Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week IX

We were due for some regression, but that was a little too much. We'll try and do better this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 29-27

Michigan State -2 Northwestern
2016 seems like an eternity ago for Michigan State fans. After a lost season where the Spartans managed just a solitary Big 10 win, Mark Dantonio has already quadrupled that total and has the Spartans potentially looking at nine regular season wins. Their four conference wins have all been close (combined 22 point margin of victory), but the clutch play that eluded the Spartans last season has returned. The Spartans have won in stereotypical Big 10 fashion, with three of their wins coming with them scoring fewer than twenty points. Now they travel to Evanston seeking revenge against a Northwestern team that beat them last season. I will make one bold prediction about this game. The total will not come anywhere near the 94 points these two teams combined for last season. Michigan State has issues on offense, as has been the case since Connor Cook matriculated, but their defense is one of the best in the Big 10. In their five games against Power Five opponents, Northwestern has averaged just 20 points per game. I don't expect them to get to that number here in another ugly Michigan State win.

Appalachian State -3.5 Massachusetts
Appalachian State is a tough team to get a read on. If you just look at their record, it has been business as usual for the burgeoning Sun Belt power. The Mountaineers two losses have come to Power Five opponents (one of which is ranked pretty high) and the Mountaineers are perfect in the Sun Belt. Their 4-0 Sun Belt mark has moved their overall Sun Belt record to 24-4 since moving up (24-2 since a slow start). However, the Mountaineers have struggled against the number, particularly on the road. As double-digit road favorites, the Mountaineers eked out wins against Texas State and Idaho by a combined ten points (3-11 combined record for the Bobcats and Vandals). Those road struggles have depressed this line (probably too much). Another factor in this low spread is Massachusetts latest performance. Off a two week break, the Minutemen crushed Georgia Southern 55-20 and the winless Eagles subsequently fired their coach. Unfortunately for Massachusetts, Georgia Southern is quite possibly the worst FBS team this season. That fact appears to have escaped the oddsmakers here. Despite their road struggles this season, Appalachian State is actually 8-3 ATS as a road favorite since moving to FBS. As a small favorite (less than ten points), they are a perfect 3-0. Don't be fooled by the great performance Massachusetts put together last week. This season, they have already lost at home to luminaries Hawaii and Old Dominion. Look for Appalachian State to get their first road cover of the season.

San Jose State +14 BYU
BYU is five games away from one of the most unique accomplishments in college football history. Through eight games in 2017, the Cougars have failed to cover the spread in every one! It is still a longshot, but if BYU can pull it off, it will go down as one of the most impressive follies of all time. Most LDS BYU fans probably don't care about that statistic and are more concerned with the Cougars getting their first victory against an FBS opponent. Since a closer than expected opening win against Portland State, BYU has lost seven consecutive games while averaging just eleven points per game. There are a number of stats you can use to quantify how bad BYU is offensively, but I think this one sums it up best. Last season BYU beat Toledo 55-53 in a Friday night game that lasted so long, Mack Brown had to leave early. The Cougars scored seven offensive touchdowns in that game. In seven games against FBS opponents in 2017, the Cougars have scored eight offensive touchdowns! Last week, in their loss to East Carolina, the Cougars averaged 5.85 yards per play (a season high against FBS competition). East Carolina came into the game having allowed at least six and a half yards per play to every team they had faced including Connecticut and Temple. I've noted it several ways, but BYU's offense is probably the worst in school history. That being said, they should beat San Jose State at home. The Spartans, under first year coach Brent Brennan, play fast (eighth fastest pace), which when you have a bad team, just results in a lot of three and outs and more possessions for your bad defense to face. Maybe someone needs to explain underdog strategies to coach Brennan. Anyway, the Spartans have not beaten an FBS team this season, but have shown a little spunk recently, losing their last two games by just seventeen and eleven points respectively (their smallest margins of defeat on the year). Against almost any other team, I would not back San Jose State, but if the Spartans can find the endzone once, they should be able to cover this large number against an offensively challenged BYU team.

Iowa State +7 TCU
Prior to the season, who would have thought TCU's visit to Ames would have national implications for both participants? Matt Campbell has guided Iowa State to a 3-1 start in conference play and if the Cyclones can manage two more victories over the rest of the season, they would post their first winning Big 12 record since the great Sage Rosenfels led them to a 5-3 mark in 2000! While this game will be played in Ames, it will probably look more like games that are typically played in Iowa City. The Horned Frogs and Cyclones own the two best defenses in the Big 12, so this game may feature a final score more reminiscent of a Big 10 game. After a disappointing 6-7 season in 2016, TCU has altered their offensive approach in 2017. The Horned Frogs have run the ball more (57% of plays have been runs in 2017 versus 49% in 2016) in order to protect their erratic quarterback Kenny Hill. After throwing thirteen interceptions last season, Hill has only tossed three this year and the Horned Frogs have a +4 turnover margin in 2017 (after posting a -4 margin last season). While the Horned Frogs have been successful since joining the Big 12, they have not performed well as a road favorite. They are 6-11 ATS in the role since 2012 and just 3-9 ATS in Big 12 play. Meanwhile, Iowa State is 4-2 ATS as a home underdog under Matt Campbell. TCU may leave Ames with a victory, but this one feels like it will come down to the final drive.

