Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIV

Last week, we finished with a perfect .500 record, going 3-3-1. Let's close the regular season strong. A quick programming note: There will not be a Magnificent Seven post for Championship Saturday. With only ten games on tap, I don't know that I can find seven games where I feel there is value. Don't fret though. We'll have one more post this year giving you the seven best bets of bowl season. Thanks for reading. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-3-1
Overall: 48-41-2

West Virginia +13.5 TCU
The Big 12’s two newest members meet on Thanksgiving Weekend for the first time. On the off chance Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is reading this blog, I propose this become an annual tradition. Think about it. Since West Virginia and Pitt left the sinking ship that was the Big East and put their Backyard Brawl on indefinite hiatus, the Mountaineers have played Iowa State (five times) and Oklahoma (twice) on Thanksgiving Weekend. With West Virginia geographically isolated from the rest of the Big 12 and lacking a rival in the traditional parlance, it only makes sense for the two newest members of the conference to start an arranged rivalry. The SEC established this precedent when the conference expanded in 1992 and made its two newest members, Arkansas and South Carolina, permanent cross-division rivals. TCU fans would probably tell you Texas or Baylor are their biggest conference rivals (outside of their annual non-conference dalliance with SMU), but the Longhorns are already spoken for and Baylor needs a break late in the season from their typically brutal non-conference schedule. Big 12, mandate TCU and West Virginia play on Rivalry Weekend from now on. Commission a trophy, give this game a unique nickname like The Horny Mountaineer (maybe workshop that name a bit more), and pay me a few hundred thousand dollars for coming up with the idea. Where was I? Ah yes, trying to handicap this game. I’m not sure how you can be confident laying double-digits with TCU. The Horned Frogs nearly upset Oklahoma in Norman last week, but that final score was very misleading. The Horned Frogs were outgained by over 300 yards and managed a paltry 65 yards through the air. Turnovers kept the Horned Frogs in the game, as the Sooners turned the ball over twice inside the TCU ten-yard line with one of those turnovers resulting in a 98-yard interception return touchdown. The Sooners could have easily won that game by three or four touchdowns. Speaking of turnovers, West Virginia has done a much better job of protecting the football since Bowling Green transfer Jarret Doege became the starting quarterback. The other quarterbacks on the roster, particularly Austin Kendall, combined to throw twelve interceptions in 330 pass attempts. Doege has yet to thrown one in 85 pass attempts and the Mountaineers have upset Kansas State and nearly beaten Oklahoma State in his two starts. Since joining the Big 12, TCU is 10-14 ATS as a home favorite. However, they did most of their covering in their elite seasons of 2014 and 2015 when they were a combined 7-1 ATS. Outside of those two season, the Horned Frogs have been a consistent money loser as a home favorite, posting a 3-13 ATS mark. TCU still plays pretty good defense, but their offense has been inconsistent at best. I know they are playing for bowl eligibility on Friday, but I like the Mountaineers to cover this number.

East Carolina +5 Tulsa
Despite this game featuring teams with a combined 7-15 record, I believe the future is bright for one of the participants. East Carolina (wisely) fired Scottie Montgomery after three seasons and nine total wins (although a pair of those wins did come against in-state ACC rivals). They brought in social climber Mike Houston, a coach that has gone from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne to Group of Five FBS in just eight seasons with stops at The Citadel and an FCS national title at James Madison in between. Houston will probably be coaching an ACC or SEC program in the not too distant future, but in the meantime, he has helped make the Pirates competitive in his first season. After losing by 70 combined points in their first two games against FBS opponents (NC State and Navy), the Pirates have really only had one stinker in their last seven games (a disheartening home loss to South Florida). In their other six FBS games, they have either won or covered. The betting market is probably down on the Pirates after they failed to cover as a two-touchdown favorite at Connecticut last week, but there is a big difference between covering as a large favorite on the road and covering as a moderate home underdog. The Pirates have already covered against better teams than Tulsa and nearly upset Cincinnati and SMU as large underdogs. That Tulsa is laying more than a field goal on the road is shocking. The Golden Hurricane have one of the leakiest offensive lines in the country, allowing 38 sacks on the season (only five teams have allowed more) and have done a great deal to damage Phillip Montgomery’s reputation as an offensive guru over the past three seasons. Since dominating Central Michigan in the Miami Beach Bowl in late 2016, the Golden Hurricane have gone 8-27. In true road games, they are 1-16. If I can convince just one reader to avoid laying points on the road with Tulsa, I’ve done my job.

Michigan +9.5 Ohio State
At halftime of the Penn State game six weeks ago. Many college football fans probably thought Michigan would be fortunate to win eight games this season. The Wolverines looked punchless in an early season loss to Wisconsin and were about to get blown out by Penn State in Happy Valley. Notre Dame was on deck and games against Michigan State and a resurgent Indiana remained on the schedule before the annual showdown with the Buckeyes. The Wolverines nearly came all the way back against Penn State, and since then have dominated, beating their last four opponents by a combined score of 166-45. The Penn State game is a convenient narrative for the Wolverines turning things around, but I would actually argue the Wolverines have been their usual dominant selves since the loss to Wisconsin. In their Big 10 opener, the Wolverines were outgained by nearly two yards per play (4.90 to 6.67). Since that game, Michigan has outgained their conference opponents by nearly two and a half yards per play (6.32 to 3.87). By comparison, Jim Harbaugh’s best per play margin against Big 10 foes since arriving in Ann Arbor is 2.07 by the 2016 team that nearly made the Big 10 Championship Game if not for the infamous ‘spot’. Michigan has been historically dominant by their recent standards. Unfortunately for them, the Buckeyes have been dominant by any standards. Ohio State’s per play margin against Big 10 opponents is 3.37. In my yards per play database (since 2005), the best Big 10 per play margin belongs to Wisconsin in 2014 at 3.06! That Wisconsin team was obviously a paper tiger as they dropped the Big 10 Championship Game in historic fashion to Ohio State and rung up their dominant margins against the weaker division (avoided Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State in the regular season). Still, this emphasizes the rarefied air this Ohio State team occupies. Despite their dominance, Michigan on the road likely poses their most significant test until the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines have been home underdogs only once under Jim Harbaugh, in this exact spot two seasons ago. Neither the Buckeyes nor Wolverines were as good that season as they are now, but Michigan managed to cover a rather large number. I expect a similar result this year. Despite their offensive success, Ohio State has allowed a surprising number of sacks (25). I expect Michigan to make more than sporadic appearances in the backfield with their aggressive pass rush (35 sacks on the year) and contain the Buckeyes enough to cover this number.

