Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week I

We finally made it. College football is back. Another long offseason is in the books and now we get to kick back and enjoy the spoils of the world's greatest sport. For new readers, this weekly post will outline the seven games I deem as the best options for you to wager your hard earned money on. Last year, I hit on a personal best 55%, so we will try to keep the correct picks flowing. However, as Rod Serling once said this is 'not a prediction of what is to be, just a projection of what could be.' As always, home teams in BOLD.

UCLA +3 Cincinnati
Chip Kelly's first season in Los Angeles felt a lot like his first and only season in San Francisco. The Bruins went just 3-9, which marked their worst record since 1971. However, after a brutal start to the season, the Bruins were competitive over the second half. They won three of their final seven games and the offense was much more prolific. In their first five games, the offense averaged just north of 18 points per game and did not top 24 points in any contest. Over their final seven games, the Bruins averaged an even 29 points per game and scored more than 30 points four times. The defense was still problematic in the second half, but Kelly's offensive system appeared to take a foothold. The Bruins will look to build on that second half improvement against an upstart Cincinnati team coming of their best season since 2009 and their first ranked finish since 2011. Despite the success, it feels like Cincinnati might have arrived a bit too soon in 2018. After all, they did improve their regular season win total by six games in Luke Fickell's second year. I looked at all Group of Five teams that saw their regular season win total increase by at least five wins over the past five years. Eleven other teams fit that description. Those eleven teams appeared to be over-valued by the betting market the next season. They combined for a 36-38-3 ATS mark as favorites the next season. On the surface, there does not appear to be a lot of value in going against those rapidly improving Group of Five teams. However, if we take out the outliers, the numbers are much more damning. UCF improved by at least five games in two consecutive years, going from 0-12 in 2015 to 6-6 in 2016 to 11-0 in 2017. Their record as a favorite ATS in those two follow up seasons was 15-5-1. Once we drop them, the ATS mark of rapidly improving teams drops to a much less impressive 21-33-2. I think Cincinnati is in good hands under Fickell, but I think the market has over-corrected in regards to their power rating. In addition, keep in mind that although UCLA is heading east, this game is a night kickoff. Were this a Noon kick on Saturday, I would avoid it like the plague, but I don't expect the Bruins to take a quarter to wake up. Finally, I'll leave you with this nugget. The last time UCLA was as bad as they were last season (also under a first year coach), they responded by winning eight games the next season.

Rutgers -15 Massachusetts
I never saw the movie Dead Man Walking (no doubt it was a zombie flick with over the top violence), but that title could very well describe Rutgers coach Chris Ash. Ash enters his fourth season at the State College of New Jersey with a 7-29 overall record, including a 3-24 Big 10 mark. With a projected win total of just 2.5 at most sports books, Ash will likely be replaced at season's end, if not before. Despite the pessimism surrounding the program, for one weekend at least, the Scarlet Knights might have something to feel good about. Under Ash, Rutgers has been favored against an FBS opponent just three previous times. For what its worth, they did lose one of those games outright, but they covered the other two, including their only other turn as a double-digit favorite in the 2018 opener. For a team to be a double-digit underdog to Rutgers, they have to be pretty bad, and the Minutemen of Massachusetts have been one of the worst teams in the country since they made their return to FBS in 2012. In that span, they are just 18-66 overall, and while they were more competitive (especially on offense) under former coach Mark Whipple, he never managed to win more than four games in any season. Not only do the Minutemen lose Whipple, they also lose both quarterbacks that saw significant action over the past three seasons, and the nation's leading receiver from 2018. The Minutemen averaged over 30 points per game the past two seasons, but with all the changes on offense, that number may be cut in half in 2019. In addition, the Minutemen have allowed at least 30 points per game in every season since 2012, including nearly 43 points per game last season! The defense is unlikely to see significant improvement and the offense seems certain to regress. Couple those two factors together and Massachusetts might be the worst FBS team in 2019. Rutgers will not have many opportunities to feel good about themselves in 2019, so they will probably relish the chance to look like an actual Power Five opponent in their opener. Rutgers should roll here before reality sets in the following week against Iowa.

