Last Week: 3-2
We put together another winning week on the card, but the two losses were very ugly. Yikes. Hopefully we can continue our winning ways as the SEC joins the party this week.
Ole Miss +14 Florida
Even before the conference expanded in 1992, these two never got together that often, playing just sixteen times as SEC members between 1934 and 1989. The Gators two trips to Oxford this century have been interesting, In 2002, the Rebels inflicted the first SEC loss of the glorious Ron Zook era. And in 2007, the Rebels nearly upset Tim Tebow in his first SEC road start. This time around, they will look to start the Lane Kiffin era with an upset victory. Kiffin, despite not having been a head coach in the SEC in more than a decade is intimately familiar with the culture of the league having spent time as Alabama's offensive coordinator and Nick Saban's whipping boy in between head coaching stints at Southern Cal and Florida Atlantic. Kiffin's forte is offense and he has some interesting pieces in Oxford with dual-threat quarterback John Rhys Plumlee having rushed for over 1000 yards in just nine games last season. The majority of his receiving options return, so he and Matt Corral should be able to improve upon their pedestrian passing numbers. During his time as a BCS/Power Five coach (at Tennessee and Southern Cal), Kiffin's teams were double-digit underdogs four times. They covered all four times, including a memorable near upset of Alabama. Meanwhile, despite finishing a combined 21-5 in his first two seasons at Florida, Dan Mullen has not been asked to lay the lumber on the road. His Gators have yet to be favored by double digits away from The Swamp and during his tenure at Mississippi State, the Bulldogs were just 3-5-1 Against the Spread (ATS) as double digit road favorites. Take the Lane Train this week before he crashes the locomotive into an Oxford brothel (whoops, wrong coach).
West Virginia +7 Oklahoma State
Things could have gone better for the Big 12 over the season's first two weeks. Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State all lost at home to Sun Belt opponents, Texas Tech edged Houston Baptist, and Oklahoma State trailed in the fourth quarter to Tulsa. Baylor and TCU have yet to play and the other three 1-0 Big 12 teams have dominated lesser competition. If you were going to pick a Power Five conference (currently scheduled to have a fall season) to miss out on the College Football Playoff, the Big 12 would be a good candidate. Oklahoma State gets an opportunity to prove last week's result against Tulsa was a fluke when they open conference play against West Virginia. The Mountaineers dominated Eastern Kentucky two weeks ago, but its probably best to take that performance with a grain of salt. Marshall freshman quarterback Grant Wells looked like Patrick Mahomes against the Colonels, but came back to earth when he faced his first FBS defense. Still, West Virginia is likely to pose more of an offensive threat than Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane managed to cover as prohibitive underdogs despite scoring just seven points against the Cowboys. Obviously with such little offensive output, they were able to cover thanks to a strong defensive showing. And this should be particularly worrisome for the Cowboys as they averaged just over four yards per play against a Group of Five defense. Part of the reason for that poor offensive showing is the Cowboys lost their starting quarterback, Spencer Sanders, to injury early in the game. His backup struggled mightily before being replace by the third string quarterback who finally got the offense going. Sanders is in a medical boot and his status for this game is uncertain. Even if he plays, I have my doubts he is 100%, since mobility is one of his assets. With the uncertainty at quarterback and the expected improvement at West Virginia, the Mountaineers are the play here.
UTEP +10 Louisiana-Monroe
We are really dumpster diving this week. With apologies to Massachusetts, which begins play in October, these may be the two worst FBS teams participating in the 2020 season. UTEP fans can at least claim perhaps the best running back in the NFL as an alum and also have that 1966 basketball banner. For Louisiana-Monroe, they have a few quality SEC victories in their back catalog to reminisce about. As for this game, while UTEP technically has two victories, they have both come by relatively slim margins against FCS opponents. Of course, one could argue that represents progress under third year head coach Dana Dimel, as the Miners lost his coaching debut by twenty points to an FCS team. In a little over two seasons under Dimel, the Miners have four victories, and three of them have come against FCS opponents. Meanwhile, Louisiana-Monroe will go into this game seeking their first victory and first lead of the season. The Warhawks, one of the poorest FBS programs, were stunned when their defensive coordinator resigned in early September. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Warhawks were ill-prepared to take on the Army triple option attack in their opener, surrendering over 400 yards on the ground. In their next game against Texas State, it was time for the pass defense to take center stage. The Bobcats gained an incredible 256 yards through the air on just fourteen completions. So, at the very least, their raw defensive numbers should improve against a UTEP offense that has scored 44 points in their first three games. Once again, I'll remind you, two of those games have come against FCS competition. So why in the world am I advocating backing UTEP? Well, Louisiana-Monroe should not be favored by more than a touchdown against anyone. Don't believe me? Check the receipts. Under head coach Matt Viator, the Warhawks have been competitive, finishing with a .500 record in the Sun Belt each of the past three seasons. However, they have been horrendous as home favorites under his watch. The Warhawks have been home favorites eight times since he became head coach in 2016. They have yet to cover, finishing 0-7-1 ATS. They have also lost three of those games outright. When you see a trend like that, you have to keep playing against it, especially when they are laying such a big number. Don't consider this a bet on UTEP as much as it is a principled bet against Louisiana-Monroe.
