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.

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