Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Week V

Last week was our third losing week out of four. Thankfully, we have avoided complete disaster and still have a shot at a good season if we can get out act together. Home teams in BOLD. 

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 13-15

Iowa +11 Michigan
Am I nervous about this pick? Definitely. In four games, Iowa has scored five offensive touchdowns, with three coming in their veritable explosion against Nevada. There is no sugarcoating it, this offense is putrid. However, the defense continues to be stellar, albeit against a relatively weak schedule. And speaking of weak schedules...
If you just looked at final scores and ignored their opponents, Michigan appeared to be the best team in college football after their non-conference performance. The Wolverines bludgeoned Colorado State, Hawaii, and Connecticut by a combined score of 166-17. It was no surprise the Wolverines were massive favorites when they hosted Maryland in their conference opener last week. However, the Terrapins put up a good fight, especially considering they are known for going tits up against elite competition. I think the Maryland game proved Michigan is not quite in the same class as Ohio State (as most suspected in the preseason). Now the Wolverines hit the road for the first time this season in a place where they have not had great success. Iowa is 5-2 against Michigan in Kinnick Stadium this century, with three outright wins as an underdog. The last time Michigan visited (in 2016), they entered as three touchdown favorites. However, Iowa was able to drag them into the mud and win with a last second field goal. Despite their lackluster offense, history beckons you to take the Hawkeyes. Under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa is 9-2 ATS as a double digit home underdog. They are also 10-4-2 ATS against AP top ten teams at home. I think Iowa is able to make Michigan play an ugly low-scoring game in the teens or low twenties and eke out a cover. 

Kent State -11.5 Ohio
After a brutal non-conference slate that included road trips to Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia, Kent State can begin their defense of the MAC East. The Golden Flashes acquitted themselves well in that three game gauntlet. They were within one score of Oklahoma at halftime and gave Georgia their best game to date. Their reward for that solid performance? One of the worst defenses in FBS. The Bobcats have allowed nearly 45 points per game a third of the way through their 2022 schedule and while two P5 teams account for half that total, Ohio just allowed 52 points at over nine yards per play to Fordham. Vince Lombardi and the other six blocks of granite no longer play for the Rams either. It looks like Ohio will need to win a fair amount of MAC shootouts to qualify for a bowl. I expect Kent State to put up at least 38 points and hanging half a hundred is certainly within the realm of possibility. MAC games should be a breeze after that non-conference schedule. It will be like hiking without a heavy backpack (or walking as some folks might call it). Kent State rolls here. 

North Texas +3.5 Florida Atlantic
I think this line is mostly a function of how well Florida Atlantic played last week at Purdue. The Owls lost by two points and actually had the ball with a chance to win late in the fourth quarter. However, there were some extenuating circumstances in that game. Purdue was starting their backup quarterback and while he played reasonably well, he only averaged 5.4 yards per pass. Purdue also lost the turnover battle, failed to convert on a fourth down, and missed a field goal. The spot was also bad for Purdue as they were coming off a close loss to Syracuse and perhaps looking ahead to their visit to Minnesota. Florida Atlantic has had some backup quarterback good fortune this season. In their opener, Charlotte starter Chris Reynolds left with an injury and the Owls rolled 43-13. However, in their two FBS games against teams that had their starting quarterbacks for the entire game, the Owls have allowed 41 and 40 points respectively. North Texas is not a good team, but they have an experienced quarterback with Austin Aune. Aune is in his third year starting for the Mean Green and has thrown 12 touchdowns while averaging nearly eight and a half yards per pass this season. Aune made a few mistakes last week against Memphis, throwing two interceptions that were ultimately returned for touchdowns. That game was in the Liberty Bowl, while this one will be in the friendly confines of Apogee Stadium. Florida Atlantic is 2-10 in true road games under Willie Taggart (2-8 against G5 teams), so North Texas is really the only side you can look at in this game. I expect a high-scoring back and forth affair and since the home team is catching points, they are the play. 

Mississippi State -4 Texas A&M
Texas A&M has rebounded after their embarrassing home loss to Appalachian State. Since losing to the Mountaineers, the Aggies have beaten Miami at home and Arkansas at a neutral site. In those two games, noted quarterback whisperer Jimbo Fisher has coaxed a 51% completion rate and 291 passing yards against the Hurricanes and Razorbacks. For comparisons sake, Miami just allowed 408 yards passing to Middle Tennessee State on 16 completions and Arkansas allowed more than 1000 yards through the air to their first three opponents (one of which was an FCS team). In other words, the Texas A&M offense is broken and I think that will ultimately be their undoing in their first true road games of the year. The Aggies will also be without leading receiver Ainias Smith who suffered a season ending injury in the Arkansas game. The Aggies were able to rely on their defense to beat Miami and some good fortune to beat Arkansas, but they will need to pack their offense to beat Mississippi State in Starkville. The Air Raid glitched out two weeks ago in Baton Rouge, but otherwise, the Bulldogs have been clicking in their third season under Mike Leach, averaging 44 points per game in their other three contests (against inferior competition). I don't think Mississippi State can get into the forties, but they probably won't have to. Under Jimbo Fisher, the Aggies are 7-9 in true road games, but they have only won two road games against teams that finished with winning records (South Carolina in 2018 and Auburn in 2020). Their offense is abysmal, their track record on the road is not great, and Mississippi State has been building for this season. Even though this spread is north of a field goal, I wouldn't be hesitant to back the Bulldogs. 

