Thursday, September 28, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week V

Another losing week which makes three in four weeks. We'll try and close September strong and do better the rest of the way. 

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 12-15-1

Akron -2.5 Buffalo
Through a month of the 2023 regular season and most of non-conference play, it is clear there are three good teams in the MAC: Miami, Ohio, and Toledo. Everyone else is some level of trash. Both the Zips and Bulls fit that description. Buffalo is winless, having lost at home to an FCS team. Akron has a victory, but it came against an FCS team and was downright miraculous. This is a momentous occasion for Akron as it marks the first time the Zips have been favored against an FBS team since 2020 (they won that game in blowout fashion BTW). Normally, I would be hesitant to back a team in a role they are not accustomed to, but Akron has been nearing a breakthrough since MAC play started last season. The Zips finished 1-7 in conference play last season, but five of their seven losses came by a touchdown or less. That trend has continued thus far in the early going as the Zips lost tight games to Temple and Indiana. Neither the Owls nor the Hoosiers will be making an appearance in the College Football Playoff, but both are better than your average MAC team. And Buffalo is no average MAC team. The Bulls have been atrocious on defense this season, allowing nearly 45 points per game against a non-conference slate that featured just one Power Five opponent. Not only do the Bulls have one of the worst defenses in the country, they are also at a significant disadvantage at head coach. The Bulls are coached by Maurice Linguist, a young black man (which college football needs more of at this particular position), but he coaches like an old white man. In their loss to Fordham, the Bulls faced fourth and two from the Fordham 37 (in a game where the Bulls had already scored 37 points). Linguist trotted his admittedly good kicker out to try a 54-yard field goal and you can guess how that turned out. I think the struggling Akron offense will get right in this spot and Linguist will be one step closer to joining the unemployment line. 

Florida +1 Kentucky
Kentucky is 4-0 for the third consecutive season and just outside the latest AP poll. A victory against the Gators would likely move the Wildcats into the poll for the fourth consecutive season (the AP Poll from 2020 was weird, but the Wildcats were in it before their first game). The Wildcats have been impressive against their soft early slate, outscoring their first four opponents by a combined 90 points. The best victory amongst that quartet is either last week's road win against Vanderbilt or their home win against Akron. Which is to say, their schedule thus far has not been nearly as taxing as Florida's. The Gators lost to Utah in their opener and looked all kinds of undisciplined, but they have rebounded to win three in a row, including a home victory against Tennessee. After breaking a 31-game losing streak to the Gators in 2018, the Wildcats have won three of five in this series, with two of those victories coming in The Swamp. Of course, the flip side to that means the Wildcats have beaten Florida in Lexington just once (2021) since 1986. In their three recent victories, the Wildcats pulled outright upsets. They are in an unusual position, entering the game as favorites. I like to fade teams facing unusual circumstances. I think the Gators are a good play in this spot, especially with Billy Napier's success as a road underdog. During his time at Louisiana-Lafayette and Florida, Napier's teams are 11-4-1 ATS as a road underdog with six outright wins. Make it lucky number seven on Saturday. 

Houston +8.5 Texas Tech
Texas Tech came into the 2023 season riding a four-game winning streak to close 2022. Some fancied the Red Raiders as a darkhorse team in the Big 12. Their opener at Wyoming was tricky, especially with Pac-12 contender Oregon coming to Lubbock the next week. Texas Tech seemed to be clicking as they scored the first 17 points and looked to be on their way to a blowout victory. They would score just three more points in regulation as the offensively challenged Cowboys tied the score and won in overtime. Undaunted by the setback, Texas Tech battled Oregon to the bitter end before losing 38-30 on a late defensive score. They handled their business against Tarleton State of the FCS and opened Big 12 play against West Virginia last week with their goals of a Big 12 title still in front of them. Then quarterback Tyler Shough got hurt and the offense mustered just 13 points in a loss to the Mountaineers. At 1-3, the Red Raiders will have their work cut out for them to qualify for a bowl, much less match last year's win total. The Red Raiders are rightly favored at home against a mediocre at best Houston team. However, ten points is too much for a team that will probably struggle to score a lot of points the remainder of the season without Shough. In limited action against Tarleton State and West Virginia, his backup, Behren Morton has completed less than half his passes and averaged about four and a half yards per throw. If you are laying more than a touchdown, the team you are betting on probably needs to get to 30 points, and I don't see Texas Tech doing that. In addition, while Houston has performed poorly under Dana Holgorsen overall ATS, the one role they have excelled in has been a road underdog. In that spot, they are 8-4 ATS. These teams have played non-conference games each of the past two years (with Texas Tech winning both), but the spreads were much tighter (even and four points). This one should be less than a touchdown as well. 

