Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week V

Two winning weeks in a row. Let's see if we can make it three and start October strong. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall 14-14

Eastern Michigan +2.5 Northern Illinois
If you don't follow the MAC or even the Group of Five in general and you glanced at Chris Creighton's overall record at Eastern Michigan, you would probably wonder why he hasn't been fired yet. Creighton has won less than 40% of his games (33-52 heading into Saturday), has just two winning seasons, and has never won more than seven games in any one season. While all those facts are true, they are also devoid of context. Eastern Michigan was a smoldering crater before he arrived. To put his win total in perspective, consider that Eastern Michigan won 35 total games in the 21st century (13 seasons) prior to his tenure. In about half the time (six full seasons, a Covid-shortened campaign, and a third of the way through 2021), Creighton has basically equaled that win total. He has also taken the Eagles to three bowl games, where they have come agonizingly close to capping their season with a victory. Not only has Creighton delivered for woebegone Eastern Michigan fans, he has also delivered for bettors. His teams are 24-11-1 ATS as a road underdog during his tenure and a spectacular 13-1 ATS as a road underdog in MAC play since 2016. Meanwhile, the Huskies have fallen on hard times in recent years. After winning six consecutive MAC West titles between 2010 and 2015 and another in 2018, the Huskies are just 4-10 in MAC play under former Northern Illinois running back Thomas Hammock. The Huskies have shown signs of progress in the early going by winning at Georgia Tech, but with each passing week, that result seems more fluky than proof of concept. Northern Illinois dominated this series before Hammock took over as head coach, winning 17 of 18 contests between 2001 and 2018. However, Eastern Michigan has won the past two and these teams appear to be on opposite trajectories. Take the Eagles and the points and don't be surprised if they pull an outright upset. 

Nevada +6.5 Boise State
The Nevada Wolfpack have had a week off to stew about their poor performance as road favorites against Kansas State. The Wolfpack entered with designs on a second road Power Five win, but left with a three-touchdown loss. Their NY6 Bowl hopes are likely dashed, but they still have all their Mountain West goals in front of them. With two losses in September, Boise State can kiss their NY6 dreams goodbye as well. While the Broncos won last week, their victory against Utah State was much closer than the final score. The Aggies slightly outgained the Broncos and averaged more yards per play, but turned the ball over three times and managed only a solitary field goal in four redzone trips. While the Broncos won and covered, its a little concerning they managed just 27 points against a suspect defense. Those offensive issues may be what prevents the Broncos from adding another Mountain West championship to the trophy case. The Broncos have averaged 5.33 yards per play this season, and that includes their relative explosion against UTEP when they churned out nearly seven and a half yards per play. Boise State still plays good defense, especially by Group of Five standards, but if they don't put up a lot of points it will be hard to cover spreads as a favorite. Nevada probably won't hang half a hundred on Boise State, but their quarterback should be playing on Sunday next year. He and the Wolfpack have already played two Power Five road games this season, so they shouldn't be intimidated by the Smurf Turf. I like Nevada to keep this one close and potentially steal one on the road. 

Bowling Green +16.5 Kent State
If you want to be competent at football, the best thing you can do is have Brian VanGorder leave, either voluntarily or involuntarily. I won't delve into BVG's full history as a coach (both as a coordinator and head man), but he has not been very successful, yet somehow continued to get work. I guess like most things, its important who you know and that who you know doesn't care about performance. Not to be too mean to BVG, but the Bowling Green defense is leaps and bounds better than it was the previous two seasons he was coordinating it. In 2019, the Falcons allowed nearly 39 points per game. Last season, the Falcons allowed an absurd 45 points per game in their abbreviated campaign. You can probably chalk some of that up to the pandemic, with the MAC starting late and Covid wrecking havoc on rosters and practice time. However, the results thus far in 2021 have been amazing. Through four games, Bowling Green is allowing just 20 points per game. Even if we take out their game against an FCS opponent, they have allowed just over 23 points per game to FBS competition. Despite facing two Power Five opponents, the Bowling Green defense is allowing roughly half as many points per game as they did against an all-MAC schedule last season. The team still has issues on the other side of the ball (and probably always will as long as Scott Loeffler is the head coach) as they have scored just 39 points in their three FBS games. However, the betting market has not caught up to how good this defense is. Case in point, the Falcons won as 30 point underdogs last week at Minnesota when they held the Gophers to ten points and 241 total yards. In their conference opener, that defense will be put to the test against a Kent State team that averaged nearly 50 points per game last season! The small sample size (just four games) and competition (Flashes scored 131 combined points against Akron and Bowling Green) contributed to those absurd scoring numbers, but Kent State pushes the tempo and has put up at least 30 points in nine of their last twelve MAC games. The fast pace makes me a little uneasy as more possessions mean more opportunities for Kent State to get margin in this game, but I'm a believer in the Bowling Green defense. Plus Kent State will probably be the worst FBS defense Bowling Green has faced this season, so they should be able to get their own point total above their season average. Despite their win last week, nobody seems to realize how improved Bowling Green is. Use that to your advantage and back the Falcons this week. 

Georgia Southern -1.5 Arkansas State
The team that is favored in this game is 1-3 on the season and has been outscored by 75 total points against the three FBS teams they have faced. They also just fired their head coach and suspended a defensive lineman for pulling a Jackass type stunt before their game last week. The oddsmakers couldn't make it any more clear what will happen. Do you have the stones to back Georgia Southern with an interim coach as a slight home favorite? Here's why you should. Arkansas State used to have one of the best defenses in the Sun Belt. Those days are long gone. Since the start of the 2020 season, the Red Wolves have played eight road games. In those games, they have given up 37, 31, 52, 45, 27, 47, 52, and 41 points. On average, they have surrendered more than 40 points per game! Just this season, they have made Washington's offense look functional and helped Tulsa to their highest point total in nearly a year. Think they want anything to do with defending the triple option, even against a team that may not run it well? I doubt it, especially with Coastal Carolina on deck just five days after this one. Arkansas State will score some points of their own against a porous Georgia Southern defense (I'm shocked the over/under is only 66), but I think Georgia Southern circles the proverbial wagons and gets their first FBS win of the year. 

Mississippi State +7 Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher's reputation as a quarterback whisperer has taken a beating since Hayes King was injured. His replacement, Zach Calzada put up good passing numbers against New Mexico, but against the two FBS teams he has faced, the Aggies have scored a grand total of twenty points. They managed to win one of those games because they held Colorado to seven, but unless Calzada figures it out soon, the Aggies could be on their way to a Kevin Sumlin number of losses. Alabama is still on the schedule (next week in fact) as are trips to Ole Miss and LSU as well as a home date with Auburn. I think the Alabama game next week will loom large here. Its never easy to face an 'Air Raid' offense, especially with the Crimson Tide on deck. And lets not forget the Aggies are coming off a tough loss to upstart Arkansas. Of course, Mississippi State is coming off a tough loss of their own against LSU. The Bulldogs outgained the Tigers by over 150 yards, but turnovers, red zone struggles, and a 'leaping the shield' penalty ultimately did them in. Despite the loss, the Bulldogs have thrown the ball well in their second season under Mike Leach. The turnover bugaboos may keep them from winning this game, but with the Texas A&M offense struggling, I can't fathom how you can lay a touchdown with them against any SEC opponent other than Vanderbilt. 