Middle Tennessee State +8.5 Western Kentucky
From the Ohio Valley to the Sun Belt to Conference USA, you just can’t stop 100 Miles of Hate. One of the more underrated rivalries in college football resumes on Saturday. While Middle Tennessee State is out of bowl contention one year removed from winning the East division of Conference USA, Western Kentucky has thrived under first-year head coach Tyson Helton. The Hilltoppers began the Helton era rather inauspiciously by losing at home to Central Arkansas, but have reeled off seven wins in their last ten games to clinch a winning record for the first time since 2016. Included among those seven wins was a beatdown at Arkansas that signaled the end of the Chad Morris era in Fayetteville. The Hilltoppers also have victories against likely bowl participants Florida International, Charlotte, UAB, and Southern Miss. While Conference USA is one of the weaker Group of Five leagues, the Hilltoppers have not gotten fat off the chaff of their conference. In fact, either Southern Miss or UAB is likely to represent the West division in the Conference USA Championship Game next week. After torching the league with an explosive offense under Jeff Brohm, the Hilltoppers have altered their identity and become a defense-first team, ranking second in Conference USA in yards allowed per play. They don’t generate a lot of pressure (just 22 sacks on the year), but they keep quarterbacks from completing a lot of passes. The Hilltoppers have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just over 53% of their passes this season (good for eleventh nationally). Despite their defensive acumen, the Hilltoppers offense is below average, even by Conference USA standards (tenth of fourteen teams in yards per play), so they are not a team you want to lay a lot of points with. Especially not against an offense as prolific as Middle Tennessee’s. While the Blue Raiders will finish with a losing record for the first time since 2011, they have found their quarterback of the future (and present). Asher O’Hara has not only thrown for over 2000 yards, he also leads the team in rushing with 914 yards and has a chance to eclipse 1000 on the year. The Blue Raiders actually have a better yards per play margin in league play than the Hilltoppers (+.84 to +.59), but faced a tough non-conference schedule with three Power Five teams (Duke, Iowa, and Michigan) and dropped a pair of conference games by three points each to North Texas and Charlotte. Meanwhile, each of their three conference wins have come by at least eleven points. A tough schedule and some close game misfortune will keep them home for the holidays, but the Blue Raiders should be primed for a return to contention next season. In addition to arguably being the better team, this series has typically been close since Western Kentucky joined FBS. Seven of the eleven games have been decided by five points or less and Western Kentucky has only won by more than three points once. That team beat the Blue Raiders by thirty and actually finished ranked. This ain’t that Western Kentucky. Take the Blue Raiders to keep this one close.

Wyoming +11 Air Force
Wyoming broke a two-game skid last week by upending Colorado State at home. Already bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season, the victory ensured the Cowboys would be a postseason participant after being passed over for a bid last season. Craig Bohl has built a winner in Laramie with a strong defense. Wyoming ranks second in the Mountain West in yards allowed per play and if not for an injury at the quarterback position, the Cowboys could be on their way to the Mountain West Championship Game. They may have to settle for winning eight games for the third time in four seasons. On the other sideline, Air Force is likely playing for a ranked finish. In the most recent edition of the AP Poll, the Falcons were 29th (in the others receiving votes category). A victory here followed by one in their bowl game would give them an 11-2 record and likely result in a finish in the final poll for the first time since 1998. Under head coach Troy Calhoun, the Falcons have been a consistent money loser as a double-digit favorite, posting a 14-23-1 ATS record, including 9-14-1 as a double-digit home favorite. Wyoming has done well as a road underdog under Bohl, posting a 15-11 ATS mark. They have also won four of five in this series since Bohl took over as head coach. Eleven points is too many for the Falcons to lay. Take the Cowboys to cover this number.

Oregon State +19.5 Oregon
With last week’s results, the Civil War means a lot to one of these teams, but not so much to the other. Oregon State dropped a heartbreaker to Washington State last week, losing in the closing seconds and depriving themselves of a sought after sixth win. While the close loss could cause this to be a flat spot, it could just as easily add some extra motivation to what is already a rivalry game. Meanwhile, Oregon saw their College Football Playoff hopes die in the desert last week, as they fell to the Sun Devils. That puts them in an interesting spot this week. Their playoff hopes are dashed, but their conference title hopes are very much alive. The Ducks will be playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game next week, likely against Utah, but should Colorado do the unthinkable, against Southern Cal. Could the Ducks be looking ahead? I think so. Oregon has won this game ten of the past eleven years, and only two of those victories came by less than a touchdown. With a more important game on deck, the Beavers might not have the full attention of the Ducks. Couple that with the potential hangover from last week’s upset loss to Arizona State and situationally, the Beavers seem like a solid play. In addition, Oregon State is unbeaten against the spread on the road this season, going 5-0 ATS despite being an underdog in all five games. They have also won three of those games outright. I don’t expect the Beavers to pull out the win and get to bowl eligibility, but I think this game means more to them so I expect them to keep it close.

Cal +1 UCLA
2019 has been a roller coaster season for both sets of Ursidae. The Golden Bears from California began the season 4-0, but lost their starting quarterback, Chase Garbers, in the fifth game and dropped four in a row. They rebounded to beat Washington State, got Garbers back, but lost to Southern Cal, and then won the Big Game for the first time since 2009. The victory against the Cardinal means the Bears will appear in back to back bowl games for the first time in a decade. Conversely, the Bruins will miss a bowl game for the second consecutive season and third time in four years. UCLA opened the second season of the Chip Kelly era by losing five of their first six games. When most of the college football world forgot about them, they proceeded to win three in a row and flirt with bowl eligibility. Then they dropped their next two to ensure another losing season (their fourth in a row). The Bruins have played better on offense in their second season under Kelly, but their defense has been among the worst in the Pac-12. Only Washington State has allowed more yards per play in Pac-12 play and the Bruins have given up at least 48 points in half of their conference games. Cal has struggled offensively, particularly when Garbers was out, but their defense is one of the best in the Pac-12 (fourth in yards allowed per play). In eight of their eleven games, the Bears have allowed 21 points or less. The only teams to really carve them up were Utah and Southern Cal (scored a combined 76 points). Garbers missed either all or most of those two games, so the defense may have been somewhat demoralized, knowing even one or two touchdowns would likely keep them from winning. Cal has played well in the road underdog role under head coach Justin Wilcox, with a 10-4 ATS record, including six outright upsets. It seems to me like the wrong team is favored here. UCLA has a better offense, but their defense is atrocious. Cal’s offense is at least competent with Garbers in charge, and their defense is quite good. Take Cal to cover this small number and win the game outright.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

We had our first losing week in almost a month, but we can take solace in that fact that it took an especially brutal beat to get us there. We'll see if we can rebound this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 45-38-1

