Thor Nystrom

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Week 8 CFB ATS Predictions

Thursday, October 19, 2017


Houston -3 vs. Memphis (Thursday)

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

Last week, we pointed out that Houston’s defensive profile was fluky because it was allowing copious amounts of yards but not giving up many points. And then Tulsa went and hung 45 points on them in an embarrassing upset loss.

 

The jig is up on that unit, and it could be in for another long day with Memphis' powerful offense riding into town on Thursday night. The Tigers grade out No. 22 in offensive S&P+ and rank No. 13 in the FBS with 40.3 points per game scored.

 

Memphis’ defense remains poor (No. 105 S&P+), but Houston’s limited offense isn’t really in a position to torch it. The Cougars haven’t been effective running the ball (No. 112 S&P+) nor throwing it (No. 106 S&P+) this fall.

 

Memphis has a top-15 explosive offense, according to S&P+. If Houston can’t prevent big plays on Thursday, it can’t win, because it can’t generate big plays of its own (No. 108 in offensive explosion, per S&P+). The 5-1 Tigers already have two wins over teams in Houston’s neighborhood (UCLA and Navy), and we expect them to improve to 6-1 as WR Anthony Miller has a huge game.

 

Marshall -2.5 at Middle Tennessee (Friday)

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

The Blue Raiders continue to be overvalued at the window based on what they’ve done the past few seasons. This year, playing mostly without QB Brent Stockstill (and at times without star WR Richie James, who returned to action last week) MTSU is 3-4. Last week, the Blue Raiders lost at UAB (No. 102 S&P+).

 

We were on UAB in that game, and we’ll continue to fade MTSU until the public picks up on the fact that they’re no longer in the Group of 5’s upper-echelon. Two of MTSU’s wins this year have come against teams that S&P+ ranks No. 99 or worse (FIU, Bowling Green), and the other was a Week 2 road upset at Syracuse with Stockstill starting. Stockstill has been ruled out for Friday’s game.

 

Just as MTSU is overvalued, 5-1 Marshall is undervalued. Last year’s 3-9 aberration continues to at least partly inform how they’re viewed. Throw out last season, and Marshall is 38-9 (80.1% winning percentage) since the start of 2013. The loss this year was at NC State, and the Herd were outgained by a mere 34 yards in that one.

 

Without Stockstill, MTSU’s offense has lost its bite. Even while accounting for his production early, the unit ranks No. 101 in S&P+ and No. 114 in points per game (20.4). Marshall ranks No. 26 in S&P+ defense and No. 9 in points per game allowed (15.5). That’s a mismatch, folks.

 

Air Force -6.5 at Nevada (Friday)

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

Air Force had to mount a furious rally late to beat UNLV last Saturday. That came one week after Navy mounted a furious rally late to break the Falcons' hearts.

 

Assuming Air Force isn’t deflated by those back-to-back thrillers—and, as one of the nation’s best-coached teams, there’s no reason to think they will be—they shouldn’t need any fourth-quarter heroics to beat Nevada.

 

The Wolfpack, amidst a rough transition to the Air Raid offense, are one of the nation’s 10-worst teams (No. 121 S&P+). To be fair, Nevada has played better in recent weeks, beating Hawaii two weekends ago and narrowly dropping a two-point decision to Colorado State (more on them in a second) last week.

 

To beat Air Force, you must be able to stop the run. If you can’t, the Falcons will extend drives at will, leaving your defense stranded on the field. Nevada, which ranks No. 102 S&P+ in run defense and No. 121 in defensive efficiency, doesn’t exactly have a profile that inspires confidence in that regard.

 

Nevada has struggled to run the ball themselves all year, and now their top-four running backs are all injured. That puts an extremely high amount of pressure on QB Ty Gangi and his receiving corps to win this game. Gangi has overachieved this fall (14/6 TD/INT rate on 58.8-pecent passing), but he remains a limited player.

 

Earlier this season, before his recent resurgence, Gangi was benched for raw true freshman dual-threat QB Kaymen Cureton and since-departed QB David Cornwell. The 1-6 Wolfpack will be playing for the eighth consecutive week on Saturday. They better not be fatigued, because Air Force doesn’t relent.

 

The Falcons, 2-4, remain a little undervalued because of their record, but each loss was understandable: Michigan, San Diego State, New Mexico and Navy. S&P+ gives them only a slightly better than one-in-four chance of making a bowl game. That makes every remaining contest extremely important, beginning with this one.

