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.

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