Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

We definitely did not perform well enough to qualify for a bowl this season, but I did get pretty good grades in college so I guess we qualified based on APR. Anyway, here are seven bowl picks. Hopefully they can be a little better than the picks we made during the regular season.

Last Week: 1-2
Overall: 42-51-1

New Orleans Bowl @ New Orleans, Louisiana
Louisiana-Lafayette +2.5 Jacksonville State
Thanks to the general mediocrity in college football this season, Jacksonville State will be playing in their first bowl game in school history in their first season as an FBS program. The Gamecocks won eight games under Rich Rodriguez, but they did it in an unexpected way. The Gamecocks played fast, ranking ninth in the nation in plays per game (74), but they were not overly efficient. In league play, the Gamecocks ranked seventh of nine teams in Conference USA in yards per play, ahead of another FBS neophyte (Sam Houston State) and Florida International. The running game was strong (and high volume), but Gamecock quarterbacks combined to complete just over half their passes. Instead, the Gamecocks won with an aggressive, play-making defense. They allowed just over five yards per play in conference action (5.01), ranking first in Conference USA. They averaged three sacks per game (tenth nationally) and over seven tackles per loss per game (seventeenth nationally) while forcing 25 turnovers (third nationally). Can the Ragin' Cajuns do enough to protect their quarterback and avoid disastrous turnovers to win this game? Louisiana-Lafayette was mediocre in sacks allowed, ranking 57th nationally, but it would be a fool's errand to predict the turnover margin for an individual game (the Ragin' Cajuns were -3 in the regular season). The reason I am backing Louisiana-Lafayette is because of schedule strength and location. Louisiana-Lafayette did not face an arduous schedule, but Jacksonville State had a schedule tailor made for easing into FBS action. Including Jacksonville State, Conference USA had just four bowl eligible teams and the Gamecocks beat up on the dregs of the league in getting to eight victories. In non-conference play, they beat an FCS team (East Tennessee State) and a bad MAC team (Eastern Michigan) while losing to a mediocre Sun Belt team (Coastal Carolina) and losing to, but acquitting themselves well against a mediocre SEC team (South Carolina). Their best win is a three-point home victory against Western Kentucky. Their best road win is either Sam Houston State or Middle Tennessee State. Louisiana-Lafayette is better than both those teams and this game is practically on the road. Louisiana-Lafayette has played in the New Orleans Bowl on six previous occasions (all since 2011) and they are 5-1 straight up and 5-1 ATS in the game. I expect a spirited crowd to help lead the Ragin' Cajuns to an upset win. 

Boca Raton Bowl @ Boca Raton, Florida
South Florida +3 Syracuse
Often times, bowl results come down to motivation, and I think its easy to see which teams comes into this game with more motivation. After beginning the 2018 season 7-0, the bottom fell out of the South Florida program. The Bulls lost their final six games of 2018 (with each loss coming by double digits) and then proceeded to win just four FBS games between 2018 and 2022 (8-37 overall record). Expectations were not high heading into 2023 with new head coach Alex Golesh and you probably remember the Bulls for a game they did not even win back in September. South Florida hosted Alabama back in Week 3 and while the Bulls were never really a threat to win the game, they hung around and lost just 17-3. That game might give you the false impression that South Florida plays an old-school defensive first style with a limited offense. That could not be further from the truth. In AAC play, South Florida ranked fifth in yards per play as they put up more than thirty points in five of their eight conference games. However, the Bulls needed a win in their regular season finale to clinch a bowl bid because of their defense. They played well against a struggling (at the time) Alabama offense, but once league play started, they ranked dead last in the AAC in yards allowed per play. They allowed at least thirty points in five of their eight league games and finished about how you might expect a team that is very good on one side of the ball and very bad on the other (4-4 in the AAC). But this is their first bowl game in five years and the Bulls will be facing a team that is present in body, but absent in spirit. Syracuse began the season 4-0 against a less than arduous schedule, but once ACC play began, the Orange rotted. Syracuse lost their first five league games by nearly 25 points per game and while they rebounded to win two of their final three (against the dregs of the league), that skid and the general malaise surrounding the program cost Dino Babers his job. The Orange head to this bowl game (where they are laying points may I remind you) with units that ranked thirteenth and eleventh in the ACC in yards per play on offense and defense respectively. South Florida is bad on one side of the ball, but I expect them to be highly motivated, whereas Syracuse is bad on both sides of the ball and seems to be anxious to get this season over with. Take the Bulls to get the win in their home state. 

Camelia Bowl @ Montgomery, Alabama
Northern Illinois +1 Arkansas State
Both teams in this bowl game rebounded from rough starts. Arkansas State began the year by getting outscored 110-3 by Oklahoma and Memphis. At that point, the Red Wolves were 5-21 under head coach Butch Jones and appeared to be heading for a one or two win season. One quarterback change later and the Red Wolves won six of their final ten games to get back to a bowl for the first time since 2019 (when they also played in the Camelia Bowl). Northern Illinois actually won their opener at Boston College, but lost their next four. Included in that quartet was a home loss to an FCS team. The Huskies won five of their final seven games and are back in a bowl for the second time in three seasons. Northern Illinois has been a great underdog under head coach Thomas Hammock, posting a 19-11 ATS record in the role in his five seasons. They utilize excellent underdog strategies by running the ball to milk the clock and going for it often on fourth down to maximize variance and scoring opportunities. Meanwhile, this is just the fifth time Arkansas State has entered as a favorite against an FBS opponent under Butch Jones. Despite winning five games against FBS opponents this season, four of those victories came as an underdog. The market has probably tilted too much toward Arkansas State. In terms of per play margin, Northern Illinois was the second best team in the MAC (behind Toledo), while Arkansas State was outgained by their Sun Belt opponents on a per play basis. I think the wrong team is favored here. Take the Huskies to win their first bowl game since 2011. 

Pop-Tarts Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
NC State +3 Kansas State
Dave Doeren has quietly put together a great run at NC State. In the last ten seasons, the Wolfpack had one down year (2019) when they went 1-7 in ACC play and things looked bleak in Raleigh. In the other nine seasons, the Wolfpack have won at least eight games seven times and beaten their archrivals in Chapel Hill seven times, including four times as an underdog. A victory here would give the Wolfpack ten wins for the first time since 2002 and give them their third ranked finish under Doeren. All that stands between them and the second best season of this century is a Kansas State team that may be overvalued by the market for a change. After posting a 10-3 ATS mark the previous two seasons as a favorite, the Wildcats were just 5-4 as a favorite this season and lost three of those games outright. In fact, if you look at Kansas State's schedule, there is not a whole lot of heft on it. The Wildcats did dominate a good Group of Five team (Troy) early in the season, but Kansas was the only other team they beat that finished with a winning record. The Wildcats were also slightly underwater in terms of yards per play in Big 12 action (-.09 per play) despite posting a 6-3 league record. NC State has a sneaky good defense, ranking fourth in the ACC in yards allowed per play. I think they will shut down the Kansas State run game and keep this a low scoring affair. Take the 'Pack and the points.  

Music City Bowl @ Nashville, Tennessee
Maryland +2.5 Auburn
I can admit when I'm wrong and I think I whiffed on my take regarding the Mike Locksley hire. This is Maryland's third consecutive bowl trip under Locksley, a not insignificant accomplishment considering they reside (until next year) in the same division as Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. In fact, over the past three seasons, Maryland is 22-5 against unranked teams. Of course, they are 0-11 against ranked opponents, so while they are clearly a solid program, they are a notch below the elite of college football. And speaking of not being elite, allow me to introduce you to Auburn. The Tigers finished bowl eligible in Hugh Freeze's first season in charge, but of their six regular season wins, five came against either FCS teams or FBS teams that finished with a losing record. The only FBS team they beat that did not finish with a losing record was Cal which finished 6-6. I think Auburn is getting an artificial boost thanks to playing in the SEC and nearly beating Alabama in the Iron bowl a few weeks ago. This game will be played in SEC country, but not in Jordan Hare. Maryland is the better team and should be favored. 