East Carolina +17 NC State
This pick is a vote of confidence in East Carolina. I think the Pirates hit a homerun in the coaching carousel (mixed metaphors?) by hiring Mike Houston. Of course, I don't expect Houston to be their head coach three years from now. Houston has steadily climbed the coaching ladder from Division II (Lenoir-Rhyne) to FCS (The Citadel) to FCS power (James Madison) winning at each destination. Despite just nine victories over the past three seasons, East Carolina does have some interesting pieces, especially on offense. Quarterback Holton Ahlers needs to improve his completion percentage (just over 48% last year), but he threw for nearly 1800 yards and added nearly 600 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, for NC State, the Wolfpack will be replacing a three-year starter at quarterback as well as their offensive coordinator, who is now the head coach at Appalachian State. Despite eighteen wins over the past two seasons, it seems like NC State did not fully capitalize on the power vacuum (outside of Clemson of course) in the ACC. The Wolfpack lost three games as a favorite over the past two seasons, including one where they outgained their opponent by over 250 yards and another where they entered as a nearly three-touchdown favorite. One thing the Wolfpack were able to do was embarrass a lame duck East Carolina team last season. The Pirates had fired Scottie Montgomery and were led by an interim coach when they traveled to Raleigh for a rescheduled game on the first weekend of December last season. East Carolina has had all offseason to reflect on that beating and I think that extra motivation will serve them well here. In addition, Mike Houston has experience coaching against NC State in Raleigh. Last season, James Madison gave the Wolfpack a game in the season opener. Expected improvement at East Carolina, the revenge angle, and the rebuild of the NC State offense make the Pirates the play here. 

Toledo +12 Kentucky
Post-Bear Bryant, 2018 was the pinnacle of Kentucky football. The Wildcats won ten games for the first time since 1977 and finished the season in the final AP Poll for the first time since 1984. Its hard to win, especially consistently at Kentucky, so Mark Stoops deserves a great deal of credit for getting the Wildcats to three straight bowl games. However, a return to typical Kentucky form is probably in store for the team in 2019. For example, the Wildcats followed up their 1977 and 1984 campaigns with 4-6-1 and 5-6 records respectively. With a season win total of six or six and a half depending on the shop, oddsmakers have set bowl eligibility as the baseline. Considering the state of the program when Stoops was hired, that is progress. Despite their success in 2018, the Wildcats did not win bettors a lot of money as a favorite. Against FBS opponents, the Wildcats were 2-4 ATS as a favorite and 4-2 ATS as an underdog. That is not a new trend, especially against what would typically be thought of as over-matched opponents. Since 2014, the Wildcats are just 3-6 ATS as a home favorite against Group of Five opponents. In fact, the only time they have covered as a home favorite over the past two seasons was against South Carolina last year (spread had dipped to pick 'em by kickoff). With major attrition on defense, laying double-digits with the Wildcats is a mistake. I know I haven't said a great deal about Toledo in this write-up, and while the Rockets did suffer through a relatively down season in 2018, they have been one of the most consistent MAC programs over the past decade. I expect them to rebound in 2019, and with a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, a victory here could make the Rockets a darkhorse contender for a New Year's Six Bowl. I am not prepared to go out on that limb just yet, but they will keep this one close.

