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Weekly Picks

Week 12 CFB ATS Predictions

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

 

 

 

 

Louisville (-16.5) at Houston

 

Straight Up:  
 
 

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Analysis

The last time Houston got this kind of number, they upset Oklahoma outright in the opener. But since October 8, Houston is 2-3 straight up and 0-5 ATS. That’s given us some serious line value, enough so that we’re going to back them against one of the nation’s best teams on Thursday night.

 

The Cougars have slowly started to get healthier since the training room became particularly crowded amidst the October swoon. Houston had a bye before last week’s win over Tulane, and there’s renewed hope that the 8-2 squad could finish strong.

 

The most crucial player to the Houston cause, QB Greg Ward, is ready to rock for Thursday night, according to HC Tom Herman. Herman told the media this week that Ward has been struggling with a right shoulder injury all season, perhaps one reason that Houston has merely been a middle-of-the-pack offense. Since sustaining the injury in the win over Oklahoma, Ward has received "constant maintenance treatment" on his throwing shoulder, per Herman.

 

Despite the injury, Ward (2,608 passing yards and 16 scores and 429 rushing yards and nine touchdowns through 10 games) leads the American Athletic Conference with 337.4 total yards per game. He’s been less prone to leaving the pocket this year, and less effective when he has, averaging 2.98 yards per carry vs. 2015’s 5.7 YPC. But Ward is still, even when compromised, one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. He lit up Louisville for 334 total yards and three passing touchdowns last year.

 

Houston’s defense has also dealt with its fair share of injuries, but still features stud freshman DT Ed Oliver (16.5 TFL) manning the middle. Oliver’s pocket-pushing ways are key to slowing UL QB Lamar Jackson, and thus Louisville as a whole.

 

On the other side, the Cardinals, ranked No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, are almost assured of a Playoff entry if they win out because next week’s Ohio State-Michigan tilt should presumably eliminate one of the contenders above them.

 

Louisville, which boasts S&P+’s No. 1 offense, is a worthy jumbo road favorite. They’ve taken seven of their nine victories by 30 or more points. But Louisville has beaten only two teams with winning records this year, Florida State and Wake Forest. They struggled to put away Duke (10-point differential) and Virginia (seven).

 

I expect Jackson (1,334 rushing yards and 19 scores and 2,898 passing yards and 27 touchdowns) to continue his Heisman candidacy with a win, but I don’t expect it to be easy. And while you’re watching Thursday’s game, consider the following, when thinking about Jackson’s meteoric rise: In last year’s UL-UH game, Jackson split snaps with QB Kyle Bolin. Seems like a million years ago, doesn’t it?

 
 

Ohio State (-22.5) at Michigan State

 

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Analysis

The Spartans have won three consecutive games against Ohio State in which they were installed as underdogs. They probably aren’t going to run that streak to four, but they figure to make this game more interesting than this number suggests.

 

Just last year, the Spartans killed Ohio State’s chances of returning to the Playoff with a game-winning field goal as time expired in a 17-14 victory in Columbus. This season hasn’t been as kind to Sparty, but there are positive signs to be had. Firstly, HC Mark Dantonio has turned the team over to his most recent talented recruiting classes. The youngsters led MSU to a 49-0 thrashing of Rutgers, snapping a seven-game losing streak.

 

MSU RB L.J. Scott had 122 yards and a touchdown against the Scarlet Knights and will be leaned on heavily. Ohio State, well aware, will attempt to slow him with the Big 10’s No. 2 run defense.

 

The Buckeyes, No. 2 in the Playoff Rankings, have one of the nation's best defenses. They held Scott to 58 yards last season. He’ll have to do better than that for MSU to be competitive on Saturday. I think he will.


 

Utah (-14) vs. Oregon

 

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Analysis

Last year, Utah beat Oregon 62-20 in Eugene. This year, Utah is better. Oregon is worse. Significantly so. And this time around, the affair moves to Utah.

 

It’s a particularly poor schematic matchup for Oregon, a sloppy, ill-conceived team. The Ducks pair an inefficient fast-tempo offense with one of the nation’s worst defenses. That defense is particularly bad against the run, allowing 274 rushing yards per game on a 6.2 yards per carry average.