California +4 Washington State
Last week Cal did something rather unusual. They won a shootout. The 80 combined points in their victory against Arizona was the second highest combined scoring game of the Justin Wilcox era and a far cry from their game with Arizona last season. The only game to top it was a clash with Arizona in 2017. In the victory, freshman running back Jaydn Ott racked up 274 yards rushing on just 19 carries. Quarterback Jack Plummer also had a big day, throwing for three touchdowns at nearly nine yards per pass. In fact, Plummer has played pretty well all season save for their trip to South Bend. While Plummer was stymied in that game and Ott was bottled up, Notre Dame has one of the better defenses in the nation. Cal should be able to move the ball against middling Pac-12 teams like Washington State. The Cougars are also coming off a shootout of their own where they gave up 29 fourth quarter points to blow their conference opener against Oregon. Quarterback Cameron Ward threw for 375 yards, but also tossed two costly interceptions, including a pick six that sealed the game. While Ward has decent overall numbers, if you take out the games against FCS competition (Idaho) and one of the worst FBS teams (Colorado State), he has actually thrown more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3). And while the game with Oregon was close, Washington State gave up over 600 yards at eight yards per play to the Ducks. Cal should be able to move the ball once again and pull off a minor upset in a game that is more high scoring than the Cal faithful are used to. 

Troy +5 Western Kentucky
The Trojans and Hilltoppers have not played in nearly a decade, but they actually played seven consecutive seasons between 2007 and 2013 with five of those meetings coming as Sun Belt conference opponents. Troy won five of the seven meetings if you were keeping score at home. This renewal of old acquaintances probably represents the best team Western Kentucky has faced thus far. The Hilltoppers have played two of the worst teams in FBS (FIU and Hawaii), winning those games by a combined 105 points. They also faced a quality FCS team (Austin Peay), but were not overly impressive in the eleven point victory and a P5 team on the road (Indiana) which they dropped in overtime. If Troy is not the best team Western Kentucky has faced, they certainly have the best defense the Hilltoppers will have seen thus far. In their opener, Troy held Ole Miss to their lowest point total of the season (28) and last week they dominated Marshall in a deceiving 16-7 victory. Troy sacked Marshall quarterbacks seven times and limited the Herd (a team that accumulated 364 yards of offense at Notre Dame) to under 200 total yards at a paltry 2.5 yards per play. Western Kentucky has maintained the reputation of a G5 offensive juggernaut they acquired last year when Bailey Zappe was setting passing records. The Hilltoppers are in the upper quartile of G5 five offenses, but their numbers have been buoyed by a soft early schedule. They have a big conference date with UTSA next week in the Alamodome so the Trojans may not have their full attention. I like Troy as a Sun Belt sleeper and I think they are good enough to pull off the outright upset against the Hilltoppers. 

Indiana +5 Nebraska
I was on Indiana last week and the Hoosiers suffered a very painful beat. After getting back in the game in the second half, the Hoosiers faced a fourth down late in the game deep in their own territory. Quarterback Connor Bazelak, who showed defective pocket presence all game, was sacked for the fifth time, this time inside his own five yard line. As there was a little over two minutes left, Cincinnati could not just kneel on the ball and mercifully end the game. They punched it in on third down and covered. The Bearcats won by 21 points (favored by 17 points) and scored 21 points in the final minute and a half of both halves. In the other 57 minutes, the game was even. No time to bitch and moan about that unfortunate result, but it does potentially show Indiana might be undervalued by the betting market. The Hoosiers still have a decent shot at bowl eligibility with Nebraska and Rutgers remaining on the schedule. If the Hoosiers can pull those two games out, they would have to score an additional upset to get to the postseason (Michigan State and Purdue would be your most likely possibilities). Is it improbable? Sure, but Indiana at least has a path to the postseason. Meanwhile, despite more than modest preseason expectations, Nebraska is reduced to playing out the string by the first weekend in October. The Cornhuskers would need to win five of their final eight to get to bowl eligibility and while the remaining schedule only includes two ranked teams at the moment (Michigan and Minnesota), Nebraska will likely be underdogs in six of those games. And in case you are Big 10 agnostic (not a terrible path to follow), Nebraska's season opening loss to Northwestern has not aged well. The Wildcats have dropped three in a row to Duke, Southern Illinois, and Miami of Ohio while averaging just over 20 points per game and 4.91 yards per play. They scored 31 points and averaged 6.21 yards per play against Nebraska. Perhaps the Cornhuskers fixed their tackling, run fits, and coverage problems during their bye week, but I doubt it. Every FBS team Nebraska has faced has scored at least 31 points. Indiana should get close to that total and I wouldn't be shocked if they leave Lincoln with an outright victory. 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

We finally had a winning week. Thankfully we don't lose any additional money when the calls are extra bad though because there were a pair of stinkers on our card last week. Let's make it two winning weeks in a row. Home teams in BOLD. 

