Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Fab Five: Week III

Last Week: 3-2
Overall: 6-4
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). 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Fab Five: Week II

Not a bad start to the season. We were in every game and if Syracuse would have done anything at all on offense, it would have been an even better week. Not that I'm bitter or anything. We'll try to keep things rolling this week.
Last Week: 3-2
Overall: 3-2

Boston College +6 Duke
To me, Boston College is the epitome of blandness. Their colors call to mind a fictional football team where the rights to real colleges or professional teams could not be acquired. Their mascot, while not the ubiquitous Bulldog or Tiger, is a run of the mill Eagle (not even a Golden or Screaming variety). And their play on the field has been pretty bland as well. The Eagles have won either six or seven games in six of the past seven years and have gone about winning those six or seven games the same way. They hand the ball off to a heavyset running back destined to wash out in the NFL on offense and when not coordinated by Don Brown, play below-average to decent defense. There are worse fates in fandom, but Boston College is one of the few college teams I don't really enjoy watching. However, while I may not like the aesthetics, I can still see value. And I think Boston College has some on Saturday. Take a look at Duke's Against the Spread (ATS) and Straight Up (SU) record as a home favorite (against FBS opponents) under David Cutcliffe (hard to believe he has been there since 2008!).
Notice how poorly the Blue Devils have performed since winning nineteen combined games in 2013 and 2014. In Cutcliffe's first seven seasons, the Blue Devils were a solid bet as a home favorite, covering more than more than 70% of the time. The Blue Devils also won most of their games as a home favorite, going 14-4 outright. However, since 2015, the Blue Devils are just 4-13 ATS as a home favorite and have dropped eleven of those games outright! It appears the market is giving Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils too much credit when they play at home. In his first seven seasons, the Blue Devils were favored an average of 2.6 times per season at home. In the past five seasons, the Blue Devils have been favored 3.4 times per season at home. Obviously, Cutcliffe has improved the formerly woeful Duke football program, but bettors have been inflating the point spread when Duke is a home favorite. That seems to be the case in this situation. Duke played reasonably well last week in losing by two touchdowns at Notre Dame. However, the reason Duke stayed within the three-touchdown spread is because Notre Dame had to replace their top-three receivers. Remember, Duke only managed thirteen points. Since they were not blown out, now we expect them to beat a conference opponent with roughly equal talent by a touchdown? Seems a bit of a stretch to me. I know Boston College has a new head coach and will be playing their first game while Duke has an established head coach and has already played, but I think being bland is the best play here. 

Central Florida -7.5 Georgia Tech
Prior to the Big 10's recent announcement of their intent to return to play in October, Central Florida probably believed they had a non-zero chance to snag a College Football Playoff bid. With three Power Five conferences playing and a four teams required to fill out the dance card, an undefeated campaign, particularly by a team in the national conscience over the past three seasons would have at least merited a look. With the Big 10 presumably back in the mix, the Knights have a tougher task, but pounding a Power Five team on the road would be a good place to start. It's hard to tell how good Georgia Tech is. On the one hand, they should have beaten Florida State by more than three points last week. The Yellow Jackets averaged nearly two more yards per play than the Seminoles, but turnovers and blocked kicks kept the game close. On the other hand, Florida State may just be bad. Since beating Michigan in the Orange Bowl following the 2016 season, the Seminoles are 15-21 against FBS opponents and just 11-20 against Power Five opponents. I think the victory by the Yellow Jackets has done nothing but make Central Florida a great value in this spot. While the Knights did lose to a Power Five team on the road last season, they have also handed out their fair share of beatdowns to Power Five teams since bursting on the scene in 2017. With a College Football Playoff bid dangling as a carrot in front of them, I think the Knights handle Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Obviously, the fact that Georgia Tech has experienced live competition while Central Florida has not could be an issue, but that's a risk I'm willing to take for a number under double digits. 

