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Weekly Picks

Week 12 CFB Best Bets

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: November 15, 2018, 3:30 pm ET

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. Subscribe on iTunes here! Write us a review and we'll shout you out on the next episode.

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*All stats below refer to S&P+ unless otherwise noted*

 

Miami (OH) +7 at Northern Illinois (Wednesday)

 

This became an official play for me on Tuesday night after Ball State upset Western Michigan. That turn of events officially clinched the MAC West for Northern Illinois, setting up a dichotomy on Wednesday of NIU having nothing to play for and Miami (at 4-6 and needing two more wins to go blowing) having everything to play for.

We rode with Miami a week ago in MACtion and were rewarded with a 30-28 upset win over Ohio. The RedHawks, having lost a pair of one-point decisions to Western Michigan and Army, have nearly one whole second-order win over their 4-6 record. To achieve postseason eligibility they must spring this upset and then beat lowly Ball State.

NIU has one of the Group of 5’s best defenses. The Huskies are particularly brutal to run against (No. 10), though you can move the ball on them through the air (No. 51) if you protect your quarterback from the Sutton Smith-led pass rush (No. 10). NIU’s offense and special teams are both bottom-20 national units.

Miami has a decent defense (No. 62) and a solid special teams unit (No. 42). They’ll have no problem stopping this NIU offense, and they may steal some special teams points. Whether or not they cover (or win) this game will come down to QB Gus Ragland and the passing offense. Miami has one of the G5’s better pass protection units, with an offensive sack rate of No. 40.

Lastly, home field advantage isn’t much of a thing for NIU. Huskies HC Rod Carey is 26-11-1 ATS on the road and 12-18-1 ATS at home. With a low-scoring game coming (48.5 total), I’ll happily take the touchdown with the motivated visitors.

Vanderbilt -2.5 vs. Ole Miss

My numbers actually have Ole Miss as a short favorite, but I have to go against them. This is an outstanding situational spot for Vanderbilt, and they match up well to boot.

The Commodores are better than their 4-6 record. They’ve lost three games to strong teams in which they finished with a postgame win expectancy of 42% or above (road games at Notre Dame, Kentucky and Missouri)— against the Irish and Tigers, it was 54% or above.

Because of that bad luck, Vandy’s second-order win total is 5.2, +1.2 over its actual record. The ‘Dores cannot change history. The past is the past. But they can still rally into a bowl game by winning a pair of winnable home games they’ll be short favorites in: this week against Ole Miss, and next week hosting rival Tennessee.

Ole Miss (5-5) is ineligible for a bowl and has no such urgency. Just like last year, this team’s de facto bowl game is the Egg Bowl, the regular season finale next week in Oxford against Mississippi State. Ole Miss is on back-to-back travel.

The Rebels are banged up. WR DK Metcalf is the biggest name of those out for the year, while RB Scottie Phillips is questionable with an ankle sprain he suffered last week, and QB Jordan Ta’amu and WR Braylon Sanders are probable with their own ankle injuries. Not only that, but TE Dawson Knox is suspended for the first half of this one due to a targeting ejection last week.

Ole Miss’ defense is wretched, which means the Rebels can only win by prevailing in firefights. With the offense banged up and the motivation for this game an open question, you wonder if the Rebs can even put themselves in a position to get into a high-variance shootout situation.

Especially because Vandy’s defense matches up well here. Vanderbilt has a shoddy run defense, but the Commodores are solid against the pass. Which brings us back to Phillips, who is crucially important to Ole Miss’ best shot to win here: Attack Vandy’s run defense. Phillips is officially considered day-to-day. He exited last week’s A&M game with the injury and was having issues merely putting weight on the limb on the sidelines.

Kyle Shurmur, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Kalija Lipscomb are going to do whatever they want to this Ole Miss defense, so Phillips’ status is crucial. Even if he plays, I think we see a flat Ole Miss team facing an all-hands-on-deck scenario for Vandy. I think the ‘Dores win by double-digits.

