Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Strangers in the Field: IV

The past three summers, I have made a late July trip to Vegas. I made a few bets each time. You can read about those trips here, here, and here. Being a stickler for tradition, as well as a degenerate, I went again this year. This is what I bet on.

Over/Under Win Totals
The premise here is simple. These bets are on teams to either go 'over' or 'under' a baseline win total.

Ball State over 4 wins -105 ($40 to win $38.10)
Ball State went 2-10 last season, losing their final nine regular season games with each loss coming by at least twelve points. In MAC play, they scored a grand total of 10 touchdowns while allowing 45. Both of those numbers ranked dead last in the conference. However, despite those horrific numbers, things are looking up for the Cardinals in 2018. In the MAC APR rundown I posted in April, I went over a few reasons to expect improvement from Ball State, and I'll summarize them again here.
1. The Cardinals suffered numerous injuries last season and can expect better health in 2018.
2. Horrendous MAC defenses have tended to regress (or in this case progress) to the mean the next season.
3. Ball State is unlikely to allow their opponents to score so many non-offensive touchdowns in 2018 (were net -8 in the category last season).
4. 2018 is Mike Neu's third season in charge and teams tend to improve (sometimes significantly in a coaches third season).
Mix all those factors with a relatively low win total, two winnable non-conference home games (Central Connecticut State and Western Kentucky), and almost even money on the betting line and the Cardinals are a solid play.

Central Florida under 9 wins +115 ($30 to win $34.50)
Central Florida nearly burned me last season when they easily exceeded their 7.5 preseason win total, but thanks to a canceled game, the bet was nullified. Surely, with the loss of head coach Scott Frost, four players who were picked in the 2018 NFL draft (the most of any Group of Five team), and general regression to the mean after a historic season, the Knights will fall off somewhat. The Knights hired Josh Heupel to replace Scott Frost as head coach in an effort to keep their dynamic offense in tact, but the Knights are unlikely to average nearly 50 points per game as they did last season. Also, keep a few things about Heupel in mind. While the Missouri Tigers put up insane offensive numbers the second half of last season under his guidance as offensive coordinator, most of those games came against some combination of bad teams, teams in turmoil, or both. Plus, at his alma mater, the offense suddenly got a lot better when he left (of course that also coincided with the arrival of a pretty good player). Suffice to say, a drop off of ten or more points per game should be expected. Couple those factors with a schedule that includes two ACC teams (North Carolina and Pitt) with one coming on the road as well as road conference games against Memphis and South Florida and its easy to see Central Florida losing three games. That would get you a push, and one more would more than double your money.

Coastal Carolina over 4 wins -105 ($40 to win $38.10)
The Chanticleers first season of FBS competition did not go according to plan. After four consecutive playoff appearances as a member of the Big South and a ten-win season in their final season of FCS play, the Chanticleers won their first FBS game, but lost nine in a row before winning their final two games of the regular season. It's not a perfect Duke with Pete Gaudet analogy, but Coastal was without the services of their head coach Joe Moglia as they transitioned to FBS. Moglia will probably be given too much credit for Coastal's inevitable improvement this season, as the Chanticleers were a perfectly average Sun Belt team last season despite their 2-6 conference record. The Chanticleers were 1-5 overall in one-score games, including a heartbreaking loss at Arkansas. Marginal improvement should get them to at least 3-5 in Sun Belt play (if not 4-4) and the non-conference schedule features three very winnable games with UAB and Campbell travelling to Conway and the Chanticleers heading north to face Massachusetts. At worst, the Chanticleers should push and if they get to five wins, you almost double your money.

Florida International under 5 wins -110 ($30 to win $27.30)
Butch Davis' return to south Florida was pretty successful. Under his tutelage, the Panthers tied the school record for wins in a season by doubling their 2016 win total. However, based on most of the numbers I run, the Panthers were definitely more lucky than good. Based on Conference USA Yards per Play numbers, the Panthers were only better than three other teams in the league. They were below average on both sides of the ball, but still managed to win five of their eight conference games. Similarly, their APR numbers were also less than stellar. The Panthers finished with about one and a half more conference wins than we would expect given their touchdowns scored and allowed. Characteristics like that tend to portend regression the next season. In addition, the Panthers lose their leading passer, rusher, and receiver from 2017 to graduation and have two Power Five teams (Indiana and Miami) on the non-conference schedule in 2018 (they had zero in 2017). Expect a significant slide by the Panthers in 2018.

