Thor Nystrom

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Week 7 CFB Best Bets

Thursday, October 11, 2018


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. Check us out on iTunes here!

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Hawaii +11.5 at BYU

I’m well aware of Hawaii’s historic ATS struggles on the mainland. But this isn’t your garden variety Hawaii squad, and BYU shouldn’t be laying double-digits to more than 10 or so FBS teams at this point.

Last week, without star QB Cole McDonald, Hawaii still beat Wyoming by four at home, covering all numbers that were available all week (Hawaii opened -3.5 and the line swung all the way to Wyoming -3 before kickoff as news broke that McDonald would miss the game with a mysterious stomach illness).

That game is an extremely useful datapoint for this one, because BYU and Wyoming are the double Spiderman GIF. BYU ranks No. 86 S&P+, with the No. 106 offense, No. 50 defense and No. 74 special teams unit. Wyoming ranks No. 88 S&P+, with the No. 108 offense, No. 52 defense and No. 28 special teams unit. Spooky.

McDonald said Tuesday that he intends to start this game, and the Honolulu paper reaffirmed that. The Hawaii press is notoriously sketchy with passing along information — we didn't get confirmation last week until minutes before kickoff that McDonald wasn't going to play — and McDonald himself could theoretically be exaggerating his status for gamesmanship reasons, but HC Nick Rolovich did state on Sunday that McDonald’s injury was a short-term thing. McDonald has practiced all week, and every news outlet I've read is now reporting that McDonald is "probable" to start.

With McDonald active, I love Hawaii catching double-digits and I think they’re a very live dog. S&P+ has this line set at BYU -3.6, and I think that’s about right. Hawaii is the better team of the two (S&P+ actually ranks BYU six slots ahead of them, but we can forgive S&P+ that; it isn’t sentient, it does not have eyeballs, and therefore it has never been forced to watch BYU’s offense).

The 6-1 Rainbow Warriors have answered our questions over and over again this year, regardless of situation. And that includes the loss, where they somehow managed to push ATS in one of the worst situational spots we’ll see all year at Army.

I punched my bet in at 12.5 on Tuesday early evening immediately after McDonald announced he was playing (but, as always, I use updated lines when I post the column). I’ll repeat what I said last week: BYU is a paper tiger. They ambushed Arizona in the opener when the Wildcats couldn’t figure out what they were doing offensively in Game 1 under Kevin Sumlin, and then the Cougars shocked Wisconsin two weeks later.

Over the past two weeks against Washington and Utah State, BYU posted 0% win expectancies in both with combined adjusted scoring margins of -67.1 (i.e. S&P+ says they should have lost those games by 33.5 ppg). BYU just announced that second-leading tackler LB Zayne Anderson has undergone season-ending surgery. The Cougars also announced Thursday that they’ve pulled the plug on QB Tanner Manum in favor of true freshman QB Zach Wilson. Wilson has only attempted only six passes all year.

And we’re getting double-digits to fade this optical allusion BYU outfit with a livewire 6-1 underdog with a sick offense. Sign me up!

Hawaii-BYU OVER 56.5

I’m not done with this game.

The over/under opened at a mere 54.5 due to the uncertainty of McDonald’s status. And I guess I could understand that thinking a bit: Hawaii’s attack had just ground to a halt in the 17-13 win over BYU doppelgänger Wyoming. If true freshman QB Chevan Cordeiro was starting again, perhaps we would get another low-scoring game with conservative offensive philosophies on both sides, a repeat of what we just saw.

But that’s not going to happen. Upon McDonald’s announcement, I expected the spread to plummet (i.e. for Hawaii to become single-digit ‘dogs) and for the over/under to jump a TD or so northward. Neither happened! The over/under has only risen two points since earlier this week.

And that’s not all: BYU is turning the keys over to the true freshman Wilson at quarterback. Wilson is a three-star pocket passer who showed off some wheels off the bench with a 26-yard scramble last Friday against Utah State's backups. Wilson could spark the offense, he could do nothing of the sort, and/or he could commit the type of crushing turnovers true freshmen QBs are known for. Either way, his presence over the conservative, limited pocket-passing Mangum is a boon for over bettors.