Arkansas State +1 Massachusetts
Is Butch Jones about to save his job? More precisely, is a freshman quarterback going to help Butch Jones save his job? After offensive no-shows against Oklahoma and Memphis (three combined points) and passing struggles versus Stony Brook, Jones turned the quarterbacking duties over to freshman Jaylen Raynor. Raynor only aired it out six times against the Sea Wolves, but he passed for 78 yards and got the start for the Red Wolves in their conference opener against Southern Miss. Raynor was not efficient through the air against Southern Miss (completed slightly more than half his passes), but he hit big plays, averaging over eleven yards per throw. He also ran well, rushing for nearly 100 yards on 17 carries. The Red Wolves needed every bit of it since their defense allowed 37 points. The defense has been bad for the duration of Jones' tenure and things don't appear to be changing. If the Red Wolves are to compete for a bowl bid, they will have to outscore teams. Raynor should have another good game against a Massachusetts defense that has been carved up all season. The Minutemen held Eastern Michigan to 19 points (and yet still lost), but their other four FBS opponents have averaged 41 points per game against them. The Minutemen may also not be in a good place mentally after last week. They staged a second half rally to tie New Mexico and send the game to overtime, where they eventually lost thanks to a controversial pass interference call. Head coach Don Brown was so upset he got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The Minutemen have dropped four in a row after their road victory against New Mexico State in Week Zero. I think the Red Wolves make it five in a row on Saturday. 

Ole Miss +2.5 LSU
After last week's loss to Alabama, Ole Miss has now dropped eight in a row to the Crimson Tide after beating them in back to back years (2014 and 2015). The Rebels were held to 301 total yards and averaged under five yards per play for just the sixth time under Lane Kiffin (Alabama responsible for three of those occurrences). The good news for the Rebels is moving the ball should not be a problem this week against LSU. The Tigers had an average SEC defense last season, ranking sixth in yards allowed per play and early returns against good offenses do not portend much improvement. Florida State averaged nearly seven and a half yards per play against the Tigers (for comparison, the Seminoles averaged five and a half yards per play in their victory against Clemson) and Arkansas averaged more yards per play against the Tigers (6.26) than they did against Western Carolina, Kent State, or BYU. It took a virtuoso performance from Jayden Daniels for LSU to eke out the victory. Beginning with their penultimate drive of the first half, LSU scored on their final six possessions (two field goals and four touchdowns) and managed to beat Arkansas at home by three points. LSU has won five of their last nine trips to Oxford, but any time in recent history when the Rebels have fielded a quality team, they have managed to knock off the Tigers at home. The Tigers victories in Oxford post Nick Saban came in 2005, 2007, 2011, 2017, and 2019. LSU was national championship caliber in both 2011 and 2019, but in those five seasons, Ole Miss did not finish better than 6-6. The Rebels managed victories in 2009, 2013, 2015, and 2021. Their worst record in that quartet of years was 8-5. This a good Ole Miss team playing at home against a bad defense. Take the Lane Train to victory junction. 

Southern Miss +6 Texas State
Texas State is halfway toward qualifying for their first bowl game as an FBS team. The Bobcats finished bowl-eligible in 2013 and 2014 under Dennis Franchione but were not selected. With the glut of bowl games on the docket a decade later, that will probably not be a problem if Texas State gets to six wins in 2023. While the Bobcats are halfway home when it comes to getting to six wins, Southern Miss has yet to beat an FBS team and is riding a three-game skid after their season-opening victory over Alcorn State. On paper, Texas State appears to be the much stronger team, having outscored their first four opponents by about two touchdowns per game. Meanwhile, Southern Miss has been outscored by about the same margin through their first four games. However, this is where schedule strength needs to be taken into account. Texas State has beaten Baylor (who is probably not as good as we thought in the preseason), but their other games have come against an underachieving UTSA, Jackson State sans Deion, and Nevada (winless thus far in 2023). Meanwhile, Southern Miss has faced the previously mentioned Alcorn State, but also Florida State and Tulane. They did lose at Arkansas State last week, but the Seminoles and Green Wave are far better than any team Texas State has faced. Texas State has been a road favorite just one other time since Franchione left following the 2015 season. It came in 2020 against a Louisiana-Monroe team that finished winless. The Bobcats are much improved under GJ Kinne, but they should not be laying close to a touchdown on the road in conference play. 