 

Colorado State -7.5 at New Mexico (Friday)

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

We’ve been on fire the past two weeks (18-7 ATS), but we whiffed big-time on New Mexico -2.5 against Fresno State last week. The Lobos were whipped 38-0.

 

So why return to them a week later? Because that loss served to give us a little line value, and Colorado State doesn’t look like it deserves to be laying over a touchdown in this spot.

 

The Rams struggled to put away a terrible Nevada team at home last week (44-42), and the best team they’ve beaten all season is Utah State. CSU’s defense ranks No. 81 S&P+. It is better against the run than the pass, a plus in this game, but CSU hasn’t yet faced a triple-option team like New Mexico.

 

New Mexico has been strong at home under HC Bob Davie (11-4 SU over their last 15). I remain bullish on this team, despite what happened last week. At least coming into the year, New Mexico appeared to be more talented than last year’s 9-4 team. Guess we’ll find out.

 

Purdue -9.5 at Rutgers

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

Often in this space, we talk about betting spots—and not teams—and shopping for line value. This picks goes against both edicts. Let’s hope it proves to be the exception we see it as on the surface.

 

S&P+ set this line at Purdue -4.4. OddShark’s model sees Purdue as 6-point favorites. ESPN’s FPI installed Purdue as 1.5-point favorites.

 

While we may not be getting line value, we invest where we see opportunity. And Rutgers’ offense against Purdue’s defense is a mismatch that screams opportunity.

 

Rutgers is one of the nation’s worst passing offenses. It ranks No. 108 in S&P+, hasn’t thrown for 200 yards in any one game this year and the team’s quarterbacks have combined to throw for a 4/8 TD/INT rate while accruing less than 1,000 total aerial yards in six games (at an average of less than 150 yards a pop). 

 

The Gus Edwards-led rushing attack has actually been pretty solid—ranking No. 26 S&P+—but it’s exceedingly difficult to beat strong, well-coached teams when you can only win one way.

 

Purdue is a well-coached team, and their strengths line up neatly with Rutgers’ weaknesses, suggesting that the Scarlet Knights are going to have all kinds of problems scoring points on Saturday.

 

The Boilermakers rank No. 43 in defensive S&P+, but they’re elite in one facet: Stopping the run (No. 10 S&P+). Last week, Purdue had its worst week of run defense, allowing 219 yards to Wisconsin freshman sensation RB Jonathan Taylor.

 

Despite that, the Badgers only won 17-9, accounting for a breezy Purdue cover. The Boilermakers are 5-1 ATS in Jeff Brohm’s first season. They’ve only been out of one game late, and that was the 28-10 loss to Michigan that was close at halftime.

 

We’ve ridden Purdue for much of the season—including our “game of the year” when Purdue was a 7.5-point underdog at Missouri (a 35-3 outright win)—and anticipate we’ll continue to do so in the second half. This is a team that’s better than its component parts, and that speaks to Brohm’s skill more than anything else.

 

Purdue, 3-3, is three wins away from going bowling, a development nobody saw coming over the summer. The Boilers close out the season at Northwestern, at Iowa and home against Indiana; they’ll be underdogs to the Hawkeyes, will probably be underdogs to the Wildcats, and might be slight favorites against the Hoosiers.

 

To get to three wins, they need to win at least two of the next three games (at Rutgers, vs. Nebraska, vs. Illinois), and perhaps all three of them. Brohm isn’t the type to under-prepare for a weak opponent like Rutgers.

 

Tulsa -5.5 at UConn

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

We were burned by Tulsa a few times earlier this season, but stuck with them last week against Houston. We took some guffaws on Twitter during the week, but then watched as the double-digit underdogs annihilated the overrated Cougars.

 

This week is another buy opportunity for Tulsa backers. Still richly discounted at the counter due to their 2-5 record and 3-4 ATS mark, it’s important to dig deeper into Tulsa’s profile for perspective.

 

You can toss out the opener against Oklahoma State, a game that was always going to end in a blowout. Outside of that, Tulsa covered in a win over UL-Lafayette, covered in a three-point, near-miss against a strong Toledo team, and wrecked Houston last week as 14-point ‘dogs.

 

The three games we haven’t mentioned yet are a large reason Tulsa continues to be overlooked: The Golden Hurricane lost three straight to triple-option teams between late September and early October. Those games weren’t necessarily aberrations, but they were matchups that Tulsa was particularly ill-suited for, considering that assignment football isn’t exactly the defense's M.O.