 

Baylor -2 vs. TCU

A quote from the aftermath of TCU’s stunning upset loss at Kansas in October has stuck with me. After the game, Gary Patterson told reporters the following: “We’re 3-5. We might be 3-9 before it’s done. The bottom line is we’re going to keep fighting, we’re going to keep getting better so we can move forward next year, one way or the other, unless they don’t keep us.”

It was a surprising quote on two fronts. The first was that Patterson, in the midst of a nightmare week in what had become a nightmare season, admitted that losing out was a theoretical possibility. The second was that “unless they don’t keep us” bit. Was he really alluding to the possibility of being fired?

TCU hasn’t lost out — they eked out a one-point win against Kansas State the next week — but they also haven’t covered since the Kansas game. In fact, get this: TCU has failed to cover in seven consecutive games. The last time TCU covered was on Sept. 15 against Ohio State. Remember that game? Remember how long ago it was? Crazy. From that game forward, TCU is 2-6. Not against the spread. Straight up.

Week after week, my numbers tell me there is line value on TCU. But my numbers are chasing a ghost, a TCU team that no longer exists. WR/KR KaVontae Turpin is gone. QB Shawn Robinson is out for the year and S Innis Gaines may be too. That’s not all. Check out this sentence from last week’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “TCU’s injuries have piled up to the point that a kicker is lining up as a scout team defensive end in practice these days.”

Attrition isn’t just eating away at TCU’s physical roster. It is eating away at the team’s resolve, which Patterson has referenced in veiled terms by repeatedly calling for his team/players to “grow up.”

But even Patterson isn’t immune to emotionally distancing himself from this incarnation’s failures. Check out this Patterson quote from the same kicker-playing-DE story: “We want to go to a bowl game, but the bottom line to it is if we don’t then I’ll be on the road every day recruiting, which I wouldn’t be if we were getting ready for a bowl game. For every weakness there’s a strength.”

Well then!

If 4-6 TCU loses this game in Waco to archival Baylor, the Horned Frogs will officially be eliminated from bowl contention. My brother went to Baylor. Take it from me: This rivalry is freaking heated. It’s not discussed nationally, but it’s as heated as any rivalry out there. Baylor would love nothing more than to send TCU home for the holidays in front of its home fans on the Brazos.

Not only that, but doing so would clinch Baylor’s pivotal sixth win, which would send the Bears to their first bowl game under Matt Rhule. That’s a big deal to Rhule, a big deal to his players, and a huge deal to this fanbase. This isn’t a program that will be disappointed to enter bowl season 6-6. This program will be thrilled to qualify. These fans have been through a lot over the past three years. A bowl game will feel like Andy Dufresne falling out of the poop-filled drainage ditch to freedom.

Baylor outgained Iowa State by 150 yards in last week’s wonky 14-point loss which featured a series of red zone misfires and questionable officiating calls. Now the Bears return home to face a wounded rival on back-to-back travel that wants desperately to be put out of its misery. I expect Baylor to oblige in convincing fashion.

 

Wake Forest +6 vs. Pittsburgh

Color me skeptical about Pitt, a one-trick pony that runs the ball at a high level but doesn’t do much else. My adjusted line is Wake Forest -3, showing significant value on the home ‘dogs. While you don’t think of these teams as close to even, they actually have an identical 5.5 second-order wins, because Pitt (6-4) has been a little lucky and Wake (5-5) has been a little unlucky.

So it wasn’t a surprise to read earlier this week that that this line had dropped despite 75% of tickets being purchased on Pitt. It doesn’t take a Vegas expert to see that this game is setting up to be a Pros vs. Joes affair at the counter.

Wake Forest has an efficient-but-not-explosive offense that runs the ball effectively. The advanced passing stats aren’t as good, though most of them were accrued by Sam Hartman, who’s now out for the year. Dual-threat QB Jamie Newman flashed in last week’s upset win over NC State (22-33 for 297 yards and three TD with 44 rushing yards).

