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.  

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week VIII

We had another solid week, but one of our whiffs was really bad. I apologize for anyone who took my advice on Arizona. Email me your Social Security Number and I will reimburse you. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall 28-21

Memphis -1.5 Central Florida
Good thing the Big 12 didn't base their invites on performance in 2021. Otherwise, the Knights may have had theirs rescinded. Central Florida has dropped three of four since a 2-0 start and if not for a fourth quarter comeback against East Carolina would be winless in AAC play. Its also good the Big 12 didn't base their invites on ATS record since the start of 2020. Including their bowl loss last season, UCF was 3-7 ATS in 2020 and thus far in 2021, they have failed to cover a single spread against an FBS opponent, rocking a perfect 0-5 mark. Obviously, the Knights are unlikely to finish the season without a spread victory, but I still think they are overvalued by the betting market. How can you feel confident with this team, especially without quarterback Dillon Gabriel who has missed the past three games and is likely out for the year? The Knights have been held below six yards per play in all three games since losing Gabriel. While the most recent came against College Football Playoff contender Cincinnati, the other two were against Navy and East Carolina, teams that do not conjure images of the 1985 Chicago Bears. For comparison, between 2017 and 2020, the Knights were held below six yards per play eleven times in 49 games (three times versus Power Five opponents). You have to wonder if the Knights can score enough to beat a Memphis team that has scored at least 28 points in every game this season. The Tigers would probably be a fringe top-25 team if they had a little more luck in the turnover department. The Tigers have a turnover margin of -8 through seven games, but that is mostly due to them forcing just three turnovers all season (none in the past three games). Turnovers are relatively random, so I would expect the Tigers to do a better job of pouncing on some loose balls and getting their hands on a few more passes down the stretch. Its not guaranteed their turnover margin will improve, but since they have been successful despite their struggles in the turnover department, they are probably undervalued by the betting market. I'll take the Tigers as a slight road favorite to keep the Gus Bus stuck in neutral.  

Kansas State +1 Texas Tech
Kansas State has owned this series since the Big 12 scrapped divisional play following the 2010 season. In the ten meetings since 2011, Kansas State has won nine despite entering as an underdog six times. In their five previous visits to Lubbock since 2011, the Wildcats have been a slight underdog (between two and five points) as they are this weekend and have headed home with a win four times. The Wildcats do enter on a three-game skid, but most of that can be chalked up to the schedule. In their past three games, the Wildcats have faced two unbeaten teams from the state of Oklahoma as well as a strong Iowa State team in the midst of Brocktober. Texas Tech is 5-2, but they have already feasted on the chaff of the Big 12 (Kansas and West Virginia) as well some creampuffs in the non-conference (Florida International and Stephen F. Austin). Their neutral site victory over Houston is legitimately impressive, but that feels like a game that will puzzle college football historians as they look back on the 2021 season. Even with the statistical bump that comes from playing Kansas and West Virginia, Texas Tech is still underwater in yards per play in Big 12 action (allowing an unsightly 7.19 yards per snap) so Kansas State should be able to move the ball. I expect a typical Big 12 shootout with both teams scoring in the thirties. However, there is only once coach in the matchup you can trust. Since Chris Klieman arrived in Manhattan, the Wildcats are 11-6 ATS in the regular season as an underdog with eight outright wins. Texas Tech is 4-4 ATS as a favorite under Matt Wells, but just 2-4 ATS against Power Five opponents with three straight up losses. These teams are headed in opposite directions. Kansas State should do enough over the second half of the season to qualify for a bowl while Texas Tech may be looking down the barrel of a five-game losing streak. 