Arizona Bowl @ Tucson, Arizona
Wyoming -3 Toledo
This is the end of the line for Craig Bohl at Wyoming. The former North Dakota State head coach has been in Laramie for ten years. While the Cowboys never won a conference title under his watch, they did play for the Mountain West championship in 2016 and including this year, were bowl eligible in the past seven non-shortened seasons. Bohl consistently put solid to good Group of Five defenses on the field and played to that strength by running the hell out of the football. This season, Wyoming opened the year with an upset of Texas Tech on their home field and were 5-1 in mid-October. They lost back to back games to Air Force and Boise State to fall out of the conference race, but won three of their last four to get to eight regular season wins for the first time since 2016. They will face the MAC Championship Game loser for the third consecutive time in a bowl. The Cowboys dominated Kent State in 2021 and lost a tight game to Ohio in 2022. Toledo bookended their season with losses, first to Illinois in the opener and then to Miami in the MAC Championship Game. In between, they were the best team in the MAC, becoming the first MAC school to finish 8-0 in league play since Western Michigan in 2016. Special teams failures cost them against Miami and I think motivation will be an issue for the Rockets. Two weeks ago, they were ranked in the top 25 and a sizable favorite in their conference title game. Now, their quarterback is in the transfer portal and they are facing a team from a better league looking to send their head coach out with a win. Take the Cowboys to cover this small number. 

Rose Bowl @ Pasadena, California
Alabama +1.5 Michigan
I don't think Alabama deserved their spot in the College Football Playoff over Florida State. In the previous nine iterations of the invitational, the committee has tended to defer to 'most deserving' instead of best (whatever your preferred predictive rating system is). I think they erred in deviating from the script this season, but at the same time, I think Alabama has a great shot at putting another trophy in the case. This is not close to Saban's best team at Alabama, it may not even be top six, but the Tide have improved throughout the year and feature a dangerous if unpolished quarterback. Jalen Milroe is a bomb thrower. He averaged nearly sixteen yards per completion this season. By comparison, Bryce Young averaged 13.3 yards per completion in his Heisman winning campaign of 2021. The defense, while not world devouring like some previous units, was good enough (third in SEC play in yards allowed per play). The Crimson Tide will face a Michigan team that has not looked great in their past three games. Maryland played Michigan even statistically in a close loss and the Buckeyes actually outgained the Wolverines, but were done in by two Kyle McCord interceptions. The Wolverines blanked Iowa in the Big 10 Championship Game, but they mustered just 213 total yards and averaged 3.33 yards per play. Turnovers have buoyed the Wolverines in those three games (+7 margin), but the fickle bounces of the football can reverse course without warning. The Wolverines passing attack is not up to snuff to beat Alabama. The Wolverines have thrown just one touchdown pass in their past five games. You rarely find Alabama catching points under Nick Saban, so savor these opportunities and back the Tide. 

Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

Since there are only ten games on the board this week, there shall only be three picks. That means I will hopefully not miss as many games as I have most weeks. The season is almost mercifully over. 

Last Week: 2- 5
Overall: 41-49-1

UNLV +2 Boise State
UNLV is in an interesting position, having backed into the Mountain West Championship Game. The Rebels lost last week to the hottest Mountain West team (San Jose State), to throw the league into a three-way tie. The computers decreed the Rebels and Broncos the two best teams and here we are. This is UNLV's first appearance in a conference title game and arguably the biggest game in school history (other contender is their regular season finale in 1984 when they hosted tenth ranked SMU). Meanwhile, this marks Boise State's second straight trip the Mountain West Championship Game (and sixth in seven seasons). However, the Broncos trip here was perhaps more bumpy. They dropped three of four non-conference games and were just 4-5 overall after a loss to Fresno State a month ago. They fired head coach Andy Avalos after beating New Mexico the following week and closed the season with two more victories to clinch a spot in the title game. The Broncos have not fared well away from the Smurf Turf this season, posting a 2-4 straight up record and a 1-4-1 ATS record. Meanwhile, UNLV has only lost once this season in Las Vegas. This game is also part of a trend in conference title games where it has been beneficial to fade road favorites. In Group of Five/non-BCS conference title games, road favorites are 2-7 straight up and 1-8 ATS. Comparatively, home favorites have done great straight up (29-8) and have been a coin flip against the spread (18-17-2). I like the Rebels to continue that trend at home and claim their first conference title since 1984. 

Appalachian State +6 Troy
Both Sun Belt Championship Game participants have rebounded from rough starts. Troy began the year 1-2, much like they started in 2022, before reeling off nine consecutive wins (with seven coming by double digits) to easily wrap up the Sun Belt West for a second straight season. Meanwhile, Appalachian State began the year 3-4, but won their last five games (with four coming by double digits) to claim the Sun Belt East for the second time in three seasons (on a technicality). For Appalachian State, the turnaround was due to their defense. In their first three Sun Belt games, the Mountaineers allowed 7.09 yards per play and 31.7 points per game. Over their final five conference games, the Mountaineers allowed 5.10 yards per play and 22.2 points per game. The offense, led by quarterback Joey Aguilar, has been fantastic all season, and it will probably need to be again as it goes against one of the best defenses in the Sun Belt. I think the Mountaineers have a shot to pull the upset since they faced a tougher schedule residing in the Sun Belt East. In addition, the Mountaineers are 5-1 ATS as a road underdog under head coach Shawn Clark and have not lost a game by more than a touchdown in more than a calendar year. 

Florida State -2.5 Louisville @ Charlotte
While the injury to Jordan Travis has dealt a major blow to Florida State's national title hopes, I think it has devalued them enough to make them a great play in this spot. A few years ago, I wrote about how preseason top ten teams tend to dominate conference title games against teams that began the season unranked. Those preseason top ten teams have gone 28-2 straight up in conference title games and have outscored their opponents by nearly twenty points per game. Louisville is a nice story, but their fantastic record is more a product of their schedule than elite play. The Seminoles have had a full game (in a hostile environment) to gameplan around the loss of their star quarterback. I think they are able to win by at least a touchdown against a good, but not great Louisville team. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIII

Two good weeks in a row and three out of four. The yearly numbers are not quite as bad and there is an outside shot we could get back to .500. Again, that's far from a successful season, but better than it looked a month ago. 

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 39-44-1

UTSA +3.5 Tulane
In a weird scheduling quirk, both of these teams are unbeaten in AAC play, yet neither has clinched a spot in the conference title game. The winner will obviously punch their ticket and the loser still has a snowball's chance (would need SMU to lose to Navy). Both the Roadrunners and Green Wave won their respective leagues last season, with UTSA beating North Texas in their final season in Conference USA and Tulane knocking off UCF on their way to an eventual upset of Southern Cal in the Cotton Bowl. UTSA dropped off everyone's radar when they began the season 1-3. Elderly quarterback Frank Harris was dealing with some injury issues, but once conference play began, the team rounded into form. All but one of their league wins has come by double digits. Meanwhile, Tulane has the better overall record, but they have been far from dominant. Four of their league victories have come by a touchdown or less. Tulane and UTSA have faced five common league opponents. Tulane has outscored those five opponents by 40 total points. UTSA has outscored those same opponents by 89 total points. Despite the venue, I think the wrong team is favored here. Take the Roadrunners to win a third consecutive league title. 

Oregon State +13.5 Oregon
Before I dive into some reasons for backing the Beavers in this spot, I want to breakdown why I think the line itself is wrong. Indulge me. Last week, Oregon State was a slight home favorite against Washington. Once we factor in homefield advantage, that would mean the betting market views Washington and Oregon State as roughly equals on a neutral field. We'll give Washington the benefit of the doubt since they are unbeaten and Oregon State has a great homefield advantage and say they are two points better than Oregon State in the betting market. Six weeks ago, Washington and Oregon played a classic in Seattle with the Huskies winning 36-33. Washington was a slight favorite in that game, implying the betting market viewed Washington and Oregon as equals. If Washington and Oregon were roughly equals in the betting market and Washington was rated slightly higher than Oregon State, how is Oregon (with homefield advantage) rated nearly two touchdowns ahead of Oregon State? Using basic logic, I think there is value in this number. And that is before you consider the fact that this is a rivalry game (perhaps the last iteration for some time) and Oregon State's great run as an underdog under Jonathan Smith. Under Smith, the Beavers are 13-6 ATS (10-3 since 2019) as a road underdog and 8-4 ATS (6-1 since 2019) as a double digit road underdog. Oregon blasted the Beavers by 40 in Smith's first season (2018), but since then the games have been decided by an average of seven and a half points. Despite the loss to Washington last week, I expect Oregon State to be motivated. They can even keep the Ducks out of the Pac-12 Championship Game if they win and Arizona wins their Territorial Cup clash with Arizona State. This is too many points, so take the Beavers to get a dam cover. 

