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.

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