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.

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