Ole Miss +6 Memphis
When I was initially perusing the lines for the first week of college football I figured this would be a pass for me. I like Memphis a lot this season. I think they could go undefeated, win the AAC, and represent the Group of Five in a New Year's Six Bowl. However, I have no interest in laying nearly a touchdown against an SEC opponent. Then I dove into the numbers. Peep the times since 2005 an SEC team has been an underdog to a non-BCS or G5 opponent (and yes, BYU is considered a G5 because they are). Note this table does not include the three times it has happened in bowl games where SEC teams are 3-0 ATS with two outright wins.
Before I comment on the aggregate results, I wanted to mention the oddest game on here. Somehow in 2006, a UAB team that would finish 3-9 was a double-digit favorite over Mississippi State. Wild. Anyway, SEC teams were 12-3 ATS as an underdog to a mid-major opponent and 9-6 straight up! In true road games, SEC teams were 8-1 ATS and 7-2 straight up! With a trend like this, its hard not to like Ole Miss here. I know the Rebels lost some big time receivers from last year's team, as well as their starting quarterback, but Matt Luke made two good coordinator hires and with a bowl bid now on the table, the team should be extra motivated. Plus, while the Rebels have lost by more than a touchdown nine times in two seasons under Luke, six of those defeats have come to teams that finished in the top-twenty of the final polls. Elite teams have pounded the Rebels, but they have been quite competitive against the proletariat of college football. Like I said earlier, I think Memphis could have a special season in 2019. In fact, if they win here, they will probably be 9-0 when they head to Houston in mid-November. However, this feels like a game where they will get all they can handle from Ole Miss.

Northwestern +6.5 Stanford
Obviously, wagering on football is a type of gambling, so nothing is a sure thing. However, one of the surest things over the last five years or so has been Northwestern catching points on the road. Northwestern alum and linebacker Pat Fitzgerald has been the head coach in Evanston since 2006. Here is how the Wildcats have performed ATS as road underdogs under his guidance.
30-15 is quite impressive, especially when you consider the Wildcats have pulled 23 outright upsets, meaning they are actually 23-22 straight up as a road underdog under Fitzgerald. Those numbers are even more impressive over the last half decade. Since 2014, the Wildcats are 14-3 ATS as a road underdog with twelve outright upsets. In fact, the Wildcats have covered ten straight games as a road underdog with their last non-cover coming against Michigan in 2015. Despite the cross-country road trip, the Wildcats should continue to provide good value as a road underdog. Since this is the opener, the Wildcats have more travel time to get adjusted to the west coast time zone. In addition, the game is kicking off at a decent hour (one local time), so the Wildcats shouldn't have to worry about their players taking shots of expresso or NoDoz on the sidelines. As for Stanford, while the Cardinal have been a consistent top-25 program over the past decade, they do lose a lot of talent from last year's team. Bryce Love, despite his injury plagued 2018 campaign, was a big play waiting to happen as was jump ball specialist JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Overall, Stanford ranks just 108th in returning production. While I expect those replacements to be productive eventually, asking them to contribute immediately against a feisty underdog like Northwestern seems like a recipe for losing money.

Michigan -33 Middle Tennessee State
Anyone who has ever read this blog or talked point spreads with me knows I hate laying a lot of points. This can occasionally be to my detriment as a talk myself into a big underdog that has no chance of covering. Despite laying nearly five touchdowns, I think this line is severely underestimating the final margin of this game. Allow me to explain. After attempting to dominate the Big 10 with 'bully ball', Jim Harbaugh changed course and hired Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator in the offseason. Gattis will always hold a special place in my heart as he was a key contributor to the 2006 ACC championship team. After a brief stint in the NFL, Gattis went into coaching. He was with James Franklin when he pulled off a miraculous turnaround in Nashville and followed Franklin to Penn State where he learned under Joe Moorhead. His final stop before coming to Michigan was Alabama, where as co-offensive coordinator, he helped lead arguably the best offense in Alabama history. Suffice to say, the Michigan offense should play faster and look more modern in 2019. Since this is the opener and not a random game sandwiched between Big 10 play, Michigan should be fired up and will likely keep their foot on the accelerator. Keep in mind the Wolverines are on a two game skid, having lost to Ohio State and Florida by a combined 103-54 score so they will be in the mood for a win. The Blue Raiders are being paid to be a punching bag, and that is likely what they will be here. This game means next to nothing to the Blue Raiders who will be replacing their all-time leading passer in Brent Stockstill. While it only seemed like Stockstill had been around Murfreesboro for as long as his father, his 106 career passing touchdowns will be missed. His replacement will have the less than enviable task of making his first career start in the Big House. However, as I noted, the first month of the season is an opportunity for Middle Tennessee State to set their roster for conference play. The Blue Raiders also play Duke and Iowa before beginning conference play in October when they host Marshall. While it would be tremendous for the program to upset one of those Power Five teams, the Blue Raiders know their season will be determined by how well they do in Conference USA. I'm not saying the Blue Raiders will throw this game in Ann Arbor, but I doubt they pull out all the stops to keep it close either. This will be a learning opportunity for Rick Stockstill to see what he has before conference play begins. Call it a curb-stomping, ass-cutting, or some other hyphenated metaphor, but I think this one gets out of hand early and stays that way.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Preseason Consensus: Unanimous Last Place Teams

