Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

We closed strong with another winning week. Let's see if we can put up a strong bowl season. As always, where applicable, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 49-45-4

Boca Raton Bowl @ Boca Raton, Florida
UAB -2 Northern Illinois
If you like sacks, tackles for loss, and long down and distance situations, this is the game for you. Northern Illinois ranks first nationally in sacks per game and UAB ranks fourth. In tackles for loss per game, UAB ranks fifth and Northern Illinois ranks sixth. Northern Illinois is led by the pass rushing duo of Sutton Smith and Josh Corcoran who combined for 25 sacks on the season while UAB has more of a committee approach to generating pressure as sixteen players have tallied a sack with no player reaching double-digits. On the flip side, UAB has done a better job of protecting their quarterback and not getting tackled behind the line. The Blazers rank 47th in sacks allowed and 63rd in tackles for loss allowed. Northern Illinois on the other hand ranks 114th in sacks allowed and 88th in tackles for loss allowed. Those negative plays took their toll on Northern Illinois as the Huskies ranked tenth in the twelve team MAC in yards per play and averaged their fewest points per game since 2007. The last time Northern Illinois won the MAC (2014) they faced off against the Conference USA champion in this very bowl and did not acquit themselves very well. I expect more of the same here. Head coach Rod Carey is 0-5 in bowl games with four of the five losses coming by at least three touchdowns. Eventually, Carey will win a bowl game, but I don't like standing in front of streaks like this. Both these teams dominated their respective conferences defensively (first in yards allowed per play), but UAB has by far the more competent offense. Take the Blazers to easily get their first bowl win in school history.

Bahamas Bowl @ Nassau, Bahamas
Florida International +6 Toledo
This destination bowl game will take place in a much nicer climate than the last place these two met up. Eight years ago, Florida International won their first bowl game in school history against the Rockets in Detroit. The game had the decency to be played indoors, but I doubt the events and environment surrounding it were anywhere near as nice as they will be for this game. Toledo is favored by nearly a touchdown thanks to their strong close to the regular season. After a 3-4 start, the Rockets won four of their last five games to finish with at least seven wins for the ninth straight season. The Rockets were dominant in those four wins, emerging victorious by nearly 30 points per game. However, the MAC teams they beat in that span were mostly trash. Ball State, Central Michigan, and Kent State finished with a combined 7-29 record. The Rockets did best Western Michigan, but the Broncos lost their starting quarterback early in that game and were severely limited offensively. This strong close against less than stellar teams has Toledo a bit over-valued as they head to Nassau to face a Panthers team making consecutive bowl appearances under Butch Davis. After losing a great deal of production from last season's eight-win club, the Panthers were expected to take a step back. However, they were in contention for the Conference USA East division up until the final week of the regular season. Despite finishing with the same regular season record, these Panthers were much better on a per play basis. Last season, they were below average on both sides of the ball in conference play, but this season they had one of the best offenses in Conference USA (third in yards per play) and were average defensively (eighth in yards allowed per play). Both these teams beat up on the dregs of their respective conferences, but it seems Toledo is getting a lot more credit for doing so. This line should be closer to a field goal, so take the Panthers to keep this one close.

Hawaii Bowl @ Honolulu, Hawaii
Louisiana Tech +1 Hawaii
For the first time since 2003, this game will not be played on Christmas Eve. So you will have to find some other excuse to avoid your family. Fortnite or Red Dead Redemption II is probably the way to go. This marks Hawaii's eight appearance in their eponymous bowl game. In the previous seven games, the Warriors are 4-3 straight up and 3-4 ATS. The Warriors have been favorites in five of those games, winning three of them. Keep that in mind should you feel compelled to bet on the Warriors because you believe they enjoy some sort of extra homefield advantage in this game as it appears they do not. Hawaii and Louisiana Tech used to meet annually as members of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). The Warriors dominated in those days, winning seven of nine meetings as conference opponents. However, since the WAC's implosion and the subsequent diaspora of its members, these two programs have gone in different directions. Hawaii is just 29-60 since leaving the WAC following the 2011 season while Louisiana Tech is 45-33 since the WAC's dissolution in 2012. In fact, regardless of the bowl result, 2018 will mark Hawaii's first winning season since 2010! However, despite their eight regular season wins, you can make a decent case that Hawaii is not very good. The Warriors have beaten exactly one team that will finish the 2018 season with a winning record and four of their eight wins have come by a touchdown or less. Meanwhile, four of their five losses have come by at least 18 points. In conference play, they were decent on offense, ranking fifth in the twelve team Mountain West in yards per play, but on defense, they ranked just tenth in yards allowed per play. Louisiana Tech has a profile that is entirely different. The Bulldogs struggled moving the football consistently, ranking eleventh in the fourteen-team Conference USA in yards per play, but also fielding the fourth best defense in yards allowed per play. In addition, most of Louisiana Tech's losses are excusable. The Bulldogs lost on the road to SEC teams LSU and Mississippi State as well as conference champ UAB and Southern Miss (the Eagles missed out on a bowl but did finish with a winning record). Their only questionable loss came in the season finale to Western Kentucky. Louisiana Tech has been great as an underdog against fellow Group of Five teams under Skip Holtz, posting a 10-2 ATS mark since 2014 in those games. Couple that with Hawaii's inability to cover as a home favorite (0-6-1 ATS under Nick Rolovich) and you have all the makings of a slight upset in the Hawaii Bowl.

First Responder Bowl @ Dallas, Texas
Boise State -3 Boston College
Motivation is always something to consider when handicapping a bowl game and it could certainly be an issue here. In Boise State's last game, a blocked extra point contributed to their overtime loss at home in the Mountain West Championship Game. Perhaps the Broncos are not interested in playing another game and would rather sulk into the offseason. However, if you look at the other circumstances surrounding college football, I don't think that is the case. Before that game kicked off, UCF had already finished another unbeaten regular season and were sure to be the Group of Five representative in the New Year's Six. A Mountain West title would have been nice, but it would not have placed them in a major bowl. No, they would have most likely played in the Las Vegas Bowl with a victory. The same place they visited last bowl season. Plus this will be the final game for senior quarterback Brett Rypien. While Rypien's career has produced three-ten win seasons, it will probably be considered a bit disappointing since the Broncos won just a single Mountain West title and failed to reach the New Year's Six. Still, I would imagine he will be motivated to end his career with a strong performance. No, if you want to look at motivation, or lack thereof, take a gander at the other sideline. A month or so ago, Boston College was sitting at 7-2 with Gameday in town for a primetime matchup with ACC overlord Clemson. The Eagles were mostly non-competitive, especially on offense, and dropped that game. No worries there. Clemson ran roughshod over the ACC this year. However, the Eagles also dropped their next two against Florida State and Syracuse respectively. The trio of losses dropped the Eagles to 7-5 and turned the heat up on head coach Steve Addazio. I am always a little skittish of backing a Group of Five team against a Power Five team in a bowl game, particularly when the Group of Five team is favored. However, despite the face that Boston College is a Power Five team, the ACC outside of Clemson was a tire fire this season. In fact, Boston College's best win in 2018 may turn out to be their non-conference victory against Temple. If it isn't the Owls, then its their Friday night home win against Miami. Either way, Boston College beat up on a lot of trash in the ACC and still finished underwater in terms of yards per play (gained slightly fewer yards per play than they allowed). Boston College has never won more than seven games under Addazio and I don't see them eclipsing that run of mediocrity with a victory in this game. Two years ago, Boise State lost a bowl game against a Power Five team they were favored to beat. I think Bryan Harsin will remind them of that in the lead up to this game. Take the Broncos to win comfortably here.

