Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

We got back on track a bit with a solid 2-1 record over championship week. Now its bowl season. Hopefully we can put together a solid showing and end up with a winning record. In the new year, look for a Vegas trip futures recap and on the Thursday after the national title game, our annual conference YPP and APR recaps will begin. The offseason is long and arduous so enjoy every bowl game, no matter how superfluous they may seem. Happy Holidays!

Last Week: 2-1
Overall 50-43-1

Boca Raton Bowl
Western Kentucky +3 Appalachian State
The first game on the first Saturday of bowl season pits two conference runner-ups against each other. Both the Hilltoppers and Mountaineers entered their respective championship games as road favorites looking to avenge a regular season loss. Alas, both fell short in their attempts at revenge. Western Kentucky was mostly done in by turnovers (-3 margin), missed field goals (missed two kicks), and conservative decision making (attempted four field goals in a game where they allowed 49 points). Meanwhile, Appalachian State could not get their offense going. The Ragin' Cajuns limited them to 290 yards (the only team to hold them under 300 yards of total offense and they did it twice) and 16 points. The Mountaineers should have no trouble topping that point total against a Western Kentucky defense that improved as the season went on, but is not the strength of the team. That would be the other side of the ball. Tyson Helton imported the Houston Baptist offense and the results were fantastic. The team averaged 43 points per game and quarterback Bailey Zappe threw 56 touchdown passes. With a decent showing here, he should make it to 60 on the season. Unfortunately for Helton's long term prospects at Western Kentucky, the offensive coordinator he brought over from Houston Baptist, Zach Kittley is off to Texas Tech (although he will coach in this bowl game). Short term though, the Hilltoppers should be motivated to put up another big offensive showing in their last game together. Take the Hilltoppers and the points. 

Independence Bowl
The big question in handicapping this game is what do you consider BYU? Are the Cougars a Group of Five or Power Five program? The Cougars will be Big 12 members at some point in the near future, but I would argue the betting market and the college football culture at large treat them as a Group of Five team. Why is this relatively esoteric classification important? Under Bill Clark, UAB has dominated their Group of Five opponents as an underdog and for the most part, been beaten soundly by Power Five teams. 
The Blazers have a winning straight up record (12-11) as a betting underdog against Group of Five opponents. They covered their first game against a Power Five opponent under Clark, but have failed to cover their last six. I don't see why things would change in this spot. This is a vintage Clark UAB team. The Blazers had the best per play defense in Conference USA, so they should be able to hold BYU under their season average in points per game (33.5). If BYU has trouble scoring, they will obviously have trouble covering this number. In addition, BYU has not been great as a favorite under Kalani Sitake. Over his six season in charge, the Cougars are 20-24 ATS as a favorite and 9-13 ATS as a favorite on the road or at a neutral site. However, those numbers are buoyed by the 2020 season when BYU was a covering machine. They were 8-3 ATS as a favorite last season and 4-1 ATS away from Provo. Using my abacus, that means BYU is just 12-21 in Sitake's other five seasons as a favorite and 5-12 ATS as a road or neutral favorite. I think that trend will continue. Take UAB to keep this one close. 

Myrtle Beach Bowl
Old Dominion +9.5 Tulsa
As a resident of South Carolina and die hard college football fan, I will be in attendance for the second edition of this game. The inaugural Myrtle Beach Bowl was not very competitive, with Appalachian State running wild against North Texas. While technically possessing no true powers of clairvoyance, I have an inkling this one will be more competitive. Both teams played well down the stretch, with Tulsa winning three in a row to close the regular season and Old Dominion topping that with five consecutive wins to secure a postseason invite. Despite entering as a relatively prohibitive favorite, a recent trend points to Old Dominion being the right side. In the College Football Playoff era (since 2014), there have been twelve bowl games matching up teams where both have six or fewer wins (ignoring the weird 2020 bowl season where everyone was eligible). Favorites in those games are 7-5 straight up, but just 5-7 ATS. Of course, 5-7 is just one game from a perfectly random 6-6, so lets dig a little deeper. If we limit our sample to favorites of a field goal or more, that leaves us with nine total games. Favorites in those games are 5-4 straight up and just 3-6 ATS. The sample size is limited, but the logic behind it makes sense. A 6-6 team is usually mediocre at best (there are some exceptions), but laying points with a mediocre team (even against another mediocre team) at a neutral site would not seem to be a wise long term betting strategy. However, even if you don't trust that trend, consider which side is more motivated in this game. Tulsa played in the AAC Championship Game last season, yet barely eked out a low level bowl invite in 2021. Meanwhile, Old Dominion did not play football in 2020 and went 1-11 in 2019. The Monarchs are probably more excited to be playing football in luxurious Conway that the Golden Hurricane. Finally, consider Tulsa's margin in their wins this season. The Golden Hurricane won six games, but five of those victories came by a touchdown or less. Grab the points with Old Dominion. 

Frisco Bowl 
San Diego State +2.5 UTSA
Ah, the life of a Group of Five team. Win almost all your games and get rewarded with a spot at the bottom of the AP Poll. Lose and your out. Both teams know the ephemeral nature of rankings for teams not in the Power Five. UTSA began the season 11-0. Dropped a meaningless (for conference purposes) road game at North Texas and fell all the way out of the poll from 15th. San Diego State began the year 11-1, with a victory against the eventual Pac-12 champ included in that set of wins, but dropped their conference title game (with Covid issues impacting the result) and dropped out of the poll entirely. The winner of this game will finish ranked (UTSA for the first time ever and San Diego State for just the third time in school history). However, it shouldn't be that way. Both these teams may not technically be among the top 25 teams in college football this season, but its hard to win almost all of your games. A spot in the AP Poll should be a carrot for a Group of Five team that finishes with more than ten wins. Its something to brag about to your rivals and during fundraising efforts in the offseason. I guess we'll have to settle for a 9-4 Texas A&M taking the spot that should be reserved for one of these two. Anyway, as for the game itself. UTSA seemed to be wheezing toward the finish line, failing to cover their final three games before some turnovers, poor in-game coaching on the other sideline, and a raucous home crowd delivered a conference title to San Antonio. Despite the victory over Western Kentucky, the Roadrunners allowed north of seven yards per play for the second time in three games. San Diego State will not put up anywhere close to the offensive numbers of Western Kentucky, but they should be able to run the ball effectively against a Roadrunner defense that was gashed by UAB and North Texas. San Diego State has been great as an underdog this season, posting a 4-1 straight up and ATS record in the role. I expect more of the same here with the Aztecs rebounding from their poor showing in the Mountain West Championship Game. 

Armed Forces Bowl 
Army -3.5 Missouri
I'm normally not one to lay points when a Group of Five team is favored against a Power Five team, particularly one from the mighty SEC, but I think Army is undervalued in this spot. We all know Army's bread and butter is running the football. The Black Knights would be content if this game played out a lot like the Monday Night Football game from a week ago with the winning team attempting around three passes. They may be able to do just that against a Missouri defense that was horrendous against the run in 2021. On the season, the Tigers allowed 5.5 yards per rush and 30 touchdowns on the ground. And those numbers include two solid performances late in the year against South Carolina and Florida. The anemic Gamecocks and disinterested Gators combined to rush for 150 yards against Missouri. The other ten teams averaged more than 260 yards per game on the ground against them. While that does include six other SEC teams and Boston College, there are also two Group of Five squads (Central Michigan and North Texas) and an FCS team in the mix. Will a bad run defense have any interest in filling the necessary gaps and maintaining their discipline against a solid service academy looking for their first Power Five scalp since 2017? Army is usually an underdog against Power Five teams (and a good team to back in those instances), so the situation is a bit unusual, but this line is telling you everything you need to know. Army should run all over Missouri and as long as they get an occasional stop and don't lose the turnover battle by a significant margin, they should be able to cover this relatively small number. 