Middle Tennessee +3.5 Troy
These two former conference rivals have not played since 2012, so while COVID-19 may induce social distancing in society at large, it helps get some old friends back together on the football field. Troy dominated this series when both were Sun Belt members, winning seven of nine when the two shared a conference. When the Blue Raiders bolted for Conference USA, Troy struggled for a few years under the long-tenured Larry Blakeney before hiring Neal Brown and winning 31 games between 2016 and 2018. Brown took the West Virginia job after the 2018 season, and the team struggled in their first year under Chip Lindsey, finishing 5-7. Lindsey may be the right man for the job, but trusting Troy to lay points on the road is probably not the wisest investment. Middle Tennessee has been a solid home underdog recently under Rick Stockstill, posting a 4-1 ATS mark in the role against Group of Five opponents since 2017. They have not only covered four of five times, they have also won those four games outright. Making it five of six would not shock me. The Blue Raiders could not be held in lower esteem by the market after their opening performance. They looked ill-prepared for the Army option attack and their end of half clock management would be disparaged by Les Miles. However, Army was a unique opponent and I liked the Blue Raiders coming into the year. Obviously, I will be tucking and rolling from that bandwagon if they have a similar showing here, but I think this is the proverbial opportunity to buy low. The Blue Raiders have a game under their belt and a week off to stew over their poor performance. I expect them to play much better and win outright. 

North Texas +14 SMU
The Mean Green and Mustangs have developed a nice little rivalry over the past few seasons. Despite being located roughly forty miles from each other, the two teams met just seven times prior to 2006. Assuming this game is played (never a safe assumption in the era of COVID-19), it will mark the seventh consecutive season these two have met. Both teams have had a week off after winning over Labor Day Weekend. The Mean Green won a shootout against Houston Baptist which looks a little better after the Huskies nearly upset Texas Tech last week. SMU faced a tougher than expected test on the road against Texas State. The Mustangs won, but the game was closer than most expected. The tight game continued a trend for the Mustangs as they failed to cover as large road favorites. Under Sonny Dykes, the Mustangs are 1-4 ATS as road favorites and 0-3 ATS as double digit road favorites. Going back to his time at Cal, his track record is not any better. The Bears and Mustangs have combined to go 2-6 ATS as road favorites and 0-4 ATS as double digit road favorites. Suffice to say, you should be looking at North Texas or nothing in this spot. While the Mean Green are only 3-4 ATS under Seth Littrell as home underdogs, I think they still warrant a play here. SMU is not known for their defense and North Texas appears to be able to move the ball despite the departure of Mason Fine, who quarterbacked the Mean Green for what seems like a decade. I expect a lot of points and even if the game is not organically close, the backdoor should be wide open for a North Texas cover.   

Miami +2.5 Louisville
Seeing as how Western Kentucky was one of my picks last week, I watched a decent amount of their game with Louisville. While the Hilltoppers probably should have lost by more than fourteen points, I think Louisville is getting a little too much love for their performance. Quarterback Micale Cunningham was a big play waiting to happen, as he averaged over ten yards per throw against a pretty good Western Kentucky defense. However, despite his success, there were a few big plays that probably should have been interceptions or at least knockdowns. The pass he fluttered that the defensive back attempted to fair catch is one egregious example. Perhaps I am being too hard on Cunningham since I picked the other side, but I think more often than not, those dangerous throws won't become first downs and touchdowns against the better teams on the schedule. With Clemson conspicuously absent from Louisville's revamped schedule, Miami does represent one of those better teams. The Hurricanes are certainly capable defensively, having allowed just over twenty points per game last season. Unfortunately, the offense was inconsistent and the Hurricanes finished 6-7. Seeking a jolt, the Hurricanes welcomed dual-threat quarterback D'Eric King from Houston in the transfer portal. King was a little uneven in his first start for the Hurricanes against UAB, but he still accounted for two touchdowns and the team scored 31 points. It will probably take at least that many to win here, but Louisville may oblige. Remember, last season, a struggling Miami offense hung 52 points on Louisville. The Cardinals appeared to be a little better defensively against Western Kentucky, but the Hilltoppers did not have a quarterback with the play-making ability of King or the offensive talent surrounding him. In fact, if you look at the numbers, you might say Western Kentucky quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome is a poor man's D'Eric King. This is exactly the spot you want to back Miami in. With low expectations, I think a motivated Miami team will win outright. As for what happens the rest of the year...we'll have to play that one by ear. But for one week, against a poor defense, I'll take the Hurricanes. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Fab Five: Week I

The college footballs season kicks off in earnest this weekend with fourteen games between FBS opponents by my count. Eleven of those fourteen games involve double digit point spreads (including tonight's) and no line is smaller than a touchdown. Odds are we see at least one huge upset this weekend, and hopefully it will be one of the games I have selected below. I'll be here every Thursday with my five best bets of the week for as long as the season lasts. Enjoy the occasional snarky commentary, statistical minutia, and betting insight. 