Camping World Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
Syracuse +1.5 West Virginia
This line opened with West Virginia laying about a touchdown, but dropped precipitously with the news that quarterback Will Grier will be sitting this one out as he prepares for the NFL draft. Can't blame him for not wanting to risk an injury. We're pro-labor here at Statistically Speaking. When the line was about seven, I wanted nothing to do with either team, but with Grier sitting out, I think the wrong team is favored. Motivation was always a potential issue in this game, with West Virginia eyeing a Big 12 title and outside shot at the CFB Playoff in mid-November. However, consecutive losses to the Oklahoma schools not only pushed them out of the playoff picture, but also kept them out of the revived Big 12 Championship Game altogether. Off two straight losses, with their starting quarterback sitting out, how motivated will the Mountaineers be to avenge their 2012 Pinstripe Bowl beating? Contrast that with a Syracuse team making their first bowl appearance in five years having an opportunity to win ten games and finish ranked for the first time in nearly two decades. Since pummeling Clemson in the Orange Bowl following the 2011 season, West Virginia is just 1-4 in their last five bowl games under Dana Holgorsen, with two of the losses coming in games West Virginia entered as a betting favorite (and their lone win in the span was by a single point). I am wary backing ACC teams, with the conference as a whole being pretty bad in 2018, but this line does not appear to have shifted enough. Take the Orange to cover and win outright.

Alamo Bowl @ San Antonio, Texas
Iowa State +3.5 Washington State
It's a shame the old incarnation of the Big 12 does not exist. If it did, Iowa State could well have been playing in their first Big 12 Championship Game this season (of course, Missouri might have thrown a wrench in those plans). The Cyclones finished 6-3 in conference play, their best mark since the league was formed. A win here would also see them finish ranked for the first time since 2000 and just the second time in the last forty years. Matt Campbell has done great work in Ames, and as of this writing he has not been pried away. The Cyclones were balanced this season, ranking fourth in the Big 12 in yards per play and second in yards allowed per play. They also continued their phenomenal work as a betting underdog in 2018, going 4-2 ATS with a pair of outright wins. Thus far in three seasons under Campbell, the Cyclones are 15-8-1 ATS as an underdog with seven outright upsets. They will look to continue that trend against a Washington State team that saw their season end in disappointing fashion for the sixth year in a row as they dropped the Apple Cup to Washington and saw their conference and longshot playoff hopes dissipate. Now the Cougars will attempt to regroup and avoid dropping their third straight bowl game. Overall, the Cougars are just 1-3 in bowl games under Mike Leach, with two of the losses coming in the favored role. Their normally prolific offense has put up just 49 combined points in their last three bowl games, topping out with 20 points in the Sun Bowl three seasons ago. The Cougars love to throw the ball, but Iowa State should be uniquely prepared to handle the Air Raid as they play nine games against other pass happy Big 12 spread teams each season. Couple that potential familiarity with Campbell's track record in the underdog role and Washington State's postseason struggles and you have the recipe for an Alamo Bowl upset.

Redbox Bowl @ Santa Clara, California
Michigan State +3 Oregon
The bowl formerly known as the San Francisco, Emerald, Fight Hunger, and Foster Farms Bowl has a new sponsor. Personally, I wish Redbox had sponsored the Camping World Bowl instead as it debuted under the moniker of the Blockbuster Bowl in 1990, but I digress. This Big 10/Pac-12 matchup will feature a distinct contrast in styles. Oregon wants to get out and run, ranking twelfth nationally in adjusted pace, while Michigan State is content to play at a more glacial speed, ranking 115th in the category. Befitting a squad that plays at a slow pace, Michigan State is a defense first team, ranking first in the Big 10 in yards allowed per play. Alas, the Spartans nearly wasted that defensive effort as they ranked second to last in yards per play, ahead of only Rutgers. Their offensive shortcomings are the main reason they did not contend in the rough and tumble Big 10 East. The Spartans finished a rather disappointing 7-5 and lost games where they allowed nine, sixteen, and twenty-one points. Perhaps more impressively, Michigan State has not allowed more than 30 points in any game since their opener against Utah State. Speaking of, Oregon did not win a single game in which they failed to score 30 points, going 0-3 when they failed to reach that narratively convenient number and 8-1 when they did. Oregon is not as imbalanced as Michigan State, as the Ducks were middle of the road in the Pac-12 in yards per play (sixth) and yards allowed per play (seventh). However, that balance also means they don't have a great strength either. Their season-long scoring numbers were relatively impressive, as the Ducks ranked 17th nationally in scoring offense at a little over 37 per contest. However, those numbers are buoyed by the nearly 52 points per game they averaged against three cupcakes in the non-conference. If we remove those three games and their Civil War battle against a defenseless Oregon State, their scoring average dips below 30. Oregon's recent history and flashy reputation along with their solid overall numbers have conspired to make them the betting favorite in this game despite the fact that Michigan State is probably the better team. The Spartans will attempt to make this game as aesthetically unpleasing as possible and grind out a win. Mark Dantonio got off to a rough start to his bowl career at Michigan State, losing his first four games. However, his teams have won five of six with the lone loss in the span coming in the 2015 CFB Playoff against Alabama. In fact, Dantonio has not lost a bowl game to a team not named Alabama since 2009! Take the Spartans to cover here and don't be too surprised when they win outright.

Those are the picks. I hope they win you a lot of money. I have a few thoughts on some of the other big bowl games. Read on for them.

Cotton Bowl @ Arlington, Texas
Clemson -11 Notre Dame
Clemson was obscenely dominant in ACC play this season (check back when we do the ACC YPP and APR offseason recaps to see just how dominant they were), but the ACC was pretty bad in 2018. When they stepped outside the ACC, they needed a late defensive stop to squeak by Texas A&M and then allowed 600 yards of offense at home to South Carolina. Keep this in mind before you lay your Christmas bonus on the Tigers to cover this large number. Perhaps this Notre Dame team will get run over like they did in 2012, but I'd advise you to stay away from this one.

Orange Bowl @ Miami, Florida
Alabama -14 Oklahoma
I don't have any betting advice on this game, but I will be watching for several things. First, how many non-garbage time punts can Oklahoma force in this game? The Sooners best bet to win or cover is probably some fortunate turnovers involving tipped passes or forced fumbles, but can the Sooners stop the Tide in a more conventional way? I really want to see how many times (if any) Alabama punts in this game while it is still competitive. The other thing I will be looking out for is how many points the Sooners score. Under Nick Saban, the most points Alabama has allowed is 45. In a nice coincidence that came to...Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl following the 2013 season (in another game where Alabama was heavily favored). Can these Sooners come close to matching that total?

Fiesta Bowl @ Glendale, Arizona
LSU -7.5 UCF
Can UCF continue their improbable win streak? How obnoxious will they be about claiming a national title if they do (especially if Oklahoma or Notre Dame wins the CFB Playoff)? If LSU loses, how hard will they lean into the 'not motivated' excuse?

Rose Bowl @ Pasadena, California
Ohio State -6.5 Washington
Despite their disappointment in not making the CFB Playoff, the Buckeyes will almost certainly play hard for Urban Meyer in his last game as a head coach (of the Buckeyes at least). Before you go preemptively putting your tax return money on Ohio State to win in a blowout, take a hard look at Washington. To me, the Huskies seem like a better version of Michigan State. Meyer's biggest Big 10 nemesis as coach of the Buckeyes was the Spartans. They beat him twice, preventing the Buckeyes from playing for a BCS and CFB title both times, and usually seemed to be able to ugly up the game (held the Buckeyes under 30 points five times in seven games). I wouldn't be surprised if Washington was able to do the same.

Sugar Bowl @ New Orleans, Louisiana
Georgia -11 Texas
How motivated will Georgia be fresh off blowing a two-touchdown lead in the SEC Championship Game? Can Tom Herman continue his spectacular ATS run as an underdog? And the question I most want answered, will we get any horns down gestures?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIV

After consecutive losing weeks, we got back on track. Let's see if we can do even better on Championship Weekend. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 45-42-4

Washington -5.5 Utah @ Santa Clara
I need an explanation for this line. About three months ago, Washington played Utah in Salt Lake City. The line in that game was somewhere around Washington minus four. I get that all else being equal changing the venue to  neutral site would equate to a point spread adjustment of about a point and a half which is what we have here. However, there is some other information to consider when handicapping this game. For starters, Washington won that first game by 14 points. They didn't dominate, but they won comfortably, extending the margin to two scores in the third quarter and holding steady. In addition, Utah comes into this game shorthanded. Their starting quarterback (Tyler Huntley) and running back (Zack Moss) from that game were lost for the season about a month ago and have missed the last three games. I don't think the injury issues have been accounted for in this line. I expected it to be more than a touchdown. Both teams should be motivated, with Washington playing for their third consecutive major bowl bid (and first Rose Bowl bid since 2000. For Utah, a Rose Bowl invite would mark their first major bowl appearance since memorably upsetting Alabama in the Sugar Bowl following the 2008 season. I think the injury problems will catch up with Utah here. Take the Huskies to win by at least a touchdown.

