Thor Nystrom

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Week 12 CFB Best Bets

Thursday, November 16, 2017


 

 

 

 

New Mexico State -4 at UL-Lafayette

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

The 4-5 Aggies need two wins to reach a bowl for the first time in more than 55 years (1960). If they get there, it’ll be an especially sweet middle-finger salute to the Sun Belt, which is kicking NMSU and Idaho out of the conference after this season.

 

Of NMSU’s five losses, two came to Power 5 teams (at Arizona State and at Arkansas) and three came against the upper-echelon of the Sun Belt (Troy, Appalachian State and Arkansas State).

 

NMSU has one of the Group of 5’s best (No. 37 S&P+) and most explosive (No. 21 S&P+) offenses. That unit is led by QB Tyler Rogers (3,190 yards, 23/15 TD/INT rate), future NFL RB Larry Rose III and #DraftTwitter darling WR Jaleel Scott (53-786-6), a jumbo 6-foot-6, 215-pound target who specializes in contested circus catches.

 

NMSU struggles on defense (No. 96 S&P+), the reason they haven’t bagged a crucial upset victory this year. Luckily for them, they won’t need a defense to beat UL-L. You can think of the Rajun Cajuns as a poor man’s New Mexico State: They have a decent offense (No. 51 S&P+) and a wretched defense (No. 125 S&P+, No. 125 with 49.9 ppg allowed).

 

Lafayette is particularly bad against the run (No. 128 S&P+), so you should expect Rose to go off here. UL-L’s pass defense (No. 116 S&P+) also doesn’t figure to provide much of an impediment to Rogers or Scott.

 

The Cajuns would like to start true freshman QB Levi Lewis against NMSU, but Lewis has been limited in practice this week due to an ankle injury. Lewis is an undersized scrambler who was knocked out of the school’s last game with the ankle injury. If he’s compromised in the least, his game will really suffer—Lewis is a true-blue dual threat who has 159 rushing yards and 276 passing yards in his limited action to this point. If he can't go, UL-L will likely turn back to Jordan Davis, who was benched earlier this year.

 

If New Mexico State wins, it’ll only need to beat either Idaho or South Alabama—both home games—to return to the postseason. We expect NMSU to do so, and maybe even win all three.

 

Wisconsin -7.5 vs. Michigan

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

Fair warning: We faded Wisconsin to disastrous results last week against Iowa. Despite that, we’ve got one more bullet to fire, because we continue to think that Wisconsin’s injury issues will catch up to it against a quality foe.

 

Iowa proved that it wasn’t up to keeping the score close. Specifically because of its offense, which incredibly gained less than 100 total yards (the Hawkeyes did pick on QB Alex Hornibrook, with CB Joshua Jackson taking two interceptions to the house).

 

So will Michigan be able to do anything more against S&P+’s No. 1 overall defense?

 

We think they will enough to stay within the number. Wisconsin is slightly less effective against the run (No. 25 S&P+) than the pass (No. 6 S&P+). The Wolverines struggle to move the ball through the air—ranking No. 88 S&P+—but they remain a strong rushing team (No. 12 S&P+). RB Karan Higdon is expected to be a full-go, and with Brandon Peters proving to be an upgrade over John O’Korn, Wisconsin at least has to give passing thoughts to, you know, defending the pass.

 

Michigan has an elite defense of its own (No. 6 S&P+, No. 1 S&P+ defensive efficiency), the reason we want those points. To keep the game close against Wisconsin, you have to stop freshman sensation RB Jonathan Taylor (1,525 yards, 12 TD) from doing whatever he wants.

 

Michigan boasts the No. 10 S&P+ rush defense, and it isn’t going to be concerned with leaving its cornerbacks on an island against Hornibrook and his decimated receiving corps (Quintez Cephus, Jazz Peavy and George Rushing are all out again). The Wolverines rank No. 4 S&P+ against the pass.

 

The 10-0 Badgers have some serious momentum right now, but it’s important to remember which 10 teams they’ve beaten. Per S&P+, Wisconsin has bested one top-40 team—FAU. And that was back in Week 2, before the Owls had taken off (they started 1-3 before winning six straight).

