Thor Nystrom

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Week 3 CFB Best Bets

Thursday, September 13, 2018


Before we get going this week, I wanted to mention that Rotoworld now has a college football podcast dedicated to betting against the spread. Every week, my co-host Mark Lindquist and I pick our five favorite sides of the week. Last week, in the first ever episode, we went 7-3 ATS. The newest episode dropped Wednesday afternoon. Check us out on iTunes here. If you leave a review, I'll shout you out on the next episode!

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Baylor -6.5 vs. Duke

When this number was released on Sunday, it was between Baylor pick’em and Baylor -2. I called my podcast co-host Mark all giddy. The books I'm with, however, had not released a line. By Monday morning, they had — with Baylor now a 6.5-point favorite. I lament the lost points, and the subsequent drop of my win expectancy percentage, but I’m going to take the plunge here anyway.

This is such a bad situation and spot for Duke. Last week, the Blue Devils went on the road and beat Northwestern at its own game in a physical, defense-oriented fistfight (21-7). But Duke suffered two catastrophic injuries in that game, with QB Daniel Jones breaking his clavicle (out indefinitely) and CB Mark Gilbert sustaining a season-ending hip injury.

Both losses are brutal. Jones, a prime NFL prospect with prototypical size, a strong arm and plus mobility, is vital to everything Duke does offensively. Low key Jones is one of the most valuable players to his team in the country. This scheme was built to cater to his strengths.

So not only do you lose your best offensive player, but David Cutcliffe must greatly amend the attack itself to accommodate Jones' understudy Quentin Harris, who has more rushing yards than throwing yards in his career. Without Jones, Duke no longer has a passing attack to keep defenses honest. It also hurts that WR Aaron Young, the leading receiver in the opener, is out with a hamstring issue. RB Brittain Brown may have to get used to safeties cheating up to stack the box over the next month.

As for Gilbert, you’re talking a top-five NFL cornerback prospect. A lock-down collegiate corner coming off a First-Team All-ACC season. Duke had a top-20 defense with him. Without him, it gets downgraded. Just how much, we’ll have to see. The loss hurts all the more with S Jeremy McDuffie (Third-Team All-ACC) still out. McDuffie suffered a knee injury last November, played sparingly in the opener, and didn’t travel with the team last week. With Gilbert and McDuffie, this was one of the country’s best secondaries. Without them, it’s a big question mark.

And that is a big problem against Baylor, a team with two prime NFL prospects at receiver (Jalen Hurd and Denzel Mims) and a third who’ll get a long look as well (Chris Platt). Baylor’s gameplan is pretty simple here: Stress Duke’s inexperienced secondary as much as possible. Get those young defensive backs on islands with Hurd and Mims, two huge genetic freaks, and force them to make plays in space.

Baylor is averaging over 350 passing yards per game on more than 10.3 ypa. The opponents haven’t been strong, but that’s still plenty encouraging. I'm a fan of underrated QB Charlie Brewer.

For Baylor, this is an enormous game. HC Matt Rhule is coming off a 1-11 debut season and desperately wants to return Baylor to the postseason. After this game, the nine-game Big 12 schedule begins. Head into it 3-0, and Baylor has a really strong shot to go bowling, needing only a 3-6 Big 12 record to punch its ticket. Losing this game to head in 2-1 would greatly complicates things, as Baylor would need to not only hold serve against Kansas, K-State and Texas Tech at home to go bowling, but also upset a team like Iowa State or West Virginia on the road. The odds of all four happening are below 50-percent.

Rhule knows all this quite well. So do the home fans, who’ll pack the house for the afternoon kick knowing that a win over a compromised ACC opponent drastically improves the Bears' odds of reaching the postseason.

As for Duke, you’re in a comedown spot off the physical Northwestern game with your emotional sails deflated by the injuries. And with home games to come against against FCS NC Central, Virginia, UNC and Wake Forest, this isn’t the must-win spot for Duke that it is for Baylor. Cutcliffe will have his troops ready, he always does, but it would take a herculean coaching effort to coax an upset win out of his squad after the week it just had.

