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Weekly Picks

Week 4 CFB Best Bets

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: November 14, 2018, 1:55 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. The Week 4 episode with 10 ATS predictions dropped Wednesday afternoon. Check us out on iTunes here!

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FAU +13.5 at UCF (Friday)

This line feels inflated by 5-6 points. UCF retains much of last year’s mystique even though the losses they suffered over the offseason weren’t incomparable from a G5 perspective to the losses Penn State incurred.

What have the Golden Knights done so far? Let's recap. They beat a bottom-five FBS team UConn 56-17 in the opener, shut out FCS South Carolina State 38-0 in Week 2, and then last week’s game against UNC was canceled due to weather. That's it.

Meanwhile, FAU is being downgraded because it got drop-kicked by Oklahoma in the opener. The Owls beat Air Force 33-27 the next week in what was a misleading final score (FAU would have won by double-digits were it not for a late punt block TD) and blew out Bethune-Cookman last weekend.

I had concerns over the summer about how UCF’s offensive players would transition from Scott Frost’s exotic system to Josh Heupel’s air raid. Those questions won’t be answered for me until they play a good defense. It’ll be interesting to see if FAU can disrupt UCF’s aerial timing at all. Either way, this is too many points. I wouldn't be surprised if FAU gave UCF a run for its money here. If the best version of FAU QB Chris Robison shows up, put UCF on upset alert.

Washington State +4 at USC (Friday)

I was too low on Wazzu coming into the year. I saw a team that had lost 11 starters (including offensive cornerstone QB Luke Falk and defensive cornerstone DL Hercules Mata’afa), a team that had lost one of the best DCs in the game in Alex Grinch (Ohio State), and a team mourning the passing of presumed QB heir Tyler Hilinski and assumed the Cougars were headed for a 6-6 or 7-5 drop-off after three consecutive seasons of eight wins or more. Instead, the Cougars appear to be right on course for another eight- or nine-win season.

It’s early yet, but the defense looks like it may be just as good as last year’s unit that finished No. 29 S&P+ and got Grinch that Buckeyes job. Former Minnesota HC Tracy Claeys was brought in to replace him. Wazzu’s defense has allowed only 17 points total in two games against FBS teams this year, Wyoming and San Jose State.

The offense is humming, averaging 43.6 points a game. ECU grad transfer QB Gardner Minshew is averaging a tick over 400 passing yards per outing. Standard caveats about schedule strength absolutely apply, but I’ll say this: Prior to last year, Leach’s Cougars had lost five of its previous six Week 1 and Week 2 games SU (including against Portland State, Eastern Washington and Rutgers) as the offense struggled to get going. That it’s clicking early is a good sign heading into conference play.

Meanwhile, I think I'll be a regular on the fade USC train. I just don’t trust Clay Helton and his staff, which has consistently underperformed over the past two years. In USC’s last 18 games, the Trojans are an abominable 3-14-1 ATS. Last year’s 3-9-1 ATS mark appears to be in sight for this crew, which has started 0-3 ATS.

The Trojans are very young, and not very well coached, and that combination is going to continue to be an issue against quality opponents. Over the past two weeks, USC has been crushed by a combined score of 54-17 against Stanford and Texas. Normally, such showings would have the effect of evaporating our line value. But not for USC, a public team that remains stocked with four- and five-star recruits. And while the Trojans now return home, it’s not like they’ve been dominant in the Coliseum recently, going 1-6 ATS in their last seven home games.

The Trojans’ offense has so much work to do. The passing game, led by a true freshman quarterback playing behind a bad offensive line, is extremely inconsistent. The running game? Blame OC Tee Martin, blame the offensive line, blame Aca’Cedric Ware or Stephen Carr or whoever you like — there is no running game. The Trojans gained minus-five yards rushing on 16 carries against the Longhorns, who came into that game allowing an average of 166 rushing yards per game.

