Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week V

We had a bit of a hiccup last week, but we can take some solace in that fact that three of the underdogs we chose won outright (Auburn, Colorado, and SMU). Let's do better this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 15-13

Miami (Ohio) +2.5 Buffalo
This line has shifted dramatically from where it opened at Miami -5. I could understand why it would shift a little as Miami was destroyed last week while Buffalo won as a double-digit underdog. However, I still think Miami should be favored. Miami enters this game 1-3, but each of their defeats has come on the road against teams that are a combined 9-1 on the season. The Redhawks have been mostly non-competitive in those defeats, but that is par for the course under head coach Chuck Martin. In regular season non-conference games against FBS opponents, the Redhawks are now 0-19 under Martin. Part of that is the talent disparity between the rest of FBS and the MAC and part of it is probably Martin’s desire to focus on the more winnable conference portion of the schedule, where Miami is 16-8 over the past three seasons. Meanwhile, Buffalo is coming off a big upset against an AAC school, but the score of that game was a bit misleading. Buffalo was slightly outgained by Temple and averaged slightly fewer yards per play, but benefited from a +2 turnover margin and a non-offensive touchdown. Buffalo passed for 62 yards in that game. And no, the Bulls do not run some variant of the triple option. Give the Bulls credit for the win, but the result was not indicative of the quality of the two teams. Aside from schedule strength and a misleading final, why else might Miami be a solid play here? Miami has done well at home against MAC opponents, finishing 8-4 in the friendly confines in conference play over the past three seasons. They are also 2-1 ATS in the rare instances they have been home underdogs to conference foes in that span. I was comfortable taking Miami as a favorite of less than three points, so I love them now that they are an underdog.

Vanderbilt -6.5 Northern Illinois
Despite the blowout loss to LSU last week, Vanderbilt scored the most points they ever have in a loss under Derek Mason. I know the Commodores scored a pair of non-offensive touchdowns to get to 38, but it’s necessary to look for silver linings in games like that. Of course, the Commodores failed to cover the large spread in that game because they allowed 66 points. LSU, like Alabama last season, appears to have fully weaponized their offense. It's almost unfair when elite recruiters are aggressive and run modern, dynamic offenses (perhaps Kirby Smart should take note). Vanderbilt does come into this game with an 0-3 record, so you might be surprised to find them laying points against what is regarded as a solid Group of Five program in Northern Illinois. However, since 2014, there have been eighteen instances of a team being 0-3 or worse and laying points to another FBS team. Those eighteen teams are 16-2 straight up and 13-4-1 ATS. As is the case with Vanderbilt, most of those previous instances involved a team starting out with a tough schedule, and then facing an inferior opponent at home. If you were wondering, there is another winless team that is favored this week, but I didn’t have the stones to back them. In the rare instances they are in the role, Vanderbilt has done well as a home favorite under Mason. They are 8-3 overall ATS and 5-2 ATS versus Group of Five opponents, covering the past five instances against mid-major foes after a rough start to the Mason-era. This game is vitally important to Vanderbilt. Less so to Northern Illinois. I’m sure Northern Illinois would like to beat an SEC team on the road, but their goal is another MAC title. Meanwhile, if Vanderbilt has designs on a third bowl trip in four seasons, they must win this game. The Commodores have about seven winnable games remaining on the schedule, so their margin for error is razor thin. The Commodores should take care of business against the Huskies before they resume SEC play next week at Ole Miss.

Purdue +1.5 Minnesota
Obviously this line has been impacted by the health of Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar. Sindelar sustained a concussion three weeks ago against Vanderbilt and did not play in the loss to TCU two weeks ago. The Boilermakers (and Gophers) were on a bye last week so Sindelar has had extra time to ‘heal’ (to the extent one can heal from a brain bruise, but I digress). Were Sindelar certain to play, Purdue would probably be favored by at least a field goal. I believe Sindelar will play, as he was listed first on Purdue’s depth chart for this week. However, even if Sindelar does not play, I think there is value in taking the Boilermakers. Backup quarterback Jack Plummer made his first collegiate start against TCU with the Horned Frogs off a bye week. Outside of dates against Alabama or Clemson, I can’t envision a tougher scenario for a first time starter. Even if Plummer is forced to start against the Gophers, he now has game experience as well as an extra week of practice. In addition, Minnesota has been bad on the road under PJ Fleck posting a 3-8 straight up record. After closing the 2018 season strong, the Gophers entered 2019 with decent expectations. While they have won their first three games, they have been less than impressive in doing so, needing fourth quarter comebacks to beat an FCS and two Group of Five teams. Purdue also has revenge motivation in this game as the Gophers embarrassed them in Minneapolis last season. Take Purdue to put a quick end to Minnesota’s undefeated season.