Ohio State +3.5 Michigan
This is the first time Ohio State has been an underdog in the regular season since Ryan Day became head coach. The Buckeyes have been underdogs on four occasions in the College Football Playoff, posting a 2-2 ATS mark. With apologies to Iowa, this has the feel of a College Football Play-In Game, with the winner getting in and the loser needing some chaos to sneak in. A similar scenario presented itself last season with both teams also entering with unbeaten records. Michigan won, but Ohio State managed to get in after Utah blasted Southern Cal in the Pac-12 Championship Game. That Ohio State team was better offensively with quarterback and future NFL star CJ Stroud leading the attack. The defense was a little leaky and that manifested itself in this game as the Wolverines gained over 250 yards on the ground and averaged over seven yards per carry. The script has been flipped this season. Ohio State's offense is not nearly as explosive despite the presence of Marvin Harrison Jr. But the defense is allowing under ten points per game. No team has scored more than 17 points against that unit. Interestingly, both defenses in this game had their worst point total showing against Maryland. The Terps scored 17 against Ohio State and 24 against Michigan last week. Michigan has the better defense by points per game, but Ohio State has faced a more difficult schedule, with Notre Dame serving as a great out of conference data point (something Michigan does not have). And while Ohio State's quarterback (Kyle McCord) was thought to be the weak link a few weeks ago, Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy has looked mortal the past two weeks against Penn State and Maryland. I think the last two weeks have sort of exposed the Wolverines. They are still one of the best teams in college football, but I think Ohio State is better, so I will take the points.  

Pittsburgh +6 Duke
Were I a Pitt fan, and believe me, I have enough problems as it is, I would be questioning where this new quarterback has been all season. Nate Yarnell got the start against Boston College and played well. Granted, it was at home and the Eagles have arguably the worst defense in the ACC, but his numbers were fantastic compared to the other two scrubs the Panthers have run out there this season. Phil Jurkovec and Christian Veilleux combined to complete barely half their passes this season. That might be acceptable for a triple option team or an NFL quarterback in the 1970's, but its downright horrible in 2023. Only four teams have a worse completion percentage than the Panthers. Yarnell's play gives the Panthers hope for the future and makes them an ideal team to take catching a touchdown against a team that appears to have run out of steam. Duke lost quarterback Riley Leonard to a gruesome injury in their fifth game against Notre Dame. Leonard missed just one game, but was ineffective upon his return and has not played in a month. His backups have not inspired much confidence either. Since Leonard's injury, the Blue Devils have lost four of six games, and outside of their overtime tilt with North Carolina, have averaged under twenty points per game. As I repeat often around these parts, its hard to cover when you can't score. Finally, one additional reason to back Pitt is head coach Pat Narduzzi's success against the Blue Devils. Under Narduzzi, the Panthers are 7-0 against Duke with four of the wins coming in Durham and three of those road victories coming as an underdog. 

Old Dominion -3 Georgia State
I faded Georgia State a few weeks ago when they were hosting Appalachian State because it appeared they were headed in the wrong direction. The Panthers began the season 6-1, but have lost four in a row and are in danger of ending the regular season on a five-game skid. What has happened? The schedule has toughened up. Georgia State began the season with games against Rhode Island (FCS), Connecticut, and Charlotte. Connecticut is 2-9 with one victory against an FBS opponent and Charlotte is 3-8 with two wins against FBS teams. In Sun Belt play, two of their first four games were against Marshall and Louisiana-Lafayette, two teams that are 5-6 heading into the final week of the season. They did beat Coastal Carolina on the road, but the Chanticleers are not what they were under Jamey Chadwell. Since beating Louisiana-Lafayette to get to 6-1, the Panthers have faced two of the best teams in the Sun Belt (Appalachian State and James Madison), a non-conference game against LSU, and their in-state rival Georgia Southern. Meanwhile, in Norfolk, Old Dominion is looking to double last season's win total and get to a second bowl game in three seasons under Ricky Rahne. The Monarchs have been nothing if not exciting in 2023. Nine of their eleven games have been decided by a touchdown or less. That includes games against an awesome James Madison, an ACC team (Wake Forest), and something called Texas A&M Commerce. In Sun Belt play, Old Dominion has outgained their opponents by more than half a yard per play (+0.59) while Georgia State has been outgained by more than a yard per play against Sun Belt foes (-1.20). That alone makes Old Dominion the play to cover this small number and get to bowl eligibility. 

Auburn +14.5 Alabama
When a team is embarrassed like Auburn was last week in an humbling home loss to New Mexico State, you have to expect them to bounce back the next week. Prior to that perplexing loss to the Aggies, Auburn had won three in a row, with each victory come against an SEC opponent. While Auburn could easily have overlooked New Mexico State last week with Alabama on deck, the shoe is on the other foot this week. Alabama has a date with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game next week and while Nick Saban will undoubtedly try to keep them focused on the task at hand, I would not be surprised if they started slow. During his historic run in Tuscaloosa, Saban has had a tough time when his teams have traveled to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Alabama is just 4-4 straight up in Jordan-Hare despite entering as favorites seven times. Alabama is just 2-6 ATS in those eight games, covering with one of the best defenses of the modern era in 2011 and again in 2015 against a limited Auburn offense. This Auburn offense is similarly limited, but Alabama, while a championship contender, is not up to the standards of Saban's previous world-devouring squads. In addition, Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze had decent success against Saban when he was at Ole Miss. In five meetings with Alabama, the Rebels were 2-3 straight up and 4-1 ATS. Freeze has also been great as a home underdog in all of his previous stops (Arkansas State, Ole Miss, and Liberty), posting a 10-5 ATS mark, including 4-2 as a double digit home underdog. I wouldn't be shocked if Auburn was tied or leading at the half before Alabama was able to put them away by about a touchdown or so. 

Iowa State +10 Kansas State
Are you ready for Farmageddon? While these teams are not each other's primary rival (that would be the in-state Hawkeyes and Jayhawks respectively), this is still a fun underrated matchup. Kansas State is in an unusual role in this spot as they are laying double-digits against the Cyclones for the first time since 2014. Usually, the Wildcats are underrated by the betting market, but I think they are a little overvalued in this spot. The Wildcats are the reigning Big 12 champions, but this team is not quite up to the standards of last year's championship squad. That's understandable as Kansas State is a developmental program and does not feature a revolving door of five stars. Kansas State's biggest strength is running the football, which is something Iowa State should be able to hold in check. The Cyclones also have the pass offense to take advantage of a Kansas State defense that has put up solid overall numbers, but has really feasted on bad offenses and backup quarterbacks. Missouri, UCF, Texas, and Kansas all put up at least 27 points against this defense. Iowa State should come close to that number and I think they can hold the Wildcats to the low thirties. This one has close game written all over it. 

Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week XII

We had our best week of the season. The overall numbers are still quite bad, but we'll see if we can close strong. 

