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.