 

Wisconsin’s next-best win was over Purdue. Despite getting the Boilermakers three weeks after Michigan did—after Purdue had succumbed to numerous injuries and fell off significantly—the Wolverines actually beat the Boilermakers by 10 more points than Wisconsin did.

 

Florida -10.5 vs. UAB

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

In 2015-2016, UAB football didn’t exist. In its first season back, not only will the Blazers (7-3) make a bowl game, but they have a very real chance to pull a road upset over a blueblood SEC school.

 

For Florida, this season can’t get over soon enough. The 3-6 Gators have lost five straight, the last two under interim HC Randy Shannon following Jim McElwain’s ouster. As usual, Florida can’t play offense (No. 105 S&P+). This year, with more and more of Will Muschamp’s recruits gone to the NFL, the defense has plummeted to No. 80 S&P+.

 

Now, the Gators roll out the red carpet for a game underdog headed in the opposite direction. UAB is 5-1 in their last six. During their current three-game winning streak, the Blazers have beaten two teams in the S&P+ top-45, Southern Miss (No. 32) and UTSA (No. 42). UAB has already beaten four teams ranked higher than Florida (No. 100) in S&P+’s methodology.

 

And of UAB’s three losses? S&P+ indicates that they were the better team on the field in two of them, against both Ball State (67% Win Expectancy) and Charlotte (59% Win Expectancy). UAB outgained Ball State 504-377 but lost 51-31 because it lost the turnover battle 2-0 and gave up a kick return touchdown during a second half collapse. The Blazers lost by one in overtime to Charlotte after allowing a successful two-point conversion. The only other loss was a narrow three-point setback against North Texas (No. 46 S&P+), a team that went bowling last year and will do so again this season.

 

S&P+ says the wrong team is favored here. It projects UAB to win by 5.0. The Blazers aren’t great any one aspect of the game, but they couple a solid defense (No. 47 S&P+) with a run-first offense (freshman Spencer Brown has 1,177 yards on 5.7 YPC) that doesn’t give the ball away.

 

UAB, an extremely well-coached bunch, ranks No. 21 in the country in turnover differential. Florida, one of the nation’s worst-coached teams, ranks No. 95 in turnover differential. S&P+ indicates that even that lowly standing probably flatters the Gators, estimating that Florida is actually benefitting from 0.16 ppg in turnover luck.

 

Per S&P+, Florida is neither efficient (No. 107) nor explosive (No. 100) on offense, and it consistently starts with horrible field position (No. 120). UAB, which ranks No. 23 in defensive efficiency, matches up well in terms of giving Florida enough rope to hang itself with. On offense, UAB will methodically grind away with Brown and hope to keep the game close late into the fourth quarter.

 

 

West Virginia -3 vs. Texas

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

Due to Texas’ name brand and HC Tom Herman’s success as an underdog, we’re getting this line at a discount. We assumed this line would be around WVU -6. For its part, S&P+ installed West Virginia as 7.2-point favorites.

 

Texas is a ho-hum 5-5. It has beaten zero teams in S&P+’s top-40, and only one team in S&P+’s top-65. That team, Iowa State (No. 41), blew the Texas game because it was unwilling to yank deposed starter QB Jacob Park, who hasn’t been seen since.

 

True: Texas has kept games close against superior teams like USC (a three-point loss), Oklahoma (a five-point loss) and Oklahoma State (a three-point loss). But that’s the closest we can come to making an argument for the Longhorns here.

 

West Virginia, 7-3, is 0-3 against teams in the top-25 of S&P+, and 7-0 against everyone else. It has beaten two teams ranked higher than Texas (Texas Tech and Iowa State). That win over the Cyclones was far more impressive than Texas’, as ISU was rolling (and Kyle Kempt was starting) by the time it visited Morgantown.

 

The Mountaineers are 4-1 at home, and they match up well with the Horns. West Virginia’s No. 12 S&P+ offense ranks No. 24 in S&P+ offensive explosion. Texas plays solid defense (No. 27 S&P+), but allows explosive plays at a rate that raises red flags (No. 79).