Louisiana-Lafayette -3.5 Georgia Southern
One season after winning the Sun Belt West and advancing to the conference title game under first year head coach Billy Napier, the Ragin’ Cajuns might be even better in 2019. The offense, particularly the rushing attack, has been explosive thus far. As a team, the Ragin’ Cajuns are averaging over seven and a half yards per carry and leading rusher Trey Ragas is averaging a first down every time he runs the ball! Might Billy Napier be next in line to coach the Tennessee Vols? This of course, is rampant, irresponsible speculation, but with Napier’s background as an assistant under both Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Nick Saban at Alabama and his early success at a Sun Belt program, he seems preordained to be coaching in the SEC at some point in the next three years. This marks just the second time the Ragin’ Cajuns have been road favorites under Napier (they covered the other time if you’re curious), but they have played well on the road overall under his guidance. They are 7-1 ATS overall in true road games under Napier, winning twice outright as an underdog including last week against Ohio. Buy Louisiana-Lafayette on the cheap while you still can as I have a feeling the betting public will be wise to their value after this game. Taking Louisiana-Lafayette violates a few gambling principles, as Georgia Southern is an option team playing at home off a bye. However, the Eagles do not appear to be as good as last season’s ten-win team. The offense has scored just four touchdowns through three games, and while they nearly upset Minnesota in their last outing, it took two non-offensive touchdowns to get them that close. The Ragin’ Cajuns should win comfortably here.

Mississippi State +10.5 Auburn
Through four games, Auburn is probably not the best team in college football, but they may have the best resume. Everyone remembers their Power Five wins against Oregon and Texas A&M, but their home victories against Tulane and Kent State are solid as well. Tulane is 3-1 and likely headed for a second consecutive bowl, while Kent State is 2-2 with a decent shot at getting to a bowl game in the weak MAC. Despite the strong start, I think Auburn is a tad overvalued, especially when facing a live dog (pun sort of intended) like Mississippi State. What do large favorites need to do in order to be able to cover? Score. And that is something Auburn has not done well over the past two seasons. Since the beginning of the 2018 season, Auburn has played eleven Power Five opponents in the regular season. They have scored more than 30 points just twice, against Arkansas and Ole Miss (two of the worst defenses in the SEC last year). Overall, they have averaged just 23 points per game against Power Five opponents in that span. Compare that to their run to the SEC Championship Game in 2017, when they scored 30 or more points six times in ten Power Five games and averaged 34 points overall in those contests (which includes a pair of no-shows against Clemson and Georgia). This season, outside of the game against Kent State, Auburn has averaged under five yards per play. The Tigers have played a conservative brand of football and relied on their defense to win games. They remind me more of the late-era Tommy Tuberville Tigers. Thus far, it has proven to be a successful strategy while they wait for Bo Nix to blossom into an SEC quarterback, but I don't think it is a great strategy for degenerates to back them as a big favorite. Mississippi State has played well in the early going, and I expect them to hang around in this game regardless of who gets the nod at quarterback. The injured Tommy Stevens is the better passer and has more experience, but Garrett Shrader could give Auburn trouble with his mobility. I doubt Mississippi State is good enough to win this game outright, but Auburn is laying too many points after their win at Texas A&M.

Nebraska +18 Ohio State
Through their first four games, Ohio State certainly seems like a juggernaut headed for their third consecutive Big 10 Championship Game berth. The Buckeyes have dismantled their four opponents by an average score of 54-9. While there are no great teams in that quartet, my guess is at least three and potentially all four will be bowl eligible at the conclusion of the regular season. Despite that strong start, this lines appears to have tilted too far in Ohio State’s favor. Back in May, the Golden Nugget released their Game of the Year lines and this game opened at Ohio State -10. Based on one month of play, this spread has increased by more than a touchdown. That seems a bit excessive. The Nebraska hype train picked up steam in the offseason, but derailed after a lackluster start where the Huskers struggled to put away South Alabama and lost outright against former Big 8 foe Colorado. However, the Huskers seem to have gotten back on track in their past two games. They thumped Northern Illinois and outplayed Illinois on the field, if not on the scoreboard. While Nebraska trailed for a significant portion of the game and only won by four points, they outgained the Illini by nearly 400 yards and averaged two more yards per play. Unfortunately, they also lost four fumbles and had a -3 turnover margin for the game. Of course, another turnover fest against Ohio State will give the Buckeyes an easy cover, but turnovers, particularly lost fumbles, are quite random. Nebraska has not thrown an interception in the past two games, so I would expect their turnover numbers to be closer to even here. Nebraska represents the toughest test Ohio State has faced thus far, and while I doubt the Huskers will be able to win this game outright, they should be able to keep it within two touchdowns.

Washington State +6 Utah
This Pac-12 After Dark clash looked like it could be a battle between top-fifteen teams, but both the Cougars and the Utes took brutal losses last week. Utah’s loss was brutal because it was to a division foe in their conference opener after an entire offseason of hype. Washington State’s loss was brutal because they allowed UCLA to look like a functional offense and blew a 32-point second half lead. As far as collapses go, it was one of the biggest in college football history. Leach had been on the other side of an epic collapse when Texas Tech stormed back against Minnesota in the Insight Bowl during the 2006 postseason. Thankfully, Leach avoided the fate of his counterpart, Glen Mason, who was fired by the Gophers following that collapse. Not only did both teams suffer losses last week, they also entered their respective games favored (Washington State was a more prohibitive favorite). Washington State fans will be happy to know the Cougars have a history of getting off the deck under Leach. Since 2015, the Cougars have lost five times as a betting favorite, including twice against FCS opponents. In their next game, the Cougars are 4-1 straight up and 4-1 ATS. Their lone loss in that span was a three-point decision at Boise State and their lone non-cover came against Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl. In addition, Washington State is 11-5 ATS as a road underdog since 2014, with eight outright upsets (if we remove Apple Cup games, they are 11-3 ATS). The Cougars are also 4-1 against Utah under Leach with two of those victories coming in Salt Lake City. I’m surprised Utah is laying this many points with running back Zack Moss unlikely to play. I think most casual bettors probably saw the final score and the highlights of the UCLA comeback and neglected to peruse the box score. Washington State turned the ball over six times and their overall turnover margin in the game was -5. The offense moved the ball with impunity against UCLA and with better ball security, probably would have won handily. Expect the Cougars to take better care of the ball and beat Utah on Saturday night.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

