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Weekly Picks

Championship Week ATS picks

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

USC -3.5 vs. Stanford (Pac-12 championship at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on Friday)


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


If we’ve learned anything about the Pac-12 title game since it moved to Santa Clara, it’s that the points shouldn’t enter too deeply into your handicap: The past three years have all been blowouts, with the favorite covering easily each time.


If you think USC will win, lay those points. If you think Stanford will pull the upset, consider betting the money line.


We think USC will win.


Stanford has come a long way since losing to the Trojans 42-24 in Week 2 (USC outgained Stanford 624-342). Check that. The Cardinal have come a long way since getting upset by San Diego State in Week 3. Since then, they've have won eight-of-nine.


It hasn’t always been pretty. Stanford beat Utah by three, Oregon State by one (with Bryce Love out), Washington by eight and Cal by three. Last week, Stanford dominated Notre Dame 38-20.


While the Cardinal were getting up to send the Irish packing in their annual rivalry game, USC was lounging around. After playing 12 consecutive weeks to open the season, the Trojans finally had a bye in Week 13.


At the beginning of the season, having no open dates for the first 12 weeks looked like a big scheduling disadvantage. Now it appears to be a coup. The Trojans are also hot, going 6-1 since getting upset at Wazzu in Week 5.


While Love appears to getting over the lingering ankle injury that cost him the Oregon State game and compromised his effectiveness a week later against Wazzu (69 rushing yards), he hasn’t been the same revelation he was earlier this season.


Prior to getting hurt, Love was averaging 198.1 ypg on the ground on 10.3 YPC. In the four games since his return, Love is averaging 115.2 YPG rushing on 5.8 YPC (if you toss out the Wazzu game, 130.7 YPG and 6.1 YPC over his last three). There are no total yards hiding there, as Love is a non-factor in the passing game (6-33-0).


To be fair, Stanford has recouped some of that lost offense by starting K.J. Costello over Keller Chryst. Even so, Stanford needs Love to go off if they hope to upset the Trojans.


Chryst isn’t going to throw for four touchdowns again, as he did last week against Notre Dame. USC has a tremendous pass defense (No. 11 S&P+). In addition, the Trojans have a powerful passing attack (No. 8 S&P+) that should find success going against Stanford’s CB Alijah Holder-less secondary (No. 54 S&P+ pass defense on the season). We think the Trojans won't have any problems scoring. Once they do, Stanford is ill-equipped to play from behind.


UCF -7 vs. Memphis (AAC championship at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando)

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


This is going to be fun. Saturday’s AAC title game marks the first time ever that a conference title game has had a total in the 80s. And what a fitting end it figures to be given these teams’ bizarre relationships with each other this year.


UCF and Memphis were scheduled to meet for the first time on September 9. The Tigers flew to Orlando only to return home immediately when the game was canceled due to Hurricane Irma. It was rescheduled for September 30, and on that day, the Knights whipped Memphis 40-13.


The Tigers haven’t lost since. They’ve averaged 53.6(!) points per game during their current seven-game winning streak. While UCF also has a tremendous offense (No. 2 S&P+, No. 1 with 48.3 ppg), the Knights' No. 66 S&P+ defense will be in for a long day.


The Knights enter 11-0 and will clinch a marquee bowl slot with a win. That’s a ton of pressure, particularly for a team that’s been asked more about Scott Frost rumors than Memphis this week.


UCF needed all 60 minutes to put away USF last week, winning 49-42 on a late touchdown return. With a one-week turnaround and coaching uncertainty in a pressure-packed situation, we think the red-hot Tigers could end UCF's perfect season.



Oklahoma -7 vs. TCU (Big 12 championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington)

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


Oklahoma has drawn nearly 90% of the money in tickets purchased this week, per SportsInsights, and yet this line has not budged off -7. That should raise your handicapping antennae.


Three weeks ago, when this game was in Norman, Oklahoma closed as six-point favorites. In this one, TCU bettors will get an extra point on the spread despite it being played on a neutral site (on paper, anyway; Arlington is 15 miles away from Fort Worth).


Oklahoma didn’t have much trouble in the last one, winning 38-20 after jumping out to a big halftime lead. So why do we like the Horned Frogs here?


Firstly, because TCU has a big advantage on the sidelines. Lincoln Riley is an offensive genius, and he’s shown this year that he could become one of the game’s best coaches—but Gary Patterson already is. Patterson is experienced in money situations, and he’s one of the sport’s best in making adjustments.


