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Weekly Picks

Week 3 ATS Predictions

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

South Florida -18 vs. Illinois (Friday)


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Last week, the Illini held a Western Kentucky offense that has been one of the nation’s best over the last few years to 244 total yards (WKU averaged 523.1 YPG last year). The Hilltoppers didn't score until the fourth quarter, and Mike White (311.6 passing YPG last season) was limited to 238 yards and an interception.

Illinois’ offense remains a big concern, and QB Chayce Crouch has yet to prove he can stretch defenses deep. While the passing game is likely to remain subpar, Lovie Smith can at least compliment his defense with a solid running game. True freshman RB Mike Epstein, who rushed for 111 yards against WKU in his second collegiate game, looks like a keeper.

USF struggled with FBS patsy San Jose State in the opener and FCS Stony Brook a week later before putting both away late. The Bulls are coming off a bye, whereas Illinois has a six-day turnaround coming off the upset win over WKU. If we have a trepidation, it’s that. But nothing we’ve seen on the field in 2017 suggests that USF is 18 points better than Illinois.


Temple -14.5 vs. UMass (Friday)


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Temple shouldn’t be favored by over two touchdowns against just about any FBS team at this point. The Owls got plastered by Notre Dame in the opener and then snuck past FCS Villanova by a field goal last week. This team doesn’t look nearly as tough or disciplined as it did the past few years under HC Matt Rhule.

Meanwhile, UMass’ 0-3 record is a bit misleading. The Minutemen led 35-31 Hawaii until a last-minute touchdown saddled them with an opening defeat, and then they lost by 10 points apiece the past few weeks to Coastal Carolina (1-0) and Old Dominion (2-0). Hawaii and Old Dominion will both go bowling this season.

Temple? Reaching the postseason is no guarantee based on what we’ve seen so far. If HC Mark Whipple can keep his charges fighting despite the close losses to begin the season, UMass should be able to keep this one close as well.


LSU -7.5 at Mississippi State


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On a podcast earlier this week, I mentioned LSU as a Playoff sleeper. Even so, they shouldn’t be laying over a touchdown on the road to a team as good as Mississippi State. The line opened at LSU -6.5 before early action pushed it to -7.5.

Mississippi State has beaten LSU just once since 1999, but they’ve been more competitive in the series recently, covering the last two games ATS. MSU is coming off demolitions of Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech by a combined score of 106-21.

The Bulldogs defense looks much improved under new DC Todd Grantham, with DT Jeffery Simmons (two TDs vs. LTU) having made a developmental leap and an influx of talented newcomers added from the JUCO ranks. Charleston Southern managed only 33 yards against the unit, and Louisiana Tech, formerly one of the G5’s best offenses, looked utterly lost last weekend. Particularly striking was LTU’s inability to move the ball through the air against MSU.

Nick Fitzgerald is rapidly improving and now ranked by Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline as the No. 5 draft-eligible quarterback prospect in the 2018 class. Long dominant as a runner, Fitzgerald’s pocket game is slowly showing signs of turning the corner. Fitz comes pre-equipped with plus-arm strength, which is part of the reason Pauline believes he’s a sleeper first-round pick with starting NFL potential.

LSU gets ace edge rusher Arden Key back for this one, though Key will likely play a limited amount of snaps. LSU’s defense has been every bit as good as Mississippi State’s so far. In a low-scoring, coin-flip type proposition, we’ll take the home dog every time.


Missouri -7.5 vs. Purdue


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This line is off. But it’s not a trap: The public just hasn’t caught on that Purdue is decent now. Missouri remains awful.

Last week, as small home favorites against South Carolina, Missouri was annihilated 31-13. That loss came one week after the Tigers opened by allowing 43 points to FCS Missouri State. Those showings come after the Tigers finished No. 118 out of 128 FBS teams in total defense last fall (one spot behind Texas State, and one spot ahead of UL-Monroe).

It should come as no surprise that Mizzou dismissed its defensive coordinator earlier this week.

All of which makes this a very bad week indeed to face a Jeff Brohm-coached team. Brohm is one of the best in the business at attacking opposing defenses’ weaknesses. He must have had a field day this week watching tape of the Tigers flail away trying to tackle FCS ball carriers.

Brohm, fresh off turning Western Kentucky into an offensive juggernaut, didn’t need long to turn Purdue competitive. In the opener, the Boilermakers hung tough throughout with Louisville in a seven-point loss. Last week, in an eye-opening performance, Purdue drop-kicked a solid Ohio team 44-21.

We like Purdue outright, and wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘Makers buried the Tigers by double-digits.


Southern Mississippi -6 at UL-Monroe


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We’re getting a little bit of a line discount here. Monroe had a misleadingly close loss to Memphis in the opener (37-29) after scoring two garbage touchdowns late in the fourth quarter of a game that was played in a downpour.