If Wake can carry the momentum from that win over, they’ll win their sixth game and qualify for a bowl game. From a matchup perspective, Wake’s shoddy run defense against Pitt’s stellar rushing offense is by far and away our biggest fear here. Pitt is absolutely going to rip off some explosive runs, which Wake gives up regularly, but the Demon Deacons are top-45 in S&P+’s four non-explosion rush defense categories and should hopefully be able to drop Pitt into several third-and-long situations that the Panthers struggle in.

Meanwhile, Pitt’s defense is almost as bad. The Panthers struggle against the pass in particular, and I think star Wake WR Greg Dortsch is about to have a huge game. Wake plays at the fastest pace of any team in the entire nation, while Pitt ranks in the bottom-10. If Wake’s pass offense starts to get going, the Deacs could force Pitt into the kind of basketball game that they prefer to play.

I think we’re headed for a shootout, and I think Wake has a better chance to emerge with the victory than the Vegas moneyline odds suggest.

 

Hawaii -6.5 vs. UNLV

This is a bad situational spot for this garbage UNLV team, coming to the islands on back-to-back travel with the Rainbow Warriors fresh off a bye.

You’re down on Hawaii. And I get that. They haven’t won since Oct. 6. They haven’t beaten an FBS team by more than four points since Sept. 8.

Allow me to speak in Hawaii’s defense. The four hardest opponents they’ve faced this season just so happened to be lined up back-to-back-to-back-to-back. The last two — Fresno State and Utah State — both rank in the top-10 S&P+.

One week prior to the losing streak, Hawaii escaped Wyoming by four. Remember, that’s the game where QB Cole McDonald was a late scratch and the Rainbow Warriors were forced to start a true freshman. The week before that, Hawaii was in a horrible situational spot against San Jose State but also managed to pull that game out.

Hawaii played in Week 0, that late-August upset win over Colorado State (seems so long ago, doesn’t it?). From there on, they played 10 straight weeks before they finally, mercifully had a bye last week. You can bet we’re going to see Hawaii’s best effort on Saturday.

Outside of last week’s upset win over San Diego State, UNLV has been a dumpster fire since the moment QB Armani Rogers went down. Outside of SDSU, UNLV has only beaten UTEP and Prairie View A&M (before Rogers went down).

The Rebels are a tire fire in every single facet of the game except rushing offense. And even that rushing offense had has had some off weeks since Rogers’ injury. UNLV is going to be able to run on Hawaii, but they’re not equipped to take advantage of Hawaii’s biggest weakness, its horrific pass defense.

Rogers returned to practice this week and is splitting snaps with Max Gilliam. Ironically, in this matchup, holding a Hawaii ticket, I’d prefer if UNLV played a rusty Rogers. Rogers is objectively the better player when right, but Gilliam is the better thrower.

UNLV has a bottom-15 pass defense of its own, and that’s going to come back to burn them in this matchup against QB Cole McDonald and crew. UNLV is playing out the string. They won’t be going bowling, and HC Tony Sanchez is possibly going to be fired a week from Sunday.

By contrast, Hawaii desperately needs this game. With a road trip to San Diego State on deck, the Rainbow Warriors are in jeopardy of finishing 6-7 and missing a bowl after a 6-1 start. It won’t get to that. Expect Hawaii to get off the mat in a big way on Saturday.

 

Colorado +7 v. Utah

I guess I see this Colorado team and this Buffaloes coaching staff differently than most. That became clear as I read reports that CU HC Mike McIntyre will be fired after this season (Colorado quickly denied the report for whatever that’s worth).

For the record: McIntyre is a good coach and Colorado would be making an absurdly short-sited decision by firing him. But whether they go through with it or not, the reports should light a fire under this squad. If you believe the reports, then CU will be playing the last two games in their coach’s honor. If you believe the CU party line that no decision has been made, the administration is in essence telling the players: If you want to save him, go out and win.