 

Tulsa can still score with almost any Group of 5 team. In matchups where the shoddy defense has chances to get stops—like last week against Houston, and again this week against UConn—we’ll be buying Tulsa, so long as they’re available at a discount.

 

That’s the case here. Not only will UConn commit enough self-inflicted errors on offense to bail out Tulsa’s poor defense, but UConn’s defense simply isn’t equipped to slow Tulsa’s high-powered offense. UConn ranks dead last in the FBS in first downs allowed, passing yards allowed and touchdowns allowed.

 

Tulsa, which took off offensively when they finally turned the keys over to QB Luke Skipper a few weeks ago, is going to score at will on UConn. The Huskies are ill-equipped for the track meet they’re about to take part in. And homefield advantage isn’t likely to save them: Tulsa is 8-1 ATS since the start of 2015 in conference games on the road.

 

TCU -39 vs. Kansas

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

Full disclosure: Your author is a Kansas graduate, and he’s probably lost more times on the Jayhawks in this column over the past four years than he has any other team.

 

So you can and should fade here.

 

But as long as you’re reading, we want to point you to the fact that Kansas has been extremely competitive against TCU dating back to the ill-conceived Charlie Weis era. No matter how bad the Jayhawks have been, they’ve brought it for TCU.

 

Since 2012, when TCU joined the Big 12, KU has lost this matchup 20-6 (2012, Weis), 27-17 (2013, Weis), 34-30 (2014, interim HC Clint Bowen), 23-17 (2015, David Beaty), and 24-23 (2016, Beaty).

 

Going back to the start of the 2012 season, the Jayhawks are 10-57. Despite that, Kansas has only lost by an average score of 25.6-18.6 against TCU over the past five years.

 

How is that possible? You could explain the last two seasons by pointing to Beaty's "good" relationship with TCU HC Gary Patterson. But how about the Weis years, or the Bowen near-upset?

 

We're at a loss about all that, but the track record makes KU an auto-play for us this week. Not only has KU been doggedly competitive in this series, and not only are they getting nearly 40 points on Saturday, but they hired former TCU OC Doug Meacham over the winter. That means they’ll be even more well acquainted with TCU’s personnel than they usually are.

 

To give some context for the absurd amount of points we're getting, consider that TCU has failed to score more than 39 points total in more than half of its games against FBS teams this year (held below 35 points in three-of-five versus FBS teams). Granted, Kansas ranks No. 129 in points per game allowed (44.8), but they shouldn't need to score more than two touchdowns to bag the cover here. Patterson isn't the type to gratuitously run up the score on a team like Kansas, even if this game does begin to get out of hand.


Notre Dame -3.5 vs. USC

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

As mentioned on Twitter on Monday, we’ve had this game circled for weeks now. We rooted for USC to pull out the win against Utah last week, because we hoped that would make this line more attractive.

 

We were thrilled to see the number below four when the lines opened. We see Notre Dame as the superior team apples-to-apples. Getting USC at home, in a spot to avenge the recent past, makes this an attractive play.

 

USC stands 6-1 on the season, but they fell to 1-6 ATS on the season when they narrowly escaped the Utes last Saturday (trailing by one, Utah failed to convert a two-point conversion when QB Troy Williams declined to look up to identify a wide-open Darren Carrington in the back of the end zone on an ill-fated scramble attempt). Now they must travel a few time zones east to South Bend.

 

The Trojans are on an 0-5 ATS skid at the moment. Not only do they continue to be overrated based on preseason expectations, but USC isn’t even literally the team we expected to see in the preseason: 10 players are out for the season, and 11 more are on this week’s injury list.

 

Meanwhile, Notre Dame, which has been undervalued throughout the year due to their abysmal 2016 season, has covered five of its last six. Whereas USC is banged up, Notre Dame is coming off a bye (USC doesn’t have a bye week this year). ND QB Brandon Wimbush, who missed the UNC game, announced earlier this week that he has returned to 100-percent health.

 

Between USC QB Sam Darnold’s interceptions and the Trojans’ propensity to put the ball on the carpet, USC has already committed 16 turnovers in seven games (2.3 per game). Notre Dame’s opportunistic defense has forced 14 turnovers this year.

 

In September, the Irish narrowly lost to Georgia at home. The Bulldogs have proven to be better than the public expected coming into the season. With a chance to bag a marquee victory, expect the Irish to grind away on the ground against the Trojans on offense while taking advantage of USC’s careless mistakes on defense.

