Thor Nystrom

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Week 13 CFB Best Bets

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


Mississippi State -14.5 vs. Ole Miss (Thursday)

 

Straight Up: Miss. St. Bulldogs logo

Against the Spread:

Ole Miss Rebels logo

 

When Shea Patterson was sidelined for the season by a knee injury last month, we thought the Rebels would pack it in until the season mercifully ended. That hasn’t exactly happened. 

Instead, the Rebs have just kept on trucking offensively behind QB Jordan Ta’amu. They dropped at least 35 points in each of his first three starts before finally being held to 24 by Texas A&M last weekend. 

If Ole Miss hasn’t folded up its tents yet, it won’t in advance of this one. The Egg Bowl is one of the nation’s most heated rivalries, and the current NCAA scandal, which involved a pair of Bulldogs who were heavily recruited by Ole Miss, will make this year’s rendition even more so.

At this point, we trust Ta’amu and the rest of this attack to put up points. Ole Miss continues to have a top-10 S&P+ passing attack. While Mississippi State’s No. 8 S&P+ passing defense would seem to match up very well, the Bulldogs live and die by the blitz. Because of that, they force more than their fair share of three-and-outs and turnovers while regularly ceding home run plays (No. 124 S&P+ pass defense in defending explosive plays).

Ta’amu’s receiving corps is one of the NCAA’s most talented, with multiple NFL-caliber perimeter threats led by WR A.J. Brown. The dual-threat Ta’amu should be able to buy extra time when the pocket inevitably collapses. So long as Ta’amu (9/3 TD/INT rate) can limit turnovers, then, he should be able to gouge MSU for multiple big plays down the field. The Rebs boast the ninth-most explosive offense in the country per S&P+.

This line dropped to 14.5 after the Bulldogs opened as a 17-point favorite. S&P+ believes the line should be even lower than that, installing Mississippi State as 7.4-point favs. 

Ole Miss’ poor rushing defense will allow Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams to get theirs on the ground. There’s no way of sugarcoating it: MSU’s run offense against Ole Miss’ run defense is an enormous mismatch. We aren’t putting the Bulldogs on upset alert. We just think this game will be closer than the number indicates.

One more thing to keep in mind, regarding Ole Miss’ quick-strike offense: A backdoor cover is very much in play even if this game doesn’t play out exactly how we think it will.

 

UCF -10.5 vs. USF (Friday)

 

Straight Up: UCF Knights logo

Against the Spread:

South Florida Bulls logo

 

If this were a just world, UCF would be in the Playoff conversation.

We continue to think that the Knights are criminally underrated. Even so, they shouldn’t be laying double-digits to USF.

Like everyone else, we were hoping to see an undefeated UCF against an undefeated USF in this one. That won’t happen, but it almost did. The Bulls’ only loss was a four-pointer to Houston when the Cougars pulled out a miraculous victory in the waning seconds.

The Bulls are more dangerous this year than they have been in years past because of their improved defense. According to S&P+, USF’s defense (No. 18) is better than its offense (No. 39). USF’s defense is extremely efficient (No. 2 S&P+), which should help to mitigate some of UCF’s elite offensive efficiency (No. 4).

UCF has managed to transcend a mediocre running offense (No. 61 S&P+) and mediocre rushing defense (No. 61 S&P+) so far. USF QB Quinton Flowers should be able to gash the Knights on the ground, and USF’s defensive strength of pass defense (No. 16 S&P+) lines up neatly with UCF’s offensive strength (No. 31 S&P+). 

Expect a close game that could go either way.

 

Purdue -2.5 vs. Indiana (Friday) 

 

Straight Up: Purdue Boilermakers logo

Against the Spread:

Purdue Boilermakers logo

 

Both teams enter 5-6 in a classic loser-leaves-town game: The winner goes bowling, the loser’s season is over.

While it’s true that Indiana has faced a harder schedule in getting to 5-6 than Purdue has—because IU played Ohio State and Penn State—it’s not true that Indiana’s resume is more impressive than Purdue’s. 

