Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Fab Five: Week XV

Last Week: 1-4
Overall: 30-38-2
The past two weeks have pretty much doomed us to a losing record this year. But there is no opting out this late in the season. We have some Championship Weekend picks and next week, we'll get some bowl picks out to you. Enjoy.
*Note this post has been updated with the cancelation of the Florida State/Wake Forest game. 

Ball State +13.5 Buffalo @ Detroit
While Power Five conference title games have pretty gone to form over the past few years, the MAC is a place where underdogs can still howl. Since 2005, the betting underdog in the MAC Championship Game is 11-4 Against the Spread (ATS) and an impressive 6-9 straight up. Double digit favorites have performed quite poorly, going 1-6 ATS in that span with three outright losses. In fact, this exact matchup occurred twelve years ago with the roles almost perfectly reversed. Ball State entered the game as a two touchdown favorite, sporting an undefeated record and the first ranking in school history. A few fluky turnovers by the Cardinals and an efficient passing game from Buffalo allowed the Bulls to win their first MAC title. Will history repeat it self, but different? Buffalo is unbeaten, rolling through their abbreviated MAC schedule with a 5-0 record, but a closer inspection of their record reveals the Bulls have pounded patsies. Three of their five opponents (Akron, Bowling Green, and Northern Illinois) combined for one victory and the best team they faced was Kent State. Of course, Jaret Patterson nearly set the NCAA rushing record against the Golden Flashes, but Ball State will probably represent Buffalo's strongest opponent to date. Buffalo has an efficient and explosive running game, but if they are ever forced into passing situations, I'm not sure they will be able to respond. The Bulls have attempted only five passes all season on third and long (at least seven yards to go for a first down). If the Cardinals can limit the running of the Bulls even a little, they have a great chance to keep this game close. 

Oregon +3.5 Southern Cal
With the Washington Huskies sidelined this week, Oregon will look to become the first Pac-12 team to repeat as conference champs since Stanford in 2013. The Ducks were the highest ranked Pac-12 team in the preseason and looked on their way to an unbeaten campaign. However, a loss to their arch-rivals in Corvallis begat a strange loss at Cal where the offense managed just seventeen points (the fewest the Ducks have managed since their date with Cal last season. The Bears are the only team over the past two seasons to hold the Ducks under twenty points. While Oregon stumbled, Southern Cal was clutch. The Trojans were far from dominant, as evidenced by their placement in the College Football Playoff rankings, but fourth quarter comebacks against Arizona, Arizona State, and UCLA have them sitting at 5-0 for the first time since 2006! Despite the glossy record, Southern Cal is barely above water in terms of Net Yards per Play. The Trojans have outgained their Pac-12 opponents by 0.06 yards per play while Oregon is at a more robust +1.52. I understand why the Trojans are favored, but the records of these two teams could easily be reversed. I like the Ducks to cover and win outright as they did in last season's Pac-12 Championship Game. 

Ole Miss -2 LSU
LSU at Florida was Exhibit A for why I was disappointed the ACC gave Clemson and Notre Dame the week off before their rematch in the ACC Championship Game. No matter how likely a victory seems on paper, college football has a habit of delivering unexpected results. LSU won in Gainesville despite allowing over 600 yards of offense (the third time an opponent has gained at least 600 yards against the Tigers this season) at over eight yards per play thanks to some timely turnovers (+3 in the game with a pick six), a clutch field goal, and of course, a shoe toss. While the victory gives LSU bragging rights against Florida for another year, their defense was just as bad (if a little more opportunistic) as they have been all season. With Vanderbilt's game against Georgia canceled and the Commodores season complete, the Tigers have a chance to finish with the worst per play defense in the SEC. They are currently a miniscule 0.05 yards per play better than Vanderbilt. With the explosive Ole Miss offense coming to Baton Rouge, they certainly have a shot at passing them. Ole Miss has lost four straight in this series, with each loss coming by at least sixteen points, but beating LSU would serve as a nice coda to Lane Kiffin's first year in Oxford. The Tigers are getting too much credit for a fluky win last week. Take the Rebels to win and force LSU to drop the axe on Bo Pelini. 

