Thor Nystrom

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Week 11 CFB Best Bets

Friday, November 9, 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. Subscribe on iTunes here! Write us a review and we'll shout you out on the next episode.



*All stats below refer to S&P+ unless otherwise noted*


Miami (OH) +3.5 vs. Ohio (Wednesday)


Surprised I’m backing the fighting Chuck Martins? I am myself. But I’ve liked what I’ve seen in recent weeks and I like the value we’re getting here even more. My line is Ohio -1.

If you haven’t yet watched Ohio this year, you’ll be surprised by the way they play the game. In contrast to old, crusty coach Frank Solich, the Bobcats are a high-flying offensive bunch (No. 12 S&P+) who have scored 30 or more points in all but two games this year and 49 or more in four of nine. The defense, however, is a travesty (No. 109 S&P+).

Get this: The Bobcats rank No. 100 or lower in all four of S&P+’s major defensive metrics (two for explosion, two for efficiency) and No. 98 in finishing drives (i.e. opponents tend to cash in on the scoring opportunities they're given). It’s also worth noting that S&P+ believes Ohio has benefited from 2.0 ppg of turnover luck.

While the Bobcats have been lighting teams up, they haven’t played many legitimate opponents. Their strength of schedule is No. 123. Ohio is 0-3 against top-90 S&P+ teams and 6-0 against everyone else (including last week’s demolition of Western Michigan, which is a bit misleading because the Broncos were playing their first game without starting QB Jon Wassink).

And listen, you can play the same game with Miami. The RedHawks are 0-6 against top-92 teams and 3-0 against everyone else. But what I like about Miami in this spot is their enormous defensive edge heading in. Miami is top-35 in both of S&P+’s defending explosion metrics, and top-71 in both of its defending efficiency metrics. My question is: What happens if Miami's defense takes away Ohio's explosive plays?


Because we already know that Miami is going to put up points here. Ohio has given up 32 points to Howard, 45 to Virginia (sub-No. 80 offense), 34 to Cincy (sub-No. 75 offense), 42 to UMass and 24 to NIU (No. 122 offense). Ohio needs this to be a shootout to win, because that's how they're constructed. So again: What happens if they're forced to be methodical as the other opponent is ripping off explosive plays for quick scores (Miami is top-51 in both offensive explosion metrics)?

Last week, playing on the road against a subjectively better team, Miami played to a -6.4 postgame adjusted scoring margin at Buffalo. This time, they get home-field advantage against a team they match up even better against. The RedHawks desperately need this one. They’re 3-6 and need to win out to go bowling.

It’s not an outlandish proposition. If they beat Ohio, Miami will be short road underdogs against NIU before closing the season as double-digit favorites at home against Ball State. I expect Miami to start that march by knocking off the Bobcats.


Boise State +3 vs. Fresno State (Friday)

My numbers have this game as a pick ‘em, and that’s where I’m at. I think if this game was simulated 100 times, each side would win 50, while a percentage of Fresno’s wins would come by three or less.

Those on Fresno need to pay a tax because the Bulldogs have been clowning teams for two months now. But a deeper look at their resume reveals that Fresno hasn't played a single team ranked higher than No. 62 S&P+. That team, Toledo, was in a horrific situational spot that week, traveling cross-country for a late kick. The only other top-80 team that Fresno has played is Minnesota, and the Bulldogs lost that game by seven.

Boise State has faced three teams better than No. 62 S&P+ in Troy, Oklahoma State and San Diego State. The Broncos utterly destroyed Troy on the road (56-20 with a postgame adjusted scoring margin of -43.0!), lost by six to SDSU and got smoked by Oklahoma State. The game against the Pokes sticks out in many people’s minds because it was a big spot on national television and BSU got dusted. But in hindsight, it’s no surprise that Boise couldn't handle Oklahoma State.

That’s because Boise State's biggest weakness as a team, by far, is allowing explosive plays. Oklahoma State is built to generate them. You know who isn’t? Fresno. I see a low-scoring game coming, and I think the Broncos will defend their home turf and restore order to the Mountain West by upsetting Jeff Tedford’s upstarts.


Miami (FL) +3.5 at Georgia Tech


I bet Miami on Monday at +4.5 under the strong assumption that the line would drop. Even though that has happened, my numbers still love the Hurricanes. ATL has Miami -3.