That's two winning weeks in a row. Let's see if we can make it three. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 12-9

Western Michigan +6 Syracuse
Despite their performance thus far in 2019, it does not appear the betting market has come around to how bad Syracuse is. The Orange are averaging just under 17 points per game through their first three contests, and while their poor showing against Clemson is included in that data set, the offense did not set the world aflame against Liberty or Maryland either. Their offensive line has been particularly troublesome, allowing fourteen sacks through three games. The Tigers were responsible for eight of those takedowns, but Liberty and Maryland combined for six as well. The offense especially seems to be missing the play of quarterback Eric Dungey. During his four-year career, the Orange played quite poorly when he was not in the lineup. In games where Dungey saw significant action (defined somewhat arbitrarily as throwing at least ten passes), the Orange were 20-16. In games where he did not play at all or threw fewer than ten passes, the Orange were 2-11, with both victories coming at home by three points against sub-par teams. As the Orange entered their fourth season under Dino Babers, I think most observers figured there would be some drop off when Dungey matriculated, but that his replacement would at least maintain a moderate level of performance. That has not happened thus far. To compound things further, the defense has been shredded the past two weeks as well. Maryland and Clemson combined for over 100 points and more than 1200 yards of total offense against the Orange alleged defense. That may not portend good things against a Western Michigan team coming off a 57-point explosion against Georgia State. The Broncos rolled up nearly 700 yards against Georgia State one week after playing a solid offensive game against a very stout Michigan State defense. Although they only managed 17 points against the Spartans, they gained 352 yards and averaged seven yards per pass. Syracuse is a Power Five team, but their defense is light years behind Michigan State’s. Western Michigan will be able to move the ball and score, so the Orange will probably have to get to the mid to high 30’s to cover this number. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the reputation of the ACC takes yet another hit on Saturday with Western Michigan pulling the outright upset.

Auburn +3.5 Texas A&M
After their thrilling comeback win against Oregon, Auburn faced two Group of Five opponents and now begin their SEC slog. The offense has been hit-or-miss in the early going, as you might expect from one led by a freshman quarterback. The running game was able to get on track against Kent State and Bo Nix attempted just 16 passes in the win after throwing nearly 70 times in the season’s first two games. I’m usually reticent to back a freshman quarterback making his first road start, but based on the history of this series, the Tigers look like a solid play. Since Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, Auburn is 4-3 straight up against the Aggies, but just 2-4-1 ATS. However, they are 3-0 ATS at Texas A&M with two outright wins. In fact, the home team is just 1-6 straight up in this series. The favorite is also just 4-3 straight up, so upsets and road teams playing well are par for the course. In addition, Texas A&M, has not been terribly impressive in the early going. The Aggies have pounded two overmatched teams at home (Texas State and Lamar) while losing at Clemson in a game that was not as competitive as the final score might indicate. Quarterback Kellen Mond has not been especially careful with the football, throwing an interception in each game (I’ll remind you two of those games were against Texas State and Lamar). Other than the homefield, I can’t think of a compelling reason to back Texas A&M. I expect a conservative game plan from Gus Malzahn with the Tigers playing to their strength (defense, in particular the defensive line). The Tigers have already faced a superior quarterback in Justin Herbert and they play in College Station every other year, so they should not be intimidated by the road environment. Take the Tigers to continue the road underdog trend in this series.

North Carolina -3 Appalachian State
Surprisingly, these two Tar Heel State teams have only met once before, during the FDR administration. Has North Carolina been ducking the plucky former FCS power and now FBS overachiever? I don’t know, but I love engaging in reckless speculation, so let’s say ‘Yes’. North Carolina returns home after a non-conference loss to Wake Forest (yes, you read that sentence correctly). The Tar Heels fell behind 21-0, but quarterback Sam Howell nearly engineered his third consecutive fourth quarter comeback. Alas, the football gods invoiced Mack Brown for the extra second they added to the clock in the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game and the Tar Heels suffered their first loss of the season. Appalachian State was off last week, but the week prior, they endured a tough battle with another up and coming in-state team. Charlotte actually outgained the Mountaineers, and the yards per play in the game were roughly equivalent, but some special teams plays allowed Appalachian State to move to 2-0. I expect the Mountaineers to give the Tar Heels their best shot here, but I am surprised this line is only three points. Based on the game location, that implies Appalachian State is roughly equivalent to North Carolina and the spread would be a pick if this game were played on a neutral field. I think Appalachian State’s memorable moments, like their upset of Michigan and their near-misses against Tennessee and Penn State might be tempering this line. While the Mountaineers have a reputation for being a dangerous Group of Five team, their reputation exceeds their middling results. Keep in mind they are just 2-3 ATS on the road against Power Five teams since joining FBS in 2014 and this is by far the lowest spread they will have faced (previous low was 14 against Georgia in 2017). I think North Carolina will win this game by at least a touchdown.