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 10-11

Clemson -7 Wake Forest
Every time Clemson fans sport their orange national championship t-shirts while riding around on their tractors, they should say a little 'thank you' to Wake Forest. For it was the Demon Deacons that got Tommy Bowden fired fourteen years ago. On a Thursday night in 2008, Clemson traveled to Winston-Salem and fell 12-7 to Wake Forest. Your humble author happened to be in attendance that night. The next day, Clemson fired Bowden who was in his tenth year as head coach and promoted a little known assistant named Dabo Swinney. Swinney led the Tigers to the ACC Championship Game the next season and after a step back in 2010, made some great coordinator hires, improved the recruiting, and the rest as they say, is history. Swinney's accomplishments at the school include seven ACC titles, a pair of national titles, and an unblemished record against Wake Forest. Under Swinney, the Tigers are 13-0 against the Demon Deacons, winning by an average of nearly 28 points per game. Only one game, the 2011 edition, has been close. Had Wake Forest won that game in Death Valley, they would have represented the Atlantic Division in the ACC Championship Game. Otherwise, the closest the Demon Deacons have come is 14 points in 2014. Under Swinney, the Tigers have been mediocre ATS versus Wake Forest (7-6), but that is primarily due to the high points spreads. Clemson has been favored by an average of 20 points per game against Wake Forest under Swinney and has been a double digit favorite eleven times. Wake Forest was probably looking ahead to this game as evidenced by their narrow victory against Liberty last week. I expect a better performance this week, but Clemson's defense has put the clamps on the Clawfense each time they have played. The game may be close for a while, but Clemson should win by double digits. 

SMU has won the past two games in this rivalry, beating the Horned Frogs in 2019 and 2021 (there was no game in 2020). However, despite the back-to-back victories, the Mustangs have not won at home since 2005! That year, TCU was coming off a road victory against Oklahoma and while the Mustangs pulled off the upset, TCU would finish the season 11-1, while SMU would finish just 5-6. In the new millennium, TCU has dominated this series (16-4 straight up record) and the oddsmakers have consistently installed them as heavy favorites. TCU was a double digit favorite in nineteen consecutive meetings between 1999 and 2018. They lost the past two meetings as eight and nine point favorites respectively, so this marks the cheapest you could buy the Horned Frogs in this rivalry since the last time they were an underdog (1998). TCU is the stronger program and will be looking to make amends for their past two losses. You couldn't ask for much better than laying under a field goal. 

Buffalo +6 Eastern Michigan
Last week Eastern Michigan beat a Power Five team on the road for the fourth time under Chris Creighton. Creighton, in his ninth season at Eastern Michigan, has pulled off one of the best rebuilding jobs in college football history. While the Eagles have maxed out at seven regular season wins and have posted just one winning conference record under Creighton, they have been a consistent bowl contender for the past six seasons. They have also been money in the bank when catching points. After a rough first two years when he was building the foundation, the Eagles are an amazing 28-10-1 ATS when catching points since 2016! However, as you can see above, they are actually laying points in this spot and the Eagles have not been nearly as profitable in that situation. As a home favorite since 2016, they are 5-9 ATS overall and just 2-7 ATS when laying single digits. In addition, in the seven instances where they have not covered as a single digit home favorite, they have lost the game outright! While Eastern Michigan led wire to wire against Arizona State last week, they also gave up touchdowns on seven consecutive drives to Louisiana-Lafayette two weeks ago. That Louisiana-Lafayette team was just held under 200 total yards by defensive stalwart Rice. Buffalo is going to be able to move the ball and score against Eastern Michigan. The Eagles should be favored, as Buffalo has looked less than impressive in the early going, but they are not going to roll over the Bulls. Finally, its only natural for Eastern Michigan to relax a bit after their huge win against Arizona State. As I mentioned, they have beaten three other Power Five teams under Creighton. What happened in the three games immediately following those victories? In 2017, they lost at home to Ohio as a small favorite. In 2018, they lost at Buffalo as a small underdog. And in 2019, they needed a miraculous blocked punt in the closing seconds to beat an FCS team. This is going to be a close game. Take the points. 

