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Thor Nystrom

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Week 2 CFB Best Bets

Saturday, September 8, 2018


Arkansas State +37 at Alabama

Betting against Alabama in Week 2 is a yearly tradition in this space. Two years ago, after Bama whacked USC 52-6 in the opener, we took WKU +30 in Tuscaloosa and cashed (38-10 Bama). Last year, after the Tide crushed FSU 24-7 in the opener, we took Fresno State +44 in Tuscaloosa and cashed (41-10 Bama).

Same logic applies this year: At Alabama, Nick Saban is 9-0 SU and 8-1 ATS in neutral-site season openers. Last week was yet another laugher, a 51-14 drubbing of Louisville as 24-point favorites.

But here’s the thing: Saban’s Tide are 0-7 ATS (with a weather cancelation) in Week 2 following the spot above. The pattern repeats every year: Bama schedules a prime-time opponent at a neutral site in the opener, humiliates them on national TV, and then takes it easy the next week against a solid G5 squad.

Same scenario here. Arkansas State is a contender to win the Sun Belt. They have one of the G5’s most dangerous offenses, with a former Oklahoma signee at quarterback (Justice Hansen) who nearly threw for 4,000 yards last year (along with over 400 yards rushing). Hansen, now a senior, threw for 423 years and six TD in the season opener last week.

As Alabama sleepwalks through its annual post-execution hangover, the Red Wolves should cobble together enough points to give us another cash.


Cincinnati +1 at Miami (OH) (at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati)

I’m officially concerned that RedHawks HC Chuck Martin is a quadruple-A coach. To Martin’s credit, he took over an 0-12 team (8-28 over the previous three years) and returned it to a bowl in Year 3. Last year, Year 4, Miami missed out on qualifying for a bowl by one game (5-7) after getting ravaged by injuries.

That’s the positive spin. The negative spin is that Martin is 16-34 overall at Miami and appears to be spinning his wheels into Year 5. What I'm concerned with, here and now, is exactly how he got to that record.

Last week, in the home opener, Miami lost to Marshall as short favorites 35-28. That dropped Martin’s record in games decided by one possession to 5-18 (5-19 if you extend the criterion to “single-digits”). That’s a stunning run of ineptitude in close games. It’s a problem that doesn’t appear close to getting corrected: Miami went 0-5 in one-possession games last year and obviously hasn’t started out on the right track this year.

SB Nation’s Bill Connelly touched on this troubling trend in his Miami preview: “The RedHawks rarely finish on the right side of the bounces, finishing an average of 1.4 wins per year below where post-game win expectancy would have them. We know that some coaches consistently over- or underachieve in this measure, and right now, Martin is one of the sport’s biggest underachievers.”

One more note about the Marshall-Miami game: In that case, Martin was actually lucky to have added another datapoint to his one-possession ledger. Because most of that game wasn’t competitive. Marshall never trailed. The Herd led 14-0 after one quarter, and 28-7 with five minutes left in the third quarter. The RedHawks made it a one-score game by scoring a TD with three minutes left. And that was with Marshall starting a freshman quarterback on the road.

Martin has never finished with a winning record. If that is the case again in 2018, you would have to think he’d be done at Miami. His tenuous standing coupled with the team’s recent history of gagging away winnable games has created an odd vibe around the program. They’re a team I’m selling.

As for Cincy, they came out and punched Chip Kelly’s UCLA Bruins in the mouth last week in a 26-17 road upset as 14.5-point road dogs. Cincy was down 10-0 after the first quarter but closed the game on an emphatic 26-7 run.

Cincy has beaten Miami 12 straight times. Over the last five, the average margin of victory has been 7.2, right in the Chuck Martin Gag Zone. Cincinnati is the more talented of the two teams, with 2- and 5-year recruiting rankings of 55 vs. 103 and 64 vs. 95. ESPN’s FPI suggests that UC should be the small fav, which conforms with my thoughts exactly.

Lastly, I loved the way Cincy HC Luke Fickell responded to a question on Tuesday about being installed as an underdog in this spot: “That's why I said we weren't worried about, 'We're gonna show the world, we're gonna get the respect,' (against UCLA). You don't get the respect of college football and all those people in one week. I understand that. That's not what we're worried about it. We're worried about the respect and the trust and the love and everything built in this (team) room. That's the most important thing to us."


Duke +3 at Northwestern

I think the wrong team is favored here.

Northwestern looked pretty solid offensively last Thursday night against Purdue, but keep this in mind: The Boilermakers returned only four starters on defense. To Northwestern’s credit, they exploited that inexperienced unit — it just wasn’t the impressive feat it may have seemed on the surface.

Duke is improved over last year, and I think Northwestern may not be quite as good. That seems relevant in light of the fact that Duke smoked Northwestern 41-17 last year. This may be a revenge spot, but the Wildcats don’t exactly look like they’re in a good position to exact it, despite what this game’s line suggests.