SMU +9.5 TCU
As the proud owner of a TCU regular season win total 'over' ticket, I watched last weekend’s TCU/Purdue game with a vested interest. While the end result was quite satisfying, TCU may not be built to win eight regular season games in the defense optional Big 12. Normally a road win against a Power Five opponent by three touchdowns would be satisfying, but there is at least one legitimate area of concern. They have not been able to generate any kind of passing offense through their first two games. Against Purdue, TCU quarterbacks Alex Delton and Max Duggan, combined to complete eight of 24 passes for a grand total of 75 yards. Those numbers would not be acceptable in the AFC Central in the 1970s, much less the modern college game. All of the blame shouldn’t fall at the quarterbacks’ feet (or arms as it were). TCU receivers seemed determined to set a school record for drops as balls continued to ricochet off their hands and onto the turf. Thankfully, they were able to lean on the running game, with Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua both accumulating more than 100 yards on the ground. However, I don’t know if that game plan will work in the Big 12 against more explosive offenses. It should also be noted there were extenuating circumstances in this game. Purdue was without their starting quarterback and TCU head coach and defensive savant, Gary Patterson, had an extra week to prepare with TCU enjoying a bye week after their opener against Arkansas Pine-Bluff. If every Big 12 team is forced to start their backup against TCU, the Horned Frogs may well win the league, but through two games, the offense leaves a lot to be desired. And unfortunately, the Horned Frogs are facing an SMU team that might be able to exploit their offensive deficiencies. SMU has opened the 2019 season 3-0 by dispatching three Group of Five teams in the old Southwest Conference footprint. They slipped by Arkansas State in Jonesboro, and then handled North Texas and Texas State with ease in Dallas. The offense has been balanced with transfer quarterback Shane Buechele outplaying the departed Ben Hicks and the running game averaging nearly 250 yards per game (more than double what they averaged last season). While SMU has typically been a large underdog against their former mid-major vagabond in arms, the Mustangs have gone 4-2-1 ATS their last seven trips to Fort Worth. SMU has a decent shot at winning this game outright and moving me one step closer to tearing up that season win total ticket.

Tulsa -3.5 Wyoming
Has the Craig Bohl era been a success at Wyoming? On the surface, that seems like a dumb question. Since tearing the program down in his first two seasons, (6-18 record), the Cowboys have accomplished the following since 2016: finished bowl eligible three consecutive years, won the Mountain Division, had a quarterback drafted in the first round, and beaten an SEC team at home. All things considered, that ain’t too bad. However, despite improvements on defense, the offense has regressed significantly and the team has one of the worst passing offenses in college football. The Cowboys have played fifteen games since Josh Allen was drafted by the Buffalo Bills. In that span, they have thrown eight touchdown passes (including none so far this season). In that same span, only Navy and Rutgers have thrown fewer touchdown passes (Army has thrown eight as well). Army and Navy have attempted 113 and 145 passes respectively. Wyoming has attempted 322. Rutgers has attempted 410, but they are Rutgers and also have the misfortune of playing in the Big 10 East. Wyoming has faced teams like Hawaii, Idaho, New Mexico State, New Mexico, San Jose State, Texas State, and Wofford during that span. Bohl deserves credit for getting blood from the stone that is the Wyoming offense and managing to win nine of fifteen games since Allen departed, but if the wins dry up, the boring, flaccid pass offense could put him on the hot seat. Speaking of hot seats, Philip Montgomery has to be feeling the heat at Tulsa. Montgomery raised the Golden Hurricane’s profile quickly, by qualifying for a bowl game in his first season and winning ten games in his second. However, since the Miami Beach Bowl beatdown of Central Michigan, the Golden Hurricane have gone just 6-21. In an effort to save his job Montgomery handed the reigns of the offense to Baylor transfer Zach Smith. Smith has posted solid passing numbers thus far despite facing two Power Five teams. If Tulsa has any designs on getting to a bowl, they must win this game. Their AAC schedule includes games against Cincinnati, Memphis, Navy, SMU, and UCF (to say nothing of an improved Tulane and still dangerous Houston), so wins will be hard to come by. Wyoming is perhaps the luckiest (and worst) 3-0 team in college football. Outside of their turnover fueled home upset of Missouri, the Cowboys have faced an FCS team and an FBS team that functions as an FCS team, with both victories coming by a combined fourteen points. The Cowboys are also just 2-8 in road non-conference games under Bohl, with the victories coming against New Mexico State and Texas State. Take Tulsa to cover this low number with ease.