Iowa State -2.5 Baylor
Baylor won the Big 12 outright for just the second time last season (and first time since 2013). However, despite their success under Dave Aranda, the Bears are just 3-8 straight up on the road in his tenure. All three of those victories came last season, with two coming against Texas State and Kansas. I know Kansas is looking unstoppable this year, but remember, the Jayhawks used to be bad. The Bears already have a road loss on their ledger this season at BYU. Note that BYU team was missing several key contributors on offense and proceeded to get blown out by Oregon the next week. Meanwhile, Iowa State seems to be relishing in their newfound anonymity. After beginning the past three seasons in the preseason AP Poll (including the top ten last season) and losing fifteen times, the Cyclones began this year without any expectations. They have responded by pounding the FCS and Group of Five teams on their schedule while beating Iowa for the first time under Matt Campbell. Now they open Big 12 play looking for revenge after losing in Waco last season as a top fifteen team. The Cyclones outgained the Bears by nearly 200 yards last season, but allowed a kickoff return touchdown and failed on a late two point conversion. Iowa State is just 1-2 ATS against Baylor in Ames under Matt Campbell, but that is mostly due to the inflated point spreads. The last two times these two have faced off in Ames, Iowa State has been laying double digits. They won by fourteen and seven respectively, but failed to cover. With the Cyclones lying less than a field goal I like their chances of covering this low number. 

Indiana +17 Cincinnati
After finishing 2-10 in 2021, Indiana has already topped last season's win total with a glistening 3-0 mark early in 2022. Despite the undefeated record, Indiana's play has been less than inspiring. They edged Illinois in their opener, trailed Idaho at halftime, and needed overtime to beat Western Kentucky at home. The Hoosiers are probably one of the worst undefeated teams in the nation, but I don't think they should be catching double digits against a Group of Five team (even one that made the College Football Playoff last season). Remember, a much better Cincinnati team had real trouble with Indiana last year. The Hoosiers led 14-0 in last year's game and even held a slim one-point lead going into the fourth quarter. Cincinnati pulled away in the final frame, but Indiana (remember 2-10 Indiana) put forth a valiant effort in defeat. A simple spread comparison shows why Indiana is an easy play here. As I mentioned, eventual playoff participant Cincinnati traveled to eventual 2-10 Indiana last season. The Bearcats were favored by three or three and a half points depending on your book and when you bet it. This spread implies this version of Cincinnati, which is ostensibly worse than last year's, would be favored by eleven or twelve points at this year's version of Indiana (which is at least on par and perhaps better than last year's). Don't consider this a vote of confidence in Indiana (the Hoosiers could drop their last nine games) or a slight at Cincinnati (the Bearcats could make another New Year's Six Bowl), but rather a case where the spread is simply too damn high. 

Arkansas State +5 Old Dominion
This season, when it comes to facing Power Five in-state teams, Old Dominion has kept it close on the scoreboard despite being significantly outplayed down to down. In their victory against Virginia Tech, the Monarchs were outgained by nearly 100 yards and averaged about a yard less per play than the Hokies. However, they were plus three in turnovers thanks to four Grant Wells interceptions and they returned a botched field goal snap for a touchdown. In their loss to Virginia last week, the Monarchs were outgained by nearly 200 yards and averaged about a yard and a half less per play than the Cavaliers. However, they were plus two in turnovers as they pounced on three Virginia fumbles, including two when Virginia had goal to go opportunities. The Cavaliers also missed a relatively short field goal that gave Old Dominion an opportunity to take a late lead. The Monarchs deserve credit for forcing those turnovers, but that is not a formula that tends to work out in the long run. Consequently, Old Dominion is little overvalued in the betting market. This line should probably be closer to a field goal or perhaps even lower. Arkansas State has been torched the past two weeks, but their opponents (Ohio State and Memphis) have prolific offenses. Meanwhile, Old Dominion is averaging under five yards per play on the season. Arkansas State's defense was among the worst in the nation through October of last season (allowed nearly eight yards per play through their first eight games). However, they allowed under six yards per play in their last four, winning once and covering twice in that span. I expected some defensive improvement in 2022, but it has probably been masked by the strength of their past two opponents. For what its worth, they did shut down Grambling in the opener. Old Dominion should not be laying nearly a touchdown in this spot. Take the Red Wolves and the points.   