The Hoosiers have beaten no teams in the S&P+ top-60, and they’ve beaten only one team in the S&P+ top-105 (No. 65 Virginia). Meanwhile, Purdue has two wins over S&P+ top-30 teams (Louisville and Missouri) and three over top-60 teams (Iowa). 

Purdue is inches away from reaching its first bowl game since the 2011 Little Caesars Bowl (Indiana went bowling in each of the past two games). That’s one motivational angle that favors Purdue. But it’s probably not the biggest.

To hear Purdue players talk about it, they’re more excited to potentially beat the archrival Hoosiers for the first time.

Purdue DT Gelen Robinson is among the crop of Boilermakers who are 0-3 over their careers against the Hoosiers. ”I’ve never had the Bucket here in my years, so it’s going to be even more important for me to go all out for my senior day and my last game,” Robinson said. He added this: “This is probably the most important game that all of us seniors have played here in the past four years. ... It’s an exciting and emotional experience. We’re ready to play."

Purdue star senior ILB Ja'Whaun Bentley echoed that message: "Right now, we know they have the Bucket. We’re trying to get it back. That’s the mission.” 

We see Purdue as the slightly superior team in a vacuum. That they have homefield advantage and a motivational edge hardens our resolve that they’ll turn back the Hoosiers on Friday.

 

 

Virginia Tech -7 at Virginia (Friday)

 

Straight Up:

Virginia Cavaliers logo

Against the Spread:

Virginia Cavaliers logo

 

Looking around the internet this week, we found it interesting that our favorite computer models vehemently disagreed with this line—on both sides.

ESPN’s FPI installed Virginia Tech as 13.6-point favorites. OddsShark’s model projects a Hokies win of 18.2-points. Meanwhile, S&P+ goes the other way, projecting VT as mere 2.9-point favorites.

We agree with S&P+’s interpretation.

Virginia Tech started strong, but they’ve looked off for nearly a month now. The Hokies entered this month 7-1, a record that was a tad fluky. Of those seven wins, only one came against a team ranked in S&P+’s top-70. That was the 31-24 win in the opener against West Virginia (No. 43).

Va Tech opened this month by getting dominated by Miami, and they followed that game up by no-showing the Georgia Tech tilt a week later (it was only a six-point loss on paper, but it was far more lopsided than that, with S&P+ estimating the Adjusted Scoring Margin at Georgia Tech by 19.9 points). 

Last week, the Hokies sleep-walked through a six-point win against Pitt in a game that easily could have gone the other way (S&P+’s Adjusted Scoring Margin said Pitt outplayed VT by about five points; the Panthers had a first-and-goal at the end to win, but got stoned four times). 

The VT issues go back a bit further than the past three games, as Virginia Tech’s 2-5 ATS record over its last seven games attests (for this matchup, we should also point out that VT is 2-6 ATS in its last eight road games). 

One reason for the struggles is injuries—the Hokies list 12 players on their injury list—and the other is offensive regression. Despite having a dual-threat quarterback and what some thought was a talented stable of backs, Virginia Tech’s ground game is sputtering. It ranks No. 87 S&P+, and the Hokies have no runners who have even reached 450 ground yards this season.

Tech’s passing offense has been decent (No. 48 S&P+), but certainly not strong enough to overcome the lack of running game when playing good teams. VT’s passing game essentially comes down to Josh Jackson praying Cam Phillips gets open. Phillips has been targeted 103 times while posting a 68-918-7 receiving line. Freshman slot WR Sean Savoy is the only other receiver who’s been targeted more than 41 times.

The 6-5 Cavaliers are heading in the opposite direction. Virginia surprised many (us included) by achieving bowl eligibility in Bronco Mendenhall’s second season. Overachieving on the field is winning at the window, and Virginia is 6-3 ATS in its last nine games.

Virginia is also out for revenge, as they’ve lost 13 straight games to the Hokies. In fact, the Cavs have only beaten Virginia Tech once (in 2003) since 1999 (1-17 since then). Virginia’s solid defense should be able to keep the score down, and we think their solid passing will get on the board often enough to give us an outright upset win.


