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.

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