Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 02, 2021

The Magnificent Seven: Championship Week

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

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

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

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

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