Vanderbilt +7 South Carolina
As a Columbia resident, I always get a kick out of sportstalk radio. With the modest success the team has enjoyed in the second year of the Will Muschamp era, fans are making plans for an 8-4 finish to the regular season and a top-25 ranking. This is eerily similar to the last time Gamecock fans were notably bullish on their team despite mediocre numbers. South Carolina opened the year with two wins away from Williams-Brice and were set to face Kentucky as about a touchdown favorite. Reasonable callers flooded the airwaves with talks of three-touchdown victories and a return to the glories of the Steve Spurrier era. You know what happened next. Once again, a few victories have intoxicated the fanbase. The Commodores stand no chance against this mighty Gamecock team last seen putting fifteen points on the board against a Tennessee team that is the living embodiment of disarray. After facing a gauntlet of Power 5 teams, Vanderbilt needed a bye week. The Commodores faced Kansas State, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks, losing the last four of those games in mostly non-competitive fashion. On the surface, Vanderbilt's defensive numbers look atrocious, but keep in mind all four of their conference opponents rank in the upper half of the SEC in terms of yards per play. Yes, Jim McElwain has finally put a competent offense on the field in Gainesville just in time for his defense to regress. But I digress. South Carolina is not in that stratosphere offensively, especially considering the bad defenses they have already faced (Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky are three of the four poorest SEC defenses in terms of yards per play). After playing four games where they would have needed to score at least 39 to win each one, South Carolina will provide a welcome respite. The Gamecocks appear to hate scoring in the 30s and actively strive for old-school AFC Central slogs. South Carolina does have one of the better defenses in the SEC, but it is still light years behind the units in Tuscaloosa and Athens Vanderbilt has already faced. Despite their four-game losing streak, Vanderbilt still harbors significant bowl hopes, so they should be motivated here. Their next four games are against Western Kentucky, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. I'm not saying Vanderbilt will finish 8-4, but there are wins left on that schedule. Take Vanderbilt to keep this one close and potentially eke out a win in Columbia.

Utah State +8 Boise State
After a non-conference schedule that saw them blow a game they had in the bag against Washington State and get whipped at home by Virginia, Boise State has righted the ship in Mountain West play. The Broncos are 3-0 in conference play and have beaten last year's championship game participants in consecutive weeks. Still, something does not seem quite right with this Bronco team. Boise State ranks ninth in the Mountain West in yards per play and is averaging just a shade over 28 points per game, which would rank as the fewest for the team since 1997! The defense is still top notch, ranking second in the Mountain West in yards allowed per play. Of course, Utah State's defense is no slouch either. The Aggies rank third in the Mountain West in yards allowed per play and are looking for their first Mountain West home win of the year. Both teams have played a version of quarterback musical chairs thus far in 2017, with Boise State alternating Brett Rypien and Montell Cozart and the Aggies going between Kent Myers and Jordan Love. Both Aggie quarterbacks have been mistake prone, with Myers and Love combining for eleven interceptions on the year. They will need to avoid mistakes against an opportunistic Boise State defense that has intercepted eight passes of their own. Boise State is a bad investment as a favorite, going 5-13 ATS in the role since the start of the 2016 season (they are 2-0 ATS as an underdog in that span) and are over-valued after their past two games. Utah State typically yacks in close games under Matt Wells (5-13 in one possession games under his guidance) so I wouldn't bank on them winning outright, but they should keep this one close.

San Diego State -9 Hawaii
It may be hard to believe, but before November, the two-time defending Mountain West champs in San Diego are pretty much out of the running for another conference title. The Aztecs are two games behind resurgent Fresno State, and after last week's game, the Bulldogs own the head-to-head tiebreaker. San Diego State will have to console themselves with a third straight double-digit win season and a second consecutive finish in the polls. The Aztecs last four games are against Hawaii, San Jose State, Nevada, and New Mexico and they should be significant favorites in each one. Travelling to Hawaii is never easy, but San Diego State has won and covered in their last two trips to the island. The Aztecs are 8-4 ATS as a road favorite since 2014 and Hawaii is one of the worst teams in the Mountain West. The Warriors already have a home loss of thirty points on their resume this season, and a similar result would not shock me here.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week VIII

We posted our second best week of the year. Hopefully, we are rounding into great handicapping form. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall: 27-22