Lastly, as mentioned, BYU’s second-leading tackler has been shut down. BYU’s defense is physical but extremely slow. It is built to defend phonebooth teams like Cal and Wisconsin, not offenses that spread them out and force them to defend in space, as we saw last week against Utah State. It’s hard to envision a scenario where both of these teams don’t score 21 points or more on Saturday. Any score past 28-28 cashes the over ticket. I like our chances. With McDonald under center, Hawaii scored 42 or more points in five of six games (the exception being the 21 they scored in that awful spot against Army mentioned above; obviously, Hawaii's possessions were deliberately limited in that one against Army's triple-option offense).

Cal -7 vs. UCLA

UCLA is coming off an impressive showing against Washington in which the Bruins almost matched the Huskies in total yards but were done in by a procession of third-down conversions allowed. Your handicap for this one is pretty straightforward: Do you think that UCLA "turned the corner" in that one? Do you believe that the UCLA we see going forward will most closely resemble the team we saw against Washington, or the UCLA team we saw every other week before that?

 

From my pick, you know where I stand on that.

Cal has lost two straight and has failed to cover a spread since Week 2 against BYU, which is why we only have to lay single-digits here. The Bears have gone -6 in turnovers over the past two weeks, losing each time while looking way better than the scoreboard indicated. The Bears lost by 18 to Oregon, but S&P+ set the adjusted scoring margin in that one at Oregon -6.3. Last week against Arizona, Cal lost by a touchdown but incredibly had a 93% postgame win expectancy with an adjusted scoring margin of Cal by 15.1.

Brandon McIlwain has been the cause of many of those turnovers. But I actually like what he has given the Cal offense. Cal’s offense had nothing going for it before. Now it has a playmaker under center, albeit a raw, inexperienced one prone to mistakes. Will the bonehead mistakes go away as McElwain gains more experience? I'm hopeful, but we're about find out one way or the other.

 

Cal’s offense ranks a ghastly No. 117 S&P+, but that’s understating it because it’s weighting the pre-McElwain games the same as the post-McElwain games (Cal has moved the ball more easily since he took over). Outside of the offense, Cal is a championship-caliber team. Cal boasts the No. 6 S&P+ defense and the No. 7 S&P+ special teams. UCLA’s No. 89 offense doesn’t have a prayer in this game, while Cal will probably be able to move the ball against UCLA’s No. 78 defense (the Bruins do have a solid special teams, No. 20).

 

UCLA may be in for a hangover spot after that great performance against Washington fell short. The Bruins are a bad team that may only win a game or two this year. With 3-2 Cal on the upswing and desperately needing a win here to advance its bowl aspirations, I can’t see UCLA getting it done in this spot. If I'm wrong about the in-season UCLA resurgence, so be it. But Cal won't be overlooking them like Washington did. Especially after Justin Wilcox just got done spending a week drilling his players with tape that depicted UCLA giving Pac-12 royalty everything it could handle.

 

Colorado State (pick 'em) vs. New Mexico

For me, this matchup comes down to trusting my preseason read. CSU backers are getting a small discount here because New Mexico rides in with a winning record (3-2) fresh off a 50-14 shellacking of UNLV. But the Lobos’ resume doesn’t impress me.

Outside of the Wisconsin game, New Mexico has played three FBS teams ranked S&P+ No. 107 or lower and FCS Incarnate Word. The Lobos beat NMSU (No. 118), lost to Liberty (No. 114), and, as mentioned, drop-kicked UNLV. UNLV was playing without starting QB Armani Rogers in that game. Without Rogers, the Rebels are a bottom-10 FBS team that reminds me a lot of the New Mexico State team a few years ago that had Larry Rose and literally nothing else (in UNLV’s case, Lexington Thomas and nothing else).