South Alabama +12.5 Louisiana-Lafayette
Since opening the 2020 season with a win at Iowa State, Louisiana-Lafayette has been one of the betting markets more overrated teams. Since beating the Cyclones, the Ragin' Cajuns have been favored in eleven of their last thirteen games against FBS opponents. While they are 10-1 straight up in those games, they are just 4-7 ATS and 3-7 ATS when laying more than a touchdown. In addition, eight of those eleven games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The only teams Louisiana-Lafayette blew out in that span were South Alabama and Louisiana-Monroe last season and the rotting corpse of Ohio this season. One of those teams should sound familiar because that is who the Ragin' Cajuns face this week. However, South Alabama is in a much better place than they were last year. When these teams faced off in 2020, South Alabama was in the midst of closing out the Steve Campbell era by losing five of their last six games while fielding an impotent offense (under ten points per game in those five defeats). This season, they are 3-0 while being led by the youngest head coach in FBS (Kane Wommack) and one of the oldest quarterbacks (Jake Bentley). Bentley began his career at South Carolina five years ago and also spent time at Utah last season. Bentley never lived up to the unrealistic expectations the South Carolina fanbase set for him, but he is an above average passer and should thrive against the questionable defenses currently operating in the Sun Belt. This spread should be closer to a touchdown, so snatch up the points with the Jaguars. 

New Mexico State +27.5 San Jose State
The biggest game of Saturday night involves a renewal of old acquaintances. The Aggies and Spartans were conference brethren in two defunct leagues (PCAA/Big West, and WAC) for several years until the dissolution of the WAC in 2012. San Jose State became a member of the Mountain West, but New Mexico State has been mostly a college football nomad since. They were members of the Sun Belt for a few seasons, but were politely asked to leave and have been on the independent circuit since 2018. The Aggies actually passed on football last fall and played a very abbreviated spring season where they lost to Tarleton State and defeated Dixie State. Props if you know where those two schools are located (Dixie State is not where you think). In their first fall season in two years, the Aggies have struggled and may end up being the worst FBS team in 2021. They are 0-4 against FBS competition, with their lone victory coming South Carolina State. So why on earth should you risk your hard-earned money on the boys from Las Cruces? Well, for starters, San Jose State has played three FBS teams in 2021. In those three games, they have scored a grand total of 27 points. And their starting quarterback was injured in their last game and is unlikely to play against the Aggies. The Spartans have played well defensively in 2021, limiting their opponents to under five yards per play through four games. However, based on the current rules of football, it is impossible to hold an opponent to negative points in a game. San Jose State will have to score more than 28 points to cover this number and I don't think they can. I am always wary of backing an underdog I believe has no shot of winning the game outright (and that certainly appears to be the case here), but San Jose State has the bulk of their conference season remaining after this game, so I expect a conservative game plan with their backup quarterback and a low-scoring, boring victory. Something along the lines of 20-3 or similar. Plus, while New Mexico State is bad, they have already covered twice this season as massive road underdogs against both San Diego State and New Mexico. This is an ugly dog, but they sometimes make the best pets. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

Finally, a winner. Or five winners as it were. We had our first winning week of the season and will look to make it two in a row. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall 10-11

Boston College +2 Missouri
I am a little reticent to back Boston College for three reasons.
  1. This is an ACC/SEC tilt and if you haven't noticed, the ACC has struggled so far in 2021. 
  2. Boston College has played an easy schedule through three games. Most teams would be 3-0 after facing Colgate, Massachusetts, and Temple.
  3. Boston College will be starting their backup quarterback after losing Phil Jurkovec to an injury against the Minutemen. 
Despite those misgivings, I think you still have to give the benefit of the doubt to the Eagles at home. While quarterback Dennis Grosel is a downgrade from Jurkovec, he has experience. He saw significant action in 2019, leading the team in pass attempts, and started the season finale last season. While he has his limitations, this is not a freshman being thrown to the wolves. In addition, Grosel may not need to throw the ball too much. Take a look at Missouri's horrid rush defense. The Tigers allowed 174 on the ground in their opener against Central Michigan and then were shredded by Kentucky for 341 yards. But the coup de grace was last week when a directional Missouri school rolled up nearly 300 yards at more than eight yards per rush! Grosel can do some damage with his legs and as a team, the Eagles are averaging over 200 rushing yards per game and over five yards per carry against their soft schedule. Finally, what puts Boston College over the top for me is Missouri's poor road record following the departure of Gary Pinkel. In four seasons under Barry Odom and a year plus of Eli Drinkwitz, the Tigers are 8-18 in true road games and the eight scalps they have collected are not that impressive. 
The victory at Florida in 2018 was legitimately impressive, but there is not a lot of beef in those other wins. Some highlights include the Tigers closing out both the Bret Bielema and Chad Morris (he was already fired, but you get the idea) eras at Arkansas and beating South Carolina in their first game under interim coach Mike Bobo. Boston College has a pulse, so I think even with a back up quarterback, they can do enough on the ground to win this game outright. 

Texas Tech +8 Texas
Elite quarterback play is something Texas Tech has been missing since Patrick Mahomes left Lubbock following the 2016 season. That may have changed with the arrival of Oregon transfer Tyler Shough. Its quite early, and the schedule has not been formidable, but Shough has posted impressive numbers. If he can continue to post quality passing numbers in Big 12 play, the Red Raiders could be a dark horse contender in the conference, especially considering they put up surprisingly good per play defensive numbers last season. I'm buying the early season improvement for Texas Tech, but more importantly, I'm selling Texas. Since playing for the national title following the 2009 season, Texas has been one of the worst home favorites you could possibly back. In Big 12 play, under three different head coaches, the Longhorns are 11-21 ATS as a home favorite with eleven outright losses. 
Will that trend continue under Steve Sarkisian? The Longhorns have dominated two Group of Five opponents in Austin, put the only Power Five team they have played thus far ate their lunch. That game was on the road, but the Longhorns still entered as a decent sized favorite and failed to do much of anything on either side of the ball. Texas Tech should keep this one close and continue the home woes for favored Texas teams. 

Toledo -4.5 Ball State
One of the more shocking results from last week was Toledo falling at home to Colorado State. The Rockets were favored by two touchdowns, but struggled mightily on offense in a 22-6 loss. The Rockets allowed six sacks to a Colorado State team that came in winless on the season with a pair of home losses to a Power Five program (excusable even though it was Vanderbilt) and an FCS team (inexcusable). Perhaps we can chalk it up as a huge letdown following Toledo's close loss at Notre Dame the week before and the inherent randomness in college football. Despite the loss, Toledo's defense played well, limiting the Rams to 4.14 yards per play and no offensive touchdowns (the Rams lone touchdown came on a punt return). The good news for Toledo is the loss does not impact their goal of winning the MAC as this is the conference opener for both teams. And with a non-conference game against Massachusetts looming next week, you can be sure the Cardinals will have their full attention. Ball State, the defending MAC champs in case you have forgotten, have won the past two games in this series. However, the Cardinals have looked nothing like their championship selves through three games in 2021. They have been outgained in all three of their games and while that is understandable against Penn State, their closer than expected opening win against Western Illinois probably deserves additional scrutiny. And their most recent game, a drubbing at the hands of Wyoming, does not inspire a lot of confidence. Perhaps most concerning has been the play of quarterback Drew Plitt. Plitt averaged over eight yards per pass and threw 41 combined touchdowns in 2019 and 2020. Through three games in 2021, he is averaging just 5.2 yards per pass and thrown a pair of touchdowns. Like Toledo, Ball State still has all their conference goals intact despite the rough start. Unlike Toledo, we have not seen them play a good game yet this season. Ball State has also not been a good home underdog under Mike Neu, even during last season's run to the MAC title (were never a home underdog in 2020), posting a 2-7 ATS mark in the role with the seven ATS losses all coming by at least a touchdown and six coming by double digits. Laying points on the road always makes me nervous, but I'm willing to consider last week's result against Colorado State an aberration and back the Rockets. 