TCU -12 West Virginia
On the surface, West Virginia appears to have turned a corner defensively. The Mountaineers allowed 33 points per game last season and after allowing 38 points to Penn State in their opener, have held their past three opponents to 36 total points. However, those three games all deserve a deeper dive. The Mountaineers allowed 17 points to Duquesne, an FCS team. For context, the Dukes have played another FBS opponent (Coastal Carolina) and scored seven points in that game. West Virginia allowed six points to their Backyard Brawl rival Pittsburgh. That total does represent the Panthers lowest output on the season, but Pittsburgh has been terribly disappointing offensively. Finally, the Mountaineers allowed 13 points to Texas Tech. However, the majority of that game came against a backup quarterback. The Mountaineers have improved defensively in 2023, but that improvement is not quite as profound as the raw numbers make it appear. While the defense has improved, the offense has averaged just 17 points per game against FBS competition. On the other sideline, TCU has gotten their act together since an opening loss to Colorado. I expected TCU to suffer a significant decline after their charmed run to the national title game last season. While they will likely drop another game or two, they will probably eclipse their preseason win total (7.5) much to my chagrin. Since losing to Colorado, TCU has not been challenged by Nicholls State or two decent to good FBS teams (Houston and SMU). In fact, if not for two redzone turnovers against Colorado, the Horned Frogs would probably be 4-0 and close to the top ten. West Virginia leads the series 6-5 since both teams joined the Big 12 in 2012 and the Mountaineers have actually won five of the past seven and are 3-2 in Fort Worth. However, most of those games came against the Gary Patterson version of the Horned Frogs. The team is under new management and Sonny Dykes is 13-6 as a home favorite at SMU and TCU and as long as this spread is below two touchdowns, the Frogs are the play.  

Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week IV

Last week we picked some favorites for the first time (four to be exact). And three of them lost outright. We'll try and get back on track this week. Home teams in bold. 

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 9-11-1

Tulsa +4 Northern Illinois
Alarm bells sounded in my head when I saw this line. I think the wrong team is favored here. First off, we have a MAC school (and one that lost to an FCS team) laying points against a team from the American. Granted, Tulsa will probably finish near the bottom of the American standings, but the point remains. In addition, the betting market is undervaluing Tulsa because they have been pounded the past two weeks. The Golden Hurricane have dropped games to Washington and Oklahoma by a combined 82 points. However, the Huskies and Sooners are both ranked in the top 20 of the most recent edition of the AP Poll and are both in the top eleven of ESPN's Football Power Index rating system. Unlie Tulsa, Northern Illinois has beaten a Power Five team this season. The Huskies knocked off Boston College in their opener. However, that Boston College team started Emmett Morehead at quarterback before switching to Thomas Castellanos. The infinitely more mobile Castellanos led the Eagles all the way back before they lost in overtime. Starting Morehead in that game may end up costing Jeff Hafley his job if the Eagles are not able to find six wins on their schedule and it is artificially inflating Northern Illinois in the betting market. Finally, the Huskies have been a poor investment as a home favorite. Under Thomas Hammock, they are 1-7 ATS in the role. These two teams faced off last season with Tulsa winning (and failing to cover) as about a touchdown favorite. This spread has moved roughly eleven points in the opposite direction in one year. Obviously roughly half of that is accounted for by the change in venue from Tulsa to DeKalb, but I'm shocked the Huskies are favored in this spot. Take the Golden Hurricane to easily cover and win outright. 

Rice -2.5 South Florida
It takes a lot of guts to back Rice as a road favorite. Head coach Mike Bloomgren is in his sixth season as the private school and the Owls are just 6-22 in true road games. However, those road numbers deserve some context. Six of those games have come against Power Five teams where the Owls were prohibitive underdogs. In road games against similar teams, the Owls have fared better, especially over the past three seasons. Since the start of 2020, the Owls are 4-7 in road conference games. They won't hang any banners for that performance, but it shows the Owls are much more competitive than they were at the beginning of Bloomgren's tenure. And while Rice has seen their share of struggles on the road, South Florida has struggled no matter the venue. Since the start of the 2020 season, the Bulls have beaten one FBS team. Give them credit for for going 4-0 against FCS foes in that span, but against even the bottom rung of FBS, the Bulls have failed to deliver. They have covered some big numbers at home, including last week against Alabama, but only one of their numerous home losses since 2020 would have covered this small number. You are getting Rice at a discount since South Florida was competitive against Alabama last week in a game the Bulls were extremely motivated for. Will we see the same focus after the Bulls shot their proverbial wad last week against the preeminent college football program of the past fifteen years? I have my doubts. Meanwhile Rice has a shot at getting to a bowl game (legitimately) this season. Including South Florida, there are five or six winnable games left on this slate. Rice has not finished with more than five regular season wins since 2014, but they'll be halfway to bowl eligibility after Saturday. 

Eastern Michigan +6.5 Jacksonville State
Last week, I faded Eastern Michigan as a home favorite, and what do you know, the Eagles needed a late comeback to beat Massachusetts. Now the Eagles are catching nearly a touchdown against a team playing its fourth game as an FBS team. While the Gamecocks are 2-1, their victories have come against UTEP and East Tennessee State. The Gamecocks scored 49 points against East Tennessee State, but they have managed just 33 total points in their two games against FBS competition. I expect the Gamecocks to slightly exceed that average against a below average Eastern Michigan defense, but the over/under in this game (currently 52.5) implies they will score about 29 points. I don't think they will get to that number. Plus Eastern Michigan has been a veritable ATM as a road underdog under Chris Creighton. The Eagles are 30-13-1 ATS in the role under Creighton, including 25-6 since 2016. And this is not a function of them covering massive spreads against Power Five opponents. No sir. The Eagles are 23-8-1 as a road underdog against Group of Five opponents (19-3 since 2016) with eleven outright wins. I think the Eagles make it an even dozen on Saturday. 

