Thor Nystrom

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College Football Predictions

Friday, November 3, 2017





Western Michigan -4 vs. Central Michigan (Wednesday)

 

Straight Up: C. Michigan Chippewas logo

Against the Spread:

C. Michigan Chippewas logo

 

On paper, this line looks short. The Broncos have been more successful than the Chippewas in recent seasons, and 5-3 Western Michigan has been better than 4-4 Central Michigan to this point in the season (No. 53 S&P+ vs. No. 95).

But, of course, some critical context is missing from that paragraph. Firstly, it was announced last week that starting WMU QB Jon Wassink will miss the remainder of the regular season because of a broken collarbone, which he sustained late in the win over Eastern Michigan the Saturday before last. 

Wassink’s loss cannot be overstated. After sitting behind star QB Zach Terrell for two years, Wassink beat out Tom Flacco (who then transferred to Rutgers) to succeed Terrell. To this point, he had thrown for 1,391 yards with a 14/4 TD/INT ratio through eight games.

The yardage total isn’t overwhelming, but WMU’s staff wasn’t asking him to be Patrick Mahomes. They wanted Wassink to take advantage of the play-action passing opportunities he was afforded to complete a high percentage (64.2%) of passes for a solid YPA clip (7.21) while avoiding turnovers. On all fronts, he succeeded. 

WMU now turns to true freshman Reece Goddard. Goddard is a mystery, but he almost assuredly represents a step back from Wassink. Just how big a downgrade he’ll be will determine how WMU’s season plays out. 

The Broncos were already showing cracks with Wassink in the lineup. Since the opening two “moral victory” losses to USC and Michigan State, WMU has proceeded to beat cupcakes like Idaho (a 9-point win), Buffalo (3) and Eastern Michigan (3) by single-digits. On Oct. 15, WMU lost to Akron, ranked No. 106 S&P+. 

WMU has looked impressive in exactly one win this year: The 55-3 shellacking of 2-6 Ball State in late September. Central Michigan annihilated that same Ball State team 56-9 in their last game. The Chips suffered through devastating wide receiver injuries in September (most notably WR1 Corey Willis), hindering the offense for multiple weeks, but they’ve since returned to sound health.

The Chips need this game worse for postseason purposes worse than the Broncos do, and with Wassink sidelined, they may be the better team apples-to-apples—particularly if WMU has a negative emotional response to losing their field general. In a wonky mid-week MACtion matchup, we like CMU to rise up to pull off the outright upset.

 
 

Navy -7 at Temple (Thursday)

 

Straight Up: Navy Midshipmen logo

Against the Spread:

Navy Midshipmen logo

 

Usually, when we back triple-option teams, we’re looking for situations where teams unacquainted with defending the option must prepare for it on a normal week’s rest. That’s not the case here: Temple is coming off a bye and played Army, a triple-option team, last time out.

So this isn’t really a spot play for us as much as it’s an on-field mismatch. 

Temple has regressed badly in its first year post-Matt Rhule. It has been blown off the field by the two top-40 S&P+ teams it’s faced this fall (Notre Dame and USF) and has only beaten three teams: FCS Villanova (by three points), S&P+ No. 94 UMass (by eight) and S&P+ No. 125 ECU (a 24-point triumph).

Temple has regressed offensively (20.9 ppg, No. 114), but it’s really fallen off defensively, a hallmark under Rhule. This year’s team ranks No. 72 in S&P+ defense. 

When RB Ryquell Armstead is healthy, the offense at least has an identity (i.e. hand the ball off to Ryquell Armstead). But with Armstead compromised by nagging injuries for most of the year, the attack is lacking in both identity and talent. 

Want a sign of how lifeless Temple’s offense is? The run-first Owls rank No. 123 in S&P+ Adj. Line Yards and No. 130 (i.e. last in the FBS) in Stuff Rate. Put another way, Temple is a run-first team with a bad offensive line and no difference-making runners (not until Armstead is 100-percent, anyway).

Navy can be beat—they’ve lost two straight—but they don’t get tripped up against teams as limited as Temple. The last two times out, the Mids lost to Memphis and UCF, two of the best G5 teams in the nation. Other than that, Navy is perfect, beating FAU, Tulane and Air Force, three teams that are superior to Temple.

We can’t foresee a scenario where Temple pulls off this upset, and because of that, we’re extremely comfortable laying single-digits. Temple is coming off a bye, but so too is Navy, a team that needed one with stud QB Zach Abey hobbled last month. Expect the Mids to get back on track with a statement win.

 

 

FAU -8 vs. Marshall (Friday)

 

Straight Up: FAU Owls logo

Against the Spread:

Marshall Thundering Herd logo

 

It’s unfortunate that this one is on CBS Sports Network, because this is one of the more intriguing games of the weekend. FAU and Marshall are two of the season’s best stories, programs that are a combined 11-5 after going a combined 6-18 last year.