Note: I made two edits to this post on Friday. I couldn't grasp the line moves in the UTSA/Texas State and Coastal Carolina/Kansas games, so I figured there might be some Covid shenanigans afoot. I just didn't feel good leaving those as plays. If you played those games and won, you're welcome. If you played them and lost, this ain't Patreon.

Syracuse +23 North Carolina
If you're looking for a bandwagon to jump on in the ACC, you better hurry because the one in Chapel Hill is filling up fast. The Tar Heels are ranked in the top twenty of the preseason AP Poll and finished third in the ACC media poll. That ain't too bad considering the Tar Heels were 4-6 at one point last season before winning their final three games in blowout fashion. Of course, one of those wins came against an FCS opponent, another came against an arch-rival in a very down year, and the third came in the bowl game against a coach with a notorious history of bowl game flops. Mack Brown has certainly improved the talent level in Chapel Hill, but remember this team finished 7-6 in a weak ACC last season. College football fans probably remember their near miss against Clemson, but the Heels also lost five other games. While all of six of their losses came by a touchdown or less, so did three of their six FBS victories. In fact, the Tar Heels were 0-3 Against the Spread (ATS) as a home favorite last season, losing outright to Appalachian State and Virginia while barely escaping Duke. In addition, mediocre teams that open as big favorites the following season have not done well the past few years. Since 2015, Power Five teams that finished 7-6 or worse the previous season have opened as a double-digit favorite against an FBS opponent 39 times. They are 17-22 ATS in those games (about 44%) and the majority have come against overmatched Group of Five opponents. Those teams have been double digit favorites against fellow Power Five teams just six times while posting a 2-4 ATS record. The sample size is small, but North Carolina fans need only hearken back a year to understand the pitfalls of backing such a team. The Tar Heels were double digit underdogs in their season opener last year against a South Carolina team coming off a 7-6 campaign. The Tar Heels easily covered and won the game outright. I wouldn't advise taking the Orange on the moneyline, but the point still stands: Previously mediocre teams are not to be trusted with such large spreads. While North Carolina has the potential to be good this season (probably top fifteen good), they have yet to prove it, and this spread implies they have already proven it. Using the Simple Rating System from CFB Reference, had this game been played at the end of last season (which I understand it is not), the spread should have been around twelve points (awarding three points for homefield advantage). With no fans allowed in the stadium, its hard to justify the full three points for homefield. Even ignoring the empty stadium, that means for this spread to be accurate, you have to believe the separation between North Carolina and Syracuse has increased by around ten points in the offseason. North Carolina has certainly gotten better, but I would argue Syracuse probably has as well. The Orange finished 5-7 last season after winning ten games in 2018. I don't expect a return to 2018 form, but Dino Babers has shown a knack for coaching the Orange as a big road underdog, with the team posting a 6-3 ATS mark in the role. North Carolina is getting a bit too much love, so take the Orange to stay within three touchdowns. 

Charlotte +17 Appalachian State
Two Group of Five programs from the Tar Heel State take center stage on Saturday afternoon, getting a prime ESPN2 slot thanks to the scarcity of games. Both schools are coming off successful seasons, with Charlotte playing in their first bowl game and Appalachian State becoming the first Sun Belt program to finish a season ranked in the AP Poll. With about 40% of FBS teams sitting out the 2020 season, the Sun Belt may have have another team finish in the rankings this year (actually the AP will probably fall all over themselves to rank a 4-6 SEC team instead of the Sun Belt champ). While Charlotte looks to build on that success with continuity at the top, Appalachian State will be led by a different head coach for the third consecutive season. Shawn Clark, a former Mountaineer offensive lineman, replaces Eli Drinkwitz who took the Missouri job late last year. Clark has one of the most talented rosters in the Sun Belt at his disposal, but the upheaval at the top should not be discounted. In addition, the Mountaineers have struggled as a double digit home favorite since making the jump to FBS in 2014. They are just 9-15-1 ATS in that span. They are 23-2 straight up in those games, so they do a good job of winning, but don't cash tickets. Charlotte is good enough to keep this one close, and even if the score looks lopsided in the fourth quarter, the backdoor is always open. 