Duke +5.5 Virginia
This is the third consecutive week the Duke game has made the picks column. So far, we are 2-0 picking Duke games (and 4-4 in all others). Hopefully, we can make it three for three this week. Last week, Duke was a six-point favorite, but fell at home to Boston College. While the Blue Devils lost by twenty points, a closer look at the box score reveals the game was closer than the margin would otherwise indicate. The Blue Devils trailed by a point at halftime despite turning the ball over twice, including once inside the Boston College ten-yard line. For good measure, the Blue Devils turned the ball over three more times in the second half, including once inside their own fifteen and once inside the Boston College five. They also missed a field goal. That is obviously a fantastic way to lose a football game, but it is not something that is necessarily predictive going forward. For that reason, I think the Blue Devils are a tad underrated this week, especially going up against a Virginia team playing its first game. In case you have forgotten (and you totally could have as 2019 seems like ages ago), the Cavaliers won the Coastal Division last season and played in the Orange Bowl. Of course, their workhorse quarterback (led the team in rushing and passing) Bryce Perkins exhausted his eligibility, so the offense will be under new management. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has righted the Virginia program, winning seventeen games over the past two seasons. However, the Cavaliers have been far from dominant. In his four seasons, Virginia has won fourteen conference games, but half of those wins (seven) have come by a touchdown or less and nine have come by ten points or less. I expect a close game and with Duke seemingly undervalued after their turnover fest against Boston College, they are the play.
South Carolina +4 Tennessee
Full disclosure, I live in Columbia and have a degree from the institution participating in this game, but I am no Gamecock homer. I picked this game because I think there is value in South Carolina to not only cover, but perhaps win outright. Read on to find out why. Tennessee was one of the biggest enigmas in college football last season. Somehow, a team that lost to both Georgia State and BYU at home, won five games in the SEC and closed the season riding a six-game winning streak. However, they also lost three conference games (to the best teams on their schedule) by a combined margin of 82 points. Their best victory was either a four-point road win against a Kentucky team running the single wing or a one-point victory in their bowl game against Indiana. Build a time machine, travel back to the mid-90's, and tell an orange overall wearing Tennessee fan that in a quarter century Vol nation will be enthused by wins against Kentucky and Indiana. Pause for his (or her) toothless guffaw. Yet that is exactly where we stand. Based on that strong finish in 2019, the Vols are currently 16th in the AP Poll, their first ranking in three years. Of course, that preseason ranking ended up being pretty worthless as the Vols finished 4-8 and winless in the SEC. As they look to avoid a similar disappointing season, they travel to Columbia to take on a South Carolina team that in non-Covid times, would probably be looking at 2020 as a do or die season for Will Muschamp. Barring a particularly lousy season, Muschamp's job is probably safe until next year. Without the benefit of foresight, Muschamp went about trying to save his job in the offseason by hiring former Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo to run the offense. For all his 'run the damned ball' excoriation from Georgia fans, Mike Bobo has always managed to put at worst a competent offense on the field as offensive coordinator or head coach.
Competent would be a big step up for the Gamecocks and Will Muschamp in general.
Bobo not only brings a solid track record as a coordinator and play caller to Columbia, he also brought an experienced quarterback as Colin Hill was recently named the starter. Hill put up decent numbers under Bobo at Colorado State and should be able to replicate those numbers with a stronger supporting cast. Opening at home should also be beneficial to Hill. While the crowd will be close in size to that seen at an Eastern Michigan home game, it still beats having your first start for a new team on the road. And speaking of the road, this is uncharted territory for Tennessee. The Vols have not been road favorites since the final game of the 2016 season. A game they lost by the way. In fact, they have not covered as a road favorite since 2015! I expect that trend to persist with Will Muschamp continuing his mastery of Tennessee (and unwisely raising expectations he will not be able to meet over the remainder of the season).