Since starting the season 1-3 (including blowout losses to Navy and Wisconsin and a loss to lowly Buffalo), FAU has picked up Lane Kiffin and Kendal Briles’ offense and run roughshod over shell-shocked opponents.

The Owls have a superstar in RB Devin Singletary, who’s rushed for 100-plus yards in six straight games and went off for a career-high 244 yards and four touchdowns in last week's victory against Western Kentucky. Singletary is a monster—with 18 rushing touchdowns, he incredibly leads the FBS by four TDs, and he’s averaging 6.6 YPC—and stopping him must be the priority of every FAU opponent.

Luckily for the Thundering Herd, they’re designed to slow ground attacks. Marshall hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season and they’re allowing a mere 11-plus points per conference game. This is a classic strength on strength matchup: FAU’s No. 1 Conference USA scoring offense against Marshall’s No. 2 CUSA scoring defense. 

If you prefer advanced metrics, S&P+ breaks it down like this: FAU’s No. 14 offense against Marshall’s No. 19 defense (and, conversely, Marshall’s No. 96 offense against FAU’s No. 81 defense). 

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll see that FAU’s meager defensive rating is probably being propped up by sheer turnover luck. FAU is No. 1 in CUSA and No. 2 in the nation with 14 interceptions. S&P+ would tell you that the Owls are benefitting from an incredible 6.40 ppg in turnover luck. Marshall, meanwhile, is -1.69 ppg in turnover luck. 

We like 6-foot-6 Marshall QB Chase Litton’s odds of throwing an interception or less on Friday (16/5 TD/INT rate on 61.4% passing). If he can do that, FAU won’t find itself with the tremendous field position they’ve used to keep opposing defenses on their heels. Marshall is good at making opposing teams play in ways they don’t want to. If they limit turnovers and keep Singletary (relatively) in check, FAU will be on upset alert on Friday night.

 

 

TCU -7 vs. Texas

 

Straight Up: TCU Horned Frogs logo

Against the Spread:

TCU Horned Frogs logo

 

A combination of TCU’s upset loss to Iowa State last week and Tom Herman’s historical success as an underdog keeps this line in the single-digits. It’s a nice buy opportunity on the favorite if you trust the Frogs to bounce back from last week’s debacle.

S&P+ pegs this line at TCU -14.2. That number rings truer to us than the Vegas number.

Texas has covered against the best teams it has played this year—USC, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State—and we’re not going to poo-poo that. We just think that the Longhorns remain a limited offensive team (No. 80 S&P+) who’ve looked better than that (No. 46 with 31.3 ppg) in part because of turnover luck (S&P+ indicates that the Longhorns have benefited from nearly 3 ppg off turnover luck).

Texas can’t run (RBs Chris Warren and Kyle Porter have been huge disappointments, and true freshman Toneil Carter suffered a concussion last week against Baylor) and are a mediocre throwing outfit (No. 64 S&P+). Herman said this week that he may use both Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele in this game. We think he ought to pick one and stick with him, because Texas’ has vastly divergent offensive identities with the dual-threat Ehlinger and the pocket-passing Buechele behind center.

Whoever is quarterbacking for Texas, TCU doesn’t figure to be intimidated. The Frogs rank No. 8 in S&P+ defense and also No. 8 in ppg allowed (14.8). TCU refuses to let you methodically move down the field (No. 3 in efficiency) and is tremendous on its own side of the field even if you do (No. 12 in points per trip inside the 40). 

TCU’s defensive bugaboo is giving up explosive plays (No. 122), but unfortunately this incarnation of Texas’ offense is not equipped to capitalize (No. 111 in explosiveness, per S&P+).

To add to all this, TCU has a sizeable kicking game advantage. Texas’ Joshua Rowland is one of the nation’s 10-worst in field goal percentage (7-for-13), shaky on both chip shots (1-for-3 between 20-29 yards) and from distance (1-for-5 between 40-49 yards). TCU’s Jonathan Song is a perfect 7-for-7 on field goal attempts.

 

Michigan -15.5 vs. Minnesota

 

Straight Up:

Michigan Wolverines logo

Against the Spread:

Michigan Wolverines logo

 

Rarely in this space do we lay more than two touchdowns. But we shop for value where we can find it, and the Wolverines can currently be purchased at a reduced rate.

The reasons for that are obvious—Michigan is a disappointing 2-5 ATS (2-8 going back to last year), and its offense has at times looked broken this year—but we don’t anticipate the Wolverines having any trouble with the one-dimensional Gophers.