Stanford +13.5 Washington
Is Washington back? The Huskies certainly looked the part in an offensive explosion against Michigan State last week. The Huskies scored 39 points on the Spartans, their most versus a Power Five opponent since pounding the corpse of Arizona during the pandemic season. But before we declare them back, lets add some context to last week's victory. The Huskies torched the Spartans through the air, accumulating 397 yards on 40 pass attempts. However, Michigan State's pass defense was trash last season and despite a decent showing against their first two outclassed opponents, we should probably make a slight downward adjustment to Washington's pass offense. While the pass offense was dominant against Michigan State, their rushing attack was not as formidable. They averaged under three yards per carry and turned the ball over on downs twice inside the Michigan State five because they could not convert in short yardage goal to go situations. Their pass defense also gave up some big plays, granted it could be argued a great deal of the damage occurred in garbage time. Still, there are questions about this Washington team. How will they handle success? The Huskies are have notched their highest ranking (18th in the latest poll) since 2019. I'll note in their past four games as a ranked team, the Huskies are 0-4 (with two of the losses coming to Stanford as a double digit favorite and the other coming to Montana in last year's season opener). Stanford is coming off a bye and should be able to move the ball against the Huskies. If they can avoid the turnovers that doomed them two weeks ago against Southern Cal, they should be able to hang around. David Shaw is 7-4 in his career against the Huskies and the underdog has actually covered the past five in this series. I think this nightcap will come down to the wire. 

Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

It was almost a fantastic week. But then we lost two games that made it to overtime and clinched a second consecutive losing week. Perhaps the fates will show us mercy this weekend. Home teams in BOLD. 

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 6-8

Nebraska +10.5 Oklahoma
Mercifully, the Scott Frost era at Nebraska is over. Centuries from now when historians review his won/loss record as a head coach, the 2017 season at Central Florida will stick out like a sore thumb. Frost's charges finished 13-0 that season, but his other six teams (one at Central Florida and five at Nebraska) managed a 22-38 record with zero winning seasons. With his dismissal, Frost will miss the chance to beat Nebraska's former conference rival. The Sooners have not played in Lincoln since 2009 (I expect this game to be higher scoring) and have actually dropped seven of their past eight visits to the Red Sea. Of course, five of those visits came before Bob Stoops resurrected the program, but historically, the Sooners have not experienced a great deal of success at Nebraska. This iteration of Nebraska has effectively moved the ball (at least six yards per play against each of their first three opponents), but have been ghastly on defense, particularly on the ground. I expect Oklahoma to be able to move the ball and score points against the Huskers, but Nebraska should be able to answer. While the Huskers were never able to get over the proverbial hump under Frost, they did keep games close. They have not lost by double digits since 2020 (in a game where they were a double digit favorite) and twelve of their past thirteen losses have come by a touchdown or less. The heartache likely continues on Saturday. I expect Nebraska to be motivated in playing for Frost and their interim coach Mickey Joseph. Were this mid-November, I would hesitate to back Nebraska, but since it is early in the season, I'll back them catching double digits. 

Buffalo +14 Coastal Carolina
Buffalo and Coastal Carolina both played tight games with FCS teams last week. The Bulls lost to Holy Cross on a Hail Mary at the end of regulation while Coastal needed a fourth quarter comeback to knock off Gardner-Webb. Holy Cross is a ranked FCS team and is coming off three consecutive FCS playoff appearances. Meanwhile Gardner-Webb was 4-7 last season. Perhaps the Bulldogs are an ascendant power at the FCS level, but I don't think this spread is taking into account just how close Coastal Carolina came to losing that game at home. Through two games, Grayson McCall has been his usual outstanding self (six touchdowns and over ten yards per pass), but the Coastal running game is averaging under three and a half yards per carry and the defense has allowed over seven yards per play to both Army and Gardner-Webb. Buffalo gave up 37 points to Holy Cross last week, so I don't expect them to be able to shut Coastal down, but the Bulls should be able to move the ball against a porous Coastal defense. These teams played last year in upstate New York and Coastal, with a much better overall team, escaped with a three point victory. The Bulls won't be able to get enough stops to win, but they can cover two touchdowns. 

California +11.5 Notre Dame
Safe to say, the honeymoon is over in South Bend. Marcus Freeman ascended to the head coach position when Brian Kelly left for LSU after last season. In his brief tenure, his Irish have blown a big lead in the Fiesta Bowl, pushed Ohio State to the limit in the Horseshoe, and lost at home to Marshall. While the defensive performance against Ohio State was impressive, its clear this team lacks play-makers on the offensive side of the ball. Notre Dame has produced six explosive plays (per Game on Paper) in their first two games and are averaging under five yards per play as a team. Oh, and their starting quarterback is out for the rest of the regular season. To cover big numbers, the Irish are going to have to score and that may prove difficult against a Cal team that is pretty much a carbon copy of every Cal team under Justin Wilcox. Under Wilcox, the Bears play good to elite defense, but struggle moving the ball and end up as a mid-tier Pac-12 team. Despite their offensive struggles, the Bears have been a great bet as a road underdog under Wilcox, posting a 14-4 ATS mark, including 11-1 since the start of 2018! This has all the makings of game played in the teens or low twenties. Nothing the Irish have shown through their first two games makes me believe they can cover double digits against a competent Power Five team. An 0-4 start to Marcus Freeman's tenure would not shock me. 

