Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

Despite Troy Calhoun's best efforts to ruin my weekend, we managed to close the regular season on a positive note. We've done well in bowl games the past few seasons, so we'll try to keep that up. The bowls are listed in chronological order. The first pick is from December 21st and the last is from January 4th. I hope you make enough money to pay off your bloated holiday credit card bills. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 52-44-2

Las Vegas Bowl @ Las Vegas, Nevada
Boise State +3.5 Washington
The surprising retirement of Chris Petersen at Washington pretty much demanded these two teams be matched up in the postseason. Petersen, as you probably know, guided Boise to lofty heights during his eight-year tenure in 'The Gem State’. The Broncos finished with unblemished regular season records three times and wound up in the top-ten of the final poll four times during his eight year run. Bryan Harsin has helped the the Broncos maintain their standing as one of the best mid-major programs in the nation, and while they have not reached the same pinnacle as they did under Petersen, the two coaches have remarkably similar resumes when we look at how the Broncos did under Petersen without Kellen Moore at quarterback.
This is no knock on Petersen, who won two Pac-12 titles at Washington, but I don’t think Harsin often gets the credit he deserves for upholding Boise State’s place in the college football zeitgeist after Petersen departed. But I digress. So what can we expect from this incarnation of the Las Vegas Bowl? Probably Washington struggling to score points. Outside of a turnover-aided 51 point outburst at Arizona, the Huskies averaged just under 23 points per game in Pac-12 play and just over fifteen points per game on the road. Quarterback Jacob Eason’s numbers look good on the surface (nearly eight yards per throw and 22 touchdown passes), but he averaged over ten yards per pass and threw ten touchdowns in their three non-conference games against Eastern Washington, Hawaii, and BYU. His numbers were more pedestrian against Pac-12 opponents. The Washington defense remained stout, keeping the Huskies in pretty much every game this season. They ranked third in the conference (behind the two conference title game participants) in yards allowed per play. That defense will need to be on point against a Boise State team that dealt with quarterback injuries and still finished with one of the best offenses in the Mountain West. In fact, had the Broncos gone to Jaylon Henderson when Hank Brockmire Backmeier was out with an injury against BYU, the Broncos may have finished the regular season without a loss. Henderson has been the starting quarterback the past four games, and the Broncos have averaged 40 points per game in that span. Boise State has a solid track record against Power Five opponents under Harsin, going 7-5 straight up. The Broncos are a middling 6-6 ATS against Power Five opponents, but are 4-2 ATS as an underdog. Harsin also has a solid track record in bowl games, posting a 3-1 mark at Boise State, including two outright wins as an underdog (to Pac-12 teams no less). The Broncos may be disappointed they missed out on a New Year’s Six bowl, but they should relish the opportunity to get a shot at a regional Power Five opponent. If any team is disappointed by being in this game, it is probably Washington. The Huskies began the season in the top-fifteen and come in having played in three consecutive New Year’s Six games. They will probably want to send Petersen off a winner, but that might be easier said than done. Take the Broncos and the points. Before we move on, if you are wary of this game because the Broncos, as a ranked team, are an underdog to an unranked team, do not fret. I looked into it, and since 2005, ranked teams that are underdogs to unranked teams in bowl games are 5-8 straight up and 7-6 ATS. Those are hardly numbers that will move me off a side I like. See table for specifics.

Gasparilla Bowl @ Tampa, Florida
Marshall +17.5 UCF
Like a lot of bowl games this postseason (and in postseason’s past), this is a renewal of old acquaintances. The Thundering Herd and Knights were both members of the MAC from 2002-2004 and then Conference USA from 2005-2012. The two teams played for eleven consecutive years, with the Herd winning all three of the games as members of the MAC and the Knights winning all eight as members of Conference USA. The Knights got the call up to what amounts to Quadruple A in 2013, when they joined the American Athletic Conference. Since joining the AAC, UCF has played in three prestigious bowl games, getting a grandfathered Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2013 and finishing unbeaten the past two regular seasons to nab a Peach and another Fiesta Bowl bid respectively. UCF is one of only eight mid-major programs to appear in a BCS/New Year’s Six bowl since 1998. I wanted to see how those other mid-major programs performed when they appeared in less prestigious bowl games the following season. Those results are summarized in the following table.
First off, some clarification. UCF was technically in a BCS conference in 2013, just like you can technically be pulled over for driving one mile per hour over the posted speed limit. Also, I did not include Western Michigan in the analysis as they were bowl eligible in the season after they played in the Cotton Bowl, but were not extended an invitation to a bowl game. For what its worth, they lost and failed to cover in their next bowl game against BYU. Obviously, we are working with a small sample size here, but motivation could be a factor when teams coming off major bowl appearances have to settle for a less prestigious bowl game the next season. The eleven teams have a losing ATS record (4-7) and have lost outright three times as a favorite. UCF is in an especially unique position, having played in two consecutive major bowl games against SEC opponents. There is a real possibility they overlook Marshall. In addition to potentially taking Marshall lightly, this spread just seems really high. I like to use the Simple Rating System at College Football Reference as a starting point when handicapping games. Based on the SRS scores for both teams, this spread should be about ten points on a neutral field. Even applying a small homefield advantage for UCF playing in their home state, this number would still be south of two touchdowns. Finally, Marshall head coach Doc Holliday has a track record of bowl game success. In his previous six bowl appearances at Marshall, his teams are 6-0 straight up and ATS with two outright victories as an underdog. I wouldn’t read too much into Josh Heupel’s bowl debut against the current top-ranked team, but Holliday is a more proven commodity on the bowl circuit. I think UCF is a very good team that was a little unfortunate to not win their third straight AAC title. Full disclosure, when I head to Vegas next summer, I will be looking for some UCF AAC futures and potentially looking to play their win total ‘over’. I also expect them to win this game. UCF has more talent, a better record, and plays in a better conference. However, this spread is just too high. A three touchdown fourth quarter lead would not be safe from the dreaded backdoor cover. Maybe UCF plays up the disrespect angle that has aggravated the larger college football universe for the past three seasons and crushes Marshall, but I think there will be some disinterest on the UCF sideline and I know what I’m getting with Doc Holliday. If Marshall gets blown out and fails to cover, I’ll happily be your huckleberry.

Camping World Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
Iowa State +3.5 Notre Dame
You know Matt Campbell has brought the Iowa State program a long way when a seven win regular season is seen as a disappointment. However, when viewed through the prism of the point spread, the 7-5 record is somewhat disappointing. The Cyclones were underdogs in just two games all season! They managed to cover both of those games against the Hawkeyes and Sooners, but lost by a point in each. Overall, their five losses came by a combined 21 points with four coming by a touchdown or less. A historic season was within reach, but the Cyclones will have to settle for a third consecutive bowl game and a chance to knock off a marquee program in Notre Dame. The Irish lost the two games they were expected to lose (to Georgia and Michigan), but won the other ten against varying degrees of competition. After a stirring comeback against Virginia Tech, the Irish cruised to the finish, winning their final four games by an average of 29 points. Despite the blowout nature of those final four wins, one can quibble with the strength of that quartet of victims. Duke and Stanford both finished with losing records, Boston College barely qualified for a bowl game, and Notre Dame is much more talented than Navy. Despite the strong close to the season, the Irish were not selected to participate in a New Year’s Six bowl. Considering they qualified for the College Football Playoff last season, the Cyclones may not have their undivided attention in the Camping World Bowl. The Irish have also parted ways with their offensive coordinator since the end of the regular season, so that side of the ball may not be in peak form. Iowa State is an amazing 18-8-1 ATS as an underdog under Matt Campbell, so they are no stranger to playing teams with more talent and better pedigree. Both previous bowl appearances under Campbell have been close games with the Cyclones covering both games as an underdog and winning one outright. I expect a similar result in this spot with the hook giving you even more reason to back Iowa State.

