Thor Nystrom

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Week 9 CFB ATS Predictions

Friday, October 27, 2017

Ole Miss -3.5 vs. Arkansas


Straight Up: Arkansas Razorbacks logo

Against the Spread:


We’ve been waiting all year for something to happen to the Rebels that would cause the team to pack it in for the fall. That happened when it was announced that starting QB Shea Patterson would miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury suffered against LSU.

The Rebels, barred from playing in a bowl game this year, were already a fade team (1-5-1 ATS), but Patterson’s injury has us banging the “sell” button on Ole Miss like Jim Cramer on Mad Money. A team with nothing to play for just lost the one player on the roster talented enough to transcend circumstance.

Patterson helped the Rebels outgun Vanderbilt earlier this month, and it says here that the victory over the Commodores will go down as Ole Miss’ biggest of the fall. Outside of that, Ole Miss has only beaten South Alabama and UT-Martin.

While Ole Miss will play out a meaningless season without by far its best player, 2-5 Arkansas still has a bowl to play for. That may sound ridiculous, but if the Hogs beat Ole Miss, they’ll only need three more wins from a manageable stretch-run schedule: Coastal Carolina (win), at LSU (probable loss), home vs. Mississippi State (the key game to their bowl hopes) and home against Missouri (Arkansas will be favored).

Arkansas has been uncompetitive in going 0-3 this month (South Carolina, Auburn, Alabama), but the narrative around this team would be a bit different if it’d merely closed out the Texas A&M game (50-43 loss in OT) as it should have. Of Arkansas’ other four losses, three have come against teams in the S&P+ top-12. We’re telling you: This team is better than its record (assuming HC Bret Bielema can keep his troops motivated).

Arkansas simply has to win this game, and they’re in a nice position to do so against a beleaguered program that’s out of gas. Ole Miss’ defense is wretched (No. 111 in S&P+ and No. 121 with 43.7 ppg allowed), and now the offense will have to do without Patterson’s heroics. If the Rebels’ passing attack (No. 8 S&P+) regresses to FBS-average or worse with backup QB Jordan Ta'amu, it’ll play down an FBS-average rushing attack and the aforementioned hapless defense.

Arkansas’ defense isn’t good, but it’s decidedly better than Ole Miss’ (No. 86 S&P+). And with Ta’amu behind center, it has realistic hopes of suppressing the Rebels’ attack. The biggest schematic mismatch heading in is the Hogs’ No. 2 S&P+ rushing attack against Ole Miss’ bad front seven.

It’s for that reason that we side with Arkansas even if QB Austin Allen can’t go—the Hogs should be able to dominate the line of scrimmage on offense and strand Ole Miss’ beleaguered defense on the field as time melts off the clock. Ta’amu is miscast in the role of hero if he’s needed to rally his teammates to a win in his first FBS start.

We like the underdogs to win outright, and wouldn’t be surprised if they drill Ole Miss by double-digits.

Mississippi State -1 at Texas A&M


Straight Up: Miss. St. Bulldogs logo

Against the Spread:

Miss. St. Bulldogs logo


Mississippi State has one of the odder S&P+ profile pages that you’ll see. S&P+ uses a stat called “Win Expectancy,” which basically just gives you an idea of how many times a given team would have won a matchup if the game had been played 100 times with each team playing exactly how they did. It’s a great stat when you want to get a sense for whether a given result was a fluke—sometimes, a team will win a game with a WE of less than 50-percent.

In seven games, Mississippi State has received a 100-percent WE five times (read: utter and complete domination). In the other two games, the Bulldogs received a 0-percent WE (utterly and completely dominated). MSU got whipped on the road by upper-echelon FBS programs Georgia and Auburn. Outside of that, they’ve destroyed every team they’ve played (including Louisiana Tech, LSU and Kentucky).

Think of Mississippi State as something of a top-20 gatekeeper: They don’t have the talent to keep up with the teams above them, but their ultra-efficient, grind-it-out offense and stellar defense have the effect of strangling out teams outside of the top-20. S&P+ neatly ranks Mississippi State as the No. 19 team in the land.

Texas A&M’s Win Expectancy chart is another story. The Aggies haven’t achieved a 100-percent score in any game (nor a 0-percent), despite playing cupcakes like FCS Nicholls State (74%) and UL-Lafayette (95%). Remember that brutal opening-week loss to UCLA? According to S&P+, the right side won: A&M had a 21-percent WE in that game.