 

Notre Dame -2 at Stanford

 

Straight Up: Notre Dame Fighting Irish logo

Against the Spread:

Notre Dame Fighting Irish logo

 

The case against Notre Dame?: Two weeks ago, they were annihilated by Miami. Last week, they weathered Navy’s triple-option physicality in a seven-point win. If you’re playing against the Irish, you’re banking on the fact that they’re tired for their cross-country trip to The Farm and won’t be up for another physical game against the Cardinals.

The case for Notre Dame: Almost everything else we can think of.

We’ve faded Stanford a few times over the past month, and we’ve used the same reasoning each time: Their team’s success is heavily reliant on getting multiple huge gains out of Bryce Love every game, and Love’s effectiveness has been compromised since he suffered an ankle injury last month.

As Phil Steele pointed out earlier this week, Stanford has averaged only 141 rushing yards per game in their last four games after averaging 258 over their first seven. Not only that, but you’d figure HC David Shaw won’t sell out on Love’s usage against the Irish with the Pac-12 championship game on deck (the Cardinal will reach it if Washington beats Washington State in the Apple Cup).

Either way, the Irish’s No. 16 S&P+ run defense should be able to at least limit Love’s effectiveness. Flipping the field, Notre Dame’s No. 3 S&P+ run offense, led by star RB Josh Adams and dynamic dual-threat QB Brandon Wimbush, could make mincemeat of Stanford’s No. 76 S&P+ run defense.

 

Temple -3.5 at Tulsa

 

Straight Up: Tulsa Golden Hurricane logo

Against the Spread:

Tulsa Golden Hurricane logo

 

On multiple occasions this year, we’ve been burned betting on Tulsa. We only have one more chance to fritter money away on the Golden Hurricanes, and their last matchup of the season has convinced us to do so.

Tulsa is having a nightmare season, but it would be heading back to bowl season if a few bounces had gone the other way. The Golden Hurricanes have dropped five of its nine losses by seven points or fewer, and six by 10 points or less. They’ve only been blown out by Oklahoma State (made sense), Tulane (made no sense) and Memphis (made sense).

Tulsa showed what kind of team they could have been in blowing out Houston last month. Outside of that, it’s been a series of close losses to teams in their neighborhood, a pair of blowout losses to clearly superior teams, and the baffling loss to Tulane (the Mean Green were able to zero in on Tulsa’s abominable run defense).

By contrast, three of Temple's five wins have come by one possession.

For these reasons, you might perceive that you’re getting this line at a discount. FPI says Tulsa should be favored by 5.1. For its part, S&P+ more or less agrees with Vegas, installing Temple as 3.5-point favorites.

There are only three things that concern us about backing Tulsa here:

1.) Temple, at 5-6, is one win away from bowl eligibility. They’re highly motivated.
2.) After all the close losses, sitting at 2-9, will Tulsa show up for the finale?
3.) Starting Tulsa QB Luke Skipper is questionable as he goes through the concussion protocol. 

We’re just going to trust that Tulsa HC Phil Montgomery will have his troops ready for the finale. Montgomery isn’t going anywhere, and it’s not as though he’d prefer to go 2-10 over 3-9. As for the quarterback uncertainty, Chad President began the season as Tulsa’s starter and is a better fallback option than many schools have. 

Temple’s pass defense (No. 68 S&P+) can be had, and its run defense, while better, will have trouble with star Hurricanes RB D’Angelo Brewer, the leading rusher in school history with 3,662 yards and 22 touchdowns in 45 games. Saturday will mark Brewer’s final collegiate game.

 

Clemson -14 at South Carolina

 

Straight Up: Clemson Tigers logo

Against the Spread:

South Carolina Gamecocks logo

 

While South Carolina’s schedule has been relatively soft, we saw the Gamecocks hang tough in Athens against Georgia back on November 4 before ultimately losing 24-10. 

They should be able to likewise stay afloat against a Clemson team that—for all of its defensive firepower—has a tendency to allow teams to linger. Against FBS teams, Clemson has just one win by more than 14 points since the start of October (they managed a 16-point victory over a bad Florida State team). 

