Thor Nystrom

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Week 4 ATS Predictions

Thursday, September 21, 2017


 

 

 

 


Boise State -13 vs. Virginia (Friday)

 

Straight Up:  
 

Against the Spread:


 

Whenever we see a spot that combines line value with a specific matchup advantage, we’re going to invest. That’s what we’re seeing here, with an overvalued looking-forward-to-conference-play Boise State hosting an undervalued every-win-matters Virginia.

 

This isn’t the same Cavaliers team that went 2-10 last year. This version, which has already matched last season’s win total (2-1), has solid quarterback play (Kurt Benkert), a tremendous receiving trio (Olamide Zaccheaus, Doni Dowling and Andre Levrone) and an improving defense. Benkert has 976 yards and a 7/1 TD/INT ratio through three games. He trades explosion (6.73 YPA) for efficiency (66.2-percent completions).

 

The installation of Bronco Mendenhall’s 3-3-5 defense won’t truly be complete for another few years, when it's stocked with his recruits, but we’re starting to see early signs of progression. For one, the Cavaliers haven’t yet allowed an opposing running back to reach 55 rushing yards.

 

The pass defense isn’t quite there yet, and Virginia has given up a few too many rushing yards to dual-threat quarterbacks who get out of the pocket, but the Cavs should be able to slow run-oriented offenses with pocket-passing quarterbacks. You know, like Boise, a team that still hasn’t managed to get RB Alexander Mattison (52 ypg) going.

 

Backup dual-threat QB Montell Cozart and star WR Cedrick Wilson have been Boise’s only real sources of offense this fall. It seems that starting BSU QB Brett Rypien will return on Friday. Not only would that remove Cozart—who has outplayed Rypien so far—from the lineup, but it would deprive Boise of the kind of dual-threat quarterback that has given Virginia trouble.

 

Outside of Wilson, no Boise receiver has even nine catches. UVA HC Bronco Mendenhall and crew should be able to mitigate Wilson’s impact by shading coverage his way. If Virginia's front takes care of Mattison, and Virginia’s passing game stays efficient, the Cavs will be able to stay within the number with an outside chance of springing the upset.

 


Michigan -10 at Purdue

 

Straight Up:  
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

We’re returning to the well on Purdue one week after going pundit and declaring that Purdue +7 at Missouri was our “game of the season so far.” We’re not nearly as confident this time around, but Michigan’s offensive struggles combined with Purdue’s resurgence in all facets of the game is enough for us to grab the points with a live home 'dog.

 

On SB Nation earlier this week, Bill Connelly discussed Michigan’s early-season offensive issues. Per Connelly’s S&P+, Michigan’s offense ranks No. 108 in success rate (No. 98 rushing, No. 99 passing, No. 114 on standard downs) and No. 118 in points per scoring opportunity. Connelly also offered this gem of a stat as an example of Michigan’s early-down futility: 211 of Michigan’s 464 yards on 88 first down snaps this year have come on just five plays. And on first downs in the red zone, the Wolverines are averaging an ugly 1.1 yards per play.

 

This wasn’t the Wolverines offense we thought we’d see. We thought we’d see a successful rushing attack on early downs to put limited QB Wilton Speight and his young receiving corps in third-and-manageable situations. Instead, the Wolverines have struggled on running downs and bailed themselves out with explosive plays.

 

We wonder how much longer that formula will work now that one of the team’s most relied upon big-play threats, WR Tarik Black, is out with a foot injury. Not only is Black down, but RB Ty Isaac (7.1 YPC) is banged up (but expected to play).

 

If Isaac isn’t 100-percent, and if the first-down issues continue, it’ll put even more pressure on Speight and his Black-less receiving corps to make big plays in obvious passing situations.

 

This is the kind of acute issue that will lead to an upset loss if it isn’t rectified. Well-coached underdogs can leverage Michigan’s predictable offense into the type third-and-long scenarios that Speight can’t sustainably excel in.

 

Purdue and whiz HC Jeff Brohm look like a bad matchup for Michigan on that front. The Boilermakers rank No. 18 in S&P+ Def. rushing success rate and No. 7 in power success rate against. Purdue’s defense isn’t nearly as good against the pass—they rank No. 93 S&P+ in pass defense—but that issue isn’t likely to burn them in this one.

 

Purdue lost by only a touchdown to Louisville in the opener before they blasted Ohio and Missouri. They should be able to keep this one within single digits. And if the Boilermakers don’t have a hangover from last week’s triumphant blowout win on the road over an SEC team, they may have a chance to spring another upset.