Colorado State +6.5 Wyoming
Since I am regarded by most as a super intellectual (and you probably are as well since you have the good sense to read this blog), allow me to take a snippet from Mr. Rudyard Kipling:

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man 
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began. 
That the dog returns to his vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire, 
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire 

After getting burned by Colorado State last week against Air Force, we are returning to that proverbial flame and backing the Rams once again this week. Despite a rough 1-5 start to the 2019 season, which followed a 3-9 campaign in 2018, the Rams have continued to play hard and well for embattled head coach Mike Bobo. As a brief aside, it is interesting that Bobo has basically the same record through his first five seasons at Colorado State (28-33 with two regular seasons games left) as Wyoming coach Craig Bohl had in his first five in Laramie (28-35). Of course, context matters, and the Cowboys have improved or maintained throughout Bohl’s tenure while the Rams imploded last season. Despite their early season struggles, the Rams actually have a snowball’s chance at getting back to the postseason. They would need to upset the Cowboys and then beat conference overlord Boise State in Fort Collins next week. The second leg of that parlay might be a trifle difficult, but the Rams have a real shot at winning this game. Wyoming has one of the better defenses in the Mountain West, ranking second in the conference in yards allowed per play. However, their offense was below average before quarterback Sean Chambers went down with an injury, and is severely limited now. Chambers was not only a better passer than backup Tyler Vander Waal, he also contributed with his legs, rushing for over 550 yards and ten touchdowns before his injury. Vander Waal has fourteen yards rushing on the season (including yards lost due to sacks) and is not nearly as mobile. The Cowboys have scored 17 and 21 points the past two weeks with Vander Waal starting and needed a defensive score to score 21 (and barely cover) against Utah State last week. When a team struggles to score like Wyoming, it is dangerous to lay points, even at home. The Rams have been pretty good as road underdogs under Bobo, posting a 9-5 ATS mark in the role. In fact, excluding last season, the Rams are 8-2 catching points on the road. Back them in this spot and don’t be surprised if they win outright.

South Alabama +10 Georgia State
Georgia State fans will witness a bit of history on Saturday. Not only can the Panthers win their seventh regular season game for the first time since joining FBS, they also find themselves double-digit favorites against an FBS opponent for the first time in school history. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this large spread is justified. The Panthers have rebounded nicely from a 2-10 season in 2018, upsetting Tennessee in their opener and clinching bowl eligibility before the calendar flipped to November. However, the Panthers may be limping literally and figuratively to the finish line. Since winning their sixth game against Troy, the Panthers have dropped two straight to Louisiana-Monroe and Appalachian State. No shame in that, particularly against App State. However, in the process, their starting quarterback was injured. Senior quarterback Dan Ellington tore his ACL against Louisiana-Monroe, but in a show of either heroism or ignorance decided to play against Appalachian State. The results were not pretty. Ellington threw for just 88 yards on 27 pass attempts and the Panthers were blown out at home. With Ellington ineffective or out altogether, the Panthers will struggle to win one of their final two games, much less cover a large number. Their defense, as has been the case for nearly their entire existence, is not very good. The Panthers are currently allowing 38 points per game which is almost identical to their numbers from last season. Prior to his injury, Ellington and the offense made up for the defensive shortcomings, but those days appear to be in the rearview mirror. South Alabama is just 1-9 on the year, but has played better of late, pushing Texas State and Louisiana-Lafayette to the brink the past two weeks with freshman quarterback Desmond Trotter leading the offense to two of their best showings on the year. I’m not sure how you can lay double-digits with a healthy Georgia State, much less one with injury issues at the quarterback position. Take the Jags to keep this one close.

Arkansas State -1 Georgia Southern
It’s been a trying season for Arkansas State in 2019. Both on the field, where the Red Wolves have suffered some key injuries and fielded their worst defense since the turn of the century, and off the field, where head coach Blake Anderson lost his wife to breast cancer. The team has reeled off three wins in a row to become bowl eligible for the ninth consecutive season, but hopes for a division and potential Sun Belt title are likely shot as the Red Wolves would need to win out and have Louisiana-Lafayette lose their final two games to take the division. And speaking of division races, their loss last season at Georgia Southern ended up costing them the division title (the loss to Louisiana-Lafayette obviously played a role too), so revenge should serve as a good motivator for the Red Wolves. While their defense has been uncharacteristically bad this season, Georgia Southern might not be able to take complete advantage of that. The Eagles rank last in the Sun Belt in yards per play. Part of that is due to the nature of their offense (the triple option), which involves mostly running plays. However, their ground game is averaging about a half yard less per carry than last season and their infrequent passing has not produced as many big plays (over two and a half yards less per pass attempt than last season). Arkansas State has dominated their Sun Belt brethren at home, going 19-4 in Jonesboro under Anderson, with the losses coming to Appalachian State (twice), Louisiana-Lafayette, and Troy. Those teams were all upper-echelon Sun Belt squads. Georgia Southern is not. Take the Red Wolves to win at home.

Temple +10.5 Cincinnati
Since the start of the 2018 season, Cincinnati is 20-3 straight up. Two of their three losses have come to teams that were in the top-fifteen at the the time (Central Florida last season and Ohio State this season). Their other loss? It came against the Temple Owls last October. The Bearcats have a chance to exact a modicum of revenge and clinch the AAC East division when they take on the Owls this week. Cincinnati is unbeaten in AAC play at 6-0, but their yards per play numbers are not befitting a dominant team. In those six games, the Bearcats have outgained their league opponents by a little less than a half yard per play. However, most of that margin was run up in their game against the woeful Connecticut Huskies. Cincinnati did not have any trouble with the Huskies, winning the game 48-3 while more than doubling them up in yardage and yards per play. If we take that glorified exhibition away, the Bearcats are actually underwater in their other five conference games.
So how have they been able to string together five wins in their other conference games while being consistently outgained on a per play basis? Close game execution, turnovers, and non-offensive touchdowns. The Bearcats have won three conference games by exactly three points, meaning victories against Central Florida, East Carolina, and South Florida could easily have gone the other way. The Bearcats are also have a +9 turnover margin in their five conference games outside of Connecticut, including a combined +10 margin in their wins against Central Florida, Houston, and Tulsa. Finally, the Bearcats have returned three interceptions for touchdowns in conference play, with those plays providing the winning margin against both Central Florida and East Carolina. While those three areas significantly impact win probability, they are not very predictable or repeatable. Despite being one of the highest ranked Group of Five teams (and rightfully so based on their accomplishments), the Bearcats probably have a loss or two left on the schedule. One of those losses may well come this week against a Temple squad that has rebounded from a rough midseason stretch. In mid-October, the Owls allowed 108 combined points to SMU and Central Florida, but after a bye held South Florida and Tulane to 28 combined points to clinch a fifth straight winning season. The Owls struggle against explosive passing offenses, like SMU and Central Florida, but against a team like Cincinnati, their defense should play well enough to keep them in the game. Temple has won four in a row in this series and Luke Fickell has yet to beat Temple during his time in the Queen City. The Owls are getting too many points and should keep this game close throughout.