Missouri -1.5 Mississippi State
Mercifully, Mike Leach's first season in the SEC will come to an end on Saturday. After exposing the defending national champs in their opener, the Bulldogs have fallen on hard times. Their offense has averaged just fourteen points per game since that opening salvo, and the team has not scored more than 24 points in any other game this season. I'm not an Air Raid skeptic, and I expect Leach to eventually have success in Starkville, but for this season, it sure seems to be a square peg/round hole situation. That being the case, I am shocked the Bulldogs are basically a pick 'em against a Missouri team enjoying a solid first season under Eli Drinkwitz. The Tigers are 5-4, but three of their losses have come to the best teams in the conference (Alabama, Florida, and Georgia). The other came to Tennessee and their really is no excuse for that. I think recency bias is playing a role in this spread as their most recent game was against a suddenly explosive Georgia team where they were mostly non-competitive. Luckily, explosive does not begin to describe Mississippi State's offense. The Tigers should win easily and close the regular season with win number six. 

Notre Dame +10.5 Clemson @ Charlotte
While the previous games I picked don't have really any national consequences, this game could be quite impactful. A victory by Notre Dame could keep Clemson out of the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2014, while a victory by Clemson could see the ACC net two playoff bids. Everyone remembers what happened in the first game, where Clemson, without Trevor Lawrence, lost in overtime at South Bend. Despite the victory, many in the college football universe were not impressed. Notre Dame's blowout losses at the hands of Alabama and Clemson in 2012 and 2018 respectively seem to be what is driving this number north of double digits. I know the Irish had the homefield and an experience advantage at quarterback in the last meeting, but beating the Tigers in any venue under any circumstances in this era is impressive. Clemson has won five consecutive ACC titles, with their past three championship game victories coming by an average of just over 37 points per game. Perhaps that is also contributing to this big number. The betting market remembers Clemson dominating in this spot the past few seasons. If this game were in Death Valley, double digits might be justified. However, on a neutral field, the Irish are the play. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Fab Five: Week XIV

Last Week: 2-4
Overall: 29-34-2
Our first losing week since Halloween undoes most of the good we did in November. There are just two weeks left in the regular season and then the bowls start. It will take a spirited effort to get back to .500, but here goes.

Louisville -1 Wake Forest
What a difference a year makes. Scott Satterfield built up a great deal of equity with the Louisville faithful in 2019, going 8-5 and finishing with a winning record in the ACC after the team bottomed out in 2018. However, his recent flirtations with and denials about the open South Carolina job, to go along with a disappointing 3-7 record, have likely signaled the end of the honeymoon period. Of course, on a per play level Louisville has improved in his second season. Last year, the Cardinals paired a strong offense with a poor defense, but won all their close games (3-0 in one-score games) to finish with a winning record despite being outscored on the year. This season, the Cardinals still have a powerful offense, and a weak defense, but are 0-4 in close games. Despite their 3-7 record, they have actually outscored their ten opponents and this is without the usual benefit of an FCS non-conference slaughter. Louisville is better than their record and should probably be a larger favorite against a Wake Forest team playing its first game in nearly a month. The Demon Deacons were last seen blowing a three touchdown lead in a loss at North Carolina. Wake plays fast and has a solid offense and an even worse defense than the Cardinals, so expect a lot of possessions and a lot of points. What more could you ask for from two mediocre teams playing a meaningless game in the midst of a global pandemic? With an expected high point total, this minuscule spread should not come into play. Take the Cardinals to close the year with their fourth victory. 