Georgia Tech +16.5 Ole Miss
If you want to craft a schedule to get your hot seat coach fired, Georgia Tech has created a perfect template. The Yellow Jackets have the misfortune of facing a national power in their annual non-conference rivalry game and their permanent cross-division rival in the ACC happens to be having their best run in school history. With two losses in near permanent marker on the schedule annually, the Yellow Jackets added a trip to a Group of Five power and a home game with an SEC school not named Vanderbilt to the 2022 slate. Before the season, the only guaranteed win looked to be Western Carolina, and while the Yellow Jackets handled their business against the Catamounts last week, one of their other potential victories (Duke) is looking a little dicey. Geoff Collins is going to have to pull at least one and perhaps two massive upsets to save his job. Can that happen this week? I'm slightly optimistic. For starters, we are still early in the season. If this game were taking place later in the year, Georgia Tech would probably be playing out the string and unlikely to put up much of a fight. Another reason this game could be closer than the experts think is due to the changes at Ole Miss on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Matt Corral is on injured reserve in the NFL. The top four rushers and top three receivers from last year's team are gone. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby is at Oklahoma. The Rebels have put up decent offensive numbers through their first two games, but facing Troy and Central Arkansas at home is a bit different from a true road game against an unfamiliar Power Five opponent. Over the summer, I looked at how SEC teams performed in true non-conference road games against unfamiliar opponents. By unfamiliar I mean games where the teams do not play annually (like Georgia and Georgia Tech). In the College Football Playoff era (since 2014), SEC teams are 7-3 in such games (including Mississippi State's victory at Arizona last week), but are just 3-7 ATS. The sample size is relatively small, but the market gives those SEC teams a little too much respect. Ole Miss will probably win this game, but this number is too high. 

LSU +2.5 Mississippi State
Almost exactly two years ago, this very game in this very place marked the beginning of the end of the Ed Orgeron era at LSU. The SEC delayed the start of their season due to the Covid-19 pandemic. On the final weekend of September, SEC play began and on that weekend, LSU was set to defend their national title by hosting Mike Leach is his debut at Mississippi State. The Tigers were prohibitive favorites (16 or 17 points), but in a chilling vision of things to come, their defense stunk up the joint, allowing over 600 yards and 44 points to the Bulldogs. The Tigers never righted the ship and finished up the Coach O era with a pair of .500 regular seasons. Now Brian Kelly gets to do his best Farmer Fran impression in a bid to win his first national title at the FBS level. Kelly's debut ended in dramatic fashion with a blocked extra point costing them a chance to force overtime against Florida State. After a reprieve last week against Southern, the SEC gauntlet begins. Kelly has been an FBS coach for nearly two decades (Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame) and befitting his success, his teams have rarely been home underdogs. However, they have performed quite well in the role. His teams are 13-5-1 ATS as a home underdog with eleven outright wins! Similarly, LSU has done well as a home underdog in general. In the past decade, the Tigers are 7-4-1 ATS as a home underdog, with six outright wins. In addition, their four non-covers all came against Alabama. Like the Supreme Court, I tend to defer to precedent (sometimes) and Mississippi State has rarely been favored in Baton Rouge. The last time was in 2000 (and they lost). I think the Tigers pull off the outright upset against a Bulldog team that is a little overvalued by the betting market. 

Georgia State -19 Charlotte
Three years ago, Will Healy and Club Lit were one of the great Group of Five stories. However, since his 7-6 debut, the 49ers have gone just 7-14 and have allowed more than 35 points per game! The defense, which was the worst in Conference USA on a per play basis last season, has somehow gotten worse. And with quarterback Chris Reynolds missing time with an injury, the offense has not been able to keep the 49ers in games. The 49ers will likely be 0-5 before they return to conference play on October 1st against UTEP, but even against a weak Conference USA, this team will have to do some serious work to get back to a bowl game. I haven't read any updates on Reynolds' status, but I don't expect him to play. The 49ers will be hard pressed to allow less than 40 points to a Georgia State team that loves to run the ball (over 200 yards rushing in nine of their thirteen games last season). And without Reynolds, I'm not very confident they can score twenty points. Georgia State will want to let off some steam after playing well, but coming up short in their first two games against Power Five opponents. The Panthers should roll in this spot. 

Central Florida -8 Florida Atlantic
Last week against Louisville, John Rhys Plumlee showed why he could not hold onto the starting quarterback job at Ole Miss. Plumlee was dynamic on the ground, gaining 83 yards (would have had 97 if sacks were properly attributed to passing yardage), but completed less than half his passes as Louisville put the clamps on the Central Florida offense. That imbalance will not fly in the Power Five, but against Group of Five, particularly lower-tier Group of Five teams like Florida Atlantic, his raw athleticism should win the day. Remember, Florida Atlantic allowed 41 points to Ohio, so Central Florida should be able to feast on the Owls. And despite the loss to Louisville, the defense only allowed 20 points to the Cardinals. If Florida Atlantic can only muster a similar amount, Central Florida should have no trouble covering this modest number.  