Georgia State under 4.5 wins even ($30 to win $30)
Georgia State won seven games last season. The seven teams they defeated combined for an overall record of 22-63, with Western Kentucky (6-7) being the best of the bunch. Despite those seven wins, Georgia State was outscored by 53 points on the season and even lost to an FCS team (the fifth time they have done so since joining FBS in 2013). In other words, despite winning their first bowl game in school history, Georgia State was not very good in 2017. And there are reasons to believe they will get worse in 2018. The Panthers lose quarterback Connor Manning and have only eleven returning starters (tied for the fewest in the Sun Belt). They also have a tougher schedule in 2018. In 2017, the Panthers did face Penn State, but their other non-conference games came against Tennessee State and Charlotte (their game with Memphis was canceled). This season, they face NC State and Memphis on the road while hosting Kennesaw State and Western Michigan. Winning either of those road games will be a daunting task and the Panthers should be decent underdogs against Western Michigan to say nothing of their penchant for crapping the bed against FCS teams like Kennesaw State. In conference play, the Panthers face three of the strongest Sun Belt teams on the road (Appalachian State, Arkansas State, and Troy), while hosting some teams that appear poised for improvement (Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, and Louisiana-Monroe). This looks like it could be a very long season for the tenants of the stadium formerly known as Turner Field.

Georgia Tech over 6 wins even ($30 to win $30)
After qualifying for a bowl game each season between 1997 and 2014, the Yellow Jackets have now missed out on the postseason for the second time in three seasons. In an effort to break out of the rut, Paul Johnson cast off his maligned defensive coordinator Ted Rood and swiped Nate Woody from Appalachian State. Outside of a turnover fueled 2014 campaign, Roof's defenses were continuously underwhelming so a change was needed. The question will be how much improvement Woody can coax out of the Jackets in just one season. The good news is the offense should be in the top quartile of the ACC. Senior quarterback TaQuon Marshall played well in his first season as a starter, rushing for over 1000 yards and accounting for 27 total touchdowns. Despite finishing with a losing record last season, Georgia Tech was very close to winning eight regular season games. They lost by a single point to both Tennessee and Miami and lost by four points to Virginia. Unfortunately for Georgia Tech, their annual schedule includes dates with Clemson and Georgia, two programs that appear to be burgeoning superpowers under their respective coaches. It wouldn't shock me if Georgia Tech combines for two wins against those teams over the next decade or so. However, even if we assume both those games as losses, the Yellow Jackets should be in position to win most of their other games (perhaps with the exception of Miami). I certainly would not predict it now, but if Georgia Tech is set for a rematch with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game on the first weekend in December, the hindsight narrative will go something like this: New defensive coordinator and senior quarterback lead Tech to Coastal Division title.

Indiana over 5 wins -115 ($20 to win $17.40)
Since the Big 10 changed its divisions to geographical designations in 2014 from whatever the hell they were based on previously, perhaps no team has suffered as much as Indiana. The Hoosiers are stuck in the East with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State. Against those four teams, the Hoosiers are 1-11 (with five close losses), but a respectable (and elite by Indiana historical standards) 8-14 against other conference opponents. Of course, Indiana remains in the East, so those four teams are once again on the schedule. However, evening assuming those games are all losses, the Hoosiers have a backdoor path to bowl eligibility. The Hoosiers of course get to play their other division opponents (Maryland and Rutgers) with the seemingly tougher opponent (Maryland) coming at home. In their games against the West, the Hoosiers get Iowa and Purdue at home and travel to Minnesota. The Hoosiers will probably be underdogs in all three, but should be able to snag at least one victory against the West. With a victory against either Maryland or Rutgers and one victory against a West division foe, the Hoosiers appear destined for at least five wins with their soft non-conference schedule (Ball State and Virginia at home with a road trip to Florida International). Indiana will need to pull an upset along the way to get back to a bowl game, but the Hoosiers have won at least five games in four of the past five seasons, so I think at worst this number is a push.

Iowa over 7.5 wins -105 ($40 to win $38.10)
Last season, particularly at home, the Hawkeyes were a dangerous team. They pummeled Josh Allen and Wyoming, took Penn State to the final play, and demolished Ohio State. Plus, outside of their loss to Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes were competitive in all their defeats. Add it all up, and the Hawkeyes outscored their opponents by about points eight per game and posted an SRS ranking of 14th. Not bad for a five loss team. Now, to cash this ticket, all Iowa has to do is improve by one game in 2018. Considering they were better than your typical five loss team, return thirteen starters including quarterback Nathan Stanley, and avoid three of the four strong teams from the Big 10 East, Iowa is a real sleeper to return to the Big 10 Championship Game. Hawkeye backers do have the misfortune of facing five Big 10 road games this season, but outside of Penn State, the Hawkeyes should be favorites in at least three of the other four games (Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Purdue). Asking Iowa to win eight games against this schedule does not appear to be that big of a stretch.

