Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

All good things are bound to come to an end and our six-week run did just that over championship weekend. We'll try and get back on track with a solid bowl season. 

Last Week: 1-2
Overall: 54-40

Lending Tree Bowl @ Mobile, Alabama
Rice +6.5 Southern Miss
I know it seems like Southern Miss has been in the Sun Belt for ages, but the Eagles just completed their first season in the league. Before that, they were charter members of Conference USA and spent 17 seasons as conference mates with Rice. The Owls and Eagles were even closer once the College Football Playoff era started, as they shared a division and played each season from 2014-2021. Rice has won the past two games in this series after dropping five straight between 2015 and 2019. Overall, the series is tied at six games apiece, with each contest coming since Rice joined Conference USA in 2005. Do the games played during the George W. Bush administration have an impact on the result here? Probably not, but I just wanted to point out these teams are more familiar with each other than you might have initially thought. For Southern Miss, this is their first bowl appearance since 2019 and first under second year head coach Will Hall. For Rice, this is their first bowl game since 2014! While they were not technically bowl eligible at 5-7, their academic performance moved them to the front of the line for five win teams. I expect both teams to be motivated to cap their seasons on a positive note. I'm backing Rice because Southern Miss has had trouble scoring since conference play started. They scored twenty or fewer points in six of their eight Sun Belt games and scored more than 23 points in just one league game. Their most famous player is the scion of an NFL great, but they ranked thirteenth of fourteen Sun Belt teams in yards per carry. Its hard to cover a spread of nearly a touchdown when you struggle to score more than twenty points. Take the Owls to keep this one close. 

Armed Forces Bowl @ Fort Worth, Texas
Air Force +6 Baylor
Last season Baylor played in the Sugar Bowl and the Bears were expected to contend in the Big 12. Instead the Bears finished 4-5 and even lost a non-conference game to a future conference opponent to finish 6-6. Through three season, the Bears are a perfectly mediocre 14-13 in Big 12 play under Dave Aranda. I know nine of those games came in the odd pandemic season, but if you are inclined to just throw that season out, shouldn't we look at last year's Big 12 title with a little more skepticism after what we saw in 2022? Despite winning the league title, last year's team ranked fifth (of ten teams) in Net YPP. This year's team was slightly worse, but not terribly so, ranking seventh in Net YPP. Obviously we need a few more data points before we can accurately evaluate Aranda's tenure, but that didn't stop some national writers from crowning him last season. But I digress. Air Force also failed to meet expectations in 2022. The Falcons had a relatively soft schedule in front of them and per the betting market, were expected to win every game they played. In fact, the Falcons have not been an underdog since the middle of last season. Alas, they suffered three defeats this season as a betting favorite (Boise State, Utah State, and Wyoming) and will have to settle for a potential second consecutive ten win season (and third in four years). Being a service academy, I don't expect motivation to be an issue for the Falcons, while it could potentially be a problem for Baylor. After playing an SEC team last bowl season, will Baylor be inspired to face a Group of Five team that runs a triple option variant? Oh, and Baylor fired their defensive coordinator less than two weeks ago. I don't think that is a winning recipe for facing Air Force. Take the Falcons and the points.   

Independence Bowl @ Shreveport, Louisiana
Louisiana-Lafayette +6.5 Houston
The Cougars and Ragin' Cajuns combined to go 16-0 against conference opponents in the regular season in 2021. The Ragin' Cajuns won their conference title game while Houston fell to an historically strong Cincinnati. Both teams finished ranked in the AP Poll and while Louisiana-Lafayette lost their head coach to Florida, Houston kept Dana Holgorsen and seemed poised to contend for a New Year's Six Bowl, if not a playoff spot. Things didn't quite work out that way. Houston dropped two games to Big 12 teams in non-conference play and then lost three conference games to finish a disappointing 7-5. Louisiana-Lafayette also dropped two non-conference games and half their Sun Belt clashes to finish 6-6. While both teams are probably disappointed to be in this spot, I think the Ragin' Cajuns will be the more motivated squad. The school did not play in a bowl game until 2011 and they are 5-1 straight up in bowl games played in the state of Louisiana. Meanwhile, Dana Holgorsen's teams are 3-6 straight up in bowl games and 2-7 ATS, including 1-3 straight up and 0-4 ATS in games where they entered as the favorite. Houston has also been awful as a favorite this season, posting a 1-7 ATS mark in the role. If you're looking for a favorite to crap the bed this bowl season, take a look at the Houston Cougars. They check all the boxes. The Cougars are potentially unmotivated, have a coach with a bad track record in bowls, and are facing a plucky underdog in their home state. 

Military Bowl @ Annapolis, Maryland
Duke -2.5 Central Florida
To beat Central Florida, you need to be able to shut down their ground game. The Knights averaged 236 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry this season. In their four defeats, they averaged 142 yards per game and right at four yards per carry. The Knights were moderately successful running against Louisville (208 yards and 5.5 per carry), but in their other three losses they averaged 120 yards per game and just 3.5 yards per carry. The Duke Blue Devils happen to have the third best rush defense (based on yards per carry) in the ACC. Duke also likes to run the ball, ranking second in the ACC in yards per carry. Like the Knights, Duke has a mobile quarterback that contributes to the team's rushing total. In fact, Riley Leonard led the Blue Devils in rushing yards (636) and rushing touchdowns (11) this season. Duke has not played in a a bowl game since 2018 and this is just their seventh bowl appearance since 1994, so I expect their fans to travel the relatively short distance to Maryland to take in the action. Meanwhile, Central Florida was on the precipice of a New Year's Six bid before losing to Tulane in the AAC Championship Game. The Knights probably don't want to be here and they have no quarterback depth as their backup entered the transfer portal. Plus, Gus Malzahn does not have a great track record in bowl games. His teams are 3-5 straight up. Two of his wins came at Auburn against an overmatched Group of Five team (Memphis) in 2015 and an overmatched Purdue in 2018. He did win his bowl debut for the Knights last season, but that game came against a decimated in-state rival. Duke should roll here. 

Alamo Bowl @ San Antonio, Texas
Washington +5 Texas
The Alamo Bowl features Steve Sarkisian's former team against his current team. While Sarkisian deserves a lot of credit for reviving the Washington program after it hit rock bottom, he was never able to win more than eight regular season games in Seattle, something Kalen DeBoer accomplished in his first season. While that comparison is a little unfair to Sarkisian, it should be noted that Washington won just four games last season and was completely inept on offense. Transfer quarterback Michael Penix helped solved those offensive issues by throwing for over 4300 yards this season. Penix also had excellent protection as Washington quarterbacks were sacked just seven times all season. Only three teams were sacked less often and every service academy, despite throwing sparingly, gave up more sacks than Washington. The Huskies offensive bona fides will be put to the test against a Texas defense that led the Big 12 in yards allowed per pass. Only two Big 12 teams scored more than 30 points against the Longhorns (Oklahoma State and Texas Tech) and those happened to be two of the three conference games they lost. On the other side of the ball, Texas led the Big 12 in yards per rush behind the uber-talented Bijan Robinson. While Washington struggled at times defensively this season, their major weakness was against the pass. Only Colorado allowed more yards per pass to Pac-12 opponents. The Huskies were actually third in yards allowed per rush. Oregon shredded their rush defense with a spread attack, but the Huskies were stout against the more basic rush offenses. While Sarkisian has a reputation as an offensive tactician, his offenses are not as exotic as the one run by Oregon. I expect Washington to hold up well against the Texas rush offense. Plus, Texas has been overrated by the betting market this season. The Longhorns were favored in every game this season except their home date with Alabama. They were favored by more than a field goal in ten of those other eleven games. Yet they lost three of them. I think Washington has a great chance to make it four. 