Thursday, September 08, 2022

The Magnificent Seven: Week II

It wasn't a great start to the year, but at least we didn't dig ourselves a huge hole to climb out of. Let's see if we can make some better picks this week. Home teams in BOLD. 

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 3-4

Duke +10 Northwestern
Duke and Northwestern both look to be improved after struggling in 2021. Last season, Duke finished 3-9 and dropped their final eight games once ACC play began. Northwestern also went 3-9, winning just a single Big 10 game. These two academically prestigious institutions have played semi-regularly of late, with this being the sixth meeting since 2015. Duke has won the past three, including last year's game in Durham. I wasn't surprised Northwestern was favored (they did upset Nebraska), but I was shocked the line opened over a touchdown and has steadily climbed throughout the week. Duke looked good in their opener as well, blasting Temple in the first game of the Mike Elko era. Temple may end up as the worst team in the AAC once the 2022 season plays out, but it was still an impressive showing for a team that dropped their last eight contests by an average of nearly 32 points per game last season! If you had made this spread before Northwestern beat Nebraska, what would it have been? The Wildcats would likely have been favored, but not by much. The Wildcats showed their offense was at least competent against Nebraska, but their defense allowed over six yards per play and is too leaky to be laying this many points. Duke's offense is probably not as good as Nebraska's (it may be, but again, their first game was against Temple), but their defense may be comparable. The Blue Devils limited Temple to under 200 total yards at about three yards per snap (again, Temple). Meanwhile, Northwestern's showing against Nebraska, especially their ground attack lost a little shine last week. The Cornhuskers eventually pulled away against North Dakota in Lincoln, but they allowed over five yards per rush to an FCS team that finished 5-6 last year. David Cutcliffe had a great career at Duke, but by the end of his tenure, his tactics and message had gotten stale. The Blue Devils made a solid hire in Mike Elko and I think a return to competency has begun in Durham. I'll take the Blue Devils and the ten points.     

Army +2.5 Texas-San Antonio
This is a brutal spot for the UTSA Roadrunners. The Roadrunners are coming off a heartbreaking triple overtime home loss to an in-state rival (Houston) they consider a sort of big brother. Next week they travel to Austin to face on a another in-state big brother (Texas). And in between, all they have to do is travel from San Antonio to West Point to take on a disciplined triple option team for a Noon kickoff. And yet they are laying points to the Black Knights. Army also lost last week at Coastal Carolina, but the offense hit some big plays and the Black Knights were in the game until late in the fourth quarter against one of the nation's best quarterbacks (Grayson McCall) on the road. Army has won the two previous meetings in this series (2019 and 2020) while averaging over 300 yards per game on the ground and over five and a half yards per carry. I know those games came two and three years ago respectively, but UTSA has not faced any other option offenses under Jeff Traylor and I think the Roadrunners shot their proverbial wad last week against Houston. This week they experience the refractory period

Pittsburgh +6 Tennessee
Pittsburgh probably should have dropped their opener to West Virginia. However, thanks to some chicken shit coaching by Neal Brown and a dropped pass that resulted in a pick six, the Panthers prevailed. While Neal Brown was doing his best to lower West Virginia's win probability, Pat Narduzzi was almost his equal. Despite having an accurate quarterback, Narduzzi insisted on playing football like it was the 1970's, having his running backs pound the rock, despite their lack of success. The Panthers ran 33 times for 115 yards or roughly the equivalent of an Eddie George NFL carry. They passed just 29 times and even accounting for the five sacks the team allowed, netted 269 yards through the air (over nine yards per pass). Narduzzi's conservatism will likely cost Pittsburgh a game or two this season, and it may even be in this spot. However, since Tennessee will be playing at Mach One, Narduzzi will probably not be able to give in to his base desires and run the ball on two out of every three plays. Tennessee will accumulate yards and score points, but how good are they? The Volunteers blasted Ball State last week, but most of their victories in the early going under Josh Heupel have been against outmanned competition. The Volunteers beat one team that finished with more than six regular season wins last year (Kentucky). Plus, this is an unusual role for Tennessee. Outside of the weird pandemic season, Tennessee has not been favored on the road since 2016! The Volunteers have the coaching advantage, but I think these rosters are pretty close in terms of talent. I expect Pittsburgh to make and allow big plays on defense. It may not be enough to win the game outright, but it should be enough to cover. 

