Wednesday, October 09, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week VII

We rebounded nicely last week to get above .500. We are still slightly below the gambler's break even point, but hopefully we can rectify that this weekend. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-2-1
Overall: 21-20-1

Texas +10.5 Oklahoma @ Dallas
Every trend you can imagine points to Texas in this game. I know Jalen Hurts and the Sooners have looked unbeatable through the first month and change of the season, but consider their competition. Is Texas Tech at home the biggest challenge Oklahoma has faced thus far? Meanwhile, Texas has already played LSU (the Tigers might be better than the Sooners) in addition to Oklahoma State and a tough road trip to West Virginia. Texas has already dealt with adversity, while Oklahoma has been in cruise control in the second half of their games. Oklahoma has not covered in the Red River Shootout since 2012 (they did win and cover against Texas in last year’s Big 12 Championship Game). In that span, they have entered this showdown with arch-rival Texas unbeaten three times (2013, 2015, and 2018). They lost those games by sixteen, seven, and three points respectively. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Oklahoma comes into this game as a bloated favorite every year. And every year, Texas either wins or gives them a scare. Expect more of the same in 2019.

Eastern Michigan -1 Ball State
There are a lot of ways to show how far the Eastern Michigan program has come in nearly six seasons under Chris Creighton, but as a degenerate, I think this is the best. In Creighton’s first three seasons (2014-2016), the Eagles played fifteen homes games against FBS opponents. They were betting underdogs in thirteen of those games. Since the start of the 2017 season, this will be the eleventh home game they have played against an FBS opponent and they have been an underdog just twice. That being the case, the Eagles are a lot shakier than they were a month ago when they won at Illinois. Since then, they needed a late punt block to beat Central Connecticut State (FCS) and were blown out at one of their directional Michigan rivals. However, at 3-2, the Eagles are very much alive for a second (and third in four years) bowl bid. On the other sideline, since winning nineteen combined games in 2012 and 2013, the Cardinals have gone just 20-45 over the past five and a half seasons (12-29 under current coach Mike Neu). Even with their upset win at Northern Illinois last week, the Cardinals are just 8-25 in true road games in that span. You’d have to be a pretty bold person to take this team on the road. Those atrocious road numbers might entice me to take Eastern Michigan even before considering the Eagles have won the last three games in this series, including the last two by 64 total points. Oh, and let’s not forget, Ball State had a somewhat misleading final score last week. The Cardinals beat Northern Illinois despite completing four of fourteen passes for 34 yards and averaging under four yards per play overall. Thanks to turnovers and special teams plays, the Cardinals started five scoring drives in Northern Illinois territory. Their five scoring drives in the second half (totaling 24 points), covered one, three, seventeen, 37, and 45 yards respectively. Ball State certainly deserves to celebrate after beating Northern Illinois last week, but their offense is inconsistent at best and bad at worst. Asking them to win on the road against a solid Eastern Michigan team coming off a rivalry loss is foolish. Take Eastern Michigan to rebound at The Factory.

Florida Atlantic -10 Middle Tennessee State
After a rough start to the 2019 season against a pair of strong teams, the Lane Train seems to be back on track. The Owls have won their last three by an average of 21 points per game while scoring more than 40 points in each game. The competition has not been especially robust (Ball State, Wagner, and Charlotte), but playing in Conference USA means the remainder of the schedule (at least until the bowl game) will not be very robust either. The Owls scoring outburst has them looking a lot like they did in 2017, when they rolled through Conference USA with an unblemished record and won a school record eleven games. With their biggest threat in the division looking like a defense-first, offensively limited Western Kentucky, the Owls can winnow the contenders by beating the Blue Raiders here. The Blue Raiders were able to beat Marshall last week, but despite allowing just thirteen points to the Herd, their defense did not look good. Marshall rolled up nearly 600 yards of total offense and averaged over seven yards per play, but were done in by four turnovers. Turnovers are great for winning games, but hard to depend on consistently. Middle Tennessee’s defensive struggles continued a season-long narrative. The Blue Raiders have allowed 6.7 yards per play on the season (good for 120th nationally), with only Michigan (in a further indictment of the Wolverines’ offense) failing to average at least six yards per play against them. The Blue Raiders have played a solid schedule featuring three Power Five teams (the aforementioned Wolverines as well as Duke and Iowa), but their defense also struggled against Tennessee State (FCS) and of course against Marshall. Lane has never been one to lay off the throttle, particularly with revenge on his mind (the Blue Raiders won last year’s game on a two-point conversion). This has all the makings of a Florida Atlantic blowout. I expect the Owls to win easily and further cement their status as the front-runner in the East division.