Miami (Ohio) +5 Ball State
The second half of MAC football should be a ton of fun. Both division races are wide open, with every team in the East sporting a conference loss and a suspect Northern Illinois team leading the West (3-0, but conference wins by a total of 17 points). And this matchup of the past two MAC champs will go a long way toward determining the final standings. Miami is tied atop the East division with a 2-1 record and after this clash with the Cardinals, closes with four consecutive division games, culminating with a road trip to Kent State that will likely decide the East's participant in the MAC Championship Game. Meanwhile, Ball State has won three in a row after a 1-3 start. Quarterback Drew Plitt has thrown for nearly 800 yards at 8.6 yards a pop in the past three games after averaging under five yards per throw in his first three games against FBS competition. Part of that improvement can be attributed to the schedule which has eased up as those first three games included Penn State and Wyoming as well as the best defense in the MAC (Toledo). Miami has had quarterback issues of their own with AJ Mayer playing the bulk of the past three games (and the opener) due to an injury to Brett Gabbert. Mayer struggled in the opener against Cincinnati and in a tight loss to Eastern Michigan, but Ball State has been torched by the non-Army passing offenses they have played, so I expect solid numbers out of Mayer should be have to start a third consecutive game. On the other side of the ball, Miami has been able to generate havoc in MAC play, accumulating 12 sacks in three games. This has the look of a typical tight MAC game and the trends point to Miami. Ball State is just 4-8 ATS as a home favorite under Mike Neu, losing six of their failed overs outright. Meanwhile, Miami of Ohio has been a covering machine under Chuck Martin, going 13-8 ATS as a road underdog in MAC play while pulling eight outright upsets. This game should be close and with Miami catching nearly a touchdown, they are the play. 

Oklahoma State +7 Iowa State
Whenever a ranked team is getting points from an unranked team, that always catches my attention. And in this game, the ranked team getting points happens to be in the top ten. The Cowboys are ranked eighth in the most recent AP Poll, which is their highest ranking since...last year?! Who remembered the Cowboys got as high number six last season? Good on ya. I backed the Cowboys last week, and they eked out a win at Texas as a slight underdog. That ticket was probably a bit lucky to cash as Texas threw a pick-six deep in Oklahoma State territory up fourteen. While the Longhorns missed their opportunity for a knock out punch, the Oklahoma State defense deserves credit for keeping them in the game. Even with the pick-six, Oklahoma State trailed by eleven points in the third quarter, but held Texas scoreless for the last 25 minutes to give their offense time to stage a rally. This play is all about my belief in Oklahoma State. I don't think the Cowboys have the offense to win the Big 12, but their defense should keep them in every game and since the team has been winning ugly, they are undervalued by the betting market. Recent history also suggest Oklahoma State is the side you should look at. Care to guess which Big 12 team has the best record against Iowa State since Matt Campbell came to Ames? Its not Oklahoma. 
The Cowboys are 4-1 against Iowa State in the past five seasons and have actually won each of their past four trips to Ames since their infamous 2011 loss. A few weeks ago in this space, I said Oklahoma State has transitioned into the Iowa of the Big 12 with a strong defense making up for an ugly offense. The Cyclones have struggled against the Hawkeyes because they don't play like a typical Big 12 team. And Oklahoma State doesn't either. Take the Cowboys and the touchdown they are being spotted. 

San Diego State +3 Air Force
I mentioned earlier that I am usually wary when an unraked team is favored against a ranked team. This is another spot where the ranked team is the underdog (there are four such games this week). Despite that apprehension, this is exactly the spot where you want to back San Diego State. The Aztecs have been a consistent bowl team for the past decade, coinciding nicely with the hire of Brady Hoke in 2009. Hoke was replaced by Rocky Long who guided the Aztecs for nine seasons and was then replaced by Hoke following his departure after the 2019 season. Since 2009, San Diego State is 20-12-1 ATS as a road underdog. They are an even more impressive 13-4-1 ATS as a road underdog in Mountain West play. Under Hoke and Long, the Aztecs have played good to great defense and this year is no exception. Opponents are averaging just a tick over four yards per play against them, good for second nationally behind Georgia. I won't make the absurd argument that they have the second best defense in the country, but this is a top twenty defensive outfit. Alas, in that same span, the they have struggled with the forward pass and again, this year is no exception. As a team, they are completing 52% of their passes and are making a quarterback change. Lucas Johnson tossed the winning touchdown last week against San Jose State and will get the start against Air Force. I wouldn't expect big changes though. The passing game, and probably the offense in general, will be a net negative. However, this defense travels and the Aztecs have played well against the Falcons recently. In the Hoke/Long era, they are 7-1 both straight up and ATS against Air Force and have won their past three games in Colorado Springs. I think that trend continues on Saturday.  

