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.

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