Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week IX

Ouch. We had out worst week of the season and that drops us below .500 on the year. We have no one but ourselves to blame. No one made us back Maryland. We'll try and do better this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 1-6
Overall: 27-28-1

Miami +6 Pittsburgh
Let’s flashback to Thanksgiving 2017. Picture the Miami Hurricanes, undefeated at 10-0 under second-year head coach and alum, Mark Richt, headed for a showdown with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. The Hurricanes are ranked second in the nation, their highest ranking since the 2003 season. The U is back baby! All that stands between them and an undefeated regular season is a trip to lowly Pittsburgh. The Panthers have put together a decent run after a 2-5 start to the season, but a tight loss the previous week to Virginia Tech means their nine-year bowl streak is over. All they have to play for is pride. And yet somehow, the Panthers pull off the shocker, beating the Hurricanes 24-14. Who would have guessed that less than two years later Mark Richt would no longer be coaching the Hurricanes, Pitt would be the reigning division champ, and Miami would be just 10-13 straight up in their last 23 games? That record is even worse when you drop the FCS and Group of Five opponents. Since starting 10-0 in 2017, Miami is just 5-13 against Power Five opponents! Perhaps even more damning, the Hurricanes have been favored in thirteen of those eighteen games, losing an astonishing eight times as a favorite! I mention all that because I think the market has finally over-corrected on the Hurricanes. I thought Pitt would open as a slight favorite, but I am surprised this line has crept up to almost a touchdown. Both these teams have very good defenses, with Pitt currently boasting the best yards per play defense in the ACC. The Panthers create a great deal of negative plays, leading the nation with 36 sacks and ranking fifth in tackles for loss (61). Miami also does a good job of getting into the backfield, ranking in the top 25 in both sacks (21) and tackles for loss (53). Unfortunately, Miami is one of the most sacked teams in the country, allowing 31 in seven games (127th nationally) and 60 total tackles for loss (125th nationally). Pitt is slightly below average in allowing sacks and tackles for loss, but nowhere close to Miami. The Hurricanes should be facing a lot of second and third and longs. However, the Hurricanes are better at generating explosive plays, as they average over eight yards per pass when not being sacked while Pitt has to slog down the field. Miami's most recent setback, at home to Georgia Tech, saw the Yellow Jackets score on defense and via a fake punt, and also saw some questionable officiating in overtime. The Miami defense is good enough to keep them in this game against a limited Pitt offense. At 1-3, the Hurricanes are probably out of the Coastal Division race (although you never really know), but they still need three more wins to get to bowl eligibility. I expect them to circle the wagons as an underdog and keep this game close.

Western Kentucky +5 Marshall
I don’t think people are wise to the Hilltoppers yet. Despite winning and covering five of their last six games since a head-scratching loss to Central Arkansas, Western Kentucky is being shorted by the market. The Hilltoppers are a throwback in this era, winning games with defense and timely scoring. Since allowing 35 points in their opener, the Hilltoppers have allowed just 90 points in their last six games, with 38 of them coming against an improved Louisville squad. In their four conference games, the Hilltoppers have allowed just 44 total points and under four yards per play. A skeptic or cynic might point out that Conference USA us pretty terrible this year, and they would be right. I would counter that with ‘You know Marshall plays in Conference USA right?’ The Thundering Herd got back in the division race by upsetting Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton last week, and a victory at home would put them in the driver’s seat. However, Marshall has been less than imposing as a home favorite over the past few seasons. Back when the Herd were an explosive offense a half decade or so ago, they were a covering machine at home. Between 2013 and 2015, the Herd were 12-4 ATS as a home favorite, covering numerous double-digit spreads. However, since their offense has come down to earth (averaged under 30 points per game since the start of the 2016 season), the team is just 3-10 ATS as a home favorite, failing to cover much smaller numbers and losing their fair share of games outright (six) as home chalk. The first game in this series was an absolute classic, with Western Kentucky winning an overtime thriller in Huntington 67-66. I don’t expect the point total to be quite that high, but another close game that the Hilltoppers win outright wouldn’t shock me.

Navy -3.5 Tulane
Another team I don’t believe the betting public has yet to fully embrace is Navy. After plummeting to 3-10 last season, Ken Niumatalolo revamped his defensive staff, hiring Brian Newberry from Kennesaw State to run that unit. The results have been quite impressive halfway through the 2019 season. Last season, the Midshipmen allowed over 33 points per game. They have cut that total in half, permitting just over 16 per game in 2019. Yards per play tell a similar story. In eight conference games last season, Navy allowed opposing offenses to move the ball at will, permitting over six and a half yards per play. Thankfully, Connecticut was still in the league (and historically bad), so the Midshipmen were not in the basement defensively. This season, the Midshipmen have the best yards per play defense in the conference. They have benefitted from playing East Carolina, South Florida, and Tulsa, three below average AAC offenses, but they also faced Memphis on the road. The Tigers scored 35 points on Navy, but that was their second-lowest home point total of the season. Speaking of Memphis, the Tigers laid the wood to Tulane last week. The Green Wave came in as slight underdogs, but left with a 30-point beating. They were unable to slow the Tigers down and dropped their first conference game. With a back loaded schedule that includes Temple, UCF, and SMU, this game, and the one next week against Tulsa, looms large for Tulane’s bowl hopes. Four seasons in, Willie Fritz finally has his offense humming in New Orleans, thanks to the addition of offensive coordinator Will Hall (from Memphis) in the offseason, but the defense has not held up, ranking in the bottom half of the AAC. Tulane has not done well as a road underdog under Fritz, posting a 5-9 ATS record under his guidance. This spread should be closer to a touchdown, so jump on Navy and the points while they are still under valued by the market.