Military Bowl 
East Carolina +3 Boston College
If you just take a cursory look at the numbers, you would think Boston College's conference season took a massive turn for the better once quarterback Phil Jurkovec returned from injury. Jurkovec missed the first half of conference play and in that quartet of games, the Eagles averaged 4.07 yards per play and ten points per game. With those anemic offensive numbers, its no surprise they lost all four. Jurkovec returned in their fifth game, a Friday night clash with Virginia Tech. The Eagles won 17-3 and then dropped 41 points on Georgia Tech the next week. The narrative was written. With Jurkovec, Boston College was a threat down the stretch. Of course, reality does not always abide narratives and the Eagles lost their last two games to finish 6-6. Overall, Jurkovec's return did improve the offense, but that is a bit overstated. 
The team improved offensively by more than one and a half yards per play with him in the lineup and more than doubled their points per game. However, schedule strength also contributed to the improvement. 
Without Jurkovec, the Eagles faced the top two per play defenses in the conference and all four of their opponents in the first half of the conference schedule ranked in the top half of the ACC in that category. When Jurkovec returned, the Eagles faced one above average unit (Florida State), but also two of the worst per play defenses in the conference (Wake Forest and Georgia Tech). While the Eagles dominated Georgia Tech's overmatched defense, they scored just ten points against a very sketch Wake Forest unit. I mention all this because while Boston College certainly improved once Jurkovec returned, they are still below average as far as ACC offenses go. While I believe Boston College is overvalued by the betting market, I also think motivation favors the underdog. East Carolina has not played in a bowl game since 2014! The Pirates are no doubt ready for this game and the fact they are facing a Power Five team only adds to their motivation. Also keep in mind, while the Pirates have five losses, two of them came to the best teams in the AAC (Houston and Cincinnati), one came to one of the best teams in the Sun Belt (Appalachian State), and a fourth came to a Power Five opponent (South Carolina). The other loss came on the road to a solid Central Florida team. In addition, three of the losses came by less than a touchdown or in overtime. East Carolina has waited a long time for this. I expect them to cover the field goal spread and potentially win outright. 

Sugar Bowl 
Ole Miss Pick Baylor
I'm a fan of the nouveau riche in college football. I like it when the havenots finally get to 'have' even if it may only be for a little while. And it doesn't get much more havenot than these two programs. Prior Art Briles (I know, he sucks), Baylor won eleven conference games in the first twelve years of the Big 12. When the conference first formed, they were basically what Kansas is now. Of course, Briles got them to the brink of the College Football Playoff before scandal pulled back the curtain on his hypocrisy. Since his departure the Bears have bottomed out a few times, but also made two appearances in the Big 12 Championship Game, the most recent of which they won thanks to two great goal line stands and Oklahoma State turnovers. Meanwhile, Ole Miss is another perennial havenot, having never played in the SEC Championship Game despite 30 cracks at it. The Rebels played in the Sugar Bowl six years ago, but prior to that season they had not finished in the AP top ten since the year of the (fake) moon landing! Suffice to say, both teams should be motivated to play in this game and finish with one of the highest rankings in school history. I think Baylor is overvalued thanks to their upset win against Oklahoma State. The Bears got up big on Oklahoma State thanks to some interceptions by Spencer Sanders, but they gained just 242 total yards and since upsetting Oklahoma, have averaged just 4.66 yards per play. Those offensive numbers won't cut it against Ole Miss. I expect a good defensive showing by the Bears, but a good defensive showing probably means Ole Miss scores at least 24 points. Can the Bears match that? I have my doubts. Its rare you can get an SEC team as an undervalued asset. That is the case here. Take the Rebels to win in SEC country. 

Thursday, December 02, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Championship Week

After posting our best week of the year, we follow it up with our worst week. The gambling gods giveth and taketh away. Since there are only eleven games this week (ten title games plus a zombie Pac-12 game that means absolutely nothing), we have an abbreviated number of picks as well. Accept my apologies, but be prepared to be led astray with seven picks in bowl season. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 1-5-1
Overall 48-42-1

Utah State +6 San Diego State
Utah State's over/under win total entering the 2021 season was three. The Aggies tripled that meager projection and are in the Mountain West Championship Game for the first time since the very first one played back in 2013. San Diego State had slightly higher expectations (6.5 was their over/under win total), but their presence in the title game for the first time since 2016 is also a bit surprising. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this game is that despite their 13 combined Mountain West victories, neither team dominated the competition. Utah State finished dead even in terms of Net YPP in conference play, while San Diego State outgained their Mountain West foes by exactly .01 yards per play! Both teams won all their one-score conference games (combined 8-0) and had positive turnover differentials (combined +9 in conference play). They also beat three Pac-12 teams between, including one that may play in the Rose Bowl. San Diego State is a defense (and punting) first team with a bad offense, so it is hard for them to get margin, even against the dregs of FBS. And while their defense is the strength of the team, the better passing offenses on the schedule have been able to move the ball against them. Fresno State, Nevada, and UNLV all threw for more than 300 yards and averaged north of seven yards per pass against their secondary. Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner, who followed Blake Anderson from Arkansas State, is good enough to make some plays against the San Diego State defense. It may not be enough to win, but it should be enough to cover. 

Louisiana-Lafayette +3 Appalachian State
Since an opening loss at the hands of Texas, the Ragin' Cajuns have won eleven straight. Included in that eleven game winning streak was a home victory against their opponent in this game. Louisiana-Lafayette laid the proverbial wood to the Mountaineers, blasting them 41-13. The loss was the largest for Appalachian State since Miami pounded them 45-10 in Boone in 2016 and their largest ever to a Sun Belt opponent. Somehow, two months later at the scene of the crime, the Mountaineers are field goal favorites. Perhaps that is due somewhat to the departure of head coach Billy Napier, who was recently hired to coach the Florida Gators. Napier is sticking around to coach this game, hoping to emulate Scott Frost (at least somewhat) who coached the NY6 Bowl at UCF after being named the head coach at Nebraska. While both the Mountaineers and Ragin' Cajuns are known more for their offensive prowess, they are the two best per play defenses in the Sun Belt with both allowing under five yards per play in conference action. Louisiana-Lafayette has been a home underdog on two occasions under Billy Napier and they have won and covered both games. That's a very small sample size, but it speaks to the unique circumstances surrounding this game. I expected the Ragin' Cajuns to be favored and to have no opinion on this game. Since they are catching a field goal, they are the team to back. 

Houston +10.5 Cincinnati
After seven years of excluding the little guy, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee may be forced to include a Group of Five team in their bougie playoff. Cincinnati is currently ranked fourth by the committee and if the season ended today, which it does not, would be in the College Football Playoff. While that is a once in a lifetime opportunity, it could also make a team play a little tight. I haven't done any full fledged research on the issue (perhaps an offeason topic), but anecdotally, Kansas State and their 1998 Big 12 Championship Game loss to Texas A&M sticks out in my memory. The Wildcats were on the verge of going from the worst major conference program to playing for a national title in a decade until a fourth quarter collapse relegated them to the Alamo Bowl. Once again, this is entirely anecdotal, but it makes sense that a team with little history of competing for national titles might struggle when they are on the door step of something historic, especially when they are facing a pretty good opponent. And rest assured, Houston is easily the second best team in the AAC. The Cougars have not lost since their perplexing collapse against Texas Tech in the opener, with eight of their eleven victories coming by double digits. In addition, should they manage to pull off the upset, Houston would probably be the highest ranked Group of Five team and play their way into a NY6 bowl. Since this spread is more than a touchdown, Houston is a good play. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

We caught some breaks (thanks for the backdoor Illinois) and posted our best week of the year. Let's follow that up with another winning week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall 47-37

San Jose State +7.5 Fresno State
The Spartans and Bulldogs enter this game off an unusual late season bye. Since both teams played in Week Zero, it was actually the second bye week for each, so neither team should come in with a rest advantage. In addition, despite differing records, both teams still have a lot to play for. Fresno State can win the West division if they beat San Jose State and San Diego State loses to Boise on Black Friday. Meanwhile, San Jose State needs a victory to become bowl eligible for the second consecutive season. That would be quite an accomplishment for a program that has played in back to back bowl games just once in school history. The Spartans have struggled offensively after their championship winning 2020 campaign, but they still play good defense, having held all eleven of their 2021 opponents below six yards per play. In fact, they have done so in their last twenty games since the penultimate game of the 2019 season! They gave up 48 points in their last outing, but that was mostly due to Utah State's excellent starting field position. The Aggies returned an interception for a touchdown and had two touchdown drives under ten yards and a third that began in plus territory. If the Spartans don't offer up room service turnovers, Fresno State should struggle to score. San Jose State is 8-5-1 ATS as a home underdog under Brent Brennan, and are 7-2-1 when catching at least a touchdown as they are here. Bowl eligibility is a big deal, so I don't expect motivation to be an issue despite the fact the other side is arguably playing for more (a potential conference title). Take the Spartans to keep this one close. 