 

 

Texas A&M -2.5 vs. Arkansas (in Arlington, Texas)


Straight Up:  

Against the Spread:


 

 

As you’ll hear plenty on Saturday, Hogs HC Bret Bielema has yet to beat Texas A&M. He’s 0-4 against the Aggies since taking over at Arkansas. In many ways, those losses made sense: the Hogs were underdogs each time.

 

What makes less sense is how Arkansas is the underdog again on Saturday.

 

This A&M team could be on the precipice of a precipitous tumble, the type of calamitous fall that would lead to HC Kevin Sumlin’s ouster. Three games in, and we’re unsure if A&M is even decent. The Aggies gagged away a 44-10 lead against UCLA in the opener, struggled mightily with FCS Nicholls a week later and faced a halftime deficit against UL-Lafayette last week.

 

A&M will start true freshman QB Kellen Mond again. They don’t have much choice with Nick Starkel out for the season and Jake Hubenak dinged up. Mond is one of a school-record 18 true freshman that have already played for the Aggies this year. A&M fans don’t want to hear this, but it’s the truth: This is a rebuilding year in College Station. It was at the outset, and it’s become decidedly more so as the season has begun to take shape.

 

The Razorbacks have taken quickly to DC Paul Rhoades’ 3-4 system. The Hogs are allowing only 4.03 yards per play and 3.8 YPC on the ground. Increased speed in the front seven will help combat the dual-threat Mond. And Arkansas’ ability to vary defensive looks could confuse the youngster into mistakes.

 

Arkansas has been and will be without No. 1 CB Ryan Pulley for the remainder of the year, not ideal when facing possible future first-round WR Christian Kirk. Even so, we remain skeptical about Mond's ability to consistently move the ball through the air against a solid defense. Arkansas’ defense acquitted itself pretty well in Saturday’s 28-7 loss to TCU—a game that was a lot closer than the final score—and has an easier assignment this time around.

 

We expect QB Austin Allen to bounce back from his lousy performance against TCU. All he’ll need to do here is play efficiently and avoid mistakes, because the combination of a healthy dose of RB Devwah Whaley and Arkansas’ defense against A&M’s inexperienced offense should set the tone in the Hogs’ favor early.

 

*Note: On Thursday, Whaley refuted a rumor that he suffered a broken jaw in a fight with a teammate and wouldn't travel to Saturday's game. Whaley's tweet read: "I appreciate everyone's concerns. I'm set to travel with my teammates and take on Texas A&M in my home state." SEC Country reported that sources close to the team said a fight did indeed happen. If Whaley is ruled out, this game becomes a stay-away for us.


Penn State -13.5 at Iowa


Straight Up:  
 

Against the Spread:


 

Iowa is 11-4 in the regular season since the beginning of last year. Of those four losses, three were by single-digits. Only one team beat them by a margin that would cover this number. That team was Penn State, which annihilated the Hawkeyes 41-17 in State College last November.

 

We don’t need the Hawkeyes to exact revenge. We just need them to do Iowa things: Ugly the game up, keep the score lower than expected and give themselves a chance to pull it out late in the fourth quarter.

 

They should be up to the challenge, in part because they’ll be aided by a raucous atmosphere Saturday night in Kinnick Stadium. Disclaimer: your author went to graduate school at Iowa and had Hawkeye season tickets all three years he was on campus.

 

The best term to describe Saturday’s at Kinnick, we think, is respectful debauchery. For 11 AM kickoffs, students begin tailgating around 7 AM. For night kicks, tailgates will begin in the noon-1 window. Penn State will change in a locker room painted pink, and then they’ll emerge into a nuthouse coated in black.

 

Kirk Ferentz and crew are stubborn on a big scale schematically, but they’ve always been astute with adjustments. The Nittany Lions ambushed them last fall with Joe Moorhead’s RPO-centric offense last fall (click the link for Bruce Feldman's entertaining oral history of how Moorhead hatched PSU's offense four years ago at Fordham). Iowa won’t be caught off guard this time around.

 

The Hawkeyes boast the No. 15 S&P+ defense in the nation. Assuming they learned their lesson from last season defensively, underrated QB Nate Stanley and star RB Akrum Wadley should do enough to keep the score close. This is another potential upset in a weekend that could be rife with them.

 


Oklahoma State -13.5 vs. TCU

 

Straight Up:  
 

Against the Spread:


 

We’re getting some nice line value here because Oklahoma State has blown the doors off Tulsa, South Alabama and Pitt in averaging over 54 points per game. Despite those performances, our opinion of the Cowboys hasn’t changed from the preseason.