South Carolina +9.5 Missouri
Fresh off hosting one of the nation’s top teams, South Carolina continues their arduous schedule by travelling to the other Columbia where they will meet a familiar face. It’s not enough the Gamecocks still have to deal with Clemson and Georgia later on (not to mention Florida, Texas A&M, and even Appalachian State), they also get to contend with former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant. The last time Bryant quarterbacked against South Carolina, his Tigers scored 34 points and left Williams-Brice with an easy victory. That loss marked the only time South Carolina failed to cover as an underdog in 2017. As the table below shows, South Carolina has been very profitable in that role under Will Muschamp, be it at home, on the road, or at a neutral site.
After a rough ATS start to his coaching career at South Carolina, the Gamecocks have been on quite a roll as an underdog. Since the start of the 2017 season, they are 11-3 ATS as an underdog and have pulled six outright upsets. Each of those outright upsets has occurred while the Gamecocks have been catching single digits (as they happen to be here). This line is probably a bit inflated as Missouri’s home win against West Virginia is looking much better after the Mountaineers snuffed out NC State over the weekend. While West Virginia did look much better against the Wolfpack, I think the result was more a function of NC State being overrated after solid performances against two cupcakes as opposed to West Virginia being markedly better than anticipated. It should be noted that Gamecock quarterback Ryan Hilinski will be making his first road start, so that is a concern. However, he just faced Alabama’s defense and had a decent showing against the Tide. He will be the best quarterback Missouri’s defense has faced thus far and while Missouri might end up being the second best team in the SEC East this season, they will struggle to put away South Carolina.

Colorado +7.5 Arizona State
Herm Edwards appears to be trying his damndest to bring 1970s NFL football to the college ranks. Through the first three games of the 2019 season, the average score of an Arizona State game has been 20-7 in favor of the Sun Devils. Arizona State is fresh off a road upset of Michigan State, the second year in a row they have won outright as an underdog against the Spartans. Despite allowing just seven points, Michigan State was able to move the ball, totaling 404 yards (nearly 200 more than the Sun Devils) and averaging about a yard and a half more per play (5.46 to 4.15). Alas, the Spartans were only able to punch the ball into the endzone once, as they missed three field goals, turned the ball over once, and failed on fourth down once. The Sun Devils don’t have to give the victory back, but their defense is not as dominant as the raw numbers suggest. Colorado should provide a solid test for that defense as the Buffaloes come in averaging over 36 points per game through the non-conference portion of their schedule. The point spread is probably a bit inflated after Colorado lost at home in overtime to what may end up being a pretty solid Air Force team. The Buffaloes were not able to stop the Air Force option, as the Falcons rolled up nearly 300 yards on the ground and augmented that with timely passes while averaging nearly 13 yards per throw. Arizona State has a much more conventional offense and has struggled on the ground, averaging under 100 yards rushing per game. They have also struggled protecting their freshman quarterback. The Sun Devils have allowed ten sacks in their first three games, including five to Kent State! Arizona State has not shown the capability of scoring a lot of points in 2019 and they have not performed well after tasting success under Herm Edwards. They won outright three times last season as a betting underdog and were favored two times games immediately following their upset wins. They lost one of those games outright and failed to cover the other as a sizable favorite. Take the Buffs and the points here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

We bounced back nicely last week. Obviously, as with any great week, fortune smiled upon us. We covered a few games by the slimmest of margins and had a nice backdoor cover by Texas A&M, but we'll take it. Hopefully our luck does not run dry this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall: 8-6

Ball State +2.5 Florida Atlantic
They say time is a flat circle and if you look at Lane Kiffin’s coaching career, you might be inclined to believe whoever they is (are?). After a double-digit win season at Southern Cal, Kiffin won just ten of his next 18 games as coach of the Trojans and was famously fired on the tarmac after a blowout loss to Arizona State. After a double-digit win season in his debut at Boca Raton, the Owls are just 5-9 over the past season and two games. Perhaps Kiffin was propped up by his initial offensive coordinator Kendal Briles? Consider that in his first season, the Owls were fantastic as favorites, finishing 8-2 overall ATS in the role and 3-1 ATS as a road favorite. Since Briles departed after the 2017 season, the Owls are just 1-5-1 ATS as a favorite, including 0-2 ATS on the road. Four of those non-covers have resulted in outright upset losses as well. While the Owls have not been favored yet in 2019, their first two performances have been lackluster at best. The Owls did manage a cover at Ohio State, but at home against an in-state rival, they looked listless in a five touchdown loss. The offense is averaging under three and a half yards per play under offensive coordinator and manifestation of white privilege, Charlie Weis Jr. Maybe this is the week the Owls get their act together, but Ball State has been relatively impressive against a decent Power Five team and an overmatched FCS opponent. I’ll take the Cardinals playing at home to continue FAU’s struggles as a road favorite.

Georgia Southern +15.5 Minnesota
I’m not sure why Minnesota was installed as such a large favorite here. The Gophers are quite fortunate to have won their first two games against South Dakota State and Fresno State. Both of their opponents averaged more yards per play than the Gophers and if not for some clutch play and a defensive score, Minnesota could well be 0-2. People might be reticent to back Georgia Southern after their poor showing against LSU when the triple option was bottled up to the tune of just 98 total yards in a 55-3 loss. But if you haven’t noticed, LSU is pretty good. The Tigers showed their offense may have indeed turned a corner by dropping 45 on Texas in Austin. Suddenly the double nickel Georgia Southern allowed in Baton Rouge doesn’t look so bad. Also keep in mind Minnesota was out in California last week and now must prepare for a unique offense without a bye week or offseason to gameplan. I wouldn't be too concerned if Georgia Southern quarterback  Shai Werts is unable to play for the second week in a row as his backup, put up solid numbers against Maine. Regardless of the trigger man, the Eagles should limit the possessions and do enough to keep this one within two touchdowns.