Louisiana Tech +6.5 Texas-San Antonio
A few spots up I talked about Central Florida's pending move to the Big 12. That of course, was a response to the Big 12 losing Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC. With Central Florida and others departing for the Big 12, the AAC recently announced its next move and one of the Conference USA teams that will begin play in the AAC is the newly ranked Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners. That is quite a comeup (I think I used that word correctly; let me know zoomers) for a team that played their first football game ten years ago. You can't beat being located in a major metropolitan area and getting good at just the right time. I don't think the news of joining the AAC will be a distraction for this team, but being ranked for the first time in program history might. The Roadrunners are 24th in the AP Poll and are just the third Conference USA team to enter the polls during the College Football Playoff era (joining Marshall and Western Kentucky). Now comes the hard part; maintaining focus when there is a target on your back. Louisiana Tech enters this game with a very odd collection of results. Halfway through 2021, the Bulldogs have nearly beaten an SEC team on the road, lost at home to a ranked team on a Hail Mary, and nearly beaten a ranked ACC team on the road. They have also scraped by an FCS team and a very bad FBS team at home and lost at UTEP. Volatility, thy name is Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have been great at home in conference play under Skip Holtz, posting a 22-10 outright record (21-7 from his second season onward). Despite a 2-4 record, Louisiana Tech is still in the West division race in Conference USA and a victory here would get them back on the path toward bowl eligibility. The home crowd plus the pressure the Roadrunners will face playing their first game as a ranked team makes Louisiana Tech the side. 

Miami +3.5 NC State
How good is NC State's defense? Through two conference games, the Wolfpack currently have the best per play defense in the ACC, permitting a paltry 4.18 yards per play to their opponents. However, lets take a step back and examine the teams they have played thus far. The Wolfpack opened conference play against Clemson, and while their upset shook up the balance of power in the ACC, Clemson's offense has been shall we say, less than potent this season. The Tigers have not scored more than 21 points against an FBS opponent this season and seem content to play football in the 21st century as if were the NFL in the 1970s. NC State's other conference opponent was Boston College. While the Eagles have won two of four games since starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec went down with a season-ending injury, they have scored just twenty combined points in games not involving Temple or Missouri. In other words, I think the jury is still out on the NC State defense. This will represent their biggest road test since they lost a Mississippi State in the season's second week. Miami has come close to turning things around, losing by a combined five points to Virginia and North Carolina while turning the offense over to Tyler Van Dyke. The Hurricanes nearly upset North Carolina despite three Van Dyke interceptions, the last of which came when they were knocking on the door in the final minute. Manny Diaz may end up in the unemployment line at season's end, but the team does not appear to have quit on him. And the Hurricanes have thrived in the underdog role under Diaz. 
Their two lone failures as an underdog came against Clemson and Alabama when both were number one in games away from Hard Rock Stadium. I also looked at how Miami performed as a home underdog in general since joining the ACC. While this is the first time they have been a home underdog under Diaz, they are solid 9-4 ATS in that role since joining the ACC in 2004, including 7-6 straight up. I think Miami puts it all together this week and throws more chaos into the ACC race. 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week VII

We had our first losing week in a month. As usual, it was a combination of bad picks and a little bad luck. We'll try and do better this week. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall 23-19

Nebraska -4 Minnesota
It looked like Saturday would be the night Nebraska finally overcame whatever voodoo curse was placed on them by Frank Solich when he was unceremoniously fired in 2003. The Cornhuskers were in position to notch the biggest win of the Scott Frost era, but a fumble by Adrian Martinez and a late field goal allowed Michigan to escape. The loss dropped Nebraska to an incredible 5-16 in one-score games under Frost. Despite yet another close loss, Nebraska's statistical profile is still that of a solid team. With a 1-3 Big Ten record, they have outgained their first four conference opponents by more than a yard and a half per play. Note those numbers have been accumulated against a schedule that includes two unbeaten teams (Michigan and Michigan State). It also includes games against Illinois and Northwestern, but those are still numbers unbecoming a team that wins a quarter of its conference games. With a 3-4 record, Nebraska must win this game and beat Purdue to have a chance at bowl eligibility as they should be underdogs in their final three games (Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa). As for the Golden Gophers, they have struggled to move the ball and score since losing senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim to injury in the opener against Ohio State. They have been held under 300 yards of total offense three times in four games since his season ending injury. And lets not forget in that span they have also lost as a thirty point favorite. This is a perfect buy low spot for Nebraska. Count on the Cornhuskers to go into the twin cities and leave with a comfortable win. Unless its close. If this game is tight in the fourth quarter, I suggest you go for a walk or catch up on Below Deck because chances are Nebraska will do something to blow it. 