Despite only returning one defensive starter, the Wolverines remain one of the nation’s best defenses. Michigan is No. 4 in the country with 255.5 ypg allowed, No. 16 with 18.0 ppg allowed and the No. 15 defense in the country according to S&P+.

The issue is the offense, specifically the quarterback, and that led to the losses against Michigan State and Penn State and the near-loss to Indiana. If early returns on QB Brandon Peters are any indication (three straight scoring drives after replacing John O'Korn versus Rutgers), it’s possible that Michigan has just upgraded from something like a D-grade quarterback to a C+. And with everything else this team has going for it, that kind of gain could prove enormous.

Because of its offensive issues, Michigan has been susceptible to getting upset by teams who can do multiple things on offense and stop the run defensively. That describes Michigan State, but it doesn’t describe Minnesota.

The can think of the Gophers as a homeless man’s Michigan. They can run well enough, and the defensive numbers are strong, but they can’t pass a lick. S&P+ pegs Minnesota’s aerial attack No. 121 in the FBS. Even that might be overstating it, giving Minnesota credit for Conor Rhoda’s work. New starter Demry Croft has a 4/4 TD/INT rate on 42.1% completions and 4.6 YPA. 

We see Peters seizing control of the starting job by picking on Minnesota’s young secondary. If the Gophers fall down by multiple scores, the offense is susceptible to self-destructing once forced to pass.

 

 

Washington State -2.5 vs. Stanford

 

Straight Up: Washington St. Cougars logo

Against the Spread:

Washington St. Cougars logo

 

Earlier this week, Stanford HC David Shaw labeled star RB Bryce Love a “gametime decision” for Saturday in Pullman.

If Love was completely healthy, we’d find this line totally fair. The 7-2 Cougars and 6-2 Cardinal have similar resumes, with both of Wazzu’s losses (Cal and Arizona) and Stanford’s losses (USC and San Diego State) coming on the road. S&P+ set this line at Wazzu -1.7, right in line with where we’d see it if no team was suffering from a key injury.

But Stanford is suffering from a key injury, and that player has proven to be one of college football’s most valuable players. If Love is out, this line is badly off—last week, without Love at hapless Oregon State, Stanford barely eked out a 15-14 win. S&P+ said they were lucky to win, giving the Cardinal a 26% Win Expectancy score for the game. 

Even if Love gives it a go, you can’t expect him to be 100-percent. Love has been leaned on heavily this fall, and he’s battling an ankle injury that will surely sap at least some of his effectiveness until the pain subsides. Without Love, this is a rudderless offense that can’t decide on a quarterback. Shaw said he’ll pick between Keller Chryst and K.J. Costello later this week.

Washington State is a team equipped to deal with a full-strength Stanford. The Cougars boast the nation’s No. 13 S&P+ run defense. That run defense has only one weakness: Explosive plays (No. 129 in S&P+ IsoPPP). It is elite in every other advanced metric against the run: Rushing Success Rate (No. 12), Adj. Line Yards (26), Opportunity Rate (21), Power Success Rate (2) and Stuff Rate (11).

It goes without saying that Stanford will have zero success passing in Pullman on Saturday (the Cougars rank No. 14 in S&P+ pass defense). They’re also going to have problems consistently picking up the yardage they need to on early downs to keep Chryst or Costello out of the third-and-long situations they’re ill-suited for. 

Stanford’s one schematic mismatch in this game is Love’s explosion against Wazzu’s propensity to leave a lane open when stuffing the box. Since we surmise Love’s explosion will be compromised even if he plays, we like the short home underdog a whole lot.

Also look for QB Luke Falk and the Wazzu offense to get back on track against Stanford. Love’s exploits have shielded the Cardinal defense from scrutiny, but the unit ranks a middling No. 56 in S&P+ defense. It’s a particularly bad defense in terms of efficiency (No. 99), and that should allow Falk and his receivers to consistently chip away with completions to the intermediate portion of the field. It doesn't help Stanford's cause that standout senior CB Alijah Holder was lost for the season last week.


Oklahoma State -2.5 vs. Oklahoma


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


Sometimes, you just have to stick with your preseason convictions. We thought Oklahoma was better than Oklahoma State then, and we haven't been given enough contradictory evidence to move me off that conviction in the interim.
 
The Sooners boast arguably the season's most impressive win, the 31-16 flag-plant at No. 1 S&P+ Ohio State in Week 2. Oklahoma State's best win? That was last week at S&P+ No. 39 West Virginia. Oklahoma State has played only one team ranked higher than that, and they got throttled in that one (44-31 against S&P+ No. 12 TCU).
 