And sure: Colorado State hasn’t impressed this year. But is their body of work really much worse than New Mexico’s? CSU lost to Hawaii (No. 92), a pair of top-45 Power 5 teams (Colorado and Florida), and then, inexplicably, Illinois State. But I want to make this point: The first three losses look a ton better now than they did at the time. So does the win over Arkansas (No. 67). Last week, CSU won at San Jose State (123).

Colorado State is a team with many weaknesses but one pronounced strength, the passing attack. New Mexico has played only one G5 team with a strong passing attack, Liberty, and it got upset. NM’s advanced pass D stats are solid — hard to say how legitimate they are considering the teams they've passed — except for the No. 130 ranking in defending passing explosiveness.

I think star CSU WRs Preston Williams and Olabisi Johnson are both headed for big games.

Utah State -26 vs. UNLV

Speaking of UNLV! I might lay 24 points or more once or twice a season, but I think this spot may justify it (I grabbed Utah State -24 earlier this week; I'd advocate this play up to 28).

S&P+ has this game at Utah State -24, but it is still giving UNLV credit for its work earlier this season, when QB Armani Rogers was under center. Rogers, a fabulous runner who can’t throw, is out with an injury. His replacement, Max Gilliam, can’t run or throw. In Gilliam’s first start last week against lowly New Mexico, UNLV got smoked 50-14 at home with a -45.0 S&P+ adjusted scoring margin.

The lines don’t completely reflect it yet, but Utah State is one of the nation’s best G5 teams. S&P+ ranks USU No. 25 in the nation, with the No. 24 offense, the No. 45 defense, and the No. 21 special teams unit. The defense is better against the run than pass, which is nice in this matchup. Take UNLV’s run game away and it will turn into a three-and-out fest.

The Rebels’ defense ranks No. 109, and its special teams ranks No. 121. UNLV probably has the country’s worst passing offense (less than 100 yards per game on 41.5% completions and around 4.0 ypa). This team’s old path to success was having a healthy Rogers team up with Lexington Thomas to prevent defenses from keying on either. Again: Without Rogers, you just have the old Larry Rose NMSU teams that regularly faced stacked boxes and were unable to complete passes to keep defenses honest.

If things start to get away from them, UNLV isn’t exactly a scary backdoor cover team. For UNLV to cover, they’re going to need Utah State’s offense to play significantly worse than it has to this point. Against a defense as bad as UNLV’s, with a special teams advantage that is going to consistently put USU in good field position, it’s really hard to envision that happening.


Colorado +7 at USC

I’ve cashed three tickets on Colorado during their 3-0 start (Nebraska, UCLA and Arizona State). Colorado is 4-1 ATS, while USC is the inverse at 1-4 ATS.

I noted on the podcast last week that linesmakers still hadn’t adequately adjusted to Colorado’s quality level. They still haven’t, even after CU’s win over Arizona State last weekend. As I told my podcast co-host Mark during a Monday evening phone call: “I get to back Colorado again, I get to fade Clay Helton again — and, M, they’re giving me a touchdown for my troubles!”

S&P+ set this line at USC -4.4, which is closer to reality. For me, this line should be closer to USC -3.5. USC is off a bye, but Colorado has a big coaching edge that probably nullifies the benefit of extra rest.

The Trojans have beaten exactly one team by more than four points this year, UNLV (a game where USC’s adjusted scoring margin was a mere 12.4). USC’s offense is shockingly mediocre (No. 60 S&P+). The attack has no pronounced strength, perfectly mediocre both running the ball and passing it. USC also turns the ball over too much and struggles in the red zone.

Because the team is poorly coached and reliant on youth all over (including a true freshman QB), those areas of concern aren’t likely to magically improve this year through positive regression toward the mean.

USC remains a solid team (No. 37 S&P+) because its defense (No. 30 S&P+) and special teams (also No. 30 S&P+) units are both good. For whatever its worth, the Trojans’ best path to a cover here might be to steal a touchdown on special teams (Colorado is No. 90 S&P+ on special teams).