Sam Houston State +12 Houston
Is Houston bad? The Cougars edged UTSA in their opener, but have lost to Rice and TCU the past two weeks. In the Rice game, they needed to stage a furious rally to force overtime. Against a TCU team that allowed 45 points and 565 yards to Colorado in Fort Worth, the Cougars managed just 266 yards and 13 points in Houston. Their only touchdown came on a kickoff return. Its hard to cover double digits when you can't score. Of course, Sam Houston State has not exactly set scoreboards aflame in their first season as an FBS team. The Bearkats have covered each of their first two games at the FBS level despite scoring three total points. Off an early bye, I think they score their first touchdown in FBS play and put a scare into Houston. Under Dana Holgorsen, the Cougars have performed poorly as a home favorite, posting a 3-8 ATS record, including 1-6 ATS as a double digit home favorite. The hot seat under Holgorsen will get a little warmer on Saturday. 

Colorado State +3 Middle Tennessee State
Both these teams came close to knocking off unbeaten Power Five opponents. Middle Tennessee hung with Missouri two weeks ago, losing 23-19. Meanwhile, Colorado State allowed Colorado to march the length of the field and force overtime last week in a wild Pac-12 after dark affair. If you are playing amateur psychologist, you might think Colorado State will come out flat after losing to their in-state big brother. However, the last five times they fell to the Buffaloes, the Rams have won their next game, including 2018 when they upset Arkansas. After narrowly losing to Missouri, Middle Tennessee pounded Murray State last week. I think that victory and their close loss to the Tigers is artificially inflating the Blue Raiders. Colorado State has not had the chance to pad their numbers against an FCS opponent (they get that opportunity next week). Despite a few mistakes, the Rams seem to have found their quarterback. Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi has averaged over eight and a half yards per pass against two Power Five defenses. Why he didn't get the start against Washington State is anyone's guess. If Colorado State can avoid the bonehead penalties that doomed them against Colorado, they should leave Murfreesboro with their first win of the season. 

Arkansas +17.5 LSU
If these two teams played last week, I think this number would have been under two touchdowns. Consequently, I think there is some value on Arkansas. The Razorbacks lost at home to BYU despite outgaining the Cougars by nearly 150 yards and nearly a yard per play. The Cougars started three scoring drives on the Arkansas side of the field and added another touchdown drive of just 53 yards after a poor punt. Meanwhile, LSU dominated what may wind up being a very bad Mississippi State team. The Bulldogs are transitioning from the Air Raid and managed just over 200 total yards against LSU. You need only look back a few weeks to see that LSU's defense is probably not quite that elite. A good, but perhaps not great, Florida State team scored 45 points and averaged nearly seven and a half yards per snap against them. And lest we forget, LSU was a below average SEC defense in terms of yards per play last season. No team is as good as they look one week (LSU) or as bad as they look the next (Arkansas). I expect the Razorbacks to rebound and put up a good fight in this spot. Under Sam Pittman, they are 6-3 ATS as a road underdog, including 4-2 ATS as a double digit underdog. In addition, while Arkansas is just 1-2 versus LSU under Pittman, all three games have been decided by a field goal. I expect another close one on Saturday. 

Utah State +5.5 James Madison
I was on Utah State last week and the Aggies were run over by Air Force in a mostly non-competitive game. I think they are in a good spot this week though. James Madison is 3-0 (and 11-3 since joining FBS last season), but their last two victories have come by the skin of their teeth. The Dukes beat Virginia by a point two weeks ago, despite being outgained by the Cavaliers on a per play basis (6.48 to 5.98). They upset Troy by two last week despite being outgained by a similar margin (4.94 to 4.46). The Dukes did not turn the ball over in either game and made all their field goals, while the Cavaliers and Trojans each committed a turnover and the Trojans missed a field goal. Virginia is a Power Five team and Troy won the Sun Belt and finished ranked in the final AP Poll last season, so the Dukes value is a little inflated. This is also their third consecutive road game before they resume conference play against South Alabama next week. Utah State has been erratic under Blake Anderson, winning their first seven true road games while losing five of their first eight homes games. Even this season, the Aggies held their own against Iowa before crapping their pants against Air Force. This number is too high and James Madison is in a rough situational spot. I'll take Utah State and their high variance to keep this one close. 

Thursday, September 14, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week III

We had a decent showing last week, finally winning more than we lost and nearly evening our yearlong record. We'll try and do the same this week. I even managed to find a few favorites to throw on the card. As always, home teams in bold. 

