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.

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