Western Michigan -3 San Jose State
What am I missing here? Why is this spread only three points (reflecting roughly a pick 'em on a neutral field). Western Michigan is coming off a big upset of Pittsburgh and does start conference play next week, so this could be considered the dreaded 'sandwich' spot. Yes, Western Michigan was fortunate to beat the Panthers last week, benefitting from a turnover margin of +3, but the Broncos moved the ball quite well against a Power Five defense. The Broncos averaged 9.4 yards per pass against the Pittsburgh defense. By comparison, the Panthers allowed 7.2 yards per pass on the road against an SEC team the week before. It was Tennessee, but for the time being, they are still in the SEC. And while it may be tough for Western Michigan to be ready to play after pulling that shocker, their opponent may well be at a disadvantage due to travel. The Spartans clawed their way to a tight win at Hawaii last week, with the game ending well after midnight on the east coast. Now after returning to California, the Spartans must travel more than halfway across the continental United State for a two o'clock eastern kick at Kalamazoo, Michigan. I'll also point out that after an impressive Week Zero shellacking of Southern Utah, the Spartans have struggled to move the ball and score points. They scored seven against Southern Cal in a game where they had a decided disadvantage in talent, but they also managed just 17 against Hawaii despite having a bye week to prepare for the long trip to the islands. Perhaps more concerning, they averaged under four yards per play against the Warriors. Western Michigan is going to score points. They have averaged at least 32 per game in each of Tim Lester's first four seasons and are just south of 29 per game thus far in 2021. And suddenly, their poor showing in the opener against Michigan doesn't look so bad. Perhaps I am overreacting to their win against Pittsburgh, but with the spread below a field goal, you have to back the Broncos against a struggling offense facing a ridiculous travel challenge. 
Update: After writing this entry, news broke that Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester has tested positive for Covid-19 and will not coach on Saturday. While this is less than ideal, it has not impacted the point spread at all, and there is precedent for a team with a Covid-positive head coach playing well. I'll ride with the Broncos despite the diagnosis. 

South Carolina +5 Kentucky
Through three games of the Shane Beamer era, consider me pleasantly surprised. The Gamecocks dominated a bad FCS team in their opener, won on the road with a backup quarterback (as an underdog in a game they fell behind by two touchdowns), and didn't look completely helpless on the road against one of the best college football teams in the country. The Gamecocks never threatened to beat Georgia, but they hit a few big plays against an elite Georgia defense and perhaps more importantly, covered the large point spread. Now they return home to face a team that has given them real problems for the past seven years. South Carolina began the 21st century by dominating this series, winning 13 of 14 matchups between 2000 and 2013. However, since 2014 (which coincidentally was the second year of the Mark Stoops era in Lexington), the Wildcats have won six of seven with half their wins coming in the underdog role. As you can tell by scrolling back up, Kentucky is not an underdog in this game. In fact, they are actually a road favorite, which is a position they have not been in very often under Stoops. The Wildcats have been road favorites in SEC play just three previous times under Stoops. In that limited sample, they are 1-2 both straight up and ATS. If you are going to lay points on the road with Kentucky, you obviously need to have a lot of confidence in them. Should you? They have beaten one of the worst teams in FBS, an SEC opponent with a horrendous rush defense, and escaped against an FCS opponent with each of the victories coming at home. Should they really be laying more than a field goal in their first road game of the season against a team that needs to win this game if they have hopes of qualifying for a bowl? I don't think so. I like the Gamecocks to win this one outright and generate very pragmatic expectations for their rational fan base. 

Kansas State +6 Oklahoma State
Both these Big 12 squads pulled off minor upsets against Mountain West teams last week. Kansas State beat Nevada at home and Oklahoma State beat Boise on the Smurf Turf. The victory moved Kansas State into the AP top 25 for the third consecutive season. Wildcat backers hope they can end the season there; something they have failed to do in the previous two campaigns. Oklahoma State is currently in the 'others receiving votes' category (technically 29th), but would certainly move into the real poll if they can beat Kansas State at home. While Oklahoma State is known for their prolific offenses under head coach Mike Gundy, the team has actually been rather pedestrian on that side of the ball for the last year or so. After averaging at least six yards per play each season between 2015 and 2019, the Cowboys slipped to 5.53 yards per play last season and are averaging under five yards per play in 2021 (4.82) despite facing no Power Five teams through their first three games. Thankfully the defense has improved and I would argue Oklahoma State looks more like a non-elite Big 10 outfit (say Iowa or good Northwestern) than a typical high-flying Big 12 team. While that formula has worked on the field (10-3 in the regular season since the start of 2020), it has not been a winning strategy at the betting window. The Cowboys are just 3-6-1 ATS as a betting favorite in that span. The betting public has visions of Mason Rudolph, Brandon Weeden, James Washington, and Justin Blackmon lighting up scoreboards when they wager on the Cowboys, but that simply has not come to fruition with the current crop of players. Oklahoma State has scored 23, 28, and 21 points thus far in 2021. Its hard to get margin if you top out under 30 points. I would be more confident in the Wildcats if their starting quarterback were not injured two weeks ago. Of course, were Skylar Thompson not injured, this spread would likely be different. Last week against Nevada, the Wildcats threw 13 passes and I expect that will be the game plan going into Stillwater. I expect a lot of runs, especially from the quarterback position, and a conservative passing game. While Oklahoma State's defense has played well early, Kansas State's should not be ignored either. Last week, they held a team led by a future NFL quarterback to 17 points and while they allowed 306 yards passing, it took Nevada 41 throws to reach that threshold. While I think the numbers point to Kansas State in this spot, the series history also favors the Wildcats. Since the Big 12 dropped their division format after the 2010 season and these two teams resumed this series on an annual basis, Kansas State has covered eight of ten meetings, including four of the past five in Stillwater. They lost by 13 their last trip here, but the previous four were all decided by a touchdown or less. I expect another tight game on Saturday and don't forget Kansas State is 6-3 ATS as a road underdog under Chris Klieman, with four outright wins. 