Last week we looked at how teams that were unanimous preseason choices to win their conference or division (by mainstream magazines and computer models) performed. This week, we are going to look at how the unanimous last place teams pegged by the preseason consensus performed. Will their performance offer hope to unanimous last place selections in 2019 or should Illinois, Kansas, Oregon State, Rutgers, and San Jose State fans cryogenically freeze themselves until 2020 (or later)? Read on to find out.

Between 2005 and 2018, only seven G5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to finish last in their respective conference or division. They are listed below.
Were I Chris Creighton’s agent, I might use this list to show just how much he has accomplished (two bowl bids in the last three seasons) since taking over at Eastern Michigan in 2014. Since 2005, Eastern Michigan has been the consensus unanimous last place team in the MAC West five times. In the totality of the mid-major universe, only two other teams have been unanimous last place selections. So how did those unanimous selections do?
It’s hard to gleam a great deal from a sample of seven teams, especially when five of them are the same program, but six of the seven teams lived down to their preseason expectations by finishing in last place. The best finish of any of the seven teams was by Eastern Michigan in 2007. The Eagles went 3-4 in MAC play (MAC teams did not play a uniform schedule of eight conference games in 2007) and finished tied for third in the West division.

Between 2005 and 2018, 24 P5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to finish last in their respective conference or division. They are listed below.
If you are keeping score at home, Baylor, Kansas, Vanderbilt, and Washington State all finished tied for the most unanimous last place selections with three apiece (although Kansas has unofficially added a fourth in 2019 based on preliminary data). Duke, Colorado, and Indiana are the only other P5 teams with multiple appearances. So how did these P5 teams do?
17 of the 24 teams finished last, with 15 finishing alone in last place. Another four teams finished second to last meaning only three finished a safe distance from the basement. However, four of the unanimous selections for last place played in bowl games, so I thought it might be useful to examine them to see if they shared any common trait that might provide hope to the 2019 teams.

2011 Wake Forest 6-7 overall, 5-3 ACC, tied for second in ACC Atlantic
While the Demon Deacons finished with a losing overall record, they nearly won the Atlantic Division. Wake led eventual champ Clemson 28-14 late in the third quarter, but the Tigers scored the last 17 points to take the game and division. Wake had cratered the year before (3-9 overall and 1-7 in the ACC) to tamp down expectations, but the Deacons had been a consistent bowl threat under then-coach Jim Grobe, winning at least five games in seven of his previous ten season heading into 2011.

2011 Vanderbilt 6-7 overall, 2-6 SEC, tied for fourth SEC West
After making their first bowl game since 1982 in 2008, the Commodores had lost 15 of 16 SEC games between 2009 and 2010. New coach James Franklin began his tenure in Nashville by winning his first three games, but the Commodores dropped six of their next eight (with four of those defeats coming by six points or less) to stand 5-6. The Commodores would need to win their season finale at Wake Forest (see previous entry) to clinch bowl-eligibility (in a game I attended). It’s been almost eight years, but I am still a little bitter. The Commodores led 27-7 at halftime and my dad and I left late in the third quarter after the Commodores scored to go up by 27 points. All we missed on the two hour ride back home was another Vanderbilt touchdown.