Florida State -7 Louisville
What odds would you have given me prior to the season starting that Florida State and Louisville would enter this game with six combined losses and nearly zero percent chance to win the Atlantic Division? For Florida State, the explanation is pretty simple. A rough early schedule featuring a pair of undefeated teams (Alabama and Miami) and NC State as well as an injury to their starting quarterback has forced the Seminoles to grind out conference wins. Through five games, the Seminoles are averaging just over 18 points per game, which would mark their worst finish in that stat since 1976. However, there is a good chance their scoring numbers will go up this weekend. Last season Louisville paired a dominant offense with a defense that ranked first in the ACC in yards allowed per play and third in touchdowns allowed. The Cardinals lost defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to Mississippi State in the offseason and replaced him with Peter Sirmon. The results have been nothing short of disastrous. Call it 'The Sirmon on the Rocks'. Through four games, the Cardinals have nearly allowed more touchdowns (19) than they did over the course of eight conference games last season (20). In addition, the Cardinals have allowed nearly seven yards per play to conference opponents, which is quite a feat considering half their conference schedule has featured the struggling offenses of North Carolina and Boston College. Speaking of the Eagles, in their upset of Louisville last weekend, they scored more than 40 points against an FBS team for the first time since 2013. When your defense is congruent with New Mexico State, you have real issues. Obviously, the defensive coordinator change is an oversimplification of a host of issues, but whatever the reason(s), Louisville has one of the worst Power Five defenses this season. Taking that defense on the road against a team with revenge on their mind after last season's debacle is not an ideal situation. Take the Seminoles to win this one by a significant margin.

Iowa -1.5 Northwestern
Typically a narrow road favorite is in prime position to not only fail to cover, but also to get beat outright. Despite this trend, I think the Hawkeyes are a good play here. For starters, they have been sterling in the role of a road favorite since 2013, posting an 11-1-1 ATS record. Couple that with Northwestern's struggles as a home underdog (1-4 ATS in the role since 2015) and the numbers point to Iowa. While Northwestern has pulled their fair share of upsets under Pat Fitzgerald, most of them have come away from Evanston. The Wildcats have won eleven games since the start of the 2012 season as a betting underdog (regular season only). However, only three of those games have come at home! In addition, Northwestern has not lived up to their preseason expectations thus far in 2017. The Wildcats have already lost three games and their best win is against a Maryland team battling a plague of quarterback injuries. Iowa is coming off of a bye and has already faced road challenges at Iowa State and Michigan State. They probably won't blow the Wildcats out, but this feels like a defensive slog the Hawkeyes win by at least a field goal.

Georgia State +7.5 Troy
Georgia State opened their brand new stadium (to them at least) on August 31st and suffered an ignominious defeat to an FCS team. The Panthers got their starting quarterback hurt, turned the ball over four times, and managed just ten points. Since then, the Panthers have played four consecutive road games, including one against the team currently ranked second in the nation. Surprisingly, the Panthers won three of those four games, and return home after a nearly two-month hiatus with a perfect Sun Belt record and a decent shot at their second bowl game in school history. To be fair, the Panthers don't have any great wins, with two coming against FBS noobs Charlotte and Coastal Carolina and the other against perennial underdog Louisiana-Monroe, but for a team with just four road wins in their history as an FBS school prior to this season, that is still impressive. For a Sun Belt team, the Panthers have a prolific passing offense. Senior quarterback Conner Manning is averaging over eight yards per pass (over nine and a half if we remove the game against Penn State) and the team has allowed just eight sacks all season. The Panthers will look to cement their status as Sun Belt contenders against a Troy team that received a lot of publicity for their takedown of LSU a few weeks ago, but has struggled in the aggregate. After topping 30 points seven times last season, they have only managed to get to that number against an FCS foe in 2017. The Trojans have faced a few strong defenses in Boise State and LSU, but Akron, New Mexico State, and South Alabama have also held the Trojans in check. In Sun Belt action, Troy is tenth in the twelve team league in yards per play (Georgia State conversely is first) and recently netted exactly eight points in a home loss to South Alabama. Troy might be better than Georgia State (they did of course win at LSU), but this spread implies they would be about ten points better on a neutral field. For a Georgia State team with everything to play for in terms of the Sun Belt race, I don't see any way they don't keep this close.

Central Florida -8 Navy
Let me preface this by saying their opponents have not been all that strong in the aggregate, but Central Florida may have been the most impressive FBS team in 2017 (non-Alabama and Georgia edition). I was skeptical of the hype Central Florida was receiving in the offseason, but the Knights have dominated their opponents through five games. Consider they have yet to score fewer than 38 points, win by less than four touchdowns, or fail to cover as an increasingly larger and larger favorite. In fact, Georgia Tech fans are probably mighty happy their game in Orlando was canceled. Consider this your last chance to invest in a burgeoning startup before it becomes too successful and prices you out of the market. This will be your last chance to back Central Florida as a small favorite until their bowl game. There are some red flags in backing the favorite here as Navy has been a spry home dog recently, covering and winning outright in their last four games in the role. Couple that with their unique offense and you can see how this game could shake out with a Midshipmen win or cover, but I'll buy into the Central Florida hype and take them as a small favorite.