Duke's Mayo Bowl @ Charlotte, NC
Maryland -2 NC State 
I've made my thoughts for Mike Locksley known in this space before, but I have to give the man credit. If Maryland wins this game, the Terrapins will have their most wins (8) since Ralph Friedgen's final campaign when they finished with nine. Maryland had mediocre overall numbers in Big 10 play, being outgained by 0.01 yards per play through nine conference games. However, against teams not currently ranked in the AP top ten (Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State), Maryland outgained conference foes by 0.68 yards per play. While NC State is currently in the lower reaches of the AP Poll, their per play profile is not nearly as strong. The Wolfpack finished ACC play ranked dead last in yards per play. Part of that is due to the season ending injury to quarterback Devin Leary.  Three quarterbacks took snaps over the final six games of the season with MJ Morris playing the best. However, over those six games, the Wolfpack averaged just over twenty points per game against a less than imposing slate of defenses. Five of the six teams were below average per play defenses in the ACC, with four (Louisville, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest) ranking tenth or worse in the league in the category. Their defensive numbers were better, as they ranked sixth among ACC teams in yards allowed per play. However, their per play net in ACC games ranked twelfth, ahead of Boston College and Virginia Tech. Neither of those teams even sniffed a bowl bid. Last year, a similarly mediocre Maryland team dominated Virginia Tech in Yankee Stadium. The circumstances are a little different this year, as NC State does not have an interim coach and the Wolfpack appear to have some sort of homefield advantage with the game taking place in Charlotte. However, NC State is operating at a major deficiency at the most important position on the field. Maryland should be laying more than a field goal so take the Terps to win this renewal of old ACC rivals

Arizona Bowl @ Tucson, Arizona
Wyoming +1 Ohio
These two teams overachieved in 2022. Wyoming was decimated by the transfer portal and were not given much chance to contend in the Mountain West. While the Cowboys finished three games behind Boise State in the Mountain Division, they won five league games for the first time since 2017. Meanwhile, Ohio won just three games last season and the Bobcats were expected to finish in the middle of the MAC East. The Bobcats began MAC play with a loss to Kent State, but reeled off seven consecutive league wins to secure a spot in the MAC Championship Game. They were unable to win their first MAC title since 1968, but they won nine games for the first time since 2018. While both teams overachieved, they are also dealing with some personnel issues on offense. Ohio lost their quarterback, Kurtis Rourke, to injury and had to win the season finale with his backup to clinch the MAC East. Wyoming's leading rusher, Titus Swen, is no longer with the team after a violation of team rules. While Swen topped 1000 yards on the ground and averaged over five yards per carry, Wyoming's ground based offense will probably not miss him as much as Ohio misses Rourke. Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl fancies the running game, and while his inability to field a competent passing attack without Josh Allen has limited their upside, they have remained a consistent bowl team. Speaking of bowls, Bohl is 3-1 straight up and 4-0 ATS in bowl games at Wyoming, winning the past three by nearly twenty points per game. Wyoming struggles with the forward pass, but they may not need it. They should run roughshod over Ohio and win fairly handily. 

Thanks for your continued support of this blog. We'll be back in January with a betting futures recap from my annual Vegas trip and then on Thursday following the national championship game, we'll begin our YPP and APR conference recaps. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 01, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Championship Week

We closed the regular season with another solid week. This week, there is an abbreviated schedule, so you get abbreviated picks. Check back again in two weeks for a full size Magnificent Seven as we go over the best bets in bowl season. Home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 53-38

Akron +11.5 Buffalo
I actually wrote this game up two weeks ago before it was postponed due to the Buffalo Blizzard. Back then, the spread was 14.5, but I still like Akron even at this deflated number. While this isn't a conference title game, it does have significant repercussions for one team. Having lost three consecutive games, Buffalo needs to win to qualify for their first bowl game under head coach Maurice Linguist. While the Bulls are in contention for a bowl game, Akron has actually gained more yards per play and allowed fewer yards per play than the Bulls against MAC opponents. Buffalo may have the motivation edge, but Akron has been the better team in conference play. Akron has also done well as an underdog this season against teams with similar talent levels. The Zips are 3-1 ATS as a road underdog against other Group of Five opponents. Buffalo is just 1-3 ATS as a home favorite under Linguist, losing twice outright, including last year as a double digit favorite to Bowling Green. I'm not bold enough to call for an outright upset, but Akron should keep this one close. 

North Texas +9 Texas-San Antonio
The Roadrunners are going for their second straight Conference USA title before they move to the AAC. In fact, both participants in this title game will be playing in the AAC next year. UTSA closed their Conference USA membership on quite a run, winning eighteen of their final nineteen regular season league games. Who was the lone team to beat them in that span? North Texas, in the regular season finale last year. The Mean Green dominated UTSA, got their sixth win, and likely saved head coach Seth Littrell's job. The Mean Green also nearly beat the Roadrunners in the Alamo Dome this year, losing a back and forth affair six weeks ago. These two teams have the best passing offenses (by yards per play) in Conference USA, so I expect a high-scoring affair, similar to last year's title game when UTSA knocked off Western Kentucky 49-41 as a slight home underdog. The Roadrunners built a big lead and held off a furious Hilltopper rally to win last year, buoyed in part by three Western Kentucky turnovers. Six weeks ago, the spread in this game was about the same (UTSA favored by ten) and the Mean Green easily covered. I expect a repeat performance and even if the Roadrunners get ahead, North Texas is more than capable of getting in the backdoor with their prolific offense. Take the Mean Green and don't be surprised if they prevent UTSA from repeating as conference champs. 

Central Florida +3.5 Tulane
Based on the most recent College Football Playoff Rankings, the winner of this game will be playing in the Cotton Bowl. Central Florida appeared in back to back New Year's Six bowl games in 2017 and 2018 and also played in a BCS bowl game in 2013. Tulane on the other hand, has not played in a major bowl game since the 1930's when they played in a Rose and two Sugar Bowls. These two teams faced off three weeks ago in the same venue with Central Florida emerging victorious. The Knights rushed for over 300 yards in that game and scored 38 points (the most the Green Wave have given up all season). Based on resumes and advanced statistics, Tulane is probably the better team. However, Central Florida's running game, particularly their mobile quarterback, is a bad matchup for Tulane. Just last week, Tulane struggled against Cincinnati's mobile backup quarterback as the Bearcats rushed for a season high 235 yards. Central Florida and Tulane have shared a conference for much of the past two decades, meeting eleven times as league opponents since 2005. The Green Wave are just 2-9 straight up in those games, with one of the victories coming against a winless Central Florida team in 2015. The Green Wave have been a little better against the spread, posting a 5-6 ATS record, but most of those covers have come when they were catching double digits. The Green Wave have been favored in two of the previous eleven contests and have not covered either time (including earlier this season). As much as I want to see Tulane in the Cotton Bowl, the matchup and the history point to the Knights. 

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

The streak continues. Our best week of the season has us riding high. Can we keep it going over the holiday weekend? Home teams in BOLD. 

Last Week: 6-1
Overall: 49-35

Tulane +2 Cincinnati
The winner of this game heads to the AAC Championship Game, most likely for a potential rematch against UCF. Houston is still alive and I think the loser of this game could also back their way into the title game, but all that requires UCF to lose to South Florida. This is college football, so anything is possible, but the winner in this spot should plan on having a chance to avenge their loss to the Knights. While Cincinnati is favored in this game, Tulane has been much more dominant against AAC foes. The Green Wave have a +91 point differential in their six AAC victories, with five coming by double digits. Cincinnati has a point differential of +48 in their six victories, with three coming by less than a touchdown. Both teams have very good defenses, and I don't mean by Group of Five standards. The Bearcats and Green Wave have the top two pass defenses (by yards per play) in the AAC. Tulane has been susceptible to the run this season, as the rushing attacks of UCF and South Florida are the only two teams to top thirty points against the Green Wave. However, Cincinnati does not have a great rush offense, so they will not be able to exploit Tulane's biggest weakness. They also may have a new starter at quarterback as Ben Bryant is dealing with a foot injury. Cincinnati has the pedigree, having played in the past three AAC Championship Games, but Tulane has been the better team this season. Take the Green Wave to win and get to their first ever conference title game.  