Southern Miss, meanwhile, lost close to Kentucky (24-17) in the opener before shutting out FCS Southern in a blowout win last week. Southern Miss outgained Kentucky by 110 yards and had seven more first downs. They lost due to three turnovers, two of which were backbreaking fumbles in the second half.

The Golden Eagles have had one of the country’s most dangerous offenses in recent seasons. After finally settling on QB Kwadra Griggs as the starter (which should have happened out of camp), USM figures to beat Monroe by double-digits on Saturday.


Clemson -3 at Louisville


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With College GameDay in town, an ACC blue blood on the schedule and Louisville calling for a blackout inside Papa John's Stadium, you may be getting déjà vu. In Week 3 of last year (Sept. 17), Louisville annihilated Florida State 63-20 in front of the GameDay crew (that game was played during the day; this one kicks at night).

Coming off two national title appearances, Clemson isn’t going to wilt in a big spot like Florida State did. But here are 10 things we think we know about Saturday’s matchup heading in:

1.) Lamar Jackson is the best player in college football. The gulf is wide enough between him and the next-best player that we can’t confidently tell you who No. 2 is.

2.) Louisville lost 42-36 at Clemson last October; to win that game, the Tigers needed to rally for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and stop Jackson a yard short on fourth down with 33 seconds left.

3.) Clemson isn’t as good this year (the defense has made gains, but not enough to offset the offensive losses).

4.) Louisville is better this year (because Jackson is a year older, the offensive line looks better, and the defense has improved).

5.) This line leads the discerning bettor to believe that Las Vegas wants you on Clemson; why else would the line only be -3 after Clemson suffocated a strong Auburn team last week and Louisville needed all four quarters to put away Power 5 lightweights Purdue and UNC?

6.) This is a difficult spot for Clemson, which must travel into an amped-up atmosphere against a game underdog one week off of playing that physical, low-scoring game against Auburn. Bruce Feldman has the “Body Blow Theory” to refer to this type of letdown spot.

7.) We’re not confident about backing new Clemson QB Kelly Bryant and his inexperienced backfield mates in such an atmosphere.

8.) Though we’re not high on Louisville’s pass defense without CB Jaire Alexander—out with a knee injury—we’re less confident about Clemson’s passing offense (one TD so far).

9.) Clemson’s run offense is a different story, but Louisville’s run defense has held two decent offenses to 34.0 yards per game on the ground on 1.5 YPC. Louisville may have trouble with Bryant when he escapes the pocket, but they should be able to hold down Clemson’s ragtag crew of RBs (none has reached 100 yards rushing on the season yet).

10.) It’s a scary proposition to back Louisville when you consider its formerly leaking offensive line against Clemson’s elite defensive line. But because of the factors above, and a belief that Jackson himself will help neutralize that disadvantage, we like the home ‘dog to win outright.


Wisconsin -16 at BYU


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Computer models have this game closer (except S&P+, interestingly), but oddsmakers had no choice but to open Wisconsin as a two TD-plus favorite because this game features one of the week’s biggest unit mismatches: the BYU offense against the Wisconsin defense.

BYU’s offense couldn’t consistently move the ball in the opener against FCS Portland State (a 20-6 win), couldn’t move the ball period the next week against LSU (a 27-0 loss) and did nothing until 13 late points in garbage time last week against Utah (a 19-13 loss).

Now, the Cougars will likely take on Wisconsin’s LSU-like defense (LSU DC Dave Aranda formerly was the DC of the Badgers) without the services of starting QB Tanner Mangum (ankle), who’s doubtful to play. BYU has neither run nor passed effectively all year, and you have to anticipate that the passing offense will now be even less dangerous.

We hate laying double-digits on the road, and Wisconsin doesn’t exactly have the kind of offense we’d usually make an exception for, but BYU’s offense is so third-rate—and Wisconsin’s defense is so good—that it makes this matchup an anomaly in the system.


Marshall -14 vs. Kent State


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We’re 2-0 ATS backing the Thundering Herd this season, and we’ll keep backing them until Las Vegas adjusts their lines to recognize the quality of this year’s team (instead of treating them like last year’s 3-9 aberration).

Kent State got blasted by Clemson in the opener and then squeaked by FCS Howard by a touchdown last week. The Golden Flashes are a one-dimensional, one-man offense.

KSU QB Nick Holley is a better fit at RB or WR, but Kent State has had no other recourse over the past year but to play him at quarterback and eschew any semblance of a passing offense. Through two games (one against an FCS team), Kent has 106 passing yards. Total. Fifty-three passing yards per game. That's it. Most of those yards have come on designed throws to RB Justin Rankin (five catches for 48 yards). The team's receivers and tight ends have a combined three catches for 34 yards and zero touchdowns.

Kent State is like a 40-year-old past-his-prime pitcher who can only throw slop and hope for the best. That strategy may work against one or two of MAC’s worst teams. It won’t fly against bowl teams. Marshall is one of those.