 

West Virginia’s defense is poor (No. 83 S&P+), primarily because it allows explosive plays at an even greater clip than Texas does (No. 101). Texas’ offense (No. 98 S&P+), however, is simply not equipped to take advantage of this malfunction. Its paint-by-numbers offense ranks No. 110 in offensive explosion. Texas is also stronger against the run than the pass, good news for West Virginia’s bombs-away passing offense and the devastating duo of QB Will Grier and WR David Sills.


 

Iowa -8 vs. Purdue

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

Primarily due to injuries, Purdue has fallen off after an impressive start. They’re 1-4 in their last five games, including losses to Nebraska and Rutgers.

 

Even so, we see value in the Boilermakers this week. Purdue has lost only one game by more than 10 points this year, the 28-10 setback against Michigan that was competitive until Purdue ran out of gas late.

 

Purdue’s M.O. in Jeff Brohm’s first run through the Big 10 is to keep games close and hope for the best. The Boilers lost by eight to Wisconsin, by two to Rutgers, by one to Nebraska and by 10 to Northwestern.

 

Iowa’s M.O. under Kirk Ferentz has always been much the same. Over the past two weeks, the Hawkeyes shockingly blasted Ohio State and then got blown out by Wisconsin. But over their first eight games, five were decided by one-possession. The only ones that weren’t were wins over Wyoming, North Texas and Illinois, three of the weakest teams the Hawkeyes have faced this fall.

 

Not only do both teams have a tendency to play in close games, but Purdue is elite against the run (No. 5 S&P+ run defense). Iowa, of course, is a run-first team. The advanced numbers also say that Iowa is worse against the run (No. 74 S&P+) than conventional logic dictates. Purdue’s No. 23 S&P+ run offense should do enough against that unit to keep Saturday’s score within the number.

 

One last thing, with regards to motivation: the 4-6 Boilermakers will be eliminated from the postseason with another loss. Expect them to bring their lunch pales to Iowa City.

 

Auburn -36.5 vs. UL-Monroe

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

As far as contrarian spot plays go, they don’t get much better than this.

 

Auburn is in the middle of an all-time letdown, look-ahead sandwich, whipping previously-undefeated Georgia last week and getting ready for archrival Alabama next week. Auburn would like nothing more than for this game to get over as soon as possible. If the starters are playing past the midway point in the third quarter, something has gone terribly wrong.

 

Monroe, meanwhile, is fresh off a bye. Prior to that, it enjoyed the program’s biggest win in years by beating Appalachian State. There is zero pressure on Monroe here.

 

Not only is this an awful spot for Auburn, and a tremendous spot for Monroe, but this line is objectively off, an overreaction to Auburn’s win over Georgia. S&P+ set this line at Georgia -22.3.

 

Hold your nose and take those points. You won’t find a better situational play this week, or maybe even this season.

 

Iowa State -9.5 at Baylor

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

This line stinks. That, combined with our conviction that Iowa State is running on fumes and Baylor is starting to come together under HC Matt Rhule, makes the Bears a play for us this week.

 

Iowa State had its bye on Week 4. Since then, they’ve run through a veritable gauntlet: There was the slugfest against Texas on a Thursday night when the defense played inspired but former starting QB Jacob Park imploded in a 17-7 loss, the unthinkable road upset win over Oklahoma 10 days later, the 45-point mauling of Kansas the next week (the only freebie of the bunch), the impressive 18-point win at Texas Tech on Oct. 21 and the 14-7 win over TCU a week later that knocked the Frogs from the ranks of the unbeaten. Over the past two weeks, fatigue has begun to show in the form of a four-point loss at West Virginia and a seven-point loss to Oklahoma State.

 

That loss to the Cowboys was particularly brutal, as Iowa State led by eight with six minutes left before allowing two touchdowns (and a two-point conversion) late. The Cyclones had a shot to force overtime but had a controversial call go against them at the three-yard line.

 

Now, the Cyclones head to Waco in what they must perceive to be something of a scheduling reprieve. The 1-9 Bears have only beaten hapless Kansas this season.