Louisiana-Monroe +5 South Alabama
This under the radar Sun Belt clash is classic weakness versus strength showcase. The Warhawks from Louisiana-Monroe are a win away from matching last year's total and have an outside shot at a bowl game in their second season under Matt Viator. The Warhawks are averaging over 47 points per game in Sun Belt action, but are allowing 42 in entertaining clashes you have to stream over ESPN3. However, their defensive liabilities may not be as important in this game as South Alabama has struggled scoring points in 2017. In their three games against other Group of Five teams (two Sun Belt games and Louisiana Tech), the Jaguars have averaged just 19 points per game and just 4.4 yards per play. Obviously, those numbers should improve after this game, but South Alabama is overvalued by the betting public after their 'massive' upset of Troy last week. The line in that game was around seventeen points, but it was inflated thanks to Troy's upset of LSU. Realistically, Troy should have been favored by about a touchdown (or less). South Alabama has pulled four upsets as a double-digit underdog since the start of the 2015 season, and they have failed to cover in their three previous follow-up games. In addition, South Alabama is just 1-6-1 ATS as a home favorite since 2014. These two teams will play a close game that will not be decided until the final possession and I would not be surprised if the underdog pulls the outright upset.

Michigan +10 Penn State
The final scores have not reflected it, but if you squint, you can find some holes in the Penn State 'offensive juggernaut'. The Nittany Lions averaged nearly 50 points per game and over eight yards per play in their non-conference trilogy. However, those games came against a pair of overmatched Group of Five teams (Akron and Georgia State) and a Pitt team that has one win against an FBS school. Once conference play started, the point totals stayed high, but the underlying performance was lacking. After needing a last second touchdown pass to beat Iowa, Penn State scored 76 combined points in easy wins against Indiana and Northwestern. However, in Big 10 play, the Nittany Lions have averaged just 5.28 yards per play (by comparison they averaged 6.51 last season). Heisman contender Saquon Barkley had just 131 yards on the ground and averaged under four yards per carry against Indiana and Northwestern. Penn State has compensated for their offensive struggles by winning the turnover battle (+5 through three games) and scoring two non-offensive touchdowns. Iowa, Indiana, and Northwestern have solid defenses, but Michigan is on another level. Since Don Brown became the defensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season, the Wolverines have allowed 30 or more points in regulation only once. In addition, no team has averaged six yards per play against Michigan during his tenure. When Michigan is a favorite, you are paying a premium to back them (10-12 ATS as a double-digit favorite under Harbaugh), but they provide some value when they are a dog. It hasn't happened very often (just twice in the Harbaugh era) and this marks the first time they have been a double-digit dog under Harbaugh. Michigan has issues on offense and that will probably prevent them from winning outright, but I love them catching ten points here.

Washington State -10.5 Colorado
Washington State, along with Clemson, got Chaos Weekend started late last Friday night when they lost in blowout fashion at Cal. The Cougars entered that game as a double-digit favorite, but did not manage an offensive touchdown for the first time since 2013 (a game they somehow won by the way). Obviously Washington State did not play well, but Cal has proven to be a strong defensive team, particularly at home. Under first year head coach and former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, the Bears have held four of their six FBS opponents to less than five yards per play. So Washington State's offensive performance was a little more excusable. In addition, the Cougars turned the ball over seven times, including a few highly improbably interceptions. Those plays hurt the Cougars in the present, but aren't predictable going forward. Considering they turned the ball over seven times, the Cougars played decent defense against the Bears despite allowing 37 points on the scoreboard. The Bears only scored three offensive touchdowns and averaged just 5.2 yards per play. The loss was certainly devastating to Washington State's playoff hopes, but Mike Leach has proven his teams will circle the wagon. During his tenure in Pullman, the Cougars have suffered four losses as either a double-digit favorite or against an FCS foe. The Cougars are 3-0 ATS in their previous follow-up games. The eccentric Leach should have his Cougars ready for a home game against a Colorado team that has declined dramatically from their division winning team in 2016. The Colorado defense, which ranked second in the Pac-12 last season in yards allowed per play, is currently second to last in the category this season. Washington State should get back on track offensively against the Buffaloes. Washington State is 7-2 ATS as a double-digit home favorite under Mike Leach (not counting two losses to FCS teams), and I would expect that trend to continue Saturday night.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week VII

Once again, we followed up a losing record, with a winning week. This is the time we make it two good weeks in a row. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 21-21