Last Week: 6-1
Overall: 34-42-1

Appalachian State +10 James Madison
After back-to-back losses dropped them to 3-4 overall, Appalachian State has won three in a row and the Mountaineers have an outside shot at getting to the Sun Belt Championship Game. The defensive issues that plagued them in their first eight games (allowed nearly 31 points per game) have dissipated somewhat. The Mountaineers have allowed just 23 points in their past two games; easy victories against Marshall and Georgia State. Now they travel to Harrisonburg (along with College Game Day) to face the unbeaten James Madison Dukes. The Dukes crept into the AP Poll last season after a 5-0 start, but their stay was brief as they were knocked off by Georgia Southern the very next week. Their stay has been a little longer this season, as they enter their fourth week as a ranked team. The Dukes have dominated their past two opponents, beating Georgia State and Connecticut by a combined score of 86-20. However, the Dukes have played their share of tight games this season. Five of their ten wins have come by one-score, including three by a field goal or less. While James Madison has been clutch in their brief run as an FBS program (7-1 record in one-score games), Appalachian State has struggled in close games under Shawn Clark. Clark took over the Mountaineer program before the 2020 season and in his nearly four years in charge, they are just 7-12 in one-score games. However, it should be noted the Mountaineers have only lost 17 total games under Clark, meaning they usually keep games close. In fact, nine of their past ten losses have been by one-score. That makes them an ideal team to back as an underdog, especially one catching double-digits. James Madison will be able to move the ball and score against this defense that is not up to previous standards in Boone. However, the Mountaineers have one of the best quarterback in the Sun Belt (Joey Aguilar) and should be able to score enough to keep this one close. The Mountaineers have also done a great job at protecting Aguilar this season (just 13 sacks allowed) and should be able to neutralize one of James Madison's biggest strengths. The Dukes lead the nation with 43 sacks this season, but as I mentioned, the Mountaineers protect their quarterback well and James Madison will be without the services of Jalen Green, who has 15.5 sacks on the season. I expect a tight game worthy of College Game Day on Saturday. 

Hawaii +13.5 Wyoming
Wyoming's season started with such potential. The Cowboys upset Texas Tech in Laramie in their opener and won five of their first six games. They lost a tight game with Air Force, but had their bye after their battle with the Falcons. With just one conference loss, the Cowboys were contenders in the Mountain West. However, since returning from their bye, the Cowboys have dropped two of three and have struggled moving the ball. The Cowboys are averaging under 22 points per game in Mountain West play and have scored just 45 total points in the three games since their bye. The defense has also regressed. Boise State and UNLV torched their secondary (combined to average ten yards per pass) while Air Force and New Mexico shredded them on the ground (nearly 600 combined rushing yards). Needless to say, this is not the profile of a team you want to back laying double-digits. Hawaii has quietly won two in a row to move to 4-7 in Timmy Chang's second season in charge at his alma mater. These teams seem to be headed in opposite directions and while Wyoming should be favored, they should not be laying two touchdowns. Take the Warriors to keep this one close.  

North Texas -2.5 Tulsa
A pair of 3-7 teams under first year coaches play their penultimate regular season game on Saturday. This is definitely not the biggest game in the mid-afternoon window, but it might be one of the most high scoring. North Texas averages just over 33 points per game on offense and allows nearly 38 per game on defense. The current over/under on this game is just 66, so betting on a shootout might be a good play as well. The Mean Green have lost four in a row to end their dreams of a winning season, but all four losses have come to the cream of the crop in the AAC. Tulane, Memphis, UTSA, and SMU are a combined 32-8 overall and an amazing 23-1 in AAC play! Plus, North Texas was competitive in three of the four games, losing to Tulane, Memphis, and UTSA each by one possession. Their most recent game against SMU was more of a struggle, but I think that has served to artificially lower the price of the Mean Green in this spot. Tulsa is also 3-7, but the Golden Hurricane have lost five in a row, and while two of those defeats came to SMU and Tulane, the other three were Florida Atlantic, Rice, and Charlotte. North Texas is the better team and is laying less than a field goal, so they are the play. 

Sam Houston State +13 Western Kentucky
Despite what the betting market may believe, this is not the Western Kentucky team from 2021. That team featured an incredible Group of Five offense. Turnovers and close game variance are the only reasons they did not break through, win Conference USA, and potentially finish with a number beside their name in the AP Poll. To put that team's offensive numbers in the proper context, consider this: Western Kentucky faced ten FBS Group of Five teams (in other words, teams in Western Kentucky's weight class) in the regular season in 2021. They scored at least 30 points in all ten games. Here is how often they scored thirty or more against Group of Five opponents in the other four seasons Tyson Helton has been in charge.
2019: two times in nine games
2020: two times in nine games
2022: six times in ten games
2023: three times in eight games
Without Bailey Zappe and Zach Kittley, the offense degraded in 2022 and the trend has continued in 2023. The Hilltoppers have failed to score 30 points in each of their past four games (1-3 record) and are going to end up throwing for about half as many touchdown passes as they did in 2021 (63). If the Hilltoppers struggle getting to 30, it stands to reason they will have a hard time covering this big number, even against an FBS neophyte. Sam Houston State has struggled in their first season as an FBS program, losing their first eight games before knocking off Kennesaw State two weeks ago. They followed that win up with a road win at Louisiana Tech and are looking to close their maiden voyage in FBS on a strong note. The Bearkats were terrible on offense in the early going, managing just ten points in their first three games. However, once conference play began, the offense, while still below average, has managed to score multiple touchdowns. The Bearkats have averaged just under 27 points per game in league play and have lost four conference games by a touchdown or less. Western Kentucky should not be laying this many points. Take the Bearkats and the points. 

New Mexico State +24 Auburn
This is not a true So Con Saturday game, but spiritually, it fits the bill. Auburn preps for their Iron Bowl game with Alabama by facing a Conference USA squad that has not only clinched their second consecutive bowl game, but also an appearance in the Conference USA Championship Game. New Mexico State, under second year head coach Jerry Kill, lost at home to Massachusetts to open the season and appeared poised for a step back after last season's Quick Lane Bowl victory. Since that loss, the Aggies have won eight of ten with diminutive quarterback Diego Pavia leading them in both passing and rushing. That rushing attack, for both teams, is why I like the big underdog in this spot. Neither team pass frequently, as both rank in the bottom thirty nationally in pass attempts. With both teams keeping the ball on the ground, the clock will run, possessions will be minimized, and Auburn will have a tougher time getting margin. And with Alabama up next, Auburn has no incentive to run up the score. I expected this spread to be under twenty points, so I will happily take 24. 

Old Dominion +6 Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern is already bowl eligible for the second straight season under Clay Helton, but the Eagles have faded after a strong start. Georgia Southern began the year 4-1, with the only loss coming at Wisconsin when they outgained the Badgers, but turned the ball over six times. And while the Eagles are 3-3 in Sun Belt play, they are fortunate to have such a mediocre record. They have been outgained by those six league opponents by nearly one yard per play (-0.99). In all three of their conference victories, the Eagles returned an interception for a touchdown, helping them overcome situations where their opponents were more efficient on a play-by-play basis. Meanwhile, Old Dominion also sports an identical 3-3 league record, but the Monarchs have actually outgained their league opponents by more than half a yard per play (+0.64). Old Dominion has been incredibly unfortunate in their fourth down conversion rate. The Monarchs have only converted one of eight fourth downs in Sun Belt play, while their opponents have converted nine of fifteen (60%). In addition, all of Old Dominion's conference games have been decided by a touchdown or less. I expect more of the same here. Georgia Southern should probably be favored, but the spread should be less than a field goal. Laying nearly a touchdown, even at home, is too much. 

Syracuse +6.5 Georgia Tech
At this point, Georgia Tech is a pretty simple handicap under Brent Key. Back them as an underdog, and fade them as a favorite. As an underdog, either at home or away, Georgia Tech is 10-2 ATS under Key with eight outright victories! As a favorite (all of which have come at home), the Yellow Jackets are 0-4 ATS and have lost each game outright. Syracuse changed up their offense last week, eschewing the forward pass (nine passes for eight yards) and ran what amounts to a modified version of the single wing. That rushing attack would seem to match up perfectly with Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets cannot stop the run, allowing 224 yards per game and 5.33 yards per carry on the season. Fade the Yellow Jackets yet again as a favorite. 

Thursday, November 09, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week XI

Whatever optimism we built up the week prior dissipated last week. Oh well. There's always next year. 