Oklahoma State +4 Texas
Does Oklahoma State have the best defense in the Big 12? A few weeks back when I was previewing their game against Kansas State (a loser for me by the way), I noted Oklahoma State has quietly shifted into a Big 12 version of Iowa. They play a lot more game in the twenties instead of the forties and have been winning with defense for a little while now. This season, the Cowboys are 5-0 and have held three of their four FBS opponents to their lowest point total output (Baylor, Boise State, and Kansas State) and two to their lowest yards per play totals (Baylor and Kansas State). The offense remains a work in progress, with the running game averaging under four yards per carry. However, Texas may be just what the doctor ordered to get that offense out of neutral. The Longhorns have allowed over seven yards per play to three of the four Power Five teams they have faced this season. And if you watched any of the Oklahoma thriller, you know they have some issues tackling. The Texas offense is one of the nation's best, so I can see why oddsmakers have them laying almost a touchdown, but if Texas was winning by ten points late in the fourth quarter, would you have confidence in them keeping Oklahoma State out of the endzone to prevent a backdoor cover? Oklahoma State's offensive struggles will probably prevent them from winning the Big 12, but their defense is good enough to keep them in any game including this one against a flawed Texas team coming off an emotional loss in a game they probably thought they had won on several occasions. Take the Cowboys and the points. 

South Florida +8.5 Tulsa
South Florida has yet to defeat an FBS team in Jeff Scott's second season. The Bulls knocked off The Citadel in their pandemic delayed opener last season and beat Florida A&M a month ago. However, they are 0-12 against FBS opponents. Don't let those ugly numbers scare you away though. The Bulls have quietly played better on offense the past few weeks behind freshman quarterback Timmy McClain. McClain is averaging eight and a half yards per throw despite a rough opening schedule. The Bulls have faced four teams currently ranked in the AP Poll (BYU, Florida, NC State, and SMU). Tulsa is significantly worse than those four teams and should not be laying more than a touchdown on the road. The Golden Hurricane won all three of their conference road games last season and nearly upset Cincinnati on the road in the AAC Championship Game. I'm inclined to believe their 2020 success was due to the unique circumstances surrounding the season and general good fortune (four of their six conference wins were by one score). From 2017 through 2019, the Golden Hurricane were 1-11 in AAC road games, losing six of the eleven by double digits. Tulsa did scrape by Memphis at home last week, but Memphis outgained them by nearly 200 yards. The Tigers turned the ball over three times (to zero for Tulsa) and missed three field goals in the six-point loss. Tulsa is overvalued by the betting market and I expect a solid performance from South Florida off their bye. 

Texas State +7.5 Troy
On the surface, this a pretty nondescript Sun Belt clash. But to me, a college football superfan, it is a battle of two teams led by trendy former offensive coordinators who are in their third season as head coaches and might be about to get fired. Chip Lindsey is the head coach of Troy. He steadily climbed the offensive coordinator ranks from Southern Miss to Arizona State and finally to Auburn. However, in his two plus seasons at Troy, the Trojans are 13-16. On the surface that doesn't seem too bad, but before he arrived, they had won at least ten games for three consecutive seasons. And their offenses have gotten progressively worse each season. His first team averaged nearly 34 points per game. Last year's team averaged about 27 and a half and this year's team has averaged just over 24 per game. Take out the double nickel they dropped on Southern, and the average drops to about 18 per game against FBS competition. Oh, and his team lost to Louisiana-Monroe. What about Texas State? Well, they are led by Jake Spavital, former offensive coordinator at West Virginia. Under Spavital, the Bobcats are 7-22 in two plus seasons. That's clearly worse than Lindsey, but I should point out Texas State averaged just two and a half wins per season in the four years before Spavital arrived in San Marcos. And their offense has actually improved since he arrived. The Bobcats averaged under 19 points per game in his first season, jumped to over 27 per game last season, and are averaging just north of 26 per game this season. Their bigger issues have been on the other side of the ball where they have not allowed fewer than 30 points per game in any season under Spavital. With that background out of the way, I suggest you back Texas State because the Bobcats have been relatively frisky as a home underdog (5-2 ATS since the start of last season) and because Troy will probably not be scoring a lot of points. Their defense is legitimately solid for a Sun Belt unit, but Lindsey wasn't hired to squeak by Sun Belt teams while scoring in the teens. Take Texas State to keep this within a touchdown. 

