Monday, August 29, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Week I

Hello once again readers and welcome to the weekly degenerate column wherein I make predictions against the betting line that are (hopefully) slightly more accurate that flipping a coin. Home teams in bold. 

*Editor's Note: The initial post included TCU -13.5 Colorado as a pick. After sleeping on that for a few days, I decided I could not in good conscience take a double digit road favorite. So I added another underdog. Enjoy.*

Louisiana Tech +19.5 Missouri
One of the teams that I think had their trajectory most negatively impacted by the pandemic is Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs won ten games in 2019, capping their season with a shutout of Miami in the Independence Bowl. That marked their sixth consecutive bowl appearance (and win) under Skip Holtz and was their first season with double digit wins in school history. The Bulldogs managed to play ten games in 2020 (nine regular season and a bowl) and finished 4-2 in Conference USA. However, their underlying numbers were not great and they were blown out in three of their four non-conference games, including the bowl. Their 2021 schedule, particularly the non-conference portion was daunting, but the Bulldogs played well in their first five games. Though their record was 2-3, they could easily have beaten Mississippi State and should have beaten SMU. They also acquitted themselves well against NC State and won their conference opener against North Texas. However, the wheels soon came off. Louisiana Tech dropped six of their final seven games and Skip Holtz was relieved of his duties. While the season was a disappointment, Louisiana Tech lost five games by a touchdown or less and with better luck could have extended their bowl streak. To replace Holtz, the Bulldogs hired Sonny Cumbie to be their head coach. Cumbie had previously been the offensive coordinator at TCU and Texas Tech and was most recently the interim head coach at Texas Tech when Matt Wells was fired with four games left in the 2021 season. The Red Raiders went 1-3 in the regular season under Cumbie, but that victory happened to be their sixth of the year which got them a Liberty Bowl invite where they upset their former coach (Mike Leach) to bring Cumbie's career record to 2-3. While a 2-3 record may not seem impressive, context is important. The Red Raiders were double digit underdogs in all five games Cumbie coached. They won two and nearly beat Baylor in the regular season finale. As you can see from this point spread, the Bulldogs are double digit underdogs once again. They play Stephen F. Austin next week, so the streak should end there, but their next FBS game is against Clemson. Barring some historic injuries or multiple acts of god in their first two games, Clemson should be a heavy favorite against Louisiana Tech, meaning Cumbie will have been a double digit underdog in his first seven games as a coach against FBS opponents. That's an interesting quirk you don't usually see unless the team in question is a perennial doormat. But I digress. I think Louisiana Tech provides an opportunity to make money based on betting into a great deal of uncertainty. Not only do the Bulldogs have a new coach, they will also have a new starting quarterback. However, both quarterbacks who should see action in 2022 (Matthew Downing and Parker McNeil) have experience playing in Cumbie's system. Downing transferred from TCU and McNeil transferred from Texas Tech. While I don't expect them to be Heisman contenders, they should be quick studies and have the offense at least on par with last season's numbers. I spent most of this write up on Louisiana Tech because I think they represent a good value (at least in the early going) in 2021, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention Missouri's struggles when favored through two seasons under Eli Drinkwitz. The Tigers have been favored in eight games against FBS opponents under Drinkwitz. They have won six of those games, but are just 2-6 ATS, including 1-3 ATS as a double digit favorite. The Tigers failed to cover as large home favorites against both Central Michigan and North Texas last season. I don't think Louisiana Tech can win this game, but they should stay within three touchdowns. 