Marshall -7 Charlotte
When I was looking at games to add to this week’s post, I initially avoided this game as Marshall is coming off a huge home victory last week against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs represented the toughest (on paper) remaining test on Marshall’s regular season schedule (the Herd close with a home game against Florida International). Beating the Bulldogs meant Marshall retained the inside track for the CUSA East division title. The Thundering Herd and Florida Atlantic each have one conference loss, but Marshall beat the Owls back in October, so they own the tiebreaker. Despite my trepidation backing a team off a big win, last week’s victory did not wrap anything up. Marshall players no doubt realize they probably still need to win out in order to qualify for the Conference USA Championship Game for the first time since 2014. While the Herd are fighting for a division and perhaps conference title, Charlotte is looking to become bowl eligible for the first time in school history. The 49ers have won three in a row and need victories in one of their final two games (travel to Old Dominion next week) to get to six wins. The 49ers are likely poised for success under first-year head coach Will Healy, but it pays to look at the teams they have knocked off during their three-game win streak. North Texas, Middle Tennessee State, and UTEP are all likely to be home for the holidays, with North Texas the only one of the trio with any shot at a bowl game (currently 4-6). Outside of those three victories, the 49ers have beaten an FCS team (Gardner-Webb) and one of the worst FBS teams (Massachusetts). The 49ers are fielding the best offense in their brief history, led by senior running back Benny LeMay and mobile quarterback Chris Reynolds. However, their defense is the worst in Conference USA this side of El Paso. I don't think that imbalance will bode well against a Marshall team that has one of the best defenses in CUSA (third in yards per play allowed) and also ranks in the top half of the league offensively (fifth in yards per play). Marshall is 3-1 against Charlotte since the 49ers joined CUSA, with each victory coming by double-digits. Their only loss in the series came during their lost 2016 campaign. Take Marshall to win easily and position themselves to clinch the division in Huntington next week.

Oregon State +10.5 Washington State
I don’t tend my own horn (too much), but before the season started, I looked at the preseason consensus  unanimous last place teams and opined that Oregon State was the most likely to exceed their humble expectations. Lo and behold, the Beavers have five wins for the first time since 2014. Obviously, I shouldn’t get too much credit, since I didn’t like it enough to place my hard earned money on it over the summer. Ostensibly, this road trip to Pullman will serve as a bowl elimination game. The Beavers and Cougars are both 5-5 with rivalry games up next week. The Beavers have won their Civil War rivalry game with Oregon just once since 2007 and Washington State has won their Apple Cup rivalry game with Washington just once since 2008. Suffice to say the loser of this game will find it exceptionally difficult to grind out their sixth win next week. While Oregon State has already doubled last season’s win total, Washington State has cut theirs in half. The primary culprit is the worst defense in the Pac-12. In conference play, the Cougars are allowing over seven yards per play. Historically, if they continue at that pace in their final two games, they would be the second worst Pac-12 defense since 2005.
That the Cougars have somehow managed to win two conference games, and are favored by oddsmakers to win their third this week, despite their defensive struggles, is a testament to Mike Leach’s offensive bona fides. However, the two games the Cougars managed to win came against offenses that struggle to move the ball and score (and Stanford still averaged over eight yards per play against them!). That is not the case with Oregon State. When not facing the best defenses in the conference (Cal, Utah, and Washington), the Beavers have averaged just south of 42 points per game and over seven yards per play. The Beavers have played well on the road this season, covering as an underdog in all four of their road games, with three outright wins. Oregon State has plenty of firepower to easily cover this number and win outright if they catch a few breaks.

San Diego State +3 Hawaii
This de facto Mountain West West division championship game will take place while most of the continental United States (at least those who aren’t wagering on this game) are fast asleep. I don’t know all the tiebreaker permutations, but Nevada might still theoretically be alive should they win their final two games and Hawaii win here giving all three teams identical 5-3 conference records. However, we’ll assume for the sake of simplicity that Nevada loses at least one of their final two games (they are two touchdown underdogs at Fresno State this weekend), and the winner of this contest will advance to the Mountain West Championship Game to take on (presumably) Boise State. In an interesting scheduling quirk, both the Aztecs and Warriors play non-conference games next week (BYU and Army) before the title game the first weekend in December. Just something to keep in mind when thinking about wagering on those games. A true degenerate must always think at least one week ahead. But I digress. Aside from playing in the same division, these two teams couldn’t be more different. San Diego State is coached by nearly the seventy-year old Rocky Long who probably hates your loud music and wants you to cut your hair. Long has been a defensive coach his entire career and his teams are almost always run first offenses (and second and third) with strong defenses. Meanwhile, Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich is barely forty and played college football this century. Befitting someone who played quarterback for June Jones, his teams throw the ball more often than they run and aren’t overly concerned with the whole defense thing. This season, the Aztecs running game has betrayed them, as they rank dead last in the Mountain West in yards per play. However, their defense is still one of the best in the Group of Five universe, ranking first in the Mountain West in yards allowed per play. On the flip side, Hawaii leads the Mountain West in yards per play, averaging over seven yards every time they snap the ball in conference play. However, that explosive offense has also played fast and loose with the football at times, committing 27 turnovers on the season (last in the country). Defensively, the Warriors rank third to last in the Mountain West in yards allowed per play. This is shaping up to be a real contrast in styles and in that situation, I like to back the team with the stronger defense that also takes better care of the ball. Some trends also point to an Aztec win in this spot. Rocky Long is 6-1 as a head coach against Hawaii, including a perfect 4-0 mark on the islands (3-0 at San Diego State and 1-0 at New Mexico). Hawaii can be a tough place to play in theory, but Long has made this trip with the Aztecs each of the past three odd-numbered years (2013, 2015, and 2017) and left with a win each time. In addition, Hawaii is just 1-9 ATS as a home favorite under Rolovich indicating the betting market might be giving Hawaii’s unique location too much value. Finally, if you are going to beat San Diego State, it will usually be in a situation similar to two weeks ago against Nevada. The Aztecs were a seventeen point favorite, but lost outright at home. Since 2015, San Diego State has lost seventeen games. Ten of those losses have come when the Aztecs were favored by at least six points and seven of those ten came at home. When the Aztecs don’t have a reason to overlook their opponent, they usually give their best effort. I expect that to be the case early Sunday morning.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