You’re going to have to hold your nose to take that value, of course. Miami is on a three-game losing streak where they’ve been upset as favorites each time. That streak would be four if Miami hadn’t have rallied back to beat FSU by one as double-digit favorites. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, has won back-to-back road ACC games by double-digits.

Miami hasn’t covered since September 27 (against UNC). You remember the Thursday night Rams-Vikings game? Played on same night. That’s how long it’s been.

So I get it. If you don't want to back Miami, understood. But for the way I handicap, this kind of game is a hanging breaking ball over the middle. I’m going to swing from the heels each time.

That’s because we’re getting a ton of value on an underdog in a great matchup and a circle-the-wagons scenario. When you handicap triple-option teams, the first thing you check on is the opponent’s stuff rate and opportunity rate against the run, key indicators of stopping the option.

The Hurricanes rank No. 1 and No. 9 in those categories, respectively. Georgia Tech’s offense hums because it is Nos. 3 and 4 in those categories offensively and top-3 in both of S&P+’s offensive efficiency metrics. Well, Miami’s defense is also top-8 in both defensive efficiency metrics. Everything that Georgia Tech is built to do, Miami is constructed to shut it down.

That goes for the players on the field, and that goes for Miami’s coaching staff as well. HC Mark Richt has had Paul Johnson’s number, winning eight of 10 against him since Johnson arrived at Georgia Tech, including each of the past two since Richt was hired at Miami (Richt, of course, faced Georgia Tech plenty while at Georgia). And as a program, Miami is 7-2 ATS in their last nine against Johnson and the Yellow Jackets.

Miami hasn’t looked quite as bad over the past month as we remember. Going back to the FSU game, Miami is 0-4 ATS and 1-3 SU. But in those four games, Miami had combined postgame win expectancies of 231% (an average of 57.7% per game). Miami got dominated by Boston College (11%), but S&P+ believes they should have beaten both Virginia and Duke and hammered FSU by double-digits.

The Canes’ second-order win total is +1.2 over their 5-4 record. That makes them one of the nation’s most unlucky teams. I expect the Hurricanes to get off the snide with an outright upset of Georgia Tech on Saturday.

Ohio State -3.5 at Michigan State

Michigan State is the MMA fighter with an awesome ground game who struggles when the opponent is able to keep the fight on its feet. (I consider MSU a homeless man’s Ben Askren, for all you UFC fans out there who know the name).

Sparty has the nation’s No. 3 rushing defense by conventional stats and the No. 2 S&P+ run defense. You play on Michigan State when they’re facing a team that can run but can’t pass (i.e. a team like Maryland), and you play against them with teams who can abandon the run for a pure aerial assault if needed (Northwestern upset MSU by 10 by doing just that).

That makes this a very bad matchup for Sparty. I fully expect Michigan State to shut down Ohio State’s disappointing rushing attack. Cool. But that will just galvanize Ohio State to skew further to the game plan they should have heading in anyway: Let Dwayne Haskins throw the ball more than 40 times.

Haskins has done so three times this year. He finished with over 400 yards passing each time. That’s in play here against a good-but-not-great MSU pass defense (No. 29 S&P+) that struggles against exactly what Ohio State is good at: Preventing completions (No. 80 S&P+) and efficiency (No. 55). MSU also has a poor pass rush that isn’t likely to get near Haskins (No. 72). In the three S&P+ passing offensive categories that I just listed, Ohio State ranks Nos. 5, 2 and 15, respectively (No. 12 overall).

Ohio State’s defense is terrible against the pass, but that isn’t likely to burn them here against Brian Lewerke, who has badly regressed in 2018. Lewerke’s best outside target, WR Felton Davis, is done for the year with an injury, and Sparty’s remaining WR corps doesn’t exactly employ the kind of game-breakers who have torched this OSU pass defense in the past.

As for Michigan State’s run offense, it has stunk all year. Part of the reason for that has to do with RB LJ Scott’s constant unavailability. Scott missed last week’s game against Maryland. And while once again he’s being deemed a game-time decision, HC Mark Dantonio said earlier this week that he’s pondering a redshirt for Scott, who has appeared in four games.


If Scott steps on the field even once more this year, he is no longer eligible to redshirt and his eligibility will exhaust at the end of the year. If I’m the 6-3 Spartans, I’m spending this week trying to convince Scott to shut it down and forego the NFL Draft for one more year. This is in Scott’s best interest as well following his lost campaign.

