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.

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