Missouri +3 Arkansas
Arkansas began the year ranked in the preseason AP Poll for the first time since 2015 and after a 3-0 start, actually made their way into the top ten. However, since that 3-0 start, the Razorbacks have lost five of eight thanks mostly to the second worst per play defense in the SEC. Even in their bowl clinching victory against Ole Miss last week, the Razorbacks allowed over 700 yards of offense at nearly eight yards per play! Meanwhile, Missouri has played fantastic defense this season, ranking fifth in the SEC in yards allowed per play. Aside from a stinker in Knoxville, the Tigers have held their other six SEC foes to under nineteen points per game. Of course, the Tigers only managed to win two of those six games because their offense averaged just over eighteen points per game in those contests. I think the Tigers will have one of their best offensive showings of the year against Arkansas in a tough spot for the Razorbacks. Arkansas has played two straight homes games against ranked conference opponents (LSU and Ole Miss), losing a tight game to LSU and dominating the Rebels. Now they must go on the road to a place where they have struggled. Since Missouri joined the SEC in 2012, the Tigers are 4-0 against Arkansas in Columbia, with two outright victories as an underdog. In addition, Missouri needs this win to qualify for a bowl and perhaps save their head coaches' job. Take the Tigers pull the slight upset. 

Florida State -9.5 Florida
Frequent readers of this blog probably know I don't like laying points. They probably also know I don't like laying big numbers. And they probably know I really don't like laying big numbers in a rivalry game. You can argue whether this is a big number, but it is the most points Florida State has been laying in this game since 2013 (when I hear they fielded a pretty good team). The Seminoles seem to have gotten their act together after a rough stretch at the end of the Jimbo Fisher era, the entirety of the Willie Taggart era, and the beginning of the Mike Norvell era. They also seem to have gotten their act together after a three game losing streak that could have derailed this season. However, they have responded and won their past four games by a combined 134 points. Meanwhile, Florida has been up and down under first year head coach Billy Napier. The Gators have beaten Utah, blasted South Carolina in The Swamp, and won at Texas A&M. However, they have also lost at home to Kentucky, edged South Florida, and lost to Vanderbilt. Florida is a mediocre SEC team while Florida State is a semi-elite team that is underrated by the betting market thanks to three losses. Judging by this spread, you are still getting a small discount on the Seminoles. Enjoy it while it lasts and back them in this spot. 

Wyoming +15 Fresno State
Wyoming nearly upset Boise State and took control of the Mountain Division last week despite a grand total of thirty passing yards. Making his first collegiate start, Jayden Clemons completed three of his sixteen pass attempts with the final one being intercepted in the endzone to clinch the loss. It is unknown at this time whether Clemons will start again or if the slightly superior Andrew Peasley will return from injury. Either way, the Wyoming pass offense will not be what keeps the Cowboys in this game as they have not had a competent quarterback since Josh Allen was making scouts salivate five years ago. The task of keeping Wyoming in this game will fall to their rushing attack and their defense. The Cowboys are currently averaging over five yards per carry as a team and have been especially explosive over the past month. Over their past four games, the Cowboys have averaged 279 yards per game on the ground at nearly seven yards per carry (6.84)! Fresno State has been susceptible to the run, allowing 4.51 yards per carry on the season. Defensively, the Cowboys have held six of the seven conference foes to twenty points or less. Their ground oriented offense keeps the clock moving and their above average defense (by Group of Five standards) keeps them in the game. Fresno State has nothing to play for in this spot, having locked up the West Division. They have a date with Boise on the Smurf Turf next week regardless of what happens here. Fresno State has won six in a row after a 1-4 start and while they have put up some impressive offensive performances since quarterback Jake Haener returned from injury, those have tended to come against the dregs of the Mountain West schedule. The Bulldogs have beaten Hawaii, Nevada, and New Mexico (combined Mountain West record of 2-19) by 101 total points. Their other three conference victories against tougher competition (San Diego State, San Jose State, and UNLV) have all come by one score. This is too many points to give a competent team. Take the Cowboys. 

Georgia State +6 Marshall
Marshall's first year in the Sun Belt has been a real roller coaster ride. The Thundering Herd won at Notre Dame in September, but followed that up with an overtime loss at Bowling Green. They lost their first two Sun Belt games, upset James Madison, and then lost to Coastal Carolina to dash any hopes at a conference title. However, since that loss to the Chanticleers, the Herd have won three in a row and with a bowl game assured, have a chance to win nine games for the first time since 2018. Even if they finish with nine victories, one might be inclined to view this season as somewhat of a disappointment. Marshall has one of the best defenses in the Group of Five, but their offense has limited their ceiling. In conference play, only three teams (Arkansas State, Southern Miss, and Texas State) average fewer yards per play and the Herd have been held to thirteen or fewer points on four occasions this season. It's a credit to their defense they actually won one of those games and were in the other three in the second half. I don't like laying a lot of points with teams that struggle to score and Marshall has not been great as a home favorite under second year coach Charles Huff (not to be confused with knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough). Under Huff, the Herd are 1-6 ATS as home favorites with five outright losses. Georgia State is a dangerous team that is probably better than their 4-7 record. Take the Panthers to keep this one close. 

Memphis +4.5 SMU
2022 will go down as a season of missed opportunity for Memphis. The Tigers won their first two conference games against pesky Navy and bad Temple and looked poised to move to 3-0 against Houston. However, an onside kick recovery allowed Houston to erase a double digit deficit in the final minutes. That loss was followed by a multiple overtime loss at East Carolina. That loss was followed by Memphis digging a big hole at Tulane and nearly coming all the way back. That loss was followed by a one-score home loss to UCF. Credit the Tigers for getting off the mat after four consecutive losses to beat Tulsa at home and enjoy a cakewalk last week against North Alabama. The Tigers can't atone for their close defeats in the finale against SMU, but they can clinch a winning record. Despite their mediocre record, the Tigers have the second best per play defense in the AAC, limiting conference opponents to just 5.18 yards per play. Meanwhile, SMU has one of the worst defenses in the AAC. Only South Florida and Navy allow more yards per play to conference opponents. The Mustangs are playing at home, but the per play numbers indicate Memphis is the better team. The Tigers have been competitive in each of their conference losses and I expect them to keep this once close as well. 

Louisiana-Monroe +3.5 Southern Mississippi 
How can Southern Miss be laying points on the road when they can't score? The Golden Eagles have averaged just under 21 points per game in their seven Sun Belt games and have been held to twenty or fewer points five times. Half of their FBS wins this season have come by three points or less. Their scoring (or lack thereof) is not a function of them moving the ball and struggling when they have scoring opportunities. They rank thirteenth in the Sun Belt in yards per play (second to last). At least their offense has a sense of symmetry as they rank thirteenth in both yards per rush and yards per pass. They may be able to look like a competent offense against the Warhawks who rank twelfth in the Sun Belt in yards allowed per play, but Louisiana-Monroe has a pretty good (by Sun Belt standards) passing attack. Quarterback Chandler Rogers will be the best offensive player on the field (sorry Frank Gore Jr.) and the Warhawks should be able to move the ball against a slightly below average Southern Miss defense. Terry Bowden's rebuild in Monroe is ahead of schedule and the Warhawks have been nasty as a home underdog. They are 5-1 ATS in the role under Bowden with four outright wins. I think they make it five on Saturday and end their season on a positive note.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

A third straight 5-2 mark has us red hot heading into the home stretch. When will regression catch us in its grasp? Perhaps this week. Home teams in BOLD. 