Northern Illinois +6 Eastern Michigan
One of the more shocking, if under the radar results, from last week was winless Eastern Michigan drilling their directional rivals in Kalamazoo 53-42. The Eagles, as they always are under Chris Creighton, had been competitive in 2020, but had dropped their first four games and seemed headed for a potential 0-6 campaign. However, they scored more than fifty points against an FBS opponent for the first time since 2017 and beat the Broncos for the second straight season. The win was pretty emblematic of what Eastern Michigan is under Chris Creighton, great as an underdog. Against MAC competition, Eastern Michigan is 21-15-2 Against the Spread (ATS) as a betting underdog. They are even better if we look at what they have done since 2016. In Creighton's first two seasons as head coach, he didn't give much indication that he would be different than his predecessors, winning just a single conference game outright while posting a 4-11-1 ATS mark (all as an underdog). However, since 2016, the Eagles are 17-4-1 ATS as an underdog against MAC teams. Of course, while the Eagles have been great as an underdog under Creighton, they have not done nearly as well laying points. The Eagles were not favored against a conference opponent until their 21st game under Creighton (they lost that game). Since then, they have been favored here and there, but have not done well covering the number, posting a 4-10 ATS mark as a conference favorite (2-7 ATS at home). I expect that trend to continue as they are laying too many points, even against Northern Illinois. 

UAB -7 Rice
I mentioned Eastern Michigan dropping fifty was one of the more shocking results from last week, but without a doubt, the most shocking result was Rice shutting out Marshall on the road as a more than twenty point underdog. The Owls didn't do a whole lot on offense, racking up just over 200 yards while averaging just over 3.5 yards per play. However, they forced numerous turnovers, intercepting Grant Wells five times, while returning one for a touchdown. Now the Owls will look to build on that victory against a UAB team that has not played in six weeks thanks to numerous cancellations. The Blazers have won all three games against Rice by double digits since their rebirth in 2017. This spread is lower than it should be thanks to Rice's inexplicable win last week. I think the Owls revert to form this week and drop this game by more than a touchdown. 

Navy +7 Army
America's Game, like most things in 2020, will look a little different. For starters, the academies will not have the stage to themselves. Instead, they will square off while a litany of other college football games are contested at the same time. This is the first time since 2008 that Army and Navy are not the only game in town. In addition, instead of a neutral site, this game will be played at West Point for the first time since 1943. Apparently, there were some pretty important things going on in the world during that time. Oh, and the other unique thing is that Army is favored for just the fourth time this century (and just the second time since 2002). The Black Knights will finish with a winning record for the fourth time in five seasons, but their schedule is light on quality wins. Three of their seven wins have come against FCS competition and two of their four FBS victories have come against the worst the 2020 season has to offer (Louisiana Monroe and Middle Tennessee). Navy is not a good team, but the Midshipmen are AAC bad, not Sun Belt bad. Army should be favored, but this is too many points, especially going against an opponent that is intimately familiar with Army's offense. The underdog has done quite well in this series of late, covering eight of the last twelve and five of the last six. I expect more of the same with the Midshipmen giving a spirited effort. 

Baylor +5.5 Oklahoma State
The Bears and Cowboys will look to end their disappointing seasons on a high note in Waco. Baylor could never get going in Dave Aranda's first season at the helm. The Bears lost five of their first six games and enter the regular season finale having beaten the two Big 12 teams from the Sunflower State and no one else. For Oklahoma State, their potential Big 12 title dreams have evaporated along with their dominant defense since Halloween. In their first four conference games, the Cowboys allowed a minuscule 4.29 yards per play. However, since losing to Texas, in a game they dominated in the stat sheet if not the scoreboard, the Cowboys have allowed 6.83 yards per play. To make matters worse for degenerates, the Cowboys have not covered a point spread since laying waste to Kansas in early October. They are on a run of six consecutive point spread losses and with nothing to play for, how can you lay points with them on the road? Since Mike Gundy arrived in Stillwater, this has been a weird series. The Cowboys are 8-7 against the Bears under Gundy, but have lost six of the past eight and have not won in Waco since 2009. In addition, despite only six of the games having a double digit point spread, thirteen have resulted in a double digit margin of victory. For whatever reason, these games have tended to get ugly, no matter which team is favored. I think the Bears will give a good effort at home before going into hibernation for the offseason. Take Baylor and the points. 