UNLV +19 Northwestern
I follow college football in two ways, as a fan and as a degenerate. That dichotomy certainly manifests itself in this game. In the non-handicapping world, UNLV coach Tony Sanchez is probably on his way out. Through four plus seasons in Sin City, Sanchez has guided the Rebels to a 17-33 overall record with nary a single bowl appearance. The Rebels famously lost as a massive favorite in the 2017 season opener to Cam Newton's little brother and Howard (the university, not the Duck). Ultimately, UNLV finished 5-7 that season, so that loss prevented them from qualifying for the postseason and perhaps buying Sanchez a little time. With two Power Five teams left on the schedule and the rugged Mountain West slate to follow, the Rebels are likely headed for a sixth straight losing season and Sanchez is likely headed to the unemployment line. However, in the eyes of a degenerate, UNLV has been a solid play away from home under Sanchez. The Rebels are 14-7 ATS as a road underdog and 8-3 ATS as a double-digit road underdog. The Rebels are also 4-0 ATS on the road against Power Five opponents. After UNLV's putrid home performance against Arkansas State last week, now is the perfect time to buy in. And you never want to lay a lot of points with Northwestern. Over the past five seasons, Northwestern is just 8-11 ATS as a home favorite including 2-6 ATS as a double-digit home favorite. In addition, the Wildcats are 1-5 ATS in that span as a home favorite against Group of Five teams. They have also lost three of those games outright, including last year to Akron. UNLV looked like trash last week against Arkansas State, but don't forget Northwestern did not exactly set the college world afire in their opener against Stanford. The Wildcats gained just over 200 yards and averaged just 3.5 yards per play against a Stanford defense that was just burnt to a crisp by a freshman quarterback making his first start. I'm not bold enough to predict an outright UNLV win, but don't be surprised if the fourth quarter score scrolls by while your're watching Alabama and South Carolina and shows a one-possession game.

Colorado State +10 Arkansas
I listen to a lot of college football podcasts in the hopes of improving my handicapping skills. I like hearing what successful handicappers think about teams and comparing them to my own thoughts and numbers. That being said, I'm not sure why a lot of handicappers I respect are down on Colorado State. Yes, the Rams were bad last season, but prior to their struggles, Mike Bobo had maintained a solid program in Fort Collins. I figured they were in for a bit of a bounce back in 2019 and nothing they have done thus far has changed my mind. In the opener, they failed to cover against Colorado, but the offense played well. In fact, they were quite comparable to what the ballyhooed Nebraska Cornhuskers did the next week against the Buffaloes. In their second game, the Rams pummeled a quality FCS team, which is much better than what happened last season. Suffice to say, Colorado State has improved in 2019. That is not necessarily the case for Arkansas. The Hogs edged Portland State in their opener and then lost their twelfth consecutive conference game last week to Ole Miss. The Hogs have scored 37 points in their first two games against two of the weaker teams on the schedule. There is a real chance the Hogs go winless in the SEC for the third time in seven seasons. I hate laying a lot of points and you should certainly hate doing so with an offense this bad. Oh, and I forgot to mention Colorado State actually won this game last season so playing an SEC team, albeit on the road, should not be intimidating. The moneyline for this game implies Arkansas has about a 75-80% win probability. I think Colorado State's chances to win are much closer to 40%. Take the Rams to keep this one close and potentially win outright.

Charlotte -19 Massachusetts
In their brief history as an FBS program, Charlotte has been favored against another FBS team just once. They did lose that game, but I digress. The 49ers look like one of the more improved teams in the country under first year head coach Will Healy. Healy rebuilt the Austin Peay program in the FCS ranks, and early returns are positive in the Queen City as well. Charlotte has scored at least forty points in consecutive games for the first time (as an FBS program) and the offense is averaging a pristine 7.1 yards per play. The 49ers have done all this despite a negative turnover margin (-4 through two games) and some special teams breakdowns (allowed three special teams touchdowns in two games). With Conference USA looking less than imposing, the 49ers have a great shot at getting to their first ever bowl game and perhaps challenging for the East division crown. Meanwhile, Massachusetts is in a certified Year Zero situation. In their opener, the Minutemen allowed nearly 50 points to a Rutgers team last seen gaining 47 yards on 27 pass attempts against Iowa. They followed that up by getting tattooed at home by an FCS team (and not a good one). I’m not going to proclaim Walt Bell a failure after two games as head coach, but the Minutemen are in for a long season and may be the worst FBS team of 2019. Charlotte should win and cover her with little difficulty.

TCU -2 Purdue
This line flipped from the opener when the Boilermakers were installed as slight favorites. Part of that probably means the line was incorrect and the other part is probably the health of quarterback Elijah Sindelar. Sindelar suffered a concussion against Vanderbilt and may not play against the Horned Frogs. As this is not the 70's, when this would have probably been classified as Sindelar having his 'bell rung', I would not expect him to play here. Even before the Sindelar news came out, I was thinking of taking the Horned Frogs to cover here. Now with Gary Patterson's team potentially facing a quarterback who has yet to throw a pass in his college career, and the line this low, I almost have to take them. Since 2005, TCU has played seventeen non-conference road games. They are 13-4 straight up in those games and 11-6 ATS. I know the Horned Frogs were less than impressive on offense in their opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and while that will probably prevent them from legitimate contention in the Big 12, their defense should play well enough to get them the win here. And with a spread this low, a win usually means a cover.