*Editor's Note: The initial post included the Akron +14 Buffalo game. That game has been postponed due to weather and as of Friday, I am not sure it will be played. Thus, I have added another game. Enjoy.* 

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 43-34

Navy +16 Central Florida
Central Florida needs one win in their final two games to lock up a spot in the AAC Championship Game. With a rudderless South Florida on deck, the odds are certainly in their favor. Fresh of a huge road victory against Tulane and before the War on I-4 clash with the Bulls, could the Knights be positioned in the dreaded sandwich spot against Navy? I think so. Navy has already clinched a third consecutive losing season, but they have been feisty, especially in conference play. The Midshipmen have covered their three other road conference games this season, despite catching double digits in each one. They even won one outright. Navy's pass defense is very bad, so the Knights will hit some big plays in the passing game. However, Navy has a fantastic run defense. They held Notre Dame to 66 yards on 34 carries last week. Once we correct for the accounting errors college football has with rushing numbers and remove the six sacks Navy accumulated, they still held the Irish below 100 yards on the ground at a little over three yards per carry. Service academies never quit (witness Navy's comeback in a cover last week against Notre Dame), so even if the Midshipmen get down in the first half or late in the game, the backdoor should be wide open. You never want to pick a game because you think a team can get in the backdoor, but it does help to have a team that won't pack it in if they are trailing by a big number in the second half. One other things to keep in mind is that this game kicks relatively early (11 AM). It may only play a minor role, but the patrons of the Bounce House won't have an extra hour to get lathered up. Take Navy to continue being a pest although not a big enough one to win the game outright. 

Auburn -5.5 Western Kentucky
This line seems oddly low considering the pedigree of both programs. While Auburn is likely to finish with a losing record and Western Kentucky has an outside shot at their conference title, there is still a wide gulf in the talent level of these teams. If you back Western Kentucky, you have to be of the opinion that Auburn will lack motivation. Early returns on interim coach Carnell Williams, suggest that will not be the case. I don't know if Williams is in contention for the full time job, and if I were an Auburn fan, I would not want him to be. His 'ra-ra' high energy coaching style might get old in normal times, but for a team in Auburn's situation, he has been the perfect stopgap. They overcame a big deficit on the road at Mississippi State in his first game and then beat Texas A&M for the first time since 2019 last week. Western Kentucky has won an SEC road game before, driving the final nail in the coffin of the Chad Morris era three seasons ago. While the circumstances may seem similar on the surface, I think Auburn will leave it all on the field in their final home game of the season. Plus, you are getting Auburn at an early Black Friday discount. Since 2004, the Tigers have not been favored by fewer than ten points against a Group of Five or non-BCS opponent at home. Take the Tigers to cruise to their second victory in a vintage Cadillac.  

Iowa +2.5 Minnesota
After opening conference play 1-3, the Iowa Hawkeyes have won three in a row and have a decent shot at returning to Indianapolis for the Big 10 Championship Game. Based on their results against Michigan and Ohio State this season, their odds of actually winning the Big 10 title are infinitesimal, but another division crown would be a nice accomplishment, especially considering how bad the offense has been at times this season. The defense of course, has been fantastic. Michigan and Ohio State combined to score 81 points on the Hawkeyes. Their other eight opponents have combined to score 58, with a high 13. Minnesota has dominated the cupcakes on their schedule with six of their seven wins coming by at least 27 points. However, most of those teams are very bad. The lone exception is an average Michigan State team and if you are being generous, a mediocre Rutgers team. The Gophers have lost to the three teams with winning records they have faced (Illinois, Purdue, and Penn State). They have averaged less than fourteen points per game in those three contests. How many points are they going to score against Iowa? The Hawkeyes have won the past seven in this series and Kirk Ferentz is 17-6 straight up against Minnesota (17-4 since 2001). One college football memory that sticks out in my mind is Iowa fans tearing down the goalposts in the Metrodome when the Hawkeyes beat Minnesota in 2002 to clinch a share of the Big 10 title. That Iowa team actually had a Heisman candidate...on offense! Look it up kids if you don't believe me. I don't think goalposts will come down, but Iowa will inch closer to a division title. 

Arkansas State +6 Texas State
This otherwise inconsequential Sun Belt games between two losing teams playing out the string does have a bit of intrigue. Both quarterbacks in this game, James Blackman of Arkansas State and Layne Hatcher of Texas State, played for Arkansas State last season. Blackman started the first six games with Hatcher seeing action in all but one of Blackman's starts. Blackman was lost for the year in the sixth game and Hatcher started all the games in the second half of the year. Both quarterbacks were pretty mediocre by Group of Five standards, but the defense was horrendous and the team won just a single game against FBS opponents. Hatcher transferred to Texas State and has played at about the same level. Blackman has played slightly better at Arkansas State, but neither has put up great numbers. Texas State looked like they might be a Sun Belt sleeper in early October when they upset Appalachian State, but they have lost four straight and head coach Jake Spavital is likely on the way out when the season ends. Arkansas State ended their own four-game skid last week when they edged Massachusetts. That must be why this spread is nearly up to a touchdown. I can't think of any other reason why Texas State would be such a big favorite in a conference game. Texas State has won the past two contests in this series, but in their nine previous meetings as Sun Belt opponents, Arkansas State has been favored in each one. That is a solid trend of the betting market deeming Arkansas State the better team. I think the market has swung too far toward Texas State. Take the Red Wolves and the points. 

Wyoming +14 Boise State
When Craig Bohl came to Wyoming prior to the 2014 season, I expected him to have success at Laramie. And he was sort of delivered. By historical standards, his run has been successful. Counting 2022, the Cowboys have been bowl eligible in the past six non-pandemic seasons. However, they have only played in one Mountain West Championship Game in his tenure. And they were captained by a generational talent that season. This season, the Cowboys have a chance to get to a second conference title game. All they have to do is beat Boise State at home and then win at Fresno State next week. Piece of cake. Both teams have overcome rough first halves to get here. Wyoming began the year with an embarrassing performance at Illinois and was 3-3 halfway through the season. They have won four in a row since. Meanwhile, Boise State began the year 2-2 and fired their offensive coordinator. They have since won five of six, with the lone loss coming in a non-conference game against BYU. While Boise has dominated their opponents in that stretch, their lone road game against a competent foe came against Air Force. The Broncos were actually underdogs in that game, but got out to a big lead and held on to win 19-14. The Falcons were able to shut down the Boise running game (held them to 115 yards and under three yards per carry). I think Wyoming will be able to pull off a similar feat. Boise's freshman quarterback Taylen Green has played well, but the Broncos don't rely on their passing offense to win games (108th nationally in passing attempts). Wyoming also eschews the pass (123rd nationally in passing attempts) so that should mean a lot of runs and a running clock. Wyoming is 6-2 ATS against Boise under Craig Bohl, and in the past five games the Cowboys have contained Boise's offense, holding them to under twenty four points per game. I expect another low-scoring game, so take the dog catching two touchdowns. 

UCLA +2.5 Southern Cal
The Battle of Los Angeles is not just a Rage Against the Machine album anymore. With the Bruins and Trojans both enjoying good seasons, this is the biggest game in this rivalry since at least 2014 and possibly longer. Southern Cal still has an outside shot at the College Football Playoff and while this matchup lost a little luster with UCLA's loss to Arizona last week, I think that was more about the Bruins potentially looking ahead to this spot. Rest assured, the Trojans will have their full attention. While Southern Cal has the higher ranking, UCLA has played better on offense and defense in Pac-12 play, leading the Trojans in Net Yards Per Play (1.65 to 0.98) against a slightly tougher Pac-12 schedule. The teams have played five common opponents (Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Stanford, and Utah) and the Trojans have played Cal, Oregon State, and Washington State. Meanwhile, UCLA has Cal next week, but has played Oregon and Washington. UCLA is 8-5 as a home underdog under Chip Kelly, but they are 4-0 ATS with four outright wins since the start of the 2021 season. This is the spot Dorian Thompson-Robinson has been dreaming of all season. He will put on a show in his final home game against an arch-rival. Take the Bruins and the points. 

