Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week X

We got back in the good graces of the gambling gods last week. Hopefully we can stave off a relapse and have another solid week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 32-30-1

Central Michigan +1.5 Northern Illinois
I was on Central Michigan last week as they failed to cover against Buffalo. However, the final score of that game was a bit misleading. The Chippewas turned the ball over five times and were -4 in turnover margin for the game. One of those turnovers was returned for a touchdown and two others set Buffalo up in excellent field position to score touchdowns (fifteen and twenty two yard touchdown drives). With the Chippewas returning to Mount Pleasant and needing an additional win for bowl eligibility, they should be motivated to beat the Huskies. Prior to last season’s disappointing campaign, the Chippewas were one of the few MAC teams that could consistently beat Northern Illinois. Central Michigan won four in a row between 2014 and 2017, joining Toledo as they only MAC team to beat the Huskies multiple times in that span. The betting market is down on Central Michigan after their loss to Buffalo last week and high on Northern Illinois after their blowout win against Akron. Central Michigan should be favored in this game, so take the gift point and a half.

Virginia Tech +17.5 Notre Dame
The end seemed inevitable for Justin Fuente after the Hokies opened their season by losing at Boston College. Closer than expected victories against Old Dominion and Furman did not quell the angst in Blacksburg. And then the Hokies laid a massive egg against Duke on a Friday night. Virginia Tech seemed destined to see their nearly three decade bowl streak end. With the season on the ropes, Fuente decided to bench Ryan Willis (you can take the quarterback out of the Kansas, but not the Kansas out of the quarterback) and insert Hendon Hooker as the starter. The Hokies are 3-0 with Hooker as the starter and have scored at least 30 points in each game. Those stats come with some caveats, as the Hokies needed five Miami turnovers to score 42 against the Hurricanes and six overtimes to score 43 against North Carolina. On the other hand, Hooker left the North Carolina game with an injury and the team was forced to improvise with a raw Quincy Patterson alternating snaps with Willis. Most importantly, the Hokies have avoided mistakes with Hooker throwing no interceptions in his three games after Willis threw five in his four starts. Hooker is expected to play against Notre Dame and his ball security and rushing threat should present problems for a Notre Dame team coming off a blowout loss to Michigan. By my count Notre Dame now has two losses which effectively eliminates them from playoff contention. Without that carrot to chase and no conference title to contend for, I think it’s fair to question how motivated the Irish will be in this game. In the playoff era (since 2014), even ignoring their lost 2016 season, Notre Dame is 0-4 ATS as a favorite in the regular season after losing their second game. They have also lost three of those four games outright! In addition, the Irish have not done well as a large home favorite against Power Five/BCS teams under Brian Kelly. Overall, the Irish are a just 14-17-1 ATS as a double-digit home favorite under Kelly. However, those numbers have interesting splits. Against Group of Five (formerly non-BCS) teams, the Irish are 10-4-1 ATS, but against Power Five (formerly BCS teams) they are just 4-11 ATS. The Irish beat up on the New Mexicos and Bowling Greens of the world, but have a tougher time covering as large favorites against the Purdues and Pittsburghs. I would not be so bold as to call for a Virginia Tech outright upset, but this feels like a game that is decided by seven to ten points. Take that extra value and back the Hokies.

Kansas +6 Kansas St
The Wildcats have dominated this Sunflower State showdown lately, winning 22 of the past 26 meetings, including the last ten. Despite that trend, I like the woeful underdog. It’s no secret the Kansas offense has been rolling lately since Les Miles installed Brent Dearmon as the offensive coordinator. Suddenly, a team that scored seven points against Coastal Carolina has scored 85 points over the past two games. After throwing thirteen touchdown passes during his first three season in Lawrence, Carter Stanley suddenly looks like a competent Big 12 quarterback, with nineteen touchdown passes through two thirds of the season. The Kansas defense is still a hindrance to success, but this is the best and most successful Kansas team since 2009. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are coming off a seismic upset of Oklahoma. The Wildcats beat the Sooners in Manhattan after nearly blowing a 25-point second half lead. Did they think they were in the Super Bowl or something? However, if you just looked at the box score, ignorant of the teams involved, and the final score, I doubt you would have successfully identified the winning team. That continues a somewhat disturbing trend for the Wildcats this season. While they are 2-2 in conference play and 5-2 overall, on a per play basis, they are far and away the worst team in the Big 12. Take a look at the per play and yardage differentials in their first four conference games.
That’s quite a tightrope to walk to win any, much less half of your conference games. During his second stint in Manhattan, Bill Snyder mastered a voodoo style of football wherein the Wildcats continuously won more games than the stats indicated they should have. Perhaps Chris Klieman has participated in the same rituals, but I think the Wildcats are more likely to see their record regress to their stats over the second half of conference play. Take the Jayhawks and the points in this spot.