First Responder Bowl @ Dallas, Texas
Western Kentucky -3.5 Western Michigan
The Tyson Helton era at Western Kentucky began rather inauspiciously. The Hilltoppers lost outright against an FCS team and seemed destined to follow up their 3-9 2018 season with another losing campaign. But the Hilltoppers rallied, winning eight of their last eleven games, including a road thrashing of an SEC team. That thrashing earned Chad Morris his official walking papers (not that he wouldn’t have been fired even if the Hogs had won) and was doubly sweet as it was co-authored by a former Arkansas quarterback who apparently was not good enough to play for Morris. Despite the offensive outburst against the Hogs (the Hilltoppers scored a season high 45 points in the game), Western Kentucky was an old-school defense-first team in 2019. The Hilltoppers finished second in yards allowed per play in Conference USA, holding league foes below five yards per snap. After allowing over seven yards per play in their opener to Central Arkansas, only three other opponents eclipsed six yards per play against the Hilltoppers, and two of them were Power Five teams (Louisville and Arkansas). The Hilltoppers will be looking for their third nine win season in the past five years against a Western Michigan team that may still be reeling from their season finale. With a 5-2 conference record, and the tiebreaker over their fellow directional Michigan conference rival, the Broncos needed to win at struggling Northern Illinois to secure a spot in the MAC Championship Game. The Broncos were up to the challenge, notching their fewest points scored on the season (14) in an upset loss that handed the division to the Chippewas. Despite owning prohibitive victories over both MAC Championship Game participants, the Broncos were forced to watch the Redhawks upset the Chippewas in Detroit and claim the glory that comes with winning a MAC title. Statistically, Western Michigan was a middling MAC team, posting a yards per play margin that ranked eighth (of twelve teams) in the conference. Couple that with the fact that MAC teams have done quite poorly in bowl games both straight up and ATS in recent years (see table below) and a spread that is just north of a field goal makes Western Kentucky an easy play.

Birmingham Bowl @ wait for it... Birmingham, Alabama
Boston College +7 Cincinnati
Despite a six bowl appearances in seven seasons, the Steve Addazio era is over at Boston College. Don't weep for him though. He has already landed on his feet at Colorado State. Former Eagle Rich Gunnell will lead them in their bowl game. Gunnell played for the Eagles when they made back-to-back ACC Championship Games in 2007 and 2008, so the team should rally around an interim coach just a decade removed from playing for the team. Despite getting fired, this may have been one of Addazio's best coaching jobs. After losing starting quarterback Anthony Brown to injury halfway through the season, the Eagles leaned even more into their old-school ground based attack, averaging 56 carries per game over the final six games of the season. Over the course of the 2019 season, the Eagles ran the ball more than every FBS team save the three service academies. The run heavy attack was also very explosive. Outside of games against elite teams (Clemson and Notre Dame), the Eagles averaged nearly 36 points per game and over five yards per carry. Of course, with an offense that good, it obviously begs the question: Why did the team finish 6-6? That can be explained by the play of the defense. The Eagles finished dead last in the ACC in yards allowed per play, permitting over six and a half yards every time their conference opponents snapped the ball. Normally, teams with a defense that bad are hard to back, but I believe the Eagles have a favorable matchup with Cincinnati. The Bearcats nearly ran the table in the AAC despite finishing with an even yards per play margin. The Bearcats are probably not as good as their lofty record. There are also a couple of trends that point to fading Cincinnati. Had Cincinnati beaten Memphis in the AAC Championship Game last week, they may have qualified for a New Year's Six bowl as the top-ranked Group of Five team (in the discussion with a one-loss Boise State). In the short history of the College Football Playoff, there have been three instances of an AAC team losing in the conference title game while being in position to grab the New Year's Six bid had they won (Temple in 2015, Navy in 2016, and Memphis in 2017). All three of those teams lost their bowl games, with Temple and Memphis losing outright as favorites. As always, we are dealing with a small sample, but the Bearcats may not be as motivated to beat a middling ACC team in Birmingham as they would a good Big 10 team in the Cotton Bowl. Finally, as I noted last season, Group of Five teams are not a good bet when laying points against Power Five teams in the postseason. Since 2005, mid-majors (and I do not use the term in the pejorative sense) are just 11-17-1 ATS when favored against major conference teams. Take the Eagles to keep this one close.

Gator Bowl @ Jacksonville, Florida
Tennessee -2 Indiana
After a three-year hiatus, the Hoosiers and Volunteers managed to return to the postseason in 2019. Both teams did most of their heavy lifting against non-bowl teams. Tennessee faced eight bowl teams on the season and managed just a 3-5 record against that octet, beating Kentucky, Mississippi State, and UAB. While each of their five losses came against a postseason participant, two of those also came to Group of Five teams (BYU and Georgia State). However, Indiana fared even worse against bowl teams, finishing 0-4 in such games. Despite playing in a Power Five conference that features nine conference games, the Hoosiers managed to avoid playing any quality teams outside their own division. The Hoosiers fortuitous schedule saw them avoid facing Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, or Wisconsin in their cross-division games. Instead they were treated to clashes against Nebraska, Northwestern, and Purdue. Couple that with a non-conference schedule that included an FCS team, a MAC team, and a Connecticut squad doing their best impression of an FCS team and Indiana managed to beat no one of note during the regular season. If you do some basic math, you can figure out Indiana and Tennessee went a combined 12-0 against teams that are not playing in bowl games. While both teams beat up on the soft underbelly of their respective conferences, Tennessee also managed to put up solid per play numbers. They outgained SEC opponents by nearly seven tenths of a yard per play. Those are not numbers befitting a national title contender (LSU outgained SEC opponents by over two and a half yards per play), but they are solid. And, I will note this includes all eight of their conference games. The losses to Alabama, Florida, and Georgia are included in there. Meanwhile, Indiana was actually outgained on a per play basis in the Big 10. The Hoosiers were underwater by about a tenth of a yard per play and this was despite getting to play Rutgers! If you follow college football, I shouldn’t have to tell you that Tennessee recruits at a higher level than Indiana. While the Volunteers have been an average recruiter by SEC standards (which is still great nationally) over the past few seasons, Indiana has been near the bottom of the Big 10 in recruiting. The Volunteers are more talented, have faced a tougher schedule, and have a track record of pounding Big 10 teams in Florida in recent years. Meanwhile, Indiana has not won a bowl game since 1991. Bowl bids and eight win seasons don’t come around that often for Indiana, so the Hoosiers should be motivated for this game, but don’t forget Tennessee is no longer the annual postseason participant they once were. The Volunteers are coming off consecutive losing seasons and want to show signs of progress as they close the second year of the Jeremy Pruitt era. You’re getting the Volunteers at a discount in this spot. Take them to easily cover this number.

