Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week VIII

Two winning weeks in row. Let's try and make it three. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 26-22-1

TCU -3.5 Kansas State
Our perceptions of teams can change in a hurry in college football. Less than a month ago, Kansas State was ranked in the AP Poll after beating an SEC team on the road. The passing of the torch from Bill Snyder to Chris Klieman appeared to be going smoothly and the Wildcats seemed like they might be a legit darkhorse in the Big 12. Two conference losses later, during which the Wildcats managed just 25 total points and two offensive touchdowns and the honeymoon period appears to be over for Klieman. The victory over Mississippi State has also lost a great deal of its luster with the Bulldogs moving to 3-3 after losses to Auburn (excusable) and Tennessee (not so much). Taking stock of Kansas State’s resume as a whole, the offense has not done much against quality teams. In their first two games against Nicholls State and Bowling Green, the Wildcats generated nearly 1100 yards of total offense and 101 points. In their three games against Power Five opponents, the Wildcats have amassed 854 total yards and just 56 total points. Their rush defense has also been suspect, allowing nearly six yards per carry on the season. That plays right into TCU’s hands (feet? claws?). The Horned Frogs are a work in progress throwing the football, but have pounded teams on the ground. Darius Anderson is currently averaging north of seven yards per carry and the team as a whole has twelve rushing touchdowns. The Horned Frogs were embarrassed by Iowa State in their last game, allowing 49 points at over seven yards per play to the Cyclones. With a bye week to sweat, yell at his players, and get some of those defensive issues corrected, I expect Gary Patterson to have the Horned Frogs prepared for a road win and cover. Since joining the Big 12, TCU is 7-4 straight up and ATS off a bye and I expect more of the same this week with a vintage TCU defensive performance.

Maryland +5.5 Indiana
Call this game a Maryland discount or an Indiana surcharge if you like. Maryland looked like trash last week against Purdue, losing to the Boilermakers junior varsity squad 40-14. The loss was Maryland's third in four games since their explosive 2-0 start. As anyone that has read this blog should know, I am not exactly the biggest fan of Mike Locksley. His head coaching record certainly speaks for itself. I am extremely cautious and wary of backing him, but there does appear to be value in this line. What has Indiana done in the past two decades since the late Bill Mallory was pacing the sidelines to give you any confidence in them laying points on the road? That's not a rhetorical question. The answer is nothing. Over the past fifteen seasons, Indiana is just 2-5 ATS as a road favorite in Big 10 play, losing three of those seven games outright. I know Tom Allen is not responsible for all those failed ATS covers (the Hoosiers are 1-3 ATS as Big 10 favorites under his watch), but thirty games into his tenure, he does not appear to have elevated the Indiana program. So, historically, Indiana has not done well as a conference road favorite, but what about this season? Does this seem like an especially good version of Indiana? The Hoosiers are 4-2, but they have only played one true road game. In that game, the Hoosiers allowed a barely functional Michigan State offense to score 40 points (really just 34, but you get the idea). Their four victories have all come against cupcakes, with Ball State likely being their best win. With the schedule stiffening over the second half of the season, the Hoosiers are a stock I would start selling. Maryland does have some injury concerns with quarterback Josh Jackson potentially missing a second straight game, but even without Jackson, Maryland should be able to do enough at home against a suspect Indiana defense to cover this number.

Oklahoma State -4 Baylor
Do you find it odd that a 4-2 team is favored at home against an undefeated team? Me too. As Lee Corso is fond of saying; 'Somebody knows something. I'm gonna trust those somebodies'. So far this season, there have been four instances of an unranked team being favored against a ranked team. Those unranked teams are 4-0 straight up and ATS with the smallest margin of victory being Miami's eight point win against Virginia last week. This is a great spot for Oklahoma State coming off a bye while Baylor is playing their fourth consecutive conference game. Oklahoma State has performed well as a home favorite under Mike Gundy, going 22-14-1 ATS in the role since 2011. They have also done particularly well as a short home favorite, posting a 6-2 ATS mark as a home favorite of less than a touchdown in that span. Take the Cowboys to win, cover, and send Baylor to their first loss of the season.

Southern Miss -1 Louisiana Tech
If you just looked at the scoring margin of both these teams, one might wonder why Louisiana Tech is an underdog in this game. The Bulldogs are 5-1 with their lone defeat coming at Texas. On the season, they have outscored their first six opponents by 66 points (eleven per game). Meanwhile, despite their 4-2 record, Southern Miss has outscored their first six opponents by four total points. However, once you examine schedule strength, you can see how Southern Miss closes the gap. The Eagles have lost two games, but they both came on the road against SEC teams, including the best SEC team. They have fattened up against a pair of patsies (Alcorn State and UTEP), but they also won at Troy and blew out North Texas. Once you look closely at Louisiana Tech’s schedule, you can make the argument they are the worst 5-1 team in the country. After losing to Texas, Louisiana Tech has rolled up victories against Grambling, Bowling Green, FIU, Rice, and Massachusetts. The four FBS teams they have beaten have a combined record of 6-19 with just four FBS wins between them and a loss to Southern Illinois thrown in for good measure. The Bulldogs have not been particularly dominant against those hapless opponents either, as they were outgained by Grambling and Rice and needed a late onside kick return to secure the win against FIU. Southern Miss, on the other hand, has torched non-SEC defenses. In their three FBS games against non-SEC teams, the Eagles have rolled up over 1700 yards at nearly eight yards per play while scoring 41 points per game. Southern Miss has won four straight in this series, with the last three coming under head coach Jay Hopson. I expect Southern Miss to take control of the Conference USA West division by winning comfortably in Ruston.