S&P+ would tell you that A&M was extremely fortunate to beat Florida last week (5% WE) and Arkansas in September (27% WE), and to stay close with Alabama two weeks ago (17% WE).

S&P+ likes Mississippi State’s offense a tad better than A&M’s (No. 51 to No. 57), and it likes MSU’s defense a whole lot more (No. 15 to No. 61). Mississippi State’s rushing and passing attacks both rank in the top-20 in S&P+, but the overall unit is dragged down a bit because it lacks explosive plays. This week may be a good time to change that, as A&M allows explosive plays quite often (No. 86 S&P+).

A&M’s lack of efficiency on offense (No. 109) is going to continue to bite them against good teams. The Aggies have yet to beat a top-60 S&P+ team. This doesn’t look like the kind of spot that will reverse that trend. S&P+ set this line at MSU -7.6, and that seems a lot more realistic to us than the Vegas number.


Notre Dame -7.5 vs. NC State


Straight Up: Notre Dame Fighting Irish logo

Against the Spread:

NC State Wolfpack logo


We cashed big on the Irish last week against USC, but this weekend’s matchup doesn’t look as forgiving on paper. The Irish are a very good team, a legitimate Playoff contender with a strong offense (No. 12 in ppg) and defense (No. 12 in ppg allowed).

But Notre Dame has an obvious Achilles heel: They’re mediocre throwing the ball (No. 58 S&P+) and struggle when the running game (No. 1 S&P+) is slowed. We made a mistake in backing the Irish against Georgia earlier this season (a 20-19 loss) and vowed not to play ourselves again. Simply put, Notre Dame is a play-against proposition when playing teams with tremendous front sevens.

Those matchups neutralize Notre Dame’s awesome offensive line, mitigate RB Josh Adams’ impact (19 carries for 53 yards against the Bulldogs), take away Brandon Wimbush’s strength (one rushing yard on 16 attempts against Georgia) and force Wimbush to win the game from the pocket. Wimbush went 19-for-39 for 211 yards and a 19.3 QBR against Georgia. On the year, he's completing only 52.3-percent of his passes.

Slow the run, and you can beat Notre Dame.

That brings us to NC State, which boasts one of the nation’s best defensive lines, led by top-10 overall NFL prospect DE Bradley Chubb. The Wolfpack rank No. 3 in the nation in DL Havoc Rate, per S&P+. It’s a unit that lives in your backfield. North Carolina State allows only 91 rushing yards per game on 3.0 YPC.

So long as NC State is able to succeed in forcing Wimbush to throw, it’ll have a decent chance of springing the outright upset. On offense, NC State simply does not commit unforced errors (three turnovers all year). QB Ryan Finley has a pristine 11/0 TD/INT rate, and NC State makes creative use out of its myriad NFL skill players like explosive RB Nyheim Hines, versatile H-back Jaylen Samuels and big WRs Kelvin Harmon, Jakobi Meyers and Stephen Louis.

Whereas Notre Dame is coming off an exhilarating, emotional blowout of an archrival, NC State spent last week relaxing on a bye and preparing for Notre Dame. You can bet they riled themselves up while watching the Irish romp on Saturday night. We aren’t going to call for the outright upset, but you can bet we’ll also have a little action on the juicy NCSU moneyline.


Texas -9 vs. Baylor


Straight Up: Texas Longhorns logo

Against the Spread:

Baylor Bears logo


We’ve cashed two tickets on Baylor during their 3-1 ATS run and are looking for another winner in this prime spot to fade the Longhorns.

Texas rides into this one off of two heartbreaking losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (and three weeks ago, the Longhorns needed two overtimes to dispatch Kansas State in another grueling, physical affair). Next week, the Longhorns take on TCU. With the winless Baylor Bears on deck, this is a prime letdown, look-ahead sandwich spot.

If Texas underestimates Baylor—an easy thing to do at the moment—they’re going to get upset on Saturday. The Bears were decimated by injuries and suspensions and acclimating to a new coaching staff’s systems when they were upset by Liberty and UTSA in Weeks 1-2.

Even since then, with more and more players returning from the training room and doghouse, they’ve been highly, highly competitive, giving Duke everything they could handle in a close non-cover before the current 3-1 ATS run. Despite being 0-7, Baylor has only lost by more than two possessions to one team, Oklahoma State.