 

Utes RB Joe Williams has rushed for 172 yards or more in all four games since returning from his brief retirement. He logged 332 yards in one of those games. That mind-boggling number is likely out of reach here, but Oregon’s front seven will do everything they can to help Williams exceed it.

 

The Utes will also have success through the air against a weak Oregon secondary. Utah QB Troy Williams has had consistency issues but went 21-of-37 for 296 yards and four touchdowns last week against Arizona State, a decent enough comparison point for Oregon’s defense.

 

Utah figures to wrack up offensive possessions because it’s going to dominate the line of scrimmage when Oregon gets the ball. Its defensive line, which ranks amongst the NCAA leaders with 34 sacks, is going to make life hard for Ducks freshman Justin Herbert.

 

The Utes allow 23 points per game to rank No. 35 in scoring defense. Oregon ranks No. 127 in scoring defense at 43.5 points per game. Mismatch all the way around.

 


Northwestern (-2) at Minnesota

 

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Analysis

The 7-3 Gophers lost to Penn State by three in overtime (they should have won in regulation), lost to Iowa by seven and Nebraska by seven last week (led in the third quarter and tied late). That’s how close the Gophers were to being undefeated.

 

Due to QB Mitch Leidner’s struggles—the offseason draft darling owns a 5/7 TD/INT rate—the Gophers have had to double down on their running game. Fortunately, RB Rodney Smith has been up to the challenge, even when fellow-precocious RB mate Shannon Brooks has been on the shelf.

 

Smith and Northwestern RB Justin Jackson join Saquon Barkley as the three Big Ten backs who have gone over 1,000 yards this season. Smith ranks No. 6 in the FBS with 14 rushing touchdowns.

 

The 5-5 Wildcats need one more win to hit the six-win mark and become eligible for a bowl. They’re a good bet to get there, with a home game against Illinois on deck if they can’t steal a road victory on Saturday. Rest easy, ‘Cats fans: S&P+ gives you a 91.8-percent chance of reaching the postseason.

 

These teams are similar schematically. But I see the Gophers as slightly better in the vacuum, giving them, in conjunction with homefield advantage, enough value to pull the trigger on.

 
 

Penn St. (-28) at Rutgers
 

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Against the Spread:


 

 

 


Analysis

Penn State’s situation is straight-forward: If they beat Rutgers and Michigan State, and if Ohio State beats Michigan, than PSU will be playing in the Big 10 Championship game.

 

The Nittany Lions defeated Indiana 45-31 last week. That was their second-highest point total of the season. They average 35.8 points per game. That’s fine, but it doesn’t offer much room for error to cover four touchdowns on the road against a conference foe.

 

It’s also worth mentioning that Penn State’s offensive line situation is alarming, and may well lead to at least one surprising loss before the season is over. PSU coach James Franklin gave the sad news on Tuesday that offensive tackle Paris Palmer would miss the rest of the campaign after suffering a leg injury against Indiana.

 

Palmer is the fourth offensive linemen that the Nittany Lions have lost to injury.  Tackle Brendan Mahon, hospitalized last week, was not on this week's depth chart, with Franklin declining to say whether he is out for the year. "We do have a little bit of an injury situation going on," Franklin conceded.

 

Rutgers is a scary team to back in any situation, but they do have one thing going for them schematically here because they boast a strong defensive line. If that group can dent PSU’s decimated offensive line, the Nits’ offense could bog down.

 

Rutgers is better at getting after the passer than they are stuffing the run, but penetration is penetration. And PSU RB Saquon Barkley had only 58 yards on 31 carries last week against Indiana, a concerning stat line when considering the state of his line.



 

 Texas (-24) at Kansas

 


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Analysis

It’s Senior Day in Lawrence as 5-5 Texas looks for its sixth win to become bowl-eligible. Texas’ big advantage comes in its No. 16 rushing offense against Kansas’ No. 110 rushing defense. The Horns are led by star RB D’Onta Foreman (241 carries for 1613 yards and 13 touchdowns on 6.7 per rush).