Colorado State +21.5 Air Force
Jay Norvell's first season at Colorado State has been eerily reminiscent of his first season at Nevada. Five years ago, Norvell took over a Nevada team that had gone 5-7 the previous season, but was hardly at the bottom of the Mountain West. Norvell brought an Air Raid type offense to Reno and the Wolfpack were slow to adjust. They lost their first five games of the year, including one to an FCS team. In those first five games, they averaged twenty points per game. However, over their final seven games, they won three and averaged 34 points per game. Similarly, Norvell took over a Colorado State team that finished 3-9 last season, but was better than its record and has one of the best stadiums in the Group of Five. Once again, he brought over the Air Raid and the team struggled early. The Rams lost their first four games, including an ugly blowout to an FCS team. They managed to beat Norvell's former team in their fifth game, but still only scored 17 points. In fact, the Rams have not scored more than 19 points all season. So how can I justify taking a team that has not scored twenty points all season? Look at the yards, and more specifically, the yards per play. The Rams have averaged north of six yards per play in three of their past four games after failing to reach five yards per play in their first six games. The Rams won't win this game, but they will stay within three touchdowns against a triple option variant service academy. 

Thursday, November 10, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Week XI

Three winning weeks in a row have us with our best winning percentage of the season. There are a lot of road teams and ugly dogs on the card this week, so tread lightly. Home teams in BOLD. 

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 38-32

Connecticut +14 Liberty
Jim Mora Jr., our nation turns its lonely eyes to you (woo woo woo, woo woo woo). The Huskies appear to be the only thing standing between Liberty and a 11-1 regular season finish. Following their trip to Storrs, the Flames host Virginia Tech and New Mexico State. I hate Liberty and everything the university stands for. Hypocrisy permeates throughout the program, from the former president of the university to the current head coach of the football team. Perhaps my emotions have gotten the better of me in making this pick, but I think the Huskies have a real shot to extinguish the Flames. A month ago, Liberty barely escaped at home against Gardner-Webb. The Bulldogs are 4-5, but they have put a scare into both Coastal Carolina and Liberty this season. In their two games since that harrowing escape, Liberty has beaten two legitimate programs in BYU and Arkansas. Credit Hugh Freeze for adapting his game plan. Against BYU, the Flames took advantage of a bad BYU run defense in accumulating 300 yards on the ground at over six yards a pop. Following a bye, Liberty took advantage of a poor Arkansas secondary and averaged nine yards per pass. They also held Arkansas without a touchdown through the first three quarters before the Hogs woke up in the fourth. Liberty allowed two fourth quarter touchdowns, but held Arkansas out of the endzone on a two-point conversion attempt to seal the win. Hugh Freeze is a great coach, but this has letdown written all over it, especially with him openly angling for jobs in his old conference. Meanwhile, Connecticut needs one more win to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2015 (and second time since their Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2010). When not facing ranked Power Five opponents, the Huskies have fared pretty well this season, winning five of seven games while allowing fourteen points per game. The Huskies probably don't have enough firepower to win the game outright, but they are feisty enough to cover this number. 

LSU -3.5 Arkansas
This is a spot where LSU may be primed for a letdown, but I am going to back the Tigers. While their victory against Alabama might ordinarily make them overlook their next opponent, LSU still has work to do to win the SEC West. Ole Miss only has one loss, so the Tigers may need to sweep their remaining SEC games (Arkansas and Texas A&M) to secure a trip to Atlanta. And of course, Alabama is always lurking should the Tigers potentially slip up in both games. I think a seasoned (and authoritarian) coach like Brian Kelly will have the Tigers prepared in a tricky road spot. LSU should be able to move the ball against an Arkansas defense that is second worst in the SEC in yards allowed per play (bested only by Vandy). Their pass defense is among the worst in the country, allowing nearly nine yards per throw. The Arkansas offense, especially with a healthy KJ Jefferson is potent, but LSU should be able to outlast them in a shootout. The Tigers have fared well in their past few visits to Arkansas, winning four of the past five, and if they needed additional motivation besides an SEC title and pipe dream of a spot in the College Football Playoff, Arkansas won in Baton Rouge last season, so revenge might be on their minds. Take the Tigers to cover this short number on the road. 

Navy +16 Notre Dame @ Baltimore
Notre Dame has had an odd season under first year head coach Marcus Freeman. The Irish are 3-0 against ACC teams, inflicting the only losses (thus far) on the likely ACC Championship Game participants. They are 3-3 against everyone else, with home losses to Marshall and Stanford. Fresh off their biggest victory of the season, they are in a prime letdown spot against a bad Navy team. While the Midshipmen have struggled offensively for a third consecutive season, their run defense has been pretty good. Navy is thirteenth nationally in yards allowed per rush. By contrast, they are bottom ten nationally in yards allowed per pass attempt. Fortunately for the Midshipmen, Notre Dame prefers to keep the ball on the ground, as they rank eighteenth nationally in rushing attempts per game and 115th in pass attempts per game. Like a perfect puzzle piece, Navy's defensive strength matches up well with Notre Dame's preferred offensive philosophy. As I mentioned, the Navy offense has struggled, averaging about 22 points per game, so they probably lack the firepower to win this game outright. Covering more than two touchdowns though? That's another story. One final thing to keep in mind when handicapping Navy is to look how they have performed ATS in their bad seasons. Under Ken Niumatalolo, Navy has had five bad seasons (including 2022). Unfortunately, four of those five bad seasons have come since 2018. However, even in those bad seasons, Navy has still done well in covering as a road or neutral site underdog. The Midshipmen are 15-6 ATS in such games, including a perfect 4-0 this season. Notre Dame is riding high after their victory against Clemson last week, but while the Irish managed 35 points, they scored two non-offensive touchdowns to buoy their point total. Take Navy to keep this one close. 

Boston College +19 NC State
Every Sunday or Monday after the college football slate is over, I head to cfbstats and peruse the numbers for each conference. I did a double take when looking at the ACC. NC State, currently the seventeenth best team in the nation according to the latest AP Poll, ranks last in the ACC in both yards per play and yards allowed per play. How have the Wolfpack managed to win three of five conference games despite their down by down struggles? The Wolfpack are +4 in turnovers in ACC games (+6 in their four games not involving Clemson). They have also made all 13 of their field goal attempts in conference play. Opponents have not fared horribly in kicks, having made five of seven, but those eight additional field goals are a net of 24 total points by my math. Finally, NC State has won the close ones, beating Florida State by two and Virginia Tech by one. Boston College has also been pretty bad on both sides of the ball in 2022, but should they be catching nearly three touchdowns? The Eagles have been grounded on the road this season, averaging just over ten points per game (as compared to just over 22 per game at home against FBS opponents), but how many points do you expect NC State to score? The Wolfpack are averaging a shade over 27 points per game on the season, but if we remove their FCS game and their contest against Connecticut, the Wolfpack have averaged just north of 21 points per game. Can Boston College score more than ten points against NC State? If so, they can cover this inflated spread. Finally, recent history suggests Boston College is the right side. NC State is 4-4 against the Eagles under Dave Doeren, but the Wolfpack have been favored in seven of those games. In fact, they are 1-2 against the Eagles in Raleigh and 0-3 ATS. While Boston College may be led by a quarterback making his first ever road start, let's not forget NC State will be led by a quarterback making his second career start as well. MJ Morris has looked good in the first two games he has seen significant action, but he is still a true freshman with limited experience. Take Boston College and the points. 