New Mexico State +36.5 Minnesota
New Mexico State dropped their opener at home to what may end up being a very bad Nevada team, marking the eighth consecutive year they have opened the season with a loss. If you looked closely though, you could spot some signs of life. Freshman quarterback Gavin Frakes played well once he was inserted in the second half in place of the inept Diego Pavia. Pavia tossed three interceptions and lost a fumble in his first action at the FBS level. Frakes also threw an interception late in the game (preventing a nice backdoor cover for the Aggies), but otherwise played well. He completed nearly 70% of his passes and averaged eleven yards per attempt. Had Frakes started the game, New Mexico State could have opened the season with a victory for the first time since 2014. It has to make you wonder what Jerry Kill saw in practice that led him to start and stick with Pavia for so long. Perhaps they valued his junior college experience and didn't want to throw Frakes to the wolves in his first college football game. Regardless, you have to feel like New Mexico State can at least score some garbage time touchdowns with Frakes airing it out. This line is obscenely high, especially for a Minnesota team that has struggled as a big home favorite against lesser FCS and Group of Five opponents. In their past four homes games against non-conference opponents, the Gophers have beaten South Dakota State by seven, Georgia Southern by three, Miami of Ohio by five, and lost outright to Bowling Green. And consider this mental exercise. PJ Fleck has been the head coach at Minnesota for 58 games. They have scored enough points to cover this number (more than 36.5) fifteen times. New Mexico State is not going to win this game, but they should score at least fourteen points. I don't think Minnesota will be able to hang half a hundred on them to cover this big number. 

Rutgers +7 Boston College
This is a relatively unique situation for Boston College. The Eagles have not been favored by this many points at home against a Power Five team in nearly three years. That game also happened to come in the non-conference. And it didn't end well. Head coach Jeff Hafley seems to be well regarded by the public and college football media, but he is just 12-11 through two seasons (8-11 versus Power Five teams). That's pretty much in line with the winning percentages posted by his predecessors. Steve Addazio was 44-44 over seven seasons and Frank Spaziani was 21-29 over four seasons. This is a program that has won between five and seven games over the past decade or so regardless of the man in charge. Hafley defenders can rightly point out Phil Jurkovec's injury last season to excuse some of their struggles. While the offense did improve when Jurkovec returned down the stretch, the schedule, particularly the quality of defenses eased significantly. In their first four conference games, which Jurkovec missed, the Eagles faced teams that ranked first, second, fourth, and seventh in yards allowed per play (ACC play only). Over their final four conference games (which coincided with Jurkovec's return), they faced defenses that ranked third, ninth, eleventh, and twelfth in yards allowed per play. Boston College was mediocre last season and I expect them to be mediocre again in 2022. Does that mediocrity equate to a full touchdown spread against a lower rung Big 10 team? I don't think so. While the Scarlet Knights will likely never reach the same heights from his first tenure, Greg Schiano's has captained two feisty teams in his second stint in New Jersey. The Scarlet Knights are 6-1 ATS as road underdogs with four outright upsets. In fact, Rutgers has beaten six Power Five teams in Schiano's second tenure as head coach, and all of those victories have come on the road! There are not many Power Five teams Boston College should be laying a touchdown against. And Rutgers is not one of them.  

Arizona +6 San Diego State
The late 90's and aughts were not kind to San Diego State. Between 1999 and 2009, the Aztecs did not post a single winning season. However, San Diego State has finished with a winning record each season since 2010 (with the exception of the pandemic shortened 2020 season when they went 4-4). In that span, they have finished with double digit wins five times, including last season when they played in the Mountain West Championship Game and finished in the final AP rankings. They have also enticed six Pac-12 teams to visit their home stadium in that span and are 5-1 in those games. I expect a vibrant crowd in San Diego on Labor Day Weekend as the Aztecs once again welcome a Pac-12 team to town, have the coveted 3:30 eastern slot on CBS, and are opening a brand new stadium. While there will certainly be pomp and circumstance, the actual football game may be a different story. San Diego State lost one of their best weapons from last season's team, in punter (and alleged sex criminalMatt Araiza. Araiza consistently gave San Diego State a field position advantage last season and augmented their already strong defense. However, despite winning seven of their eight conference games last season, the Aztecs YPP numbers were pretty average in Mountain West play. While San Diego State is probably due for a decline in 2022, Arizona has nowhere to go but up. The Wildcats did break a twenty-game losing streak last season, but that was the only game they won. They lost home games to San Diego State and Northern Arizona and their lone victory came against a team that was devastated by Covid cases. Despite the inauspicious start under Jedd Fisch, Arizona upgraded at quarterback in the transfer portal and is likely to force more turnovers in 2022. The Wildcats forced just six all of last season (last in the nation). The Aztecs have been a pretty lousy home favorite the past few seasons under Rocky Long and Brady Hoke, posting a 7-13 ATS record in the role since 2017. I expect them to get a pretty good challenge from the Wildcats.  