Miami +7.5 North Carolina
Call it the Disappointment Bowl. Or if you have a thesaurus handy, maybe the Despondency Duel. Either way, neither of these teams figured to be .500 or worse in mid-October. The Hurricanes and Tar Heels have an incredible six losses between them despite being underdogs just a single time (Miami's opener with Alabama). Miami will be without the services of quarterback D'Eriq King, but metaphorically, they have been without his services all season. I hate to critique a player who suffered a gruesome injury in their bowl game and battled back to return the next season, but King was clearly diminished as both a passer and dynamic runner. Turning the offense over to freshman Tyler Van Dyke (maybe he can get some advice from Luther) is what Miami needed both for the short and long term success of the program. While Miami enters this game with a losing record, North Carolina has arguably been the bigger disappointment. The Tar Heels wee ranked tenth in the preseason AP Poll, but dropped their opener to Virginia Tech and also dropped conference games to Georgia Tech and Florida State. After Saturday, North Carolina will somehow be 75% done with their conference schedule (they have a non-conference game with Wake Forest in a few weeks)! Thanks to their rough start, the Tar Heels are practically eliminated from division and conference title contention in the ACC. With that carrot buried in the ground, you have to wonder how motivated they will be over the second half of the season. Meanwhile, after their embarrassing performance against North Carolina last season, I don't think Manny Diaz will have to work very hard to motivate the Hurricanes. In addition, while Miami has three losses, only one of them has come in ACC play, so the Hurricanes are very much alive in the division race. Miami has done well as a road underdog under Diaz, at least when not facing the number one team in the country. Miami is 4-1 ATS in that role under Diaz with four outright victories. Their lone loss came to Clemson last year in Death Valley. Off a bye, I think Miami adds to North Carolina's disappointing campaign.  

Arizona +6 Colorado
On the surface, this line makes sense. Arizona is winless, having started the Jedd Fisch era with five consecutive losses, including one to Northern Arizona of the FCS. On the other hand, Colorado is winless against FBS teams, having scored 34 total points in their four games against FBS competition. They did throw a scare into Texas A&M, but their other three FBS opponents outscored them by 75 combined points. As I am want to mention in this section of the internet, it is hard to cover when you can't score. And Colorado matches that description. You couldn't install Arizona as a favorite in this game, but I am shocked Colorado is laying more than a field goal. I wouldn't worry about the altitude (or elevation) affecting Arizona too much either. Since joining the Pac-12, Colorado has been favored in 13 home conference games (out of 42 total home conference games). They are a middling 7-6 ATS in those games. In addition, Arizona has won their past four visits to Boulder, including twice as an underdog. In fact, the last game Arizona won came almost exactly two years ago in this very venue (on a night eerily similar to this). Arizona is bad, but they have been feisty despite their 0-5 record, covering in two of the three games where they entered as underdogs. The Wildcats may well finish 0-12 in 2021, but if they are going to win a game this season, it probably comes on Saturday. 