Armed Forces Bowl @ Fort Worth, Texas
Southern Miss +7 Tulane
The Golden Eagles and Green Wave were founding member of the football branch of Conference USA and played each other for 28 straight years between 1979 and 2006. These two would seem to be natural mid-major rivals as they likely dip into the same recruiting pool and are separated by just 115 miles or so. However, this tilt in the Armed Forces Bowl will be their first meeting since 2010. Historically, Southern Miss has dominated this rivalry, winning 23 of the thirty games, including the last six and 19 of the past 22. Tulane’s last victory in this series came way back in 2002 when future Buffalo Bills standout J.P. Losman was quarterbacking the team. Obviously, a lot has changed since these teams last met nearly a decade ago. Tulane is now a member of arguably the strongest Group of Five conference, the AAC while Southern Miss is still slumming in Conference USA. Tulane will be making consecutive bowl appearances for just the second time in school history while Southern Miss is appearing in their fourth bowl in five years (they were also bowl eligible last season, but were not invited). Both teams are led by coaches entering their fourth season who achieved success at the FCS level. Tulane marks the fourth stop for head coach Willie Fritz, who previously coached in Division II, the FCS, and lower level FBS (Sun Belt) ranks before getting the job in New Orleans. While it’s obvious the team has improved under Fritz, I expected more. His four teams have all failed to win more than six regular season games and his record in conference play is just 12-20. While the Green Wave technically tied for the AAC West division title last season, they were still outscored on the year and needed a last second two-point conversion to even qualify for a bowl game. This is not intended to bash Willie, I loved the hire and I love the option (the Green Wave have evolved from the option offense Fritz ran at Georgia Southern), but I just expected Tulane to win more. Perhaps my expectations were too high. For the Golden Eagles, Jay Hopson is also in his fourth season after having spent four successful seasons at Alcorn State. In my opinion, the Golden Eagles, like the Green Wave, have also been a little disappointing. While they have been bowl eligible each season under Hopson, they have also finished with five losses each year and have yet to even tie for a division title. This year was especially disappointing with the Eagles dropping their final two games of the year to hand the division title to UAB. Those two defeats could certainly take their toll on the psyche of the team, but with the Eagles missing out on a bowl last season despite six wins, I think they will be motivated to play in this game. I understand why Tulane is favored, but I have a hard time figuring out why the spread is seven points. Here are the teams Tulane has beaten this season along with their record and SRS rank.
The only bowl eligible team they beat was Florida International and by SRS, the best team they beat was Tulsa. For comparison’s sake, Southern Miss currently ranks 80th in the SRS which would represent Tulane’s third best win this season and best win away from New Orleans. The Green Wave have lost five of six and their offense has averaged less than five yards per play during their current three-game losing streak. Take Southern Miss to cover this number in the rivalry renewal.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIV

Last week, we finished with a perfect .500 record, going 3-3-1. Let's close the regular season strong. A quick programming note: There will not be a Magnificent Seven post for Championship Saturday. With only ten games on tap, I don't know that I can find seven games where I feel there is value. Don't fret though. We'll have one more post this year giving you the seven best bets of bowl season. Thanks for reading. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-3-1
Overall: 48-41-2

West Virginia +13.5 TCU
The Big 12’s two newest members meet on Thanksgiving Weekend for the first time. On the off chance Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is reading this blog, I propose this become an annual tradition. Think about it. Since West Virginia and Pitt left the sinking ship that was the Big East and put their Backyard Brawl on indefinite hiatus, the Mountaineers have played Iowa State (five times) and Oklahoma (twice) on Thanksgiving Weekend. With West Virginia geographically isolated from the rest of the Big 12 and lacking a rival in the traditional parlance, it only makes sense for the two newest members of the conference to start an arranged rivalry. The SEC established this precedent when the conference expanded in 1992 and made its two newest members, Arkansas and South Carolina, permanent cross-division rivals. TCU fans would probably tell you Texas or Baylor are their biggest conference rivals (outside of their annual non-conference dalliance with SMU), but the Longhorns are already spoken for and Baylor needs a break late in the season from their typically brutal non-conference schedule. Big 12, mandate TCU and West Virginia play on Rivalry Weekend from now on. Commission a trophy, give this game a unique nickname like The Horny Mountaineer (maybe workshop that name a bit more), and pay me a few hundred thousand dollars for coming up with the idea. Where was I? Ah yes, trying to handicap this game. I’m not sure how you can be confident laying double-digits with TCU. The Horned Frogs nearly upset Oklahoma in Norman last week, but that final score was very misleading. The Horned Frogs were outgained by over 300 yards and managed a paltry 65 yards through the air. Turnovers kept the Horned Frogs in the game, as the Sooners turned the ball over twice inside the TCU ten-yard line with one of those turnovers resulting in a 98-yard interception return touchdown. The Sooners could have easily won that game by three or four touchdowns. Speaking of turnovers, West Virginia has done a much better job of protecting the football since Bowling Green transfer Jarret Doege became the starting quarterback. The other quarterbacks on the roster, particularly Austin Kendall, combined to throw twelve interceptions in 330 pass attempts. Doege has yet to thrown one in 85 pass attempts and the Mountaineers have upset Kansas State and nearly beaten Oklahoma State in his two starts. Since joining the Big 12, TCU is 10-14 ATS as a home favorite. However, they did most of their covering in their elite seasons of 2014 and 2015 when they were a combined 7-1 ATS. Outside of those two season, the Horned Frogs have been a consistent money loser as a home favorite, posting a 3-13 ATS mark. TCU still plays pretty good defense, but their offense has been inconsistent at best. I know they are playing for bowl eligibility on Friday, but I like the Mountaineers to cover this number.

East Carolina +5 Tulsa
Despite this game featuring teams with a combined 7-15 record, I believe the future is bright for one of the participants. East Carolina (wisely) fired Scottie Montgomery after three seasons and nine total wins (although a pair of those wins did come against in-state ACC rivals). They brought in social climber Mike Houston, a coach that has gone from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne to Group of Five FBS in just eight seasons with stops at The Citadel and an FCS national title at James Madison in between. Houston will probably be coaching an ACC or SEC program in the not too distant future, but in the meantime, he has helped make the Pirates competitive in his first season. After losing by 70 combined points in their first two games against FBS opponents (NC State and Navy), the Pirates have really only had one stinker in their last seven games (a disheartening home loss to South Florida). In their other six FBS games, they have either won or covered. The betting market is probably down on the Pirates after they failed to cover as a two-touchdown favorite at Connecticut last week, but there is a big difference between covering as a large favorite on the road and covering as a moderate home underdog. The Pirates have already covered against better teams than Tulsa and nearly upset Cincinnati and SMU as large underdogs. That Tulsa is laying more than a field goal on the road is shocking. The Golden Hurricane have one of the leakiest offensive lines in the country, allowing 38 sacks on the season (only five teams have allowed more) and have done a great deal to damage Phillip Montgomery’s reputation as an offensive guru over the past three seasons. Since dominating Central Michigan in the Miami Beach Bowl in late 2016, the Golden Hurricane have gone 8-27. In true road games, they are 1-16. If I can convince just one reader to avoid laying points on the road with Tulsa, I’ve done my job.