 

Penn State -10 vs. Michigan

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

It took us a couple minutes to process that this line was in the double-digits. Had Michigan really lost this much respect in the desert due to the loss of QB Wilton Speight, the loss to Michigan State and last week’s OT escape against Indiana? Once we digested all that, we knew we’d invest in the underdogs.

 

We could spend the rest of the writeup talking about in-game matchups—can Penn State’s offensive line deal with Michigan’s front seven? can Michigan move the ball on Penn State with QB John O’Korn?—but we’d prefer to dive deeper into these team’s profiles.

 

Specifically Penn State’s. The Nittany Lions played three poor teams in non-conference play (Pittsburgh was easily the best of the three). Penn State covered the last two weeks against Big 10 opponents (Indiana and Northwestern). Dave Mason, brand manager for offshore sportsbook BetOnline.ag, told Covers.com this week that Penn State was one of the public’s biggest winners in each of the past two weeks.

 

All of which stands to give us more line value on a game that won’t be like the past two. The closest approximation to Michigan that PSU has played this season should give PSU backers pause.

 

Nearly one month ago, Penn State struggled mightily against Iowa in a game it should have lost. Instead, the Nittany Lions drove the length of the field late in the fourth quarter and won on a touchdown pass on the game’s final play, 21-19.

 

In that game, Iowa combated PSU’s creative read-heavy offense by playing assignment football. They disguised what they were doing pre-snap, and then they didn’t allow Trace McSorley to catch them out of position.

 

This strategy essentially negated Penn State’s secondary offensive weapons while allowing Saquon Barkley to get the yardage he could. Iowa refused to sell out to stop Barkley. The result? Barkley went off (over 300 total yards) while the rest of Penn State’s offense struggled.

 

Paradoxically, this was a brilliant strategy: Selling out to stop Barkley merely opens up huge plays for Penn State’s receivers (while only limiting Barkley to the degree that he can actually be neutralized).

 

The reason we bring this up is that Michigan is equipped to deploy this strategy, and absolutely should. Barkley is going to get his yards one way or the other. Not allowing Penn State to gain chunk plays through the air is the only way you can keep the offense as a whole in check. And two good pieces of news on that front: PSU hasn’t been as explosive through the air without WR Chris Godwin, and Michigan, per Phil Steele, ranks No. 1 in the FBS defensively by holding opponents to 183 yards per game below their average.

 

We don’t trust John O’Korn as far as we can throw him, and Penn State’s No. 9 pass defense (167.8 passing yards allowed per game) is a particularly bad matchup for him. While the Wolverines won’t do much through the air, we expect Michigan to be able to move the ball effectively enough on the ground.

 

We also anticipate that the Wolverines will hold the Nittany Lions under 30 points. Jim Harbaugh doesn’t really get blown out. Six of his seven losses at Michigan have been close, and the other, that 2015 loss to Ohio State, was at least close early. Harbaugh has given up more than 27 points to a Big 10 opponent only three times (Ohio State, overtime, or both).

 

And look at the bright side: If O’Korn plays as bad as he did last week, we may finally get a look at Brandon Peters, a player your author has clamored for on Twitter since Speight went down.

 

BYU -5.5 at East Carolina

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

The past three weeks, we’ve made our stance pretty clear about BYU: We’ll continue to fade them until they cover. Now 0-7 ATS on the season, the Cougars have proven to be a cash cow for this column.

 

This week, our fade-BYU dictum will be put to the test against 1-6 East Carolina, which is also 1-6 ATS. The Pirates’ issue is its defense, which ranks dead last in the FBS per S&P+’s metrics. Fortunately, BYU ranks No. 128 in S&P+ offense and No. 129 in points per game (11.4).

 

BYU is awful in every facet of the game except for rushing defense, where they’re merely mediocre. East Carolina is awful in every facet of the game except for passing offense, where they’re merely mediocre. The Pirates should be able to eschew the run and keep the ball in the air here.

 

Between their advantage in that facet, and their home-field advantage, ECU represents another opportunity to fade BYU. The Cougars won’t finish 0-12 ATS, but it makes sense to continue betting against them until they cash one.

 

Three for the road:

 

Cal +3 vs. Arizona (Cal outright)

Wake Forest +5.5 at Georgia Tech (Wake off a bye, GT off a devastating loss)

Baylor +9.5 vs. West Virginia (expecting WVU to be flat after last week's comeback over TT)

 

*** 

 

2017 Record: Straight-Up: 62-26 (70.4%); Against the Spread: 48-38-2 (55.8%)

 

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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