Marshall +4.5 Virginia Tech
Last week, the Hokies did what they always do: beat Virginia, this time in particularly heartbreaking fashion. The win moved the Hokies to 5-6 and made this conditional game possible. Now the Hokies must beat the Thundering Herd to keep their bowl streak alive. If you haven't paid a great deal of attention to college football in 2018, this line makes sense. Virginia Tech is a Power Five team playing a Group of Five team at home. They should be favored and quite frankly you might be surprised the line is under a touchdown. However, if you have been paying attention this season, you can make a pretty solid argument the wrong team is favored. Prior to beating Virginia, the Hokies had lost four games in a row and five of six, with their lone win in that span coming against North Carolina. In ACC play, the typically strong Virginia Tech defense ranked thirteenth (next to last) in the ACC in yards allowed per play. Only the dumpster fire at Louisville was worse. Meanwhile, Marshall has won at least eight games for the fifth time in six seasons. In fact, if we ignore the outlier 2016 season when the Thundering Herd went just 3-9, Marshall is 49-16 since 2013! Marshall won with defense in 2018, finishing with the second best unit in terms of yards per play in Conference USA. Virginia Tech will probably be motivated playing for bowl eligibility, but Marshall should be motivated as well. Despite not having a chance to win their division, the Herd still played hard on the road last week in their win at FIU. Marshall is no stranger to playing road games against Power Five teams and they have been pretty successful in those games, posting a 6-2 ATS mark despite not winning a single game outright. This is by far their best shot at a Power Five road scalp (they did beat Purdue at home in 2015). Since the calendar flipped to October, Virginia Tech has won two games by a combined six points. Take the Herd to cover and don't be surprised if they win outright.

Middle Tennessee State -1.5 UAB
When I was initially handicapping this game, I expected to come away convinced to take UAB. Prior to last week's loss at Middle Tennessee, the Blazers had been dominant, winning their first seven conference games by an average of more than 23 points per contest. The Blazers had only been challenged twice, winning one score games at home against North Texas and Southern Miss by a combined eleven points. But then I looked at the schedule. The bad teams in Conference USA are really bad, and fortunately for UAB, most of those teams reside in the west division. Rice, UTEP, and UTSA are three of the worst teams in college football and the Blazers pounded that Texas trio by a combined score of 113-3! Good teams should pound bad teams, but while the Blazers were steamrolling through Texas, the Blue Raiders were being challenged by Marshall and FIU. Even the losing teams in the east division showed some spunk. Florida Atlantic was better than their final 5-7 record. Charlotte also finished 5-7 and nearly made a bowl. Old Dominion beat Virginia Tech. And Western Kentucky, well, they went 2-0 against the west. The Blue Raiders also faced a challenging non-conference slate losing three road games against SEC East schools. The Blazers faced an SEC team as well, but they also lost at Coastal Carolina. Middle Tennessee has the homefield and will be playing for their first conference title since 2006. Take the Blue Raiders to send Brent Stockstill off on a high note in his final home game.

Central Florida -3 Memphis
How much does McKenzie Milton mean to this line? A touchdown? More? If Milton were not lost for the season in their victory against South Florida, I have a hard time believing this line would not be at least ten points and perhaps two touchdowns. Without Milton, can the Knights beat Memphis for a fourth time in two seasons and finish undefeated for the second consecutive year? I think so. Here's why. Since their amazing run began last season, the Knights have been favorites of less than a touchdown at home just three times. They are 2-0-1 in those games, with the push coming against Memphis in last year's conference title game. Meanwhile, Memphis has struggled on the road this season, going 2-3 with their victories coming against East Carolina and SMU. Credit Memphis with rebounding from a horrid 1-3 start in conference play to win the AAC West, but this team is not nearly as good as least year's version. I know Central Florida is not as good without Milton, but this team has a real chip on their shoulder and seems to relish playing the 'lack of respect' card. The College Football Playoff is probably a pipe dream, especially with Milton's injury giving the committee ample excuse to leave them out should chaos ensue, but a bid is still theoretically on the line when kickoff comes Saturday afternoon. If Oklahoma loses to Texas, Georgia loses to Alabama, and Ohio State loses to Northwestern (obviously unlikely that all those events occur), UCF might be the only logical choice left for the fourth spot. UCF is a public team and there is typically not a lot of value in backing them, but I think the market is overreacting to Milton's injury. This team is still highly motivated, playing at home, and giving less than a touchdown. Take them to win and cover here.

Georgia +13.5 Alabama @ Atlanta
Alabama had one of the most dominant regular seasons of all time in 2018, averaging nearly 50 points per game and winning by about five touchdowns per game on average. Can the Crimson Tide continue their dominance as the competition ratchets up and potentially lay claim to being the best team of the modern era? Their potential three-team gauntlet begins Saturday against a Georgia team that has been, what I'll deem, quietly elite this season. After nearly winning the national championship in 2017, Georgia won eleven games by at least two touchdowns in 2018, with their lone blemish coming in a disappointing road performance at LSU. However, since that setback, Georgia has bludgeoned four bowl teams, including two currently ranked in the top 20, by nearly 20 points per game. But does Georgia have a realistic shot at ending Alabama's scorched-earth run through the SEC? I think so. For starters, Georgia has by far the best offense Alabama will have faced thus far in 2018. The Bulldogs rank second behind Alabama in both yards per play and offensive touchdowns in SEC play. The Bulldogs are also stout defensively ranking third in the SEC in both yards allowed per play and touchdowns allowed in conference play (behind Mississippi State and Alabama in both categories). Alabama will be able to score on Georgia, but the Bulldogs are by far the most balanced team the Tide have faced this season. The other strong defenses they faced (LSU and Mississippi State) had no prayer throwing the ball against the Tide and the strong offenses they faced (Ole Miss and Texas A&M) were not able to hold up defensively. Georgia is not as good as Alabama on either side of the ball and is justly an underdog, but they will be able to challenge Alabama as no other team has yet this season. One thing about this game does give me pause. Since 2005, a team has been favored by double-digits five times in the SEC Championship Game. Those teams are 5-0 straight up and 4-1 ATS. However, this Georgia team does not fit the profile of those previous huge underdogs (like both of McElwain's division winners). If Georgia was catching a touchdown, I would advise you to stay away, but I'll take nearly two touchdowns and expect the Bulldogs to make this a game well into the fourth quarter.

Fresno +3 Boise State
Since the Mountain West split into divisions in 2013, these two teams have combined for seven (of a possible twelve) division titles. This marks the third time they have faced off in the Mountain West Championship Game, with Boise winning, but failing to cover in the previous two games. The Bulldogs and Broncos have already faced off once this season with the Broncos staging a second-half rally to upset Fresno as a rare home underdog. I expect another close game here and statistically, Fresno State is better than the Broncos on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs averaged more yards per play, scored more touchdowns, allowed fewer yards per play, and allowed fewer touchdowns than the Broncos in Mountain West action. The Smurf Turf is a tough place to win, but Fresno State is the better team and this line should be a pick em. Take the Bulldogs to get revenge for last month's loss.