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 28-41-1

Wake Forest +2.5 NC State
As a Wake Forest fan and alum, I have watched portions of every game in this series for at least the past quarter century. And anecdotally, it always seemed like the home team managed to win. When I fact-checked those numbers, that was indeed the case. Since 1996, Wake Forest has won twice in Raleigh (2006 and 2018). Since 1997, NC State has won twice in Winston-Salem (2001 and 2015). Thus, in the past 27 games in this series, the home team is an incredible 23-4! I think there is a good chance that trend continues on Saturday. Wake Forest played one of their best games on the season offensively on the road at Duke last week. The team netted just 21 points, but they racked up 400 yards of total offense and averaged over six yards per play for the first time since their second game of the year against Vanderbilt. Missed kicks and costly turnovers did them in against a quality Duke squad. Meanwhile, NC State is probably a little overvalued after winning back to back home games as an underdog against Clemson and Miami. The Wolfpack are 22-4 straight up in Raleigh since the start of the 2020 season. The road has been much less hospitable (6-9 in road ACC games in that span). I expect a tight game where points are at a premium, so take the underdog. 

Appalachian State +2 Georgia State
Its been a rough year for the Mountaineers from Boone. Their defense has been uncharacteristically poor and has let them down on numerous occasions. Despite their defensive struggles, the Mountaineers have been in almost every game and still have an outside shot at winning the Sun Belt. Each of their four losses has come by a touchdown or less, and the Mountaineers led in three of those losses in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Georgia State has hit a rough patch after a solid start. The Panthers have lost two in a row and four of six after a 4-0 start. A closer look reveals the schedule is the likely culprit. In their first three games, Georgia State beat Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Charlotte. Those squads have combined for three victories against FBS teams. Their fourth victory was legitimately impressive, as they won at Coastal Carolina. Based on recent results though, that was before the Chanticleers got rolling under first year head coach Tim Beck. Appalachian State has dominated this series, winning all nine meetings since joining the Sun Belt in 2014 with eight of the wins (including each one in Atlanta) coming by double digits. This is also the first time Georgia State has been favored in this series. These teams appear to be trending in opposite directions and the series history makes the Mountaineers the pick. 

Missouri +1.5 Tennessee
I don't quite understand this spread. Missouri has only lost two games all season (Georgia and LSU) and the Tigers were competitive in both defeats. The Tigers have also been dominant in their league victories, with all three of their SEC wins coming by double digits. Meanwhile, Tennessee has dropped two of their three SEC road games. The loss to Alabama is understandable, but losing in The Swamp to Florida would make me wary of backing this team away from Knoxville. As expected, with the loss of Hendon Hooker and Jalin Hyatt, the Vols have not been as explosive offensively. Last season, against SEC foes, they averaged over 43 points per game. This season, those numbers are a much more mortal 26 per game. The Vols can still dominate overmatched opponents. Witness their scoring averages against Austin Peay, Connecticut, UTSA, and Virginia (nearly 46 points per game), but they are right around average against SEC opponents. Take the Tigers to pull off this slight upset. 

Coastal Carolina +1.5 Texas State
I'm glad Texas State will be playing in a bowl game for the first time in their brief history as an FBS program. However, are we giving them a little too much respect in this spot? After dropping their first two Sun Belt games to Georgia State and Georgia Southern, the Chanticleers have reeled off four consecutive victories and have a decent chance to get back to the Sun Belt Championship Game. Actually winning that game may prove to be a trifle difficult, so perhaps they can root for James Madison to win their NCAA appeal. But I digress. The Chanticleers have done this despite losing supernova quarterback Grayson McCall to an injury three weeks ago. Without McCall, the Chanticleers put up over 400 yards in each of their next two games and scored 62 combined points. Texas State has a winning Sun Belt record (3-2), but they are actually slightly underwater in terms of Net YPP in league play (- .05). Meanwhile, Coastal has outgained their Sun Belt opponents by nearly a yard per play (+ 0.97). The wrong team is favored here. 

Cal -1.5 Washington State
Washington State is leaking oil. After beginning the year 4-0, the Cougars have dropped five in a row. A few of the losses are understandable. Road trips to UCLA and Oregon were tough as was a home date with Arizona. However, their two most recent defeats (at Arizona State and home to Stanford) were bad. The Cougars managed just seven points against a woeful Stanford defense and now need to win two of their final three games to even qualify for a bowl. Their opponent in this game, Cal, will likely miss out on a bowl for the fourth consecutive season as they have dropped four in a row to fall to 3-6. In fairness though, four of their six losses have come to teams currently ranked in the top fifteen of the College Football Playoff Rankings. The other two came to Southern Cal and an SEC school (Auburn). I don't like laying points with Cal, but this number is too low to not back the Bears. 

TCU +10 Texas
Since joining the Big 12 in 2012 and getting an annual shot at their big brother, TCU has performed quite well against the marquee football program in Texas. The Horned Frogs are 8-3 both straight up and ATS against the Longhorns. Coming off an appearance in the College Football Playoff (something Texas has yet to accomplish), the Horned Frogs have struggled. They opened the season by faceplanting against Colorado, then won three in a row to temporarily right the ship. However, since beating a pretty good SMU team, the Horned Frogs have dropped four of five and are in danger of missing out on the postseason entirely. However, three of those four losses came away from Fort Worth. Returning to the friendly confines, I think TCU will put up a fight in the last game they will play against Texas for the foreseeable future. The Longhorns are just 7-9 straight up in road or neutral field games under Steve Sarkisian. Would a close victory or even a loss to the Horned Frogs really surprise you? 

San Jose State +1 Fresno State
San Jose State faced an arduous early season schedule. The Spartans played Southern Cal, Toledo, and Boise State on the road while hosting Oregon State and Air Force. They lost all five of those games (the Toledo and Boise games were close) and were 1-5 halfway through the season. However, once the schedule eased up, the Spartans surged. They have dominated their past three opponents, winning by a combined margin of 129-45. Neither of those three teams (New Mexico, Utah State, and Hawaii) are much to write home about, but I think we can learn something from that domination. Now, the Spartans not only have a chance to get to a second consecutive bowl game, but they also have an outside shot at getting to the Mountain West Championship Game as two of the teams ahead of them in the standings (Fresno State and UNLV) are still on the schedule. While San Jose State had a rough start to 2023, Fresno won their first five games and earned a spot in the AP Poll. They dropped a game at Wyoming (who hasn't?), but have won three in a row and have eyes on a second consecutive berth in the Mountain West Championship Game. As someone who has watched a great deal of Fresno State games and is holding a soon to be worthless under 8.5 wins ticket, the Bulldogs are not that good. However, they have made the plays when it counted, posting a 5-1 record in close games. Their past three victories have all come by a touchdown or less and the Bulldogs are +5 in turnover margin in those three games. The ball will eventually stop bouncing Fresno's way and I think it starts Saturday night. 

Thursday, November 02, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week X

For the first time in a month, we gave you some winners. The overall record is still terrible, but let's see if we can close strong. 

Last Week: 5-2
Overall: 26-36-1

Jacksonville State +15.5 South Carolina
If I had told you back in the summer that when these two Gamecocks got together, one of them would have exactly a single victory against an FBS opponent, you probably would not have been surprised. After all, Jacksonville State was beginning life as an FBS program and entered 2023 with meager expectations. Well, one of these teams does enter with exactly one FBS win, but it's probably not the team you were expecting. Six weeks ago, South Carolina beat Mississippi State in Columbia to improve to 2-2 on the year. Since beating the Bulldogs, the Gamecocks have dropped four in a row while allowing 146 total points. In fact, every FBS team with the exception of Georgia (go figure) has scored at least 30 points against this alleged SEC defense. Giving up a lot of points and struggling to run the ball (South Carolina averages under three yards per carry) is not a good recipe for covering a large spread. Jacksonville State is a surprising 7-2 in their first year as an FBS team, but that record is a more a function of an easy schedule (Conference USA is the worst FBS league), a good record in close games (3-0 in one-score contests), and a good turnover margin (+9). Still, the other Gamecocks have no bowl game or conference title to play for, so I expect them to be highly motivated playing an SEC team on the road. The other Gamecocks also pressure opposing quarterbacks well, accumulating 30 sacks on the season (13th nationally in sacks per game). And South Carolina has done a poor job of protecting Spencer Rattler, allowing 34 sacks on the year (128th nationally in sacks allowed). You can manually adjust those sack numbers a bit based on each team's respective schedules, but Jacksonville State pressures quarterbacks better than the average team and South Carolina protects worse than average. I don't think the FBS neophytes have the goods to win outright, but they should keep this close and with South Carolina's poor defense and lack of running attack to salt the game away, the back door will be wide open. 