Usually, we talk about that in the context of his halftime adjustments (TCU has allowed less than 1.0 ppg in the second halves of their last seven games, as Phil Steele pointed out earlier this week), but it’s just as important when taking on an opponent for the second time.


Patterson is well aware of what did and what did not work the first time around, and no doubt he’s been mulling schematic changes for the rematch for the past three weeks. Most of what Riley did the first time around worked—how much is he willing to disrupt the gameplan for this one?


Oklahoma has a big advantage on offense (No. 1 against No. 42 S&P+), and that advantage has informed how this game has been discussed this week. But TCU’s defensive edge is even bigger (No. 11 to No. 100 S&P+). And TCU is getting two important starters—S Niko Small and OLB Travin Howard—back from injury


The Sooners particularly struggle against the run. TCU is without RB Darius Anderson, but thunderous RB Sewo Olonilua and all-purpose veteran RB Kyle Hicks could be in line for big games here. Oklahoma also has a maddening propensity to allow huge plays (No. 120 S&P+ defensive IsoPPP and almost 14 yards per completion against Power 5 teams).


We see TCU making the defensive adjustments necessary to fare better against Oklahoma’s offense this time around. And with very little pressure on the go-for-broke underdogs, we may just get a big game from TCU QB Kenny Hill in his Big 12 finale.


The Sooners have everything to lose. Win, and they’re in the playoff. We think the Frogs stun the nation by knocking them off.



Auburn -2 vs. Georgia (SEC championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta)

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


Auburn can cinch its unlikely run to the college football playoff by beating a team it walloped 40-17 a few weeks back. We think the Tigers will fall short for a few different reasons.


This time, the game isn’t in Jordan-Hare Stadium. This time, Auburn is coming off a thrilling and physical win over archrival Alabama. And this time, Auburn is the hunted.


Auburn has gotten up for two A+ showings in the past three weeks. In between, they looked sluggish against the Sun Belt’s UL-Monroe (a non-cover). We don’t expect them to be sluggish here, but we question whether they have enough left in the tank to play a third sensational game in a month.


And that’s what they’ll need to beat Georgia for a second time. Especially with RB Kerryon Johnson dinged up. Johnson, who’s surfaced as a potential Round 1 pick after going ballistic this season, injured his shoulder against Alabama. He’s listed as probable.


Without RB2 Kamryn Pettway, who has a fractured scapula, the Tigers are perilously thin in RB depth. If Johnson is unable to handle his usual workload, scatback Kam Martin would get more touches than usual. And after Martin? Can we interest you in Malik Miller?


Johnson ran for 167 yards against Georgia in the first game. Even if he can give it a go on Saturday, he’ll be at less than 100-percent. All of which means that the offense won’t be able to run through the bellcow Johnson anymore. That puts a ton of pressure on QB Jarrett Stidham to consistently move the ball against the SEC’s best pass defense.


Auburn’s defense, of course, is going to give Georgia problems. Again. Last time around, the unit—and especially its stud-filled defensive line—thoroughly dominated the game. For Georgia to win, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are going to have to find more traction than they did last time. Jake Fromm’s effectiveness drops off when the running game disappears.


We see Georgia having a bit more success on the ground against what could be a tired Auburn front. Playing 60 minutes against Alabama will do that.


The over/under is 48, and we whole-heartedly agree with the idea that this game will have fewer points than the last time. Georgia has a special teams advantage, and that may well prove to be the difference.


Boise State -9 vs. Fresno State (Mountain West Conference championship at Albertson's Stadium in Boise)

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

Forget what happened last week: It was a historically weird spot, the first time that a regular-season finale had paired two teams that knew they’d be playing against each other in the conference title game the next week.


With absolutely nothing to play for, the Broncos basically took that game off, with Fresno State winning 28-17.


This week, we were keen to monitor the line, hoping to glean some insight into the rematch. We think we have.


According to SportsInights, this spread has been subject to some interesting reverse-line movement over the past several days. While the majority of tickets and 80-percent of the money has been bet on Fresno State, this line went from BSU -8.5 when it opened to -9.


The reason? Per SI, Boise State is the “favorite side among professionals” this week. It seems strange that playing Boise State in the MWC title game is contrarian, but that’s where we are.