Northwestern +14.5 Ohio State @ Indianapolis
When this matchup was etched in stone Saturday afternoon following Ohio State's romp over Michigan, I vowed I would not back the Wildcats. Despite their affinity for the underdog role, I wanted no part of their purple power. Yet here we are. Why on earth am I taking the Wildcats when Ohio State enters this game with legitimate playoff aspirations? Since 2014, as an underdog of ten or more points, Northwestern is a sterling 10-3 ATS with seven, yes seven, outright wins. Those are Bill Snyder type numbers (another Wildcat coincidentally). Conversely, in that same span, Ohio State is a mediocre 23-27 ATS as a double-digit favorite. If we limit our scope to games against Power Five teams, their ATS mark dips to 16-23. That trend is simply begging you to take Northwestern. I know four years ago Ohio State blitzed Wisconsin and stole a playoff bid from TCU in the process. While that image seems indelible, remember just last season the Buckeyes needed to impress yet again against the Badgers in an attempt to steal another playoff bid, but they were never able to pull away and won by just six. I'm not suggesting you do something crazy like take Northwestern on the moneyline, but this number is too high to pass up.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

Two straight bad weeks have eroded all the gains we made over the last month. Oh well, just two more weeks left in the regular season. Let's see if we can hit a 7-0. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-4-1
Overall: 40-40-4

Missouri -23 Arkansas
Think about how differently you would view Missouri if they had finished drives better against South Carolina and gotten better officiating against Kentucky. The Tigers would be 9-2 with their losses coming to the two most dominant SEC teams (Alabama and Georgia). I might add, the Tigers did not play especially poorly in those games. So the Tigers would be 9-2 with non-conference wins against Purdue, Wyoming, and Memphis, the latter two coming in blowout fashion. I don't think its a stretch to say Missouri might be looking at a New Year's Six bowl game. But alas, things are as they are and the Tigers will have to settle for closing strong yet again and potentially ending up ranked if things shake out right in the bowl season. On the other sideline, Arkansas is limping to the finish without showing much improvement in head coach Chad Morris' first season. The Hogs have beaten one FBS opponent all year and have scored nine points in their two true SEC road games this season. Despite this being a 'rivalry', I doubt Arkansas will play hard in this one, particularly if they fall behind early. In addition, two Arkansas defensive backs will be suspended for this game after fraternizing with enemy coeds last week. Chad Morris has yet to put an average defense on the field in any of his four seasons as head coach, but suspending solid contributors having a little fun is sure to fire his unit up. Missouri is just 7-6 ATS as a home favorite under Barry Odom, but they are 4-1 ATS when laying double-digits. In the final home game for senior quarterback Drew Lock, I expect the Tigers to hammer Arkansas.

Coastal Carolina -1.5 South Alabama
It is Rivalry Weekend, so it stands to reason that a game I picked for the column would be one of the oldest and heated...oh wait nevermind. This is the first meeting ever between these FBS noobs. But that doesn't mean its not important. A win by Coastal would make them bowl eligible in just their second season of play at the FBS level. A bowl bid is definitely not assured, but the Chants should be motivated at the opportunity. For South Alabama, other than playing the role of spoiler, this game is essentially meaningless. The Jaguars have won just two games in head coach Steve Campbell's first season in charge. That is the fewest by the Jaguars since they burst on the FBS scene in 2012. Campbell has been successful at his previous stops, so good things may be in store for South Alabama, but with nothing to play for, they are hard to back here. I expect an entertaining game with both defenses ranking among the worst in FBS. Coastal Carolina has played much better on the road this season, posting a 4-2 record. With this number being so small, they are a solid play on Black Friday.

Oklahoma -1 West Virginia
This game lost a little bit of its luster when West Virginia lost to Oklahoma State. Had the Mountaineers won that game, this would not only have been a Big 12 Championship play-in game, but both teams would have also been alive for the College Football Playoff. The Sooners still harbor playoff aspirations, but West Virginia can only yearn for their first Big 12 title. Despite winning last week, it can be argued that Oklahoma is paying a bigger price, at least in terms of the spread, for their shoddy performance against Kansas. Admittedly, the Jayhawks are better than in years past, but allowing them to score 40 is a big slight against your defense. Still, the Sooners did win that game comfortably despite playing an inferior opponent while also being fresh off an emotional win with a huge game on deck. You shouldn't be terribly surprised they didn't look great. With a spread this low, you have to believe West Virginia not only has the potential to win, but that they are likely to do so. I can't get behind that logic. Oklahoma has defensive issues galore, but they have perhaps the best offense in the nation. West Virginia does have the homefield, but Oklahoma has not lost a true road game yet under Lincoln Riley. In fact, the Sooners have not dropped a true road game since their 2014 trip to Fort Worth! West Virginia is rarely a home underdog, as this is just the third instance since the start of the 2015 season. However, in those other two instances (both against teams from the state of Oklahoma), the Mountaineers failed to cover and lost by double-digits. West Virginia will get their points, but Oklahoma will survive and advance to the Big 12 Championship Game.

Washington +3.5 Washington State
Ten years after the infamous Crapple Cup, the Huskies and Cougars enter this game with their best combined ranking since 2001. The Huskies have dominated this series since Chris Petersen arrived in Seattle, winning the four contests by at least 18 points. In fact, since that Crapple Cup loss, the Huskies have won eight of nine with seven of the eight wins coming by double digits. These two teams have been pretty good over the past few seasons, so if you predicted both would be ranked heading into this game, that would not have raised any eyebrows. However, if you predicted Washington State and not Washington was the dark horse playoff contender, that might have grabbed some attention. The Huskies entered the season ranked sixth in the preseason AP Poll, but lost to Auburn in Atlanta to immediately put them behind the eight ball in terms of landing a playoff bid. Their offense struggled, but their defense dominated and the Huskies eventually returned to the top ten before losing two of three to actually fall out of the poll altogether. However, they have won two straight and are in position to not only spoil their rivals special season, but also win the division and set up a shot at the Rose Bowl next week against Utah. The Huskies have been confounding on offense this season, struggling at times to score points despite the presence of a seasoned senior backfield. However, their defense is arguably the best in the Pac-12 and comparable to the one in Berkeley. That defense, as you may remember, held Washington State to a season-low in points just three weeks ago. I expected this game to be a pick em' when the line was released so catching more than a field goal, Washington is a bargain.

Arizona +2 Arizona State
The Territorial Cup looked like it might have division implications a few weeks ago, but Utah secured a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game with their win at Colorado last week. So, this game is solely for bragging rights and a bowl game for Arizona. Both these teams have had uneven seasons to say the least. The Wildcats have not won or lost more than two games in a row all season while the Sun Devils did manage a three-game win streak before losing to Oregon last week. The handicap for this game is simple. Arizona has played much better at home, posting a 4-2 record, including 2-1 ATS and straight up as a home underdog. Meanwhile, Arizona State has played much worse on the road, going 1-4 overall, with their lone victory coming against a crumbling Southern Cal. Plus, the home team has won the last five in this series. Make it six after this weekend.

SMU -2 Tulsa
After a rough start, SMU has righted the ship and the Mustangs are in position to qualify for their second consecutive bowl game. Since starting 0-3, the Mustangs have won five of eight with their only losses in that span coming to the upper echelon teams in the AAC (Cincinnati, Memphis, and UCF). Meanwhile, after a disappointing 2-10 campaign in 2017, Tulsa has shown almost no signs of life in 2018. The Golden Hurricane have beaten one FBS team (if Connecticut even qualifies) and the Philip Montgomery era is starting to feel like Bill Blankenship 2.0 (for those folks who are not Tulsa fans, that is not a compliment). Outside of a solid showing against the two worst defenses in the AAC (Connecticut and Navy), Tulsa has done next to nothing on offense this year. With a line this low against a team with nothing to play for, SMU is the pick here.