McIntyre was doing just fine until all-world WR Laviska Shenault got injured. At the time, CU was 5-0. Now they’re 5-5. I’ve been waiting for Shenault’s return so I could buy up Colorado shares at bargain basement prices. I held off last week, mostly because I’m not about that fading-Wazzu life and I wanted to give college football’s Julio Jones a week to reacclimate.

CU looked bad last week, but Shenault was back up to his old tricks with a 10-catch, 102-yard day. That was great to see. Because if Colorado can recapture a semblance of its old offense, I think it has a decent shot to spring an upset on Saturday.

This will be the first career road start for Utah QB Jason Shelley, who has taken over with Tyler Huntley out for the year (worth remembering in case of injury: Former Utah QB3 Jack Tuttle has also transferred). Star Utah RB Zack Moss is also out for the year. The Utes were able to overcome those injuries and hold off spiraling Oregon last week at home.

I think the Utes will have a tougher time in Boulder. The Buffaloes pair a strong passing offense (when Shenault is healthy) with a strong rushing defense. I don’t foresee Shelley making Colorado pay for its poor pass defense, and I think the Utes’ own mediocre pass defense (No. 58) is going to have issues keeping Shenault in check. The Colorado program needs this game as desperately as any program in the nation needs a win on Saturday. Utah is going to get everything they have.

 

Virginia +6.5 at Georgia Tech

UVA HC Bronco Mendenhall is known as one of the nation’s top-three coaches against the option. As he discussed with reporters this week, he’s faced a triple-option team every year dating back to the late 1990s when he was the DC at New Mexico.

As a head coach, Mendenhall is 9-2 SU and 9-2 ATS against triple-option teams. Last year, Virginia beat Georgia Tech by limiting the Yellow Jackets to 220 yards (to be fair, UVA got clocked in the bowl game by Navy, only Mendenhall’s second loss against the option).

Georgia Tech is coming off a huge win against Miami and has archival Georgia on deck. I’m not going to argue this is a lookahead spot or anything like that — Virginia has its own rival Virgina Tech on deck — but Virginia was probably thinking about Georgia Tech more last week (heading into a freebie against cupcake Liberty) than vice-versa.

Both of these teams are bowl eligible, and neither is likely to get back into the ACC title chase unless Pitt epically implodes (which, to be fair, is entirely possible). But I like this spot for Virginia, a team that with a great option-defending coach that has spoken this week about prioritizing this game for recruiting purposes.

From The Daily Progress: “For UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall… Saturday’s game is about much more than the immediate goal of a division title. In his third season in Charlottesville, Georgia has evolved into a recruiting hotbed for Mendenhall and his staff.”

Mendall himself said this: “Georgia or Atlanta is in our footprint. It’s not that far away in terms of driving. Certainly about an hour flight, hour and 10 minutes, which we love. …  [W]hen you win, and especially if you win on the road, that makes a real difference to recruits and coaches and fans in those areas in terms of expanding your brand and carving niches out in our opponent’s territory.”

Virginia has multiple players from Georgia on its roster — RB Jordan Ellis said he’ll have 20-30 friends and family in attendance — and also has multiple commitments from Georgia recruits in the 2019 cycle (as well as scholarship offers out to more).

This feels like it could be a flat spot for Georgia Tech and I think Virginia will take advantage with an inspired performance. Tech’s defense stinks against both the run and the pass, and I think UVA QB Bryce Perkins is going to consistently move the chain by land and by air.

Mendenhall described to reporters his holistic strategy in defending the option: It’s not just about defending gaps — you must play sound offense, defense and special teams to keep ensure you’re not playing the entire game on skates. I think Virginia accomplishes that and gives Tech everything it can handle.

 

Minnesota -1 vs. Northwestern

This is an all-time spot for Minnesota. Northwestern clinched the Big 10 West by upsetting Iowa last weekend. The Wildcats celebrated like crazy in Iowa City. The Wildcats’ next game of real meaning will be the Big 10 title game. Northwestern is also on back-to-back travel after consecutive games against bruising teams Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Iowa.