Three winning weeks in a row. Will it all come crashing down this week? Read on to find out. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 42-34-1

North Carolina +4 Pittsburgh
Heading into the 2019 season, Pitt's over/under win total was five and a half. As a holder of a Pitt 'over' ticket, I was pleased to see the Panthers get their sixth win two weeks ago with nearly a whole month to spare. However, while patting myself on the back for betting on the Panthers, I have to acknowledge my handicap of their season was wrong. I figured with Mark Whipple coming on board as offensive coordinator and a seasoned junior quarterback that the Panthers would win games with their offense. That has not been the case at all in 2019. In terms of yards per play, the Panthers rank twelfth (of fourteen teams) in the ACC. Their offensive touchdown numbers are similarly inadequate. Again, the Panthers rank twelfth in offensive touchdowns in league play with ten through five games. Instead, the Panthers have achieved Pat Narduzzi's dream of winning with a dominant defense. The former Michigan State defensive coordinator has been in charge of the Panthers since 2015, and in his first four seasons, the defense never ranked better than seventh in the ACC in yards allowed per play or better than fourth in touchdowns allowed. This season, the Panthers are first and second in both statistics, even besting Clemson in yards allowed per play.
Pitt has been dominant on defense thanks to their penchant for creating negative plays. The Panthers rank third nationally with 40 sacks (second in sacks per game) and fourteenth nationally with 70 tackles for loss. Despite the dominant defense, the Panthers have already lost three times (twice in conference play) and need help to get back to the ACC Championship Game. Although, avoiding another date with Clemson might be preferable. Pitt is averaging just a shade over twenty points per game this season so it will probably be tough for them to get margin here. In addition to Pitt's shaky offense, all the trends seem to point to a North Carolina cover. The Tar Heels have done nothing but play close games this season, as eight of their nine games have been decided by a touchdown or less. North Carolina is also 3-1 ATS as an underdog this season, beating South Carolina and Miami outright and nearly pulling a monumental upset against Clemson. Plus, Pitt has not beaten the Tar Heels in six tries since joining the conference in 2013. I don't see any way this game does not come down to the wire. In what should be a close game, take the team catching more than a field goal.

Navy +8 Notre Dame
Two weeks ago, I advised fading Notre Dame as a large home favorite against Virginia Tech since their loss the previous week to Michigan pushed them out of the running for a playoff bid. Including this season, and ignoring their 4-8 2016 campaign, the Irish are now 1-5 ATS in the playoff era after suffering their second loss of the season. Their lone cover came last week against Duke. While the outcome of that game was never in doubt, the Irish face a significant step up in competition against the Naval Academy this week. In fact, the Midshipmen might be the best team in the AAC. To prove as such on the field, they would need to win their final two conference games against SMU and Houston and have Memphis drop one of their final three games (Houston, South Florida, and Cincinnati) to take the division and earn a berth in the AAC Championship Game. Even if the Midshipmen are unable to take the AAC crown, they have already doubled last season’s paltry win total (3) and are in position to end their three-game losing skid against Army. Quietly, the Midshipmen have built one of the better Group of Five defenses, ranking second in the AAC in yards allowed per play and touchdowns allowed. And of course, the triple option offense has continued to confound opposing defenses. The Midshipmen are averaging north of 40 points per game, which would rank as their most prolific offense since Paul Johnson’s final season in 2007 (perhaps not coincidentally the year they broke their long losing streak to Notre Dame). Navy, with their improved defense has had a week to prepare for a Notre Dame offense that has been a little disappointing in 2019. On the surface, their passing numbers look decent. As a team, the Irish are averaging 7.5 yards per pass (65th nationally) and have thrown 24 touchdowns against just six interceptions. However, those numbers are buoyed by a pair of games against Bowling Green and New Mexico. When we remove those games from the equation, the Irish passing numbers are much more pedestrian.
In their other seven games, Irish quarterbacks have thrown just twelve touchdown passes versus six interceptions and are averaging just north of six yards per pass. Navy is undervalued by the betting market and still has a lot to play for including a conference title and potential Cotton Bowl bid. Notre Dame is overvalued by the betting market and is playing for pride and I suppose a top-ten ranking at season’s end, but not much else. Back the Naval Academy and don’t be shocked if they leave South Bend with an outright upset.

Texas +7 Iowa State
When Iowa State fans (and I suppose players too) look back on the 2019 season, it will probably be with a feeling of melancholy. Usually, if the Cyclones are 5-4 through nine games it would be cause for celebration, but this year’s team is so close to enjoying a Minnesota-syle historic season. The Cyclones four losses in 2019 have come by a combined eleven points, with three of the four losses coming by two points or less, including last week’s near comeback against Oklahoma. The Cyclones are a very good team, but the vagaries of close losses in a short season have likely confined them to a mid-level bowl game. However, with three regular season games and a likely bowl remaining, the Cyclones have an outside shot at winning nine games for the first time since 2000! The first leg of that potential nine-win journey begins against a team that has been an enigma for the Cyclones under Matt Campbell. Since Campbell arrived in Ames in 2016, the Cyclones are a respectable 16-17 in Big 12 play (14-10 since 2017) and have beaten every team in the conference at least once except for Texas. In fact, the Cyclones have played arguably their worst offensive game of the season against the Longhorns in each of Campbell’s first three seasons.
Three occurrences is hardly a definitive referendum on the subject, but it at least appears that Texas is a bad matchup for Iowa State. Of their 17 Big 12 losses under Campbell, seven have come by at least ten points. Texas is responsible for three of those. Despite Iowa State having the statistically superior profile this season, those three data points have me leaning toward the Longhorns. And here are a few other reasons why I think backing Texas is a good idea. The Longhorns are still alive for a berth in the Big 12 Championship Game. They have two conference losses (to Oklahoma and TCU), but would likely finish second in the conference should they win out (they go to Baylor next week). I haven’t checked to see if Iowa State is officially eliminated, but with three conference losses, two of them coming to the current first and second place teams (Baylor and Oklahoma), at best the Cyclones would need an especially unlikely series of events going in their favor to qualify for the title game. Couple that with their heartbreaking loss in Norman last week, and I think Texas is in a better mental state heading into this game. In addition, despite Iowa State posting better overall numbers in 2019, based on recruiting rankings, Texas has better underlying talent. This is something I plan on conducting a deeper dive into over the offseason (when elite recruiters are underdogs to non-elite recruiters), but my hypothesis is that elite recruiters tend to cover the spread when they are underdogs against non-elite recruiters. Finally, it is a bit of a trope and lazy handicapping at this point, but you have to consider how Tom Herman’s teams perform in the underdog role. For all these reasons, I think Texas, despite their serious issues on defense, is a good play in this spot.