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 6-7-1

Utah State +9 Air Force
Utah State followed up their surprising 2021 Mountain West title with a somewhat disappointing campaign. Despite eventually qualifying for a bowl, the Aggies began 2022 by losing four of their first five games, including a home blowout loss to an FCS team. The Aggies won five of seven down the stretch (beginning with a home upset of Air Force) to get to 6-6, but when factoring their bowl loss to Memphis into the equation, they were outscored by more than 100 total points last season. Consequently, not much was expected of them heading into 2023. However, through two games, the Aggies have overachieved. They covered as massive underdogs at Iowa, even outgaining the Hawkeyes in both total yards and yards per play. They then dominated Idaho State of the FCS one week after the Bengals played a tight game with San Diego State. I don't like to read too much into FCS blowouts, but Utah State scored 78 points last week; the first time they topped 70 since 2018. Coincidentally, the last time they scored at least 70 points, their next opponent was...Air Force. Speaking of the Falcons, while they are 2-0 and have allowed just ten points on the year, they did not look great in a defensive struggle with Sam Houston State last week. I don't expect another defense dominated game this week. The Mountain West began divisional play in 2013 and with the Aggies and Falcons both occupying the former Mountain Division (the conference scrapped divisions this year), they have played each of the past ten years. If we remove the two years when Gary Andersen returned (2019 and 2020), the Aggies have averaged nearly 37 points per game against the Falcons (topping 30 points six times) and have won five of eight. Utah State will score regularly in this game and I wouldn't be shocked if they leave Colorado Springs with an outright win. 

Indiana +10 Louisville (@ Indianapolis)
Jeff Brohm may have left Purdue, but he has not yet been able to escape his former rivals in Bloomington. During his Purdue tenure, Brohm enjoyed good success in the Old Oaken Bucket rivalry, winning four of five. The last two were not competitive, with the Boilermakers winning by 37 and 14 respectively, but the first three in the series were decided by a touchdown or less. Thanks to their schedule, Louisville was a sleeper team in the ACC heading into 2023. However, they needed a second half surge to put away Georgia Tech in the opener. The Yellow Jackets averaged nearly seven yards per play against the rebuilding Louisville defense, their most against a Power Five opponent in nearly two years. The Cardinals rebounded to put the clamps on Murray State last week, but I don't think the defensive issues are solved. Speaking of defense, Indiana may be able to offer something on that side of the ball. Head coach Tom Allen is a former defensive coordinator and after allowing over thirty points per game each of the past two seasons, the Hoosiers held Ohio State to 23 points in the opener. Ohio State was breaking in a new quarterback, but the receiving corp, headlined by Marvin Harrison Jr., was held in check by the Indiana secondary. This version of Indiana may not be good enough to get back to a bowl, but they can ugly up the game enough to cover some big spreads. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, teams coached by Brohm are much better as underdogs than as favorites. In the regular season, his teams are 21-11 ATS as underdogs and just 13-20 ATS as favorites, including 6-9 as a double digit favorite. Take the Hooisers to keep this one close against their old rival. 

Iowa State -3 Ohio
I think the betting public is a little too down on Iowa State after their tumultuous summer. I think the Cyclones have exceeded expectations somewhat through their first two games. They dispatched Northern Iowa with ease in the opener, which is something previous iterations of this team have not always done. And they lost a defense struggle to Iowa. The Cyclones are 1-6 against Iowa under Matt Campbell, including 0-4 in Ames. Now they are the smallest of favorites on the road against a MAC team in what should be another low-scoring affair. Ohio has put together three solid defensive showings thus far, holding each of their first three opponents to twenty points or less. However, those teams are the habitually low-scoring San Diego State Aztecs, Long Island of the FCS, and Florida Atlantic. Despite the strong defensive performance, the formerly prolific Bobcat offense has sputtered, even with the return of Kurtis Rourke last week. Ohio managed just seventeen points against the Owls and averaged under five yards per play. I don't think their offense will get in gear against an Iowa State defense that held them to ten points last year and has allowed just two offensive touchdowns through two games. Under Matt Campbell, Iowa State is 6-1 against Group of Five opponents (5-2 ATS) with their lone loss coming to Louisiana-Lafayette at the beginning of the Covid season. Their five victories have all come by at least thirteen points and two of those victories came on the road. You are getting Iowa State at a solid discount. This spread should be closer to a touchdown and I think Iowa State wins this game handily (two touchdowns or more) a decent percentage of time. 