Minnesota sits at 5-5. Next week, they’ll be touchdown-plus underdogs at Wisconsin. If the Gophers want to go bowling for the first time under HC PJ Fleck, this is the game that needs to be won.

The Gophers, one of the nation’s youngest teams, are 5-1 ATS at home this year with a pair of outright upsets, including last weekend’s 41-10 demolition of previously-respected Purdue. The Gophers held the Boilermakers to a season-low 233 yards in their first game after changing defensive coordinators. Minnesota is 1-3 ATS on the road with three embarrassing showings against mediocre-or-worse Big 10 outfits Maryland, Nebraska and Illinois.

Minnesota is a different team at home. And it doesn’t hurt that the forecast is calling for 20-degree weather in Minneapolis on Saturday. It also doesn’t hurt Minnesota backers that this spread stinks to high heaven. This line has plummeted from Northwestern -3.5 to Minnesota -1 despite even tickets being purchase on both sides (almost 80% of the money is coming in on the Gophers — the clear sharp side).

By the advanced metrics, Northwestern is poor in every phase of the game except rushing defense. Minnesota’s receiving corps is perhaps the most underrated in the nation. Tyler Johnson is a future NFL receiver, and Rashod Bateman, the true freshman, might be too. I expect the Gophers to torment Northwestern’s suspect pass defense and punch their ticket into the postseason.

Michigan State -1.5 at Nebraska

In my four years of writing this column, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a pick where I was going against so many handicappers I respect. Of the folks I read and listen to, not one in on Sparty this week. Many of them are playing Nebraska.

And I get that. Nebraska is young and exciting and new and they’ve turned a corner since the calendar flipped to October. After starting the season 0-4 SU and 0-4 ATS, the Cornhuskers are 5-1 ATS. In their last five games, they’re 3-2 SU with the losses a fluky three-pointer against Northwestern in which Nebraska dominated (85% postgame win expectancy) and then a five-point loss at Ohio State (34%).

So I get all that. But, if I may, I’d like to point out that the three wins were over Minnesota (in a game that really got Minnesota’s previously-mentioned DC on the hot seat), Bethune-Cookman and Illinois.

Nebraska’s offense has started cooking over the past month, but their defense remains utterly atrocious. Here’s the issue: Michigan State’s run defense is either the best in the nation (by conventional stats) or the second-best (by S&P+). It doesn’t matter how well you run the ball: Sparty is going to shut down that facet of your offense.

So you can forget about Devine Ozigbo going off in this game. He’s going to be erased. And dual-threat true freshman QB Adrian Martinez is going to be penned into the pocket and forced to throw. Nebraska’s passing offense is only slightly above average in the FBS, per S&P+, and that facet of their offense plays up when the running game is cooking.

It suffers when the defense knows what’s coming. And Michigan State is so good at taking away the run to make things easier for its pass defense, which is top-25 S&P+ as is. Sparty also has a huge special teams advantage here.

Michigan State’s offense stinks, for sure, but it’s a common logical fallacy to handicap games through the primary prism of each team’s offense. Sparty isn’t going to try to engage in a firefight. So long as they erase Nebraska’s rushing offense, Nebraska’s passing offense will lose its teeth, and Sparty will grind away at Nebraska’s shoddy defense (which is particularly bad against the run, which should allow MSU to control the clock and play tempo of this game -- we already know MSU will win the field position battle as well).

Nebraska has beaten only one team in the top-99 of S&P+ all year. Minnesota. Michigan State has only played (not beaten -- played) one team lower than No. 82 S&P+ (Nebraska also played an FCS team, MSU didn’t). Sparty has beaten two top-13 S&P+ teams (and four in the top-55). I think these teams are in different classes, and I feel confident enough in that read to step on the tracks against a handful of handicappers I admire.

 

TWO FOR THE ROAD:
 

Coming Thursday along with one more writeup

 

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2018- 68-64 (51.5%) ATS


2014-2017397-345-16 (53.5%) ATS

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’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!