Boise State -2.5 San Diego State
This game kicks off at 9 AM local time on Black Friday. While the players may be a little drowsy from the tryptophan, this game will be televised by regular CBS, so the two of the better teams in the Mountain West will be getting national exposure. This game means a great deal to both teams as San Diego State will clinch a spot in the Mountain West Championship Game with a win (they could also make it with a loss pending the results of the Fresno State game on Thanksgiving) while Boise will keep their division title hopes alive with a win. The Broncos have four regular season losses for the first time since 2015, but have won four in a row in dominant fashion (outscored last four opponents by more than twenty points per game). They have also been better away from the Smurf Turf, posting a 4-1 straight up and (5-0 ATS) record on the road with the lone defeat coming in the opener against a UCF team at full strength. Meanwhile, San Diego State has punted and clawed their way to ten wins, with six of the victories (including the last five) all coming by a touchdown or less. Their defense is one of the best in the Mountain West, but the offense is the worst on a per play basis outside of New Mexico. I've been rooting for the Aztecs and their unaesthetic style all season, but I think they will struggle to keep up with a Boise State team that is rounding into form. 

Miami (Ohio) +1 Kent State
These in-state rivals did not play last season due to Covid. It marked the first season they did not play since the FBS formation of the MAC in 1962. So they are probably chomping at the bit to get a piece of each other. Oh, and lest I forget, this game will also decide the MAC East. And considering a very flawed Northern Illinois team has won the West, the winner of this game will probably be favored at the MAC Championship Game next week at Ford Field. While Kent State is favored by the bookmakers, I rate Miami as the better team. Both teams have prolific offenses, with Kent State having scored 32 offensive touchdowns in seven MAC games. Miami is not far behind, having scored 28 offensive touchdowns in their seven league games. However, on defense, there is no comparison. Miami has allowed 16 offensive touchdowns in MAC play while Kent State has allowed more than double that amount (33). The Golden Flashes play fast, so there should be possessions aplenty in this game. More possessions mean the better team has more opportunities to assert their dominance. In this instance, that team appears to be Miami. In addition, Miami has played well as a road underdog under Chuck Martin, posting a 14-8 ATS record in the role in MAC play. Those numbers also include nine outright wins by the Redhawks. I think the same thing happens here. Miami should win the game and take the division crown. 

Wyoming -10 Hawaii
The Cowboys experienced one of the weirder college football seasons in 2021. They opened the year needing a late comeback to beat FCS Montana State. Then, after scoring just 19 points against the Bobcats, their offense exploded for 95 points in the next two games (the third best two game point total of the Craig Bohl era). Then they went on the road and barely beat Connecticut. Despite the close call with the Huskies, the Cowboys entered Mountain West play with a 4-0 record. They proceeded to drop their first three conference games while scoring a combined 17 points. The Cowboys then changed starting quarterbacks, going from the inaccurate Sean Chambers to the slightly more accurate (but still kind of inaccurate) Levi Williams. The Cowboys have split the four games with Williams as starting quarterback, but the offense has improved significantly. After averaging 5.7 points per game and 4.26 yards per play in their first three conference games, the Cowboys have averaged 27.3 points per game and 6.9 yards per play in their past four. I believe that offense is much more indicative of what we will see on Saturday, especially against a Hawaii defense that is the second worst in the conference in yards allowed per play. In addition, this is Hawaii's seventh consecutive travel weekend. They have alternated home and road games since a bye in early October. 
After upsetting Colorado State last week, I think the Warriors are out of gas and will lay down in this spot. Plus the trends also point to an easy Wyoming win. The Cowboys are 10-4 ATS as a home favorite under Bohl while the Warriors are 1-6 ATS as a road underdog under Todd Graham. Take the Cowboys to win easily. 

Western Kentucky +1 Marshall
Last week's marque Conference USA game was confined to ESPN+ (and ended up being one of the best games of the weekend). At least this week, the game will be on cable as CBS College Sports gets this battle for the East division crown in Conference USA. Since Western Kentucky joined Conference USA in 2014, the Hilltoppers and Thundering Herd have both won two East division crowns (FAU also has two), so this will break the tie. The series has also been pretty competitive with Marshall winning four of the seven contests outright (the past four), but only covering once (last year). Western Kentucky is actually 2-2 in Huntington (covering all four times), which includes an instant classic from their first meeting in 2014. Obviously, those games from several years ago will have little impact on this one, but it does show that a victory by Western Kentucky would not be the most shocking result of the weekend. That is especially true when you note how well the Hilltoppers have played since they began the season 1-4. Two of those losses were to teams currently ranked in the AP Poll, another was a tight home loss to a Power Five team, and the fourth was on the road against a service academy. Since that 1-4 start, the Hilltoppers have averaged 44 points per game and their defense that was a liability in the early going, has allowed under twenty points per game. Granted the competition has not been strong, but that is what you get in Conference USA, arguably the weakest FBS conference. Marshall has handled their business against the dregs of Conference USA as well, winning their five conference contests by an average of 22 points per game. However, they also dropped a home game to the best Conference USA team they have faced thus far (UAB), so don't be afraid to back a road team in Huntington. Western Kentucky will score a lot and their defense has improved enough to get the stops needed to win this game. 

Penn State -1 Michigan State
Ohio State peeled back the curtain last week and exposed Michigan State for a fraud. The Spartans entered with one loss, but probably should have had two or three more (Nebraska, Indiana, and Michigan) if not for some non-offensive scores and questionable officiating. The great start made Mel Tucker a hot commodity. His bank account is certainly better for it, but we'll see how happy Michigan State is in a few years when they realize they broke the back for a coach with a 7-12 overall record heading into 2021. James Franklin also added some money to his coffers, but at least he is the proud owner of a Big 10 title (not to mention unprecedented success at Vanderbilt). But I digress. After a hot start, Penn State has lost four of their past six games. But lets look at the teams that beat Penn State. Every team that has beaten Penn State this season either plays pretty good defense (Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State) or is one of the best teams in the country (Michigan and Ohio State). I can hear the Michigan State fans now. But we beat...Yes, you did beat Michigan. That is one of eleven data points for both teams. The other ten all point to Michigan being the superior team. And in case you missed last week's game, Michigan State is not very good at defense. There are four Big 10 teams with a worse per play defense in (Big 10 games) than the Spartans. Those teams are Maryland, Northwestern, Purdue, and Rutgers. Meanwhile, Penn State has the second best per play defense in the Big 10 (Wisconsin). I think they shut down the explosive Michigan State run game and leave East Lansing with a win. 