Buffalo -3 vs. Eastern Michigan

A few computer models I looked at this week disagree with my play here. But I’m going to go with my gut and back Buffalo again one week after they cashed big for me by beating Temple outright as 4.5-point dogs.

To me, it seems like the computer models, the bookmakers and the public at large hasn’t caught up to just how good the Bulls are quite yet. And I guess that makes sense. I think folks tuned out after last year’s team started 3-6. Tyree Jackson was mediocre before going down with an injury in Week 4 (733 yards, 3/1 TD/INT, 55.4% completions). After an injury to the backup, Buffalo eventually had to use a third-stringer for a short spell before Jackson returned for the final four games. Jackson reemerged as a new quarterback, a dual-threat stud (1,363 yards, 9/2 TD/INT rate, 63.4% completions), and his progress further helped along WR Anthony Johnson, already one of college football’s best receivers.

Buffalo won their last three games last season to finish 6-6. Perhaps if they’d pasted some Conference USA team in the bowl game, or upset a low-tier Big 10 team, they would have entered this year with some respect. Instead, the Bulls were one of the few teams that wasn't selected and they were forced to stay home. And that just kind of rubbed me the wrong way: Four of Buffalo's six losses last year were by four points or less, two were by a single point, and it was clear by the end of the year that Buffalo was one of the MAC’s better teams. Heck, they upset MAC blueblood Ohio in the finale.

But the snub conspired to give the Bulls great betting value for one more year — or at least the beginning of it. I don’t see EMU as Buffalo’s equal, which is what this line insinuates. EMU is coming off a wild walk-off win against a down Purdue outfit, an ever-rare win over a Power 5 opponent for the boys from Ypsilanti. That outcome deflated this line in our favor, and the Eagles are due for a letdown spot. The ascending Bulls will be happy to accommodate them.

Kent State +35 at Penn State

If you’re into value shopping, come grab some free points with me. The issue with this line is that it’s treating Penn State and Kent State as if this was 2016 or 2017. But the Nittany Lions aren’t that team anymore. Maybe they will turn into an approximation later this season. But they’re not there yet. You don’t lose 11 of your 21 starters and one of the sport’s best offensive coordinators (Joe Moorhead) and come back better for it the following September. Growing pains were to be expected, and that’s why I backed Appy State in the opener at PSU, an easy winner.

Here’s another spot to fade the new-look Nittany Lions at a nice price. Because just as Penn State isn’t the team they were the past two years, neither is Kent State. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me suggesting a play on Kent State -9.5 against Howard on Saturday. KSU won that game 54-14. This came one week after the Golden Flash gave Illinois everything it could handle in a 31-24 loss. This team is much improved. The lines just don’t reflect that yet.

Kent State was incompetent in the final years of the previous regime. The program appears revitalized under new HC Sean Lewis, formerly the OC at Syracuse. Lewis’ uptempo spread system gives KSU the offensive teeth they haven’t had in forever. KSU is nowhere near being a good team, and it’s likely that they’ll finish 3-9 or 4-8 in the MAC. But there’s a huge difference between a listless, offense-bereft 2-10 team and an exciting, offense-first` 4-8 squad on the upswing.

For one, Kent State isn’t likely to roll over in Happy Valley. They’ll spread Penn State out and hope that some of the Nittany Lions’ inexperienced defenders make a few mental mistakes that will lead to explosive plays. Kent State won’t win this game, but their relentless style is going to annoy the hell out of the Nits.

Penn State showed its age by struggling mightily with Appy State in the opener. This number seems to put a lot of stock in last week’s blowout win over Pitt, which perhaps suggested to people that the Nittany Lions of old were back. Not so fast. The final score may have been 51-6, but in reality the game was a lot closer than that. PSU only outgunned Pitt by 90 yards, and Pitt controlled six more minutes of the gameclock. The Panthers spent the afternoon unloading the clip with a revolver pointed at their feet.

Tennessee -30.5 vs. UTEP

I can’t believe I’m going to lay 30-plus points with the Tennessee Volunteers, but here we are.