Middle Tennessee State +6 James Madison
This early evening showdown on ESPN+ will be the first game as an FBS program for James Madison. The Dukes have long been an FCS power and now they get to show what they can do on a slightly bigger stage. Since 2012, eleven teams have moved up to FBS, either from a longtime FCS membership or from a transitional FCS membership after recently starting a football program. For the curious, those teams are alphabetically: Appalachian State, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Liberty, Massachusetts, Old Dominion, South Alabama, Texas-San Antonio, and Texas State. Perhaps not surprisingly, those teams have rarely been home favorites in their first season of FBS play. Those eleven teams were home favorites sixteen combined times in their first season as FBS members. They went 5-11 ATS in those sixteen games. In a somewhat weird twist, I think James Madison is getting too much public love due to their name recognition. Eight consecutive FCS playoff appearances and a 2016 national title won't allow them to fly under the radar. And this is not the same team that lost a tight playoff game to eventual FCS champion North Dakota State last season. The Dukes lose their starting quarterback, who was also the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, and have just nine returning starters in total. James Madison is better positioned for long term success than Middle Tennessee State (especially thanks to their conference affiliation), but they should not be laying a touchdown. 

Southern Miss +3.5 Liberty
Like Arizona, Southern Miss also struggled in their first year under a new head coach. Many of their struggles can be attributed to quarterback injuries. The Golden Eagles started three different quarterbacks through the first nine games, including a walk-on, thanks to the aforementioned injuries. Over the final three games, they even resorted to playing running backs at quarterback. What amounted to a hybrid Wildcat/Single Wing offense actually performed surprisingly well. After averaging under eleven points per game in their first eight games against FBS opposition, the Golden Eagles averaged nearly 30 points per game over their final three, winning two of them. Head coach Will Hall proved to be adaptable in his first season as a head coach at the FBS level and with his offensive track record, I expect substantial improvement for Southern Miss on the offensive side of the ball. While Southern Miss should see improved quarterback play, Liberty is likely to see regression on that side of the ball. Malik Willis was selected in the third round of April's NFL Draft, and while the Flames have an experienced quarterback set up to take his place, Charlie Brewer's play has been uneven to say the least since leading Baylor to the Big 12 Championship Game in 2019. Brewer is not a statue in the pocket, but he is not in the same class as Willis when it comes to making big plays with his legs. Liberty has a coach with solid offensive bona fides, so I expect them to be fine as the season progresses, but the Flames will probably not start out white hot on that side of the ball. Bottom line, I think the wrong team is favored here. Prior to last season's struggles as a home underdog (0-4 ATS), Southern Miss was 6-1 ATS with three outright upsets between 2015 and 2020. Look for Southern Miss to get the 2022 season started on the right foot (or wing) with an outright victory. 

Louisville -3.5 Syracuse
For a team that lost seven times last season, I expect a lot from Louisville in 2022. Frequent readers of this site will remember the Cardinals rated as one of the best teams in the ACC in all three of my preferred metrics: Yards per Play, Adjusted Pythagorean Record, and First Half Point Differential. Of Louisville's seven losses, four came by a touchdown or less and six came to teams that finished 9-3 or better (Air Force, Clemson, Kentucky, Ole Miss, NC State, and Wake Forest). Syracuse is just 11-24 (5-21 in ACC play) since their surprising ten-win season in 2018. Suffice to say they do not fit the profile of teams that beat Louisville last year. Also, while Syracuse has pulled off a few shockers at home under Dino Babers, they are not consistent ticket cashers when catching points in the former Carrier Dome. The Orange are 11-12 ATS in the role, but perhaps their reputation is keeping this number artificially low. Finally, if you look at recent history, this series has not been close. All eight meetings since Louisville joined the ACC in 2014 have been decided by at least 22 points. Syracuse's lone win in that span did come at home, but it was in November against perhaps the worst Louisville team this century in what would be Bobby Petrino's final game as coach. Anything can happen in a college football game, but I feel like Louisville coasts to an easy victory to open 2022. 

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