California +7 UCLA
College football fans were a little too eager to jump on the UCLA bandwagon this year. The Bruins were better than their record a year ago, having posted a 3-4 record with the four defeats coming by a combined fifteen points. When they opened 2021 by blowing out Hawaii and upsetting LSU, we figured they were back. Well, about that. It's great that UCLA has clinched a winning record for the first time under Chip Kelly, but take a look at who those wins have come against. I'll wait. 
The best team they have beaten is either LSU or Southern Cal. Their other Pac-12 victories (and Hawaii) have all come against bad teams. Give the Bruins credit for winning those games (something they hadn't done in Kelly's first three seasons), but is this a team you really want to lay a touchdown with? The defense is still below average (we'll be kind and not call them bad) and the Bruins have a history of losing home games they were supposed to win under Kelly. The Bruins are 4-9 ATS as a home favorite and have lost outright seven times (three times this season)! Meanwhile, Cal still has the stench of their Covid aided loss to Arizona hovering around the team. However, even with that loss factored in, the Bears have been better than the Bruins on a per play basis in the Pac-12. Cal has outgained their conference foes by more than a yard per play while UCLA is barely above water in that statistic. In addition, Cal has been superb as a road underdog under Justin Wilcox, posting a 14-4 ATS record with seven outright wins. With their rescheduled game with Southern Cal on deck next week, Cal still has a shot at getting to a bowl game, so they should be motivated against their more hyped ursine rivals. Take Cal to cover and potentially win the game outright.  

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

Finally, we returned to our wining ways. Let's close the season strong. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall 41-36

Western Kentucky -10 Florida Atlantic
When it comes to making picks, I am pretty averse to laying double digits. However, in this instance, I can't figure out why this line is not at least two touchdowns. Western Kentucky has quietly won five in a row after a 1-4 start and has scored at least 42 points in five of their six conference games (they only managed 34 in the other). The offense, particularly the passing side, is fantastic. Bailey Zappe has thrown 42 touchdown passes and Jerreth Sterns has an absurd 111 catches. The defense is nothing special, but should be able to get stops against an FAU offense that has not shown up against good teams on the road. The Owls put 38 on the board against a very bad Charlotte defense, but in their other four road games (Florida, Air Force, UAB, and Old Dominion), they have averaged under 13 points per game. For the season, they have decent per play offensive numbers in Conference USA, but that is heavily influenced by games against the aforementioned Charlotte and FIU (winless against FBS foes). In those two games, the Owls averaged a robust 8.98 yards per play and scored 96 points. In their other four conference games, they averaged 4.81 yards per play and scored 71 total points. Even with a good defensive showing, Western Kentucky is getting to thirty. Can FAU get to twenty to cover? I don't think so. This one has blowout written all over it.   

Boston College -1.5 Florida State
It is dangerous to oversimplify things, but I think in this case, it really is that simple. Without quarterback Phil Jurkovec, Boston College is one of the worst ACC teams this side of Duke. In four league games without their starting quarterback, the Eagles scored forty total points and four offensive touchdowns. In two conference games since Jurkovec returned from injury, the Eagles have scored 58 points and seven offensive touchdowns. I don't think this line is fully accounting for what the Eagles are with Jurkovec taking snaps. Jurkovec does not play defense and the Eagles have certainly had their issues on that side of the ball (fifth worst per play defense in ACC play), but their offense is good enough to win a shootout. Florida State is 1-6 straight up on the road under Mike Norvell and has covered as a road underdog just two times in those seven games. In fact, this represents the smallest road spread they have faced under Norvell. They have typically been catching double digits (five times). If Boston College wins, they should cover this small number.  

Illinois +12.5 Iowa
Don't look now, but Bret Bielema has quietly built a quality defense in Champaign. After fielding very bad defenses during his final few seasons at Arkansas (his last two teams both allowed more than 30 points per game), Bielema selected Ryan Walters to be his defensive coordinator. Not only has Walters coordinated a better than average Big 10 defense, his former employer (Missouri) has fallen off a cliff defensively since he left. The Illini allowed 101 points in their first three games, but following the loss at Virginia where they allowed 42 points to the Cavaliers, the Illini have stiffened. They have allowed 115 points in their past seven games and have held six of those seven opponents to twenty points or fewer (only Wisconsin eclipsed twenty).Couple that solid defense with a struggling Iowa offense and you have a recipe for a low scoring affair. The oddsmakers agree, setting the over/under at 38.5. With an over/under that low, it will be hard for Iowa to get margin. The over/under implies a score of about 25-13 and I don't think Iowa will be able to do their part. If Illinois can get to ten points, they should cover this number.  

Virginia +14.5 Pittsburgh
Is Pittsburgh the best team in the ACC? Probably. Does that mean I trust them in any way to cover a big number in a conference game? Absolutely not. While the Panthers are statistically speaking, the best team in the ACC, not all best teams are created equal. To quote Dave Matthews, they are the best of what's around. They are not in the same class as the past few Clemson teams and should not be treated as such by the oddsmakers. Remember, this team has already lost twice at home as a large favorite, including once to a MAC team. Virginia has a bad defense and scored just three points in a showcase home loss to Notre Dame last week, but they were without quarterback Brennan Armstrong. His status for this game is still up in the air, but I think the Cavaliers held him out last week since it was not a conference game. Despite four total losses, Virginia has only lost twice in the ACC and can actually get to the ACC Championship Game if they win their final two against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh has struggled as a home favorite under Pat Narduzzi, posting a 7-10-1 ATS record in ACC play and they have never covered as a double digit home conference favorite (0-3). Take the Cavaliers to keep this one close and don't be surprised if the ACC Wheel of Destiny makes an appearance Saturday afternoon. 

The battle of acronyms in Conference USA will most likely decide the west division. A UTSA win will clinch the division for the Roadrunners while a victory by UAB will put the Blazers in position to win their fourth consecutive division crown if they can also beat UTEP in an acronym under card next week. Unfortunately for Conference USA, this marquee game will be given the ESPN+ treatment. The conference's television deal is a disaster (last week's marquee game between UAB and Marshall was at least on CBS Sports Network) which is probably why it is being held together with duct tape and rubber bands. But I digress. If you happen to have an ESPN+ subscription or know someone who does, tune in. UTSA is ranked, but UAB has been better on a per play basis (in conference play). The Blazers have allowed under four yards per play to their conference opponents this season and have been great as a road underdog under Bill Clark. Against fellow Group of Five opponents, the Blazers are 10-3 ATS with nine outright victories! UTSA has had a dream season, but I think UAB is in position to upset the Roadrunners and seize control of the division race.  

Louisiana-Lafayette +4.5 Liberty
Liberty is 7-3 this season after posting a 10-1 record and top twenty finish in the AP Poll last season. Hugh Freeze is doing a great job of using the Flames as a stepping stone to get back to the SEC. Grift recognize grift. However, the Flames have built their solid 2021 record on a weak schedule. Using ESPN's FPI as a metric to rate teams, Louisiana-Lafayette is the second best team the Flames will have faced this season. 
They have beaten up on bad Conference USA and Sun Belt teams. The Flames were legitimately impressive last season, beating two ACC teams on the road and nearly beating a third before upsetting unbeaten Coastal in the Cure Bowl. The Flames do have a somewhat impressive road win against UAB, but otherwise their victories have been lackluster, and they somehow lost to Louisiana-Monroe as a massive favorite. The culprit for their decline is the offensive line which has allowed 38 sacks this season. Only five teams have allowed more. Louisiana-Lafayette isn't great at rushing the passer, but they do have 26 sacks on the season (tied for 34th nationally). They should get to Malik Willis a few times and stall out some Liberty drives. Plus, while the Ragin' Cajuns already have their half of the Sun Belt locked up for the fourth straight year, Billy Napier is also auditioning for bigger jobs, so they should be motivated to win this late season non-conference game and maintain their national ranking. Under Napier, the Ragin' Cajuns are 5-1-1 ATS as a road underdog against Group of Five teams with three outright wins. I think they get their fourth in Lynchburg. 