The Buffaloes, however, are well-equipped to take advantage of USC’s carelessness (CU ranks No. 37 in TO margin) and USC’s struggles with pressure (CU is No. 15 in blitz down big-play rate).

USC’s pass defense has been susceptible to mistakes and big plays allowed. That’s a problem against Steven Montez and Laviska Shenault, one of college football’s most devastating aerial duos. I think Colorado, which has 35 players from California on its roster, is a live dog in the Coliseum on Saturday.

Michigan State +13.5 at Penn State

Full disclosure: I’ve faded Penn State in three straight games and lost all three times (I also faded them in the opener against Appy State and won).

To make this bet, we not only need to step in front of a good Penn State team, but also some really strong situational trends. PSU is off a bye. Per BetLabs, ranked teams favored at home off a bye are 91-62-4 ATS. If you set the parameters to “Top 25 teams that lost their previous game before the bye”, the record jumps to 22-10-2 ATS over the previous 34.

But we’ve got some strong trends in our favor as well. The one that gives me most comfort: MSU HC Mark Dantonio is 13-3 ATS as an underdog of a touchdown or more in Big Ten play. Over their last 21 games as an underdog, Sparty is 16-5 ATS and 11-10 SU.

Michigan State’s offense has really struggled this year. But it is probably going to get RB LJ Scott back for this one. Scott has been a gametime decision in three straight games but sat each time after trying to give it a go in warmups. As of Thursday when this column posted, it sure sounded like he’s going to return this weekend.

That would be huge, because MSU’s running game has gone into the tank since he’s been out. Sparty was not well protected for Scott missing time after RB2 Madre London bolted to Tennessee in the offseason as a grad transfer. Scott’s return will play up not only the run game, but they pass game as well.

QB Brian Lewerke has disappointed to this point. But to be fair to him, this offense, like, for instance, Iowa’s, is constructed to establish the run and then take advantage of play-action opportunities. Without a run game, MSU has consistently found itself in disadvantageous third-and-long scenarios.

Long story short: I think we’re going to get a better MSU offensive performance on Saturday than we’ve gotten the past few weeks. Defensively, Sparty is a team with a pronounced strength and a pronounced weakness. MSU boasts one of the nation’s best run defenses, but its pass defense has been awful so far.

If Sparty can shut down Penn State’s run game, it’s going to consistently put the Nittany Lions passing attack into the sort of third-and-long scenarios that MSU’s own passing offense has struggled in all year. PSU QB Trace McSorley misses Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton. S&P+’s numbers, which filter out garbage-time, have McSorley completing a mere 52.9% of his passes for a mediocre 6.9 ypa. PSU’s passing attack is sub-mediocre across the advanced stats board outside of explosion (No. 30 S&P+).

PSU’s offense needs uses the running game, which has graded out extremely well, to set up the passing game. If MSU can shut down Miles Sanders, PSU’s entire No. 9 S&P+ offense is going to play down. With 13.5 points to play with, we’re going to be sitting pretty if this ends up being a low-scoring affair.  

Coastal Carolina -6.5 vs. UL-Monroe

I punched this one in at Coastal -4.5 earlier this week and then, as I waited to publish this column, I watched the line balloon by two points. The move wasn’t a surprise. S&P+ has Coastal favored by 11.4 points with a 75% win expectancy.

The 3-2 Chanticleers are a great story. They return to their home stadium for the first time in a month as Coastal played three straight road games and stayed in hotels after campus was damaged by Hurricane Florence. HC Joe Moglia, a former businessman with a wild backstory (former CEO of TD AmeriTrade), is back after missing last year when mold was discovered to be growing in his lungs.

It’s been a tough road, but this team, which was not expected to be this good, excelled through the teeth of the adversity. Coastal had won three straight games — including an extremely impressive win over S&P+ No. 59 UAB — prior to losing to Troy on the last Saturday of September. Last week, Coastal got a much-needed bye.

With four straight losses, UL-Monroe’s season is going the other direction. To be fair, two of those games were against SEC teams and another was against Troy, the team that just beat Coastal. But the fourth team was S&P+ No. 120 Georgia State, which annihilated ULM 46-14.

