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.

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