To be fair, the Cowboys defense has been better than we expected over the summer. But it has one very specific weakness that could get exploited in a big way on Saturday. While the Pokes have S&P+'s No. 14 rushing defense overall, they rank an abysmal No. 118 in Power Success Rate. That's a problem against Oklahoma's elite offensive line, especially now that Abdul Adams is back to 100-percent to compliment Rodney Anderson and crew. The Cowboys have given up 200-plus yards rushing to three opponents this year, and we'd be surprised if that number didn't grow to four on Saturday.

 

Ohio State -17.5 at Iowa

 

Straight Up: Ohio St. Buckeyes logo

Against the Spread:

Iowa Hawkeyes logo


Iowa City is not the place you want to be in a trap situation. But that’s where the Buckeyes, laying well north of two touchdowns, will be on Saturday afternoon.

Last week, the Buckeyes rallied late to dramatically knock off Penn State and keep their Playoff hopes alive. Ohio State gets Michigan State next week, and travels to Ann Arbor two weeks after that.

You’ll recall that last year, the Buckeyes toppled Wisconsin in overtime before they were upset the next week at Penn State. We don’t anticipate another stunning loss, but all we need is for the Hawkeyes to stick around with the Buckeyes to get out cover.

Sticking around against teams with superior talent (and allowing lesser teams to stick around with them) is sort of Iowa’s M.O. Outside of blowing out Illinois, every one of Iowa’s Big 10 games has been decided by seven points or less this year. 

That includes a 21-19 loss against Penn State in September that should have been a win—Iowa allowed the Nittany Lions to drive the length of the field with little time remaining and score the game-winning touchdown with no time left. 

You know Iowa: They want to run the ball, play physical defense and sound special teams, and ugly the game up. The formula works especially well at Kinnick Stadium, where the grass is real, the opposing locker rooms are pink, and the fans are crazed.

It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that Iowa hasn’t lost by 17 or more points at home since Nov. 2, 2013 against Wisconsin (28-9). For the Hawkeyes to get trounced on Saturday, they’ll have to underachieve to a degree that they haven’t in four years. With the Buckeyes off a season-defining win and facing two higher-profile games later this month, we expect Iowa to keep the score closer than expected.

 


Washington -18 vs. Oregon

 

Straight Up: Washington Huskies logo

Against the Spread:

Oregon Ducks logo

 

This line opened at Washington -26 and had freefallen to -18 by the time this column went to press early Wednesday night. 

We don’t have much analysis for you outside of this: The number is still off.

Las Vegas seemed to set the opening number with the idea that QB Justin Herbert would not play. Betters quickly pounded the Ducks down eight points. Willie Taggart said during his media conference this week that Herbert would be a gametime decision.

Since Herbert suited up for the Utah game last week (he didn’t play) and has returned to practice with the first-team, we believe there’s a better than 50-50 chance that he plays in this game. This was always about the time he was expected to return from his broken collarbone (we're a little more than a month into his 4-6 week recovery timetable).

If Herbert plays, we’re getting a ton of line value. If he doesn’t, we’ll hope Oregon can stay close in the first half for a halftime hedge opportunity.

 

Missouri -3.5 vs. Florida

 

Straight Up: Florida Gators logo

Against the Spread:

Florida Gators logo

 

Holy overreaction!

Missouri was installed as favorites this week after Florida canned HC Jim McElwain on Sunday. 

We’re not buying it.

Missouri has beaten only three teams this year: FCS Missouri State, Idaho (No. 105 S&P+) and Connecticut (No. 119). The Tigers play horrific defense (No. 115 S&P+) and all-or-nothing offense (No. 16 S&P+; No. 2 in explosion, dead-last in the FBS in time of possession).

Florida is no great shakes, of course, but outside of blowout losses to Michigan in the opener and Georgia last week, the Gators have been competitive. They’ve beaten three teams better than any W on Mizzou’s resume (Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt) and have two losses that were more impressive than any L on Mizzou’s resume (a one-point loss to LSU and a two-point loss to Texas A&M).

Florida has become a mess, but Missouri has been a mess for two years now—they just don’t play in a big enough spotlight for their issues to be amplified. We have a strong conviction that Florida is the better team. 

We don’t even need them to be galvanized by the past week’s events—we just need the Gators not to fold up shop. But after reading reports of McElwain’s lack of popularity, it’s possible that the players come out loose and refreshed in his absence.

As we saw when Purdue went to Columbia earlier this year, limited offensive teams that play a bit of defense can absolutely throttle the Tigers. We like the Gators to pick up a win in Randy Shannon’s first game at the helm.

 

 

Two for the road:

 

Maryland -3 at Rutgers (Rutgers outright)


Georgia Tech -10 at Virginia

 

*** 

 

2017 Record: Straight-Up: 83-32 (72.2%); Against the Spread: 61-49-3 (55.4%)

  

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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