Nebraska +5 Michigan State
We'll find out a lot about Michigan State on Saturday night. For the first time under Mel Tucker, there are expectations. The Spartans are ranked for the first two in nearly two years and are home favorites for just the second time under Tucker. Their first foray as a home favorite didn't go too well. Three weeks ago, Michigan State entered their opener at Northwestern as an underdog. They won that game handily, although that may say more about Northwestern. Their next game was a warmup against an FCS opponent which they won with no trouble. Then last week, they traveled to Miami as about a touchdown underdog. They won the game by 21 points, but the game itself was much closer than that, with the Spartans tacking on two touchdowns in the last five minutes. The Spartans averaged about a yard more per play than the Hurricanes and were also the beneficiary of four Miami turnovers. Once again, the result may say more about their opponent. Miami looks janky so far in 2021 and they have a penchant for blowing games they should win under Manny Diaz. In his two plus seasons on the job, the Hurricanes have posted a 15-10 record in the regular season. Seven of those ten losses have come when the Hurricanes entered the game as a betting favorite, with four of the seven coming in Hard Rock Stadium. The Spartans join elite company like Georgia Tech in 2019 by winning at Miami. Meanwhile, Nebraska has quietly rebounded from their disastrous start in Week Zero. They have won two of three and acquitted themselves quite well in Norman last week. In fact, Nebraska has averaged more yards per play than each of their first four opponents. The public threw them in the trash following their loss to Illinois, but I think they still have some value. In addition, Michigan State has made bettors hemorrhage cash as a home favorite over the past few seasons. Since qualifying for the College Football Playoff in 2015, the Spartans are just 3-9 ATS as a home favorite in Big 10 play with five outright losses. Nebraska's schedule is arduous from here, and any hopes for a bowl game (and potentially saving Scott Frost's job) likely hinge on winning this game. I'll take the undervalued and desperate team. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

Well, we did better than the first week, but 3-4 is not gonna cut it. In the interest of blaming others for all my problems, I'll extend a nice middle finger to B*tch Davis, who kicked an 18-yard field goal with his team up four points at home. The Panthers would go on to lose the game in overtime and I watched the whole thing play out in real time on ESPN+ (let me know if you want me to do a sponsored post World Wide Leader). We'll try and pick more aggressive coaches this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall 5-9

Buffalo +14 Coastal Carolina
Coastal completed the first round of the Lance Leipold gauntlet last week when they beat Kansas for the third straight season. Now they head north to Buffalo to take on Leipold's old team, the Buffalo Bulls. Under Leipold, the Bulls were pretty strong as home underdogs, posting a 10-3 ATS mark, including 4-1 as a double-digit underdog. Of course, commensurate with the success the team had over the back half of his tenure, they were rarely home underdogs over the past few seasons. In fact, since the start of the 2018 season, they were home underdogs just twice. They covered both games and beat Temple outright as a two touchdown underdog. But we can't live in the past. Leipold is no longer in upstate New York, and while his former team looked great against Wagner, their road trip to Nebraska did not inspire a lot of confidence. The Bulls scored just three points and their passing attack generated just 224 yards on fifty attempts. But lo, the boys from Conway may be the elixir the passing game needs. Coastal also steamrolled an FCS team in their opener, and while the final score of their game with the Jayhawks was not close, there was some cause for concern. The Kansas offense that averaged under four yards per play at home against South Dakota put up over 400 yards of total offense and averaged north of six yards per play against the Chanticleers. For what it's worth, I don't think Buffalo has the soldiers (see what I did there) to win this game outright. I don't foresee them getting too many stops on defense, but they should be able put up points of their own and keep in mind this is Coastal's first road game of the season. I expect a solid atmosphere as the Bulls welcome a ranked team to their home turf for the first time since 2014 and a high-scoring cover. 

Kansas State +2 Nevada
Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson was hurt last week in their closer than expected win against Southern Illinois. That is why they are home underdogs to a team from the Mountain West. Of course, I shouldn't sell Nevada short. They have already beaten one Power Five team on the road and are one of the favorites to capture the Mountain West title this season. And they have an NFL quality quarterback. In the most important position on the field, the Wolfpack have a decided advantage. However, its those other twenty-something positions where Kansas State can do enough on the margins to eke out a home win. The Wildcats have played well on defense in their first two games, limiting a Stanford offense that just got Clay Helton fired to seven points. And they are almost always strong on special teams, helping them win field position battles. I also expect the point spread to motivate Kansas State. Being a home underdog to a Group of Five team is bound to produce good bulletin board material for Chris Klieman. Plus Klieman has continued the Kansas State tradition of dominating in the underdog role. His teams are 3-1 ATS as home underdogs and an even more impressive 10-4 ATS as an underdog at any venue (with seven outright wins). I think Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn will have a big day against a suspect Nevada rush defense and the Wildcats will pull off the minor upset. With their quarterback injury, I'm not sure they are a team I would buy going forward, but for this one game, they are a strong play. 

Purdue +7 Notre Dame
Is this a case of being late to the party? The Irish have neither covered nor impressed in their first two games, needing overtime to edge Florida State and trailing late in the fourth quarter at home versus Toledo. Is this the week they get their act together in front of the home crowd and pound a well-coached, but overmatched Purdue squad? Maybe, but I still have some lingering doubts about how good the Irish are. They have not been able to run the ball against two less than elite defenses (under three yards per rush on the year) and they have allowed over five yards per rush. The pass offense has been great, with Jack Coan averaging nearly nine yards per throw, but the poor ground game has put him in a lot of second or third and longs. That's not a long term recipe for success, especially when the offensive line has allowed ten sacks through two games. Purdue has been great as a road underdog under Jeff Brohm, going 7-1 ATS in the role since he arrived. Its easy to forget that both these teams are in the same state (Indiana), so I expect Purdue to be motivated with a shot at taking down the more prestigious in-state team for the first time since 2007. Take the Boilermakers and the touchdown they are being spotted. 

Florida +14.5 Alabama
I hate getting in front of potential juggernauts like Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State over the past few years, but this number is just too enticing to pass up. With Alabama the preeminent program in college football, you are almost always paying some sort of a tax to back the Crimson Tide. That doesn't necessarily mean the tax should preclude you from betting them (Alabama has a winning ATS record each of the past three seasons), but it does mean you are almost always laying a point or two more with them than you should be. The Crimson Tide have been dominant in the early going, beating Miami and Mercer by similar margins. While the victory over Miami was impressive on paper, the Hurricanes may end up being a disappointment this season. After their demoralizing loss to the Crimson Tide, Miami nearly lost at home to Appalachian State. There is no shame in losing to the Mountaineers (they beat two Power Five teams in 2019), but the Hurricanes averaged under five yards per play at home and quarterback D'Eric King has not provided any big plays in the passing game. Why am I spending so much time talking about Miami in the write up for the SEC conference game? Because while Alabama's offense looks as potent as ever, their defense has not been tested yet. That will change on Saturday in Hank Hill Peter Griffin Stadium. Florida has rolled up over 1200 yards in their first two games, and while the competition was lacking, the results are still impressive. Quarterback Anthony Richardson has rushed for 275 yards on just eleven carries! Richardson has split time with Emory Jones in the early going and that trend should continue against Alabama with Mullen rotating his quarterbacks like another successful Florida football coach. The Gators won't treat Alabama like a Group of Five team, but I expect them to score their fair share of points. That offensive competency means the Gators will be live to cover this number even if winning the game is out of reach in the fourth quarter. Plus, Mullen has been pretty good as a home underdog in his career. At Mississippi State, his teams were 12-10 ATS in the role and his Florida teams are 2-0 with a pair of outright upsets. His teams have been even better as a double-digit home underdog. At Mississippi State, his teams were 6-1 ATS in that spot and his Florida teams have yet to be that big a home underdog. Finally, while last season's Alabama team may be the greatest college football team of all time, one thing they never had to do was beat a ranked team on the road. All their ranked opponents either visited Tuscaloosa or faced them on a neutral field. The last time Alabama faced a ranked team on the road was the end of the 2019 season at Auburn. Does Florida have enough Malzahn Magic to pull off the outright upset? I wouldn't go that far, but covering two touchdowns is quite likely. 