Virginia -2 Georgia Tech
Does it strike you as odd that Virginia, a team that is 2-6 is favored against Georgia Tech, a team that is 4-4? Same here. In situations like this, I think trusting the oddsmakers is a good idea. Georgia Tech has been maddeningly inconsistent this season. Through eight games, the Yellow Jackets have beaten ranked (at the time) Miami and North Carolina teams while also losing at home by multiple scores to both Bowling Green and Boston College. Last week's victory against North Carolina was their third in a row against the Tar Heels and the scene in Bobby Dodd Stadium was electric. Can the Yellow Jackets build on that momentum and get one step closer to their first bowl bid since 2018? Under Brent Key, the Yellow Jackets have seven outright upsets including their most recent victory against the Tar Heels. Georgia Tech is 1-5 straight up and 2-4 ATS in their next game after pulling those upsets. Georgia Tech also has a poor track record in Charlottesville. In their previous nine visits to the commonwealth, they are 2-7 straight up despite being favored six times. Virginia is better than their 2-6 record and still has a remote chance to become bowl eligible by winning their last four games (three of which are at home). Take the Cavaliers to cover this small number. 

Army +18.5 Air Force @ Denver
While not given the same pomp and circumstance as Army/Navy, this penultimate leg of the Commander in Chief's Trophy has been pretty competitive in recent years. Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun is 11-5 straight up against Army, but most of those victories came prior to Jeff Monken's arrival at West Point. The Falcons are just 5-4 against Army since Monken took over the Cadets and just 3-5-1 ATS, including 1-5-1 ATS as a favorite. The past five games in this series have all been decided by a touchdown or less with very low combined point totals. In the past five games, the teams have combined for an average of just 27 total points. If we get another low-scoring affair, it will be very difficult for the Falcons to cover this big number. This number seems too big, but using their respective performances this season, one can see why Air Force is such a prohibitive favorite. The Falcons are undefeated and potentially playing for a New Year's Six bowl game while Army is 2-6 and struggling offensively as they try and transition away from the traditional flexbone triple option. The Cadets have averaged just under fifteen points per game against FBS opponents this season and have been shutout twice. Despite their struggles, the series history suggests a close game and remember, Air Force struggled to put away a Navy team playing with their backup quarterback two weeks ago. The Midshipmen got an honorary backdoor cover when they scored late and for some reason went for two to blow the actual cover. But I digress. I think the Cadets drag Air Force into the muck and keep it close in a low-scoring game. 

Vanderbilt +12.5 Auburn
After a 2-0 start, the Commodores have dropped seven in a row to clinch their third consecutive losing season under head coach Clark Lea and tenth consecutive losing season overall. Meanwhile, Auburn broke a four-game losing streak last week to move to 4-4 and put themselves in position for a bowl bid. These two teams occupy different divisions in the SEC and have not played regularly. They have only met four times since 2007, and the teams have split those four games with the home team winning each. The last three in this series (2007, 2008, and 2016) have all been decided by a touchdown or less and in their past six trips to Nashville, Auburn has only won by margin once (2003). Their other five trips to Nashville have either resulted in a close win (1991, 1993, 2001) or a close loss (2008, 2012). I expect more of the same on Saturday. Auburn has played three true road games all season and has scored a combined 42 points in those games. And two of those three games included trips to Cal (allowing nearly 34 points per game this season) and LSU (allowing nearly 27 points per game). Auburn's season high for points against a Power Five opponent came last week against Mississippi State (27). I expect Auburn's point total to be in the high teens or low twenties which will not be enough to cover this number. 

Louisiana-Monroe +2.5 Southern Miss
I find it fitting that a few days before Halloween, the corpse of Southern Miss rose from the grave and put a scare into Appalachian State. The Golden Eagles had dropped six in a row heading into their game with the Mountaineers and had been outscored by 148 points in that six-game skid. Miraculously, the Golden Eagles remembered Frank Gore Jr. was on their team (at least until the fourth quarter) and gashed the Mountaineers. Southern Miss led by ten in the fourth quarter, but allowed three consecutive touchdown drives to eventually drop their seventh in a row. Do they have anything left with no bowl game to play for and is head coach Will Hall safe if they finish 2-10 or 3-9? Under Hall, this formerly proud program is 11-22 overall (8-22 versus FBS opponents) and 6-15 against conference foes. If Hall does survive the 2023 season, he will have to do some work in 2024 to remain employed. But I digress. Should the Eagles be laying points at home to a feisty Louisiana-Monroe team? The Warhawks have not fared much better than the Southern Miss in 2023, having lost six in row, but expectations were much lower in Monroe than Hattiesburg. These two teams faced off in the regular season finale in 2022 with Southern Miss needing a win to clinch bowl eligibility and Louisiana-Monroe playing for pride. The game was tied at ten in the fourth quarter, but Southern Miss scored the final ten points to become bowl eligible. This Southern Miss team is much worse and this Monroe team is at least as good and potentially better than last year's squad. Southern Miss shot their wad last week and I expect a flat performance on Saturday against the Warhawks. 

Iowa State -2.5 Kansas 
Fun fact. Iowa State and Kansas have not played in a bowl game in the same season since 2005. It makes sense when you think about it as neither team has an illustrious history of football success. If this game plays out as the oddsmakers expect, that streak is likely to end as Kansas is already bowl eligible and Iowa State needs but a single victory to get there. The Cyclones have quietly won four of five after a disappointing road loss to Ohio. Two of those victories came on the road, a place where the Cyclones have struggled since their run to the Big 12 Championship Game in 2020. In 2021 and 2022, Iowa State was 1-8 in Big 12 road games! Now they return home for the first time in a month looking to mount another darkhorse run to the Big 12 Championship Game. As you may have heard, Kansas is off a rather big victory of their own, knocking off Oklahoma for the first time since 1997. Can the Jayhawks come down from that high of knocking off one of the league's dominant programs and win a conference game on the road? I have my doubts. Iowa State has dominated this series in Ames, winning the past seven, with six of them coming by double digits. In addition, for all their success under Lance Leipold, Kansas has struggled as a road underdog, posting a 4-9 ATS record with all the covers coming when they were catching at least a touchdown. Iowa State will win this game by at least a field goal and continue their resurgence under Matt Campbell

Boise State +3 Fresno State
While we were busy shoveling dirt on Boise's grave, we forgot to look at the conference standings. Yes, the Broncos have four losses, but three of them came in the non-conference. In Mountain West play, the Broncos are 3-1 and have ample opportunity to play their way into yet another Mountain West Championship Game. In addition, outside of their loss to an elite Washington team on the road, their other losses have all been close. UCF beat them on the Smurf Turf with a last second field goal. Memphis beat them by three thanks in large part to a blocked field goal they returned for a touchdown. And Colorado State beat them on a last second Hail Mary. Boise may not be a contender at the national level, but they are still plenty good to make a run at the Mountain West title. While Boise has struggled in close games, Fresno State has a horseshoe up their ass. The Bulldogs own four victories by a touchdown or less (against just one loss), including two consecutive close wins in league play to move them to 3-1. Rearrange a few of those close wins and losses for both teams and the perception around this game would be entirely different. Take away the Boise Hail Mary loss and flip one of Fresno's tight victories and I think the Broncos would be favored in their trip to Silicon Valley. As it stands, the Broncos are a value play catching three points. 

Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week IX

You know those people who say 'it gets better'? Well, that is not always the case. The hits just keep on coming. We had some bad picks and some bad beats and it all adds up to a 1-6 week. We'll try and do better this week (would be hard to do worse). 