Tennessee -12.5 UAB
Six weeks ago, this seemed like a lost season for the Vols. Tennessee was coming off a humbling loss at Florida and stood just 1-3 with a whole slate of SEC football to go. However, despite going just 2-2 over their past four games, the Vols have shown improvement. They hung around with Georgia until a late fumble return touchdown (with an excellent screen by the official) cost them the cover. Then they upset Mississippi State and played Alabama tough in Tuscaloosa (it helped that Tua got hurt). Finally, last week they exorcised their Will Muschamp demons and beat South Carolina for the first time since 2015. With two league wins, the Vols have already matched their total from the 2017 and 2018 seasons combined and with some winnable games down the stretch, a bowl is not out of the question. That motivation factor is one reason I like Tennessee this weekend. If the Vols have designs on a bowl game, they have to beat the Blazers. In addition, the Vols have already lost at home to a pair of Group of Five teams this season, so I don’t think there is any danger of them overlooking UAB. As for the Blazers, they may be 6-1, but they have played one of the easiest schedules in college football. The six teams they have beaten (Alabama State, Akron, Old Dominion, South Alabama, Rice, and UTSA) have combined for exactly two FBS wins. Those wins both belong to UTSA (the Roadrunners beat Rice and UTEP). The other five teams do not own a single FBS victory! Statistician Jeff Sagarin assigns ratings for both FBS and FCS teams. Based on his strength of schedule metric, UAB’s schedule ranks 189th. For reference, there are 130 FBS teams. This means the Blazers have had an easier schedule to date than a lot of FCS teams. Credit UAB for winning those games while posting solid per play differentials and scoring margins, but Tennessee represents their most significant test by far. Keep in mind the Blazers have done well under head coach Bill Clark as a road underdog, posting an 8-4 ATS record. However, against Power Five opponents, they are just 1-3 ATS with the narrowest defeat coming by thirteen points. The past two seasons (since their rebirth), the Blazers have been decent, but not prohibitive underdogs to Florida (+10) and Texas A&M (+16). The Blazers never led or covered in either game (and don’t forget, Florida was bad and on an interim coach in 2017). This Tennessee pick goes against my normal instincts. The Vols are a double-digit favorite, off an upset win, with a somewhat misleading final score, but I think the loss to Georgia State in the opener will cause them to be focused against UAB. I love seeing SEC programs struggle to put away Group of Five teams at home, but this doesn’t feel like one of those games.

Vanderbilt +16 South Carolina
South Carolina has played seven games against FBS opponents in 2019. Chronologically, they have scored 20, 23, 14, 24, 20, 27, and 21 points in those games. When I plugged those numbers into an IBM supercomputer, that averaged to a little more than 21 points per game (check my math). When you think about the quarterback situation, that’s makes a lot of sense. Senior Jake Bentley was injured in the opener against North Carolina, so the Gamecocks have had to rely on freshman Ryan Hilinski. With a freshman quarterback taking snaps for a Will Muschamp coached team, one wouldn’t expect a great deal of offensive firepower. If the Gamecocks have an average (by their standards) game against the Commodores, they would score 21 points. That means one touchdown by Vanderbilt would cover this number. Of course Vanderbilt probably has one of the worst defenses South Carolina will have faced this season, so maybe they score 30 points. Barring some defensive or special teams scores or several Vanderbilt turnovers that lead to short fields, is it realistic to expect South Carolina to score much more than 30? I wouldn’t think so. Of course, don’t confuse this pick of Vanderbilt with the notion that Vanderbilt has solved all their issues after their home upset of Missouri. I know Derek Mason gave an impassioned monologue after the win, but this team still lost at home to a bad UNLV three weeks ago. I don’t expect the Commodores to suddenly reel off a string of wins and get to a bowl game. However, I do expect the Commodores to play well as a double-digit road underdog, as they have for the duration of Mason’s tenure. As a double-digit road dog, the Commodores are 10-4 ATS under Mason. They rarely win the game outright (Georgia in 2016 is their only outright win), but they consistently cover. South Carolina is still overvalued after their win at Georgia earlier in October. Catching more than two touchdowns, the Commodores are the right side.