Kentucky -10.5 Vanderbilt
Frequent readers (if any) of this blog are probably shocked to see me advocating laying double-digits on the road with a team as one dimensional as Kentucky. Despite my misgivings with big favorites, particularly in road games, I have to make an exception for team’s facing this incarnation of Vanderbilt. Each offseason, I post Yards per Play recaps of each FBS conference. In my personal spreadsheet, I have been tracking YPP numbers for each FBS conference since 2005. In that span, the worst SEC team by YPP Net (yards per play minus yards allowed per play) was Ole Miss in 2011 at -2.53. That Ole Miss team finished 0-8 in SEC play and fired Houston Nutt after the season concluded. This Vanderbilt team threw everyone off the scent when they upset Missouri a month ago. However, even including that win, the Commodores are currently at -3.03 YPP Net through six games. Barring a pair of strong performances in their final two conference games against Kentucky and Tennessee, this Vanderbilt team will rank as the worst ever in my YPP numbers. Derek Mason may also follow in Houston Nutt’s shoes and receive a pink slip once the season mercifully ends. The Commodores have a hard time scoring and based on my limited viewing of their games, are one of the worst tackling teams I have ever seen. That does not bode well against the run heavy offense Kentucky employs. The Wildcats installed their best athlete, Lynn Bowden Jr., at quarterback after their other signal callers went down with injuries. Bowden has, not surprisingly, struggled throwing the ball, but he may not have to complete a pass against Vanderbilt. Kentucky still needs two wins to qualify for the postseason (would be their fourth in a row), so they should be motivated. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt is assured of a sixth straight losing season and has nothing of significance to play for. I expect Kentucky to roll over the Commodores on Saturday afternoon.

Wyoming +6 Utah State
On the surface, Utah State appears to be in the midst of a disappointing season. At 5-4, the Aggies are not even assured of bowl eligibility after winning a school record eleven games last season. However, if you look a little closer, you would see the Aggies still have an outside shot at the Mountain West Championship Game. The Aggies are 4-1 in conference play and host division leader Boise State next week. However, the Aggies do not control their own destiny (if that is even possible by definition anyway) as the Aggies have already lost to Air Force and would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker to the Falcons should Boise State finish with two conference losses. I didn’t look up how the Mountain West would break a three-way tie between the Broncos, Falcons, and Aggies with each owning a rock/paper/scissors win and loss against the other two, but I would assume the conference would find a way to screw the Falcons and Aggies and send the Broncos to the title game. Of course, we have a ways to go before that scenario could play out. This week the Aggies return home after pulling out a win at the gun last week against Fresno State. They welcome a Wyoming team that nearly shocked Boise State last week, but were done in when their kicker left a 37-yard field goal short (it was also wide, but damn, how do you leave a field goal under 40 yards short?). Despite the loss, the Cowboys have one of the best Group of Five defenses in the country. They held Boise State to a season low in yards (295) and yards per play (4.83) last week and on the season are allowing under 18 points per game. Their offense, particularly the passing side, has struggled, as they are completing less than 45% of their passes as a team (dead last in the country). Befitting a Craig Bohl team, the running game has held up its end of the bargain, although with the injury to quarterback Sean Chambers, the quarterback run game is almost nonexistent now. Wyoming has covered the last three in this series and have been pretty good as an underdog against fellow Group of Five opponents under Bohl, posting an 11-7 ATS mark in the role in his nearly six seasons at the helm. Utah State has played better offensively the past two weeks (although they did turn the ball over quite a bit against BYU), but Wyoming might have the second or third best defense they will face all season (after LSU and San Diego State). Utah State has not scored more than 28 points in any of their past three meetings with the Cowboys and I would be shocked if they got to that number this week. I expect a tight game with a final margin of around a field goal.

Colorado State +10.5 Air Force
Before we dive into my handicap of this game, let me express my disappointment with the current edition of the AP Poll. In that poll, Air Force is tied for 36th, receiving just two votes. I didn't expect them to appear in the top-25, but I don't think the college football media has been paying much attention to the Falcons. They are 7-2, with both losses coming on the road to teams currently ranked by the associated press (Boise State and Navy). In fact, some advanced stats actually rate them as the best team in the Mountain West. So why in the world am I on the other side this week? For starters, Colorado State has quietly improved since their 1-5 start. The Rams have won three in a row, granted two of those wins came against New Mexico and UNLV, but they also won at Fresno State (the defending Mountain West champ). While they are likely to be underdogs in their final three games (Wyoming and Boise State are up next after this week), a bowl bid is still within the realm of possibility. That seemed especially unlikely after the 1-5 start with coupled with the injury to starting quarterback Colin Hill. Patrick O'Brien (not the drunken, former CBS sports host), has played admirably in his stead, averaging over eight and half yards per pass. Colorado State has had some trouble against the run, allowing over five yards per carry on the season, but are coming off a bye, so they have had extra prep time for the Air Force option. In addition, Air Force has not done well under Troy Calhoun as a double-digit favorite. Overall, the Falcons are just 13-23-1 ATS as a double-digit favorite, including 4-9 ATS as a double-digit road favorite since Calhoun arrived in 2007. Air Force will be able to score, and probably score plenty, in this game, but laying double-digits with a service academy, particularly on the road is not something that will win you a lot of money long term. I like the Rams to keep this one close.

Cal +6.5 Southern Cal
Did Southern Cal do enough last week to save Clay Helton’s job? Was a road win against a middling Pac-12 team starting their backup quarterback enough to buy Helton another year? In that victory against Arizona State, the Trojans started out hot, scoring 28 points in the first quarter, but wheezed to the finish, scoring just three points the rest of the way and needing an amazing display of athleticism by a defensive lineman to seal the victory. The win did make the Trojans bowl eligible, but likely did not inspire a great deal of confidence for Southern Cal decision makers. The Trojans hit the road again this week to face another backup quarterback, but at least this backup has a modicum of experience. Devon Modster had his best game of the season last week against what is probably the Pac-12’s worst pass defense in Washington State. The Bears scored more than 30 points for the first time in nearly a calendar year and broke a four-game losing streak to put themselves in position for a second consecutive bowl trip (the Bears have not made back-to-back bowl trips in a decade). The Bears need to win one of their final three games against either Southern Cal, Stanford, or UCLA, so they should have ample motivation. What about Southern Cal? What is their motivation? The Pac-12 South is all but lost as the Trojans need to win out and have Utah drop one of their three remaining games (UCLA, Arizona, or Colorado) in which they should be prohibitive favorites. Cal has one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 and Southern Cal, despite their stable of dominant receivers, is still piloted by a freshman quarterback. In fact, one overlooked aspect of the new Southern Cal offense is the characteristics it shares with the one Mike Leach runs at Washington State. Both teams run some variation of the Air Raid, and based on an admittedly small sample, teams that have played Washington State and Southern Cal back-to-back have performed a lot better in the second matchup. For instance, Utah allowed 30 points and lost by seven to Southern Cal. In their next game, they allowed just 13 points and won by 25 against Washington State. Colorado allowed 41 points and lost by 31 to Washington State. On a short week, in their next game, they allowed 35 points and lost by four to Southern Cal. Oregon allowed 35 points and nearly lost at home to Washington State, needing a late field goal to win by two. The next week, they allowed 24 points and demolished Southern Cal by 32 points in The Coliseum. Last week, Cal allowed 20 points to Washington State and won by 13. I don’t think Cal is going to hold the Trojans scoreless and blow them out, but I think they will be better prepared having seen a similar offense up close two weeks in a row. For that reason, take the Bears to keep this one close in a classic Pac-12 After Dark spot.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Week XI