Kansas State +14 Iowa State
I hope this is not an overreaction to last week when I was on Iowa State and they neglected to show up in Austin despite having a legitimate shot at playing in the Big 12 Championship Game. Instead, I hope it is me arriving relatively late to the Kansas State party. This has been a weird and disappointing season for Kansas State, with rumors swirling around Bill Snyder's future and the Wildcats looking at their first season without a bowl bid since 2009. However, after a rough start that included a narrow win against an FCS team, a home beatdown at the hands of Mississippi State, and a road beatdown at West Virginia, the Wildcats have done a pretty good imitation of a second generation Bill Snyder team. The Wildcats have covered five of their last six games as an underdog with two outright wins. Their only truly bad performance in that span was against the vastly superior Sooners in Norman. Iowa State is better than Kansas State, but the Cyclones are not in Oklahoma's neighborhood talent-wise. In fact, if you take away that Oklahoma game and their conference opener with West Virginia, Kansas State has allowed just 17.5 points per game in conference play! Overall, the Jayhawks have allowed 21 touchdowns in Big 12 play (just ten in games not involving Oklahoma or West Virginia) while the much more regarded Iowa State defense has allowed 19. Kansas State is better than people think and the Wildcats are still alive for an improbable bowl bid. Take the Wildcats and the two touchdowns here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

It was bound to happen, and lo it did. We had our first losing week in a month. There are just three more weeks left in the regular season so lets get back on track. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 38-36-3

North Texas -3 Florida Atlantic
After playing in the Conference USA Championship Game last season, the Mean Green and Owls have been somewhat disappointing in 2018. North Texas looked like they might capture their first conference title since dominating the Sun Belt in the early 00's in September when they crushed SMU, Arkansas, and Liberty in non-conference play. However, three tight losses in league play (combined margin of 13 points) ensured they would not repeat as division champs. For Florida Atlantic, their non-conference slate was a little more challenging, featuring blowout losses to Oklahoma and UCF. Seeking a reprieve in conference play, the Owls lost three of their first four games to fall out of contention. However, they have won two in a row, including a Shula Bowl beatdown of Florida International two weeks ago. The Owls still need one more win to become bowl eligible, so that is a concern as they will likely be motivated to win here. However, I think North Texas may have more motivation as the Owls embarrassed the Mean Green in both games last season, winning both games by a combined 62 points. Based on yards per play, these teams appear to be pretty even. Florida Atlantic is slightly better on offense and North Texas is slightly better on defense. Couple that with homefield and the field goal line makes sense. However, I think North Texas will have revenge on their mind here and win comfortably.

Colorado +7 Utah
One of the podcasts I listen to regularly is 'Beating the Book with Gill Alexander'. Every Thursday, Gill, Marco D'Angelo, Ace, and a rotating guest examine the upcoming NFL card. A few weeks ago, they were discussing the injury to 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. I believe Marco theorized that when an injury to a significant contributor first occurs, it is a good idea to back the team that suffered the injury. His reasoning had something to do with the team rallying around the injured player. He then went postulated that as the season continues, that initial emotion will fade and the depth issues stemming from the loss of that player will manifest themselves and fading that team would be a good idea. That was a theory I had never considered and I made a mental note of it. In college football, the team that seemed to fit this criteria was Virginia Tech. Against Old Dominion, the Hokies not only lost the game, they also lost starting quarterback Josh Jackson to an injury. The next week, the Hokies traveled to Duke as underdogs, but upset the Blue Devils behind backup quarterback Ryan Willis. However, since that victory, the Hokies are 1-4 having been outscored by sixteen points per game and are in danger of missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 1992! I know that is just one example and reeks of confirmation bias, but I think it applies for this game as well. Back on November 3rd, Utah lost quarterback Tyler Huntley for the season in a loss to Arizona State. In their first game without Huntley, the Utes beat Oregon at home. Now, off that emotional win, they must travel to a Boulder to face a desperate Colorado team that needs one more win to become bowl eligible. In the seven games these two teams have played since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, six have been decided by a touchdown or less, including each one at Folsom Prison Field. This is Utah's last conference game, and while there is still a chance for them to win the Pac-12 South, they might be looking ahead to next week's Holy War with BYU. Gobble up the seven points and take Colorado.

Miami -4 Virginia Tech
I wrote about it last week in the Miami/Georgia Tech preview, but I'll update it again here. Since starting the 2017 season 10-0, Miami is just 5-8 in their last thirteen games and just 2-8 in their last ten games against Power Five opponents. In those ten games against Power Five teams, the Hurricanes have scored an average of just over 19 points per game and have topped 30 points just once (in a drubbing of North Carolina). The good news for Miami is that the usually stout Virginia Tech defense might just be the cure for what ails them on Saturday. If not for the 'defense' being played at Louisville, Virginia Tech would have the worst defense in the ACC! The Hokies have allowed more than 40 points four times in 2018, including once to Old Dominion. In Justin Fuente's first two seasons in charge, the Hokies allowed more than 40 points just twice. The Hokies are currently allowing 31 points per game. They have not allowed more than 30 points per game in an entire season since 1973! That points per game number is also very misleading. After allowing twenty total points in their first two games against Florida State and William and Mary, the Hokies have allowed 37 points per game over their last seven! If Miami can't get it going against Virginia Tech, it might be time for some staff changes (heck it might be time anyway). Backing Miami has not been a wise investment this season, but this line does not reflect how bad Virginia Tech is.

Minnesota +3 Northwestern
Since starting Big 10 play 0-2 in 2017, Northwestern has won thirteen of their last fourteen conference games! That impressive run has already clinched the Big 10 West for the Wildcats and given them a remote shot at getting to the Rose Bowl despite losing to Akron. However, such a feat would not necessarily be unprecedented. The 1995 Rose Bowl team suffered their only regular season defeat at the hands of Miami of Ohio. Yes, that Redhawks team has pretty good and their coach, the late Randy Walker, would eventually coach Northwestern, but they were still a MAC school. Of those thirteen Big 10 wins, seven have come by a touchdown or less and six have come as a betting underdog. Be it skill, luck, or some combination of the two, Northwestern has won the close ones while also winning the ones oddsmakers believe they should not. With that being said, it is fair to question Northwestern's motivation here with the division already locked up. In addition, their opponent has played much better at home, particularly on defense. Minnesota is allowing just over nineteen points per game at home and the Gophers already have home victories against Fresno State and Purdue. Contrast that to their road performance, where they have yet to taste victory and have allowed a staggering 45 points per game! Northwestern is probably not as good as their record and it seems lady luck is due to turn against the Wildcats at some point. Couple that with the fact that Minnesota has bowl eligibility to play for in their home finale and the Gophers are the play here.

Virginia +6.5 Georgia Tech
I was against Georgia Tech last week, and while that play did not work out, I watched most of that game and nothing in the contest convinced me that the Yellow Jackets were the right play. Miami did a good job against the Georgia Tech rushing attack, holding the Yellow Jackets to 231 yards on the ground (their third lowest output of the season). However, the Hurricanes lost three fumbles, with all three resulting in Georgia Tech scoring drives (each drive started inside the Miami 40). The thirteen points resulting from those three drives contributed significantly to Georgia Tech winning and covering the number. Recovering fumbles can go a long way toward determining the winner of an individual game and those bounces can result in inflated lines like this one. Georgia Tech has won five of six since a 1-3 start, but Miami is the only quality team they have beaten in that span. Bowling Green and Louisville have both fired their head coaches before the end of the season, North Carolina has won a single game and may fire Larry Fedora at any moment, and Virginia Tech is fielding their worst defense since Bud Foster came aboard. Virginia is better than all those teams and head coach Bronco Mendenhall has had success against the option, going 3-1 against Georgia Tech, including 2-0 during his time at BYU. In those four games, Mendenhall's teams have held Georgia Tech to an average of just 193 yards per game on the ground. I expect the Cavaliers to have success slowing down the Georgia Tech running game in a low-scoring affair that the Cavaliers  could win outright.

UTEP +7.5 Western Kentucky
Both teams enter this penultimate game with identical 1-9 records, yet the mood around the programs could not be more different. Western Kentucky entered the 2018 season off seven consecutive seasons with at least six wins under four different coaches. Meanwhile, UTEP entered 2018 fresh off a winless 2017 campaign. That losing streak would climb to twenty before the Miners beat Rice two weeks ago. However, in the midst of those losses, you could see improvement. Once conference play began, the Miners covered four of their first five games, losing one score contests to North Texas and Louisiana Tech before breaking through against Rice. Western Kentucky has been trending in the opposite direction, scoring less than 20 points in five of their six conference games. I don't see how you can lay points with an offense as bad as Western Kentucky's. I wouldn't be surprised if UTEP was able to eke out their second win against a demoralized Hilltopper team.