New Mexico State +16 San Diego State
After seeing what Boise State, Hawaii, Nevada, and Wyoming did, San Diego State decided to get in on the fun and beat a Power Five team. Their victory against UCLA marked the fourth straight year they have beaten a Pac-12 opponent and gave them a 5-1 record in that span against their supposed superiors. Despite the victory, something feels a little off about this San Diego State team. The defense is still salty as always, holding UCLA to under 300 yards and just 14 points (of course perhaps any functional defense could do that to UCLA). However, the running game, a Rocky Long staple, has not been good in the early going. In Long’s eight plus seasons in San Diego, he has built the Aztecs into a run-first explosive attack. However, the combustibility has been absent thus far in 2019. The following table lists the team’s leading rusher along with their attempts, yardage, and yards per carry for the duration of Long’s tenure.
Only once in the previous eight seasons did the Aztecs leading rusher average less than five yards per carry and half the time they averaged more than six yards per tote. With that track record, it’s stunning how bad the running game has been in the early going. I’m not going to pretend to have watched the All 22 feed of San Diego State’s first two games and broken down the film, but I’m guessing the issue is the offensive line. With Washington’s track record as a solid runner, I doubt he suddenly lost his effectiveness. That being said, San Diego State cannot blame a difficult schedule for their offensive struggles. Weber State and UCLA pale in comparison to the gauntlet New Mexico State has already faced two games into their season. Most Group of Five teams would be 0-2 after trips to Washington State and Alabama. In fairness, the Aggies did not acquit themselves well in either game, losing by a combined margin of more than 100 points. However, the Aggies probably went into those games with the realistic expectation they would lose so I doubt they opened up the playbook. The likely goal was to get in, get out with as few injuries as possible, and collect a sweet, sweet paycheck that the players are in no way entitled to. This is the Aggies home opener and they have a decent chance at victory here (as compared to their infinitesimal odds against Washington State and Alabama), so they should be plenty motivated despite their rough start. Meanwhile, the Aztecs are fresh off a victory against a Pac-12 team and have their conference opener next week, so they could very well be overlooking the Aggies. Also, keep in mind that San Diego State has scored all of two touchdowns this season. This is not a team you want to be laying a lot of points with. Take New Mexico State and the points.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week II

Last week was bad. And then Stanford made it a lot worse. But hey, bad beats happen. That's why its called 'gambling'. The good news is it happened in Week One, so we have all season to rebound. Here's hoping it starts on Saturday (actually Friday). As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 2-5

Wake Forest -19 Rice
This might be the first time I have ever taken a double-digit, much less three score, favorite to win on the road. But hear me out. Rice could not have asked for a more diverse set of opponents in their first two games in terms of both offensive system and tempo. Army runs the triple-option at a slow pace while Wake Forest runs a lightning fast spread. Rice's 14-7 loss to Army and Wake Forest's 38-35 win against Utah State may as well have been different sports. Discounting end of half kneel downs, the Rice game saw 17 combined possessions (nine for Rice and eight for Army) while the Wake game saw 31 (fifteen for Wake and sixteen for Utah State). While the Rice defense did acquit itself well against Army, it will be facing a much different foe, at a much faster pace, for more possessions. Nineteen points is a lot to lay with a defense as suspect as Wake's but the Demon Deacons will not be facing a potential NFL quarterback this week. Rice wants to become the G5 version of Stanford and use their girth to impose a power running game on their opponents. At the moment, that is very much a work in progress. Wake Forest is by far the better team so with a fast tempo and more possessions, they should be able to cover this large number.

Maryland -1 Syracuse
Am I really going to do it? Am I backing Mike Locksley in a game his team has to win in order to cover? Sure looks that way. Syracuse began the 2019 season by winning and covering as a road favorite for just the third time under Dino Babers. Despite the shutout victory over Liberty, the Orange look like they are going to miss departed quarterback Eric Dungey. His former understudy and current replacement Tommy DeVito managed to complete less than half his throws to go along with two interceptions against the less than formidable defense of the Flames. The Orange defense played reasonably well (as is usually the case in a shutout), but the Flames did miss a field goal and lose a fumble inside the Syracuse ten, so the Orange are probably not the '85 Bears. As for Maryland, they opened the Mike Locksley era with a dominating performance against Howard. I try not to read too much into blowouts of FCS opponents, but Howard has been competitive against FBS opponents over the past two seasons. I may end up regretting this immediately after kickoff, but I think Maryland can get the win here. Give me the Terps.

Rutgers +20.5 Iowa
Sometimes you have to do it. Despite the aesthetics, you have to back an ugly dog if there is some value. And dogs don't get any uglier than Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have toiled at the bottom of the Big 10 standings since joining the conference in 2014. Their 3-5 conference mark in their maiden voyage has been the pinnacle of their success in the Big 10. Since winning three of their first eight conference games, Rutgers has gone just 4-31 against Big 10 foes since. However, they have been at least marginally competitive when catching a big number. Under Chris Ash, Rutgers is a respectable 6-7 ATS as a double-digit road favorite. You won't win money consistently betting on them, but there is some value to be had if you pick your spots. Based on how well the offense played in the opener (I know it was against Massachusetts), this might be one of those spots. Against the Minutemen, Rutgers averaged more than seven yards per play for the first time since 2015! Quarterback McLane Carter did throw three interceptions, but he also averaged eleven yards per pass and two pass catchers gained more than one hundred yards receiving. Iowa has Iowa State on deck, so the perennial punching bag may not have the Hawkeyes full attention. In addition, Iowa is just 5-10 ATS as a double-digit home favorite since the start of the 2014 season. I don't know that I would recommend watching this game, but Rutgers should score enough to cover this large number.