Massachusetts +7.5 Eastern Michigan
In the offseason, I paid homage to Chris Creighton and his success at Eastern Michigan. Creighton has turned the formerly moribund program into a consistent bowl participant in the MAC. He has also beaten his share of Power Five opponents and been great as an underdog. However, one thing he has not done is cover as a favorite. The splits are uncanny. In regular season games as an underdog under Creighton, the Eagles are 41-23-2 ATS (33-10-1 since 2016) with twenty two outright wins. As a favorite in the regular season, the Eagles are 10-16 ATS with eleven outright losses. The Eagles have been particularly bad as a home favorite, going just 5-12 ATS under Creighton with eight outright losses. Their opponent in this game has been a perfect barometer for Eastern Michigan's failure as a favorite. They have faced off each of the past two seasons, with Eastern Michigan being heavily favored in both. They Eagles won each game, but did not cover in either. History seems to be repeating itself in 2023, with the only difference being this Eastern Michigan team might actually be bad. The Eagles needed two kickoff return touchdowns to hold off Howard in their opener and averaged under five yards per play against the Bison. Then, despite their previous bona fides against Power Five teams, the Eagles did not put up much of a fight against Minnesota last week. The Eagles covered, but were never in position to win or put a scare into the Golden Gophers. I expect the Eagles to have their best offensive performance of the season against the porous Massachusetts defense, but the Minutemen have shown enough of a pulse on offense to keep this game within the number. 

Louisiana Tech -4.5 North Texas
I try not to jump to conclusions after one game, but I did last week. I was effusive in my praise of Cal after they dropped 58 points on North Texas in their opener. I expected them to move the ball and upset Auburn last week. The Bears covered, but they scored ten points. After allowing 58 points to Cal, North Texas continued to sully the name of Mean Joe Greene by allowing 46 points to Florida International. The 58 points Cal scored marked their high water mark under Justin Wilcox and the 46 points Florida International scored marked their highest point total in the short tenure of Mike MacIntyre. For reference, Louisiana Tech has topped out at 52 points under Sonny Cumbie. Can the Bulldogs get close to that number? I think so. As I mentioned a few lines up, Florida International scored 46 points against North Texas. They did that one week after scoring 14 points against Maine! Louisiana Tech does not play much defense, so I expect a high scoring affair (the over/under is currently at a nice 69), but a few stops are all they should need to cover this number against one of the worst defenses in FBS. 

New Mexico -1.5 New Mexico State
I don't want to put too much pressure on Danny Gonzales, and truth be told, I doubt my readership can turn the heat up on the New Mexico football boosters, but Gonzales probably needs to win this game to keep his job. Two games into his fourth season in Albuquerque, the Lobos are 8-25, with three of those victories coming against FCS opponents. His offenses have been among the worst in college football, averaging under two touchdowns per game in both 2021 and 2022. However, his hire of Bryant Vincent (UAB interim coach) as his offensive coordinator and the subsequent transfer of Dylan Hopkins from the Blazers might be enough to keep him employed. It was just an FCS team, but the Lobos scored 56 points against Tennessee Tech last week. It was their most in a game under Gonzales and if the offense can move from atrocious to slightly below average, there are wins to be had on this schedule. New Mexico State, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Nevada, and UNLV populate the remaining schedule. While it may not be feasible for the Lobos to sweep that quintet and get to a bowl, winning four or five games may earn Gonzales another year on the job. Based on early returns, I think the Lobos are the better team, so playing at home, with a spread under a field goal, they are the play. 

Arizona -18 UTEP
Arizona opens Pac-12 play next week with a road trip to Stanford, so there is a potential danger of them looking past UTEP. However, the Wildcats have not posted a winning season since 2017, so I think they will be ready to take care of am overmatched foe at home. Arizona wide receiver, and former UTEP star, Jacob Cowing has yet to really break out in 2023, catching ten balls for just 69 yards through two games. Cowing averaged over twelve yards per reception last season for Arizona and nearly twenty yards per reception for the Miners in 2021. Despite Cowing's disappointing numbers and quarterback Jayden De Laura's inconsistent play, the Wildcats have acquitted themselves well in the early going. They dominated Northern Arizona in the opener (a team that beat them in 2021) and went to overtime against an SEC team on the road despite losing the turnover margin by four. While I was high on UTEP in the offseason, they have not been very good through a quarter of their 2023 campaign. They beat a good FCS team at home, but on the road they have managed fourteen and seven points against a team playing their first game as an FBS program and the worst team in the Big 10. How many points are they scoring in Tucson on Saturday night? If they get to seventeen, which I think may be overly optimistic, can they hold Arizona under 35? Maybe De Laura has another big turnover game and keeps the Miners close, but I think he got that out of his system last week (at least for a few games) and the Wildcats will roll in this spot. 

Thursday, September 07, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Week II

We made some bad picks last week. But we also had some bad luck. If James Franklin had taken a knee like any sensible college football coach, we would have opened with a perfectly mediocre 3-3-1 record. Alas, he punched it in with five second left and we started off 2023 in the hole at 2-4-1. Alas, there are twelve more weeks or so to dig out of this hole. Let's get going. As always, home teams in bold. 