Eastern Michigan +6 Army
For the third game in a row, Eastern Michigan could not make the plays when they needed as they dropped a one-score game to Toledo. That result followed an overtime loss to Ohio and a close loss to Kentucky. With the MAC gauntlet starting next week, this game will go a long way toward determining whether of not the Eagles can get to a consecutive bowl games. Army is also looking for consecutive postseason appearances. A win here would give them five on the year, but the back half of their schedule is significantly tougher than the front, so a loss could derail those bowl hopes. The best team Army has beaten thus far is Buffalo, as they have beat up on the dregs of Conference USA the past two weeks. UTEP and Rice did not offer much resistance as the Black Knights rushed for more than 750 yards and ten touchdowns in those two games. While the running game has been prolific, the defense has been leaky. Buffalo averaged eight yards per play against the Black Knights, fellow option team Tulane averaged nearly seven, Rice averaged six, and even putrid UTEP had one of their best offensive showings of the year. The Army defense is just what the doctor ordered for an Eastern Michigan offense averaging just 19 points per game (and never topping 24 in any game) in 2017. The Eagles have been solid defensively in 2017, allowing just 18 points per game and under five yards per play in the early going. That is particularly impressive considering the Eagles have faced two strong MAC offenses (Ohio and Toledo) and a pair of Power Five teams (Rutgers and Kentucky). Eastern Michigan has been a solid road team under Chris Creighton, posting a 12-8-1 ATS record as a road underdog. They are an even more impressive 7-1 ATS in the role since the start of 2016. In fact, in their last four games as a single digit road underdog, the Eagles have four outright wins. Another here would not shock me.

Pittsburgh +12.5 NC State
This just seems like a game NC State is destined to lose right? After a huge home win against a top-20 Louisville team, NC State finds themselves ranked 20th in the latest AP Poll (their highest ranking since they climbed to 14th in 2003). The Wolfpack seem primed for a letdown, but let me give you a few more reasons the Panthers seem like a solid play here. For starters, Louisville's defense has crashed and burned. NC State averaged over seven yards per play against Louisville and probably should have won by a larger margin. However, outside of games against Kent State and Murray State, Louisville is allowing 6.68 yards per play! North Carolina, Clemson, and NC State all significantly exceeded their seasonal averages on offense against Louisville. I feel like the decline of Louisville's defense has not gotten a lot of press, so the NC State offense is probably a little overvalued. Another reason to fade NC State is the common opponent these two teams have faced. NC State beat Syracuse and Pitt lost to the Orange. However, the NC State game was in Raleigh and the Pitt game was in the Carrier Dome. NC State beat the Orange by eight and Pitt lost to them by three. That difference of eleven points comes close to this number, but once homefield advantage is accounted for, the difference is more than cut in half. I know extrapolating too greatly with the transitive property is folly, but this spread feels like it should be closer to a touchdown. Also keep in mind, this is NC State's second true road game. Their first was against Florida State with James Blackman making his first start for the Seminoles. Take Pitt to keep this one close.

UNLV +7.5 Air Force
I was drinking the UNLV Koolaid last weekend, as I thought they had a chance to knock off San Diego State at home. Alas, the Aztecs bounced back from a below-average showing the week before to crush the Rebels in Sin City. However, I don't think you should abandon the UNLV bandwagon just yet. Based on five games worth of data, UNLV appears to be a team that will struggle mightily against good defenses (see San Diego State and to an even greater extent, Ohio State), but will torch poor ones. If you have not checked the numbers lately, Air Force does not have a good defense. The Falcons have allowed at least six yards per play and a grand total of 132 points in their last three games. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Falcons have lost all of those games. Air Force has not gone quietly, putting up 107 points of their own in the three contests, but their defense is not to be trusted. Laying more than a touchdown in what appears to be a back and forth shootout is not the side you want to be on. Couple that with the fact that Air Force is coming off an emotional loss to Navy, and they could be prime for an outright upset. Since 2012, after facing a fellow service academy (what I think can be fairly classified as a rivalry game), the Falcons are just 2-8 ATS, including 1-4 as a favorite. Look for that trend to continue here.

Akron +14.5 Western Michigan
The spreads for Western Michigan appear to be inflated based on their spectacular performance last season. While the Broncos have adjusted to the loss of head coach PJ Fleck, quarterback Zach Terrell, and wide receiver Corey Davis, they have not been as successful against the number. Over Fleck's final three seasons in Kalamazoo, the Broncos were 24-13 ATS versus FBS foes. Thus far in 2017, the Broncos are just 2-3 ATS, but more importantly, 4-2 overall and in prime position for a fourth consecutive bowl bid. The Broncos will be looking for their twelfth consecutive MAC win against an Akron team that also enters unbeaten in MAC play. With every other MAC East team already sporting a conference loss, a win would go a long way toward setting Akron up for their first division title since 2005. The Zips are 3-3 thanks to a rough non-conference schedule that included dalliances with Penn State and Iowa State as well as a road trip against a Troy team that knocked off LSU. Of course, Western Michigan didn't exactly line up cupcakes as they opened with Southern Cal and Michigan State. Akron has played well as a road underdog against fellow mid-majors under Tommy Bowden, going 11-4 ATS in the role with four outright wins. Winning outright is probably too much to ask against Western Michigan, but I like the Zips to keep this one within a touchdown.