North Carolina over 5.5 wins -135 ($20 to win $14.80)
3-9 records tend to depress expectations for the following season, but let's not forget that North Carolina was in the AP top ten and representing the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship Game in December of 2015. They acquitted themselves reasonably well against a Clemson team that nearly won the national title, but since our most recent experience tends to be the one we remember most, North Carolina looks like a program that is crumbling. The Tar Heels were bad in 2017, there is no doubt about that, but injuries are partially to blame for the stunning collapse. The bones of the program are solid, if not strong, and the Tar Heels don't have to win ten games to cash this ticket. No, they just need to eke out bowl eligibility. While the schedule appears daunting at first glance, I wouldn't be surprised if the Tar Heels salvaged a split in non-conference play with their two marquee games at Cal and home against Central Florida. The other two, against directional Carolina schools (East and Western) should be cakewalks and the Tar Heels should be able to find three conference wins on the schedule (something they have done every season under Larry Fedora with the exception of 2017). I might try keeping Larry Fedora away from open mics lest he become an insane conspiracy theorist like Alex Jones, but a rebound for the Tar Heels seems like a solid bet.

Old Dominion over 5.5 wins even ($150 to win $150)
Obviously by the size of this wager, this is the one I have the most confidence in heading into 2018. Old Dominion joined Conference USA in 2014 and despite playing their first (new) season of football in 2009, the Monarchs have shown themselves to be a competent FBS program. The Monarchs have never failed to win fewer than five regular season games as an FBS team and when head coach Bobby Wilder has a reliable quarterback, the results have been pretty good. Old Dominion went through some growing pains last season when they made freshman Steven Williams the starting quarterback. Despite the youth and inexperience, Old Dominion entered the season's final weekend with a chance to become bowl eligible. It didn't work out, but giving Williams playing time should pay dividends this season. Old Dominion also has a very manageable non-conference schedule in 2018. After playing two ACC opponents last season (North Carolina and Virginia Tech), the Monarchs still face the Hokies, but do not have any other Power Five teams on the schedule. Their other non-conference games include East Carolina, Liberty, and VMI. The East Carolina and Liberty games are both on the road, but the Monarchs should manage a split meaning they would need only four conference wins to get to six overall. Florida International and Western Kentucky seem due for regression this season and the Monarchs draw Rice from the West as one of their non-division games. A lot of things will have to go wrong for Old Dominion to not become bowl eligible in 2018. Of course, its possible, but I think a division title is much more likely than a losing season.

San Jose State over 2.5 wins -125 ($60 to win $48)
San Jose State was bad in 2017, but their problems were compounded by an historically negative turnover margin. In Mountain West play, the Spartans finished with a margin of -17 in eight games. Obviously, this means this Spartans had two more turnovers than their opponents on average. Good teams won't win many games doing that. In 2015, Hawaii had a similarly historic turnover margin and in my Mountain West APR post, I looked at how other historically bad turnover margin teams performed the next season. In an unsurprising revelation, improvement was universal. It just so happens, Hawaii continued the trend of improvement in their follow-up campaign as the Warriors qualified for a bowl game after finishing as one of the worst teams in college football just twelve months before. A bowl game might be asking for too much from San Jose State, but three wins is a safe bet.

Tulane over 5.5 wins +115 ($40 to win $46)
Tulane head coach Willie Fritz has won wherever he has been, and while his rebuild in New Orleans has been the slowest of his coaching career, I think there is a good chance it begins to coalesce in 2018. The Green Wave have seen their win total climb in each of Fritz's first two seasons, from three in the year prior to his arrival, to four in his first year, and then to five in his second year. Plus, the Green Wave were mere inches away from bowl eligibility last season. The schedule is imposing in 2018, with two games against Power Five teams (Ohio State and Wake Forest) to go along with conference games against Houston, Memphis, Navy, and South Florida, but the Green Wave should have their best offense yet under Fritz. The offense returns nine starters with quarterback Jonathan Banks set to post the best passing numbers of Fritz's tenure thus far. It will require an upset along the way, but Tulane should be able to get to a bowl and cash this ticket.

Tulsa over 4 wins -130 ($40 to win $30.80)
After winning ten games in 2016, Vegas expected Tulsa to take a moderate step back in 2017. However, the Golden Hurricane took a step back and fell off a cliff, finishing 2-10 and winning five and a half fewer games than their preseason win total. I would expect a market correction in 2018. Once again, recency bias is probably to blame (or thank) for the relatively low win total set for Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane bring back fifteen starters from a team that was 0-5 in one-score games. A little better luck should see Tulsa not only eclipse this low win total, but also return to the postseason.