Last Week: 2-4-1
Overall: 2-4-1

NC State +7.5 Notre Dame
Notre Dame has been clinically efficient in their first two games, blasting Navy and Tennessee State by a combined score of 98-6. Now they face their first real test in Raleigh against a team they have a losing all-time record against (in just three games). The last time Notre Dame traveled to Raleigh, the elements played a pivotal role in the outcome with NC State slogging through a 10-3 victory. Brian Kelly infamously called for 26 passes in less than ideal conditions with those passes netting 54 total yards (excluding sacks). My bold prediction is that more than thirteen combined points will be scored this time. Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman has played three games against NC State as a member of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Hartman and the Deacons lost both games in Raleigh by small margins and won the one game in Winston-Salem in a similarly tight affair. Hartman is familiar with the NC State defense coordinated by Tony Gibson and the Wolfpack are familiar with Hartman, albeit in a completely different offense. However, despite the assumption that Notre Dame has more skill position talent than Wake Forest, I would make the argument Hartman may have downgraded at wide receiver by transferring to South Bend. The offensive line may be stronger in South Bend, but A.T. Perry and Jaquarii Roberson were special talents on the outside. I think NC State is a little undervalued after their workman like road victory against Connecticut. Sure you would like to see the offense do more against a Group of Five opponent, but the Wolfpack were never in danger of losing that game. I expect another close game between Hartman and NC State with the final margin falling within a touchdown either way. 

Northwestern +1.5 UTEP
I have to take this one out of principle. I refuse to accept that UTEP can be favored on the road against a Power Five team. Consider this: UTEP has won five road games since Dana Dimel arrived in El Paso in 2018. Those five teams (Charlotte, Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, Southern Miss, and Rice) all lost at least nine games in the season UTEP defeated them. The quintet finished with a cumulative record of 10-49. The Miners did not do much better away from the west Texas town of El Paso under his predecessor Sean Kugler. During Kugler's tenure (2013-2017), the Miners also won five road games. The Miners did beat one quality opponent on the road (UTSA in 2016), but the other four were trash. Their combined record was 16-45. Northwestern is likely to finish with double digit losses, but the bottom of the Power Five is simply built different from the bottom of the Group of Five. If this game were in late November, Northwestern may have checked out on the season and I would be wary of backing them. But the season is young, and this is Northwestern's best shot at a victory until Howard comes to town the first Saturday in October. Remember, two weeks ago, UTEP lost to a team playing its first game as an FBS program. It won't be pretty, but Northwestern will win their first game on American soil in nearly two years. 

Appalachian State +18 North Carolina
North Carolina's defense was pretty bad last season, allowing nearly 31 points per game. Over the course of fourteen games last season, the team accumulated just 17 sacks and 51 tackles for loss. In their opener against South Carolina, the Tar Heels netted nine total sacks and sixteen tackles for loss. I don't want to overreact to one data point, but North Carolina may have the most prolific pass rush in college football history! Or at least that is what you might think after seeing this point spread. Yes, North Carolina looked quite impressive in their opener. Yes, Appalachian State struggled for three quarters of their tune up against Gardner-Webb. Yes, North Carolina is playing at home. But I think they are in a prime letdown/sandwich spot. Off that easier than expected victory against South Carolina, the Tar Heels host Minnesota next week. All that stands between them and a 2-0 start to the season is the plucky underdog from Boone. I guarantee the Mountaineers are motivated for this game against the premiere institution in the state. The Mountaineers have also performed quite well as a road underdog against Power Five opponents since joining FBS. They are just 3-6 straight up, but 6-3 ATS having covered their past five games (winning two outright). Appalachian State will be able to protect their quarterback and score enough to stay within this number. 

Boise State +3.5 Central Florida
There is nothing I like better than grabbing a team out of the trash. And Boise State fits that description perfectly. After a solid opening stanza against Washington, the Broncos were decimated by Michael Penix and the Huskie passing attack. Penix threw for 450 yards and five touchdowns as Washington dropped 56 on the Broncos. In an eerie bit of symmetry, Central Florida also scored 56 points albeit against a woeful Kent State team. Playing their first game as a member of the Big 12, the Knights topped 300 yards on the ground and through the air against the Golden Flashes. It was an impressive exhibition, but the difficulty ratchets up significantly as the Knights head west to take on the Broncos. The Knights have not fared well as a favorite since Gus Malzahn replaced Josh Heupel as head coach, posting an 8-11 ATS record in the role with five outright losses. These teams could not have looked more different in the opener, but Boise was facing a fringe top ten team on the road, while Central Florida was a facing one of the five worst teams in FBS at home. Boise State has been a home underdog just four previous times this century. They are just 1-3 ATS in that limited sample, but every team that was favored on the Smurf Turf was either ranked at the time (BYU number nine in 2020, Fresno State number 16 in 2018, Boston College number 19 in 2005) or headed for a top ten finish (Washington State in 2001). Central Florida is poised to have the best debut of the four new Big 12 members, but I don't foresee a ranked finish in their future. Take the Broncos to get back on track. 