Cal-1.5 Stanford
Why is this line so low? I think Cal should be favored by at least a field goal despite travelling to Stanford for The Big Game. The rivals managed to squeeze the game in last season despite the abbreviated schedule. Cal lost a heartbreaker thanks to a missed extra point. The Bears head into this game off an embarrassing loss to Arizona and a Covid-related postponement against Southern Cal. The loss to Arizona, while embarrassing, can be mostly blamed on Covid. The Bears were missing a lot of their roster and Arizona still had to sweat out a win at home. Most of those players are expected to be back this week, so if Cal is at full strength, or at least a partial approximation of it, they should handle Stanford. The Cardinal somehow managed to take down Oregon almost two months ago, but have not won since, dropping five straight. Their defense has been particularly ghastly in the losing streak, allowing nearly 34 points per game and 6.7 yards per play. With seven losses, the Cardinal are out of bowl contention, while Cal still has a faint shot at bowl eligibility. Cal should bounce back after their Covid struggles and win their fourth game of the season. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week XI

That makes two losing weeks in a row. We'll try to close the regular season strong. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Editor's Note: I made a change to the picks after posting this on Wednesday. I took Hawaii +3 off and added UCF +7. We'll see if my change of heart made any difference. 

Last Week: 2-5
Overall 37-33

Wyoming +14 Boise State 
Wyoming finally broke their four-game losing streak last week against Colorado State, and in the process scored nearly as many points in one game (31) as they had during the first half of conference play (38). The victory does not mean the offense is fixed, but with winnable games against Utah State and Hawaii to come, it should mean the Cowboys are bowl eligible for the fifth consecutive (excluding the pandemic shortened) season. That would be quite an accomplishment for Wyoming, but I think it is still fair to question if they have reached their ceiling under Craig Bohl. For all the wins the Cowboys have under Bohl, they have pretty much wasted a very good Group of Five defense for the past half decade by not being able to put a good offense on the field. The Cowboys have not had an average or better Mountain West offense since 2016 when Josh Allen fell in their lap. If it takes a generational quarterback prospect to make your offense go, there is probably something fundamentally wrong. And don't forget, the offense cratered in Allen's final year in Laramie (2017), so it would seem when they get a generational talent, they are about a 50/50 proposition to be good on offense. Despite their offensive struggles, Wyoming has been a good play as a double digit road underdog under Bohl. While they are a mediocre 9-8 ATS overall as a double digit road underdog, they are 7-4 ATS in the role against Group of Five teams with the majority of their struggles coming when they faced Power Five teams. They are also 5-2 ATS against Boise State under Bohl, winning just once outright, but routinely keeping the game within the number, especially on the Smurf Turf where they are 3-0 ATS. Boise State is coming off a road upset of Fresno State where they Bulldogs turned the ball over three times. That result has inflated this line a bit (it should be closer to ten points), so grab up the value with the Cowboys. 

East Carolina +5.5 Memphis
Mike Houston's third East Carolina team appeared to be well on their way to another losing season on the evening of September 18th. They opened the year with a two touchdown loss to Appalachian State in the undercard to Clemson/Georgia, then lost a tight home game to South Carolina, and found themselves down 17 points to at Marshall. An 0-3 start was looking them right in the non-patched eye. Then the Pirates rattled off 21 straight points aided by an onside kick recovery and upset the Thundering Herd. They followed that up by barely beating Charleston Southern, but once conference play began, the Pirates have been strong. They are 3-2 in AAC play with each of their victories coming by at least fifteen points and both losses coming by a touchdown or less, including one in overtime. This is the best East Carolina team in seven years and they may be able to put a scare in Cincinnati when the Bearcats visit over Thanksgiving weekend. They have also done well for bettors in this role, posting an 8-3 ATS mark as a road underdog. That would seem to be a perfect fit against a Memphis team that has struggled mightily as a favorite under Ryan Silverfield. The Tigers are 1-4 ATS as a home favorite under Silverfield and are 1-7 ATS as a favorite in any venue. This East Carolina team is sneaky good and might be able to pull off the outright upset against an inconsistent Memphis team. 

Central Florida +7 SMU
Sonny Dykes has been a college football head coach for twelve seasons. He spent three seasons at Louisiana Tech (2010-2012), four at Cal (2013-2016) and he is currently in his fifth season at SMU (2017-present). Like his father before him, Dykes has been a pretty successful coach, guiding all three programs to bowl appearances and breaking into the AP Poll a combined five times (including three seasons in a row at SMU). However, none of his programs have ever finished ranked, primarily because they struggle in November. Across his twelve seasons, his teams are 18-26 straight up in November. Lest you think this is the product of his teams facing stiffer competition in November, they are also 15-29 ATS in (6-12 ATS as a favorite and 9-17 ATS as an underdog). And if you haven't been by a calendar lately, it just happens to be November. The Mustangs already lost last week in their first November game (as a favorite I might add) and now they face a Central Florida squad that has quietly won three straight (and played really good defense) after an evisceration at Cincinnati. SMU's hopes for an AAC title are infinitesimal, I think they drop their third in a row on Saturday. 

UAB +4.5 Marshall
This is a rematch of the 2020 Conference USA Championship Game and a potential preview of the 2021 edition. Marshall is currently tied atop the East division of CUSA and while UAB trails UTSA by a game, they actually control their own destiny and would clinch their fourth consecutive title game appearance if they win out. The number here is very similar to last year's when UAB travelled to Marshall as about a four and a half to five point underdog. The Blazers shut Marshall out in the first half en route to a 22-13 victory. Since Bill Clark arrived in Birmingham in 2014, the Blazers have been one of the safest bets in the nation when catching points on the road against fellow Group of Five teams. They are 9-3 ATS with eight outright wins. Yes, they have won two thirds of their games as a road underdog against Group of Five teams! The Blazers dropped a home game to Rice three weeks ago that threw folks off the scent of how good they are, but that loss featured your usual suspects (missed field goal, turnover on downs, fumble deep in their own territory, etc.). Otherwise, the Blazers have been downright dominant against CUSA teams, allowing under four yards per play to their conference foes. Marshall is going to have to score a lot of points to beat the Blazers and cover this number. Since Bill Clark arrived, the Blazers are 30-4 in CUSA games when they hold their opponent under 30 points and 2-8 when they do not. Marshall hung 49 and 38 on the rotting corpses of North Texas and Florida International, but UAB is a on a different level. Take the Blazers and don't be surprised if they win outright. 

Minnesota +5.5 Iowa
Take a look at the Big 10 West standings. Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin are all tied atop the division with identical 4-2 record. The Badgers are in the driver's seat as they own wins against Iowa and Purdue, and while they have looked especially dominant the past three weeks, there are some challenges remaining on the schedule (Nebraska and Minnesota respectively), so this race is far from over. The loser of this game will be pretty much eliminated from contention, but the winner can harbor dreams of getting pounded by Ohio State in Indianapolis. Both these teams have had weird seasons. Iowa rose as high as number two in the polls before dropping consecutive games to Purdue and Wisconsin by a combined 37 points. The Hawkeyes won last week against Northwestern, but still struggled offensively in a 17-12 victory. Meanwhile, Minnesota has dropped three home games for the first time since 2017 (PJ Fleck's first season), including two where they entered as double digit favorites. Meanwhile, they are unbeaten away from Minneapolis, with two outright wins as an underdog. After allowing 45 points and over ten yards per play to Ohio State in their opener, Minnesota has allowed just 15 points per game and 4.6 yards per play since. Both those numbers would be cause for celebration for the Iowa offense. After scoring a turnover fueled 85 points in their first two conference games against Indiana and Maryland, the Hawkeyes have scored 54 total points in their past four Big 10 games. Iowa's defense is good enough to win this game, but unless they force a ton of turnovers, their offense not good enough to cover this number. 