Florida State +5 Wake Forest
What a difference a few plays can make. While its true that last week's loss to Jacksonville State was among the most embarrassing in Florida State history (at least post 1975 Florida State history), its also true that Florida State is two plays away from being 2-0 with one of the wins coming against a team coming off a College Football Playoff appearance. Notre Dame is probably not as good as their AP ranking judging by their first two games, but Florida State has at least proven they are capable of playing competent Power Five football (except when defending pseudo Hail Marys). Can the Seminoles circle the wagons after that sickening defeat or is Mike Norvell a dead man walking? As far as opponents to face after one of the worst defeats in school history, you could do a lot worse than a road trip to Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons have been favored against Florida State exactly two times since they joined the ACC (they played the Seminoles a few times in the 1950's, 60's, and 70's, but I have no idea what the spreads were in those games). Not surprisingly, both those games came at home. And in both those games, Wake Forest failed to cover, and lost once outright. Early on, we know what Florida State is and is not capable of, but what do we know about Wake Forest? This game represents a significant step up in competition for the Demon Deacons who opened with games against an FBS team that did not play last season and an FCS team that also sat out 2020. Wake Forest was never threatened in either game, but they didn't post absurd offensive numbers either. I'd say after two games, your opinion of Wake Forest should be pretty close to what it was in July. If you thought Wake Forest would be a five point favorite over Florida State in their ACC opener, I'd classify you as an optimist. Perhaps Florida State is worse than you thought they would be in July, but like I mentioned earlier, they are two plays from being 2-0. Is the last play by Jacksonville State coloring your opinion of this game too much? If you are looking to lay it with Wake Forest, I think the answer is 'yes'. 

Duke +3 Northwestern
I don't believe I have picked a Duke game correctly ATS in the past two years. But if I am anything, its a glutton for punishment, so mamma mia, her I go again. Does David Cutcliffe have one last stand in him? I think so. The Blue Devils can simply not be as bad turning the ball over as they were last season (-19 in eleven games). That has been true thus far in 2021, with the Blue Devils committing just two turnovers through their first two games. Of course, they have not forced any turnovers, so they are still in the red, and they did lose one of those games to Charlotte. However, the offense has looked better, averaging north of seven yards per play against the light competition. The defense has had issues, allowing nearly seven yards per play to Charlotte while giving up a late touchdown drive to blow that game. But I don't know that Northwestern is going to be able to take advantage of those defensive lapses. The Wildcats have struggled on offense since the start of the 2018 season, and things don't appear to be getting better early in 2021. Northwestern put up 24 points and averaged less than four and a half yards per play against Indiana State last week after scoring 21 points (just seven after three quarters) against Michigan State in the opener. Perhaps more troubling was the Northwestern defense that gave up over 300 yards on the ground to Michigan State. They played better against Indiana State (just 169 total yards allowed), but the Wildcats have not given me any reason to believe they should be favored on the road against another Power Five team. I think Northwestern should be the team catching points, so I'll back Duke one last time. 

Utah State +8 Air Force
One of these teams has beaten a Power Five opponent on the road. Somehow that team is catching more than a touchdown. It slipped under the radar because it happened on the nearly inaccessible Pac-12 Network, but Utah State opened the Blake Anderson era with a win at Washington State. The victory was the Aggies first against a Power Five opponent since beating Wake Forest in 2014. Coupled with their win against North Dakota last Friday, it means the Aggies have already doubled last season's win total. When I was checking the lines, I expected this one to be a field goal or less in Air Force's favor. While the Falcons are also 2-0 on the young season, their victories have come against an FCS opponent and a Navy team that is pardon the pun, taking on water. The Falcons have rushed for over 500 yards in their first two games, but have showed little explosiveness, in averaging just 4.33 yards per rush. Utah State has been vulnerable through the air, allowing nearly 400 yards passing in their game against North Dakota, but their run defense has been solid. Befitting a triple option team, Air Force has thrown just 15 passes in their first two games and has completed just six of their attempts. In his previous head coaching stop at Arkansas State, Anderson's teams were great as conference road underdogs (in the rare instances they were in that role), posting a 4-1 ATS mark with three outright wins. This line is way too high for what I expect to be a very competitive game. 

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week II

The opening weekend of college football could have gone better, but at least we avoided a total disaster after an 0-3 start. And we did go 2-1 on Saturday, so you know, there's that. Anyway, the season is long, so we have ample time to regroup and get better (or fall further into the abyss). As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall 2-5

Western Kentucky +7 Army
Say what you will about the Helton Brothers (Clay and Tyson), but they are at least self-aware enough to realize when they need to hire an outsider to fix their offense. Clay brought the Air Raid to LA when he hired Graham Harrell prior to the 2019 season and has gone 14-6 since (11-9 in previous twenty games). Meanwhile, after pairing solid CUSA defenses with bad CUSA offenses in his first two seasons, Tyson looked for offensive firepower at the FCS level by hiring Houston Baptist offensive coordinator Zach Kittley and bringing in Houston Baptist quarterback Bailey Zappe
Zappe threw for over 10,000 yards at Houston Baptist and looked the part in his first game as a Hilltopper, throwing for over 400 yards and seven touchdowns. It came against an FCS opponent, but the 587 total yards were the most by the team since 2017. The opponent in this game will ensure the scoring is muted, what with their ground dominant attack, but I expect Western Kentucky to retain most of their efficiency if not their cumulative numbers. The real question is, can they cover this number against an Army team that entered their opener as an underdog and left with a victory of more than thirty points. While Army deserves credit for smashing Georgia State on the road, games against competent triple option teams can go sideways in a hurry. The limited possessions and the knowledge that those possessions matter more than a 'normal' game can cause teams to press. Once Georgia State fell behind by two scores, their game plan was likely jettisoned. Could the same thing happen to Western Kentucky? Certainly, but at least in this spot, you are catching points, which is exactly where you want to be when betting against Army. Under Jeff Monken, Army is just 9-12 ATS as a home favorite. In this section of the internet, we support the troops, but Army is laying too many points against what should be an explosive Group of Five offense. Take the Hilltoppers and the touchdown Army is spotting them. 

California +11.5 TCU
Cal's opener against Nevada was a microcosm of the Justin Wilcox era. The Golden Bears held a prolific offense in check (Nevada averaged over 30 points per game last season and has a potential NFL quarterback starting for them), but the offense piddled around and the team dropped a tight game. Since Wilcox took over prior to the 2017 season, Cal has scored less than 20 points sixteen times in forty games against FBS opponents. In addition, more than half of their games against FBS competition have been decided by a touchdown or less (10-11 record in those games). A little more offensive punch would have the Golden Bears in contention for the Pac-12 North title. As it stands, they have not posted a winning record in conference play since 2009! Despite those offensive struggles, they are a great play as they head to Fort Worth catching ten points. TCU dispatched Duquesne with relative ease on Saturday, but the Horned Frogs have not done great as a home favorite since stepping up to the Big 12. 
In that span, they are 13-17 ATS as a home favorite against Power 5 (mostly Big 12 opponents). However, notice when they had their best run of success. With Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson, the Horned Frogs went 8-1 ATS as a home favorite in 2014 and 2015. However, without those two stud offensive stars, the Horned Frogs are just 5-16 ATS over the other seven seasons. That poor ATS showing also includes ten outright home losses as a betting favorite! TCU is a better team than Nevada, but Nevada has a better quarterback and Cal held that offense to 22 points. I don't expect a repeat of the infamous Cheez-It Bowl battle between these two teams, but Cal's defense will do enough to keep them within this number. 

