Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Fab Five: Week XII

Last Week: 2-2-1
Overall: 24-29-2
Last week was a perfect example of why they call it gambling. I was staring down the barrel of a 4-1 week, but Tulane not defending a Hail Mary and Coastal returning an interception for a touchdown with the game in hand gave me a push and a loss respectively. Oh well, only a few more weeks left. Hopefully we catch some breaks this week. 

Iowa State -1 Texas
Since arriving in Ames prior to the 2016 season, Matt Campbell has done the unthinkable at Iowa State. He has guided the Cyclones to four consecutive winning conference records and has them in position to qualify for the Big 12 Championship Game for the first time. The Cyclones are 24-19 in Big 12 play under Campbell and the only two teams the Cyclones have failed to beat multiple times are Oklahoma State and Texas. All five games against the Cowboys have been decided by a touchdown or less, but Texas has proven to be more vexing. The Longhorns have beaten the Cyclones three times with Campbell as coach and each of those victories came by at least ten points. In fact, the Longhorns nearly won in Ames last season, but a field goal on the final play gave Iowa State the victory. Despite Iowa State's struggles in this series (the Cyclones have only won once in Austin), I feel like they are being undervalued by the betting market. If you look at how both teams have performed in Big 12 play this season, Iowa State has dominated on a per play basis, averaging about 1.70 more yards per play than they have allowed. Meanwhile, despite their 4-2 league record, Texas is slightly underwater on a per play basis. They have not had the benefit of playing Kansas to pad their statistics, but if you replaced the burnt orange jerseys with purple or green, Iowa State would be laying at least a field goal. It's always scary betting against Tom Herman as an underdog, but I'll take Iowa State to win outright at Texas and clinch a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. 

Vanderbilt +14 Missouri
I know they might finish 0-10, or some other record starting with '0', but Vanderbilt has played better the past few weeks. In their first four conference games, the Commodores were outgained by more than three yards per play (7.50 to 4.41) after becoming the first SEC team to do that last season. They were outscored in those four games by nearly 27 points per game. However, over their past three games, the Commodores have only been outgained by about one yard per play (6.64 to 5.61). Those aren't great numbers, but they represent massive improvement and the scoreboard has also been much closer as well. The Commodores have lost those three by about ten points per game. Give credit to Derek Mason for not losing his team despite a horrible start in unenviable circumstances. I have been on the Commodores in two of those games when they covered as double digit road underdogs at Mississippi State and Kentucky. That brought their Against the Spread (ATS) record in such conference games to 13-5 under Mason. I see no reason to back off of them in this spot. While the Commodores were originally slated to host in-state rival Tennessee, they will now hit the road to face Missouri. Those Tigers are getting a lot of love from the betting market despite scoring seventeen points against a South Carolina team that came in having allowed 159 points in its past three games (and also playing under an interim coach). If you can't score, its hard to cover big numbers and outside of their showing against LSU, Missouri has not scored more than twenty points in any other game this season. Vanderbilt has been a double digit underdog against Missouri three times since the Tigers joined the SEC. They have covered each time and won outright last year (last conference game they won). If Vandy is going to score a victory this season, I think it comes on Saturday. And we might even get to see something historic