Duke +20.5 Notre Dame
Apparently Donald Trump is going to award Lou Holtz the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Regardless of what you think of Holtz's politics (they suck), I can't agree with giving the award to a man who failed to win any conference titles in more than a decade of coaching the Irish. An extra from The Irishman, Brian Kelly, will look to become the first coach to lead Notre Dame to a conference title of any kind as they take up residence in the ACC in this pandemic shortened season. Their conference opener comes against a Duke team smarting from a 5-7 campaign. 5-7 seasons in Durham used to generate parades, but with David Cutcliffe in charge, the Blue Devils have been bowl eligible in six of the past eight seasons. The Blue Devils will be breaking in a new quarterback when they travel to South Bend, but he may be familiar to ACC fans. Two years ago, Chase Brice saved Clemson's undefeated season when Trevor Lawrence went out with an injury against Syracuse. Brice played well in limited action over two seasons at Clemson and now gets a chance to lead an ACC team. The Blue Devils are not getting a lot of love from oddsmakers or the public in this game, but keep in mind Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book will be without his top three receivers from last season. Breaking in a whole new receiving corps might not be the best way to cover a three touchdown spread. Also keep in mind that while Notre Dame is a mediocre 15-18-1 ATS as a double digit home favorite under Brian Kelly, they are a much worse 5-12 ATS in the role against Power Five teams. Notre Dame is better than Duke, but the Blue Devils should not be confused with Bowling Green or Massachusetts. Expect Duke to keep this close for a while and stay within the number. 

South Alabama +10 Tulane
Am I reading too much into South Alabama's upset win against Southern Miss? A victory that at least contributed to the Southern Miss head coach resigning? Perhaps. But there is no denying the fact that South Alabama looked like a competent football team against the Golden Eagles. They won a game against an FBS opponent by double digits for just the second time under Steve Campbell. The Jaguars are in their third season under Campbell, so a meteoric rise would not be unprecedented. While South Alabama already has a game and victory under their belt, Tulane will be breaking in a new quarterback as the team begins their fifth season under Willie Fritz. The Green Wave have played in bowl games the past two seasons, but have not been able to clear the seven win barrier since 2002! With a reduced schedule, odds are they will have to wait until at least next year. While the Green Wave have been successful under Fritz, they have not been road favorites very often. They have been favored by more than a field goal away from New Orleans just twice and they have lost both games outright. I don't quite have the guts to call for an outright upset, but South Alabama has been a live home underdog (or undercat), posting a 5-2 ATS mark under Campbell. Look for South Alabama to keep this within one score. 

Western Kentucky +11.5 Louisville
After finishing a combined 5-19 in 2018, these two bluegrass schools changed coaches and nearly reversed their records by finishing a combined 17-9 in 2019. While both teams enjoyed success in 2019, they went about it in vastly different ways. Louisville won shootouts, ranking second in the ACC in yards per play and second to last in yards allowed per play. They averaged over 33 points per game, but allowed over 33 points per game as well (outscored on the year). Meanwhile, Western Kentucky finished in the middle of the pack in Conference USA in yards per play (eighth), but were second best in yards allowed per play. Opponents scored just over twenty points per game against the Hilltoppers revamped defense. Using the same logic I applied earlier to the North Carolina/Syracuse game, judging by last year's SRS scores for both teams, this spread should be around seven points if we award the full three points for Louisville's homefield (which we probably shouldn't). That means if you want to bet this line, you must believe the difference between these teams has increased by at least five points since the end of last season. Based on the Plexiglas Principle, you should probably expect both of these teams to regress a bit. Louisville, being a Power Five team, should probably regress less, but I would have pegged this spread in the eight to nine point range. With it hovering over ten, I think you have to take a look at the underdog in this situation especially considering Western Kentucky was 4-0 ATS as a road underdog last season with three outright wins. 

Thursday, September 03, 2020

APR Throwback: The 2007 SEC

Since a new month has started, we are going to switch up our throwbacks to focus on the Adjusted Pythagorean Theorem or APR. For an in-depth look at APR, click here. If you didn’t feel like clicking, here is the Reader’s Digest version. APR looks at how well a team scores and prevents touchdowns. Non-offensive touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and safeties are excluded. The ratio of offensive touchdowns to touchdowns allowed is converted into a winning percentage. Pretty simple actually.