Iowa State -4.5 Iowa
The Covid-19 pandemic deprived us of one of the more underrated college football rivalries in 2020. Iowa and Iowa State did not play for the first time since the nation's bicentennial. Now, after a one year hiatus, the battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy (or El Assico if you prefer) will resume. Both heartland teams won their openers, but they did so in vastly different ways. Iowa jumped out to a early lead over Indiana thanks to a long run and a pick six and were never really threatened. Meanwhile, Iowa State fell behind Northern Iowa early and while they were never really in danger of losing, didn't offer a lot in terms of aesthetics in a 16-10 win. The victory over the Panthers continued a trend of struggling against FCS opponents for the Cyclones under wunderkind coach Matt Campbell. Under Campbell, the Cyclones have played five FCS opponents (Northern Iowa four times and Drake once). They have either lost the game outright (once) or won by less than a touchdown (thrice) in four of the five games. In other words, don't read too much into their closer than expected victory. But do take a deeper dive into the Iowa box score. While the Hawkeyes easily beat the Hoosiers, their starting quarterback completed less than half his passes and the team benefitted from two defensive touchdowns. Non-offensive touchdowns are highly volatile and typically have an outsized impact on both game flow and game outcome so consider that when handicapping the Hawkeyes going forward. When looking at the recent history of this game, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz finds himself in a position he has not been in for more than two decades. Ferentz became head coach at Iowa in 1999 and his first two teams were underdogs to the Cyclones. They lost and failed to cover in both games. However, in the past nineteen games in this series, Iowa has entered as the betting favorite. Ferentz has done well straight up in this series, going 12-9 with wins in the past five. However, he has not done as well ATS, posting a 7-13-1 mark (although typically in the role of favorite). I think this line is depressed a bit thanks to the disparate results these two teams delivered in their respective openers. If the betting public still thinks Iowa State should be favored after their poor showing against Northern Iowa, who am I to argue? Take the Cyclones to get their first win in this series since 2014 and cover this number in the process. 

NC State -2.5 Mississippi State
If NC State can win this game, it may be time to come to start asking if they are the second best team in the ACC. In you haven't heard, the conference did not exactly have a banner weekend to begin the 2021 season. Clemson failed to score a touchdown against Georgia, Miami learned just how far they are from elite against Alabama, North Carolina lost to a team that wants its coach fired, Louisville made the Ole Miss defense look like a legitimate SEC unit, Georgia Tech lost to a MAC team that hadn't won a game since 2019, and Duke lost to Charlotte. Other than that, things were great. Of course, with the ACC being down, this presents NC State an opportunity to win their first conference title since 1979. I'll note the Wolfpack do get Clemson at home in a few weeks, so any hopes for a division or conference title hinge on them beating the Tigers. Even if they don't quite have the goods to beat the Tigers, the ACC schedule gives them an opportunity to finish in the AP top ten for the first time in school history. Befitting a team that has never finished in the top ten of the final AP Poll, NC State usually boots a game in an otherwise strong season. A few recent examples: In 2018, NC state was 6-2 and ranked 22nd when they lost at home as a massive favorite to Wake Forest. The 2017 team finished 9-4 and in the lower reaches of the AP Poll, but things could have been much better had they not dropped their opener to South Carolina. The 2002 team opened the season 9-0, but dropped three straight ACC games to the likes of Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Virginia (all by a touchdown or less) to miss out on an ACC title. Will the Wolfpack look back on 2021 and rue the game against Mississippi State as one that derailed a special season? Probably. But I'll back them anyway. Mississippi State staged a twenty point second half rally to edge Louisiana Tech in their opener. The defeat marked fifth time Louisiana Tech has lost to a Power Five team under Skip Holtz by a touchdown or less, as well as the third time they have lost to an SEC team by a single point. That being said, Holtz has only himself to blame as he played for a long field goal at the end of the game and was punished by the Football Gods. But I digress. Mississippi State is improved over last season, and I expect them to win a few games in the SEC (especially with the unresolved defensive issues at LSU), but there is a reason this spread has shifted so far in NC State's favor (Mississippi State opened as a favorite). Despite their history, I think NC State gets the win on the road and covers this short number. 

Florida International -1 Texas State
Not sure I understand this line. Is Florida International's 'winless' 2020 impacting this line more than it should? Yes, the Panthers technically finished 2020 with no wins, and were the only FBS team to drop a game to an FCS team (in the Fall), but I'm willing to give Butch Davis a mulligan. The Panthers won 23 games in their first three seasons under Davis and were especially good at home in that span, going 12-5 in home games against FBS competition. Prior to the season, I expected a return to form for FIU, and their opener against Long Island did not dissuade me. I never like to read too much into a result against an overmatched FCS opponent, but the Panthers dominated the Sharks as one would expect. Now the Panthers will look to build off that win as the Bobcats roll into town. Texas State hosted an in-state Power Five opponent (Baylor) last week, and while the final score was relatively close, Baylor outgained the Bobcats by more than two yards per play. Now the Bobcats have to go on the road where they have not enjoyed great success as an FBS program. 
Texas State joined FBS in 2012, and in their first game, won on the road as a massive underdog. Since then, the road has not been as kind to them. In fact, their road record has gotten worse under each successive head coach. Their only road win under Jake Spavital came last season against Louisiana-Monroe, which was (and is) one of the worst teams in college football. This game feels eerily similar to the second game Texas State played in 2020. They opened the season with a closer than expected loss to a more prestigious in-state school (SMU) and were over-valued heading into their next game (home loss as a touchdown favorite against Texas-San Antonio). All FIU has to do is win, so grab the value here.  

Missouri +5 Kentucky
Was Kentucky's home win against Louisiana-Monroe that impressive? Yes, the Wildcats rolled up over 500 yards on the Warhawks at over eight yards per play and held them to under 100 yards of total offense. However, Louisiana-Monroe barely qualifies as an FBS team. Against a schedule that included zero Power Five teams last season, the Warhawks were outscored by 26 points per game on the way to a winless season. Perhaps not surprisingly, they elected to start over by hiring a new coach. Perhaps surprisingly, that new coach was Terry Bowden. Bowden did hire Rich Rodriguez as his offensive coordinator (outside of the money of course, do you think he regrets taking the Michigan job all those years ago?), but neither Rome nor Monroe were built in a day. Kentucky's opening romp should be viewed similarly to beating an FCS opponent. They should be expected to win, but we can't draw any grand conclusions from the blowout. Meanwhile, Missouri also won their opener, but were not nearly as impressive against a game Central Michigan team. The Chippewas hung around and lost by just ten points. While the final score was relatively close, Missouri did a better job in the box score, outgaining Central Michigan by more than a yard per play. After their respective tune ups, both teams will look to get off to an good start in SEC play. The underdog has won four of the past five games in this series and covered in all five. I expect more of the same on Saturday. Mark Stoops has done a fine job at Kentucky, but he has not delivered for bettors as a home favorite. In SEC play, Kentucky is just 5-9 ATS as a home favorite under Stoops, and while the Wildcats did cover two times in the role last season, those covers came against a Mississippi State team just getting their sea legs and a South Carolina team that had checked out under an interim coach. Look for Missouri to leave Lexington with an outright win on Saturday night. 