Northern Illinois +21.5 Utah
Utah began the 2019 season with great expectations and did not disappoint in their opener. The Utes handily won the Holy War (their ninth victory in a row in the series) on the road. They were only marginally better than BYU in terms of yards and yards per play, but they won the turnover battle (+3) and scored twice on defense to get a relatively large margin against a quality opponent. Now the Utes return home and look to avoid a letdown against Northern Illinois. This is just the second all-time meeting between the two teams, with the first coming last year in DeKalb. Touchdowns were at a premium in that game and the Utes sealed the deal with a late pick six. Meanwhile, Northern Illinois opened the Thomas Hammock era by beating an FCS team, but it should be noted the Redbirds had beaten their last two FBS opponents. I don't expect Hammock and the Huskies to shock the world, but they are a good play catching more than three touchdowns. For starters, this game should be played at a snail's pace. Northern Illinois ran just 68 plays last week while Utah ran 64. This game should feature fewer possessions than your average FBS game and limit the scoring margin. In addition, Utah is coming off an emotional season opener and may not be as motivated facing the Huskies as they would for a conference opponent. The Huskies will keep this one relatively close in the first leg of their Power Five road trip (next two games are at Nebraska and Vanderbilt).

South Florida +6 Georgia Tech
Neither the Bulls nor the Yellow Jackets looked good in their openers, which is why I am very surprised this line is so high. South Florida lost their seventh straight game dating back to last season in non-competitive fashion against Wisconsin while Georgia Tech opened the Geoff Collins era by losing at the defending champs. I know the South Florida program appears to be crumbling under Charlie Strong, but I don't understand how you can lay nearly a touchdown with Georgia Tech. For the past decade or so, the Yellow Jackets were one of my favorite teams to watch as they were the lone Power Five team to run the triple-option. Naturally, there will be growing pains as the team transitions from the triple to a more 'normal' college offense. That was certainly on display last week with the team completing under 40% of their eighteen pass attempts. Of course, as should be obvious from the zero points they scored against Wisconsin, South Florida is not exactly set at quarterback either. Blake Barnett passed like a triple-option quarterback, completing just 13 of his 30 passes against the Badgers. I don't think we'll see the offensive ineptitude the nation witnessed between Wake Forest and Virginia Tech five years ago (#neverforget), but this will probably be an ugly game. When two bad teams are playing, give me the one getting points.
Coming this summer, College Football Classics on ACCN!

Texas A&M +17.5 Clemson
I try not to be contrarian just for the sake of being contrarian, but I feel like Clemson might be a shade overrated this season. Not like they finish 8-4 overrated, just the consensus number one team overrated. I know they certainly looked the part after Trevor Lawrence took over last season, especially in the postseason, but the Tigers did lose a lot of talent to the NFL draft. The Tigers had six players selected in April's draft, including three in the first round. Five of the six players were from last season's stellar defense. With the ACC in shambles, the Tigers are still clear favorites, but perhaps they shouldn't be laying so many points against a quality opponent. The Aggies won their final four games in 2018, including two quality victories against LSU and NC State and opened the 2019 season by routing Texas State. The victory against the Bobcats could have been more impressive had the Aggies not thrown a pick and fumbled inside the Texas State ten. There is a great deal of randomness inherent in turnovers, and while there is no guarantee they won't happen again, all things being equal, Aggie fans would probably prefer they happened last last week. Jimbo Fisher has coached against Dabo Swinney in every season of his head coaching career. While he is just 4-5 straight up and ATS, the underdog in games between the coaches is 6-3 ATS, while the favorite is 8-1 straight up. I believe that trend will continue here. Clemson will win, but the Aggies will cover.

North Carolina +4 Miami
The Tar Heels and Hurricanes enter this conference opener fresh off non-conference games against SEC opponents. While the final score of both games was 24-20, with North Carolina winning and Miami losing by that final score, a look into the respective box scores reveal the Tar Heels were somewhat unfortunate to only win by four, while Miami was fortunate to only lose by four. North Carolina outgained South Carolina by over 200 yards and averaged nearly two more yards per play than the Gamecocks. Freshman quarterback Sam Howell vastly outperformed senior Jake Bentley and despite struggles to finish drives and some clock management issues from Mack Brown, the Tar Heels survived. Meanwhile, Miami was outgained by about a yard per play by Florida and needed a net turnover margin of +3 (and a foolish pass interference) to stay close with the Gators. Miami's porous offensive line allowed their freshman quarterback to be sacked a whopping ten times by Florida! Yet somehow, Miami enters this game favored by more than a field goal. Since joining the ACC, Miami has visited Chapel Hill seven times. They are 3-4 straight up and 1-6 ATS, losing three times as an outright favorite and never winning by more than six points. I expect another close game on Saturday, so take the home team getting points.