Temple +9 Rutgers
Thirty years ago, these teams were bottom dwellers in the Big East. The Big East began playing a true full conference schedule in 1993 and neither the Owls nor the Scarlet Knights posted a winning conference record for more than a decade. Temple was infamously booted from the league after the 2004 season. The Owls bounced around as an Independent before joining the MAC and later returning to the Big East before that league became the AAC. Meanwhile, Rutgers finally posted a winning season in 2005 under Greg Schiano, their current coach. Schiano took the program to great (relative) heights before leaving for the NFL. The team floundered after his departure which also coincided with their move to a stronger conference. Rutgers brought him back in 2020 and his second act has not exactly been Bill Snyder-esque. Rutgers is just 13-22, although they did play in a bowl game, thanks to the cowards at Texas A&M. Offense has been a real problem for Rutgers, particularly post-Covid. Since the start of the 2021 season, Rutgers has averaged less than 20 points per game. In that span, they have played 25 games against FBS opponents and been held below twenty points, seventeen times. Logically, if a team has trouble scoring, they might have trouble covering a big number. I think that will be the case in this spot. Temple quietly improved over the course of Stan Drayton's first season. The Owls were underdogs against every FBS opponent they played last season, but managed a solid 7-4 ATS mark as an underdog, including a blistering 5-1 down the stretch. Rutgers put up less than 300 total yards in their opener against a team that I'll remind you is a home underdog to UTEP! Take the Owls to keep this one close and potentially eke out their second win of the year. 

Cal +6.5 Auburn
This classic rivalry between ACC and SEC schools is being played for the...checks notes...first time ever? Auburn is making a rare visit to the west coast as this is their first road game in California since they opened the 2002 season against Pete Carroll's first great Trojan team. Both the Bears and Tigers looked especially strong in their openers. As expected, Auburn dominated the Minutemen from Massachusetts, while Cal scored a surprisingly easy road win against a trendy underdog in North Texas. Cal scored 58 points against the Mean Green, their most in a game under head coach Justin Wilcox. The Bears are just 10-18 over the past three seasons and the preseason prognosticators did not foresee much improvement in 2023. While the betting markets expected Cal to beat North Texas, I think even casual college football fans were shocked by how it went down. Cal has been a defense first team under Wilcox, so a tight 20-14 or 24-21 victory would have been more in line with expectations. I don't think Cal will lead the nation in scoring this season, but that result, even against a team that may end up with a pretty poor record, is cause for mild optimism. Can the Bears keep it going as a home underdog? I think so. Cal is 10-4 ATS as a home underdog under Wilcox with six outright victories. Meanwhile, Hugh Freeze is just 13-16 ATS as a road favorite at Arkansas State, Ole Miss, and Liberty. SEC teams rarely travel out west and I think that is not properly accounted for in the betting line. Take the Bears to put a scare into the Tigers. 

Stanford +29.5 Southern Cal
To contextualize how low preseason expectations were for Stanford, consider their win total. When I was in Las Vegas in July, I found a 2.5 number at a few books. The Cardinal had both Hawaii (a rebuilding Group of Five team) and Sacramento State (an FCS power and former employer of their current head coach). If the Cardinal won both those games (and assuming they lost to Notre Dame), they would need to finish winless in the Pac-12 to go under that win total. Colorado was perhaps the worst Power Five team last season (Northwestern was also in consideration) and the Buffaloes managed to win a Pac-12 game. Most of the podcasts I listened to in the offseason seemed to agree Stanford was in for a rough season. And they may still be (look at this spread after all). However, I watched most of their opener against Hawaii and saw a few bright spots. Tight end Benjamin Yurosek gained over 100 yards and seemed ready to follow in the solid tight end lineage Stanford has produced in the past decade or so (Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, Austin Hooper, Colby Parkinson, and Dalton Schultz to name a few). At worst, Stanford seems like they will be able to move the ball better than they have the past two seasons, when they have averaged right around 21 points per game. They will need to do so against a Southern Cal team that has put up 122 points in their first two games. The Trojans could certainly get to 60 against a rebuilding Stanford team, but Southern Cal has not proven they have taken another step forward on defense. San Jose State put up four touchdowns on them in The Coliseum before having the life squeezed out of their offense by Oregon State. I don't think Southern Cal will be able to get enough stops to win by four touchdowns. Plus, if you look at the series history, Stanford has played well in this role. Since 2004, the Cardinal have been double digit underdogs to Southern Cal seven times. They are an amazing 3-4 straight up in those games and 6-1 ATS! They are also 5-4 straight up on the road and 6-3 ATS in the recent history of this series. Stanford won't threaten to win this game, but this is way too many points.