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.