While South Carolina has proven to be more or less average in defending the pass this season, they have the secret sauce to limit the most crucial aspect of Clemson’s offensive attack, RBs Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster. The Gamecocks have played a staunch brand of ball against the run all year, ranking as S&P+’s No. 29 unit versus the rush. 

Slow down Etienne and Feaster, and keep QB Kelly Bryant in the pocket, and suddenly the Tigers must rely on its inconsistent passing game. 

While it’s hard to have confidence in any offense going against Clemson’s big-boy defense, South Carolina isn’t going to have to put up a huge point total to stay within the line—assuming the Gamecocks have success in limiting Clemson’s rushing offense. 

We’re getting some line value here due to Clemson’s brand name. S&P+ set this line at Clemson -10.9, which strikes us as closer to reality than two touchdowns. We see South Carolina avenging last year’s 56-7 loss with a moral victory—a close loss that stays within the number.

 

Iowa -3.5 at Nebraska

 

Straight Up:

Iowa Hawkeyes logo

Against the Spread:

Iowa Hawkeyes logo

 

We can’t really find a clear path to a Nebraska upset win here, and for that reason, we’re happy to lay the short price.

At this point, we know what the Hawkeyes are. Iowa hasn’t lost to a team outside of the S&P+ top-50. They’ve beaten four teams inside the S&P+ top-55, including Ohio State. Outside of the shocking blowout win over the Buckeyes, Iowa is a team that grinds teams of lesser talent into dust, while getting outclassed by teams with more talent.

Nebraska, S&P+’s No. 96 team, is 1-5 in their last six. In all five of those losses, they had an S&P+ Win Expectancy of 2% or less (i.e. thoroughly dominated). At 4-7, they’ve been eliminated from bowl contention. They’re also likely playing their last game under HC Mike Riley.

Nebraska doesn’t have the offense to move the ball on Iowa’s defense, and they’re playing out the string under a lame duck coach. We expect Iowa to whip the Huskers by double-digits.

 

Tennessee -1 vs. Vanderbilt

 

Straight Up: Tennessee Volunteers logo

Against the Spread:

Tennessee Volunteers logo

 

Kansas State -3 vs. Iowa State 

 

Straight Up:

Iowa St. Cyclones logo

Against the Spread:

Iowa St. Cyclones logo

 

 

Do not overthink either of these lines.

Yes, Tennessee is a tire fire—but so is Vandy. The Commodores are 1-7 since starting 3-0. Derek Mason isn’t going anywhere and Vandy plays out of the spotlight, so the Dores’ collapse hasn’t garnered the ink that the Vols’ has, but it’s been no less breathtaking. 

We see the Vols as slightly better on paper, and they have both homefield advantage and revenge (Vandy won 45-34 last year) going for them. FPI set this line at Tennessee -6.9. We wouldn’t go that far, but we agree that the Vols should be laying more points.

As for our Big 12 matchup, this year’s rendition of Farmageddon, the wrong team is favored—at least according to the computers. S&P+ set the line at ISU -1.9. Not only that, but Kansas State has serious quarterback issues right now. 

Starting QB Jesse Ertz (knee) is done for the year, QB2 Alex Delton (concussion) is sidelined and QB3 Skylar Thompson suffered an ankle injury last week against Oklahoma State. Thompson, who’s answered the emergency call into duty by going 3-1, only missed one series against the Pokes. 

As you know, he helped engineer the Wildcats to an upset win. While it’s likely Thompson will start against the Cyclones, we can’t help but think his dual-threat game will be compromised a bit playing on a bad wheel. KSU’s offense is limited as-is and can’t afford to rely on a quarterback who can’t regularly get into the open field as a runner.

 

Two for the Road:


Florida State -5 at Florida (Florida outright)


Nevada -3 vs. UNLV (UNLV outright)


****


2017 Record: Straight-Up: 107-45 (70.4%); Against the Spread: 82-65-3 (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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