Last week, Baylor fell short against West Virginia during a frenzied 23-point fourth-quarter rally that came within a two-point conversion of overtime. Should the Longhorns, who’ve already played in three overtime games, come into this one tired and lethargic, Baylor may break through with its first win of the season.

Texas is facing numerous health concerns, from QB Sam Ehlinger (concussion) to C Zach Shackelford (concussion) to WR Reggie Hemphill-Mapps (leg). It’s not a great week to be entering an obvious trap situation.


Pittsburgh -3 vs. Virginia


Straight Up:

Virginia Cavaliers logo

Against the Spread:

Virginia Cavaliers logo


Two surprising outcomes last weekend conspired to give us some nice line value here: Virginia got caught napping against a resurgent Boston College team (a 41-10 loss) and Pittsburgh shocked Duke (a 24-17 win).

In backing Virginia here, we’re attempting to not get drawn in by recency bias: We see the Cavaliers as the clearly better team, apples-to-apples.

Pitt has to be running on fumes. Now 3-5, the team has not yet had a bye. That’ll come next week. During their stretch of eight consecutive games, they’ve played teams with extremely diverse strategies on offense—Oklahoma State’s fun-and-gun spread attack, Georgia Tech’s triple-option, Syracuse’s Baylor-like up-tempo hyper-spread, NC State’s mismatch-attacking machine and Duke’s grind-you-to-fatigue, bore-you-to-tears balanced approach.

Now, Virginia, a team that excels in the Red Zone because they put their three receivers, who’ll all get NFL looks, into high-percentage situations in space. Virginia is the opposite of explosive (No. 121 S&P+), but they’ll paper-cut you to death by taking what the defense gives them. QB Kurt Benkert has put himself onto the NFL radar by eschewing home runs for move-the-stick completions.

The 3-5 Panthers have very little chance to go bowling with Virginia Tech and Miami still waiting on the schedule. If Virginia jumps out to a double-digit lead, this team doesn’t have the guns to fire back, and they may be lacking in the motivation to do so. Virginia’s next win stamps its ticket to bowl season. Expect the Cavs to get that done here.


Kentucky -4.5 vs. Tennessee


Straight Up: Tennessee Volunteers logo

Against the Spread:

Tennessee Volunteers logo


These days, it doesn’t get much more contrarian than backing Butch Jones’ Tennessee Volunteers. We agree that Jones’ tenure with the school is drawing to a close, but that doesn’t mean that the Vols can’t still make a bowl push.

And with a manageable schedule to close out the year (Southern Miss, Missouri, LSU and Vanderbilt), the 3-5 Vols have a realistic shot of reaching six regular season wins if they can knock off the Wildcats.

It’s a highly doable task, especially when you consider that S&P+ sees the Wildcats (No. 91) and Vols (No. 95) as quite similar, despite Kentucky’s 5-2 record (the Wildcats are 3-1 in one-possession games).

The Wildcats have a poor, inefficient offense and a bad defense. Tennessee has a clear defensive advantage, and while the offense as a whole is something of a mess, the Vols actually have a top-10 S&P+ ground attack thanks to RB John Kelly. Unfortunately, on Tuesday, Kelly was cited for marijuana possession. He's been suspended for Saturday's contest.

Kelly's loss is a significant one, but regardless, Kentucky’s rush defense (No. 72 S&P+) should prove generous to much-hyped true frosh RB Ty Chandler. We like the Vols to pull the outright upset.


Oklahoma State -7.5 at West Virginia


Straight Up: Oklahoma St. Cowboys logo

Against the Spread:

West Virginia Mountaineers logo


West Virginia is a team you want to play at home and fade on the road. The Mountaineers are 1-3 ATS away from home this year, and they’re 2-0 ATS against FBS teams at home.

Oklahoma State, meanwhile, has been a fade proposition since they became overvalued due to early-season blowouts of bad teams (on a 1-3 ATS run). Despite that, the public’s love of this team has not waned.

On Monday, Dave Mason, a manager for BetOnline, told “The public profited off of Oklahoma State big time to start the season. Since then, the Cowboys have failed to cover in three of their last four games. Despite that recent cold streak, only 37 percent of early bettors are on West Virginia.”

Like last week, when the Pokes were laying -7 to -7.5 (depending on where you bet) at Texas (a 13-10 OT win), OSU is once again giving a touchdown-plus to a solid Big 12 opponent on the road. It’s a really poor sandwich spot for OSU: After narrowly knocking off the Longhorns last week, the Cowboys host archrival Oklahoma next week.