Michigan +9.5 Ohio State
At halftime of the Penn State game six weeks ago. Many college football fans probably thought Michigan would be fortunate to win eight games this season. The Wolverines looked punchless in an early season loss to Wisconsin and were about to get blown out by Penn State in Happy Valley. Notre Dame was on deck and games against Michigan State and a resurgent Indiana remained on the schedule before the annual showdown with the Buckeyes. The Wolverines nearly came all the way back against Penn State, and since then have dominated, beating their last four opponents by a combined score of 166-45. The Penn State game is a convenient narrative for the Wolverines turning things around, but I would actually argue the Wolverines have been their usual dominant selves since the loss to Wisconsin. In their Big 10 opener, the Wolverines were outgained by nearly two yards per play (4.90 to 6.67). Since that game, Michigan has outgained their conference opponents by nearly two and a half yards per play (6.32 to 3.87). By comparison, Jim Harbaugh’s best per play margin against Big 10 foes since arriving in Ann Arbor is 2.07 by the 2016 team that nearly made the Big 10 Championship Game if not for the infamous ‘spot’. Michigan has been historically dominant by their recent standards. Unfortunately for them, the Buckeyes have been dominant by any standards. Ohio State’s per play margin against Big 10 opponents is 3.37. In my yards per play database (since 2005), the best Big 10 per play margin belongs to Wisconsin in 2014 at 3.06! That Wisconsin team was obviously a paper tiger as they dropped the Big 10 Championship Game in historic fashion to Ohio State and rung up their dominant margins against the weaker division (avoided Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State in the regular season). Still, this emphasizes the rarefied air this Ohio State team occupies. Despite their dominance, Michigan on the road likely poses their most significant test until the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines have been home underdogs only once under Jim Harbaugh, in this exact spot two seasons ago. Neither the Buckeyes nor Wolverines were as good that season as they are now, but Michigan managed to cover a rather large number. I expect a similar result this year. Despite their offensive success, Ohio State has allowed a surprising number of sacks (25). I expect Michigan to make more than sporadic appearances in the backfield with their aggressive pass rush (35 sacks on the year) and contain the Buckeyes enough to cover this number.

Middle Tennessee State +8.5 Western Kentucky
From the Ohio Valley to the Sun Belt to Conference USA, you just can’t stop 100 Miles of Hate. One of the more underrated rivalries in college football resumes on Saturday. While Middle Tennessee State is out of bowl contention one year removed from winning the East division of Conference USA, Western Kentucky has thrived under first-year head coach Tyson Helton. The Hilltoppers began the Helton era rather inauspiciously by losing at home to Central Arkansas, but have reeled off seven wins in their last ten games to clinch a winning record for the first time since 2016. Included among those seven wins was a beatdown at Arkansas that signaled the end of the Chad Morris era in Fayetteville. The Hilltoppers also have victories against likely bowl participants Florida International, Charlotte, UAB, and Southern Miss. While Conference USA is one of the weaker Group of Five leagues, the Hilltoppers have not gotten fat off the chaff of their conference. In fact, either Southern Miss or UAB is likely to represent the West division in the Conference USA Championship Game next week. After torching the league with an explosive offense under Jeff Brohm, the Hilltoppers have altered their identity and become a defense-first team, ranking second in Conference USA in yards allowed per play. They don’t generate a lot of pressure (just 22 sacks on the year), but they keep quarterbacks from completing a lot of passes. The Hilltoppers have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just over 53% of their passes this season (good for eleventh nationally). Despite their defensive acumen, the Hilltoppers offense is below average, even by Conference USA standards (tenth of fourteen teams in yards per play), so they are not a team you want to lay a lot of points with. Especially not against an offense as prolific as Middle Tennessee’s. While the Blue Raiders will finish with a losing record for the first time since 2011, they have found their quarterback of the future (and present). Asher O’Hara has not only thrown for over 2000 yards, he also leads the team in rushing with 914 yards and has a chance to eclipse 1000 on the year. The Blue Raiders actually have a better yards per play margin in league play than the Hilltoppers (+.84 to +.59), but faced a tough non-conference schedule with three Power Five teams (Duke, Iowa, and Michigan) and dropped a pair of conference games by three points each to North Texas and Charlotte. Meanwhile, each of their three conference wins have come by at least eleven points. A tough schedule and some close game misfortune will keep them home for the holidays, but the Blue Raiders should be primed for a return to contention next season. In addition to arguably being the better team, this series has typically been close since Western Kentucky joined FBS. Seven of the eleven games have been decided by five points or less and Western Kentucky has only won by more than three points once. That team beat the Blue Raiders by thirty and actually finished ranked. This ain’t that Western Kentucky. Take the Blue Raiders to keep this one close.

Wyoming +11 Air Force
Wyoming broke a two-game skid last week by upending Colorado State at home. Already bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season, the victory ensured the Cowboys would be a postseason participant after being passed over for a bid last season. Craig Bohl has built a winner in Laramie with a strong defense. Wyoming ranks second in the Mountain West in yards allowed per play and if not for an injury at the quarterback position, the Cowboys could be on their way to the Mountain West Championship Game. They may have to settle for winning eight games for the third time in four seasons. On the other sideline, Air Force is likely playing for a ranked finish. In the most recent edition of the AP Poll, the Falcons were 29th (in the others receiving votes category). A victory here followed by one in their bowl game would give them an 11-2 record and likely result in a finish in the final poll for the first time since 1998. Under head coach Troy Calhoun, the Falcons have been a consistent money loser as a double-digit favorite, posting a 14-23-1 ATS record, including 9-14-1 as a double-digit home favorite. Wyoming has done well as a road underdog under Bohl, posting a 15-11 ATS mark. They have also won four of five in this series since Bohl took over as head coach. Eleven points is too many for the Falcons to lay. Take the Cowboys to cover this number.

Oregon State +19.5 Oregon
With last week’s results, the Civil War means a lot to one of these teams, but not so much to the other. Oregon State dropped a heartbreaker to Washington State last week, losing in the closing seconds and depriving themselves of a sought after sixth win. While the close loss could cause this to be a flat spot, it could just as easily add some extra motivation to what is already a rivalry game. Meanwhile, Oregon saw their College Football Playoff hopes die in the desert last week, as they fell to the Sun Devils. That puts them in an interesting spot this week. Their playoff hopes are dashed, but their conference title hopes are very much alive. The Ducks will be playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game next week, likely against Utah, but should Colorado do the unthinkable, against Southern Cal. Could the Ducks be looking ahead? I think so. Oregon has won this game ten of the past eleven years, and only two of those victories came by less than a touchdown. With a more important game on deck, the Beavers might not have the full attention of the Ducks. Couple that with the potential hangover from last week’s upset loss to Arizona State and situationally, the Beavers seem like a solid play. In addition, Oregon State is unbeaten against the spread on the road this season, going 5-0 ATS despite being an underdog in all five games. They have also won three of those games outright. I don’t expect the Beavers to pull out the win and get to bowl eligibility, but I think this game means more to them so I expect them to keep it close.

