Last Week: 5-2
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.