To refresh your memory, here are the 2007 SEC standings.
2007 was a pretty memorable year. There were about a trillion teams ranked second at some point in the season, the eventual national champ finished with two losses (although some are quick to point out they were unbeaten in regulation), and Tennessee was relevant in college football (more on that later). The Vols finished tied with Georgia at the top of the SEC East, but thanks to their head-to-head win, advanced to the SEC Championship Game.

And here are the APR standings with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, SEC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as the standard of determining which teams significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR. By that standard Mississippi State and Tennessee significantly exceeded their APR. Mississippi State finished 3-0 in one-score conference games, beating Alabama, Auburn, and Ole Miss by a combined thirteen points. By contrast, each of their four conference losses came by at least twelve points. In addition, a non-offensive touchdown provided the winning margin in each of those three close wins. Tennessee also finished 3-0 in one-score conference games, beating Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt by a combined six points. Like Mississippi State, all their conference defeats came in blowout fashion, with Alabama and Florida crushing the Vols by a combined 63 points.

The Demise of the Tennessee Vols
Despite their middling APR numbers, Tennessee won the SEC East in 2007 and actually held a fourth quarter lead on eventual national champ LSU in the SEC Championship Game. The division title was the Vols fifth in sixteen seasons of divisional play, making them easily the second most successful eastern division team.
Since LSU's fourth quarter comeback, its been all downhill for the Vols, at least in SEC play. In the twelve seasons since that championship game appearance, Tennessee has posted the fourth worst conference winning percentage among SEC teams. In those twelve seasons, Tennessee has a better record than perennial punching bag Vanderbilt, a basketball school, and a team currently riding a nineteen game conference losing streak.
Alabama has pretty much lapped the SEC field, finishing seventeen games better than second place Georgia over the past twelve seasons. But to paraphrase Marc Anthony, I come to bury Tennessee, not praise Alabama. So, for the rest of this post, I'll try to put in perspective how bad Tennessee has been.

Alabama has twice as many undefeated conference seasons (4) as Tennessee has winning conference seasons (2). In fact, the Vols have more seasons of one or fewer conference victories (3) than they have of winning conference seasons. Texas A&M, a team that has played 32 fewer conference games than the Vols have over the past twelve seasons, has more league victories. Missouri, another SEC newcomer that has also played 32 fewer games is just three victories behind them. Tennessee has losing records against ten of the other thirteen teams in the conference.
Nearly one third of their conference victories since 2007 have come against Kentucky and over half have come against Kentucky and Vanderbilt. There have been fleeting moments of competency with the Vols blowing out Big 10 teams in Florida bowl games three consecutive seasons (2014-2016), but their conference record in that span was just 12-12. The 2014 team raised expectations, but the Vols were not able to win divisions in flux in either 2015 or 2016 and once the other two traditional powers in the division got their collective acts together, the Vols were not in position to contend. It's been a rough twelve years, but lets be optimistic. Say Jeremy Pruitt has a successful run in Knoxville and his replacement is, I don't know, Jon Gruden, or Bill Cowher, or Lane Kiffin, or Amos Alonzo Stagg. Imagine over the next twelve years the Vols post a 63-33 conference record (Florida's SEC record since 2008). Then they would have played .500 ball in the SEC over nearly a quarter century!

And Another Thing
One other interesting fact I discovered about the SEC in 2007 was that a pair of teams in the conference (Kentucky and South Carolina) began the season unranked in the AP Poll, yet eventually found themselves in the top ten, only to fall out of the polls altogether by the end of the season. Since the BCS era began in 1998, only sixteen teams have achieved this dubious distinction and the SEC circa 2007 is the only conference to have two teams in the same year accomplish the feat. Here are all sixteen listed chronologically.

So apparently they are going to attempt to play college football this year. There is one FBS game tonight, one FBS/FCS game, a handful of games on Saturday, and one on Labor Day. Next week, the ACC and Big 12 join the fun. Assuming those games are set to go off as planned, look for a gambling picks column next Thursday wherein I provide insight and analysis that is slightly more accurate than flipping a coin. But fear not, if the season gets canceled at any point, I have a number of YPP and APR throwbacks ready to go. As always, thanks for reading and stay safe out there everyone.