 

But a closer look at the numbers indicates that this is a closer matchup than it appears on the surface. As we’ve written before, Baylor’s nightmare start (upset by Libert and UTSA in Weeks 1 and 2) was in large part due to suspensions, injuries and a radical change in coaching philosophy. Since Week 4, when Baylor started to get its sidelined players back, the Bears are a respectable 4-3 ATS.

 

Despite its 1-6 Big 12 start, Baylor has been outgained in conference play by less than 100 total yards. The final scores aren’t showing it, but this team remains competitive: Last week, Baylor outgained Texas Tech by nearly 200 yards despite losing by two touchdowns. The Bears topped 500 yards of offense in that one, as they did at home earlier this year against Oklahoma, and as they nearly did at home against West Virginia (497) recently. Baylor covered against both the Sooners and Mountaineers.

 

Iowa State may have to play this one without QB Kyle Kempt, who’s insertion into the lineup spurred the team’s sudden turnaround. Earlier this week, HC Matt Campbell labeled him "day-to-day." If Kempt can’t go, the team figures to start Zeb Noland. It will also likely use LB Joel Lanning as a Wildcat quarterback, which can’t help but hurt his effectiveness as a linebacker. Remember: Much has been asked of Lanning this year. His teammates are weary, but Lanning must be downright exhausted.

 

If Iowa State goes to Waco tired, under-motivated or both, they may leave it with a loss that will be less shocking in reality than it is in perception.

 

Georgia Tech -6.5 at Duke

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

We swung and missed on Duke last week against Army, but we’re going to take another hack at it.

 

Most of the same logic applies here: Prior to last week, Duke was 6-0 ATS in their last six against the service academies and Georgia Tech. And while the Blue Devils couldn’t pull out the victory as small road favorites against Army, it wasn’t because they struggled to defend the option. Duke held Army to a season-low 268 yards (and gave up less than 215 yards to Army in their previous two matchups).

 

Duke had a bye prior to the Army game, which means that it has been preparing for the triple-option for the past three weeks. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is in a letdown spot after upsetting Virginia Tech last week.

 

To put it in Dino Babers’ words, Duke is now up on a cliff at 4-6; they have no more room for error and must win out (this week and then at Wake Forest next week) to go bowling. We think they get that started by upsetting the Jackets on Saturday.

 

North Texas -2.5 vs. Army

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

North Texas has a couple of different things going for them here.

 

First off, they’re objectively the better team. S&P+ ranks the Mean Green No. 46, and Army No. 59. It set this line at North Texas -5.2.

 

So theoretically, we’re getting about a field goal of line value here, probably because Army is on a six-game winning streak. But who have the Black Knights really beaten?

 

Their best win of the season, according to S&P+, was a one-point victory over 4-7 Eastern Michigan (No. 64 S&P+). Outside of that, Army hasn’t beaten anyone in the S&P+ top-80.

 

By contrast, North Texas has three wins over top-60 S&P+ teams (UAB, Southern Miss and UTSA). The Mean Green are also hot, having won their last three.

 

While Army has a solid offense thanks to its triple-option attack, the advanced stats say the Black Knights struggle mightily on defense. Army ranks No. 116 S&P+ against the run and No. 125 against the pass. North Texas has a top-25 S&P+ passing game and a solid running game (No. 51 S&P+) to compliment it behind star running back Jeffery Wilson (1,143 yards, 13 TDs).

 

North Texas’ pass defense stinks (No. 105 S&P+), but fortunately, Army rarely passes. The Black Knights run on nearly every down, and North Texas has proven to have a strong running defense (No. 44 S&P+).

 

If all this isn’t enough for you, consider that North Texas has already covered two games against Army since the beginning of last year. The Mean Green stunned Army 35-18 as 17-point underdogs during the 2016 regular season. Then, the schools were paired up during bowl season. That time, North Texas lost 38-31 but covered as 11-point underdogs.

 

Three for the Road:

 

Virginia +19.5 at Miami

 

California +16 at Stanford

 

Oregon -2 vs. Arizona

 

***

 

2017 Record: Straight-Up: 98-42 (70.0%); Against the Spread: 75-60-3 (55.5%)

  

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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