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Thor Nystrom

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Week 6 CFB Best Bets

Thursday, October 4, 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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Georgia Tech -3.5 at Louisville (Friday)
 
The contrarian bettor in me understands that Louisville is theoretically interesting in this spot as a small home ‘dog. But they also were last week against a rotten Florida State outfit, a game Louisville quite literally gave away with some laughable late-game playcalling that made one wonder if Bobby Petrino was holding an FSU ML ticket.
 
From a matchup perspective, this one is a mismatch. Incredibly, this is the first time these schools have ever played (they simply haven’t lined up on the ACC schedule since Louisville joined the conference). The Cardinals haven’t played a triple-option team in over a decade.

HC Bobby Petrino last opposed a triple-option offense in 2013, when he was at WKU. DC Brian VanGorder has had mixed success against triple-option teams in previous gigs, though he does have a reputation for knowing how to defend it (he was hired by UGA as an option consultant before the 2016 UGA-GTU game).* Either way, it’s a big ask for this Louisville defense to prepare for Georgia Tech on a short week. Especially since they lack the superior defensive line that can overcome unfamiliarity to negate the triple-option.

Louisville’s defense has been passable if mediocre this year (No. 59 S&P+), but it struggles defending precisely what the Yellow Jackets are good at. The Cardinals have been given fits by dual-threat quarterbacks this year. On Saturday, they get one of the nation’s more athletic quarterbacks in TaQuon Marshall. Louisville also struggles in key rush defense metrics like efficiency (No. 70), stuff rate (No. 85) and havoc rate (No. 124). Those latter two categories, specially, speak to poor front seven play.
 
Georgia Tech averages 339.2 rushing yards per game (No. 2 in FBS) and also ranks No. 2 in S&P+ rushing efficiency (as well as No. 6 in efficiency). Louisville has been fine at preventing explosive runs, a metric Georgia Tech ranks No. 25 in offensively. So while the Jackets may not rip off a procession of explosive plays, it would be downright stunning if they weren’t able to methodically pick this defense apart.
 
These are two 2-3 ACC teams that I don’t think are similar in quality level. Let’s resume dive for a sec. Toss out Louisville’s game against Alabama and GT’s game against Clemson (where both teams finished with a 0% win expectancy) and also each school’s win over an FCS team for a second.
 
In Louisville’s other three games against WKU, Virginia and FSU, they had a combined win expectancy of 55% (lucky to beat WKU, and, probably, lucky to have had the plum opportunity against FSU that Petrino botched). In GT’s three games against USF, Pitt and Bowling Green, the Jackets had a combined win expectancy of 283% (unlucky against USF). GT has clearly been the better team to this point, and squaring up against a defense unfamiliar with the triple-option is a great situation to buy them in.

 

*Potentially relevant side note: GT HC Paul Johnson famously (and hilariously) hates UL DC Brian VanGorder. The short story: BVG got the Georgia Southern HC job after Johnson left for GT and told reporters that he was scrapping the triple-option offense to bring Southern "into the 21st century." A furious Johnson got in touch with Georgia Southern about scheduling a non-con game. When asked why he wanted to schedule GSU, Johnson said: "Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder." In 2016, UGA HC Kirby Smart hired VanGorder as an "option consultant" for the week leading up to the game against GT. The Yellow Jackets stunned Georgia 28-27. When Johnson was asked about playing VanGorder again, he responded: “Well, we saw him at Notre Dame. We also saw him two years ago at Georgia.” For a crusty old codger like Johnson, that last sentence is the equivalent to Eminem's "Killshot." Paul Johnson carries resentment around with him like you carry an iPhone. You can actually see it on his face. If he gets a shot to embarrass VanGorder, he's going to take it.

Utah State +2.5 BYU (Friday)



I’ve been waiting to fade BYU — I couldn’t quite get there last week when BYU got clocked 35-7 by Washington as 17-point ‘dogs — and boy is this a great spot to do it.

BYU is better than we expected them to be, but they remain something of an imposter. The win at Arizona in the opener was a big deal at the time but has faded in luster as Kevin Sumlin continues to choke every once of life out of that program. A week later, BYU fell just short against Cal, but they were probably flattered by that three-point loss (S&P+ set the adjusted scoring margin at Cal -12.1 and gave BYU a 12% win expectancy).

Next came the three-point win over Wisconsin, which was extremely impressive, though perhaps not transcendent if you buy the argument that the Badgers are a bit down this year (I do.). Since then, a blowout of an FCS team, followed by getting humbled by the Huskies. That UW game was even uglier than 35-7 score indicated. BYU, a team heavily reliant on the run game, had only 43 rushing yards on 28 carries. They didn’t score until a garbage TD in the final minute.

The shine of BYU’s early wins, particularly the upset at Wisconsin, continues to flatter them. BYU’s offense still stinks (No. 101 S&P+), and the defense probably isn’t as good as it appeared to be against the Badgers (No. 52 S&P+). S&P+ only ranks BYU No. 78, and it installed Utah State as 7.8-point favorites in this game.