Either way, MSU’s rushing attack isn’t likely to level-up against OSU even if Scott is finally able to give it a go. So the problem for Sparty becomes this. We know that Haskins will have success against this pass defense. If he does, 30 points is a reasonable expectation for OSU’s point total. So how is MSU going to keep pace?

MSU’s only chance to win this game is for Haskins to struggle. It’s possible, sure. But odds are that Haskins is about to have the kind of game that NFL scouts will watch over and over again in the offseason. MSU’s secondary can be had, and I think Haskins is about to torch it.


Mississippi State +25 at Alabama

Time to step onto the tracks and fade Alabama at all-time inflated prices. How crazy is this line?

Think about it this way: Last week’s line (Alabama -14.5 at LSU) was historic. This line is more than 10 points higher against a team that is subjectively better (S&P+ ranks Mississippi State No. 11, LSU No. 21).

With teams that have new coaches with radically different systems, a good handicapping strategy in general is to fade early in the year and buy late. Mississippi State’s “buy” sign started blinking after the LSU debacle. I was just too dense to see it and I stepped into a trap trying to fade them last weekend against Louisiana Tech.

I’m fully aware of the fact that I’m stepping in front of what could be one of the great college football teams of the past couple decades here. But Alabama isn’t going to close out the season by not losing another game against the spread. In fact, at these inflated prices, it would be no real surprise if Bama had a losing ATS record from this point of the season going forward.

My ATL model has Alabama -15.5, which means that, at -25, we’re getting +9.5 points of line value. That’s absurd. In the few weeks since I built ATL and began integrating it into my handicaps, there has never been a game with that kind of discrepancy, even in games with multiple key injuries (the model cannot account for injuries, so sometimes it is seeing “value” where the market has just corrected for a key player being injured on one of the sides).

There is going to be a game coming up where Alabama looks mortal. It may not be here, but this spot is as good a bet as any, as Mississippi State has the kind of absurd defense (No. 5 S&P+) and pass defense (No. 8) that could prevent the Tide from scoring at will. Cowbell’s elite rushing offense (No. 3 S&P+) should also have enough success to put together a few sustained scoring drives, critical for any team that hopes to remain within shouting distance of Alabama on the scoreboard.

SMU -19.5 at UConn


I was able to grab this on Sunday at SMU -17. The line has jumped up since then but I stand by the play up to -20.5. Like Mississippi State, SMU is another team with a new coach whose "buy" sign started blinking since the bye week. In the three games since then, the Mustangs are 2-1 SU and 3-0 ATS, including a demolition of Houston last week.


SMU is one of those teams that handicappers appreciate because they are so statistically straightforward. SMU's offense is good at generating explosive plays, and its defensive is good at shutting them down. The offense is inefficient, and the defense is worse at defending efficiency than explosion.


UConn matches up really poorly with a team like that. UConn has the worst defense I've seen since I started covering college football professionally five years ago. The Huskies rank last in the country at No. 130 S&P+. The deeper you look into the metrics, the worse it gets. UConn is No. 130 in success rate, marginal efficiency against and IsoPPP (explosion) against, as well as No. 129 in marginal explosion against and finishing drives (i.e. how often teams cash in on scoring opportunities).


Outside of a decent special teams unit, the only thing the Huskies do well as a team is generate the occasional explosive play. If SMU takes those away -- and they should be able to -- this one is going to get out of hand. The Huskies are playing out the string on a 1-8 season and should take their next three games looking at youngsters. Meanwhile, SMU is two wins from bowl eligibility with one more highly-winnable game (Tulsa) on the schedule. SMU is peaking at the right time and should blow UConn's doors off.


UAB -11.5 vs. Southern Miss

The 8-1 Blazers have won eight straight — including a huge eight-point win over S&P+ No. 26 North Texas — and its superb defense has been playing even better in recent weeks. UAB’s defense is top-five in the country in efficiency against.

To score against that crew, you must generate explosive plays (UAB is Nos. 70 and 107 in S&P+’s two main defensive explosion categories) and run the ball effectively (UAB’s run defense is is very, very good, but its pass defense is elite in the G5 and No. 23 S&P+ overall).

Specifically, you need to be able to rip off long runs. It’s UAB’s Kryptonite. Southern Miss’ No. 118 offense isn’t explosive, and it can’t run the ball. The Eagles’ rushing attack ranks No. 116 S&P+, and No. 117 in explosion.