UCLA +1.5 Washington
We were all probably a little too quick to jump on the UCLA bandwagon after they beat LSU. The Tigers may end up finishing in the basement of the SEC West, but we all wanted to believe so badly. Consequently, UCLA got up to 13th in the AP Poll and there were even some whispers about a potential College Football Playoff appearance. Then the Bruins fell on their face in a home loss to Fresno State. They rebounded to beat Stanford, but got rolled at home by Arizona State. While the final score against the Sun Devils was not pretty, Arizona State may wind up being the best team in the Pac-12 and also the conference champion (remember their loss to BYU was not a conference game). The losses to Fresno State and Arizona State exposed the UCLA defense as not quite ready for primetime. Fresno State gained 569 yards and while Arizona State 'only' gained 463, they averaged nearly nine yards per snap. Of course, if you have defensive issues, Washington can do a lot to build your confidence. The Huskies looked potent against Arkansas State, scoring 52 points against one of the worst FBS defenses, but in their other four games, they have averaged just 18 points per game. That includes an FCS loss, an overtime game against Cal (where they managed just 24 points in regulation), and a loss to Oregon State (not exactly a defensive stalwart). A standard Washington team should be able to make up for those offensive deficiencies by playing really good defense. That has not been the case for this one, especially against the run. The Huskies were able to bottle up Montana and Arkansas State, but Michigan ran for 343 yards against them and Oregon State nearly ran for 250. UCLA has averaged over 200 yards per game rushing through the first half of 2021 so even if their volatile quarterback, Dorian Thompson-Robinson struggles throwing the ball, the Bruins should still be able to move the ball on the ground. UCLA hosts Oregon next week, but the Bruins and Ducks have already played two times since Chip Kelly took the UCLA job, so I don't think you have to worry about them looking ahead. UCLA will leave their trip to the Pacific northwest with a minor upset. 

Thursday, October 07, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Week VI

We had our best week in a long time. Sure seems like a market correction is in store, but hopefully it waits a few weeks. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 6-1
Overall 20-15

Tennessee -10.5 South Carolina
Am I putting too much stock into Tennessee's win against Missouri last week? Probably. The Vols rolled up nearly 700 yards and 62 points against what may end up being one of the worst SEC defenses we have ever seen. However, given that dominating performance, I expected this spread to be over two touchdowns. Despite dropping 62 points on the road in a conference game, I believe Tennessee is still undervalued by the betting market. The Vols have lost to the two best teams they have played but it may be time to reevaluate that loss to Pittsburgh. A month ago, Pittsburgh looked to be a middling Power Five team, but according to FPI, they are the second best team in the ACC (tenth best in the country) and the favorite to win the conference. Are you prepared to live in a world where Pittsburgh is an 11-2 ACC champion with a loss to Western Michigan that prevents them from making the playoff? I sure am. Anyway, that competitive loss to the Panthers suddenly looks better and better, and while I don't expect Tennessee to have any shot at beating Alabama or Georgia, they can certainly handle an SEC team with a deficient offense led by a rookie head coach. How many points can South Carolina realistically expect to score in this game? Ignoring their game against Eastern Illinois, the Gamecocks have scored 66 points in their four FBS games. Georgia and Kentucky have elite and good defenses respectively, but the Gamecocks also scored twenty points against East Carolina and 23 against Troy. Seems like they probably max out in the mid-twenties. Tennessee has a pretty good offense, not up to the standards in Tuscaloosa, but pretty good. And they are able to maximize that offense by playing at a fast pace. This game should have more possessions than an average college football game, so Tennessee will have extra opportunities to get margin. To handicap this game, I also looked at how Josh Heupel's teams performed in home games while he was at Central Florida. His teams were a mediocre 8-7 ATS as home favorites, but that was more a function of them laying a lot of points. Here is the chronological margin of victory in home games against FBS competition for his teams at Central Florida. 
The loss by eight points came against Tulsa when the Knights blew a big lead and the three point loss was to unbeaten Cincinnati. His teams won their other 14 home games by at least eleven points. As I mentioned earlier, they did not cover a lot of those games because they were laying three and four touchdowns. I will probably regret this around 12:30 or so Saturday, but you have to lay it with Tennessee. 