Duke QB Daniel Jones, an NFL prospect, struggled mightily last year during an 0-6 stretch that threatened to hold the Blue Devils out of bowl season. He’s healthy now, and Duke’s offensive line looks improved. But on the other side, Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, another NFL prospect, is still working his way back from a torn ACL suffered in the bowl game. Thorson split time with TJ Green in last week’s 31-27 win over Purdue. The Wildcats say Thorson and Green will split time again against Duke, with Thorson once again on a “pitch count.”

That may have worked against Purdue, but it’s hard to see it working against Duke’s awesome defense. A defense that held opponents to 20.3 ppg and finished No. 41 S&P+ that returns eight starters. If Northwestern gets out of rhythm offensively, Duke will make them pay for it.

Per ESPN’s Chris Fallica, Duke is 12-2 ATS and 10-4 SU in their last 14 games as underdogs of four points or fewer. This is a trend that can actually be explained: HC David Cutcliffe is one of the sport’s premier coaches, and coaching edges become very important in close games (see our Chuck Martin discussion above).

Navy +7 vs. Memphis

My betting process is this: Every Sunday, I circle every side that looks good to me on first glance. Then, as I go through the week and start researching, I axe games one by one until I whittle my list to 12 for this column (and also for my personal wagers).

I circled Navy on Sunday — with a number of +4. As I looked into the game earlier this week, I saw nothing that would dissuade me from that opinion. Then, as the week progressed, the line just kept climbing. Now it’s at Memphis -7 after opening at Memphis -3.5.

Holy overreaction, batman!

It seems that money is flowing in on Memphis after new QB Brady White threw for 358 yards and five TD in last week’s blowout win and after Navy got upset in its opener at Hawaii.

But Memphis’ win was over FCS cupcake Mercer, essentially a useless datapoint, and Navy’s 18-point loss at Hawaii isn’t exactly embarrassing after we saw what the new look Rainbow Warriors did on the road to Colorado State the week before. Navy fell behind in the Hawaii game in the first quarter and were never able to settle into their normal offense. Since it was their first game and Hawaii's second, and since it was taking place nearly 5,000 miles from home, I'm willing to give the Mids a mulligan.

I think they’ll fare far better at home against Memphis. The Tigers return 15 starters, but they suffered three enormous losses when QB Riley Ferguson, WR Anthony Miller and LB Genard Avery walked out the door.

The jury remains out on White, Ferguson’s replacement. White was a big-time recruit coming out of high school, but he never gained much traction in three years at Arizona State, only starting one game. Miller and Avery are even harder to replace, program cornerstones who led the offense and defense respectively.

An opening matchup against Mercer gave White and WR1 Damonte Coxie a chance to get comfortable against a patsy. This week’s matchup won’t be as comfortable. I think Navy takes out some frustration by ambushing an overhyped foe. Give me the Midshipmen outright.

Colorado +4 at Nebraska

I thought about fading Game 1 of the Scott Frost Era last week with Akron. I didn’t. But that game getting canceled due to weather gives me another shot here.

I don’t have a stat on this, but it conforms to my observations so I’m going to say it anyway: In general, it seems like it's an advantage to have gotten your opener out of the way before you play an opponent that is opening its season. And that would seem to be particularly true in cases where teams are undergoing enormous schematic changes, such as the one Nebraska underwent this offseason.

 

The Huskers shifted from Mike Riley’s stodgy pro-style system to Scott Frost’s exotic spread offense that draws on the systems of Frost's diverse group of mentors ranging from Bill Walsh to Tom Osborne to Bill Parcells to Jon Gruden to Chip Kelly. To all that, Frost baked in a batch of RPO concepts. It’s one of the most enjoyable offenses to watch in college football. Nebraska fans should be thrilled. Slam dunk hire that seems to have a high-probability of working out.

But here’s the deal. This is a team that went 4-8 last year and finished No. 81 S&P+ offensively. Not only that, but Nebraska is trotting out a true freshman (Adrian Martinez) at quarterback. The defense, which was a horrifyingly-bad No. 110 S&P+ last year, also underwent scheme changes, though it is staying in a 3-4, going from Bob Diaco’s unintelligible system to one that is apparently far less complex.

Great. Acclimation time will be needed. And this isn’t the ideal opener that Nebraska thought it’d be getting. Instead, they get Colorado, fresh off pasting rival Colorado State 45-13 last Friday night. The offense, which surprisingly fell off last year as the Buffs regressed from 10-4 to 5-7, appears to be back (with the caveat that CSU has gotten shredded in both of its games). QB Steven Montez, a pocket-passing gunslinger, was lights out. And Colorado appears to have unearthed a star in WR Laviska Shenault, who exploded for an 11-211-1 line.

And remember that while Frost did rebuild UCF in short order, he only went 6-7 in Year 1 (which, even though it seems like decades ago, was in 2016). This rebuild is going to take time. Perhaps only one year. But it’ll take time. The team we see on Saturday won’t be the juggernaut that Nebraska could develop into down the line.


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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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