Last Week: 1-6
Overall: 21-34-1

Kansas +10 Oklahoma
Speaking in purely technical terms, this Oklahoma team just seems gettable. Don't they? The Sooners are unbeaten and will likely be favored in their final five regular season games, but they don't seem elite to me. SMU was within one score of them in the fourth quarter in Norman, they scored twenty points on the road at Cincinnati, and they needed a fourth quarter comeback to knock off UCF last week. Perhaps they are a team of destiny, or perhaps it all falls apart on Saturday in Lawrence, Kansas. Oklahoma has played two road games thus far in 2023 and Kansas is by far their stiffest road test. They play at Oklahoma State next week in the last edition of Bedlam for the foreseeable future, so the Cowboys may end up being the best team the Sooners play on the road. Still, the difference between the Cowboys and Jayhawks is slight, but both are much better than Cincinnati and Tulsa. Even with their backup quarterback, Kansas will be able to move the ball against Oklahoma. Can they make enough stops to cover this number and potentially win outright? I think so. Kansas actually has a better per play differential in Big 12 action than Oklahoma (+0.49 versus +0.26) and they will be primed to get to bowl eligibility for a second consecutive season. Take the Jayhawks and don't be surprised if we see another top ten upset on Saturday. 

Virginia +19 Miami
Both the Cavaliers and Hurricanes are off massive wins. Virginia pulled a road upset against a top ten North Carolina squad while Miami beat Clemson for the first time since 2010 (only played five times since though). The victory halted a two game skid for Miami, represented their first home conference win under Mario Cristobal, and gave their faint ACC Championship Game hopes a little life. Before the ACC scrapped divisions, the Hurricanes and Cavaliers were both residents of the ACC Coastal and thus played every season since the Hurricanes joined the league in 2004. Miami is 11-8 against Virginia since joining the ACC, but that is less impressive considering they have been favored in sixteen of the nineteen contests. The Hurricanes have lost outright seven times as a favorite in this series and the favorite is just 9-9 straight up. Thirteen of the nineteen games have been decided by ten points or less, including the past five. These two teams played a real snoozer last season that was tied at six at the end of regulation. I expect a little more scoring this year, but Miami's victory against Clemson probably says more about the state of the program in the upstate of South Carolina that it does about the one in South Beach. Take the Cavaliers catching another big number. They probably won't win outright, but they will keep it close. 

Miami (Ohio) +7 Ohio
This is a play-in for the MAC Championship Game for all intents and purposes. Both the Redhawks and Bobcats enter with 3-1 conference records, so the winner will leave with what amounts to a one and a half game lead with three to play. This game lost a little of its luster when Miami starting quarterback Brett Gabbert went down with an injury last week against Toledo. The Redhawks were unable to mount a comeback with his replacement and fell in a tight game to the Rockets. However, with a week to prepare, I think they will have some packages to take advantage of backup Aveon Smith's mobility. Without Gabbert, the Redhawks will have to win this game with their defense which is one of the best in the MAC. League opponents are averaging under four yards per play against this unit and no MAC opponent has eclipsed twenty one points. Ohio also plays good defense and the total for this game currently sits at 39.5. Oddsmakers expect a low-scoring game and I think that favors the underdog. Ohio scored 80 combined points in their victories against Bowling Green and Kent State. In their other six games, they have managed just 100 combined points. I expect them to struggle moving the ball and scoring points. Thus, the value in this spot is on the underdog. 

Utah +6.5 Oregon
If we throw out the pandemic impacted 2020 season, Utah has been unbeatable in Salt Lake City over the past five years. The Utes lost to Washington in their conference opener in 2018, and have won 27 straight since (with an asterisk for 2020 when they dropped a game to Southern Cal). Outside of 2020, this also marks the first time Utah has been a home underdog since that loss to Washington. Two weeks ago, it looked like the two best teams in the Pac-12 were facing off in Seattle, but both the Ducks and Huskies have looked vulnerable and a fifth berth by the Utes in the Pac-12 Championship Game is not out of the question. Oregon has struggled on the road against good teams, failing to cover against both Washington State and Oregon State last season, needing a late defensive touchdown to cover against Texas Tech this season, and losing to Washington two weeks ago. After struggling to move the ball through the first half of the season, Utah appears to have found an offense in the past two games. Cal and Southern Cal are not defensive stalwarts, but the Utes had a hard time moving the ball against Florida, Baylor, and Weber State. I'm not going to get in front of this Utah team at home. Take the points and the Utes. 

Arkansas State +2.5 Louisiana-Monroe
It hasn't gotten to the level of Ohio State/Indiana or Alabama/Vanderbilt, but this series has been low-key dominated by Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have won thirteen in a row (last loss in 2009) and have covered the spread in all thirteen games! They have been favored in eleven of the thirteen games, but both times they were underdogs (2013 and 2021), it was by a similar number as this one. They won the 2013 game handily and squeaked by the Warhawks in 2021. Why would things be any different this season? Louisiana-Monroe has been spry under Terry Bowden, but should they be laying points in a conference game? This is just the third time they have been favored against an FBS opponent under Bowden and they have failed to cover the two previous games. Plus, Arkansas State has done well as a road underdog against Group of Five opponents under Butch Jones, posting an 8-4 ATS record in the role. Arkansas State is the better team and still has an outside shot at bowl eligibility. With five losses, Louisiana-Monroe is playing out the string and will drop their fourteenth in a row to the Red Wolves on Saturday. 

Georgia Tech +11.5 North Carolina
The Yellow Jackets have been a simple handicap under Brent Key. They are great as underdogs and awful as favorites. Under Key, the Yellow Jackets are 8-2 ATS as an underdog, with five outright wins. Meanwhile, they are 0-4 ATS as a favorite and have not won a single game on the field! The Yellow Jackets move the ball well, ranking just behind North Carolina in yards per play in ACC games (6.32 to 6.31). When he is not turning the ball over as he was last week, Haynes King is dual-threat quarterback. King rushed for 150 yards last week in their loss to Boston College and should be able to pick up a few first downs to keep drives alive against the Tar Heels. North Carolina still has a shot at the ACC Championship Game, but their playoff hopes were severely damaged in their home loss to Virginia last week. A flat performance would not surprise me. Plus, despite the different trajectories of these two programs, Georgia Tech has actually won the last two games in this series. They entered both contests as double digit underdogs off a loss. North Carolina is the better team, but this is too many points. 

New Mexico +1 Nevada
The Lobos and Wolfpack both broke long conference droughts last week. Both teams finished winless in the Mountain West last year and New Mexico broke a fourteen game conference skid while Nevada halted theirs at a much more respectable ten. However, they did it in drastically different ways. New Mexico won a high-scoring affair, dropping 42 points on Hawaii, while Nevada shut out San Diego State and won while failing to score an offensive touchdown. That offensive capability is why I like New Mexico in this spot. The Lobos have scored 92 points in their three conference games while Nevada has scored just 42. Their defensive display against San Diego State came out of nowhere as they held the Aztecs under four yards per play. Each of their previous six opponents, including Idaho of the FCS had averaged at least six and half yards per play against the Wolfpack. I'm a little wary backing the Lobos on the road, with their leaky defense, but they should be able to score enough to win back to back league games for the first time since the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. 

Thursday, October 19, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week VIII

After a more than a month, we finally got back in the win column. The overall record still sucks, but lets see if we can make some progress on that front. 

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 20-28-1

Navy +10.5 Air Force
Halfway through the 2023 season, Air Force has to be the favorite to emerge as the highest ranked Group of Five team and play in a New Year's Six Bowl. The Falcons are 6-0 and likely to be favored in every game they play the rest of the way with the possible exception of the finale at Boise State. This role is nothing new for Air Force. The Falcons were favored in every regular season game they played last year (underdog to Baylor in their bowl game) and were an underdog just once in 2021. The Falcons have lost six times as a betting favorite since start of the 2021 season including twice as a double digit favorite. Are the Falcons poised to fall out of the sky once again as a big favorite? I think they might be. For starters, the Midshipmen and Falcons are very familiar with each other, playing each season as two thirds of the participants in the battle for the Commander in Chief's Trophy. Under head coach Troy Calhoun, the Falcons are 8-8 against Navy, but just 2-6 in Annapolis. They won big the last time they were here two years ago as about a touchdown favorite, but this is just the third time they have been favored at Navy under Calhoun. In addition, their standout quarterback Zac Larrier suffered an injury last week against Wyoming and will miss this game. Navy is also dealing with quarterback injuries, but the drop off between Larrier and his backup is likely much greater than the gap between the Navy quarterbacks that have split time this season. Navy is also better defensively than they were in the final years of the Ken Niumatalolo regime. In 2021 and 2022, Navy ranked eleventh (second to last) in the AAC in yards allowed per play in league games. Halfway through the 2023 season, they rank a mediocre eighth in that statistic. Service academy games seem to always be close, so with a double digit spread and injury concerns for the favorite, the underdog is the play. 