Two winning weeks in a row. For the first time all season, let's make it three in a row. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 37-32-1

Baylor -2 TCU
Two seasons ago, Baylor won one game. This season, Baylor is a darkhorse contender for the College Football Playoff. The Bears rank twelfth in the initial CFP Rankings, the second highest ranking in the Big 12. With games against the Horned Frogs, Sooners, and Longhorns remaining, as well a potential rematch with the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship Game, the Bears will have ample opportunity to impress the selection committee over the last month of the season. Full disclosure, I don't believe the Bears are a legitimate contender, but sans a loss in early November, they can dream until they lose. A lot of folks thought TCU had turned the corner after their victory against Texas, as freshman quarterback Max Duggan enjoyed one of his best games of the season against the Longhorns. However, it appears that game had more to do with the piss poor Texas secondary than it did with the Horned Frogs suddenly channeling their passing offense from 2015. Baylor struggled in their last game at home against West Virginia, so there might be justifiable concern the pressure of an undefeated season is weighing on them. However, the Bears dominated that game in the box score, outgaining the Mountaineers by more than two yards per play and over 200 total yards. One deep pass play and a kickoff return accounted for all of West Virginia'a points. Outside of their home win against Texas, TCU has shown nothing against the better teams on their schedule, losing to every other team they have faced that currently has a winning record. There is a loss or two left on Baylor's schedule, but the first won't come this weekend.

Texas-San Antonio +4.5 Old Dominion
Like a lot of reasonable (or intelligent) Americans, fans of UTSA and Old Dominion would like to go back to 2016. That season, the Roadrunners and Monarchs combined for a 16-10 record with both qualifying for their first ever bowl game. The ensuing years have not been kind to either school. Old Dominion won five games in 2017, four in 2018, and have just a single win in 2019. Three of those ten wins have come against FCS schools, so the Monarchs are just 7-23 versus FBS opponents over the past three seasons. Those losses have not all been at the hands of more talented Power Five teams either. The Monarchs are just 6-19 against their Group of Five brethren. UTSA has been a little better over the past three seasons, but not much. They did manage to finish bowl eligible again in 2017, but were snubbed come bowl season. They regressed to 3-9 in 2018, and have matched last season's win total with three wins thus far in 2019. With four games remaining, the Roadrunners are still technically alive for a bowl game, but should be prohibitive underdogs in their three games after this one. As for this one, I expected them to be a slight underdog, but I was very shocked to see this line climb higher than a field goal. Old Dominion has one of the worst offenses in FBS, as they have averaged under four yards per play in each of their past five games. In fact, they have averaged less than five yards per play in every game this season, topping out at 4.63 yards per play in their opener against Norfolk State. To put that number in perspective, 106 (of 130) FBS teams are averaging at least five yards per play on the season. Old Dominion's season high of 4.63 yards per play would rank 119th nationally if they continued at that pace, unabated. As it stands, they are 129th in yards per play, ahead of only Northwestern. They have failed to score more than 24 points in any game this season, and have not scored more than 21 against an FBS defense. Even though UTSA does not have a good defense, its hard to imagine Old Dominion running away with this game. A five point margin is certainly not running away with the game, but if Old Dominion will likely struggle getting to twenty points, how can you feel confident laying more than a field goal with them? Since joining FBS as a full fledged member in 2014, Old Dominion is just 5-7-1 ATS as a home favorite. However, it should be mentioned they were 4-0-1 ATS in their ten win season in 2016. Outside of that season, which is looking more and more like an outlier, the Monarchs have covered once as a home favorite. UTSA has already beaten two bad FBS teams in 2019 (Rice and UTEP), so don't be surprised if they make it three on Saturday.

Louisville +6.5 Miami
Whether or not you agree with my picks, if you plan on backing Miami, please cue up some Darryl Worley (not the defensive back), because seriously, have you forgotten? Miami has been showing you who they are all year. Don’t let one win against a poorly coached rival change your opinion on the Hurricanes. They have been a consistent money loser this season as a favorite. They are 1-4 ATS overall in the role (with three outright losses) and 1-3 ATS as a home favorite. And this is not a one season development either. They were 3-6 ATS as a home favorite in Mark Richt’s final two seasons as well as 7-12 ATS overall in the favorite role in that span. Please allow me to repeat myself. Do not bet on Miami! The Hurricanes still have offensive line issues, having allowed 35 sacks on the year. Their victory against the Seminoles did not fix that problem. They just happened to run into a team that had similar, or perhaps even worse offensive line problems. Unlike Florida State, Louisville is well coached under Scott Satterfield, easily exceeding last season’s win total, and needing just one more over their final four games to clinch bowl eligibility. The Cardinals still have defensive issues, allowing nearly 32 points per game, but it is marked improvement from last season when opponents scored over 44 points per game. Fortunately for them, Miami is not well positioned to take advantage of their defensive problems. With their aforementioned troubles along the offensive line, the Hurricanes have averaged just north of 22 points per game against FBS opponents. Couple that with the fact the Hurricanes are probably feeling pretty good about themselves after their win against the Seminoles, and I have my doubts as to how seriously they prepare for the Cardinals. We’re obviously dealing with a small sample size here, but over the previous six seasons, Miami is 1-5 ATS in the game immediately following Florida State. The Hurricanes are also just 2-4 straight up despite being favored in all six contests. Louisville may not have the better roster, but the Hurricanes have tried to show you all season who they really are. Take Louisville to cover this number and don’t be shocked if the Hurricanes lose outright as a favorite once again.