Army -6 Georgia State
Last week, I recommended fading Army as they were going up against a strong and underrated defense in Western Kentucky. This week, they are favored by about the same margin against a horrendous rush defense. Georgia State achieved some notoriety earlier in the season thanks to their monumental win at Tennessee. They have continued to play well, winning three of their next five games, with the marquee win probably the home upset of Arkansas State two weeks ago. With four wins in tow, the Panthers have a good shot at qualifying for a second bowl game in three years. That success has mostly been a function of the offense, which comes in averaging nearly 36 points per game (previous best for the Panthers was 2015 when they averaged just under 27 points per game). Running back Tra Barnett and quarterback Dan Ellington both have a decent shot at becoming the first player in school history to rush for 1000 yards in a season. However, the defense has been one of the worst in the Sun Belt and the nation. The Panthers currently rank 122nd nationally in scoring defense, allowing nearly 38 points per game. Opponents have also averaged over five and a half yards per carry against the Panthers with Tennessee being the only team to fail to rush for 100 yards against them (let that sink in). At 3-3. Army has been somewhat disappointing in the follow up to their eleven win campaign. However, the Black Knights still run the ball effectively and should have their way against the permissive Georgia State defense. I know it can be scary laying points with Army on the road thanks to their offensive scheme and general lack of top level talent, but Georgia State presents a good combination of poor run defense and suspect homefield advantage (just 5-8 straight up at home under Sean Shawn Elliott).

Colorado +12.5 Washington State
As a cable subscriber that does not have access to the Pac-12 Network, I am very glad this game is on the ESPN family of networks. The over/under for this game is around 71, and while I don’t handicap totals, that seems a bit low. Both the Buffaloes and Cougars enter this game with good offenses and train wreck defenses. They both also happen to be 3-3, so this game might go a long way toward determining which team (if any) plays in the postseason. Colorado has allowed at least 30 points in each of their six games, and currently ranks 113th nationally in scoring defense. They have managed to win half of their games thanks to an offense that has scored at least 30 points four times, although they fell significantly short of that number in their last game. Of course, that came against perhaps the best defense in the country (something I never thought I would type) in the Oregon Ducks. While Colorado only managed three points against the Ducks, they did move the ball well, accumulating 22 first downs, (tied with Auburn for the most Oregon has surrendered all year). While Colorado has struggled on defense all season, Washington State saw their defense crater once conference play began. The Cougars allowed 67, 38, and 38 points to their first three conference foes. Those totals represent the highest or second highest point totals for UCLA, Utah, and Arizona State. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys resigned and Mike Leach threw his players under the bus, so things are great in Pullman. Unless this game has a deluge of fumbles, I don’t expect either team to make many stops defensively. The loser of this game will almost certainly have scored at least 30 points and may even be in the low 40s. I don’t know how you can lay almost two touchdowns with a Washington State team that has not played well in a month. The Cougars middling overall defensive numbers are propped up by their paper soft non-conference schedule featuring New Mexico State, Northern Colorado, and a worse than expected Houston. The Cougars have not covered against an FBS team since their opener and while the transitive property is never something you want to base a mortgage-sized wager on, keep in mind the teams do share a common opponent. Both played at Arizona State. Colorado won by three and Washington State lost by four. This spread should be less than a touchdown. As such, you are getting a lot of value on Colorado.

Michigan +9 Penn State
Despite writing a pseudo handicapping column for more than a decade, there are some picks I tend to remember. For example, almost exactly two years ago, I advocated taking Michigan as a ten point underdog when they made their way to State College for a primetime whiteout game. The Wolverines were manhandled by the Nittany Lions and were never a real threat to cover the number. Despite the PTSD associated with that awful selection, I am back on Michigan this week. Over the next few sentences, I’ll try to explain why. Under Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines are 3-1 against Penn State with the Nittany Lions scoring 16, 10, 42, and 7 points respectively again the Michigan defense. The 42 points Penn State netted two years ago seems like the real outlier in that collection of scores. Penn State featured a generational talent at running back and a seasoned junior quarterback as well as a highly regarded offensive coordinator in that game. This season, Penn State certainly has the statistical profile of a dominant team, outscoring their first six foes by over 200 points. While you can certainly gleam something from a team’s dominating performance against inferior opponents, the Penn State offense has been much less imposing when not facing Buffalo, Idaho, Maryland, or the Purdue junior varsity. Against Pitt and Iowa, Penn State has scored just 34 combined points while averaging under five yards per play. Despite their own offensive struggles, Michigan’s defense is still pretty good. Outside of a bloodletting at Wisconsin, the Wolverines have allowed just 3.65 yards per play and 14 points per game. The Wolverines were dominated by the Badgers, but the Nittany Lions do not have the same type of power running profile. I expect Michigan to give a defensive performance more akin to what we are used to from Jim Harbaugh and Don Brown. The offense on the other hand…Points will be hard to come by for the Wolverines, but I believe their defense is good enough to keep them in this game. This line is a bit inflated thanks to the narrative surrounding Michigan this season (albeit one that is partially deserved). Despite their preseason expectations, the Wolverines are not playoff contenders. Their offense is not good enough to carry them to a national title. However, they are not some fringe Big 10 bowl team either. They are probably the third or fourth best team in the conference. Two weeks ago, I recommended buying Michigan at a bargain basement price when they were hosting Iowa as a slight favorite. I think you can do the same this weekend as they travel to Penn State. This line should be about six or seven points, so with the spread more than a touchdown, Michigan is the play.

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