Florida State -7 Syracuse
After a 6-0 start, the Orange have fallen back to earth. Despite being outplayed, Syracuse was in the game at Clemson thanks to a long fumble return touchdown. They followed that up by losing at home to Notre Dame and then lost a snoozefest with their backup quarterback at Pitt. The Orange still have Boston College on the schedule, so they still have a real shot at seven regular season wins. However, I think the optimism that was present in upstate New York last month is about to fall by the wayside (if it hasn't already). While Syracuse is presently in a funk, Florida State snapped out of their midseason funk. The Seminoles lost three consecutive games after a 4-0 start, but have the per play profile of a dominant team. They have outgained ACC opponents by more than two yards per play! They moved the ball well in all three losses (averaging 6.29 yards per play), but glitched out on third and occasionally fourth down. The Seminoles converted 16 of 37 third downs (43%) in those games and were two of six on fourth down, including a one for four showing against Clemson. Despite averaging under five yards per play (4.90), their three opponents converted third downs at an almost identical rate (44%) and were slightly more efficient on fourth down (four of six). Their poor showing in those three games obscured the fact that Florida State may in fact, be back. It could all go sideways in the former Carrier Dome, but I think these teams are trending in different ways and despite the relatively large number, I'll back the Seminoles. 

California +14 Oregon State
At this point, Cal is almost an auto-play when they are catching double digits. The Bears covered as big underdogs against Southern Cal last week bringing their ATS mark as a road underdog under Justin Wilcox to 16-5, including 8-3 as a double digit road underdog. The Bears were not able to win the game outright, so their bowl hopes are on life support as they have lost six of seven. Asking them to win in Corvallis is probably too much, but I think they can keep it close against the best per play defense in the Pac-12. The Beavers typically won with offense under head coach and former quarterback Jonathan Smith. During his first four seasons in charge, the Beavers were 3-20 when they failed to score at least 30 points. The Beavers still have a losing record in such contests this season, but they are a respectable 2-3. Oregon State has a weird statistical profile as they have a great per play defense, but rarely generate negative plays. The Beavers have twelve sacks on the season (tied for 121st nationally) and 45 tackles for loss (tied for 100th nationally). Cal's offensive line has struggled this season, allowing 28 sacks thus far (tied for 111th nationally). The Beavers will be in the backfield more than usual, but their defensive front will not dominate Cal's weakest link like some good defenses might. To cover big spreads, you have to score a lot of points. And that is not something Oregon State has done since Pac-12 play started. In non-conference games against two solid G5 teams (Boise State and Fresno State) and an FCS team, the Beavers averaged nearly 46 points per game. However, they have topped 30 points in Pac-12 play once and that came against Colorado. In their five other Pac-12 games, they have averaged just under 21 points per game. They won't score enough to cover this number. 

San Diego State +3 San Jose State
After a rough start to the season, Brady Hoke has righted the ship at San Diego State. The Aztecs opened the year 2-3, losing to two Pac-12 teams they defeated last season, and getting blown out by Boise State. Since that Boise State loss, the Aztecs have won three of four and if not for a miraculous last minute comeback by Fresno State would be riding a four-game streak and in control of the West Division of the Mountain West. Meanwhile, San Jose State has struggled over the past month. I know the team tragically lost Camdan McWright three weeks ago, but their struggles started prior to that. Through their first five games, the Spartans were 4-1, with their only loss coming at Auburn. They had dominated their two Mountain West opponents, beating Wyoming and UNLV by a combined fifty points. Then they managed just ten points in a road loss to a Fresno State team still missing their starting quarterback. Their non-conference game with New Mexico State the next week was canceled due to the death McWright. They returned to play with home games against two of the worst teams in FBS, Nevada and Colorado State. While they ultimately prevailed, they trailed Nevada in the fourth quarter and were up only one score on Colorado State in the fourth. Something is wrong with the Spartans and they should not be laying points on the road. San Diego State has won eight of the nine matchups since San Jose State joined the Mountain West in 2013. Their lone loss came in the pandemic season of 2020. The Spartans are 3-2 ATS against the Aztecs under head coach Brent Brennan, but they have been at least a touchdown underdog in all five games. Covering as a dog is a lot different than covering as a favorite, especially on the road. The wrong team is favored in this spot. 

Thursday, November 03, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Week X

Two winning weeks in a row. Can we make it three? Home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 33-30

Boston College +10 Duke
2022 has been a disappointing season for Boston College. The Eagles are 2-6, have beaten one FBS team, and lost to Connecticut last week. The Eagles were not expected to contend for an ACC title, but since joining the conference in 2005, they had only failed to reach six wins three times. Six victories is nigh impossible now with two ranked teams remaining on the schedule plus Notre Dame. While Boston College has disappointed, Duke has overachieved in Mike Elko's first season. After going 1-17 in ACC play over David Cutcliffe's final two seasons, the Blue Devils have a .500 conference record and are one win away from bowl eligibility. While Duke has been the better team in 2022, asking them to lay double digits on the road might be a bridge too far. Duke has played four road games this season, and while they have won half of them, they were double digit underdogs twice (Northwestern and Miami) and a touchdown underdog in one (Kansas). In the lone road game where they were favored (Georgia Tech), they lost. The Eagles were field goal favorites at Georgia Tech (which I'll reiterate, they lost) and now a month later, they are double digit road favorites. Boston College does not have a great track record as a home underdog under Jeff Hafley, posting a 5-4 ATS mark in the role. However, all four teams that covered against the Eagles were ranked in the AP Poll at the time of the game (Notre Dame in 2020, NC State and Wake Forest in 2021, and Clemson in 2022). You'll note that Duke does not have a little number next to their name. Boston College has struggled mightily on the road, averaging just over ten points per game. However, they have been competent at home, averaging nearly twenty points per game against FBS opponents in Chestnut Hill. The Eagles will put up a fight on Friday night and cover this number. 

Army +7 Air Force (@Arlington)
2022 has been a disappointing season for the service academies. Navy is 3-5 and staring down the barrel of a third straight losing season. Army is 3-4 and has a chance to get to bowl eligibility, but the Black Knights are just 1-4 against FBS opponents. Finally, while Air Force has the best record of the bunch at 5-3, they have lost three times as a betting favorite, including twice as a double digit favorite. The Mountain West is down this season, so its quite possible the Falcons end up being favored in every game! While each service academy has disappointed this season, I expect a quality effort from both teams. I think the handicap on this game is simple. These teams are intimately familiar with each other, playing each season and running offenses that branch from the same option tree. That familiarity typically leads to lower scoring games which introduces more variance and favors the underdog. In addition, while Air Force is 10-5 against Army under Troy Calhoun, they have dropped four of the past five as Army has gotten its act together under Jeff Monken. The underdog has also covered six straight in this series with four outright wins. Take the Black Knights and the touchdown.  

Missouri +1 Kentucky
One of the more incredible stories that has played out over the past two years in college football that has received zero national attention is the emergence of the Missouri defense. Last season, in their ten games against Power Five opponents, Missouri allowed 6.56 yards per play. Those ghastly numbers included some defensive improvement down the stretch. Over their final three games, Missouri allowed 5.48 yards per play. I was not expecting much improvement in 2022. After they lost 40-12 to Kansas State in their second game, I didn't expect to be paying much attention to Missouri this season. However, despite the blowout loss, Missouri did hold Kansas State to their second lowest season total in both total offense (336 yards) and yards per play (5.33). The Tigers were done in by turnovers (-3 margin in the game) and a Kansas State specialty (non-offensive touchdowns). Once SEC play began, the Tigers continued to clamp down on opposing offenses, but could not end up on the right side of the scoreboard. They lost their first three conference games by 14 total points, but held Auburn, Georgia, and Florida to just 5.21 yards per play. Once the schedule eased up, the defense played even better, holding Vanderbilt and South Carolina to 24 total points and under four yards per play. On the season, three SEC defenses have held their opponents below five yards per play in conference games. Two are obvious (Alabama and Georgia) and the third is Missouri. That defense will be severely tested next week in Knoxville, but the Tigers have a great chance to move within a game of bowl eligibility against Kentucky. While the Wildcats have a quarterback that some believe will be a high draft round pick, he passed for 98 yards last week against a weak Tennessee secondary. The Kentucky program is in a much better position than they were when Mark Stoops took over nearly ten years ago (time flies), but they are not used to laying points on the road in the SEC. In fact it has only happened five previous time in his tenure. The Wildcats are 2-3 ATS in that small sample and have lost two of the games outright, including two years ago at Missouri. The Tigers have the better offense, the better defense, and are playing at home, so you better take the points. 