UAB +6.5 Memphis
I thought Memphis had a chance to win the AAC this season. The Tigers had an experienced quarterback, a manageable conference schedule, and were getting last year's champ (Tulane) at home. The Tigers started 4-1, with their lone loss coming to a currently ranked SEC team (Missouri), but their failure to beat Tulane at home last week called into question their good start. The Tigers four wins include an FCS team, a bad Group of Five opponent that had yet to make a needed quarterback change (Arkansas State), Navy, and Boise State. The Navy and Boise State games were decided by four and three points respectively with the margin against Boise State coming on a short blocked field goal return touchdown. The Tigers aren't as good as I thought they would be and they have done performed poorly on the road under head coach Ryan Silverfield. Under Silverfield, the Tigers are just 2-5 ATS as a road favorite. In addition, they are an unthinkable 2-10 straight up in road conference games! UAB has been up and down in their first season under Trent Dilfer, but the Blazers are playing at home and have nothing to lose while Memphis has seen their conference title dreams take a significant hit. Take the Blazers and the points. 

Miami (Ohio) +2 Toledo
This might be the game of the year in the MAC and a preview of the conference title game. So thank goodness it is not consigned to ESPN+. You can watch this one on your terrestrial ESPNU channel so there is no need for boomer mid-westerners to ask their kids or grandkids to hook ESPN+ up to the main television. These two teams have not received an iota of attention from the national media, but the winner will probably receive a few sundry votes in the next AP Poll. Had Toledo held on to beat Illinois in their opener, they would probably be ranked. But such is the challenge for Group of Five college football programs. Lose once and the nation forgets about you unless you win your next ten. Still, for my money this is the best and most exciting game in the mid-afternoon window (third Saturday in October be damned). As for handicapping this game, I like the Redhawks because they have been one of the best MAC home teams of the past half-decade. Under Chuck Martin, they are 23-11 straight up in MAC home games, but 15-3 in such games since the start of the 2018 season. They are also 9-5-1 ATS as a home underdog under Martin, including 5-1 ATS since 2018. Plus I think this game means more to Miami. The Redhawks travel to Ohio next week and need to bank all the league wins they can. Meanwhile, Toledo already has a head to head win against their biggest division rival (Northern Illinois) and a very manageable schedule the rest of the way. 

Hawaii -1 New Mexico
Before the season started, I was somewhat optimistic about New Mexico's chances of fielding a competitive team in the Mountain West. The Lobos were historically bad on offense last season and brought in a quality transfer quarterback along with his offensive coordinator. They had also quietly posted a solid first half point differential last season, which is often indicative of improvement the following season. The offense has improved in 2023, with the Lobos more than doubling their per game scoring output from last season. However, the defense has fallen off a cliff. The Lobos are allowing over 34 points per game and if we remove their FCS contest, that number jumps to 39 points per game. The Lobos have also continued to struggle in the second half of games. If we ignore their games against teams they had no shot to defeat (Texas A&M) and teams they were heavily favored against (Tennessee Tech), and focus solely on their four games against similar opponents (Massachusetts, New Mexico State, San Jose State, and Wyoming), the Lobos have performed admirably in the first half. They have outscored those four opponents by a combined seven points in their first half. In all four games, they were never trailing by more than a touchdown at halftime. However, in the second half of those four games, the Lobos have been outscored by 54 total points. They have not won a single second half and nearly blew a two touchdown lead at Massachusetts before prevailing in overtime. Hawaii has been competitive in their second season under local legend Timmy Chang and are poised to win their first road game since 2021. Take the Rainbow Warriors. 

Florida Atlantic +3 Texas-San Antonio
On the surface, things appear to be back to normal for the Roadrunners since Frank Harris returned from injury two weeks ago. The AAC newcomers have won their first two league games by multiple scores while putting up 90 combined points. But if you dig a little deeper into those box scores, things may not be going quite as well as they seem. UTSA was outgained by both Temple and UAB, but the Roadrunners were +2 in turnovers in both games. Three of the five turnovers they forced in those two games led directly to short touchdown drives of less than twenty yards (two gave them goal to go opportunities). Turnovers are great for winning games, but less so for predicting the future. If the Roadrunners finish +2 in turnovers in this game, there is a great shot they cover this small number. But turnovers are a fickle mistress and I think they have inflated this line in favor of UTSA. In addition, Tom Herman has been fantastic as a home underdog in his previous stops at Houston and Texas (4-1 ATS in the role). I'll back him again in one of his favorite spots and call for an outright upset by the Owls. 

Old Dominion +6.5 Appalachian State
It feels like the end may be coming for Shawn Clark at Appalachian State. The Mountaineers are a proud program and do not stand for mediocrity. And, over the last year and a half, the Mountaineers have been mediocre or worse. Clark began his career in Boone 19-5. However, since the start of the 2021 postseason (Sun Belt Championship Game), the Mountaineers are just 9-11 (6-11 versus FBS opponents!). Perhaps its just a run of bad luck as the Mountaineers are just 3-9 in one-score games in that span. But this year, the defense has fallen off a cliff. The Mountaineers have allowed over seven yards per play to their first two Sun Belt opponents. They lost on a last second field goal to Coastal Carolina, but were fortunate to escape Louisiana-Monroe on a field goal of their own the game prior. The Sun Belt is a highly competitive league, so it would not be surprising to see Appalachian State finish 6-6 or worse for a second consecutive year. The Mountaineers have also been bad on the road under Clark, posting a 3-10-1 ATS mark as a road favorite with seven outright losses. In addition, their only road victory since upsetting a top ten Texas A&M team last year was by one point at Louisiana-Monroe a few weeks ago. After bottoming out at 3-9 last season, Old Dominion has already matched their win total halfway through 2023. They have already pulled one outright home upset against a conference opponent this season and also put a major scare into an ACC team in Norfolk. Take the Monarchs to cover this number and don't be surprised if they win outright. 

UNLV -8 Colorado State
This is a massive game for both teams. UNLV is 5-1 and on the precipice of receiving votes in the AP Poll. The Rebels have never been ranked in their history and considering their pedigree, they are a long shot to bust into the poll. However, they have a great shot at playing in just their third bowl game this century, and despite a back-loaded schedule, have an outside shot at playing in the Mountain West Championship Game. Meanwhile, Colorado State has won three of four after an 0-2 start and the Rams have designs on their first bowl bid since 2017. The Rams staged a miraculous rally on Saturday night to upset Boise State. Down twenty with under five minutes to go, the Rams scored, recovered an onside kick, scored, nearly recovered another onside kick, and completed a Hail Mary at the gun to win. It helped that Boise head coach Andy Avalos was asleep at the wheel when the Broncos scored a touchdown to go up nineteen with about six minutes to go in the game. The Broncos should have gone for two as a conversion would have given them a full three touchdown lead. But I digress. While the rally is great for their bowl hopes, it also masked their offensive struggles. The Rams had scored ten points through 90% of the ball game. That came one week after turnovers and special teams plays helped them build a 17-0 lead against Utah State. The Rams would score just seven more points en route to a blowout loss to the Aggies. Colorado State is one dimensional on offense, as they average under three yards per carry despite allowing only nine sacks on the season. Freshman quarterback Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi has made some big plays, but befitting his youth and inexperience, he has also thrown eleven interceptions. Colorado State is 2-7 on the road under Jay Norvell, with six of the seven losses coming by double digits. UNLV has scored at least forty points in every game this season when they did not play Michigan. I expect another great offensive showing by the Rebels and a double digit win.