 

We see a highly entertaining 10-2 team that will fall short of the Playoffs because of a mediocre defense. That defense hasn’t been put to a real test yet, because OSU has raced out to leads so quickly that opposing offenses were forced to abandon pre-game plans in deference to trying to pick up chunk yardage through the air.

 

You could make the argument that TCU’s 3-0 record is more impressive than Oklahoma State’s 3-0 mark. The Cowboys' two best victories were against 1-2 Pitt and 1-2 Tulsa. Both of those teams will make a bowl, but both will be on the lower end of the spectrum of those that do. The Frogs, meanwhile, beat Arkansas, a team clearly superior to Pitt, 28-7, and last week, TCU blasted 2-1 SMU, a better team than Tulsa, by 20 points.

 

Oklahoma State’s offense gets all the acclaim heading in, but TCU’s defense will be the story on Saturday if the Frogs are able to stage the upset. The Frogs have held opponents to less than 50-percent passing so far.

 

TCU’s offense isn’t nearly as explosive as Oklahoma State’s, though it fits the bill for what we’re looking for in a team capable of upsetting OSU. The Frogs, having reigned in the Artist Formerly Known as Kenny Trill, are completing almost 75 percent of their pass attempts. Hill is averaging a solid 8.7 yards per pass attempt.

 

Oddly, nobody is talking about TCU’s offense. Against a more difficult schedule, it has put up a 49.0 ppg scoring average, within five points of OSU’s output. We see TCU’s defense playing well enough that OSU can’t race out to an early lead and dictate terms starting in the first half.

 

We also see TCU's offense consistently moving the ball on an OSU defense that won’t just be able to tee off in the pass rush. We’ve yet to see how OSU’s defense responds to playing in a close game against a quality opponent. We think we’ll find out on Saturday. This will be a close game decided late in the fourth quarter.

 

 

LSU -21.5 vs. Syracuse


Straight Up:  
 

Against the Spread:


 

LSU will be without star RB Derrius Guice. Not only that, but their defensive front is all kinds of banged up. The passing game looks toothless, and HC Ed Orgeron indicated that the team wants to get true freshman QB Myles Brennan on the field in the coming weeks. If QB Danny Etling struggles again, don’t be surprised if you see the youngster enter in relief.

 

It’s not just Guice’s injury or the quarterback situation that has this offense at a crossroads. The Tigers are also considering a radical change on offense. Orgeron hinted earlier this week that LSU's hurry-up offense will slow down: "Think you're going to see a slower offense if we need it."

 

And we haven’t even mentioned yet that the Tigers must quickly shake off last week’s brutal, physical beat-down by Mississippi State’s hands. LSU isn’t interested in blowing Syracuse out. Style points are unnecessary for a team that squandered its Playoff chances last week.

 

No, this is a team that will gladly take a quick, boring 10-point win. You’ll recall that two years ago, Leonard Fournette and crew went to Syracuse and escaped by that exact margin in a 34-24 win. Syracuse has its share of problems—the running game stinks and the defense remains poor—but it can put points on the board in a hurry through the air.

 

Whether the Orange put a scare into the Tigers and make this a game into the fourth quarter, or whether they get physically dominated by LSU early but have a chance for a late backdoor cover, we want those points.

 

 

Houston -6 vs. Texas Tech


Straight Up:  

Against the Spread:


 

Just staying true to our pre-season reads of these teams. Tech is averaging 54.0 points per game through two games. That number figures to drop against Houston’s vicious defensive front, which will penetrate enough on its own to allow the Cougs to drop extra defenders into coverage.

 

Tech’s defense remains poor. In last week’s 52-45 win over a mediocre Arizona State team, the Red Raiders allowed eight more points to the Sun Devils than New Mexico State did in the opener. Houston QB Kyle Allen should have his coming out party against that rag-tag unit.

 

 

Central Michigan -1 vs. Miami (OH)

 

Straight Up:  

Against the Spread:


 

The RedHawks stagger in off a heartbreaking 21-17 home loss to archrival Cincinnati in the 122nd “Battle for the Victory Bell.” Miami HC Chuck Martin described it as an “excruciating defeat” earlier this week.

 

During Monday’s presser, Martin went on to explain that his players had four choices for how to perceive the loss. The first three: They could decide not to care, they could blame each other, or they could assume a victim mentality of “woe is me.”