2012 Ole Miss 7-6 overall, 3-5 SEC, tied for fifth SEC West
After returning to relative prominence in 2008 and 2009 (remember when some prominent folks picked Ole Miss to win the SEC West in 2009?), the Rebels lost 15 of 16 SEC games between 2010 and 2011. The hired Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze to turn the program around and win with integrity. Despite the six losses, the Rebels came very close to shaking up the national landscape. They nearly beat Texas A&M in Johnny Manziel’s Heisman season and almost upset LSU in Baton Rouge. They did clinch bowl eligibility by beating a ranked version of their hated rival in the Egg Bowl.

2014 Arkansas 7-6 overall, 2-6 SEC, last SEC West
Bret Bielema’s second team entered the 2014 season on a nine-game losing streak. They finished the year as probably the best last place team of all time. Some metrics placed the Hogs in the top-fifteen that season. The Hogs lost by one point to eventual SEC champ Alabama, by seven to then top-ranked Mississippi State, by seven to SEC East champ Missouri, while beating ranked LSU and Ole Miss teams by a combined score of 47-0.

So what can we take away from this exercise? Preseason publications and computer models have done a good job when they coalesce around a unanimous last place selection. That does not bode well for Kansas, Illinois, Oregon State, Rutgers, or San Jose State. However, for G5 teams, the sample size is so small (just seven teams total and two outside of Eastern Michigan) that San Jose State fans (if any) should not abandon all hope. As for P5 teams, four of 24 were able to beat the odds and qualify for a bowl game. This should give fans of Kansas, Illinois, Oregon State, and Rutgers a modicum of hope. Of those four, which is most likely to surprise in 2019? Three of the four unanimous last place selections to surprise were led by relatively new coaches (Franklin and Freeze were in their first seasons at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss while Bielema was in his second at Arkansas) and the fourth was led by a coach with a previous track record of success at his school (Grobe at Wake). Lovie Smith and Chris Ash are entering their fourth season at Illinois and Rutgers so I would throw those two out. Les Miles is in his first season at Kansas and has successful stints at Oklahoma State and LSU on his resume, but one of those is a true blue blood program and the other, while certainly a rebuilding job, is nothing like the task he faces at Kansas. Plus, his offenses at LSU were antiquated and boring despite the great talent he brought in. Thus, were I forced to choose, Oregon State would be my selection. The Beavers are coached by Jonathan Smith, who happens to be an alum, so he is familiar with the limitations of the program. He is in his second season, so he is still fresh, and his expertise is on the offensive side of the ball (played quarterback in college and was offensive coordinator prior to getting this job), an area where underdogs stand a better chance of outperforming their pedigree and recruiting rankings. This is in no way a prediction of Oregon State eking out a bowl bid in 2019, just an acknowledgement that of the other teams expected to be awful, they have the best chance of exceeding those low expectations.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

