense. The Trojans did not score an offensive touchdown, and senior quarterback Brandon Silvers had his worst game quarterback rating wise since his freshman campaign. Boise State will need a similar defensive showing to win in Pullman against a Washington State team that avoided an opening loss to an FCS team for the first time in three years. Despite their recent struggles, Boise State is 5-2 straight up against Power 5 teams under Bryan Harsin with two of those wins coming on the road. Look for Boise to keep this one low-scoring and close.