Iowa State +3 Texas
Let the record show that it is the weekend before Thanksgiving and Iowa State is still alive for the Big 12 title. The Cyclones, as you may or may not know, have not won a conference championship since 1912! Iowa State has a lot of work left to do to hoist their first conference title banner since the Taft Administration. They must win their final two games against Texas and Kansas State and hope West Virginia drops at least one of their final two games against Oklahoma State or Oklahoma (or hope Oklahoma loses both of theirs). Winning out and having West Virginia drop a game is doable, if not probable. However, even if Iowa State advances to the conference title game, in all likelihood they would need to beat the high-octane Sooners to be Big 12 champs. Obviously, first Iowa State must win in Austin against a Texas team that also has designs on a Big 12 title. Like the Cyclones, the Longhorns have dropped a pair of conference games, but unlike the Cyclones, they were able to knock off the Sooners. However, since winning that game at the Texas State Fair, the Longhorns have been leaky on defense. In their last four Big 12 games, the Longhorns have allowed 6.36 yards per play and nearly 33 points per game. For the season, Texas ranks sixth in the Big 12 on both sides of the ball in yards per play and are actually underwater (negative per play margin). Meanwhile, Iowa State has risen to the top of the conference in yards allowed per play and also rank a respectable fourth in yards per play. If not for the angry bird logo, you might confuse Iowa State with a vintage Gary Patterson TCU team: great on defense, good enough on offense. I understand why oddsmakers have installed Texas as a favorite, but I think Iowa State is the better team. Plus, being a favorite does not suit Texas well. Under Tom Herman, the Longhorns are 2-7 ATS as a home favorite with three outright losses. Expect more of the same here with Iowa State moving one step closer to the Big 12 Championship Game.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

The Magnificent Seven: Week XI

Another winning week moves us to a season high five games over .500. However, we are due for some regression and oh boy, I took six road underdogs this week. I apologize in advance if you tail these picks. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 36-31-3

TCU +13.5 West Virginia
Dana Holgorsen showed some...ahem...onions on Saturday, electing to go for two and the win after the Mountaineers scored late against Texas. The victory moved the Mountaineers to 7-1 and gave them a clear path to the Big 12 Championship Game. A Big 12 title is still a long shot, as it may require beating Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks. However, before the Mountaineers can dream of their first league title since 2011, they must take care of business against a disappointing TCU team. The Horned Frogs are in danger of missing out on a bowl for the first time since 2013. With a 4-5 record, the Horned Frogs must win two of their last three games to become bowl eligible. TCU has struggled offensively in 2018, ranking eighth in the Big 12 in yards per play while averaging just 19 points per game in conference play. Turnovers have also hurt the Horned Frogs. In Big 12 play, TCU's turnover margin is -9 (it was -11 before they finally came out on the positive side against Kansas State). The defense, a Gary Patterson staple, has remained relatively stout by Big 12 standards, ranking second in the conference in yards allowed per play. However, the defense has only forced nine turnovers, which is on pace to be the fewest forced by the team since they joined the Big 12 in 2012. That poor turnover margin has conspired to make TCU look worse than they actually are. If the Horned Frogs had a little better turnover luck, they wouldn't be Big 12 title contenders, but they certainly would not have lost to Kansas either. TCU's defense only played one bad game this season, and that was against the Oklahoma juggernaut. West Virginia has a potent offense, ranking second in the Big 12 in yards per play, but the difference between the Sooners and the Mountaineers is the same as the difference between the Mountaineers and Kansas State (at least in yards per play). TCU has done well as a road underdog since joining the Big 12, posting a 10-4 ATS mark in the role, including 3-0 as a double-digit underdog. West Virginia is due for a letdown after such an emotional win against Texas. Plus, in their last eight games as a top-ten team, the Mountaineers are just 4-4 straight up and 1-7 ATS. That ATS record includes an 0-3 ATS mark as a double-digit home favorite and and 0-6 ATS mark as a favorite overall. TCU probably lacks the firepower to win outright, but they will keep this one close.

Wisconsin +8 Penn State
Perhaps this game should be christened The Disappointment Bowl (Big 10 edition). Both these teams began the season in the top-ten of the AP Poll and harbored at least semi-realistic playoff aspirations. Three fourths of the way through the season, Penn State is still ranked, but both teams have combined for six losses, including embarrassing defeats in Ann Arbor to Michigan. Wisconsin's typically stout defense has deserted them as they rank ninth in the Big 10 in yards allowed per play while Penn State's offense has not been the same without the services of Saquon Barkley and Joe Moorhead. The Nittany Lions currently rank a mediocre seventh in the Big 10 in yards per play (after ranking first and third in the category the past two seasons). And if you look closely, the teams appear to be trending in opposite directions. After losing to Michigan a month ago, Wisconsin was allowing an unheard of 7.19 yards per play to Big 10 opponents. Those numbers made Illinois look like the '85 Bears. Since dropping that game, the Badgers have allowed a more Wisconsin-like 4.89 yards per play. Meanwhile, Penn State has struggled offensively over the last month, particularly throwing the football. In their first two conference games, the Nittany Lions torched Illinois and Ohio State through the air, averaging a robust 9.42 yards per pass. However, in their last four games, the Nittany Lions have averaged just 6.50 yards per pass. For the season, Trace McSorley has completed just 52% of his passes (those are Joe Burrow type numbers). In 2016 and 2017, McSorley completed over 62% of his passes. This drop-off is concerning for McSorley's pro prospects and for Penn State's odds of covering as a relatively large favorite. The Nittany Lions are either 2-2 or 1-3 ATS as a home favorite this season, depending on when you bet the Iowa game. Their lone home domination came against Kent State. Wisconsin is down a few pegs from their previous incarnations, but they are good enough to keep this one close. Keep in mind Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook is questionable for this game, but I believe the Badgers are a solid play even if he is unable to go. Remember, his status is already baked into the point spread. If he is ruled out, this line will probably jump a few more points and make Wisconsin an even better proposition.

Maryland +3 Indiana
This game features a battle of the have-nots in the Big 10 East in a sort of desperation bowl. The winner will have a decent shot at bowl eligibility (Maryland will become bowl eligible with a win), but the loser will almost certainly be home for the holidays. Maryland has had an odd season, even just considering the on-field results. The Terps knocked off Texas in their opener and two weeks later lost to at home to an 0-2 Temple team that had already lost to both Villanova and Buffalo. Once Big 10 play began, they continued their uneven play. In their three wins, the Terps have averaged a robust 46 points per game. In their three league losses, the Terps have scored 24 total points. The Terps success comes down to their ability to run the ball. In their five wins, the Terps have averaged 325 yards per game on the ground while averaging over seven yards per rush. In their four losses, they have averaged 93 yards per game on the ground and just 3.11 yards per rush. Fortunately for them, Indiana does not have an elite defense. The Hoosiers rank eleventh in the Big 10 in yards allowed per play. Their offense has been similarly below average, also ranking eleventh in yards per play. Indiana's lone conference win came over a month ago at Rutgers. I'm not sure why they are favored here. Take the Terps to cover and don't be surprised if they win outright.

Charlotte +14.5 Marshall
It's mostly gone unnoticed because they are Charlotte, an FBS neophyte playing in Conference USA, but the 49ers have probably put the best team in school history on the field this year, especially on defense. Since allowing 49 points in an ugly road loss to Massachusetts, the 49ers have allowed under 100 points in their past five games (94 to be exact). They have also been stingy in the yardage department, permitting just 4.81 yards per play. Most national media blamed Tennessee for their poor showing at home last week (just 192 total yards and one offensive touchdown against Charlotte), but the 49ers deserve a good portion of credit for keeping that game close. Unfortunately, the offense has not been able to pull their weight (ranking twelfth in Conference USA in yards per play). Thus, the 49ers are stuck at 4-5 and need to win two of their last three to qualify for a bowl. The 49ers face the two Florida schools (Atlantic and International) after their trip to Huntington, so I wouldn't start buying up Bahamas Bowl tickets yet were I a Charlotte fan. Still, you can make a solid argument for Charlotte keeping this game close. Marshall is a better team, but they have offensive issues of their own (currently rank ninth in Conference USA in yards per play) and have not done well as a home favorite recently. The Herd are just 2-7 ATS as a home favorite since 2016 including 2-5 ATS as a double-digit home favorite. I expect a low-scoring game here and with Charlotte catching more than two touchdowns, they are the play.