ULM’s defense, always a problem, has completely fallen apart. In those four games, the WarHawks surrendered a combined 199 points. ULM’s defense ranks a ghastly No. 121 S&P+, and it would probably be even worse if the WarHawks hadn’t have risen up in a 21-20 upset over Southern Miss in Week 2. ULM is No. 128 in the country with 7.41 yards per play allowed.

ULM HC Matt Viator sounded beaten down after his squad gave up 826 yards on an astounding 11.5 yards per play to Ole Miss last week: “We’re just not playing good, and that’s what’s frustrating. We’re just not playing good, and that’s what’s frustrating. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and continue to work.” Doesn’t sound good, right?

We knew the defense and special teams (No. 121 S&P+) were going to stink. It’s the offense (No. 101 S&P+) that has been a huge disappointment. I thought QB Caleb Evans’ performance last year was statistically fluky, and I faded him in college fantasy football over the summer. That said, I didn’t expect the unit to regress to this degree. UL-Monroe returned almost everyone from an offense that ranked 17th in offensive S&P+. This year, ULM averages a poor 5.6 yards per play and a mere 18.1 points per game.

I think ULM is going to get lit up by Coastal’s offense, one of the most underrated in the G5 (No. 28 S&P+). I assume Coastal will get starting QB Kilton Anderson, a Fresno State transfer, back for this one. Anderson missed the Troy game after suffering a high-ankle sprain. He returned to practice this week. I would advocate checking in on his status, however, before I bet. Officially, he's considered a game-time decision.

Coastal does have a strong backup quarterback, however, and the team is very well coached. The defense (No. 126 S&P+) is a big problem, but Coastal’s offense and special teams (No. 27) is going to make it one of the Sun Belt’s toughest outs this year. Unless ULM magically shows up with last year's team, it's gonna get drilled.

Baylor +14.5 at Texas

Last Saturday night, after Texas upset Oklahoma, I tweeted the following: “The job isn’t over because you made money on Herman as an underdog. You must finish the 2-step and fade him as a double-digit fav next week.”

Do you have the heart do it?

For as good as Tom Herman has been as an underdog, he’s been almost as bad as a favorite. He’s 4-13 ATS in his last 17 as a favorite. Since arriving at Texas, Herman is 2-7 ATS with three outright losses as a favorite of six points or more.

On top of that, this is an bad hangover spot for the Longhorns, off the program-defining upset win over archival Oklahoma. After a bye next week, Texas next travels to Oklahoma State and gets West Virginia the week after that. Baylor sits in the middle of all those heavy hitters. This is a game Texas wants to get over with as soon as possible to begin their week off. For the Bears, this is the Super Bowl. Outside of TCU, Texas is Baylor’s biggest rival.

So we have technical and situational factors working heavily against Texas. I think the matchup is also conducive for the two-TD underdog. Texas’ defensive strength is up front, where they slow opposing teams’ running games and get them into third-and-long situations. Texas’ weakness is allowing explosive plays.

The Longhorns rank No. 121 in passing explosiveness against and, troublingly, only No. 120 in sack rate (opponent’s have also been able to rip off long runs, UT ranks No. 84 against ground explosion).

Offensively, Texas is efficient and careful with the ball but not at all explosive. They rank No. 109 in IsoPPP and No. 108 in marginal explosiveness. Baylor’s biggest defensive weakness is its garbage rushing defense. Texas is going to be able to methodically shred Baylor on the ground. But the Longhorns will most likely not be able to rip off the type of explosive plays you’d like to see if you’re laying two touchdowns.

Here’s the thing: Baylor’s defense ranks No. 122 in rushing explosion against and No. 90 in passing explosion against. And because of that, we have this image in our heads of the Bears’ defense being an abject embarrassment. And hey, maybe it is, and it did just give up 250 rushing yards to the immortal Alex Barnes.

