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.

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