UCLA over 5.5 wins even ($30 to win $30)
Sure. I'll bite. Maybe the college game has changed enough since Chip Kelly last coached in it a half decade ago that he is no longer the innovator he once was. His last offense in San Francisco certainly seemed rather tame. Remember, the early adopter advantage can peter out quickly. Sam Wyche was one of the first coaches to embrace the no-huddle offense and after nearly winning the Super Bowl after the 1988 season, his last seven NFL teams combined to finish 43-69 with a solitary playoff appearance. Still, all Kelly has to do is get UCLA back to a bowl game in his first season to cash this ticket. He doesn't have to win the division or win nine games. The schedule is certainly arduous, with a trip to Oklahoma highlighting the non-conference slate along with tougher than they seem home games against Cincinnati and Fresno State. For the Bruins to have any hope of cashing this ticket, they must beat the Bearcats and Bulldogs before conference play begins. If they do, I think they can scrounge up four conference wins, particularly with five home games, albeit three very tough ones (Southern Cal, Stanford, and Washington).

Western Michigan over 6 wins -135 ($40 to win $29.65)
Off a dream season with major losses on the field (all-time leading passer and receiver) as well as on the sidelines (PJ Fleck left for Minnesota), some drop off was expected for Western Michigan entering 2017. The Broncos opened with losses to strong Power Five programs (Michigan State and Southern Cal), but won four in a row including a seven overtime classic with Buffalo to position themselves for a shot at another division title. Then a game with Akron got postponed until Sunday and the Broncos squandered numerous opportunities in a 14-13 loss to the Zips. After that loss, the Broncos won just two of their final five games and despite finishing with six wins, were not invited to the postseason. The good news for Western Michigan is those newbies from 2017 now have a year of seasoning as they look to return to contention in the rugged MAC West. The schedule sets up nicely for Western Michigan as their two biggest division contenders, Northern Illinois and Toledo must come to Kalamazoo, as does MAC East favorite Ohio. This means most of their road games come against second division teams (Ball State, Bowling Green, and Central Michigan). In non-conference play, the Broncos have one certain loss (at Michigan), but their other three games against Delaware State, Georgia State, and even Syracuse are winnable. They probably won't sweep that trio (Syracuse probably has enough to take them out), but a split would mean they just need a .500 conference record to push and five wins to hit the over. I think Western Michigan has a great shot to not only cash this ticket easily, but also win their division.

Games of the Year
Typically betting lines are set on Sunday for games beginning the following week. However, sportsbooks set a few 'Game of the Year' lines for certain games that are months away from occurring. The home team in these games is listed in bold.

September 15th
Boise State +4.5 Oklahoma State -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Since taking over at Boise State prior to the 2014 season, Bryan Harsin has guided the Broncos to a 6-4 straight up record against Power Five teams. Against the Spread (ATS), their record is a more pedestrian 5-5. However, when you break down the ATS record by role, an interesting trend appears to develop. When Boise State is favored against a Power Five opponent, the Broncos are just 2-4 ATS, but 4-2 straight up. When the Broncos are an underdog, they are 3-1 ATS and 2-2 straight up. Their lone ATS loss as an underdog came in Harsin's first game against an elite Ole Miss team. Outside of that game, the Broncos have won twice outright as a betting underdog and lost in overtime (while still covering) against Washington State last season. The Broncos play the 'no respect' card well and they should be up for this game against a quality Big 12 opponent. Boise State comes into 2018 with a senior quarterback and ten returning starters from a very strong mid-major defense. That defense should be the difference against an Oklahoma State team that loses not only their starting quarterback from 2017, but also a pair of 1000-yard receivers. Oklahoma State will not be a pushover in Stillwater, but the Cowboys are just 5-8-1 ATS as a home favorite the past three seasons. I expect a very close game, and I would not be surprised if Boise was able to spring the outright upset.

October 6th
Florida State +6 Miami -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Last year, Miami was able to exorcise some demons in beating Florida State for the first time since 2009. And all it took was a Florida State team in total disarray. Since 1995, Miami has beaten Florida State by a margin that would cover this number (i.e. at least seven points) three times (2001, 2003, and 2007). I don't expect Florida State to return to the super elite level they were playing at in 2013, but a return to the 2014-2016 form is probable. Meanwhile, Miami was exposed at the end of last season. While they were certainly a top-fifteen team in Mark Richt's second season, they were quite lucky to start the year 10-0 as four consecutive games against teams that finished with six or fewer regular season wins (Florida State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and North Carolina) were all in doubt in the fourth quarter. I expect this game to be close, and with the homefield, Miami may well end up winning, but Florida State is good enough to keep this within a touchdown.