Syracuse +6 Wake Forest
Wake Forest has pretty much nailed its last two football coaching hires (wish I could say the same about basketball). The Demon Deacons have enjoyed an unprecedented run of success the past twenty years, playing in ten bowl games, entering the AP Poll in six different seasons, and even winning the conference in 2006. Despite all that success, you would almost (I said almost) have been better off investing in Enron in 2001 than backing Wake Forest as a road favorite. 
I don't expect those numbers to improve much after Saturday. Wake Forest is 5-0, but their schedule has been rather light in the early going. Their best victory is either the road domination of Virginia or the close scrape with Louisville last week. Syracuse is not a great team, but they are much better than the smoldering crater they were last season. They have been pretty strong on defense, holding two Power Five opponents and Liberty to 314 yards per game and 4.69 yards per play. Despite being coached by Dino Babers, the passing game is pedestrian, but the Orange are able to run the ball with running back Sean Tucker averaging nearly six yards per carry and quarterback Garrett Shrader (a Mississippi State transfer) contributing 234 yards on the ground. Wake Forest has a great chance to start 8-0 if they can get by the Orange, but they will struggle to put Syracuse away in the Carrier Dome.  

Wyoming +6 Air Force
People tend to remember the last thing they saw. Erudite folks call that recency bias. And that is probably why Air Force is laying more than a field goal against the Cowboys. In Wyoming's last game, they had to survive a two point conversion to avoid going to overtime against Connecticut. The Cowboys trailed for most of the game before staging a second half rally to take the lead and ultimately prevail. While barely beating Connecticut is never something you should brag about, I will point out the Huskies have played much better since Randy Edsall retired. After taking Wyoming to the wire, they nearly won on the road against an SEC opponent, so Wyoming's result is not quite as bad as it would initially appear. Compare their performance to Air Force which has rolled its past two opponents by a combined 52 points. Keep the competition in mind though. Their first victim was a team from Florida playing in altitude (or at elevation, I forget which is the proper phrasing) and the other came against perhaps the worst team in the Mountain West. Give the Falcons credit for blasting those two teams, but Wyoming represents their stiffest test to date. The Falcons have rolled up over 1200 yards on the ground in their past three games, so the big question will be how well Wyoming plays against their triple-option variant offense. Their history under Craig Bohl suggests the defense will play well. 
The Cowboys have won four of six outright in this series since Bohl took over with the loss two years ago coming in a game where the Cowboys had major quarterback issues (starter hurt, inept backup) and managed just six points. Air Force has had some defensive issues this season, allowing 49 points and over 600 yards to Utah State three weeks ago. The Cowboys probably don't have the horses to get to those numbers, but they can still win this game outright. 

Southern Miss +2 UTEP
If it turns out our reality is not a simulation, there sure are a lot of coincidences. UTEP has been pretty bad for the past decade and a half (just one winning season since 2005). In fact, in the past ten seasons, this game marks the fifth time they have been road favorites. Three came against New Mexico State (including this season) and the other before this weekend came against...Southern Miss in 2012. The Eagles were led by a first-year head coach that season. Ellis Johnson took over for Larry Fedora and drove the program directly into the ditch. The Eagles went winless in 2012, Johnson was fired, and it took his successor until 2015 to get the team back to a bowl game. The Eagles are once again led by a first-year head coach, and while a winless season is not on the table, thing have not been great in Hattiesburg. The Eagles are 0-4 against FBS opponents despite being thought of as a middling Conference USA team before the season started. However, if you squint, you can see signs of progress. The offense finally moved the ball reasonably well against Rice last week and would likely have won if not for four interceptions. In addition, outside of their performance against Alabama, the defense has played well all season, holding their other three FBS opponents to 306 yards per game and 4.97 yards per play. UTEP is 4-1, but that is more a function of their schedule than anything else. You should never be at a point where you feel comfortable laying points on the road with the boys from El Paso. Take the Eagles to pull off the Miner (see what I did there?) upset.  