Troy +3 Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern is the Kryptonite to Appalachian State’s Sun Belt Superman (that rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?). Each of the past two seasons, the Eagles have beaten a ranked App State team and knocked them out of the polls. In fact, they are the only Sun Belt that has beaten the Mountaineers multiple times since they joined the conference. Last week’s victory was especially cruel as it not only dropped App out of the polls, it also put Georgia Southern in the driver’s seat for the division crown. While the Eagles have three losses on the season, only one of them has come in conference play. If the Eagles win out, they would represent the East in the second Sun Belt Championship Game. However, there are still plenty of land mines on their remaining schedule starting with this trip to Troy. The Trojans have dropped five games and are in danger of missing a bowl for the first time since 2015 under first year head coach Chip Lindsey. However, three of those five losses have come by a touchdown or less, including last week’s loss at Coastal Carolina where the Chanticleers went for two when they scored in the closing moments. That’s not to say Troy doesn’t have problems, particularly on defense, where they are allowing nearly 33 points per game (more than ten points per game worse than last season), but their offense is still among the best in the Sun Belt. By contrast Georgia Southern has struggled moving the ball this season. Befitting a triple option team, they rank seventh nationally in rushing yards per game and 29th in yards per attempt. However, their passing game has been nonexistent. Obviously, triple option offenses do not throw the ball a lot, but when they do, they tend to be efficient and carve out big plays. Since joining FBS in 2014, the Eagles have never averaged fewer than six yards per pass (and last year they averaged nearly nine), but this season, they are averaging under five yards per attempt (less than their rushing average). Quarterback Shai Werts has failed to complete a majority of his passes (48%) or hit big plays when he does complete them. With their offensive struggles, the Eagles are fortunate to have a 5-3 record as they have been outscored on the season. In fact, their three Sun Belt wins have all come by exactly three points. This line is an overreaction to their massive upset of App State last week. I expected Troy to be a slight favorite, as they are playing at home and fighting for their postseason lives. Last season, Georgia Southern upset App State on a Thursday night and was a road favorite in their next game at Louisiana-Monroe. That didn’t go so well for them. Perhaps they have learned from their struggle post-App last season, but I expect another rough showing on the road this week. Take Troy and the points.

Arizona State -1.5 Southern Cal
A lot of handicappers I respect were on Southern Cal last week. The spot looked good. The Trojans were playing at home, in control of their division, against an Oregon team coming off two tough games. Catching a little less than a touchdown, many thought the Trojans might win the game outright. Things started out quite well, with Southern Cal grabbing an early 10-0 lead. However, a few turnovers and a kick return touchdown later, Oregon went into halftime with an eleven point lead. Then, as far as I could tell, the Trojans never emerged from the locker room. Oregon pasted the Trojans in the second half, winning 56-24 and giving Utah control of the Pac-12 South. So what does Southern Cal do for an encore? My guess is, not much. Since the start of the 2018 season, Southern Cal is just 3-7 in true road games. Their victories in that span have come against Arizona, Oregon State, and Colorado. The Trojans beat Arizona and Oregon State in 2018 and those teams finished 5-7 and 2-10 respectively. This season, they managed to escape Colorado with a 35-31 win, but the Buffaloes are just 3-6 and potentially heading into the offseason with eight consecutive losses. Under Clay Helton, the Trojans are just 2-9 ATS as a road underdog, famously upsetting Washington in 2016 and keeping it close with Notre Dame earlier this season. Otherwise, they have been a money pit in the road underdog role. I had my doubts about Herm Edwards when he was hired by the Sun Devils, but I trust him a lot more than I do Clay Helton, particularly with all the rumor and innuendo surrounding his job security and the fact their division title hopes are on life support. Take the Sun Devils to cover this small number.

Tennessee -1 Kentucky
The last time these two teams met in Lexington, the Wildcats emerged victorious. In fact, Kentucky has actually won two of the past four meetings in the Blue Grass State. However, overall, this rivalry has been dominated by the Volunteers. Florida’s domination of Kentucky got more national attention, but the Vols have dominated the Wildcats as well, losing just twice since Reagan’s second inauguration. Each team has four wins, so there is a decent chance they both wind up in the postseason. Tennessee has come a long way from their 1-4 start, winning three of four, with the lone defeat in that span coming at the hands of Alabama. Meanwhile, Kentucky has lost four of six since a 2-0 start, mostly thanks to injuries at the quarterback position. Terry Wilson was injured in the third game of the season against Florida and Sawyer Smith was injured against South Carolina. With Wilson and Smith’s injury, the Wildcats decided to put their best athlete at quarterback and ceded control of the offense to receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. Credit the Wildcats for somehow pounding Missouri despite running a slightly more modern version of the Single Wing, but they have been extremely one dimensional over the past month. In their last four games, Kentucky has averaged just over 66 yards passing per game. They have completed under 40% of their passes in those games as well and perhaps not surprisingly, have scored just fifteen points per game. Tennessee has held up pretty well against the run, allowing under four yards per carry on the season with Georgia the only team to really expose them on the ground. Smith may play for the Wildcats, but if he does not, expect a healthy dose of quarterback run with Bowden. Either way, I don’t expect the Wildcats to score enough points to cover this small number.

Nevada +17.5 San Diego State
San Diego State is ranked 24th in the latest AP Poll, up one spot from their number 25 ranking last week. San Diego State has at least appeared in the AP Poll in three of the past four seasons (they finished ranked in 2016), which is quite an accomplishment for a school with just two poll appearances between 1978 and 2015. No one loves seeing Group of Five teams crack the AP Poll more than I do, but I have to question exactly how good San Diego State is. Their Simple Rating System rank is just 60th and other advanced stats are similarly skeptical. Credit the Aztecs for winning seven games, including at UCLA, but even the Bruins currently have a losing record. The only FBS team they have beaten that currently sports a winning record is Wyoming. The Aztecs are trying their best to play football as it was played in the 70’s, by running the ball, playing good defense and generating turnovers. Unfortunately, their typically explosive running game has been stuck in neutral this season. As a team, the Aztecs are averaging just 3.40 yards per rush and leading rusher Juwan Washington is doing his best Eddie George impression (NFL version) by averaging 3.63 yards per carry (after averaging 5.02 last season). However, the defense has held up their end of the bargain, allowing just over fourteen points per game. Their low-risk offense has also helped out by turning the ball over just four times all season (tied for second fewest in the nation). While that style of play has helped San Diego State put together a nice won/loss record, it has not helped them get a lot of margin in their wins. San Diego State’s largest margin of victory this season is 21 points (against a winless team). Nevada is a bad team, but winning by three scores is a lot to ask, especially when you average just under 22 points per game. San Diego State has not covered as a double-digit home favorite since 2017, failing in their last five tries. Make it six after Saturday night.