Thursday, December 03, 2020

The Fab Five: Week XIII

Last Week: 3-1*
Overall: 27-30-2
We closed November strong with our best week of the year. Of course, part of that is due to one of the games being canceled. To make up for it, we have six picks for you this week. Enjoy.
*Please note this post has been updated. The Buffalo at Ohio game was canceled on Friday, so it has been replaced with another pick (free of charge of course). 

Auburn +7 Texas A&M
Is the College Football Playoff Committee really going to put Texas A&M in the field if one of the top four stumble (or don't play enough games)? I know they have an impressive home win against Florida, but outside of the Gators, what is their best win? LSU last week or perhaps Arkansas on Halloween? If the Aggies do happen to win out and one of the current top four don't make it in, I would hope the committee would err on the side of an unbeaten Group of Five team like Cincinnati or BYU. The Aggies have already proven they don't belong on the same field as Alabama. Let some other team have the opportunity. Anyway, Auburn could do us all a big favor and wreck the Aggies playoff dreams by winning on Saturday. Like Texas A&M, the Tigers were not competitive against what could be Nick Saban's best Alabama team. Now they return to the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare, where they have done well as an underdog under Gus Malzahn. The Tigers are 8-3 Against the Spread (ATS) as a home underdog, with six outright wins. And the underdog has performed well in this series overall. In the eight meetings since Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, the underdog has gone 6-1-1 ATS and won five games outright. Texas A&M is the fifth best team according to the CFB Playoff rankings, but they should not be laying a touchdown on the road.  

Boston College +6 Virginia
While it appears Boston College will once again finish with either six or seven wins when the 2020 season is in the books (would be the eighth time they have done that in the past eleven seasons), the Eagles have exceeded expectations under first year head coach Jeff Hafley. All four teams to beat the Eagles were ranked at the time of the game, and two stand a pretty good chance at getting into the College Football Playoff. The Eagles have done well in the underdog role this season, covering four times in six games, while winning two of the games outright. I expect them to perform well against a Virginia team that has won three in a row, but is fraudulent. The Cavaliers have been outgained by more than a full yard per play by ACC opponents and have the worst per play defense in the ACC outside of Tallahassee. This game is a toss up and with Boston College catching nearly a touchdown, they are the play. 

Indiana +14 Wisconsin
This line is probably an overreaction to the injury Michael Penix suffered last week that will cause him to miss the rest of the season. Penix was a solid quarterback for the Hoosiers, but he was not a Heisman contender nor the solitary driving force behind Indiana's success. His backup, Jack Tuttle, while inexperienced, was a good recruit coming out of high school. And speaking of inexperienced quarterbacks, this will mark Graham Mertz fourth start for Wisconsin. Mertz dazzled in his first start against Illinois (again, I repeat, Illinois), but struggled in his next two starts against Michigan and Northwestern. Indiana has a pretty good defense, so I don't expect Mertz to dominate. The Hoosiers are middle of the pack in yards allowed per play (seventh in the Big 10), but if we take out the Ohio State game, where they allowed over 600 yards and 42 points, those numbers look a lot better. Against their other five Big 10 opponents, they are allowing under five yards per play and about eighteen points per game. Wisconsin is one of the better Big 10 programs, but they are not in Ohio State's class. The Hoosiers should be able to make this a low-scoring affair and do enough on offense to cover this two touchdown spread. 