Iowa +3 Purdue
This Big 10 nooner is a clash between the resistible force and the infinitely movable object. Purdue has the worst per play defense of any Big 10 team in conference play. Meanwhile, Iowa's offensive struggles have been documented all season, but the Hawkeyes actually rank ahead of both Indiana and Rutgers in yards per play among Big 10 teams. A lot of that is due to their performance last week against Northwestern when they scored a season high 33 points and averaged over six yards per play for the first time all season and just the second time in the past two seasons! With another bad defense on the docket, can Iowa put up back to back 30 point games? That is probably too much to ask, but I expect a solid offensive performance against Purdue. The over/under is currently 39.5, so the spread implies a final score of roughly 21-18 in favor of Purdue. I expect Iowa to eclipse that team total and their defense is very capable of holding Purdue below their implied point total as well. Despite having faced both Michigan and Ohio State (best per play offenses in the Big 10), Iowa has the second best per play defense in the conference. Couple that with the fact that Purdue has struggled as a home favorite under Jeff Brohm (4-10 ATS as a home favorite versus Big 10 teams) and the Hawkeyes are the play. 

Nebraska +16 Minnesota
Give Minnesota credit. If you are a bad football team, they will curb stomp you into oblivion. In their five victories, they have outscored their opponents 214-24. Even if we remove their FCS scrimmage against Western Illinois, their four FBS wins have come by a cumulative score of 152-14. Those four teams (Colorado, Michigan State, New Mexico State, and Rutgers) sport a combined record of 11-21, with Rutgers owning the best record (4-4). On the surface, and certainly by the spread, this seems destined to be another blowout. However, unlike those four teams, Nebraska can actually move the ball. Illinois held Nebraska to nine points last week, but Nebraska moved the ball as well as anyone has against the Illini this season. Unfortunately, they also committed four turnovers, which has been a running theme for the team this season. Nebraska has committed 17 turnovers this season (118th nationally) and in Big 10 play, their margin of -6 is a big reason for their losing record. Turnovers, while often a characteristic of bad teams, can be highly volatile, so just because the Cornhuskers have turned the ball over frequently thus far does not mean they will continue to do so. Besides being turnover prone, Nebraska also has a bad defense, so I don't expect them to generate many stops against the Gophers. Minnesota was laying about fourteen points last week at home against Rutgers. Now, they are laying more than that on the road against a similarly power rated team? I know Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson could miss the game with an elbow injury, but reports list his status as day to day. If he plays, you are getting about a touchdown of value in this spread. If he misses the game, Nebraska will start either Chubba Purdy or Logan Smothers, two quarterbacks with limited experience. While that can certainly be detrimental to Nebraska covering this number, it also makes the game more volatile. Is Minnesota prepared for either of those quarterbacks? How good is either quarterback? Your guess is as good as mine. Uncertainty can be bad, but in this case, I think you can benefit from the uncertainty surrounding the Nebraska quarterback position. Take the Cornhuskers and the points. 

Louisiana-Lafayette +5 Troy
The Troy Trojans are 6-2 in Jon Sumrall's first season and with a victory over the Ragin' Cajuns, they will have a tight grip on the Sun Belt West. The Trojans lone Sun Belt defeat came in dramatic fashion against Appalachian State. The Trojans allowed 32 points to the Mountaineers, including six on the games final play. However, since that loss, the Trojans have allowed 37 total points in their next four Sun Belt games (all wins). Defensively, Troy has been just as impressive on a per play basis, holding Sun Belt opponents to a conference best 4.31 yards per play. If they can escape Lafayette, their final two conference games are against teams with a combined 2-8 conference record (Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe), so Troy fans can probably make Sun Belt Championship Game plans. Louisiana-Lafayette is also led by a first year head coach. Former quarterback Michael Desormeaux took over for Billy Napier, and while a decline was expected, the the Ragin's Cajuns have lost more Sun Belt games this season (3) than they did in Napier's final three seasons (2). While the Ragin' Cajuns have declined, they are still pretty tough at home. They are 3-1 in home games and have covered in all three of their FBS home games. Their lone home loss came to South Alabama on a last second field goal in a game where they entered as a touchdown underdog. Meanwhile, although Troy is 6-2, they have only been favored in three games. The Trojans have won games when the betting market did not expect it. This is also the first time they have been favored in a road game this season. I think the betting market has oscillated too far in their favor. In Troy's four game Sun Belt winning streak, they have averaged just over seventeen points per game. Their defense has played great in that span, but the Trojans have not been able to roll over teams. I expect another close, low-scoring game on Saturday, so I'll grab the points with the Ragin' Cajuns. 

Cal +21.5 Southern Cal
This line has crossed a key number since opening at 18.5 and despite their struggles, that makes the Bears too enticing to pass up. I understand the anti-Cal sentiment in the market. The Bears have lost five of six games since a 2-0 start, including a listless loss at Colorado. While five losses in six games is never a great look, three of those defeats came by exactly a touchdown (Colorado, Notre Dame, and Washington). Obviously, losing by a touchdown to Colorado is terrible, but the Bears were feisty against two solid teams (Notre Dame and Washington). In fact, the Bears have been feisty as an underdog for the duration of the Justin Wilcox era. Under Wilcox, the Bears are 15-5 ATS as a road underdog, including 7-3 ATS as a double digit road underdog. The Cal defense is not up to its usual standard under Wilcox, but have you looked at the defense on the other sideline? Southern Cal is allowing over six yards per play to Pac-12 opponents and their largest margin of victory against a Power Five team this season is seventeen points (Arizona State). The Trojans dominated Rice in their opener and beat Fresno by 28 in a game where the Bulldogs lost their starting quarterback to injury. They have done all this while avoiding and forcing turnovers at an historic clip. The Trojans have committed an amazing one turnover all season while forcing seventeen, with many coming while opponents were in prime scoring position. Turnovers are highly variable and volatile so its likely we see regression in that department over the final third of the season. This spread is too inflated, so despite my misgivings, I have to back Cal. 

Thursday, October 27, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Week IX

We got back .500 with a winning week last week. Let's see if we can go back to back. Home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 28-28

Charlotte +16.5 Rice
The Club Lit era at Charlotte is over. After guiding the 49ers to their first bowl game in school history in his first season in 2019, Will Healy could not field a competent defense over the past two seasons and lost his job following a loss to Florida International last week. The 49ers have lost seven consecutive Conference USA games since beating, wait for it, Rice, last November. That victory was the 49ers fifth last season, but they dropped their final three games and missed out on a bowl. Their defense was truly atrocious last season, as they allowed over seven and a half yards per play to conference opponents. Believe it or not, while their defense is still bad in 2022, they have improved by about a yard per play against conference opponents. I don't expect Charlotte to pitch a shutout, but Rice will probably not score as many points this week as they did last week. Louisiana Tech actually owns the worst per play defense in Conference USA, so we probably saw peak Rice (at least offensively) last week. There are two questions that must be answered before you back Charlotte. The first is, have the 49ers quit? Healy is out and Pete Rossomando is in. Can the interim coach motivate the team or are they checked out and ready for 2023? The other question concerns quarterback Chris Reynolds. Will Reynolds start and finish the game? If so, the 49ers should be able to score enough to cover this number. Reynolds backups have not played well when he has missed time this season. I'll bank on him avoiding injury in this game and the team staying motivated for at least one more week. If the losses continue to mount, it might be time to evacuate the mine, but we'll stay underground with them for one more week. 