UTEP -1 North Texas
The bloom has come off the rose in El Paso the past two weeks as the Miners have dropped consecutive games after opening the year 6-1.  Despite the setbacks, they have a chance to get to nine (though more likely eight) regular season wins. UTEP has not won eight games in a season since 2005. They will probably end the season without a single victory against a team with a winning record, but this is progress for a program that won two total games between 2017 and 2019. While the Miners appear to be on their way up, North Texas is looking at their third consecutive losing season. The Mean Green have won two in a row to get back to respectability, but those victories have come against Rice and Southern Miss (combined for two FBS wins between them). Give North Texas credit for winning those games, but this team is still bad. If UTEP has proven anything in 2021, its they can beat bad teams. Every team they have lost to is headed to a bowl games (Boise State, FAU, and UTSA), while all six of their wins have come against teams that will not be going to the postseason. I know it can be scary laying points with UTEP, but all the Miners have to do to cover this number is win. North Texas won twelve of their first sixteen home conference games under Seth Littrell, but they are just 1-4 in their past five. Look for that trend to continue as UTEP wins their seventh game. 

Texas A&M -2.5 Ole Miss
Will the SEC Championship Game feature Texas A&M for the first time? That statement is not necessarily as far fetched as it may have appeared when Texas A&M dropped their first two conference games and was a big underdog to Alabama in their third. The Aggies upset Alabama and have won three in a row since. If they can win on the road against Ole Miss and LSU, all they would need is an Auburn victory in the Iron Bowl to punch their ticket to Atlanta. The Aggies should be able to run through an Ole Miss defense that is allowing over five yards per carry once sack yardage is removed. In fact, despite their 3-2 SEC record, Ole Miss is slightly underwater in terms of yards per play in conference games (-.08 yards per play). Plus, Texas A&M has the best per play defense in the SEC outside of Athens, so they should be able to partially contain the dynamic Ole Miss attack. Also, keep in mind Lane Kiffin's college teams are 1-8 ATS as a home underdog. I know that number is shocking, but catching points at home is something that is quite rare under Kiffin. Tennessee was never a home underdog in his lone season in Knoxville, Southern Cal was 0-4 in such games, FAU was 0-2, and Ole Miss is 1-2. Laying points on the road always gives me pause, but Texas A&M is the more complete team. 

Thursday, November 04, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week X

Regression finally came for me. Hopefully we can get back in the groove and bounce back this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall 35-28

Georgia Tech +10.5 Miami
This is the exact spot where you want to fade Miami. The Hurricanes have won two straight games as an underdog and are heading home to take on a team that is likely to finish with a losing record for the third consecutive season. The Hurricanes, especially quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, have played well the past two weeks, but lost in the afterglow of those two upset victories is the fact the defense has taken a noticeable step back. The Hurricanes have allowed 64 total points to NC State and Pittsburgh and if we go back further, they have allowed at least 30 points to every ACC and Power Five opponent. In fact, by yards per play in ACC games, their defense is the fourth worst in the conference (ahead of Boston College, Virginia, and Duke). Georgia Tech's defense is not appreciably better (fifth worst in yards per play in ACC games), but the Yellow Jackets have their best offense under Geoff Collins. Clemson's strong defense held them down, but in their other five ACC games, they are averaging nearly 31 points per game and 6.8 yards per play. Miami's defense is not good enough to be laying double digits against a competent offense. Plus, the Hurricanes are just 4-9 ATS as a home favorite under Manny Diaz and just 3-7 ATS as a double-digit favorite at any venue. Take the Yellow Jackets to cover this inflated number. 

Louisiana-Monroe +3.5 Texas State
I was on Louisiana-Monroe last week when the Warhawks were catching four touchdowns at Appalachian State. Despite falling way behind, they did not quit and nearly got in the backdoor, but fumbled on the one-yard line while down 31. I suppose I can't complain too much for backing a team that was behind by 42 points at the half, but it was still a bad beat in my book. I am a glutton for punishment, so naturally, I am back on them this week. The competition is significantly weaker, and for all their struggles, Louisiana-Monroe still has an outside shot at bowl eligibility. The Warhawks need to win two of their final four games to get there, but they probably need to win their next two. They close with games against in-state competition (LSU and Louisiana-Lafayette), so winning either of those would require a much larger upset. Can you tell me why Texas State is favored in this spot? The Bobcats are 7-25 under current head coach Jake Spavital who is likely to be fired (perhaps immediately following this game) before the 2022 season. His record is certainly one reason to dismiss him, but another is an odd recruiting choice he made in the offseason. Texas State did not sign any high school recruits and elected to utilize the transfer portal only. We'll give Spavital credit for using an unconventional tactic, but this scheme seemed hairbrained at best from the start. With few underclassmen to build with, how motivated will Texas State be on Saturday? Since many of the players may not be around next season, I think there is a good possibility they may check out down the stretch. Texas State has to sweep their final four games to attain bowl eligibility, and no matter how optimistic the coaches and players are, they have to know they are playing out the string like a bad baseball team in September. I think the Warhawks pull the slight upset and get their fifth win against a team that has not outscored any opponent by more than two points in regulation this season. 

Maryland +10 Penn State
Last week, going against Maryland was one of the few picks I got right (and it took a backdoor touchdown to get it done). I have spilled quite a bit of ink on this blog about how bad I think Mike Locksley is as a head coach. However, I think there is value on Maryland this week. Penn State's defense is elite, but their offense has been running on fumes since their FCS scrimmage against Villanova. The Nittany Lions have averaged 4.40 yards per play and 21.5 points per game in that span. Unsurprisingly, they are 1-3 over their past four games. Maryland does represent the worst Big 10 defense they will have played this season, but I'm not sure Penn State will be able to take full advantage of that deficiency. The Penn State defense should be able to contain Maryland's talented offense, but as long as Taulia Tagovailoa avoids the conglomeration of interceptions he threw against Iowa, Maryland should be able to keep this one close. I expect this to be an archetypal Big 10 game with both teams scoring in the teens or lower twenties. Under James Franklin, Penn State does have a history of pounding Maryland (a place he was the head coach in waiting many years ago), beating them by 24, 63, 35, and 59 respectively between 2016 and 2019. However, another trend points to the Terps. Losses to Ohio State seem to take a lot out of Penn State. Between 2017 and 2020, the Nittany Lions were 1-3 straight up and 0-4 ATS in the game immediately following Ohio State. And those games were not expected to be close. Penn State was favored by at least a touchdown in all four and by double digits in three of them. The Nittany Lions have nothing to play for and are traveling to Maryland between an Ohio State/Michigan sandwich. Take the Terps in this great spot.  

Auburn +4.5 Texas A&M
Is it time to start asking whether Auburn under anti-vax head coach Bryan Harsin is the second best team in the SEC West? I think it might be. Look at the teams that have beaten the Tigers. Georgia is the consensus number one team by both the humans and the computers and while Penn State has fallen on hard times recently, they beat the Tigers when they were fully healthy. Meanwhile, Texas A&M is getting a lot of love from the betting markets for beating Alabama, although it seems the College Football Playoff Selection Committee has forgotten about that loss, but they have played a pair of scrimmages since that monumental upset. The Aggies have beaten Missouri, owner of perhaps the worst run defense in modern SEC history, and a South Carolina team starting a graduate assistant at quarterback. I know this is a dangerous exercise, but if we ignore those two games, the Aggies have been outgained by about 0.60 yards per play in their other three SEC games (6.21 to 5.61). Are we really sure Zach Calzada is going to cover more than a field goal against a surging Auburn? I have my doubts. After the reprieve of facing Missouri and South Carolina, the Aggies face two ranked teams down the stretch (Auburn and Ole Miss) as well as a tricky finale on the road against LSU. Since the Aggies joined the SEC in 2012, the underdog is 5-4 straight up and 6-2-1 ATS in this series. Plus Texas A&M has not beaten Auburn in College Station as an SEC team. Look for that trend to continue with Auburn springing the upset. 

