Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Fab Five: Week X


Last Week: 3-2
Overall: 19-25-1
The yearly numbers are still bad, but we got back on track last week. And the week could have been even better if Matt Wells didn't try to play some 5D Inter-dimensional Chess. A Texas Tech grad student should analyze his decision making in that game in their dissertation on the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Vanderbilt +17 Kentucky
If things continue unabated in SEC country, this could be the only league game that gets played on Saturday. I, for one, am all for moving this one to the primetime slot following The Masters. We'll see if Greg Sankey is an avid reader of this blog. But I digress. At 2-4 on the season, Kentucky needs a win against the Commodores to have any shot of finishing with a fifth consecutive winning season. After Vanderbilt, the Wildcats will make consecutive road trips to take on the likely participants in this season's SEC Championship Game, Alabama and Florida, so 4-6 looks like a best case scenario. Meanwhile, the Vanderbilt would be ecstatic with a 4-6 campaign. The Commodores have lost twelve of their past thirteen conference games, with just two of those defeats (including last weeks) coming by single digits. The Commodores outplayed Mississippi State last week, but lost thanks to five ugly turnovers. Those turnovers set Mississippi State up in prime position and the Bulldogs scored 24 points despite gaining just 204 total yards and averaging under four yards per play. Vanderbilt has had a lot of turnover issues in 2020 (-8 margin through five games), so there is the potential this game could get away from them. However, Kentucky has not exactly lit up many scoreboards this season. The Wildcats have scored just thirteen offensive touchdowns in six games, and that number drops to seven in five games if we remove their showing against the putrid Ole Miss defense. Kentucky has had a hard time moving the ball and scoring in 2020, which obviously makes it hard to cover large numbers. In addition, Kentucky has been a double digit home favorite in SEC play two other times under Mark Stoops. It will probably not surprise you that their opponent in both those games was Vanderbilt. Incidentally, the Wildcats won both games, but failed to cover in either. Vanderbilt showed some signs of life last week, and are now 12-5 Against the Spread (ATS) as a double digit road underdog in conference play under Derek Mason. I expect Vanderbilt to lose for the thirteenth time in their last fourteen conference games, but they will make Kentucky work for this victory. 

Michigan State +7.5 Indiana
Are we really ready to love in a world where Indiana is ranked in the top ten? Yes, if you haven't been keeping up with the AP Poll, the Hoosiers are currently ranked tenth in the nation, their highest ranking since 1969 (when they actually finished 4-6). We'll blame Woodstock for their lofty preseason ranking that year. Is Indiana really the tenth best team in the country? Probably not, but they are unbeaten, and with Ohio State having an unscheduled bye this weekend, a victory in East Lansing would give them a half game lead on the Buckeyes in the sprint to the Big 10 Championship Game. This game goes to show you how much turnovers matter. Through three games, the Hoosiers are underwater in yards per play, but with a +6 turnover margin are 3-0. Meanwhile, Michigan State has basically broken even on a per play basis, but are 1-2 thanks to a -7 turnover margin. The Hoosiers may well win the turnover battle on Saturday, but these things tend to regress to the mean in the long run. If the ball is not bouncing their way, I would expect a tight game, especially considering Indiana has not beaten Michigan State by enough to cover this number since 2006. Indiana has been a tough team under Tom Allen, but they have not been great as road favorites, posting a 2-5 ATS mark as a favorite in conference road games. Take Sparty to keep this one close. 

Houston -14 South Florida
Remember when South Florida was good, or at least mediocre? I'm not even talking about going all the way back to 2007 when they got to number two in the AP Poll. No, just two short years ago, they were 7-0 and in the top 25. The Bulls won nine of their first eleven AAC games under Charlie Strong in the 2016 and 2017 seasons before the bottom fell out. Since that 9-2 start, the Bulls are just 2-16 in their past eighteen conference games, including 0-5 under first year head coach Jeff Scott. And one of those two wins came against Connecticut, so maybe we should exclude that one. However, they almost won their first conference game of the season last week at Memphis before the Tigers pulled off a fourth quarter rally to win by a point. Was that game a sign of progress for South Florida or merely an aberration? I'm leaning toward aberration. Despite scoring 33 points against the porous Memphis defense, the Bulls gained just 330 yards and averaged only 5.3 yards per play. They benefited from a pick-six and three failed fourth down conversions by the Tigers. Their offense did not suddenly rouse from its slumber and their defense did not hold the Tigers down. Memphis gained 535 of total offense and had 24 first downs. If Memphis converts a few of those fourth downs or doesn't throw that pick-six, the result is a much more comfortable win and a likely point spread of closer to seventeen points in this game. Houston is far from the best team the AAC has this season, but two of their three losses have come to top ten teams (BYU and Cincinnati) and the other to a pretty good team in Florida (UCF). I expect them to take out their frustrations on a South Florida team that is not nearly as good as they looked last week.  

Southern Miss +6 Western Kentucky
Southern Miss has had a weird (even by 2020 standards) season. Western Kentucky has simply had a bad season. After going 9-4 and fielding one of the best mid-major defenses under first year head coach Tyson Helton in 2019, the Hilltoppers have won just two of their first eight games in 2020 and boast one of the worst offenses in FBS. After scoring a respectable 65 points in their first three games, the Hilltoppers have scored bad opening Blackjack hands over their past five: 14, 14, 13, 10, and 6 (I realize 10 is a pretty good number to open with, but you get the idea). In fairness, the Hilltoppers have played a Power Five opponent (Louisville) and three teams currently ranked in the AP Poll (BYU, Liberty, and Marshall) in half their games, but even if we generously exclude those four, the Hilltoppers are still averaging a modest thirteen points per game. As I mentioned in my rationale for fading Kentucky, its hard to cover as a favorite if you can't score. I can see why the Hilltoppers are favored in this game as Southern Miss has had to deal with massive coaching turnover and are coming off a game where they needed a fourth quarter comeback to beat an FCS opponent. However, Southern Miss was without their starting quarterback in that game (he is expected back for this one) and Western Kentucky also needed a fourth quarter comeback to escape a barnstorming FCS opponent a few weeks ago. Southern Miss is not good, but they have at least shown signs of life on offense. Take them to cover and win outright. 

Louisville +3.5 Virginia
Full disclosure, I wrote this game up last week before it was postponed and my rationale has not changed.
The Cardinals and Cavaliers went a combined 11-5 in ACC play last season with Virginia winning their division for the first time in school history and Louisville excising the last of the Bobby Petrino cancer that had metastasized in 2018. However, things have not gone quite as well in 2020. The two are a combined 3-9 in conference play this season and need a strong finish to enter bowl season with a non-losing record. Virginia is favored in this game thanks to their upset home win against a ranked North Carolina team over Halloween weekend. However, when you dig a little deeper into that box score, you can see the win was not quite as impressive as it appeared on the scoreboard. The Cavaliers beat the Tar Heels despite allowing nearly nine yards per play to the Sam Howell led offense. That defensive showing may not portend good things against an explosive Louisville offense. The Cardinals have really gotten their offense rolling the past two weeks, scoring 83 points and gaining over 1100 yards against Florida State and Virginia Tech. Granted, the Seminoles and Hokies have two of the poorer defenses in the ACC, but then again, so does Virginia. I think (and 247 agrees) Louisville is the more talented team and I expect them to win outright. 

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