 

The fourth choice? Let it sting like hell: “This isn’t going to leave us for a long time,” Martin said. “You’ve got to care. It’s got to hurt. It’s got to hurt bad. This is where it comes down to who you are and what you believe in.”

 

Against Cincy, Miami was without leader rusher Alonzo Smith. Star WR James Gardner was so limited by an undisclosed injury that he didn’t record a single catch. Then, backup RB Maurice Thomas was pulled from the game with his own undisclosed injury.

 

Martin referred to the Cincinnati game as having “half the football team down.” Since he’s tight-lipped about injuries, we’re a little in the dark about the status of his injured players this week.

 

But the obvious question becomes: Does this sound like the physical or psychological state of a team prepared to bounce back on the road against another tough conference foe?

 

Central Michigan, which got ambushed 37-17 by the RedHawks in Oxford last season, is in a prime position to exact revenge.

 

 

Tulsa -10 vs. New Mexico

 

Straight Up:
 

Against the Spread:


 

It gives us a little anxiety to lay 10 points with Tulsa’s putrid run defense against a triple-option team. But if you’re going to do it, this is the situation to do it in.

 

If the Lobos were starting QB Lamar Jordan, this would be a classic stay-away. But Jordan is out after he suffered a concussion on that brutal (and dirty) shot against Boise State last week. Unfortunately for New Mexico, No. 2 QB Tevaka Tuioti is also out with a concussion, leaving No. 3 QB Coltin Gerhart, an Arizona State transfer and Toby's brother, as the only healthy option under center. Things are so bad for New Mexico that HC Bob Davie held an impromptu tryout at Tuesday’s practice to try and find a backup quarterback in case Gerhart goes down on Saturday.

 

While the Golden Hurricanes stink on defense, they are at least well-acquainted with the option due to sharing a conference with Navy (who they play next week) and Tulane (who they play later this season).

 

Like New Mexico, Tulsa is 1-2. But Tulsa's record is a little misleading because the team was a heavy underdog in road tilts at Oklahoma State and Toledo. Tulsa almost pulled off the upset of Toledo, falling 54-51. New Mexico, on the other hand, lost to a bad New Mexico State team in Week 2 and then were trailing 28-7 against Boise State backup QB Montell Cozart before a late touchdown last week.

 

New Mexico’s defense ranks No. 127 in S&P+. Tulsa is averaging 47.0 points per game. If New Mexico is down by double-digits in the second half, it'll force their third-string quarterback to try to move this option-running offense through the air.

 

 

Wyoming -6 vs. Hawaii

 

Straight Up:
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

To be clear, this is a bet on the spot. Not on the Cowboys, who’ve done nothing to evoke confidence. But boy oh boy is this a juicy spot.

 

It’s difficult to play in Laramie as a general rule. The city is hard to get to, it’s in the middle of nowhere and it sits 7,220 feet above sea level. It’s also difficult for Hawaii to consistently win on the road, for obvious reasons. Every trip away from the Islands brings with it a little jet lag. Saturday, Wyoming’s built-in advantage will amplify, as will Hawaii’s built-in disadvantage. The temperature calls for rain and 40-degree weather.

 

The Rainbow Warriors needed a last-second touchdown to beat a bad UMass team on the road in the opener (38-35). Whatever you think of Wyoming, they’re superior to UMass and they have a far better home-field advantage.

 

QB Josh Allen has been taking his lumps this week in the media and on Twitter. He’s been dreadful so far (2/3 TD/INT rate, 56.3-percent completions and 5.3 yards per attempt). To be fair, Allen has faced two strong 3-0 Power 5 teams (Iowa and Oregon) through three games. He’s also had to make due without any rushing threat whatsoever (Milo Hall leads the team with 76 rushing yards) while breaking in brand-new receivers. The book is far from closed on him.

 

Hawaii is just what the doctor ordered for Wyoming’s struggling offense. The Warriors rank No. 124 out of 130 FBS teams in S&P+ defense. The pass defense has been a particular problem. Now, Hawaii’s secondary is tasked with slowing an NFL-caliber quarterback while playing in altitude on the road in poor weather conditions.

 

Allen is going to light them up. Cowboys by double-digits.

 

 

Two for the road:

 

Arizona +3 at Utah (Friday)


Mississippi State +6 at Georgia

 

 

****

 

 

2017 Record: Straight-Up: 26-13 (66.7%); Against the Spread: 19-19-1 (50.0%)

  

2014-2016: Straight-Up: 350-197 (64.0%); Against the Spread: 286-250-11 (53.4%)

 



Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
Email :Thor Nystrom



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