USC’s defense also inspires no confidence. It got lit up for 300 rushing yards by UNLV in the opener, got methodically ripped by Stanford the next week, and was unable to slow Texas as it rag-dolled USC 34-0 after the first quarter.

I traveled to Pullman, Washington last September for the USC-Wazzu game. The Sam Darnold-led Trojans lost outright as 4.5-point favorites (USC is 0-6 ATS in its last six September games). The venue reverses this time, but of course USC no longer has Darnold or Ronald Jones.

The Cougs are a well-coached team who execute their systems on offense and defense. USC is a poorly coached team of young athletes that struggles in the trenches, a team that has shown it’ll fold if you give them the opportunity. Give me the points.

Stanford -2 at Oregon

College GameDay is headed to Eugene for this tilt between undefeated Pac-12 teams. Oregon actually opened as a favorite. Vegas quickly learned that that was a mistake, as early money pounded this line to Stanford -2 by Monday morning.

And that’s where I’m at with this. Oregon has proven nothing so far under new HC Mario Cristobal. The Ducks have played three patsies in Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State. And while you can’t usually tell much about upper-level Power 5 programs from games against cupcakes, is anyone else a little worried that Oregon went 0-3 ATS in those games?

Is anyone else worried that Oregon scored 7.5 points less than they were favored by last week? As 42.5-point favorites against SJSU, the Ducks won 35-22. SJSU was previously shut out by Wazzu. As for Herbert, he threw a pair of picks against SJSU and 18 of his 34 attempts were incompletions (47.1%).

I projected Herbert as QB1 in the 2019 NFL Draft. The flashes are absolutely there, but at a certain point, we need him to start ripping up poor defenses on the regular. We need to see him beat at least one great one. To this point, Herbert's signature career win was probably the upset over No. 11 Utah in 2016 as Mark Helfrich played out the string. Other than that? His best win last year was over Arizona, which had a strong offense and a bad defense. This is a huge game for Herbert, but I’m not sure its the spot he’ll get his vengeance. Oregon’s ATS misery extends beyond just this month; they’re 8-21-1 ATS over their last 30 games.

David Shaw is 4-2 SU and 4-2 ATS against Oregon, and Stanford has blasted Oregon in consecutive seasons (52-37 in 2016, 49-7 last year when Herbert was hurt). It’d be easier to buy the Oregon revenge narrative if they’d shown anything over the first three weeks under Cristobal. They haven’t, whereas Stanford has already wrecked San Diego State and USC by a combined score of 48-13. Stanford is coming off a quasi-bye against an FCS team where they were able to give RB Bryce Love the week off. Love will be back on Saturday.

Last week, I regrettably backed Baylor against Duke. Baylor had played a pair of cupcakes heading into that game, whereas Duke had played a couple of bowl teams in Army and Northwestern. Baylor wasn’t ready for the leap up in competition. We'll find out if Oregon is on Saturday. Oregon has played the No. 128-toughest schedule to this point, and Stanford has played the No. 57 hardest schedule.

Ohio +8.5 at Cincinnati

This line is bloated, so much so that you almost wonder if you’re falling into a trap. It makes me comfortable that I can at least explain the number, which I think is over 7 because of an overreaction to Ohio’s early struggles (narrow win over FCS Howard in the opener, lost by 14 to Virginia last week) and Cincinnati’s success (wins over UCLA, Miami OH, and Alabama A&M).

I liked Cincy coming into the year and backed them as short ‘dogs against Miami OH. But I’m not going to get sucked into embellishing the import of their first three wins. UCLA is a dog this year, one of the Power 5’s 10 worst teams — perhaps a 3-9 outfit. Miami OH is 0-3 and has scored three points over their last two games, and Alabama A&M is a freebie.

Cincy fans should be excited about the 3-0 start. The program at long last appears to be headed in the right direction again. But are we really using that start to make the Bearcats a TD-plus favorite over one of the MAC’s best teams over the past few years?