Here’s the deal. UTEP is the worst team in the FBS, and I’m not sure it’s particularly close (S&P+ certainly concurs, listing UTEP 130 out of 130 and a full two-plus points below No. 129). The Miners opened the season by losing to FCS Northern Arizona by 20 points. Last week, they lost by four touchdowns to UNLV.

This is a weekly thing with them. UTEP hasn’t covered a spread since last Oct 7 (!!!). They haven’t won a game outright since 2016 (!!!). This year’s defense is particularly lousy, and the passing attack completes only 43% of its attempts. I have tentatively made a personal agreement with myself to bet against UTEP every week until they cover. If I'd made that blood pact last October, I'd be retired in Barbados right now.

Tennessee is an extremely flawed team. But they retain a high talent level, and HC Jeremy Pruitt could certainly use one more blowout win heading into the meat of the schedule. The Vols beat ETSU last week by 56. UTEP is listed a little ahead of ETSU on the Sagarin rankings, but I had to scroll into the 180s to find out for sure.

S&P+ suggests this line should be around -40, and I tend to agree.

Miami (OH) +13.5 at Minnesota

I live in Minneapolis. My father is a Minnesota grad, as are a handful of my friends. I grew up with Gopher football. Meanwhile, I have made good money since the start of last year betting against RedHawks HC Chuck Martin. Miami went 4-8 ATS last year, and is 0-2 ATS to start 2018. I opposed Miami in both spots in this space.

So why am I suddenly supporting Martin as he tangos with the team of my youth? Because this isn’t a good spot for the Gophers.

Minnesota improved to 2-0 last weekend by knocking off Fresno State in an extremely impressive Saturday night showing. Minnesota is a top-heavy team with a few stars and a bunch of nondescript veterans and inexperienced youngsters surrounding them. The stars — WR Tyler Johnson, LB Blake Cashman and S Antoine Winfield, to name three — showed out against the Bulldogs, and the rest of the ragtag squad avoided mistakes in a 21-14 nail biting win that was sealed on an insane Winfield interception.

But instead of this being a good-vibe week around Minneapolis, a decidedly somber tone fell upon the program when it was announced that Johnson’s fellow offensive star, RB Rodney Smith, would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Smith’s loss is devastating on multiple fronts. From a morale perspective, the young Gophers are losing one of their true veteran leaders. From a philosophical standpoint, a team with a true freshman walk-on starting quarterback has lost a security blanket. From an overall offensive perspective, an attack with few playmakers just lost a guy who had a decent shot to get drafted in the spring. And from a depth perspective, this one stings — the run-heavy Gophers lost Smith’s co-starting RB Shannon Brooks before the season.

Now the Gophers will platoon a pair of freshman RBs next to their true freshman QB. The WR2 is also a true freshman. Tyler Johnson must feel like he woke up inside a senior prom with all the babies around him. And for the Gophers, who were already potentially looking at a letdown/lookahead spot with a big win over Fresno last week and the Big 10 slate kicking off next week, everything just got stickier.

Meanwhile, for Miami, this is a carefree spot. The team entered the fall with big expectations coming off an injury ravaged season and got upset as short favorites in the opener against Marshall. Last week, again as short favorites, Miami got shut out by Cincy in the Bengals’ stadium. But that game isn’t the best datapoint, as it was played in a downpour.

The reason I’ve made so much money against Martin in his last 14 games is that Martin’s abominable record in close games (5-18 in one possession games, 5-19 in single-digits games) makes him a fade in games where the matchup appears close. I trust in Martin’s ability to hand the opposing team the game, and thereby hand me a winning ticket.

This is a different kind of spot. Nobody expects the RedHawks to win. All Miami has to do is hang around. And that shouldn't be a problem here, because Minny didn't have a lot of offensive talent even before Smith went down. The Gophers simply aren't equipped to be laying this kind of number against a team with a pulse. And despite my pessimism about Martin, I think Miami retains one of those. I think the RedHawks recognize that this is a real opportunity to steal a game against a Big 10 opponent, much like EMU did last week at Purdue.


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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.
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