Navy +3.5 Memphis
Maybe its because they are a service academy. Maybe its because they run the archaic triple option. Maybe its because no one can spell their coach's name. Either way, Navy has been criminally underrated the past three seasons. Consider that in 2015, Navy won their first four and then nine of their first ten games, but did not enter the AP Poll until they were 7-1. They finished 2015 ranked 18th. Navy began 2016 3-0, and then 5-1, and then 9-2, but were only in the poll a total of three weeks. They did struggle at the end, losing their last three, so they did not finish in the final poll. Thus far in 2017, Navy is 5-0 and yet the Midshipmen barely cracked the latest AP Poll. In the past two and a half years, Navy has won five games as a betting underdog, with two of those wins coming against the Memphis Tigers. Thanks to their play and some scheduling quirks dealing with hurricanes, the Tigers have had a disjointed start in 2017. They opened with a closer than expected win against Louisiana-Monroe, saw their game with UCF postponed due to Hurricane Irma, upset UCLA in a shootout, struggled with an FCS school, were crushed by UCF in the rescheduled game, and then dropped 70 points on Connecticut. Despite the seemingly easy win against Connecticut, the Tigers allowed nearly seven yards per play to the Huskies. However, they were able to snuff out three drives by forcing turnovers (while committing none of their own) and stop a pair of fourth down attempts. Obviously forcing turnovers and stopping fourth downs will win you games, but relying on those two things is not the most reliable method moving forward. Navy's offense is as strong as ever, and their defense, outside of last week's showing against Air Force, has been solid in 2017. Look for the Midshipmen to make it three in a row against Memphis with an outright win on Saturday.

North Texas +3 Texas-San Antonio
The nation is probably not riveted with the divisional races in Conference USA, but this is a huge game. Every team in the West has at least one conference loss save North Texas, and a win by the Mean Green would give them a leg up on two of their biggest division threats (these Roadrunners and the Southern Miss Golden Eagles who were beaten by North Texas two weeks ago). North Texas has exploded on offense this season, averaging over seven yards per play in Seth Littrell's second season as head coach. In fact, despite a pair of losses to likely bowl teams SMU and Iowa, the Mean Green have averaged more yards per play than each of their first five opponents. The most amazing stat for the Mean Green is that they have already scored more points through five games (194) than they did for the entire 2015 season (182) when they went just 1-11 (the lone win was over Texas-San Antonio for what its worth). The Roadrunners have also shown improvement in their second season under a new coaching regime. Frank Wilson led the Roadrunners to their first bowl game in 2016 and despite missing a game due to Hurricane Harvey, a second bowl game seems assured. The Roadrunners pulled off the biggest win in school history in their opener when they upset Baylor in Waco. Of course, the Bears have not won a game this season, which is a common refrain for the three teams the Roadrunners have beaten. Baylor, Southern (FCS), and Texas State have combined for exactly zero FBS wins in 2017. Hard to see how oddsmakers made them a road favorite here. In addition, the team that beat the Roadrunners last week (in San Antonio no less), Southern Miss, lost to North Texas the previous week. The wrong team is favored here. I would feel comfortable backing the Mean Green even if this line were reversed.

Arizona -1 UCLA
This Pac-12 After Dark battle in Tucson will be an interesting clash between a pair of coaches with a lot in common. Both Jim Mora Jr. and Rich Rodriguez are in their sixth season at their respective schools and have guided their squads to division titles (Mora in 2012 and Rodriguez in 2014), but are coming off disappointing performances in 2016. After winning at least seven games in each of their first eight combined seasons, both teams managed seven wins as a duo last season. However, both seem to have improved and sport matching 3-2 records in 2017. They have even achieved those records in a similar fashion. Both teams lost to mid-major Group of Five teams in the non-conference, opened conference play with a loss, and beat Colorado for their first conference win. Arizona seems to have found their quarterback to lead them back to the postseason as Khalil Tate set the quarterback rushing record last week with over 300 yards on the ground. He also threw for 142 yards on just 12 pass attempts. Despite those heroics, Arizona only won by three points thanks to a defense that allowed 42 points and 300 yards rushing to Colorado. UCLA also has a pretty good quarterback. Josh Rosen, a likely early NFL entrant, has thrown for over 2000 yards and 17 touchdowns through five games. Unfortunately, the Bruins have not been as prolific on the other side of the ball. The Bruins have allowed nearly 40 points and 284 rushing yards per game this season. Every team save Memphis has torched the Bruins on the ground and that plays right to Arizona's strengths. With the Wildcats playing at home and this spread sitting under a field goal, they are the play here. This should be one of the more entertaining games on Saturday with about a five hour run time and very few defensive stops.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Week VI