Charlotte +5 Florida International
Did Florida International’s shutout win against Massachusetts erase all the stink from their performance from the first month of the season? It sure seems to. How else to explain why the Panthers are such a large favorite against what looks to be an improved Charlotte team? Don’t forget, the 49ers also blew out the Minutemen, but have faced a more difficult schedule than the Panthers, losing to Clemson, Appalachian State, and Florida Atlantic. Outside of their game against Clemson, the 49ers have moved the ball well, averaging over seven yards per play and 42 points per game over their other four contests. Of course, the 49ers have only won half of those games because their defense has been less than sturdy, permitting almost six yards per play and nearly 37 points per game. However, Appalachian State and Florida Atlantic have prolific offenses, so the defense may not be as bad as the numbers say. With the poor state of Conference USA football in 2019, those numbers should improve as the 49ers start conference play and the first bowl game in school history might even be on the table. In an admittedly small sample, Florida International has not performed particularly well as a home favorite under Butch Davis, posting a 3-5 ATS mark with three outright losses, including one this season against Western Kentucky. I don’t think the betting market has come around to how disappointing the Panthers are this season, particularly with their relatively lofty preseason expectations. I expected this line to be closer to a field goal (it opened at two), and given the last three games in this series have been decided by a total of nine points, a final scored of around that margin makes sense. Off a bye, take the 49ers to cover and don’t be surprised if they win outright.

Western Kentucky +5 Army
An opening night loss to an FCS team (Central Arkansas) had most college football fans and the betting public writing them off, but quietly, Western Kentucky has matched last season’s win total and are currently in first place in Conference USA. Formerly a prolific offense under Jeff Brohm, the Hilltoppers have remade themselves into a strong defensive unit (relatively) under first-year head coach Tyson Helton. The Hilltoppers are allowing just 21 points per game overall and their last four opponents have managed just six offensive touchdowns. The Hilltoppers have been particularly stout against the run, as Louisville is the only team to crack four yards per carry against them. Being stout against the run is a prerequisite when facing Army’s triple option attack. The Black Knights appear to be headed for their fourth consecutive bowl appearance, and while that is a testament to head coach Jeff Monken, the schedule-maker should get plenty of accolades as well. Thus far, Army has beaten Rice (zero FBS wins), Texas-San Antonio (one FBS win versus UTEP), and Morgan State (FCS). The Black Knights did play Michigan tough in The Big House, but that game probably revealed more about Michigan than it did Army. Based on early returns, this Army team appears to be a notch below the past two incarnations than won 21 combined games. Army is laying nearly a touchdown on the road against a pretty good rush defense. Take the Hilltoppers to cover and continue their under-the-radar success story.

Louisville +6.5 Wake Forest
Following their tight road win against Boston College, Wake Forest entered the top 25 of the AP Poll for the first time since 2008. While that is quite an accomplishment for the team, it also speaks to the paucity of good football in the ACC as the Demon Deacons are the second-highest ranked team from the conference after Clemson! It also may not portend great things for the Demon Deacons this weekend. Thus far in the 2019 season, ten teams have entered the AP Poll after not being ranked in the preseason. Those teams are 4-6 straight up in their next game and 1-8-1 ATS! And lest you think those ten teams happened to be overmatched in their next game, consider that eight of them entered as the betting favorite. Those betting favorites are just 0-7-1 ATS! Yikes. As a lifelong Wake Forest fan and alum, I’m happy my team is ranked, but I know they aren’t really the 19th best team in the country. The offense has several playmakers that might end up plying their trade in the NFL (Jamie Newman, Scotty Washington, and Sage Surratt to name a few), but the defense has been torched on occasion (Utah State and Boston College both racked up over 500 yards at more than seven yards per play). Louisville is far from the train wreck they were in 2018 with the Cardinals already exceeding last season’s win total in addition to breaking their nine-game conference losing streak last week. Wake Forest has been clutch with Jamie Newman under center (or more accurately in shotgun), with five of his eight wins as a starter coming by less than a touchdown. I expect a similar result in this game. Hopefully, the Deacons make enough plays to stay ranked, but my money is on the Cardinals covering.

Navy -1 Tulsa
Last season, Navy went just 3-10, their lowest win total since Paul Johnson's first season in 2002. ESPN's FPI did not foresee dramatic improvement on tap for the Midshipmen, pegging them the 116th best team in the nation (out of 130 teams) and projecting another losing campaign. However, with three wins in the bank and several winnable games on the schedule, the Midshipmen seem like a good bet to get back to a bowl for the tenth time in twelve seasons under Ken Niumatalolo. Navy hits the road to take on a Tulsa team fresh off a painful loss to SMU. The Golden Hurricane led by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but couldn't close the deal and lost to the Mustangs in triple overtime. The loss dropped Tulsa to 2-3 in 2019 and made them just 7-22 since their ten-win season in 2016. With games against Cincinnati, Memphis, Tulane, UCF, and Houston remaining on the schedule, it also did serious damage to their bowl hopes. It's dangerous to add too much psychology to your handicapping, but this Tulsa team is probably not in the best frame of mind right now. Add to that the fact they have yet to beat Navy since the Midshipmen joined the conference (0-4) and you have a solid rationale for fading them this weekend.

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