Georgia Southern -2.5 at Coastal Carolina

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


S&P+ set this line at Coastal -5.4, but that system is overlooking some key context. Georgia Southern started 0-9, firing HC Tyson Summers once it got to 0-6. Chad Lunsford was promoted to interim HC on Oct. 22.


While Lunsford lost his first three games, signs of progress under his eye were apparent immediately, with GSU covering in two of the three. Over the last two weeks, Georgia Southern upset both South Alabama (52-0 as six-point underdogs) and UL-Lafayette (34-24 as 4.5-point dogs) by double-digits.


In sum, GSU is 4-1 ATS and 2-3 SU under Lunsford after starting 1-5 ATS and 0-6 SU under Summers.


Per S&P+, Georgia Southern heads in with the better defense (No. 93 to No. 114). Coastal has the bigger perceived advantage on offense (No. 94 to No. 126), but the Eagles’ offensive stats are a bit unreliable due to how poorly the attack was functioning under Summers.


The Eagles have put up 86 points over their last two games. They won’t need to break 40 to beat the Chanticleers. But after Lunsford was named the permanent head coach earlier this week, GSU figures to come out fighting for him once more.


As for Coastal, this will be the last game under interim HC Jamey Chadwell. Joe Moglia is set to return from a five-month medical sabbatical this winter.



Florida State -27 vs. UL-Monroe

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


This line is absurd.


FSU has beaten only one FBS team by more than one possession this season (last week against Florida). The Seminoles’ offense ranks No. 99 in S&P+ and its offensive line is one of the Power 5’s worst.


FSU is also coming off a rivalry game win and, presumably, anticipating a bowl appearance that once seemed far-fetched. Not only that, but all week the Seminoles dealt with questions about Jimbo Fisher’s intentions. Fisher may well announce the day after this game that he’s taking the Texas A&M job.


Do you think he’s been holed up in his office this week watching Monroe tape until the wee hours of the morning?


The 4-7 WarHawks’ season ends on Saturday. There's literally no tomorrow. This is their Super Bowl. We saw Monroe take advantage of an advantageous spot two weeks ago against Auburn (42-12 as 38-point dogs), and we think this cover will be easier.


Monroe’s defense stinks, but it boasts a top-15 S&P+ offense. The WarHawks gave Memphis problems earlier this year (a 37-29 loss in poor weather conditions), and they’ll put a scare into FSU if the Seminoles think they can sleepwalk through this game.


Arkansas State -1 vs. Troy

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:



Troy is on a heater, having won five in a row by an average of a shade over 25 ppg. They’re also out for revenge, with Arkansas State having won the past four games in this series (including a 35-3 beatdown last year).


Arkansas State is an offense-first team that heavily relies on its passing game (no runner has reached 650 yards). Troy boasts the No. 15 S&P+ defense and the Sun Belt’s best pass defense.


ASU boasts arguably the game’s best player, and he plays on defense. Star DE Ja'Von Rolland-Jones is tied for No. 2 in the nation with 12 sacks, and the Red Wolves as a team have accrued 33 sacks (top-20 in the nation).


Troy’s offensive line is once again solid, with QB Brandon Silvers having been sacked only 13 times in 11 games. If Silvers is kept clean, this offense is going to be fine, because RB Jordan Chunn should have a big day against ASU’s No. 71 S&P+ run defense. Chunn dropped 191 rushing yards on LSU during the upset win in September.


Troy seems well suited for this matchup. Not only does their defense match up well against what ASU wants to do, but their offense could neutralize the Wolves’ greatest strength while effectively attacking their biggest weakness.


While Troy has a Tiger in its trophy case, Arkansas State’s best win of the season was against New Mexico State (No. 72 S&P+), a team the Trojans also bested.


Gun to our Head:


(Note: These four games are non-plays for us and will not be counted in the season record. But we felt compelled to provide leans for the conference title games we’re staying away from.)


Florida Atlantic -11.5 vs. North Texas (CUSA)

Ohio State -5.5 vs. Wisconsin (Big 10)

Clemson -9.5 vs. Miami (ACC)

Toledo -21.5 vs. Akron (MAC)


2017 Record: Straight-Up: 110-52 (67.9%); Against the Spread: 87-72-3 (54.7%)
Straight-Up: 350-197 (64.0%); Against the Spread: 286-250-11 (53.4%)

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’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!