We failed yet again to post consecutive winning weeks as I managed just a 2-5 mark. Also, if you followed my advice and took Ole Miss, my bad. We'll try and do better this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 17-18

Eastern Michigan +13.5 Toledo
A few weeks after earning their first ever victory against a Power Five opponent (in name only), Eastern Michigan nearly got their second against Kentucky. The loss dropped the Eagles to 2-2, but the progress they have made under Chris Creighton is undeniable. Consider this: From 2008 through 2015, Eastern Michigan won six road games. Since the beginning of 2016, the Eagles have won five road games. To qualify for a second consecutive bowl game, and the third in school history, the Eagles will need to continue to be road warriors as five of their last eight games are away from Ypsilanti. The first of those contests comes against a Toledo team looking to win its first MAC championship since 2004. The Rockets have finished with at least six MAC wins six times over the past seven seasons, but have not been able to advance to the MAC Championship Game. Northern Illinois and Western Michigan have foiled their efforts. Thus far in 2017, Toledo has not been all that impressive. Ignoring their season opening win against FCS Elon, the Rockets have struggled putting away a winless Nevada team, needed a last second field goal to beat a Tulsa team with just a single win, and been moderately competitive for a three quarters against Miami. Nothing they have done thus far gives me the notion they will be able to beat a solid Eastern Michigan team by two touchdowns. The Eagles are 9-4 ATS as a road underdog since 2015 and I expect that trend to continue here.

Virginia -2.5 Duke
The most impressive aspect of Virginia's surprising win against Boise State two Fridays ago was not the fact that they won, but the fact that they rolled up 42 points and 440 yards against a heretofore stout Bronco defense. While Washington State did drop 47 points and 455 yards on the Broncos a few weeks prior, there were a few differences. That game was in Pullman, not Boise, it lasted three overtimes, and the Cougars had two defensive scores. Yards per play tells a much clearer picture. Washington State averaged just 4.8 yards per play against the Broncos while Virginia averaged 6.4. It marked just the third time the Broncos had allowed over six yards per play at home since 2012! Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert is doing his best Matt Schaub impression for the Cavaliers. With three wins in non-conference play the Cavaliers have a shot at their first bowl bid since 2011. Fresh off a bye, they host an improved Duke team in a perfect letdown spot. Last week, the Blue Devils were unbeaten and hosting a top-15 Miami team. The Blue Devils were game, but the Hurricanes pulled away in the second half and won 31-6. Off that tough game and their rivalry game against North Carolina the previous week with Florida State on deck (in Durham), this spread seems way too low. Take Virginia to win easily here.

Purdue -3.5 Minnesota
Its early, and I may be speaking too soon, but it looks like Jeff Brohm will have the Boilermakers back in the postseason faster than most initially thought. After winning just three games against Power Five opponents in four seasons under Darrell Hazell, the Boilermakers already have one such win in 2017. And that one win came by more points (32) than the combined margin of their three wins under Hazell (24). Unfortunately, thanks to a difficult early schedule that featured a pair of top-20 teams, the Boilermakers are just 2-2 a third of the way through the season. Purdue was very competitive against Louisville in the opener, losing by just seven and hung around with Michigan for the better part of three quarters. The good news for Purdue is that they will not face a defense as stout a Michigan's over the remainder of the season or a quarterback as talented as Lamar Jackson. And that might be bad news for Minnesota. Against the three teams without an elite defense, Purdue has averaged 36 points and 460 yards per game. Minnesota has a solid defense, so they may not get to those averages, but playing at home as a slight favorite, Purdue should be a solid play. Plus, Jeff Brohm's teams have a good track record as a home favorite. In his three seasons at Western Kentucky and early start at Purdue, his teams are 12-5 ATS in the role. Look for that trend to continue here with Purdue earning their first conference win of the season.