Cal +1 UCLA
2019 has been a roller coaster season for both sets of Ursidae. The Golden Bears from California began the season 4-0, but lost their starting quarterback, Chase Garbers, in the fifth game and dropped four in a row. They rebounded to beat Washington State, got Garbers back, but lost to Southern Cal, and then won the Big Game for the first time since 2009. The victory against the Cardinal means the Bears will appear in back to back bowl games for the first time in a decade. Conversely, the Bruins will miss a bowl game for the second consecutive season and third time in four years. UCLA opened the second season of the Chip Kelly era by losing five of their first six games. When most of the college football world forgot about them, they proceeded to win three in a row and flirt with bowl eligibility. Then they dropped their next two to ensure another losing season (their fourth in a row). The Bruins have played better on offense in their second season under Kelly, but their defense has been among the worst in the Pac-12. Only Washington State has allowed more yards per play in Pac-12 play and the Bruins have given up at least 48 points in half of their conference games. Cal has struggled offensively, particularly when Garbers was out, but their defense is one of the best in the Pac-12 (fourth in yards allowed per play). In eight of their eleven games, the Bears have allowed 21 points or less. The only teams to really carve them up were Utah and Southern Cal (scored a combined 76 points). Garbers missed either all or most of those two games, so the defense may have been somewhat demoralized, knowing even one or two touchdowns would likely keep them from winning. Cal has played well in the road underdog role under head coach Justin Wilcox, with a 10-4 ATS record, including six outright upsets. It seems to me like the wrong team is favored here. UCLA has a better offense, but their defense is atrocious. Cal’s offense is at least competent with Garbers in charge, and their defense is quite good. Take Cal to cover this small number and win the game outright.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

We had our first losing week in almost a month, but we can take solace in that fact that it took an especially brutal beat to get us there. We'll see if we can rebound this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 45-38-1

Colorado State +6.5 Wyoming
Since I am regarded by most as a super intellectual (and you probably are as well since you have the good sense to read this blog), allow me to take a snippet from Mr. Rudyard Kipling:

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man 
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began. 
That the dog returns to his vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire, 
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire 

After getting burned by Colorado State last week against Air Force, we are returning to that proverbial flame and backing the Rams once again this week. Despite a rough 1-5 start to the 2019 season, which followed a 3-9 campaign in 2018, the Rams have continued to play hard and well for embattled head coach Mike Bobo. As a brief aside, it is interesting that Bobo has basically the same record through his first five seasons at Colorado State (28-33 with two regular seasons games left) as Wyoming coach Craig Bohl had in his first five in Laramie (28-35). Of course, context matters, and the Cowboys have improved or maintained throughout Bohl’s tenure while the Rams imploded last season. Despite their early season struggles, the Rams actually have a snowball’s chance at getting back to the postseason. They would need to upset the Cowboys and then beat conference overlord Boise State in Fort Collins next week. The second leg of that parlay might be a trifle difficult, but the Rams have a real shot at winning this game. Wyoming has one of the better defenses in the Mountain West, ranking second in the conference in yards allowed per play. However, their offense was below average before quarterback Sean Chambers went down with an injury, and is severely limited now. Chambers was not only a better passer than backup Tyler Vander Waal, he also contributed with his legs, rushing for over 550 yards and ten touchdowns before his injury. Vander Waal has fourteen yards rushing on the season (including yards lost due to sacks) and is not nearly as mobile. The Cowboys have scored 17 and 21 points the past two weeks with Vander Waal starting and needed a defensive score to score 21 (and barely cover) against Utah State last week. When a team struggles to score like Wyoming, it is dangerous to lay points, even at home. The Rams have been pretty good as road underdogs under Bobo, posting a 9-5 ATS mark in the role. In fact, excluding last season, the Rams are 8-2 catching points on the road. Back them in this spot and don’t be surprised if they win outright.

South Alabama +10 Georgia State
Georgia State fans will witness a bit of history on Saturday. Not only can the Panthers win their seventh regular season game for the first time since joining FBS, they also find themselves double-digit favorites against an FBS opponent for the first time in school history. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this large spread is justified. The Panthers have rebounded nicely from a 2-10 season in 2018, upsetting Tennessee in their opener and clinching bowl eligibility before the calendar flipped to November. However, the Panthers may be limping literally and figuratively to the finish line. Since winning their sixth game against Troy, the Panthers have dropped two straight to Louisiana-Monroe and Appalachian State. No shame in that, particularly against App State. However, in the process, their starting quarterback was injured. Senior quarterback Dan Ellington tore his ACL against Louisiana-Monroe, but in a show of either heroism or ignorance decided to play against Appalachian State. The results were not pretty. Ellington threw for just 88 yards on 27 pass attempts and the Panthers were blown out at home. With Ellington ineffective or out altogether, the Panthers will struggle to win one of their final two games, much less cover a large number. Their defense, as has been the case for nearly their entire existence, is not very good. The Panthers are currently allowing 38 points per game which is almost identical to their numbers from last season. Prior to his injury, Ellington and the offense made up for the defensive shortcomings, but those days appear to be in the rearview mirror. South Alabama is just 1-9 on the year, but has played better of late, pushing Texas State and Louisiana-Lafayette to the brink the past two weeks with freshman quarterback Desmond Trotter leading the offense to two of their best showings on the year. I’m not sure how you can lay double-digits with a healthy Georgia State, much less one with injury issues at the quarterback position. Take the Jags to keep this one close.

Arkansas State -1 Georgia Southern
It’s been a trying season for Arkansas State in 2019. Both on the field, where the Red Wolves have suffered some key injuries and fielded their worst defense since the turn of the century, and off the field, where head coach Blake Anderson lost his wife to breast cancer. The team has reeled off three wins in a row to become bowl eligible for the ninth consecutive season, but hopes for a division and potential Sun Belt title are likely shot as the Red Wolves would need to win out and have Louisiana-Lafayette lose their final two games to take the division. And speaking of division races, their loss last season at Georgia Southern ended up costing them the division title (the loss to Louisiana-Lafayette obviously played a role too), so revenge should serve as a good motivator for the Red Wolves. While their defense has been uncharacteristically bad this season, Georgia Southern might not be able to take complete advantage of that. The Eagles rank last in the Sun Belt in yards per play. Part of that is due to the nature of their offense (the triple option), which involves mostly running plays. However, their ground game is averaging about a half yard less per carry than last season and their infrequent passing has not produced as many big plays (over two and a half yards less per pass attempt than last season). Arkansas State has dominated their Sun Belt brethren at home, going 19-4 in Jonesboro under Anderson, with the losses coming to Appalachian State (twice), Louisiana-Lafayette, and Troy. Those teams were all upper-echelon Sun Belt squads. Georgia Southern is not. Take the Red Wolves to win at home.