BYU +3 Utah State
Amelia Earhart, DB Cooper, and the Utah State offense. Name three things that disappeared without a trace. Forgive my hack Carnac intro, but I think it makes my point. After averaging nearly 48 points per game last season, en route to an 11-2 finish, great things were expected from Utah State in 2019. Yes, the offense lost numerous contributors, as well as their head coach, but the Aggies were bringing back Jordan Love. This summer Love was thought of as a potential first round pick and a darkhorse Heisman candidate. Yet, more than halfway through the season, Love has eight touchdown passes. Boise State’s backup quarterback has the same number on roughly a quarter of the attempts. It looked like the offense might not miss a beat as Love and the Aggies opened the season by torching Wake Forest and Stony Brook. The Demon Deacons don’t have an elite defense and Stony Brook is FCS, but through two games, Love had four touchdown passes (and an uncharacteristic three interceptions), was completing over 70% of his throws, while averaging over eight and a half yards per pass. The Aggies had scored 97 points and appeared to be on their way toward contention in the Mountain West. However, in his last five games, Love has thrown just four touchdown passes (along with six interceptions), completed just 54% of his throws, and averaged just five and a half yards per pass. The team has averaged just 21 points per game in those five contests. To be fair, some of those games have come against strong defenses (Air Force, LSU, and San Diego State), but some have also come against what could charitably be described as below average (Colorado State and Nevada). The Aggies still have one of the better defenses in the Group of Five universe, so they have been able to win three of those five games. However, the offensive decline, especially in the passing game has been surprising. So, if a team has trouble moving the ball and scoring points, does it seem like a good idea to lay points with them? In some circumstances, this could be a bad spot for BYU, as they are coming off a home upset of Boise State, but the Cougars were on a bye last week, and they have dropped two straight in this series in embarrassing fashion. Prior to 2017, the Cougars had won fifteen of seventeen in this near annual rivalry, so I don’t expect a hangover. BYU has also been money in the bank as a road dog under Kalani Sitake. The Cougars are 10-2 ATS in the role with five outright upsets. They are also a perfect 4-0 ATS as a road underdog against fellow Group of Five opponents. Even with their own quarterback issues, I think the Cougars are the better team, so grab the points and don’t be shocked if they win outright.

Fresno State +2.5 Hawaii
Heading into November with a 3-4 record practically ensures his third team will be the worst of Jeff Tedford’s tenure at Fresno. Of course, when your first two squads combined for a 22-6 record, there is almost nowhere to go but down. With the Bulldogs losing so many starters from last season’s Mountain West champions, some drop off was expected. However, despite the rough start, Fresno still has an outside shot at the division title. Both of their conference losses have come to teams in the Mountain Division, so four of their final five games (including this one) come against teams in their own division. Barring some ACC Coastal style chaos, the Bulldogs would need to win out to win a third consecutive division title, but that is certainly not out of the question. That journey will begin late Saturday night against a Hawaii team that is just 2-2 in Mountain West play, but 2-1 against Pac-12 foes. The Warriors have pounded bad teams (wins against Central Arkansas, Nevada, and New Mexico have come by a combined 84 points), won tight games against middling Pac-12 teams (beat Arizona and Oregon State by a combined ten points), and been blown out by the better teams on their schedule (Air Force, Boise State, and Washington beat them by a combined 84 points –eerie symmetry). Hawaii has been dreadful as a home favorite under Nick Rolovich, posting a 1-7 ATS mark with three outright losses. Meanwhile, Fresno State has been fantastic as a road underdog under Tedford (and ATS in general), posting a 6-1 ATS mark in the role. For whatever reason, be it sharper spreads, better travel, or better preparation, the islands do not present any homefield advantage for Hawaii when they are favored. Take Fresno State to cover this short number and win outright.

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