 

Foreman is going to have a huge day, but I expect Kansas to stay within the number anyway. The Longhorns are ranked No. 113 in the country in pass defense, allowing 270.4 air yards per game, and No. 107 in total defense, surrendering 456.6 yards per contest.

 

Texas’ defense also may be without its best defender, OLB Malik Jefferson, who is in the concussion protocol. Jefferson won’t be rushed back for this one.

 

New KU starting QB Carter Stanley, a freshman, has been far more effective than the two signal-callers that preceded him in the early going. He’s averaging the most yards per attempt of the three and went 26-of-38 against Iowa State last week. The near 70-percent completion percentage won’t hold, but he’ll be able to move the ball against UT’s weak secondary.

 

The Jayhawks’ strength is up front on defense, where DE Dorance Armstrong Jr. has been a revelation, leading the Big 12 with 14 TFL and his team with eight sacks. Armstrong’s presence is one reason the Jayhawks have the Big 12’s best third-down defense.

 

Texas’ youth on offense is seen by its second-to-last showing in the Big 12 in third-down conversion rate and red-zone touchdown percentage. That’s a weakness that lines up neatly with Kansas’ greatest strength.

 

Throw in the fact that it’s Senior Day, that S&P+ thinks this line should be UT -20.5, and that KU has been playing slightly better—it has covered its last two games and could have beaten Iowa State last week and TCU last month—and the Jayhawks could keep this one closer than expected. The Jayhawks nearly upset Texas as heavy underdogs in 2012.

 

 

Michigan (-24) vs. Indiana

 

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Analysis

Michigan’s offense, not a juggernaut to begin with, is transitioning from injured starting QB Wilton Speight to backup John O’Korn. O’Korn doesn't represent much of a downgrade, but by virtue of Jim Harbaugh’s decision to play Speight over him, he’s a downgrade all the same.

 

Like Penn State, Michigan’s situation is straightforward. In the Wolverines’ case, that looks like this: Win out, and you’re in the Playoff. There’s no need for running up the score against lambs to get there.

 

And Indiana is no lamb. They lost heartbreaking games to Michigan, Ohio State and (a then-undefeated) Iowa last year and have lost heartbreaking games to Nebraska (five-point margin) and Penn State (led 31-28 in the fourth before getting outscored 17-0 late, including a garbage-time fumble return TD) this year.

 

It’s going to be difficult for the Hoosiers to score on the Wolverines, who rank No. 1 in the FBS with 11.0 points allowed per game and No. 1 in S&P+’s defensive metric. But Indiana doesn’t need offensive fireworks to stay within this large number, because Michigan has a good-but-not-great offense (No. 25 by S&P+) playing its backup quarterback, while the Hoosiers play strong defense.

 

With Ohio State on deck, Michigan is in one of the biggest look-ahead spots of the season. Indiana, 5-5, should get the one win they need to go bowling next week, when they host Purdue. This one here? This is the nobody-believes-in-us kitchen sink game. And Indiana has proven to be quite formidable in that spot.




Georgia (-23) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

 

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Analysis

The Ragin' Cajuns struggled earlier this fall with star RB Elijah McGuire hobbled and new QB Anthony Jennings getting acclimated, but they’ve played better ball in recent weeks with McGuire healthy and Jennings comfortable.

 

Jennings went 17-of-26 for 210 yards with 96 rushing yards and a touchdown in last week’s upset win at Georgia Southern. He won’t be intimated by Georgia, a team he played a few times while at LSU in higher-profile matchups.

 

Louisiana-Lafayette has a strong defensive front populated by huge earthmovers. Even during its struggles, the team still played tremendous run defense. S&P+ ranks ULL’s run defense No. 28 in the country.

 

That strength lines up well against Georgia, a run-first outfit that struggles when they put frosh QB Jacob Eason in third-and-long situations. Georgia doesn’t have many outside weapons, so if you can slow down its run game, you can keep the game close.

 

And plenty of teams have this year. The Bulldogs biggest margin of victory all season was 14, against South Carolina. None of their other five wins were by double-digits. That’s what happens when you pair S&P+’s No. 101 offense with a solid, but not elite, defense.