November 10th
Tennessee -1 Kentucky -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
Last season, Kentucky beat Tennessee for the first time since 2011 and just the second time since 1984. The 2011 and 2017 victories share a fewthings in common. Both came by three points and both came against Tennessee teams that were horrendous on offense and pretty bad overall. Both teams desperately need this win for bowl eligibility, but while Tennessee has a scrimmage against Charlotte immediately prior to the game, Kentucky has a home game with what should be an elite Georgia squad. I don't try to play psychologist too often, but I think Tennessee will have a slight edge here. While the game with Georgia will obviously be tougher than Tennessee's date with Charlotte, I think Kentucky will expend a lot of equity in the home game against a top-ten Georgia team. Win or (probably) lose, I think they will be emotionally down when travelling to Knoxville the next week. Tennessee doesn't need to win by a lot, they just need to find a way to beat the Wildcats at home. Using history as a guide, I think they will.

South Florida +4 Central Florida -110 ($25 to win $22.75)
South Florida has won twice as many games in the War on I-4 series, but despite playing at home, the preseason line has them catching points. South Florida nearly derailed Central Florida's dream season in Orlando last November, but despite the best efforts of Quinton Flowers, the Knights were able to hold off the Bulls. Flowers is gone, but the Bulls will have all season to find his replacement and get them acclimated to life in the AAC. Since 2015, the Bulls have lost just three times at home, and as I previously discussed in the Central Florida write-up, I think the Knights are due for some regression. Catching points at home in a rivalry game makes South Florida an easy play here.

Conference Champion Bets
I decided to put a few dollars down on a team to win their league.

Georgia Southern to win the Sun Belt +1000 ($10 to win $100)
The Sun Belt was itching to get into the title game business, so they split into divisions for the 2018 season. Georgia Southern is in a division with Appalachian State and Troy, but the Eagles played better at the end of last season under their interim (now head) coach Chad Lunsford. With eighteen starters back, I expect substantial improvement and I figured why not take a flyer on them.

Louisiana Tech to win Conference USA +700 ($10 to win $70)
I think Louisiana Tech is the best team in the West division of Conference USA. While Florida Atlantic is probably the best team in the conference, the East is more challenging with Marshall, Middle Tennessee State, and even Old Dominion capable of putting up a fight. I think the Bulldogs have the easiest path to the conference title game and in a one game scenario, I'll take my chances with Skip Holtz.

Miscellaneous Bets
This is a college football blog, but there were a few other events I wanted to bet on.

Atlanta Braves to win World Series +2500 ($10 to win $250)
The Braves are within striking distance in the NL East and even if they fail to catch the Phillies (or if the disappointing Nationals catch fire), they still have a chance at the Wild Card.

Oakland Athletics to win Wolrd Series +3000 ($10 to win $300)
Can the Athletics catch the Mariners, survive a one game Wild Card with the Yankees, then beat some combination of the Red Sox, Astros, or Indians in the next two rounds and then take down the best the National League has to offer? Probably not, but I couldn't resist rooting for Mr. Moneyball.

Pittsburgh Pirates to win World Series +6000 ($10 to win $600)
This is a pipe dream, but the Pirates have somehow climbed into pseudo contention. Baseball is a funny game and stranger things have happened (particularly in the Central).

Reckless Parlay(s)
I made two reckless parlays this year. One for college football and one for the NFL. All games must be correct for the parlay to pay out.

Parlay 1:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 31st
Utah State +25 Michigan State
The Aggies have eighteen returning starters and should be able to stay within three touchdowns of Michigan State.

Game 2: September 1st
Miami (Ohio) -2 Marshall
Miami is one of the best teams in the MAC and should have beaten Marshall in Huntington last year.

Game 3: September 1st
Coastal Carolina +30 South Carolina
South Carolina's largest margin of victory under Will Muschamp is 26 points.

Game 4: September 1st
Louisville +25.5 Alabama @ Orlando
I think Louisville will be better than people think despite the loss of Lamar Jackson. This game won't be close per se, but Louisville will do enough to cover.

Parlay 2:
$10 to win $60

Game 1: September 9th
Cleveland +6 Pittsburgh
Probably a dumb bet, but I think Cleveland will be better and the team will not have quit on the season in Week 1 (hopefully).

Game 2: September 9th
Cincinnati +3 Indianapolis
The Bengals will be better. Plus, will Andrew Luck play?

Game 3: September 9th
Washington +1 Arizona
The Cardinals are going to be bad in 2018.

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