Florida Atlantic +2 Georgia Southern
Many college football fans, myself included, expected Florida Atlantic to take a step back in 2020 after losing head coach Lane Kiffin and replacing him with failed Florida State coach Willie Taggart. The Owls didn't play their first game until early October and then went three weeks before playing their second. They lost that second game to Marshall and it seemed like the Owls were destined to finish in the middle of the pack in Conference USA. However, since that loss to Marshall, the Owls have won four in a row and have a chance to finish the abbreviated regular season with just one loss. And with the struggles continuing in Tallahassee, it makes you think maybe Willie wasn't the problem. The Owls are led by a stout defense, coordinated by Jim Leavitt, who also worked for Willie in his lone season coaching the Oregon Ducks. The Owls have not played a rugged schedule, but they are allowing just 4.5 yards per play and eleven points per game. They have not allowed more than twenty points in any game this season (the undefeated Thundering Herd got to twenty) and have held three opponents (Massachusetts, UTSA, and Western Kentucky) out of the endzone entirely. They should probably be favored in this game, especially when you consider that Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts is dealing with a shoulder injury. Georgia Southern may also lack the requisite motivation to get up for this game. This is not a conference game, and the Eagles have dropped back-to-back close games to a former coach and their in-state rivals. Take the Owls to cover this small number and win outright. 

California +10 Oregon
Both the Bears and Ducks lost in the final minutes last week against their arch rivals. Cal lost at home to Stanford thanks to a blocked extra point and Oregon, despite some help from the officials, fell at Oregon State for just the second time since 2007. While Cal's loss was more heartbreaking, Oregon's was more damaging. Whatever pipe dreams the Ducks had for advancing to the College Football Playoff are dashed, and they must win out to have a shot at defending their Pac-12 title. Truth be told, the Ducks probably should have lost the week before at home to UCLA, but some timely turnovers, especially one at the end of the first half helped them edge the Bruins. The betting market loves the Ducks, as this is the eighth straight (regular season) game where they have been a double digit favorite. The Ducks are 3-4 ATS in the previous seven, but the market does not appear to have adjusted to how poor the Oregon defense is this season. Last year, the Ducks finished second in the Pac-12 in yards allowed per play. Thus far, they are tenth in 2020. Oregon is dealing with a host of opt outs, especially in the secondary, so this performance is not that surprising. Having the Ducks continue to lay big numbers, especially on the road, is surprising. Cal is desperate for a win, having lost three straight to open the season. In addition, they have done well as a big home underdog under Justin Wilcox, covering all three times they have been catching at least ten points in Berkeley, while winning two of the games outright. I expect Cal to get back on track and keep this game close. 

South Carolina +11.5 Kentucky
For what its worth, I'm already regretting taking the hometown Gamecocks to cover this number. After upsetting Auburn in mid-October to pull even at 2-2, the Gamecocks have dropped five in a row with four of the five losses coming by seventeen or more points. The lone competitive affair in that stretch came two weeks ago against Missouri, in their first game after firing Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks held Missouri to seventeen points in that game, which is an amazing feat considering they allowed 204 points in the other four games of the skid. I think the Gamecocks may be able to give a similar defensive effort against a Kentucky team that ranks second to last in the SEC in yards per play and third to last in scoring offense. As I've mentioned a few other times, its very hard to cover double digits if you can't score. Obviously, Kentucky will not be shut out by a South Carolina defense that is leaking oil and probably ready to start the offseason, but Kentucky has not done well as a large favorite under Mark Stoops. As a double digit home favorite, they are just 6-8 ATS, and all of the covers have come against Group of Five teams. Against SEC opponents, the Wildcats are 0-3 ATS (all against Vanderbilt). In fact, the Wildcats have not been a double digit favorite against an SEC team other than Vanderbilt since 2007 (they lost that game by the way). And they have not been a double digit favorite against South Carolina since 1998, when the Gamecocks were on the front nine of a nearly two year losing streak (they won, but didn't cover by the way). I know there is always the potential for South Carolina to quit on the season with no coach and no postseason to play for, but what is Kentucky's motivation? After winning eighteen games the past two seasons, the Wildcats have clinched a losing record in 2020. They should win, but I don't expect them to blow the Gamecocks out.