Mississippi State +4.5 Arkansas
I think a portion of this number can be traced to last year's result. The residue of that upset is still in the market. Let me set the scene for you. Mississippi State was ranked sixteenth in the country and fresh off a beating of the reigning national champs. The Bulldogs were hosting Arkansas, a team led by an unknown first year head coach that had lost twenty straight SEC games. Mississippi State outgained Arkansas by over 100 yards, but committed four turnovers, including an interception that Arkansas returned for a touchdown that provided the winning margin in a 21-14 upset. After the upset win, Arkansas was more competitive in SEC play, but only won two additional games. They opened 2021 with four consecutive wins, including upsets against former Southwest Conference rivals Texas and Texas A&M. However, the schedule stiffened and the Razorbacks have only beaten Arkansas Pine-Bluff since the calendar flipped to October. Mississippi State struggled after the loss to Arkansas, scoring sixteen total points over their next three games. The team improved later in the year as freshman quarterback Will Rogers gained experience in the the Air Raid. That improvement has continued in 2021. Outside of a poor showing against Alabama, Rogers has thrown multiple touchdowns in every game but one and is completing over 75% of his passes. Arkansas won last year's game against a team implementing a brand new offense over a volatile, pandemic impacted offseason. That will not be the case in this matchup. Plus, the Razorbacks are in a relatively unfamiliar position. Between 2017 and 2021, they were underdogs in 35 consecutive conference games. They finally broke that streak last month when they were favored by four and a half points against Auburn. They lost. Arkansas is a team you want to back in the underdog role (10-4 ATS under Sam Pittman), but they have not been favored enough to recommend backing them in that spot. This line should be closer to a field goal, so grab the extra value with Mississippi State. 

Florida Atlantic +1.5 Marshall
Conference USA has an intriguing race in the East division that is set to play out over the course of November. We'll ignore Middle Tennessee State for the moment since they are probably not very good (despite their victory against Marshall), but Florida Atlantic, Marshall, and Western Kentucky will stage a round robin tournament over the next month that will go most of the way toward determining the division champ. Round one commences Saturday in Boca Raton. The Owls and Thundering Herd have combined for ten wins this season, but they have feasted on bad competition. Florida Atlantic has beaten four FBS teams that have combined for a 13-19 record, with UTEP representing their best win. Likewise, Marshall has four FBS victories. The four teams they have beaten have combined for a 7-25 record, with their season-opening victory against an improving Navy team (that is still just 2-6) likely representing their best win. I expected a tight line when perusing these spreads, but I think the wrong team is favored. Florida Atlantic is unbeaten at home under Willie Taggart, and has not lost in Boca since Marshall beat them there in 2019 (won eleven in a row). I expect the Owls to get a leg (or wing) up in the conference race on Saturday. 

Washington +7 Oregon
Despite a disappointing season that has included a home loss to Montana, Washington still has a chance to win the Pac-12 North. If they manage to upset the Ducks in Seattle (and assuming Oregon State wins at Colorado), the division would have four teams tied atop the standings with identical 4-2 records. The question is, do they have the goods to beat the Ducks? The Huskies have won four of six since their 0-2 start, with both losses in that span coming by a touchdown or less. The defense has remained one of the best in the Pac-12, holding conference opponents to just a shade over five yards per play. Unfortunately, the offense has been neutered, never scoring more than 24 points in regulation in conference play. If the Ducks get out to a big lead, you can toss this ticket in the trash. Washington will not be able to stage a rally. However, I don't think Oregon will be able to get out to a big lead. In their five conference games to date, the Ducks have trailed at the half in two of them and led by three in another. They did hold multi-score leads against Arizona (+14) and Colorado (+17), but I'll pause and let you check the Pac-12 standings to see where those two teams are. Against the competent teams they have played thus far, the games have been tight. And while Washington is not the national contender they were thought to be in the preseason, they are competent. Washington has not been this large a home underdog since 2014 during the first season of the Chris Petersen era. Washington will keep this one close and may end the Pac-12's playoff hopes before mid-November. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week IX

Another 5-2 week. Is this the time regression rears its ugly head? As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall 33-23

Bowling Green +13.5 Buffalo
Ready to start your Saturday with a pick that might be finished by the second possession? I thought so. While I think Bowling Green has a good shot to cover this number, I think this is a high variance game that can get sideways very fast. If Buffalo gets out to a 10-0 or 14-0 lead, you can write this one off. Bowling Green does not have the offense to come back from a large (or even medium) deficit. As regular readers know, I am a big believer in Yards per Play as a good measure of team strength. And those per play numbers give Bowling Green the edge. 
How have the Falcons managed to start MAC play 0-4 despite a positive differential? A lot of little things have added up to that winless conference mark. The Falcons are -6 in turnover margin in MAC play, turning the ball over ten times midway through their conference season. They have also allowed two non-offensive touchdowns while scoring none of their own. The kickoff return they allowed to Northern Illinois ended up being the difference in the game while the blocked punt Eastern Michigan returned merely added to their margin of defeat. Finally, the Falcons have struggled in the red zone against MAC opponents. They have made fifteen trips inside their opponents twenty (not a great number), but they have scored just seven touchdowns in those trips. The average college football teams scores touchdowns at about a 60% clip inside the red zone. The Falcons underlying numbers are better than the market is giving them credit for. Remember, their improved defense has allowed them to cash as an underdog in all four of their road games this season, including twice against Power Five opponents. Plus, Buffalo is not exactly a dominant MAC team. Two of their three FBS wins have come by a single point (against really bad competition). I think the Falcons can keep the Buffalo offense from running away with this game and scratch out enough points on offense to cover.  

Indiana +5.5 Maryland
Once you turn away from the Bowling Green game in disgust, can I interest you in another Nooner featuring a putrid offense? After enjoying one of the best seasons in school history in 2020, the Indiana Hoosiers have come crashing back to earth. The Hoosiers have averaged under four yards per play (3.59) in their first four Big 10 games and have scored just 28 total points against conference opponents this season. Despite their 0-4 conference record, the defense has played well against opponents not from Columbus, Ohio. In addition, all five of their losses have come to teams currently ranked in the top twenty of the AP Poll, and four of the five have come to teams ranked in the top ten. Last I checked, Maryland does not fit either description. It looked like the Terps might find their way into the poll and perhaps the conference race after a 4-0 start, but then they did what Mike Locksley teams always do...suck real hard. Maryland has lost three in a row by a combined 104 points and suddenly their early season success does not look as good. West Virginia, a team Maryland defeated in the opener, is a bottom third team in the Big 12, Illinois, regardless of their upset win at Penn State, is still bad, and Howard and Kent State are, well Howard and Kent State. I'll note that after scoring 30 points in their opener against West Virginia, Maryland has scored 20, 14, 17, and 16 in their other four games against Power Five opponents. It appears as if Indiana is not the only team in this game with offensive issues. I'll give Tom Allen the coaching advantage over Locksley and close with this amazing fact: This will mark the sixth time (you read that right) that a team coached by Mike Locksley has been a home favorite against an FBS opponent. While that is six more times than me, it does not reflect well on his coaching acumen. I'll also note his teams are a collective 22-33 ATS during his illustrious coaching career. Indiana has injury problems at quarterback and may be starting a true freshman, but their defense is still solid and will keep them in this game against a Maryland team on the verge of imploding.  