Florida International +13.5 Texas State
On November 23, 2019, Florida International upset Miami to become bowl eligible for the third consecutive season under Butch Davis. That victory marked the apex of the program as Florida International has gone just 2-18 since that victory with both wins coming against FCS opponents. One of those victories came last week, but it required a fourth quarter comeback and a two point conversion in overtime. And their vanquished foe, Bryant, is not exactly North Dakota State. The Bryant Bulldogs did finish 7-4 last season, but have never made the playoffs at the FCS level. And apropos of nothing, lest you think conference geography is only wonky at the FBS level, consider Bryant, a school located in Rhode Island, is a member of the Big South Conference. While Florida International struggled in their opener, but won, Texas State struggled and got hammered by what may end up being a pretty bad Nevada team. The Bobcats allowed just 274 yards to Nevada, but committed four turnovers and turned the ball over on downs twice allowing Nevada to cruise to victory. Texas State is no doubt the better team, but this line is way too high. Since joining FBS in 2012, Texas State has been favored by double digits against an FBS team four times. Denoting how far the program has fallen since joining FBS, each instance happened prior to 2016 when Dennis Franchione was the head coach. The Bobcats are 1-3 ATS in those games. You can't lay nearly two touchdowns with a team as bad as Texas State. If this game were later in the year, Florida International may have quit and this might be a good lay down spot. However, in just the second game of the season, I expect the Panthers to play hard and keep this one interesting. 

Northern Illinois +6 Tulsa
Tulsa was a bit unfortunate to drop their opener at Wyoming last week. The Cowboys returned a fumble and a blocked punt for a touchdown in their double overtime victory. However, while the Golden Hurricane probably 'should have' won, their defense allowed 256 yards through the air to a team that managed 30 passing yards and completed a quarter of their throws the week prior against Illinois. Now the Golden Hurricane head back to Tulsa to face a team genetically engineered to play in close games. Thomas Hammock has coached 33 games at his alma mater and 20 of those games have been decided by one score. Against Group of Five and FCS teams, the close game percentage is slightly higher (18 out of 28), so I would not expect either team to get much margin. The Huskies run the ball, milk the clock, and often go for it on fourth down. Against teams like Michigan, that is a recipe for getting blown out, but against teams with similar talent (Tulsa is dead last in the AAC in the current 247 talent composite), that has been a recipe for success. Their close win against Eastern Illinois in the opener does worry me a bit (Panthers were 1-10 last season), but again, I think they are built for close games and Tulsa did not impress either against a team that looked like it had never thrown a forward pass the week before. I'll take the Huskies to play yet another close game and potentially eke out another win. 

Eastern Michigan +11.5 Louisiana-Lafayette
Since Chris Creighton arrived in Ypsilanti prior to the 2014 season, Eastern Michigan has been making degenerates money hand over fist as a road underdog. Over his eight seasons in charge, the Eagles are 25-12-1 ATS in the role. They have been a coin flip against Power Five opponents (5-5), but against fellow Group of Five teams, they are an outstanding 20-7-1! That also includes a perfect 4-0 ATS record in non-conference games. During Creighton's first two seasons in charge, the Eagles were double digit underdogs to Group of Five teams eleven times. They were just 5-5-1 ATS in those games. Indicating how far the program has come under his watch, the Eagles have been double digit underdogs to Group of Five teams five times since 2016. They have covered each time. I know playing trends can be dangerous, but neither team's performance in their FCS scrimmage gave me the impression this line should be more than a touchdown. Eastern Michigan and Louisiana-Lafayette beat solid FCS teams (Eastern Kentucky and Southeast Louisiana) and showed they may struggle on defense (Eastern Michigan) and offense (Louisiana-Lafayette) respectively. The Ragin' Cajuns are fresh off the best season in school history, but lost their head coach, starting quarterback, and a host of defensive stalwarts. I think Eastern Michigan's phenomenal performance in the road underdog role will continue and an outright upset would not surprise me. 

New Mexico State +16 UTEP
This write up could be a copy paste from the FIU/Texas State game a few lines up. UTEP played about how one might expect against Oklahoma last week. The Miners never threatened and lost by a margin (32) close to the closing line (31). But since the Miners played in Week Zero, they also have another data point and that one did not age well. In their opener, the Miners lost at home to North Texas by 18 points. Maybe the Mean Green have got it going on, oh wait. Following their road win against the Miners, North Texas returned to Denton to host SMU. The Mustangs beat them 48-10. Check the box score if you'd like. That wasn't a fluky blowout. SMU averaged nearly nine yards per play and threw for over 400 yards on the Mean Green secondary. New Mexico State has also played two games, and while they have failed to cover in both, they did show some signs of life in the opener, particularly when freshman Gavin Frakes played. I expected Frakes to start last week against Minnesota, but the more athletic Diego Pavia got the start. I'm not sure who will start against UTEP, but I expect Frakes and Pavia to both see action as the Aggies return to their weight class after facing Minnesota on the road. UTEP has scored 13 points in both of their first two games. And if you watched any of Arizona's victory against San Diego State, you know they are missing the big play ability of receiver Jacob Cowing. Cowing averaged nearly 20 yards per catch last season, helping the Miners average over 16 yards per catch as a team. Through two games this season, the team is averaging just over 11 yards per catch. Its hard to consistently drive down the field without a big play threat. I expect UTEP to top their season average of 13 points, but they will not cover this big number.