Meanwhile, USM’s own strong defense, ranked No. 22 S&P+, is extremely efficient (Nos. 8/14 in efficiency) but has a bad habit if giving up big plays (Nos. 65/73), particularly in the run game (No. 97). UAB’s well-rounded offense is both efficient and explosive, so it’s difficult to completely shut down.

I think UAB star RB Spencer “Moose” Brown is headed for a big day, and I think Southern Miss is going to struggle to dent the scoreboard. It makes me all the more confident that UAB has still not lost at home since they re-booted the football program. The Blazers are 11-0 SU and 10-0-1 ATS since the beginning of last season.


Oklahoma State +21 at Oklahoma


I leaned the Pokes earlier this week when the line came out at -17.5. Boy am I happy I didn't bet it at the line, because this line has become absurd, crossing the three-TD line. Clearly, this is a heated rivalry, and clearly we're going to get a shootout (Oklahoma has S&P+'s No. 53 defense, Okie State ranks No. 67). In general, it's a good rule to take the points in that scenario.


But this isn't a blind bet. It might surprise you to learn that Oklahoma hasn't played a team in the top-30 of S&P+ yet. Oklahoma State, at No. 23, will be the highest-ranked opponent they've faced. You don't think of the Pokes as a top-25 team, but S&P+ does because Okie State is better than their 5-4 record. OSU is +1.1 in second-order wins with 6.1 (i.e. if all plays in every one of their games had been randomized instead of ordered as they ocurred, Oklahoma State would likely be 6-3).


The Sooners have played three teams in S&P+'s top-45. They had a 10-point win over Iowa State (No. 31 S&P+), a three-point loss to Texas (42) and a five-point win over Texas Tech (33). That narrow win over the Red Raiders occurred last week with third-string Tech QB Jett Duffey playing a prominent role.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State suffered a last-second loss to Baylor in a game the Pokes should have won (65% postgame win expectancy). If OSU had merely prevented Baylor from furiously rallying down the field in the final 1:30 and prevented the go-ahead touchdown pass with seven-seconds left, this line might have been four points lower.


I've read some stuff online this week about how Oklahoma owns this series ATS (which is all we care about here). But here's the thing. The Bedlam line has been above 12 only once in the last decade. This is an entirely different handicapping situation than we've been presented with in the past.


I'll leave you with this. The only Bedlam game of those 10 with a line higher than 12 was the 2014 clash. Oklahoma was favored by exactly 21, as they are here. Oklahoma State won that game outright.

Texas A&M/Ole Miss OVER 66.5

This is a terrible matchup for the Aggies defense, which ranks No. 115 in yards per attempt allowed, No. 95 in S&P+ pass defense, Nos. 128 and 129 in S&P+'s two major defensive explosion categories, No. 128 in defending passing explosion and No. 121 in finishing drives (preventing opponents from cashing in on scoring chances).

Meanwhile, Ole Miss ranks No. 5 in yards per attempt offensively, No. 13 in S&P+ passing offense, Nos. 9 and 10 in S&P+'s two major offensive explosion categories (also top-6 in both of S&P+'s efficiency metrics), No. 25 in passing explosion and No. 15 in finishing drives. And Texas A&M should be able to do whatever it wants against Ole Miss' swiss cheese defense (No. 111) that struggles against the run and pass, and against both efficiency and explosion.


I also sort of like the Ole Miss side now that the number has been steamed to 13. If you want to shoot your shot on a high-paying, longshot correlated parlay, you could pair Ole Miss with the over (the Ole Miss moneyline would juice the payout dramatically) and the moneylines of four or five heavy favorites who almost assuredly won't lose (say Alabama, Clemson, Stanford, FAU and SMU, for instance).


Texas/Texas Tech UNDER 62.5


The Red Raiders' offense becomes a different thing with Alan Bowman out. Tech will once again turn to third-stringer Jett Duffey, a dual-threat who is famously mistake-prone. Texas' defensive weakness is defending the pass and Duffey has shown in limited action that he isn't capable of running this Air Raid offense at a high level from within the pocket.


With Duffey playing, I also lean Texas on the side. But Tech's success at home (the only ATS loss this year in Lubbock came against West Virginia when Bowman got knocked out early -- interestingly enough, that was Duffey's first extended action), stellar special teams and improved defense has me thinking that the under is the higher-percentage shot here.


FAU -20 vs. Western Kentucky

Oregon +4.5 at Utah

Arkansas +13.5 vs. LSU



2018- 62-57 (52.1%) ATS

2014-2017397-345-16 (53.5%) ATS

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.
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