San Diego State +2 Arizona
San Diego State looked less than impressive in their opener against New Mexico State. The Aztecs went to half down 10-0 against the Aggies, but staged a rally in the second half to win comfortably. However, they did not come close to covering the massive spread. As they have done for the past decade or so, San Diego State ran the ball and played good defense. The Aztecs rushed for over 250 yards at six yards a pop and held New Mexico State to ten points. However, their passing attack was atrocious. Quarterback Jordon Brookshire completed just over a third of his passes (somehow San Diego State is ahead of three other teams in completion percentage this season) and barely topped 100 yards through the air. Those archaic passing numbers will probably prevent San Diego State from getting to the Mountain West Championship Game, especially with Fresno State and Nevada looking strong, but the team should do enough to get back to a bowl game for the eleventh time in the past twelve seasons. Along the way, they should be able to get another Pac-12 scalp for the trophy case. Since 2011, San Diego State is an impressive 6-6 straight up against Pac-12 opponents, with their most recent win coming in 2019 at UCLA. Arizona showed some spunk in their opener, hanging with BYU after falling behind 21-3. Quarterback Gunner Cruz played well at times, throwing for over 300 yards, but he also threw a pick in the endzone and took four sacks. San Diego State has a good enough defense and ground game to win outright with little help from their quarterback. 

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week I

College football is back! And with it, some (hopefully) accurate picks from me. After a disjointed 2020 season, hopefully things will be closer to normal in 2021 despite the pandemic raging in the background. Let's enjoy what we have because we never know when college football may be taken away from us. As always, home teams in BOLD.

East Carolina +10 Appalachian State @ Charlotte
The undercard of the Duke's Mayo Classic helps ring in the first full weekend of college football on Thursday evening. The Pirates and Mountaineers have played 31 times on the gridiron, but this marks their first meeting as FBS programs (App State made the jump in 2014). East Carolina has won the past six, but the teams have only met twice in my lifetime (2009 and 2012). In fact, this will mark the first time Appalachian State has faced a team from the American Athletic Conference since joining FBS. In regular season play, Appalachian State has posted a middling non-conference record both straight up and ATS. 
I used the regular season qualifier because the Mountaineers have been superb in bowl games, winning all six they have played and covering four of them. While the bulk of Appalachian State's non-conference losses have come against Power Five teams, so too has the bulk of their wins come against overmatched foes from Conference USA. East Carolina (like a lot of the Group of Five) is a former member of Conference USA. However, the Pirates graduated to the AAC several years ago and while that has hurt their overall record, it has not hurt them against other mid-majors. East Carolina typically schedules a lot of ACC opponents, and thus have played only five non-conference games against fellow Group of Five teams since joining the AAC in 2014. In that limited sample, they are 3-2 both straight up and ATS. The non-conference schedule is more manageable this season, with South Carolina representing the lone Power 5 opponent (and that is going by the technical definition) so I expect a return to the postseason for the Pirates and third-year head coach Mike Houston. That run to the postseason should start with a competitive game against one of the top teams in the Sun Belt. 

Old Dominion +31 Wake Forest
Thanks to Phil Steele's magazines and the Goldsheet site, I have roughly three decades worth of point spread information at my fingertips. It will probably not surprise you that Wake Forest has rarely been a four-touchdown favorite against an FBS opponent. In fact, since at least 1993, they have never been a four-touchdown favorite against an FBS team. 
In a limited sample, the Demon Deacons are 1-1 ATS as a similar massive favorite. Extrapolating from a two game sample will not tell you much, but there is another angle to look at here. To my chagrin, Wake Forest was not ranked in the preseason AP Poll. As such, we can classify them as an unranked team (I'll pause here to make sure you follow). Surprisingly, in the College Football Playoff era (since 2014), 49 unranked teams have been favored by at least 30 points against an FBS opponent. Those 49 teams have not done well covering those large numbers. The teams have combined for a 17-31-1 ATS record. That is a shade higher than 35%. And the numbers are basically the same whether we look at Power Five or Group of Five teams. 
That seems to be pretty strong trend and it makes sense logically. Unranked teams tend to not be elite so they shouldn't be expected to pulverize even really bad teams. In addition to the trend, Wake Forest may also be due some regression in 2021. Two offensive starters suffered season-ending injuries in July and the team posted an absurd positive turnover margin (+10) in the abbreviated 2020 season. Not only that, but we haven't even gotten to their opponent in this game. Old Dominion is one of the biggest mysteries heading into the 2021 season. The Monarchs were one of three FBS teams (along with Connecticut and New Mexico State) to opt out of the 2020 fall season. Not only that, but they also have a new head coach. Bobby Wilder was fired following Old Dominion's 1-11 campaign in 2019. His replacement Ricky Rahne, an assistant under James Franklin at both Vanderbilt and Penn State, took over and will make his head coaching debut about 21 months after he was originally hired. Betting into uncertainty can be a bad thing, but in this case the betting market appears to be too certain in regard to how bad Old Dominion is. I can understand where they are coming from. The Monarchs have gone 10-26 since winning the Bahamas Bowl in 2016 and have not beaten an FBS opponent since November of 2018! However, they have also not played a game in almost two years and will be breaking in a new coach. Not only will this be Rahne's first game as head coach, it will also be the first time someone other than Bobby Wilder has coached the team since they restarted the program in 2007. Will Old Dominion be bad in 2021? Probably. But this line assumes they will be as bad as they were in 2019 despite the fact their program and the whole damn world has changed a lot since then. 

Duke -6 Charlotte
Is this the end of the line for David Cutcliffe? The erstwhile Duke head coach has been in Durham since the tail-end of the George W. Bush administration and aside from Steve Spurrier, is easily the most successful coach the school has had since Bill Murray (not that one) in the 1960's. However, after a run of four consecutive bowls from 2012 through 2015, things have been trending downward, culminating in last season's 2-9 campaign. While the record was poor, Duke fans should expect some positive regression in 2021. There is simply no way for Duke to turn the ball over as often as they did last season. In ten conference games, the Blue Devils committed an astounding 38 turnovers and were -20 in turnover margin. Spotting your opponents an average of two turnovers per game will almost always confine you to the bottom of the conference standings, and 2020 was no exception as the Blue Devils won just a single conference game (where they still turned the ball over four times). Of course, Duke did play one non-conference game in 2020 that broke up the monotony of their ACC schedule. In that game, Duke took out their collective frustrations against these same Charlotte 49ers, pounding them 53-19. That continued a positive trend for Duke under Cutcliffe against Group of Five or non-BCS conference teams. 
Whether it be at home or on the road; as a favorite or an underdog, Duke has dominated their mid-major opponents under Cutcliffe. The games they have failed to cover have come against either a service academy (7-2 ATS against Army and Navy) or as a double-digit favorite (6-2 ATS in the role). Charlotte is not a service academy and this spread is south of a touchdown. In their brief history, Charlotte has not fared well against Power Five opponents. The 49ers are 1-5 ATS against Power Five teams and were significant underdogs (double-digit or more) in all six games. Their lone cover came against Tennessee in 2018 in a game they still lost by eleven points. In the other five games, Charlotte has lost by an average of nearly 46 points! Overall, Charlotte is 3-11 ATS as an underdog against non-conference opponents of any persuasion (Power Five or Group of Five). This is a great spot to buy low on Duke. I think the Blue Devils win handily. 