Central Michigan +2.5 Buffalo
Jim McElwain’s return to the Group of Five has started well in Mount Pleasant. After scoring mostly Blackjack hands last season (topped 21 points just twice with 24 and 23 points respectively), the Chippewas are averaging nearly 30 points per game in 2019. The Chippewas have scored 38 or more points five times, and perhaps not surprisingly are 5-0 in those games. In their other three games, they have scored just 27 total points and are 0-3, although two of those did come against Power Five teams Miami and Wisconsin. This game feels like a case where the wrong team is favored. Buffalo has played well over the past month on defense, but they have trouble scoring points. Last week against woeful Akron, they managed just one offensive touchdown and benefited from two fumble return scores to inflate the final margin. The passing offense has really struggled without Anthony Johnson, KJ Osborn, and Tyree Jackson. Starting quarterback Matt Myers has missed the past two games with an injury, but his replacement Kyle Vantrease, who also doubles as the punter, has played as good, or in this case as bad as Myers. Regardless of who takes the snaps for Buffalo, I expect Central Michigan to leave upstate New York with an outright victory.

Eastern Michigan +4 Toledo
What to make of the MAC West in 2019? Two teams that combined for a 3-13 conference record last season (Ball State and Central Michigan) are currently the top two teams in the division with a combined 6-1 league record. Eastern Michigan has already lost to both teams, so they are likely out of the division race and playing solely for a bowl bid. Meanwhile, Toledo has looked like trash in their last two games against Bowling Green and Ball State, losing by a combined score of 72-21. Quarterback Mitchell Guadagni missed the Ball State game and without him, the passing game fell apart. On the season, his backups are completing less than half their passes while averaging an anemic 5.04 yards per pass. Guadagni is questionable to return for this game, so how can you have any confidence laying points with the Rockets? Couple that with the fact that Eastern Michigan is 19-10-1 ATS under Chris Creighton as a road underdog (14-3 since 2016) and the Eagles are an easy play.

Duke +3.5 North Carolina
When the epitaph is written on his coaching career, David Cutcliffe will be remembered as one of the best ‘hard job’ coaches. Cutcliffe has been in Durham for eleven and half years. His record at Duke is a shade below .500 (71-75), but in the dozen years before he arrived on campus, Duke posted a cumulative record of 19-117. During that span, they lost ten or more games seven times. I, for one, will be happy to see him go when he finally hangs up his whistle. When the ACC expanded, Wake and Duke became permanent ‘rivals’ despite playing in different divisions. Prior to his arrival, Wake beating Duke was a forgone conclusion (Wake won twelve straight from 2000-2011), but the Blue Devils have won five of the last seven meetings. Under his guidance, the Blue Devils have also had two quarterbacks start NFL games, with one in particular likely to start several more before his career is over. Despite significantly elevating the Duke program over the past twelve seasons, oddsmakers continue to underestimate Cutcliffe and Duke. Since 2013, the first year Duke really turned the corner under Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils are 15-10 ATS as road underdogs, with twelve outright wins. The Blue Devils failed to cover as slight underdogs last week at Virginia, but that game was very atypical. The Blue Devils turned the ball over five times and allowed a kickoff return touchdown in the blowout loss. I expect Duke to rebound in a rivalry game against the Tar Heels. And speaking of the Heels, how much do they have left in the tank after a marathon six overtime road loss at Virginia Tech? The Tar Heels have done nothing but play close games in 2019, as six of their seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less. In what should be another close game, take the team getting points.

Michigan +1 Notre Dame
Does Notre Dame ever play road games? It just seems like the Irish are always playing at home, on NBC, with Mike Tirico and Doug Flutie channeling Ken Harrelson and providing biased commentary. In reality, this is Notre Dame’s third true road game (I forgot they opened at Louisville too) and first since their primetime affair against Georgia. The Irish are squarely in the playoff hunt and looking to steal a bid from a more deserving team. I kid of course. Notre Dame is a perfectly fine team that is probably a notch below the best teams in the country. No shame in that. The Irish are averaging nearly 40 points per game this season, an amount that would rank as the best in school history should it hold for the entire season. However, most of their offensive numbers are buoyed by beatdowns of overmatched opponents. In their two games against Group of Five opponents, the Irish have scored 118 points while averaging 8.44 yards per play. In their four games against Power Five opponents, the Irish have scored 119 total points while averaging 5.74 yards per play. Decent numbers for sure, but hardly dynamic, especially considering two of their Power Five opponents were defense optional outfits in Louisville and Southern Cal. The Michigan Wolverines will represent either the best or second best defense the Irish have faced all season, depending on where you would slot Georgia. Michigan did lose once again to a top-ten team last week, but that game was on the road in a hostile environment in State College. The Wolverines acquitted themselves quite well in coming back from a 21-0 hole. In the comforts of the Big House, I expect Michigan to play much better. The Wolverines have lost just four times at home under Harbaugh, with the four losses coming to two teams (Michigan State and Ohio State beat the Wolverines at home in both 2015 and 2017). I still think Michigan is under-valued by the market after their poor offensive showings earlier in the season. All they have to do is win this game for you to cash your ticket. With the homefield and a great defense, I think they can do that.


tcuhoss said...

let me hear from you matt

congrats on the wrecks upset win.....frogs outplayed k state but lost due to non passing game... if you think 1-6 was bad - i went a career worse 0-12 and had to be put on suicide watch.....


matt said...

I sent you an email on Monday. It must be going to your Spam folder. Drop me a line

0-12. Yikes! Get back on it this week.