Hawaii +5.5 Utah State
Sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery. After winning big (relatively) at Arkansas State, Blake Anderson realized his tenure had gotten a little stale in Jonesboro and decided to move on. He endured some personal tragedy over the past few years that probably made leaving a little easier as well. He took over a team that went just 1-5 in the pandemic shortened 2020 season. However, he made sure to bring his quarterback and wide receiver with him (and his lucky rabbit's foot) and now has the Aggies are in position to get to the Mountain West Championship Game. Utah State is probably the third or fourth (or maybe even fifth) best team in the Mountain Division, but they have already banked wins against Air Force and Colorado State and perennial division bully Boise State already has two conference losses. The Aggies are a win away from bowl eligibility, but all four of their victories against FBS opponents have come by a grand total of 13 points. Their most recent victory was particularly thrilling as Colorado State head coach Steve Addazio bungled the clock and had his team rush a game winning field goal. Astute followers of Addazio will note this is not the first time he has done something like that. 
Regression is probably coming for Utah State in the coming weeks. Through four conference games, the Aggies have been outgained by nearly three quarters of a yard per play and have the worst per play defense in the Mountain West. Meanwhile, Hawaii has been competitive against the non-Pac-12 portion of their schedule. Ignoring blowout losses to Oregon State and UCLA, the Warriors are 4-2 against FCS and Group of Five competition. A bowl game is within reason, so I expect a gallant effort from the Warriors as they travel to the mainland for the second time in three weeks. Utah State's close game luck may continue unabated, but I think Hawaii can keep this one close. 

Florida +14.5 Vs Georgia @ Jacksonville
When Florida nearly upset Alabama in mid-September, it looked like this could be one of the most consequential Cocktail parties ever. Georgia certainly held up their end, winning their first seven games by more than thirty points per contest while allowing four offensive touchdowns. Meanwhile, since their close call with Alabama, Florida has alternated easy wins (Tennessee and Vanderbilt) with confounding road losses as a favorite (Kentucky and LSU). Despite owning three losses and conceding the division to Georgia, Florida's underlying numbers are strong. They have outgained all seven of their opponents and their conference Yards Per Play differential is second only to Georgia. 
Granted, they are well behind Georgia in Net YPP, but they are probably the best team Georgia has seen and will see until the SEC Championship Game. Florida could make things difficult for Georgia if Stetson Bennett remains the starter. The Bulldogs got JT Daniels for a reason, primarily because its hard to win national championships even with a great defense if you don't have elite talent taking snaps (remember what Dabo did when he had Kelly Bryant). Bennett has played well this season, but he has only taken a handful of snaps with Georgia behind (and that was very early against Auburn). Florida's offense, especially with a week off to prepare, is the best Georgia has seen this season. The Gators could make Georgia take more risks than they are accustomed to if they have some early success and Georgia is forced to come back. Of course, if this is the best defense college football has seen since Alabama circa 2011, Bennett's limitations may not matter. I think Florida is better than their record and with their conference and national title hopes dashed, this is their Super Bowl. They would like nothing better than to spoil their rivals chance at an undefeated season. Two touchdowns is too much. Take the Gators and the points. 

Louisiana-Monroe +27 Appalachian State
If you are searching for a dark horse coach of the year candidate, you could do a lot worse than Terry Bowden. The former Auburn coach has gotten Louisiana-Monroe to the cusp of bowl eligibility. The Warhawks must win two of their final five games to get there; an idea that would have been absurd back in August. The Warhawks entered 2021 having lost eleven consecutive games with a preseason over/under win total of 1.5. Some figured they may lose their FCS game to Deion Sanders and Jackson State. But the Warhawks edged the Tigers 12-7, upset Troy the next week and then...returned to their station in the Sun Belt hierarchy, losing to Coastal Carolina and Georgia State by a combined 87 points. Then something happened. Freshman quarterback Chandler Rogers played the majority of the Georgia State game due to an injury to the starting quarterback. He put up decent numbers in the loss and then found another gear in upsets against Liberty and South Alabama. The Warhawks scored 72 total points in those games and the passing attack averaged nearly ten yards per throw. But I don't think the rest of the nation noticed. Otherwise, why would they be catching nearly four touchdowns against a team off an emotional home win? The Mountaineers edged Coastal Carolina last week in their first game as a home underdog in four years. Can they put the win behind them and cover this large number? I have my doubts. Since joining FBS, Appalachian State has been a money loser as a home favorite, especially of the double-digit variety. They are 13-20-1 ATS overall as a home favorite and 11-17-1 as a double-digit home favorite. Plus, you couldn't ask for a better guy to back as a massive underdog. Don't forget Louisiana-Monroe is not Terry Bowden's first rebuilding job. He was head coach at Akron from 2012 through 2018. While he was there, he guided the Zips to two bowl games and even got them to the MAC Championship Game in 2017. During his tenure, his teams were often catching a lot of points. His Akron teams were road double-digit underdogs 26 times and they managed a solid 16-10 ATS record. His teams also won four of those games outright.
I am not bold enough to call for an outright Louisiana-Monroe win, but the Warhawks have already won three times as a double-digit underdog this season (granted all were at home). Louisiana-Monroe should keep this within the number against what is likely a fat and sassy Appalachian State team. 

Kansas +30.5 Oklahoma State
I don't typically like to bet on underdogs that have no chance to win the game outright. And rest assured, Kansas has practically no chance to win this game. Their Big 12 losing streak will likely hit sixteen in a row by eleven PM on the east coast. Despite their struggles, you have to appreciate the moxie they showed in nearly pulling off a massive upset against Oklahoma last week. Caleb Williams' heroics got the Sooners the victory, but Kansas easily cashed as a nearly forty point underdog. Am I reading to much into that close loss? Did Kansas blow their proverbial load in that game? Perhaps. However, this is more a play against Oklahoma State than it is a play on Kansas. Consider the Cowboys are coming off a tough loss that ended with a controversial spot. How motivated are the Cowboys to blow out the resident Big 12 whipping boy? I've been calling Oklahoma State Big 12 Iowa for the past few weeks and that means two things. You want to back them as an underdog and fade them as a favorite. How many points does Kansas need to cover this number? If they can kick two field goals or score one touchdown, I think they will be safe. Oklahoma State has not beaten an FBS team in Stillwater by more than 30 points since early in 2018 against South Alabama. They have not beaten a Power Five team by more than 30 points in Stillwater since the final game of the 2017 regular season. That came against Kansas, so maybe its not the best omen, but I'll still back the Jayhawks catching all them points. 

Virginia +2.5 BYU
Bronco Mendenhall returns to the place where his college head coaching career began. Mendenhall coached the Cougars for eleven seasons, leading them to 99 wins, four ranked finishes, and a pair of Mountain West titles. After a rough first season in Charlottesville, he has revitalized the Virginia program, guiding the Cavaliers to three bowl games and the Coastal Division title in 2019. Despite two conference loss in 2021, this may be his best team yet in the Commonwealth. Virginia has scored at least 30 points in seven of their eight games this season and are averaging nearly 38 points per game. The historic 1990 team scored 464 points in twelve games (38.7 points per game), so this team will likely break the total points record thanks to a thirteenth game, but could even challenge the per game numbers of that team. By the way, check out the We're #1! documentary on the ACC Network for more information on that team and the last team from the state of Georgia to win the national title (I'm open to a sponsorship ACC Network). The Cavaliers are probably too far behind in the division race to get to another ACC Championship Game, but with BYU, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh remaining on the schedule, they can certainly shake up the rankings over the last third of the season. Virginia has played eight Group of Five teams since Mendenhall came to Charlottesville, and they are 7-1 straight up and 6-2 ATS in those games. They have covered each time they have been a betting underdog (three) and won two of the games outright. Meanwhile, BYU has performed well against Power Five opponents under Kalani Sitake, winning eleven games. However, their best performances have come in the underdog role, where they have won seven times. As a favorite against Power Five opponents, BYU is just 1-4 ATS under Sitake. The teams that have beaten Virginia this season (North Carolina and Wake Forest) have explosive offenses. The Tar Heels and Demon Deacons both average north of six and a half yards per play and more than 36 points per game. BYU is not Bowling Green or Indiana on offense, but they have been held below 30 points in six of their eight games. To beat Virginia, you have to light up the scoreboard. I don't think BYU will be able to keep up offensively and I expect Virginia to leave Provo with an outright win.