Kansas State -3 Stanford @ Arlington
2020 was a true tale of two seasons for Kansas State. After opening the season with a home loss to what would end up being a pretty bad Arkansas State team, the Wildcats staged a miraculous comeback against Oklahoma and endured an injury to their starting quarterback to begin Big 12 play 4-0. Then the wheels came off. Newly christened starting quarterback Will Howard put up passing numbers befitting a quarterback from the early 90's and the team scored just 28 points over their next three games (all losses). The running game exploded over the last two games, rolling for over 500 yards and the team scored 62 points. Unfortunately, they allowed 101 and lost both games to finish on a five-game skid. The streak gave head coach Chris Klieman his first losing season since 2005 when he was head coach at some place called Loras College (with Willie, Mickey, and the Duke). I expect Kansas State to bounce back and return to their 2019 form when they won eight games and were generally a pain in the ass to other Big 12 teams. Quarterback Skylar Thompson is back and healthy, so I expect the offense to more resemble the one from early last season. Meanwhile, Stanford won twice as many games as they lost in limited action in 2020, but they were mostly lucky to win those games. All four of their wins came by five points or less, including two by a single point. Give David Shaw credit for rallying his team after an 0-2 start with nothing to play for in a season decimated by the pandemic, but it seems like Stanford is a long way from their glory days in the 2010's. I like Kansas State to win this one by at least a touchdown. 

Oregon State +7 Purdue
Jeff Brohm has done a good job at Purdue. While he has a losing record as head coach, having gone 19-25 over four years in West Lafayette, Purdue was 9-39 in the four seasons preceding his arrival. He has turned the Boilermakers from an abject failure to a competitive team. Across the country in Corvallis, Oregon, Jonathan Smith appears to be well on his way toward doing the same thing. In three seasons, Smith has guided the Beavers to a 9-22 record. which is a little better than the 7-29 record the team posted in the three seasons before he arrived. Befitting coaches that took over downtrodden programs and pulled them toward mediocrity, both Brohm and Smith excel in the underdog role. Brohm is 15-5 ATS as an underdog at Purdue (with eight outright wins as a dog) and Smith is 14-12-1 ATS in the same role at Oregon State. Don't let Smith's seemingly mediocre ATS record fool you though. After a rough first year where the Beavers posted a 3-8 ATS mark, over the past two seasons, they are 11-4-1 ATS as an underdog with six outright upset wins. In a battle of two teams that are great as underdogs, it only makes sense to back the dog in this spot. Plus, over the past few years, you may as well set your money on fire as back Purdue as a favorite. 
After posting a solid mark as a favorite in Brohm's first season, the Boilermakers are just 4-11 ATS in that spot the past three years with nine outright losses, including six at home. I need to do some more research on this in the offseason, but anecdotally, it seems like whenever a coach brings a team from the depths of despair to mediocrity or better (think David Cutcliffe at Duke as your archetypal example), they always struggle in the role of favorite. They seem to keep their underdog bonafides despite everyone being aware of their prowess in that spot, but struggle mightily when the shoe is on the proverbial other foot. I don't have any solid data to back this theory up (yet), but I don't trust Purdue laying points. They are 1-7 ATS as a home favorite since 2018 and Oregon State has covered their past nine games as a road underdog. Perhaps that streak is due to snap, but I'll let it ride one more time. 

Arizona +12.5 BYU @ Las Vegas
In case you have forgotten, BYU fielded a pretty good team in 2020. The Cougars finished 11-1, averaged more than 40 points per game, and finished with their best final AP ranking (11th) since 1996. Arizona on the other hand, didn't play a game until mid-November, and after a competitive loss to Southern Cal, packed things up, culminating in an embarrassing loss to their rivals from Tempe. The winless season cost Kevin Sumlin his job and dropped Arizona's record to 26-41 since their Fiesta Bowl campaign in 2014. Why wouldn't they be catching double-digits against a BYU team looking for a Pac-12 scalp? Keep in mind, while 2020 was a special season for BYU, it was pretty out of character compared to their previous performance under Kalani Sitake. In his first four seasons in Provo, the Cougars were just 27-25 (23-25 versus FBS competition). They were also pretty bad ATS as favorites. 
BYU was 9-13 ATS as a favorite in Sitake's first four seasons before posting a solid return on investment in that spot in 2020. What happened? Well, the Cougars found themselves a quarterback. Zach Wilson put up decent numbers in 2018 and 2019, but he became a superstar in 2020, throwing for 33 touchdowns and finishing eighth in the Heisman voting. Wilson was drafted second overall by the New York Jets and will look to lead that franchise back to the Super Bowl for the first time in more than fifty years (no pressure). Oh, and don't discount the loss of offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes who served in that role for all of Wilson's BYU career before moving to Baylor. Do you know who will be replacing Wilson under center (or in the shotgun) in 2021? I certainly didn't. I did look it up though and it appears to be someone named Jaren Hall. I don't believe I have ever seen Hall throw a pass, so I can't say how good he is or isn't, but you would have to be some kind of optimist to believe he will post numbers comparable to what Wilson put up last season. More likely, BYU will be similar to what they were between 2016 and 2019. The Cougars are capable of beating a Power Five team (a respectable 7-12 versus Power Five opponents under Sitake), but should not be expected to pound one by double digits on a neutral site. I'm not ready to offer a prediction on how successful Arizona will be under new coach Jedd Fisch, but the Wildcats needed to move on from Kevin Sumlin and in the first game under a new regime, as a big underdog, I expect a solid performance. Take the Wildcats to keep this one close. 

Louisville +10 Ole Miss @ Atlanta
This year's Ole Miss team looks a lot like Louisville team from last season. Second year coach. Check. Exceeded expectations in first season culminating with a bowl win. Check. Explosive offense and suspect defense. 
Check. Enter second season with moderate expectations (Louisville was 31st in the 2020 preseason AP Poll and Ole Miss is 27th in this year's preseason AP Poll). Check. Lane Kiffin has not angered his fan base by openly seeking other jobs (give him some time), but otherwise, the similarities are eerie. Kiffin and Ole Miss will look to avoid what befell Louisville as the Cardinals fell to 4-7 in 2020. Based on Kiffin's track record, that might be easier said than done. This is Kiffin's fourth college stop, and on two previous occasions, after ratcheting up expectations, he has failed to deliver. His second Southern Cal team was ineligible for the postseason, but won seven of their final eight games and finished ranked sixth in the AP Poll. They entered 2012 as the preseason number one team, but ended it with a 7-6 record (and perhaps more importantly were 3-10 ATS). After washing out in Los Angeles, Kiffin worked for Nick Saban at Alabama for a few seasons before getting the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic. In his first season, the team won eleven games and the Conference USA title. With fans expecting a repeat in 2018, the Owls sputtered to a 5-7 mark and again struggled ATS (3-7-1 versus FBS opponents). Those two seasons should make you a little leery of backing Kiffin and the Rebels this season. The defense was bad last year and while it may be improved, Louisville has a pretty good offense, so I expect them to put up some points. Even if Ole Miss is up by double digits in the fourth quarter, the backdoor should be wide open for a Louisville cover.