Since getting edged out by Virginia Tech 31-24 in the opener, West Virginia has won five of its last six. The only loss was a narrow seven-point setback at undefeated TCU.

West Virginia’s offense is that rare blend of efficiency (No. 6 S&P+) and explosiveness (No. 24 S&P+). Oklahoma State actually ranks a bit higher in both metrics, but, despite the perception that OSU is an unrivaled offensive juggernaut, S&P+ thinks the units are quite similar (WVU ranks No. 5 in S&P+ offense; OSU is No. 4).

West Virginia’s defense is the area for concern. It ranks No. 102 S&P+ and allows explosive plays at a troubling clip (No. 121). To be fair, Texas ranked in the 100s in explosive plays against but was able to clamp down last week at home. We don’t expect an identical performance by WVU’s defense, but the offense is so good that it won’t need to consistently stop OSU to bag a cover.

Expect a wild shootout that goes down to the wire. In games like this, you want to be on the home ‘dog, especially if that home ‘dog has proven it plays better in familiar confines than on the road.

BYU -13 vs. San Jose State


Straight Up: BYU Cougars logo

Against the Spread:

San Jose St. Spartans logo


We’ve bet against BYU each of the past four weeks in this space. As we’ve mentioned in the last few columns, we will continue to fade BYU until they cover a game.

The Cougars (1-7, 0-8 ATS) have yet to do so this season, and they’ve yet to show much of a pulse. We took East Carolina outright over BYU last week, and cashed on the six-point underdogs.

We’re unconcerned about backing a bad San Jose State team here, because S&P+ actually thinks SJSU is slightly better than ECU. Plus, BYU shouldn’t be laying double-digits to any FBS team at this point. Continue to ride the Fade-BYU gravy train until the Cougars cover.


Iowa -7 vs. Minnesota


Straight Up: Iowa Hawkeyes logo

Against the Spread:

Iowa Hawkeyes logo


Whether starting Conor Rhoda or Demry Croft, the Gophers have proven that they can’t throw. Croft is now the starter, but his utter ineffectiveness through the air (5-of-15 for 47 yards with a 1/2 TD/INT rate) nearly led to a home upset loss against Illinois last week.

Minnesota can run—despite the injuries Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have dealt with this fall—but a one-dimensional offense isn’t going to cut it against a defense as good as Iowa’s in Iowa City.

Minnesota’s youthful defense was mostly hidden while the Gophers raced out to a 3-0 start against a soft early schedule, but it showed major cracks during the three-game losing streak against Maryland, Purdue and Michigan State (no offensive powerhouses in the bunch).

The Gophers are moving towards a full-fledged youth movement in HC P.J. Fleck’s first season, a move that will hurt in the short-term but pay off in the long. This is the type of matchup that screams trouble for Minnesota and its No. 86 S&P+ rushing defense. If Iowa RB Akrum Wadley gets going -- a decent bet -- the Gophers don’t have the offensive talent to keep pace.


North Texas -11 vs. Old Dominion


Straight Up: North Texas Mean Green logo

Against the Spread:

Old Dominion Monarchs logo


Old Dominion is a one-man team that was forced to play much of the early slate without that one man, star RB Ray Lawry. Lawry returned from a torn hamstring two weeks ago, and he proved last week, in rushing for 166 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries against Western Kentucky, that he’s back.

Old Dominion responded by nearly upsetting Western Kentucky, falling 35-31. Old Dominion, 2-5, is being unfairly punished for the work it did sans Lawry, as opposed to being credited on the line for his return.

And you don’t have to take my word for Lawry’s enormous value to his team. HC Bobby Wilder said the following after the loss to WKU: "....we're a different team when [Lawry] is that player." As for any lingering concerns about Lawry’s health, the player shoots them down: "The trainers did a great job of getting me back, so I do feel good," Lawry said following the loss.

North Texas is a strong offensive group, and will have little trouble scoring on ODU, but they struggle mightily on defense (No. 122 with 44.2 ppg allowed, including 69 points surrendered to FAU’s ground machine last week). If this game turns into a shootout—and that’s what we anticipate—then you’re going to want the double-digit points.


Two for the road:


Eastern Michigan +7.5 at Northern Illinois (Thursday)


Boston College +4.5 vs. Florida State (Friday -- BC outright)





2017 Record: Straight-Up: 71-30 (70.3%); Against the Spread: 55-44-2 (55.5%)


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


Thor Nystrom is a former 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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