Navy +14 Memphis
A month ago, Navy was in the midst of a ten game conference win streak, having opened 2020 with three conference victories after winning their final seven in 2019. Unfortunately, games against Temple and East Carolina gave way to Houston and SMU and the Midshipmen have now lost back-to-back conference games. Can the Midshipmen right the ship (apologies) against a Memphis team that despite a 5-2 record has been a bit of a disappointment in 2020? If by right the ship (again, apologies), you mean stay within two touchdowns, I think the answer is 'Yes'. Navy is 18-4 straight up in home conference games since joining the AAC in 2015, including a pair of victories against Memphis as a betting underdog. In fact, Navy is 4-1 both straight up and ATS against Memphis since joining the AAC, despite being an underdog in each game. This not one of Ken Niumatalolo's better Navy teams (take a look at that ugly point differential), but they are still dangerous especially against a bad defense. And make no mistake, this is a bad Memphis defense. The Tigers rank last in the AAC in yards allowed per play in conference games. In fact, their defense is the primary reason they have failed to cover all three times they have been double digit favorites in 2020. The Tigers opened the season with a solid defensive showing against a quality Arkansas State offense when they allowed 24 points, but failed to cover as eighteen point favorites. However, the defense did not play nearly as well in their other two games as large favorites. Against Temple, a team with one win this season, the Tigers allowed 29 points to a team that is averaging about twenty points per game. And against South Florida, a team with zero FBS wins this season, the Tigers allowed 33 points to another team that scores about twenty per game. The Tigers will not struggle to score against Navy, but I don't think their defense will offer much resistance either. Take the Midshipmen to cover this large number. 

Kansas State +5 Baylor
Kansas State has been one of the most profitable underdogs over the past decade or so. Under Bill Snyder and Chris Klieman, the Wildcats have routinely not only covered, but won outright as underdogs. Despite that solid track record, I was a little hesitant to back the Wildcats in this spot as they appear to be leaking oil. After a 4-1 start, they have dropped three straight with a pair of blowout losses on the road to West Virginia and Iowa State. The most recent loss to the Cyclones was particularly demoralizing as it represented the largest margin of defeat in Klieman's illustrious career (even dating back to his time at Division III Loras). While the forty five point loss is a stain on their ledger, the Wildcats can take solace that they lost to one of the best teams in the Big 12. By contrast, their opponent on Saturday is not one of the best teams in the Big 12. After playing in the Big 12 Championship Game last season, Baylor has struggled under first year head coach Dave Aranda. After opening with a dominant win against Kansas, the Bears have dropped five in a row, though three of the losses have come by a touchdown or less. Baylor should probably be favored in this game, but I think this line is a bit of an overreaction to how poorly Kansas State played against Iowa State. The Cyclones were playing for a shot at the Big 12 title last week, while Baylor is merely playing out the string. Take Kansas State to get back on track and hang tough with the Bears. 

Florida State +9 Virginia
If a young Mike Norvell had a acquired a cursed monkey's paw and wished to one day be head coach of Florida State, you have to imagine his first season is how that wish would have played out. The Seminoles are 2-6 with just a single victory against an FBS opponent and five losses by double digits. The team (at least the administration) was even shamed by a tone deaf Dabo Swinney for refusing to play Clemson last week after the Tigers played fast and loose with the COVID protocols and brought a symptomatic player (who would eventually test positive) on the trip to Tallahassee. To show you how bad things are, take a look at the following table. It lists all previous instances of the Seminoles being a home underdog since 2000. 
This marks just the eleventh time that has happened, but the sixth time in the past five seasons. Florida State has not performed well in the role, posting a 2-8 straight up record and a slightly better 4-6 ATS mark. However, go back and look at the quality of teams that were favored against them. All of the teams came in ranked in the AP Poll, with seven ranked in the top ten. In addition, five of the teams (those highlighted in darker blue) would go on to win the national title the year they were favored against the Seminoles. Virginia is not in that class. While the Cavaliers have won three straight to even their record at 4-4, all those victories came at home and their wins against North Carolina and Louisville came despite allowing over 1000 combined yards at more than eight yards per play. In addition, this is the most points Virginia has been favored by away from Charlottesville under Bronco Mendenhall. This is Virginia's 25th true road game under Mendenhall and marks just the fifth time they have been favored in a road contest. In the previous four games, the most they were favored by was a measly four points. They lost that game for what its worth. This is uncharted territory for both Florida State and Virginia and I believe the controversy surrounding their cancellation can galvanize Florida State into a strong showing at home. Take the Seminoles to cover and don't be shocked if they pull an outright upset. 

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