East Carolina +13.5 Tulane
Two weeks ago, this looked like another lost season for Tulane. The Green Wave had just lost a tight game to SMU to drop their record to 2-5. An 0-3 mark in one-score games seemed destined to keep the Green Wave home for the holidays for the fifth consecutive year, especially with two straight road games on the horizon. But against tall odds, the Green Wave beat both Tulsa and South Florida and now need only sweep their home games against East Carolina and Navy to become bowl eligible. Unfortunately for Tulane backers, those two wins have probably inflated this line. Despite being in their third season of option football under Willie Fritz, the Green Wave have not dominated offensively like his previous teams at Georgia Southern. The Green Wave currently rank eighth in the AAC in yards per play. Their defense is the strength of the team, ranking third in the conference in yards allowed per play. It's hard to back defense-first teams when they are laying numbers this large. In fact, this line is rather historic for Tulane. They have not been a double-digit favorite against an FBS team since 2013! Tulane did win that game by the way, but they have not been great as a home favorite under Willie Fritz, posting a 2-4 ATS record with three outright losses! East Carolina is trash and I feel dirty backing them, but this spread is simply too high for a team that has not fully weaponized the option yet.

Houston -4 Temple
After moving into the polls prior to last weekend, Houston received a rude awakening from their in-state rivals at SMU. Allow me to digress for a moment. Kudos to SMU and Sonny Dykes. Since losing to Central Florida to fall to 2-4, the Mustangs have won at Tulane, lost to Cincinnati in overtime, and beaten Houston. With games against Connecticut and Tulsa remaining on the schedule, a second straight bowl game is likely. I definitely did not see that coming a month ago. Anyway, back to this game. That loss to the Mustangs has kept this line under a touchdown, which is great news if you fancy backing Houston. With D'Eriq King at quarterback and f*ck face Kendal Briles calling plays, the Cougars have been dynamic on offense, averaging nearly 48 points per game in 2018. The defense has had occasional glitches, but they still rank fifth in the AAC in yards allowed per play. I think this is a bad spot for Temple as well, as the Owls put a great deal of effort in their last game, a nationally televised road contest against Central Florida. With their division and conference title hopes likely dashed, the Owls may have shot their proverbial wad. Meanwhile, the loss to SMU likely served as a wake-up call to Houston who are now no longer sure things to win the division. Houston plays fast, so this game will likely feature  a large number of possessions, something that serves to help favorites cover. Take the Cougars to win here by at least a touchdown.

Miami +4 Georgia Tech
Life comes at you fast. A year ago, Miami was 'back' and the 'Canes were the toast of college football. Heck, a month ago, Miami was the favorite to win the ACC Coastal and get a rematch with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. Three losses later and suddenly Miami is 5-7 over their last twelve games, including just 2-7 against Power Five opponents. Those two wins have come against a cratering North Carolina team that is just 4-16 since the start of 2017 and a Florida State team staring down their worst season since 1975. Suffice to say, Miami has not looked good in a long time. The culprit has been their offensive ineptitude. Miami has scored just 39 points during their three-game skid and neither Malik Rosier nor N'Kosi Perry have been able to give the them average quarterback play. As a team, the Hurricanes are completing just over 52% of their passes, a figure that ranks 116th nationally! It's a shame the Miami offense has been so bad because they are wasting another fine defensive performance by Manny Diaz's unit. The Hurricanes rank second in the ACC in yards allowed per play and have permitted just nine touchdowns in their five conference games. The Hurricanes have been particularly adept at getting tackles for loss, leading the nation with 94. That should come in handy against an efficiency based Georgia Tech option attack. The Yellow Jackets have played better of late, winning four of five after a 1-3 start. The Yellow Jackets have been a high variance team, particularly on offense this season. In three of their four losses, the Yellow Jackets have scored a grand total of 54 points (that's 18 per game for those who failed linear algebra). However, in their other six games, Georgia Tech has averaged nearly 50 points per game (49.2 to be exact)! Georgia Tech has played better since their poor start, but most of those games have come against bad teams. Three of their four victories since beginning 1-3 have come against Bowling Green, Louisville, and North Carolina. Their other victory came against a Virginia Tech team that also might not be that good (they did lose to Old Dominion after all). Plus they lost to Duke in between those four victories while scoring exactly 14 points at home. Miami's defense is good enough to hold Georgia Tech to around 20 points or so, and while their offense is not reliable, Georgia Tech ranks twelfth of fourteen teams in the ACC in yards allowed per play. Before this number came out, I thought Miami might be a slight favorite. Couple that with the fact that both Miami (won eight of ten games in the series since Johnson arrived at Tech) and Mark Richt (also won eight of ten against Johnson including his time at Georgia) have done well against the Yellow Jackets and the disappointing 'Canes are the play here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Magnificent Seven: Week X

We closed October strong. Let's see if we can keep it rolling in November. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-2-1
Overall: 31-29-3

Western Kentucky +13.5 Middle Tennessee State
How the (relatively) mighty have fallen. Two years ago, Western Kentucky was capping off a second consecutive Conference USA title with a bowl romp over Memphis. Now, the Hilltoppers have lost five consecutive conference games dating back to last season and will likely need an upset along the way to avoid a two-win campaign. It may be a bit of an oversimplification, but when Jeff Brohm left, the program cratered. Maybe the administration will give Mike Sanford Jr. time to pull the nose of the plane up, but his tenure thus far has been a disaster. So of course, I recommend you take them this week. Why? Well, for starters, Middle Tennessee is coming off a rather misleading victory against Old Dominion. The Blue Raiders scored 51 points in an easy road win against the Monarchs, but they allowed almost seven and a half yards per play. Timely turnovers, including a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown contributed to the bloated margin. And gamblers are paying a tax on that margin this week in the form of this enlarged number. Western Kentucky is not good, but until last week's outburst, Middle Tennessee had not scored more than 34 points against an FBS opponent. Without another glut of turnovers, that is probably their ceiling here too, and I think a more reasonable expectation would be about ten points less than that. Plus, for all their struggles this season, Western Kentucky has actually played well in the role of road underdog, covering all three times they have been in such a position, with one outright upset and another near miss. Take the Hilltoppers to cover here.

Air Force +7 Army
Since giving Oklahoma all they could handle in Norman, the Army Blacks Knights have reeled off four consecutive wins and are bowl-eligible for the third straight season. With two FCS opponents and a down Navy team remaining on the schedule, Army has a decent shot at finishing the regular season with ten wins. Based on the 'others receiving votes' category, Army is 40th in the latest AP Poll. If they can win those final four games and then squeeze out a bowl win, they could find themselves ranked for the first time since 1996! But before any further discussion of ranked finishes, Army must deal with their first leg of the Commander in Chief's gauntlet. Air Force has already beaten Navy, so a win by the Falcons would lock up the prestigious award for them. However, Air Force is already saddled with five losses, so they must win three of their final four games to avoid a second consecutive season with no postseason appearance. The primary culprit for the Falcon's 3-5 start has been their pass defense. In their seven games against FBS opponents, the Falcons have allowed 9.1 yards per pass with eighteen touchdowns and just three interceptions. Basically, the Falcons are turning opposing quarterbacks into McKenzie Milton. However, that critical deficiency is not likely to matter in this game. If you haven't heard, Army runs the triple option and passes either out of necessity on third and long or to surprise opponents on early downs. The key to their offense is consistently gaining yardage on the ground on early downs. And wouldn't you know it, Air Force does a decent job against the run. The Falcons are allowing under four yards per carry this season (even when disregarding sacks from the total) and have not allowed more than 177 yards on the ground in any game this season. Oh, and Air Force also runs a variant of the option, so it should not be as exotic to them as it is to other teams. Army is just 5-8 ATS as a home favorite under Jeff Monken and the Black Knights have not scored more than 21 points in their four previous meetings with Air Force under Monken. Take the Falcons to keep this one close and don't be surprised if they pull an outright upset.