 

Lafayette has won two of three and needs two wins in its last three games to go bowling. They’ll be heavily favored in the finale against UL-Monroe, but will give it everything they have this week against Georgia and next week against Arkansas State to secure the victory they need to end their one-year postseason sojourn.

 

Georgia, which became bowl-eligible in last week’s stunning, physical upset win over Auburn, isn’t going to get up to blow out this opponent. And even if they did, the Bulldogs aren’t built to run bad teams off the field. Just ask Mizzou, Nicholls State and Kentucky, three teams UGA beat by a combined six points.

 

 

Oklahoma (-3) at West Virginia


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Analysis

Weekly readers know that I’ve gone against the Mountaineers often this year. I’m doing so again because they continue to be overvalued in the desert. West Virginia has one less loss than Oklahoma, but they played a far easier non-conference schedule and were fortunate to beat both Kansas State and Texas in conference play.

 

Meanwhile, the Sooners offense is gaining steam. Expect further improvement with stud RBs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon now playing in their second games back since returning from respective sabbaticals.

 

West Virginia will have issues slowing down one of the nation’s most versatile attacks, as they have in recent years. Oklahoma has scored a combined 89 points in its last two games against the Mountaineers, both wins. If there’s cause for concern, it’s that West Virginia has won eight straight home games. Morgantown tends to drag down superior opponents. It’s fair to point out, though, that Oklahoma technically hasn’t lost a true road game this year (the Houston loss was played in Houston’s NFL stadium, considered a neutral site).

 

The Sooners were in the news this past week due to the bizarre story that star DT Charles Walker was leaving the program to prepare for the NFL Draft. That prompted Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops to shred the redshirt junior defensive end as being disloyal and a quitter. But not a hypocrite, Mike.

 

Walker’s absence isn’t going to hurt, because he hasn’t played since suffering a concussion against TCU on Oct. 1. Oklahoma DE Matt Dimon also quit the team. Dimon hadn’t played since getting hurt in mid-September. To hear the Hitmen Stoops Brothers tell it, both were divisive influences and locker room pariahs.

 

“You can’t have guys coming and going and have a group of players committed to what they’re doing day in and day out, putting all the time and energy into it,” Mike Stoops said. “It’s not fair to the players that are on our team if they’re not committed to the team.”

 

So it seems that everyone has gotten their wish. Oklahoma doesn’t have two injured, disheartened students on its roster who are more focused on their next job than their current extracurricular activity, and Walker and Dimon don’t have to deal with Mike Stoops anymore.

 

Mississippi (-10) at Vanderbilt

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Analysis

One week after engineering an upset win over Texas A&M, future face of the Rebs program frosh QB Shea Patterson (playing in place of the injured Chad Kelly) and his crew find themselves in a tricky spot. Last week was easily the school’s biggest win of the season. It kept the 5-5 Rebels’ bowl hopes alive, and it was only the team’s second victory over a Power 5 team (Georgia) this year.

 

Not only is this a letdown spot, but it’s also a look-ahead situation as Ole Miss has archrival Mississippi State on deck for the Egg Bowl. In-between, the school gets long-time conference punching bag Vanderbilt, a 4-6 outfit.

 

The Commodores run the ball well, play strong defense, and are better at home than they are on the road. They’ve lost both of their SEC home games this year, but they held South Carolina and Florida to 13 points apiece in those games. To get the cover, they’re going to have to score a couple of touchdowns, which I’m banking on with RB Ralph Webb charging ahead against a mediocre Ole Miss defense.

 

Vandy HC Derek Mason is a particularly adept defensive schemer, and you have to like the matchup of him and his brain trust against Patterson in the freshman’s second start.

 

The Commodores, desperate for a win to keep its slim bowl hopes alive, should ugly this one up and keep it close. That’s kind of their thing, and this rendition of Ole Miss isn’t good enough to flip the script. Expect a low-scoring game decided late in the fourth quarter. I lean to the double-digit home ‘dog to win it outright.

 
 

Bonus picks:

 

Cincinnati (+7.5) vs. Memphis

Notre Dame (pick) vs. Virginia Tech

Georgia Southern (-3) at Georgia State

 

****

 

2016 Record: Straight-Up: 63-37 (63.0%); Against the Spread: 51-45-4 (53.1%)

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!