Utah State looked solid in the opener against Michigan State. Since then, the Aggies have dominated three bad teams. Last week, while BYU was getting rag-dolled by Washington, Utah State was on bye preparing for this rivalry game.

I agree with S&P+’s stance that Utah State has huge edges on offense and special teams and only a small disadvantage on defense. The limitations of BYU’s leaves them with only one path to beat quality opponents: Win the line of scrimmage battle on defense and take care of the ball on offense. Unfortunately, BYU’s trench play on both sides has been mediocre or worse (sub-No. 100 S&P+ in both offensive and defensive stuff rate).



The Aggies have a bunch of weapons and can light up the scoreboard — if BYU has a hangover or runs out of juice for a week after facing four solid-or-better Power 5 teams, they’ll suffer the consequences.




 

Colorado -2.5 vs. Arizona State

This handicap comes down to whether or not you buy Colorado after a 4-0 start against four bad opponents (Colorado State, Nebraska, FCS New Hampshire and UCLA). As you can tell by my pick, I do.

The 3-2 Sun Devils have played a far harder slate to this point. They’ve impressed on national television (upset win over Michigan State, seven-point losses to San Diego State and Washington) and have received plenty of ink because of the Herm Edwards story.

But here’s my thing with Arizona State: The 16-13 win against Michigan State, while extremely impressive, was a coin flip that went their way (48% win expectancy). The losses against SDSU and Washington were closer on the scoreboard than they were in reality (11% win expectancy against SDSU, 1% against Washington).

I’ve read people I respect this week taking Arizona State here. The argument is that the Buffaloes haven’t played anyone and the Sun Devils are better. My counter to the former point is that you can only beat who’s on your schedule, and my counter to the latter is that I disagree.

S&P+, for one, likes Colorado more. It lists the Buffaloes as 5.4-point favorites. It likes Colorado’s offense (42 to 51) and defense (53 to 68) more, though ASU has a big special teams edge (3 to 41). It’s not often that ASU plays a team with a better receiver, but I think that might be the case here. Laviska Shenault has more receptions and yards than N’Keal Harry on less targets and is ranked by Pro Football Focus’ grades as the best receiver in college football to this point.

Colorado also has one less game of wear and tear on their bodies, and they haven’t been subjected to beatings against physical teams like MSU, SDSU and Washington. They’re probably the slightly better team, they’re welcoming an opponent into altitude, they’re in a better situational spot (one extra day of rest in addition to the factors we’ve already discussed), and we don't even have to lay a field goal.

Tulane +7 at Cincinnati

I’ve cashed on Cincy twice during their 5-0 start. The Bearcats aren’t as good as their record indicates (they’ve played four FBS teams ranked No. 87 S&P+ or lower and an FCS team), which means we should look for opportunities in the short-term to fade them.

Tulane is a good “buy” candidate to oppose them with. I liked Tulane coming into the year based on entering Year 3 of the Willie Fritz era and the offensive talent returning (veteran starter QB Jonathan Banks, an underrated receiving corps, a deep crop of RBs).

I remain in that camp despite Tulane’s 2-3 start. Outside of the Ohio State game, the Green Wave have lost a pair of one-possession games to bowl teams Wake Forest and UAB and beaten the crap out of FCS Nicholls (which beat Kansas the week before) and a really good Memphis team.

Last week’s 40-24 win over Memphis gave a glimpse into Tulane’s potential. The Green Wave posted a 98% win expectancy in that game with a -21.0 adjusted scoring margin, meaning they whipped Memphis worse than even the scoreboard indicated.

Tulane’s unique shotgun-based triple-option offense has traded efficiency (No. 81 S&P+) for explosion (No. 8 IsoPPP). And that makes sense. Banks is a big dual-threat quarterback with a strong arm, but his accuracy is poor. With defenses always cheating up to defend the run, Tulane’s receivers often get one-on-one opportunities downfield. WR Darnell Mooney in particular has been superb at converting deep shots thus far.

Tulane is willing to trade incompletions (Banks’ completion rate is 50.9%) for home runs. The running game has gotten even more explosive since it started to give Texas Tech transfer Corey Daupine more carries (37-376-5 rushing line for 10.2 ypc!). Darius Bradwell is an effective complimentary hammer, and Stephon Huderson came on last week after early-season struggles in a higher-leverage role.

Cincy has a middling efficient-but-not-at-all-explosive paint-by-numbers offense (No. 71 S&P+) and a solid defense (No. 44 S&P+). But here’s the thing about that defense: It is very efficient (No. 6 and No. 12 S&P+ efficiency rankings), but susceptible to big plays. Check that. Cincinnati is very good at not allowing explosive passing plays, and defending the pass in general. It’s the run defense that can occasionally be an issue, with a No. 95 S&P+ ranking in defending rushing explosiveness.

I had very few good takes last week, but one of them was telling people not to bet undefeated Buffalo, who I had regularly backed earlier in September. I didn’t have the conviction to follow that one all the way through, though, and I watched as triple-option running Army emphatically knocked Buffalo from the ranks of the unbeaten as 7-point underdogs. Anyone else getting deja vu?


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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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