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.

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