Syracuse -5 Wake Forest
Last week's victory over NC State made Syracuse bowl eligible for the first time since 2013. The win, combined with the deluge of losses of top-25 teams allowed Syracuse to move into the AP Poll for the first time since 2001! Now comes the hard part for Syracuse. No, I'm not talking about winning as a ranked team or winning on the road. I'm talking about winning in November. Under Dino Babers, the Orange are 0-8 in the month of November. After 4-4 starts in each of his first two seasons, the Orange have been outscored by nearly 27 points per game in their eight November losses. That continued a trend that began under Babers' predecessor, Scott Shafer. In Shafer's last two seasons, the Orange went 1-7 in November contests meaning they have lost fifteen of their last sixteen November games! The good news for Syracuse is that Wake Forest, in particular the Wake Forest defense, may be just what the Orange need to end their November skid. While the Demon Deacons won last week and likely consigned Louisville to a 2-10 season, they still allowed 35 points and nearly six yards per play to the Cardinals. For the season Wake Forest has allowed nearly seven and a half yards per play to ACC opponents. In addition, the Demon Deacons have allowed an amazing 25 touchdowns through four conference games! To put it kindly, the Syracuse offense is unlikely to encounter much resistance in Winston-Salem. Wake Forest will probably be able to move the ball and score some points of their own, but both of these teams play at a blistering pace meaning there should be more possessions than your average football game. More possessions limit variance and make it easier for favorites to win and cover. Last season's game featured over 100 combined points. This season's game might come close to that number, and I expect Syracuse to come out on top by at least a touchdown.

San Jose State +14 Wyoming
Congrats to the San Jose State Spartans as they won their first game of the season last week, and just their second against an FBS opponent under coach Brent Brennan. Who was their other FBS victory against? Wyoming of course. In the numerology business, that's what we call symmetry. Or perhaps its just a coincidence. Anyway, I can't believe that Wyoming is a two-touchdown favorite over anyone. The Cowboys did win at Colorado State in convincing fashion last week, and the lazy narrative is easy to piece together. Wyoming's offense exploded for a season-high 34 points thanks to the play of new quarterback Sean Chambers. Certainly, Chambers played well, but Colorado State has one of the worst defenses in the Mountain West, if not the country. While Wyoming did manage 34 points, that number represented the fourth best defensive performance of the season for Colorado State in terms of points allowed. I think its folly to expect Wyoming to be an offensive force after just one start from Chambers. San Jose State has been a massive road underdog three times already this season and they were competitive in two of those games, including nearly winning outright against San Diego State two weeks ago. Take the Spartans to keep this one close.

Southern Miss +3 Marshall
Let's call this a 'Freaky Friday' game. Why you ask? Because this game is all about roles, and were the roles reversed, I would be all over Marshall. Neither of these teams performs well in the role of favorite, but both have done very well in the role of an underdog. In 2013 and 2014, Marshall fielded one of the most dynamic and explosive mid-major offenses with Rakeem Cato, Devon Johnson, and Tommy Shuler helping the Herd average over 40 points per game both seasons. In those two seasons, the Herd were favored by double-digits a remarkable eighteen times. The Herd were 12-6 ATS as double-digit favorites and 15-10 ATS as favorites overall. However, since then, the Herd have been more of a defense first team. Since the start of the 2015 season, Marshall has been favored 24 times. The Herd are a much more pedestrian 11-13 ATS in those games. If we remove the successful 2015 season, they have been even worse, posting a 4-11 ATS mark since 2016. However, as an underdog, Marshall has excelled, posting an 11-5-1 ATS record with six outright wins! Contrast this to Southern Miss under Jay Hopson. Hopson took over coaching duties prior to the 2016 campaign and in his nearly three seasons in charge, the Golden Eagles are just 6-12 ATS as a favorite, but 7-5 ATS as an underdog. Southern Miss has rarely been a home underdog under Hopson, but they have covered both times.  With last week's loss to Charlotte (shockingly as a favorite), the Golden Eagles need to find some wins if they hope to get back to a bowl game. This line should be more like a pick 'em, and I would not have been surprised if Southern Miss opened as a favorite. Take the Golden Eagles to get right at home with their backs against the wall.

UTEP +1 Rice
Editor's note: You are a huge degenerate and have a real problem if you bet this game. With that PSA out of the way, I think there is a great deal of value in this game with a UTEP team that has gone nearly two calendar years without a win. The Miners have been quite competitive lately, losing one score games to North Texas and Louisiana Tech. In conference play, the Miners are being outgained by about half a yard per play. Those aren't great numbers, but as a point of reference, UTEP was outgained by more than a yard and half per play in conference play last season. Meanwhile, Rice has been one of the worst teams in Conference USA. The Owls have been outgained by an astonishing three yards per play in their five conference games (last season they were outgained by less than a quarter of a yard per play). The Owls have allowed three conference opponents to get to 40 points and four of five have scored at least 30. Other than homefield, I'm not sure what advantages Rice has. Consider that both the Miners and the Owls have played three common conference opponents thus far (Louisiana Tech, North Texas, and UAB). UTEP has been outscored by those three teams by 31 total points. Rice has been outscored by 83 total points in those games. The transitive property is not a perfect proxy for team strength, but it gets the point across here. Take the Miners to get their first win of the season and of the Dana Dimel era.

Tulane +7 South Florida
Despite probably not being that good, South Florida's loss at Houston represented just their third defeat in twenty games under Charlie Strong, and more importantly, their first in 2018. While the Bulls are still very much alive in the division race (they close with games against Cincinnati, Temple, and UCF), the loss dropped them out of the polls and puts them in a rough situational spot against Tulane. A win against the Cougars would have moved the Bulls to 8-0 and likely earned them a spot in the initial College Football Playoff Rankings. The loss served to blot them from the national conscience, at least until they beat a competent team. Of South Florida's seven wins in 2018, just one has come against an FBS team with a non-losing record (Georgia Tech is currently 4-4). The Bulls were home underdogs in that game, but in their other five FBS wins, they have been moderate to large favorites and have done a terrible job of covering the spread. The Bulls are 1-4 ATS as a favorite this season, winning one score contests against Illinois, East Carolina, Tulsa, and Connecticut. Those four teams have combined for a 7-24 record in 2018. South Florida's lone cover as a favorite in 2018 came against Massachusetts, a team that is 3-6. Of course, Tulane is not exactly a powerhouse, entering play with a 3-5 mark. However, the Green Wave do run a unique offense, and as mentioned before, last week's bubble-bursting loss could negatively impact the Bulls. All season, South Florida has toyed with losing to bad teams. Why would this weekend be any different?

*Bonus Handicap*
Alabama -14.5 LSU
I couldn't let you leave without giving you my thoughts on the latest Game of the Century. I'm not part of the faction that yells 'Bama ain't played nobody'. The Tide are damn good, but over their final three conference games and in a potential SEC Championship Game appearance we are going to find out how good they are. I know, what a nuanced take. Let me be more specific. In their first five conference games, Alabama has faced teams that rank ninth (Missouri), tenth (Texas A&M), eleventh (Tennessee) thirteenth (Arkansas), and fourteenth (Ole Miss) in the SEC in yards allowed per play (in conference play only, my preferred metric and one I have data on back to 2005). Their next three conference games are against teams that currently rank fourth (LSU), first (Mississippi State), and sixth (Auburn) in that category. Assuming they advance to the SEC Championship Game, they will either face the second (Kentucky!!) or fifth (Georgia) ranked team. Those YPP numbers are not adjusted for opponent, so you can quibble with the rankings a little (and obviously, the teams Alabama has played rank so low partially because Alabama destroyed them), but long story short, the road gets much tougher from here. This is where we will learn if Alabama has one of the best teams of all time, or just (probably) the best team of 2018.