But if Texas isn’t able to generate five or six explosive plays, it’s odds of covering this number are low. They absolutely could, but Texas isn't built for that (you could make the counterargument that Kansas State isn't either, to be fair; but to be equally fair, Baylor still won that game). And Baylor should absolutely be able to generate explosive passing plays of its own, because Texas is going to struggle defending the trio of Denzel Mims, Jalen Hurd and Chris Platt. Baylor’s defense may be garbage, but this offense (No. 22 S&P+) is extremely dangerous.

Baylor is also way more efficient than they’re given credit for, with a No. 19 S&P+ success rate and No. 9 S&P+ offensive marginal efficiency. This is an offense that stays on schedule — with a four-headed RB committee (including Hurd) that are all averaging over 5.0 ypc and a passing attack that feasts over the middle because of Hurd’s cheat-code physicality out of the slot — and can also beat you over the top with Mims and Platt.

I think Texas wins this game, but the Longhorns’ profiles paints a pretty clear picture of why they’re a money underdog team and a poor favorite.

Virginia +6.5 vs. Miami

Similarly to above, this is a terrible technical and situational spot for a favorite facing a tough matchup. And like the Baylor-Texas game, we’re additionally getting some line value with the ‘dog. In this case, S&P+ installed Miami as a 4.3-point favorite.

Professional bettors have clearly been behind Virginia in this contrarian spot. Earlier this week, we saw reverse line movement (when the line moves against the side that is drawing the most tickets) as well as steam action on the Cavs.

Virginia comes in fresh as a daisy off a bye. Meanwhile, Miami has played six straight games and had to furiously rally back in the second half last week against Florida State to steal a one-point win after the Canes trailed by 20. An ACC road game against an unranked opponent is not the spot you typically see Miami get up for. Hell, they couldn't even get up for archrival FSU at home last week.

The Hurricanes will need something close to their A-game to beat this Virginia team by a touchdown or more. The Cavaliers match up really well defensively against a meh Miami offense (No. 39 S&P+). Miami has had issues throwing the ball all year, between star WR Ahmmon Richards being forced to retire and quarterback inconsistency, and that issue isn’t going to resolve itself before Saturday.

HC Bronco Mendenhall prioritizes stopping the run, and it’s not a surprise that run defense is a pronounced strength of this UVA team. That goes for penning in dual-threat quarterbacks, which Virginia has already done three times this year. The Cavs erased QB Malik Cunningham a few weeks ago, sending him back to the bench. Miami QB N’Kosi Perry, of course, is very much a run-first quarterback at this time. In his two starts, both as double-digit favorites against ACC opponents (FSU and UNC), Perry struggled with accuracy and decision-making.


So Virginia should succeed to at least some degree in making Miami play left-handed. If that happens, everything clicks into place. Perry must throw into a solid UVA secondary, Miami’s attack becomes inefficient, and Virginia offensively tries to nick a strong Miami defense (No. 14 S&P+) to death with QB Bryce Perkins scrambles, RB Jordan Ellis runs, and quick-hitters to offensive weapon Olamide Zaccheus.

Virginia basically only has those three playmakers on offense, and its offensive line isn’t great. This isn’t the best matchup for the Cavs offense. But on the other hand, Virginia is going to be able to negate the effectiveness of Miami’s front seven disruption simply by not having Perkins drop back and survey his options from the pocket. Not his game, not the plan. When Perkins is throwing, the ball will be out very quickly, likely to Zaccheus. You wouldn't think Virginia’s three-man offense would be any good, but they somehow manage to be explosive while mostly remaining efficient, leading to a No. 47 S&P+ offensive ranking.

Lastly, both teams are terrible on special teams (Virginia is No. 126 S&P+, Miami is No. 111), negating a facet of the game each has struggled with. I think we see a low-scoring, physical chess-match. I’d consider a play on the under as well.


Two for the Road:

Duke +3 at Georgia Tech

Texas A&M -2 at South Carolina


***


2018- 34-36 (48.6%) ATS


2014-2017- 397-345-16 (53.5%) ATS



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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