Temple +10.5 Cincinnati
Since the start of the 2018 season, Cincinnati is 20-3 straight up. Two of their three losses have come to teams that were in the top-fifteen at the the time (Central Florida last season and Ohio State this season). Their other loss? It came against the Temple Owls last October. The Bearcats have a chance to exact a modicum of revenge and clinch the AAC East division when they take on the Owls this week. Cincinnati is unbeaten in AAC play at 6-0, but their yards per play numbers are not befitting a dominant team. In those six games, the Bearcats have outgained their league opponents by a little less than a half yard per play. However, most of that margin was run up in their game against the woeful Connecticut Huskies. Cincinnati did not have any trouble with the Huskies, winning the game 48-3 while more than doubling them up in yardage and yards per play. If we take that glorified exhibition away, the Bearcats are actually underwater in their other five conference games.
So how have they been able to string together five wins in their other conference games while being consistently outgained on a per play basis? Close game execution, turnovers, and non-offensive touchdowns. The Bearcats have won three conference games by exactly three points, meaning victories against Central Florida, East Carolina, and South Florida could easily have gone the other way. The Bearcats are also have a +9 turnover margin in their five conference games outside of Connecticut, including a combined +10 margin in their wins against Central Florida, Houston, and Tulsa. Finally, the Bearcats have returned three interceptions for touchdowns in conference play, with those plays providing the winning margin against both Central Florida and East Carolina. While those three areas significantly impact win probability, they are not very predictable or repeatable. Despite being one of the highest ranked Group of Five teams (and rightfully so based on their accomplishments), the Bearcats probably have a loss or two left on the schedule. One of those losses may well come this week against a Temple squad that has rebounded from a rough midseason stretch. In mid-October, the Owls allowed 108 combined points to SMU and Central Florida, but after a bye held South Florida and Tulane to 28 combined points to clinch a fifth straight winning season. The Owls struggle against explosive passing offenses, like SMU and Central Florida, but against a team like Cincinnati, their defense should play well enough to keep them in the game. Temple has won four in a row in this series and Luke Fickell has yet to beat Temple during his time in the Queen City. The Owls are getting too many points and should keep this game close throughout.

Marshall -7 Charlotte
When I was looking at games to add to this week’s post, I initially avoided this game as Marshall is coming off a huge home victory last week against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs represented the toughest (on paper) remaining test on Marshall’s regular season schedule (the Herd close with a home game against Florida International). Beating the Bulldogs meant Marshall retained the inside track for the CUSA East division title. The Thundering Herd and Florida Atlantic each have one conference loss, but Marshall beat the Owls back in October, so they own the tiebreaker. Despite my trepidation backing a team off a big win, last week’s victory did not wrap anything up. Marshall players no doubt realize they probably still need to win out in order to qualify for the Conference USA Championship Game for the first time since 2014. While the Herd are fighting for a division and perhaps conference title, Charlotte is looking to become bowl eligible for the first time in school history. The 49ers have won three in a row and need victories in one of their final two games (travel to Old Dominion next week) to get to six wins. The 49ers are likely poised for success under first-year head coach Will Healy, but it pays to look at the teams they have knocked off during their three-game win streak. North Texas, Middle Tennessee State, and UTEP are all likely to be home for the holidays, with North Texas the only one of the trio with any shot at a bowl game (currently 4-6). Outside of those three victories, the 49ers have beaten an FCS team (Gardner-Webb) and one of the worst FBS teams (Massachusetts). The 49ers are fielding the best offense in their brief history, led by senior running back Benny LeMay and mobile quarterback Chris Reynolds. However, their defense is the worst in Conference USA this side of El Paso. I don't think that imbalance will bode well against a Marshall team that has one of the best defenses in CUSA (third in yards per play allowed) and also ranks in the top half of the league offensively (fifth in yards per play). Marshall is 3-1 against Charlotte since the 49ers joined CUSA, with each victory coming by double-digits. Their only loss in the series came during their lost 2016 campaign. Take Marshall to win easily and position themselves to clinch the division in Huntington next week.

Oregon State +10.5 Washington State
I don’t tend my own horn (too much), but before the season started, I looked at the preseason consensus  unanimous last place teams and opined that Oregon State was the most likely to exceed their humble expectations. Lo and behold, the Beavers have five wins for the first time since 2014. Obviously, I shouldn’t get too much credit, since I didn’t like it enough to place my hard earned money on it over the summer. Ostensibly, this road trip to Pullman will serve as a bowl elimination game. The Beavers and Cougars are both 5-5 with rivalry games up next week. The Beavers have won their Civil War rivalry game with Oregon just once since 2007 and Washington State has won their Apple Cup rivalry game with Washington just once since 2008. Suffice to say the loser of this game will find it exceptionally difficult to grind out their sixth win next week. While Oregon State has already doubled last season’s win total, Washington State has cut theirs in half. The primary culprit is the worst defense in the Pac-12. In conference play, the Cougars are allowing over seven yards per play. Historically, if they continue at that pace in their final two games, they would be the second worst Pac-12 defense since 2005.
That the Cougars have somehow managed to win two conference games, and are favored by oddsmakers to win their third this week, despite their defensive struggles, is a testament to Mike Leach’s offensive bona fides. However, the two games the Cougars managed to win came against offenses that struggle to move the ball and score (and Stanford still averaged over eight yards per play against them!). That is not the case with Oregon State. When not facing the best defenses in the conference (Cal, Utah, and Washington), the Beavers have averaged just south of 42 points per game and over seven yards per play. The Beavers have played well on the road this season, covering as an underdog in all four of their road games, with three outright wins. Oregon State has plenty of firepower to easily cover this number and win outright if they catch a few breaks.

San Diego State +3 Hawaii
This de facto Mountain West West division championship game will take place while most of the continental United States (at least those who aren’t wagering on this game) are fast asleep. I don’t know all the tiebreaker permutations, but Nevada might still theoretically be alive should they win their final two games and Hawaii win here giving all three teams identical 5-3 conference records. However, we’ll assume for the sake of simplicity that Nevada loses at least one of their final two games (they are two touchdown underdogs at Fresno State this weekend), and the winner of this contest will advance to the Mountain West Championship Game to take on (presumably) Boise State. In an interesting scheduling quirk, both the Aztecs and Warriors play non-conference games next week (BYU and Army) before the title game the first weekend in December. Just something to keep in mind when thinking about wagering on those games. A true degenerate must always think at least one week ahead. But I digress. Aside from playing in the same division, these two teams couldn’t be more different. San Diego State is coached by nearly the seventy-year old Rocky Long who probably hates your loud music and wants you to cut your hair. Long has been a defensive coach his entire career and his teams are almost always run first offenses (and second and third) with strong defenses. Meanwhile, Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich is barely forty and played college football this century. Befitting someone who played quarterback for June Jones, his teams throw the ball more often than they run and aren’t overly concerned with the whole defense thing. This season, the Aztecs running game has betrayed them, as they rank dead last in the Mountain West in yards per play. However, their defense is still one of the best in the Group of Five universe, ranking first in the Mountain West in yards allowed per play. On the flip side, Hawaii leads the Mountain West in yards per play, averaging over seven yards every time they snap the ball in conference play. However, that explosive offense has also played fast and loose with the football at times, committing 27 turnovers on the season (last in the country). Defensively, the Warriors rank third to last in the Mountain West in yards allowed per play. This is shaping up to be a real contrast in styles and in that situation, I like to back the team with the stronger defense that also takes better care of the ball. Some trends also point to an Aztec win in this spot. Rocky Long is 6-1 as a head coach against Hawaii, including a perfect 4-0 mark on the islands (3-0 at San Diego State and 1-0 at New Mexico). Hawaii can be a tough place to play in theory, but Long has made this trip with the Aztecs each of the past three odd-numbered years (2013, 2015, and 2017) and left with a win each time. In addition, Hawaii is just 1-9 ATS as a home favorite under Rolovich indicating the betting market might be giving Hawaii’s unique location too much value. Finally, if you are going to beat San Diego State, it will usually be in a situation similar to two weeks ago against Nevada. The Aztecs were a seventeen point favorite, but lost outright at home. Since 2015, San Diego State has lost seventeen games. Ten of those losses have come when the Aztecs were favored by at least six points and seven of those ten came at home. When the Aztecs don’t have a reason to overlook their opponent, they usually give their best effort. I expect that to be the case early Sunday morning.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