Texas-San Antonio +3.5 Western Kentucky
When the oddsmakers throw out a line that seems weird on the surface like this one, I am inclined to avoid it or back the team that is favored. Why is this line weird? Let me set the scene for you. Texas-San Antonio (or UTSA) is 5-0. They have beaten a Power Five team on the road (granted it was Illinois) and won another road game against a team from a superior Group of Five conference (Memphis). Meanwhile, Western Kentucky is 1-3, with zero wins against FBS competition. The Hilltoppers have come close, losing tight games to Army and Indiana. Western Kentucky does one thing well. Throw the football. The Hilltoppers relocated the Houston Baptist passing game in the offseason and the results have been phenomenal. Quarterback Bailey Zappe is completing nearly three quarters of his passes and averaging about nine and a half yards per throw. Two receivers are on pace for 1000 yards and the team is averaging 39 points per game. However, football teams also have to play defense and special teams and this is where Western Kentucky is lacking. Their three FBS opponents have averaged nearly 40 points and 480 yards per game against them. The Hilltoppers have also given up a punt return touchdown for good measure. UTSA can't compete with those robust offensive numbers, but the Roadrunners are much more balanced than the Hilltoppers, Their defense has generated 13 sacks in the past three games and is allowing just 40 rushing yards per game against Group of Five competition. I expect a high-scoring affair and Western Kentucky will likely have the lead at some point on Saturday night. However, their suspect defense will ultimately be their undoing. 

LSU +3 Kentucky
With SEC expansion, the Wildcats and Tigers don't play that often. This is their first meeting since 2014 and just their second in the past decade. With their divergent football histories and infrequent meetings, you probably wouldn't be surprised to hear this is the first time Kentucky has been favored against the Tigers this century. The last time the Wildcats were favored versus LSU was 1999. They won that game by the odd score of 31-5. Kentucky finished 6-6 that season under Hal Mumme, but the bigger story was LSU. The Tigers won a solitary SEC game that season, and wrapped up the Gerry DiNardo era with a 3-8 record. They made a pretty good hire after jettisoning DiNardo and returned to elite status quickly. I bring up that game from more than two decades ago because situations where a perennial have not is favored against a perennial have involve either the have not being historically good or the have being historically bad. That LSU team was historically bad. This LSU team may be mediocre, but they are not bad. So if LSU is not historically bad, does this Kentucky team strike you as transcendent (at least by their standards). Not really. They have won each of their last four games against vastly different competition by a touchdown or less. The victories against Missouri, Chattanooga, and South Carolina are not impressive. The victory against Florida is impressive in the abstract, but the Wildcats were outgained by more than 150 yards and needed a blocked field goal return to provide the winning margin. My sources in Birmingham tell me league officials are unlikely to take that victory away from them, but its best to ignore random, high leverage events like that when projecting forward. Kentucky is a good team, with a quality defense, but they are unlikely to blow LSU out. This is likely to be a one-score game in the fourth quarter, so I like to back the team catching points. In addition, for all his potential faults, Ed Orgeron has killed it as a road underdog during his time at LSU. His teams are 7-1 ATS in the role with four outright wins. He may end up being fired by season's end, but I think he is able to rally the Tigers to pull the minor upset. 

Memphis +3 Tulsa
Both these teams lost last week in rather surprising fashion, but the betting market has only punished Memphis. The Tigers did fall as double-digit favorites, but its possible we were too pessimistic about Temple. I certainly sounded the alarm in the offseason, as the Owls were very bad in 2020. However, they may have been more about Covid and depth chart issues than anything fundamentally wrong with the program. The Owls were blown out by the two Power Five teams they played in non-conference action this year, but that was largely a function of turnovers (-5 versus Rutgers) and an inability to block Boston College (allowed four sacks and rushed for just over two yards per carry). The Owls may end up being a decent AAC team before the year is out and the game between Memphis and Temple may end up saying more about Temple (doesn't suck) than it does about Memphis. Meanwhile, the team we really should have been worried about in the offseason was Tulsa. Despite three consecutive losing seasons, the Golden Hurricane brought back Phillip Montgomery in 2020. He rewarded their faith with an unbeaten run through the AAC regular season. However, that mirage was built upon miraculous second half comebacks and the play of linebacker Zaven Collins. Collins is in the NFL now and it seems like regression might be reaching out for Tulsa. They were blasted at home by Houston last week to drop to 1-4 and put their bowl hopes on life support. I think Montgomery will be fired by the end of the year, if not sooner, and his road to unemployment will continue with another home loss as a betting favorite on Saturday.