Miami -3.5 Florida State
I'll admit, taking Miami here makes me a bit uneasy. The Hurricanes have lost seven straight to the Seminoles, including a pair of games (2010 and 2016) where they entered as the favorite. Overall, four of the games, and the last three in a row have been decided by five points or less. However, as an alum of Wake Forest, I watched all of last week's Florida State game with great interest. While the Seminoles were able to pull one out in Winston-Salem, they needed to catch a few breaks. The Demon Deacons averaged a yard more per play than the Seminoles, but lost the turnover battle and allowed a backbreaking kickoff return. One turnover was deep in their own territory and directly led to a Florida State field goal, while the other was in Florida State territory and snuffed out a potential scoring drive. The kickoff return came when Wake Forest had just moved out to a nine-point lead and while the kickoff itself did not result in a touchdown, it put a heretofore anemic Florida State offense in prime position to score one. Everyone knows Florida State is now guided by a freshman quarterback, but I think the bigger issue for the offense is the line. Wake Forest sacked James Blackman five times, and while the Deacons have a better defense than most probably believe, Miami probably has better pass rushers. This Miami team also seems cut from a different sort of cloth than the recent vintage. With the Florida State game on deck, Miami headed to Duke last Friday night and soundly defeated a quality Blue Devil team. The win made the Hurricanes 5-1 ATS as a road favorite under Mark Richt, as they have proven to be a reliable team away from home. Florida State's history as a home underdog under Jimbo Fisher is a short one, so there is not much to be gleamed there. The Seminoles lost, but covered as a home dog to Clemson last year and lost and failed to cover as a home dog to Oklahoma in 2011. I think this is the year Miami finally exorcises their Seminoles demons.

Coastal Carolina +2 Georgia State
In their last game, Georgia State won at Charlotte. That win gave the Panthers five road wins as an FBS program. Depending on when you got the game, it also marked the first time they were ever a road favorite. Can the Panthers win two in a row on the road? While they were ultimately able to get the job done against a bad Charlotte team, the final score of 28-0 was misleading. The Panthers only averaged about half a yard more per play than the 49ers, but won the turnover battle 3-0, stopped the 49ers on a pair of fourth down conversions, and scored a touchdown when Charlotte blocked their field goal. Those three things are all solid contributors to victory, but not something to be relied on going forward (especially the score off the blocked field goal). After dispatching Charlotte, the Panthers will attempt to defeat another FBS newbie in Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers have been a little disappointing in their maiden FBS voyage. After opening with a victory against Massachusetts, they have dropped three in a row, including an embarrassing loss to the Leathernecks of Western Illinois two weeks ago. The FCS Leathernecks rolled up over 500 yards, averaged nearly nine yards per play, and scored 52 points against Coastal in Conway! The Chants rebounded in a solid effort against Louisiana-Monroe last week, where a fumble return on the game's final play made the score a little more lopsided than it actually was. Outside of the Western Illinois game, Coastal's defense has been decent (by Sun Belt standards), so we'll chalk that one up to FBS growing pains. Georgia State is not a dynamic offense (they have scored 38 points through three games), so there is no way I can back them as a road favorite. Take Coastal to win outright.

SMU +6.5 Houston
This is a revenge spot for the Cougars, who were embarrassed by SMU last season. However, I think SMU is a solid play as Houston has not impressed thus far in 2017. Outside of a beatdown of overmatched Rice, Houston has failed to score more than 24 points against Arizona, Texas Tech, or Temple. Two of those are Power Five teams, but neither is known for their defensive acumen. The Cougars did manage to win two of those three games, so they have played good defense, but the Cougars obviously miss the talents of the departed Greg Ward Jr. SMU is on the other end of the spectrum, as the Mustangs have scored at least 36 points in every game en route to averaging 48 per contest, but are also allowing over 30 points per game. Defensively, the Mustangs seem to either make or allow a big play. They have 21 sacks on the season (good for third nationally in sacks per game), but have allowed over nine yards per pass (remember the NCAA accounting method is faulty as sacks are counted as rushing yards). Houston has only allowed four sacks all season, so this will be an interesting battle. Houston will probably get over some of their offensive ills in this game as I expect a shootout. However, asking them to lay nearly a touchdown against a dynamic SMU offense is too much.

UNLV +11 San Diego State
The Mountain West is in an interesting spot at the moment. San Diego State is currently the second highest ranked Group of Five school (albeit in the AP Poll which doesn't really count for anything), just one spot behind South Florida. The Aztecs have beaten a pair of Pac-12 schools (Arizona State and Stanford) and own a solid win against Northern Illinois. However, the Aztecs may not even be the best team in the conference. According to Bill Connelly's win expectancy numbers, San Diego State should have lost each of their last four games (the previously mentioned trio and Air Force), yet the Aztecs came out on the right side of the scoreboard. That tightrope will be hard to walk for the rest of the season. Of course, the there are no more Power Five teams on the schedule, but Boise State does visit sunny San Diego next week, and the Aztecs could have to face the Broncos or a team like Colorado State in the Mountain West Championship Game. With the game against Boise looming, the Aztecs travel to Sin City to face a team that has coalesced since their shocking upset loss to Howard. Against teams not named 'Ohio State', the Rebels have put up at least 40 points, rushed for at least 300 yards, and averaged at least eight yards per play in every game. San Diego State always has a good defense under Rocky Long, but UNLV will be able to scratch out their share of yards and points. San Diego State should be able to run the ball effectively, with Rashaad Penny likely going over 1000 yards on the season (needs 177 to reach the mark), but I expect a competitive shootout so pop a 5-Hour Energy and stay up for this one.