Three winning weeks in a row. Will it all come crashing down this week? Read on to find out. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 42-34-1

North Carolina +4 Pittsburgh
Heading into the 2019 season, Pitt's over/under win total was five and a half. As a holder of a Pitt 'over' ticket, I was pleased to see the Panthers get their sixth win two weeks ago with nearly a whole month to spare. However, while patting myself on the back for betting on the Panthers, I have to acknowledge my handicap of their season was wrong. I figured with Mark Whipple coming on board as offensive coordinator and a seasoned junior quarterback that the Panthers would win games with their offense. That has not been the case at all in 2019. In terms of yards per play, the Panthers rank twelfth (of fourteen teams) in the ACC. Their offensive touchdown numbers are similarly inadequate. Again, the Panthers rank twelfth in offensive touchdowns in league play with ten through five games. Instead, the Panthers have achieved Pat Narduzzi's dream of winning with a dominant defense. The former Michigan State defensive coordinator has been in charge of the Panthers since 2015, and in his first four seasons, the defense never ranked better than seventh in the ACC in yards allowed per play or better than fourth in touchdowns allowed. This season, the Panthers are first and second in both statistics, even besting Clemson in yards allowed per play.
Pitt has been dominant on defense thanks to their penchant for creating negative plays. The Panthers rank third nationally with 40 sacks (second in sacks per game) and fourteenth nationally with 70 tackles for loss. Despite the dominant defense, the Panthers have already lost three times (twice in conference play) and need help to get back to the ACC Championship Game. Although, avoiding another date with Clemson might be preferable. Pitt is averaging just a shade over twenty points per game this season so it will probably be tough for them to get margin here. In addition to Pitt's shaky offense, all the trends seem to point to a North Carolina cover. The Tar Heels have done nothing but play close games this season, as eight of their nine games have been decided by a touchdown or less. North Carolina is also 3-1 ATS as an underdog this season, beating South Carolina and Miami outright and nearly pulling a monumental upset against Clemson. Plus, Pitt has not beaten the Tar Heels in six tries since joining the conference in 2013. I don't see any way this game does not come down to the wire. In what should be a close game, take the team catching more than a field goal.

Navy +8 Notre Dame
Two weeks ago, I advised fading Notre Dame as a large home favorite against Virginia Tech since their loss the previous week to Michigan pushed them out of the running for a playoff bid. Including this season, and ignoring their 4-8 2016 campaign, the Irish are now 1-5 ATS in the playoff era after suffering their second loss of the season. Their lone cover came last week against Duke. While the outcome of that game was never in doubt, the Irish face a significant step up in competition against the Naval Academy this week. In fact, the Midshipmen might be the best team in the AAC. To prove as such on the field, they would need to win their final two conference games against SMU and Houston and have Memphis drop one of their final three games (Houston, South Florida, and Cincinnati) to take the division and earn a berth in the AAC Championship Game. Even if the Midshipmen are unable to take the AAC crown, they have already doubled last season’s paltry win total (3) and are in position to end their three-game losing skid against Army. Quietly, the Midshipmen have built one of the better Group of Five defenses, ranking second in the AAC in yards allowed per play and touchdowns allowed. And of course, the triple option offense has continued to confound opposing defenses. The Midshipmen are averaging north of 40 points per game, which would rank as their most prolific offense since Paul Johnson’s final season in 2007 (perhaps not coincidentally the year they broke their long losing streak to Notre Dame). Navy, with their improved defense has had a week to prepare for a Notre Dame offense that has been a little disappointing in 2019. On the surface, their passing numbers look decent. As a team, the Irish are averaging 7.5 yards per pass (65th nationally) and have thrown 24 touchdowns against just six interceptions. However, those numbers are buoyed by a pair of games against Bowling Green and New Mexico. When we remove those games from the equation, the Irish passing numbers are much more pedestrian.
In their other seven games, Irish quarterbacks have thrown just twelve touchdown passes versus six interceptions and are averaging just north of six yards per pass. Navy is undervalued by the betting market and still has a lot to play for including a conference title and potential Cotton Bowl bid. Notre Dame is overvalued by the betting market and is playing for pride and I suppose a top-ten ranking at season’s end, but not much else. Back the Naval Academy and don’t be shocked if they leave South Bend with an outright upset.

Texas +7 Iowa State
When Iowa State fans (and I suppose players too) look back on the 2019 season, it will probably be with a feeling of melancholy. Usually, if the Cyclones are 5-4 through nine games it would be cause for celebration, but this year’s team is so close to enjoying a Minnesota-syle historic season. The Cyclones four losses in 2019 have come by a combined eleven points, with three of the four losses coming by two points or less, including last week’s near comeback against Oklahoma. The Cyclones are a very good team, but the vagaries of close losses in a short season have likely confined them to a mid-level bowl game. However, with three regular season games and a likely bowl remaining, the Cyclones have an outside shot at winning nine games for the first time since 2000! The first leg of that potential nine-win journey begins against a team that has been an enigma for the Cyclones under Matt Campbell. Since Campbell arrived in Ames in 2016, the Cyclones are a respectable 16-17 in Big 12 play (14-10 since 2017) and have beaten every team in the conference at least once except for Texas. In fact, the Cyclones have played arguably their worst offensive game of the season against the Longhorns in each of Campbell’s first three seasons.
Three occurrences is hardly a definitive referendum on the subject, but it at least appears that Texas is a bad matchup for Iowa State. Of their 17 Big 12 losses under Campbell, seven have come by at least ten points. Texas is responsible for three of those. Despite Iowa State having the statistically superior profile this season, those three data points have me leaning toward the Longhorns. And here are a few other reasons why I think backing Texas is a good idea. The Longhorns are still alive for a berth in the Big 12 Championship Game. They have two conference losses (to Oklahoma and TCU), but would likely finish second in the conference should they win out (they go to Baylor next week). I haven’t checked to see if Iowa State is officially eliminated, but with three conference losses, two of them coming to the current first and second place teams (Baylor and Oklahoma), at best the Cyclones would need an especially unlikely series of events going in their favor to qualify for the title game. Couple that with their heartbreaking loss in Norman last week, and I think Texas is in a better mental state heading into this game. In addition, despite Iowa State posting better overall numbers in 2019, based on recruiting rankings, Texas has better underlying talent. This is something I plan on conducting a deeper dive into over the offseason (when elite recruiters are underdogs to non-elite recruiters), but my hypothesis is that elite recruiters tend to cover the spread when they are underdogs against non-elite recruiters. Finally, it is a bit of a trope and lazy handicapping at this point, but you have to consider how Tom Herman’s teams perform in the underdog role. For all these reasons, I think Texas, despite their serious issues on defense, is a good play in this spot.