The Preseason Consensus: Unanimous First Place Teams

The college football season is less than one month away and as the season draws near, major sporting news outlets and computer models will be releasing their predictions. While each entity will be higher or lower on certain teams, occasionally a unanimous consensus will develop around a few teams. This year, those teams are Alabama, Appalachian State, Boise State, Clemson, and Georgia. According to preliminary results from the Stassen Preseason Consensus, all those teams are unanimous choices to win their respective divisions. How accurate have previous unanimous selections been? Is this an example of preseason Groupthink or have previous teams been in a different class than their conference or division rivals? Using the Stassen site, I went back and looked at fourteen years worth of preseason data (2005-2018) to determine how these unanimous selections performed. I also divided the unanimous selections into BCS/Power Five and non-BCS/Group of Five to see if there was any difference in how they performed. My thoughts behind separating P5 and G5 are that certain G5 teams (Boise State for example) might be a unanimous selection more because of the quality of their conference rather than their underlying strength whereas a P5 team (like Alabama) might be a unanimous selection because they are supposed to be really, really good. Anyway, we’ll start with the G5. Between 2005 and 2018, twelve G5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to win their respective conference or division. They are listed below.
Boise is the only G5 team to appear multiple times, with the Broncos being a unanimous preseason choice on four occasions. All six ‘mid-major’ conferences that have suited up since 2005 (American, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, and the now defunct WAC) have seen at least one preseason unanimous selection (Louisiana-Lafayette really shocked me). So how did those unanimous selections do?
Only two teams won their respective conference or division title outright. Bowling Green and Marshall both did so in 2014, although Bowling Green’s victory was by default as the Falcons finished 5-3 in a division where no other team was better than 4-4. Four other teams finished tied for first, and for reasons that I’ll discuss more in the P5 section, I thought it was important to separate outright and tied finishes. Five teams finished second in their division or conference and the worst finish by any of these unanimous selections was third place (Houston in 2016). That’s a decent showing, with fully half of the unanimous selections winning at least a share of their conference or division title. Now let’s check in on the big boys. Between 2005 and 2018, nineteen P5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to win their conference or division title.
Surprisingly, the most dominant program of the past decade plus, Alabama, has never been a unanimous selection (until this season). Of course, that speaks more to the strength of the SEC West than to any shortcoming in Tuscaloosa. Southern Cal has the most unanimous selections with four, including three before the conference split into divisions. Ohio State is second with three and Florida State, Oregon, and Virginia Tech are the only other schools with multiple unanimous selections. So how did these P5 teams do?
Ten teams won their conference or division title outright with another seven capturing at least a share of the conference or division crown. Speaking of shared titles, Ohio State in 2015 was the main reason I differentiated between outright and shared titles. The Buckeyes entered 2015 as the defending national champion, ranked first in the AP Poll, and were a prohibitive favorite to win their half of the Big 10. The Buckeyes stumbled just once all season, but unfortunately for them, it was to Michigan State, a team that finished with the exact same conference record. The Spartans won the tiebreaker and advanced to the Big 10 Championship Game where they dispatched Iowa in an entertaining low-scoring affair. Big 10 title in hand, the Spartans were selected for the College Football Playoff where they have still yet to score against Alabama. Despite being arguably one of the top-four teams in the country, Ohio State was forced to settle for a New Year’s Six Bowl Game instead of a playoff appearance. The worst finish for these unanimous selections was second place. Louisville in 2005 and Florida State in 2011 were the only teams to not win at least a share of their division or conference title.

So what can we take away from this exercise? Preseason publications and computer models have a much better track record when they tab P5 teams as unanimous selections to win their conference or division. Nearly 90% of those teams won at least a share of their conference or division title versus just half of the unanimous G5 five selections. Why is this? Are the creators of these publications and models going out for drinks instead of scouting the backup linebackers for G5 teams? Possibly, but I think the more likely reason is there is simply more volatility at the G5 level. Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia are unanimous selections in 2019 because they recruit at such a high level. Appalachian State and Boise State recruit well for G5 programs, but their raw talent levels are not in the same stratosphere as those at the top of the P5. Thus in the small sample size that is the college football conference season, they are more likely to be upset and fail to live up to their lofty preseason expectations. Based on recent history, Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia will likely live up to their lofty preseason expectations, while some as of yet unidentified usurpers have a good shot at derailing Appalachian State and Boise State in their respective division races.

Check back next week when we look at how unanimous preseason last place teams have performed and see if we can offer any hope to Kansas.

*Update* 08/04/19
Stassen has updated its preseason consensus page and Alabama and Clemson now stand as the lone unanimous selections.