Central Florida -1.5 Cincinnati
This matchup lost a little luster when Central Florida was upset at East Carolina last weekend. Instead of a clash between two teams with undefeated conference records, Cincinnati has a chance to almost eliminate Central Florida from the conference race. While the Knights fell in Greenville last weekend, the margin was misleading. Central Florida scored just 13 points, but they averaged over six yards per play. They committed four turnovers (while forcing none) and also turned the ball over on downs once. The Knights may have been looking past the Pirates to this pivotal game with the Bearcats. I expect Cincinnati will have Central Florida's full attention this week. The Bearcats have won three straight in this series, including a dominating 56-21 victory in the Queen City last year. Cincinnati won in their last trip to Orlando, but that came in the pandemic season when crowd size was limited. With a full house, at the Bounce House, I think Central Florida gets back on track and makes the AAC race a little more interesting. 

New Mexico State -2 Massachusetts
On the surface, this seems like a pretty even matchup between two bad teams. The Aggies are 2-5 and the Minutemen are 1-6. With the 1-6 team having the homefield, it makes sense this spread is so tight. However, if you dig a little deeper into New Mexico State, you will see the Aggies have played better than you think. The Aggies have played seven games, with two coming against Big 10 teams. Minnesota and Wisconsin dominated the Aggies, outscoring them 104-7. However, in their five games against Group of Five competition, the Aggies, dare I say, have actually played well. They have outgained their five Group of Five opponents by more than a half a yard per play (5.13 to 4.54). Those five teams are not what you would classify as 'good' teams (Florida International, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, and UTEP), but then again, neither is Massachusetts. What about the Minutemen? If we strip out their performance against Power Five teams, how do they look? Well, not a lot changes, since they haven't faced a Power Five team (they get their shot to inflict even more angst in College State in a few weeks). Both these teams are led by coaching veterans (Jerry Kill and Don Brown), but only one appears to be heading in the right direction. You won't hear this said (or written) very often, but the Aggies should be favored by more. Take them at this cheap price. 

North Texas +10 Western Kentucky
Last week, one of the more impressive under the radar streaks in the Group of Five ended. Heading into their trip to the Alamodome, North Texas had won eight consecutive Conference USA games. The Mean Green even held the lead late against the Roadrunners, but UTSA scored in the final seconds to pull out the victory. I was skeptical of North Texas coming into the season, and they struggled in non-conference play, losing all three FBS games. However, North Texas played well enough to win two of those games (they were not competitive against SMU). Against UNLV and Memphis, the Mean Green outgained the Rebels and Tigers on a per play basis (6.36 to 6.03), but committed five turnovers while only forcing one. Two of those turnovers led directly to touchdowns with Memphis racking up two pick sixes in a ten point win. On paper, Western Kentucky has been the best team in Conference USA on a per play basis. In their four conference games, they outgained their opponents by nearly two yards per play (6.61 to 4.66). However, a lot of that surplus was gained in their domination of Florida International. If we remove that 73-0 drubbing, the Hilltoppers have a more modest differential (5.67 to 5.29). The Hilltoppers are still benefiting from that beatdown of the Panthers. Ten points is too many to lay against a competent team like North Texas. 

Missouri +3.5 South Carolina
South Carolina has won four in a row after a 1-2 start and is ranked in the AP Poll for the first time since the early portion of the 2018 season. While the wins are great, context is necessary. Half of those wins came against FCS or bad FBS teams (South Carolina State and Charlotte). The other two are legitimate wins, but Kentucky was starting their backup quarterback and Texas A&M outgained the Gamecocks in both yards and yards per play. The key to both victories was a fast start. Kentucky turned the ball over on their first series and South Carolina scored in the first minute of the game. South Carolina ran the opening kickoff back against Texas A&M and used some Aggie turnovers to lead 17-0 after barely five minutes of game time. The Wildcats and Aggies were able to get back in both games, but those early deficits let South Carolina play from a positive game state. The enigmatic Spencer Rattler (eight interceptions in 2022) didn't have to throw the ball a lot in a comeback effort. Can the Gamecocks get off to a similarly quick start against a Missouri team that has played nothing but close conference games? Their four conference games have been decided by a total of 17 points. That is the product of a good defense and bad offense. Georgia and Alabama are the only SEC teams with better per play defensive numbers than the Tigers in conference play. On the other side of the ball, Vanderbilt is the only SEC team with worse per play offensive numbers. With an offense as bad as Missouri's the big worry is that South Carolina's great special teams (three special teams touchdowns this year) or defense put Missouri in a multi-score hole they are unable to claw out of. While South Carolina is 4-2 under Shane Beamer in home SEC conference games, three of those victories have been point spread upsets. The only previous time South Carolina has been favored in an SEC game under Beamer was last year against Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks needed a last minute touchdown to win that game by a single point. I expect a defensive game played in the teens or low twenties, so I'll take the points with Missouri.   

UAB -4.5 Florida Atlantic
UAB is a disappointing 4-3 under interim coach Bryant Vincent. When Bill Clark unexpectedly retired due to health reasons over the summer, I thought the Blazers might fall off. However, while the Blazers have suffered three defeats, they have been actually played pretty well this season. In their losses against Liberty, Rice, and Western Kentucky, the Blazers have outgained their opponents by nearly a yard per play (5.98 to 5.14). Unfortunately, their turnover margin in those three games is -7. The Blazers have committed ten turnovers in those three games, including eight lost fumbles! In their most recent loss to Western Kentucky, the Blazers also lost their starting quarterback and his uncertain status is probably one of the reasons this line is so low. The backup quarterback did not play well last week (he also only attempted ten passes), but even with a limited passing attack, the Blazers still ran the ball efficiently (as they have all season). DeWayne McBride is 25 yards away from 1000 on the season and I expect him to hit that threshold in the first quarter (perhaps the first drive) against an iffy Florida Atlantic defense. Willie Taggart won five of his first six games as coach of the Owls in the pandemic shortened 2020 season. However, since beating Massachusetts by the odd score of 24-2, the Owls are just 6-15 against FBS opponents. The Blazers can win this game by a touchdown with their backup quarterback and if Dylan Hopkins plays, the Blazers will roll. 

Pittsburgh +3 North Carolina
One season after failing to meet lofty preseason expectations, North Carolina appears to be coasting toward a Coastal division title. The Tar Heels are currently the only team in the Coastal with a winning conference record and they are two games in the loss column ahead of everyone else. Even if they drop this game to the Panthers, Pitt would likely need to run the table to have a shot at snatching the division from them. Long term for this season, the Tar Heels are looking good, but for this game at least, I think the Panthers are a good play. Pitt scored ten points on the road against a bad Louisville defense last week, which is not a great look for the Panthers. However, before we go burying the Panthers, let's acknowledge one thing Louisville can do - generate negative plays. Louisville is fifth nationally in sacks per game and tenth in tackles for loss per game. They only sacked Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis twice, but one led to a defensive touchdown and they accumulated six tackles for loss. North Carolina also has a bad defense, but they don't generate any pressure. The Tar Heels are 93rd nationally in sacks per game and 120th in tackles for loss per game. Their offense has been elite, averaging nearly 42 points per game, but against competent FBS offenses (those not named Virginia Tech), they are allowing over 38 points per game. Off their ACC Championship, Pitt has struggled with their personnel losses on offense, but Israel Abanikanda, who rushed for 320 yards three weeks ago, should be poised for another big game. I'll take the points with Pitt and see if they can tighten the Coastal race.