Kentucky -10.5 Vanderbilt
Frequent readers (if any) of this blog are probably shocked to see me advocating laying double-digits on the road with a team as one dimensional as Kentucky. Despite my misgivings with big favorites, particularly in road games, I have to make an exception for team’s facing this incarnation of Vanderbilt. Each offseason, I post Yards per Play recaps of each FBS conference. In my personal spreadsheet, I have been tracking YPP numbers for each FBS conference since 2005. In that span, the worst SEC team by YPP Net (yards per play minus yards allowed per play) was Ole Miss in 2011 at -2.53. That Ole Miss team finished 0-8 in SEC play and fired Houston Nutt after the season concluded. This Vanderbilt team threw everyone off the scent when they upset Missouri a month ago. However, even including that win, the Commodores are currently at -3.03 YPP Net through six games. Barring a pair of strong performances in their final two conference games against Kentucky and Tennessee, this Vanderbilt team will rank as the worst ever in my YPP numbers. Derek Mason may also follow in Houston Nutt’s shoes and receive a pink slip once the season mercifully ends. The Commodores have a hard time scoring and based on my limited viewing of their games, are one of the worst tackling teams I have ever seen. That does not bode well against the run heavy offense Kentucky employs. The Wildcats installed their best athlete, Lynn Bowden Jr., at quarterback after their other signal callers went down with injuries. Bowden has, not surprisingly, struggled throwing the ball, but he may not have to complete a pass against Vanderbilt. Kentucky still needs two wins to qualify for the postseason (would be their fourth in a row), so they should be motivated. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt is assured of a sixth straight losing season and has nothing of significance to play for. I expect Kentucky to roll over the Commodores on Saturday afternoon.

Wyoming +6 Utah State
On the surface, Utah State appears to be in the midst of a disappointing season. At 5-4, the Aggies are not even assured of bowl eligibility after winning a school record eleven games last season. However, if you look a little closer, you would see the Aggies still have an outside shot at the Mountain West Championship Game. The Aggies are 4-1 in conference play and host division leader Boise State next week. However, the Aggies do not control their own destiny (if that is even possible by definition anyway) as the Aggies have already lost to Air Force and would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker to the Falcons should Boise State finish with two conference losses. I didn’t look up how the Mountain West would break a three-way tie between the Broncos, Falcons, and Aggies with each owning a rock/paper/scissors win and loss against the other two, but I would assume the conference would find a way to screw the Falcons and Aggies and send the Broncos to the title game. Of course, we have a ways to go before that scenario could play out. This week the Aggies return home after pulling out a win at the gun last week against Fresno State. They welcome a Wyoming team that nearly shocked Boise State last week, but were done in when their kicker left a 37-yard field goal short (it was also wide, but damn, how do you leave a field goal under 40 yards short?). Despite the loss, the Cowboys have one of the best Group of Five defenses in the country. They held Boise State to a season low in yards (295) and yards per play (4.83) last week and on the season are allowing under 18 points per game. Their offense, particularly the passing side, has struggled, as they are completing less than 45% of their passes as a team (dead last in the country). Befitting a Craig Bohl team, the running game has held up its end of the bargain, although with the injury to quarterback Sean Chambers, the quarterback run game is almost nonexistent now. Wyoming has covered the last three in this series and have been pretty good as an underdog against fellow Group of Five opponents under Bohl, posting an 11-7 ATS mark in the role in his nearly six seasons at the helm. Utah State has played better offensively the past two weeks (although they did turn the ball over quite a bit against BYU), but Wyoming might have the second or third best defense they will face all season (after LSU and San Diego State). Utah State has not scored more than 28 points in any of their past three meetings with the Cowboys and I would be shocked if they got to that number this week. I expect a tight game with a final margin of around a field goal.

Colorado State +10.5 Air Force
Before we dive into my handicap of this game, let me express my disappointment with the current edition of the AP Poll. In that poll, Air Force is tied for 36th, receiving just two votes. I didn't expect them to appear in the top-25, but I don't think the college football media has been paying much attention to the Falcons. They are 7-2, with both losses coming on the road to teams currently ranked by the associated press (Boise State and Navy). In fact, some advanced stats actually rate them as the best team in the Mountain West. So why in the world am I on the other side this week? For starters, Colorado State has quietly improved since their 1-5 start. The Rams have won three in a row, granted two of those wins came against New Mexico and UNLV, but they also won at Fresno State (the defending Mountain West champ). While they are likely to be underdogs in their final three games (Wyoming and Boise State are up next after this week), a bowl bid is still within the realm of possibility. That seemed especially unlikely after the 1-5 start with coupled with the injury to starting quarterback Colin Hill. Patrick O'Brien (not the drunken, former CBS sports host), has played admirably in his stead, averaging over eight and half yards per pass. Colorado State has had some trouble against the run, allowing over five yards per carry on the season, but are coming off a bye, so they have had extra prep time for the Air Force option. In addition, Air Force has not done well under Troy Calhoun as a double-digit favorite. Overall, the Falcons are just 13-23-1 ATS as a double-digit favorite, including 4-9 ATS as a double-digit road favorite since Calhoun arrived in 2007. Air Force will be able to score, and probably score plenty, in this game, but laying double-digits with a service academy, particularly on the road is not something that will win you a lot of money long term. I like the Rams to keep this one close.

Cal +6.5 Southern Cal
Did Southern Cal do enough last week to save Clay Helton’s job? Was a road win against a middling Pac-12 team starting their backup quarterback enough to buy Helton another year? In that victory against Arizona State, the Trojans started out hot, scoring 28 points in the first quarter, but wheezed to the finish, scoring just three points the rest of the way and needing an amazing display of athleticism by a defensive lineman to seal the victory. The win did make the Trojans bowl eligible, but likely did not inspire a great deal of confidence for Southern Cal decision makers. The Trojans hit the road again this week to face another backup quarterback, but at least this backup has a modicum of experience. Devon Modster had his best game of the season last week against what is probably the Pac-12’s worst pass defense in Washington State. The Bears scored more than 30 points for the first time in nearly a calendar year and broke a four-game losing streak to put themselves in position for a second consecutive bowl trip (the Bears have not made back-to-back bowl trips in a decade). The Bears need to win one of their final three games against either Southern Cal, Stanford, or UCLA, so they should have ample motivation. What about Southern Cal? What is their motivation? The Pac-12 South is all but lost as the Trojans need to win out and have Utah drop one of their three remaining games (UCLA, Arizona, or Colorado) in which they should be prohibitive favorites. Cal has one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 and Southern Cal, despite their stable of dominant receivers, is still piloted by a freshman quarterback. In fact, one overlooked aspect of the new Southern Cal offense is the characteristics it shares with the one Mike Leach runs at Washington State. Both teams run some variation of the Air Raid, and based on an admittedly small sample, teams that have played Washington State and Southern Cal back-to-back have performed a lot better in the second matchup. For instance, Utah allowed 30 points and lost by seven to Southern Cal. In their next game, they allowed just 13 points and won by 25 against Washington State. Colorado allowed 41 points and lost by 31 to Washington State. On a short week, in their next game, they allowed 35 points and lost by four to Southern Cal. Oregon allowed 35 points and nearly lost at home to Washington State, needing a late field goal to win by two. The next week, they allowed 24 points and demolished Southern Cal by 32 points in The Coliseum. Last week, Cal allowed 20 points to Washington State and won by 13. I don’t think Cal is going to hold the Trojans scoreless and blow them out, but I think they will be better prepared having seen a similar offense up close two weeks in a row. For that reason, take the Bears to keep this one close in a classic Pac-12 After Dark spot.