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.

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