The Thundering Herd beat 2016 bowl-outfit Miami (OH) as a home underdog in Week 1, and then they covered last week as 24-point underdogs by losing 37-20 to NC State. Marshall led the Wolf Pack 20-10 with five minutes left in the second quarter before wilting.

Expect Marshall to paste Kent State on Saturday. The good news being a cover, the bad news being that we’re running out of time to buy them at a discount.


Florida -4.5 vs. Tennessee


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When we first saw this line, our reaction was probably similar to yours: Tennessee is catching five points against a team that only managed an offensive field goal against Michigan (Florida’s two TDs were pick-sixes in that game) and still has nine players suspended?

Florida will be without RB Jordan Scarlett and WR Antonio Callaway again against Tennessee. Since we last watched Florida on September 2—getting dominated by Michigan—Tennessee has won twice. The Vols beat Georgia Tech in a thriller on Labor Day, and whipped FCS Indiana State last week.

The question: Why is Florida favored by five?

The answer: Because this is a trap.

Even though public money has predictably poured in on Tennessee (67-percent of bets were on the Vols as of Thursday afternoon, according to thespread.com), this line hasn’t budged much (-5 open to -4.5).

Which means: Smart money is coming in on Florida.

We’ll follow it.

If you need other reasons to bet Florida outside of the pop-psychology babble, we’ll give you three:

1.) Tennessee’s defense got rag-dolled by Georgia Tech in the opener, continuing a ghastly recent trend of ineffectiveness against Power 5 offenses (514.6 YPG and 34.9 PPG allowed to P5 teams since the start of last year, according to ESPN’s Chris Fallica).

2.) Florida is coming off a bye (last week’s game against Northern Colorado was canceled), and Gainesville will be rocking for the home opener.

3.) Florida has won 11 of 12 against Tennessee; the loss came last year when Florida started a backup quarterback and frittered away a 21-3 halftime lead.

Syracuse -10 vs. Central Michigan


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Last week, we missed badly on both of these teams. We backed the Orange as 10-point home favorites against Middle Tennessee. Syracuse lost outright. We opposed Central Michigan as five-point road underdogs against Kansas. The Chips won outright.

So what on earth are we doing here?

Hear us out.

We discounted the advantage the Blue Raiders had in first-year DC Scott Shafer, who was fired as Syracuse’s coach in 2015. Shafer was well-acquainted with Syacuse’s offensive personnel, having recruited a portion of it to New York, an advantage HC Dino Babers alluded to after the game.

Bereft of any element of surprise, Syracuse’s offense also struggled with injuries as stars QB Eric Dungey and WR Steve Ishmael left the game briefly, while WR Jamal Custis was knocked out completely. The revolving WR door manifested in eight dropped passes for Syracuse, drops which ended drives and killed forward momentum throughout.

Since Syracuse has difficulty running the ball, you can imagine.

On the other side, CMU pounded Kansas 45-27 last week. We weren’t aware pregame that Kansas’ best offensive player, WR Steven Sims, was going to be withheld after suffering an ankle injury in practice late in the week.

Sims’ loss was especially devastating for Kansas after the Jayhawks kicked No. 2 WR LaQuvionte Gonzalez out of school late in July. When the Chips jumped out to a lead, Kansas was forced to abandon the run and lean on its Air Raid passing offense. The receivers, many of whom were expected to be backups this fall, couldn’t separate.

Once Central Michigan got momentum behind it, they stepped on Kansas’ throat. Michigan transfer QB Shane Morris threw for 467 yards and five touchdowns. Unfortunately, Morris’ best receiver, Corey Willis, fractured his hand and will miss a month. Also in that game, No. 4 receiver Brandon Childress tore his ACL. Childress is out for the year. These injuries come after the team lost starting TE Tyler Conklin in the preseason.

Since Central Michigan has become highly-reliant on its passing game—throwing for 720 yards and rushing for 369 in the first two games—these injuries are bad news, particularly the loss of the invaluable Willis. Before the Chips ambushed Kansas, they narrowly escaped FCS Rhode Island, winning 30-27 in a 3OT game they probably should have lost.

Coming off the marathon opener and emotional Week 2 road upset of a Power 5 team, Central Michigan, with all its key injuries, already looks like a team that could use a bye. If they fall behind to Syracuse’s high-powered offense early, this could turn into a rout. And not for nothing: 68-percent of bets have come in on CMU as of Thursday afternoon, per thespread.com. Opposing the public remains the most viable long-term sports-betting strategy that there is.

Two for the Road

Oregon -14.5 at Wyoming

TCU -19.5 vs. SMU


2017 Record: Straight-Up: 16-11 (59.3%); Against the Spread: 11-15-1 (42.3%)


2014-2016: Straight-Up: 350-197 (64.0%); Against the Spread: 286-250-11 (53.4%)

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!