Ohio has won at least eight games in each of the last three seasons. Cincinnati won eight games total over the last two years combined. This Bearcats crew is improved, yes. And Ohio may not be quite as good as they were last season. But even after making those mental adjustments, I still can’t perceive a large qualitative difference between these two teams. This line implies that Cincy is five or so points better on a neutral field, and I don’t buy that.

Ohio HC Frank Solich doesn’t punt non-conference games like some G5 coaches (14-5 ATS in his last 19 non-conference games), his disciplined teams aren’t intimidated by good teams (13-3 ATS vs. a team with a winning record) and he tends to bounce back quickly (4-1 ATS in last five games following a SU loss). And while Cincinnati is being overvalued due to a lack of critical analysis about their schedule, I think Ohio’s early season struggles are a bit exaggerated.

The Bobcats had issues with Howard in the opener, but openers can be fluky and Howard ambushed UNLV the year before in the same spot. Ohio had a bye in Week 2 and last week had that strange situation where they played Virginia in a neutral site at Vanderbilt's stadium due to the Hurricane. To Ohio’s players, this week may have been a reset, and they may look at the game with the homestate Bearcats as the true season opener of sorts. I expect Ohio to play well.

Louisiana Tech +21 at LSU

This is a big hangover spot for LSU fresh off a huge win against Auburn. The Tigers also throttled Miami in the opener, which means we’re going to get good value if we want to fade them. And I think this is a nice spot to do so.

Louisiana Tech, 2-0 with wins over South Alabama and Southern, is coming off a bye. For two weeks, it has had this in-state game at the forefront of its mind. LSU doesn’t see Louisiana Tech as a rival, but Louisiana Tech’s year would be made if they could go into Baton Rouge and do to LSU what Troy did last year.

Sophomore CB Amik Robertson, a Thibodaux native, told the Monroe News-Star that “LSU is a game that I marked on my calendar” and repeatedly referred to it as a “statement game.” He said playing LSU for LTU is “like playing the (Golden State) Warriors.”

Robertson continued: “It’s a huge game, not just for me, but for everyone on the team. I probably wasn’t the only person on my team that not only had an LSU offer, but LSU interest. LSU has passed up on a lot players on this team and they also have a point to prove. And not just proving to LSU but proving it to Louisiana Tech that we can play with anybody.”

LSU is now ranked No. 6 in the country. They will not end the season as a top-10 team. LSU's style of play leaves a thin margin for error. LSU is like a UFC fighter that is elite in wrestling and grappling but mediocre everywhere else. They’ll beat the majority of teams they play, beat some really good teams, but they’ll let lesser fighters stick around longer and their ceiling will always be capped below a true title contender.

LSU’s strategy is straightforward: Don’t turn the ball over, and play really good defense. LSU hasn't turned it over even once this year. That’s no fluke: They turned it over eight times in 13 games last year. But the passing game still stinks. In fact, it’s worse: Joe Burrow is completing only 46% of his passes, and the Tigers rank No. 129 out of 130 nationally in completion percentage. Burrow is averaging 180 yards per game on 6.9 YPA and he ranks No. 93 in passing efficiency. And while Nick Brossette has been great, he’s no Derrius Guice.

Maybe I’ll end up eating these words, but — despite the wins over Miami and Auburn — I don't see this team as better than last year’s 9-4 squad. Before the season, I thought maybe this was a 7-5 or 8-4 team. LSU is better than I thought, but I still think they’re a nine-win team, not something more.

Lastly: LSU is not a team you want to lay 21 or more points with against just about anyone. Sure, they’ve beaten Miami and Auburn. But in Week 2, against FCS SE Louisiana, the Tigers won 31-0. That feels like about as big a blowout as they’ll muster. This spot reminds me so much of last fall when LSU hosted Syracuse in September. LSU was installed as 21.5-point favorites and won 35-26. That Syracuse team finished 4-8, S&P+ No. 88.

We don’t exactly know what we have in Louisiana Tech yet, but I can tell you this: They finished No. 71 S&P+ last year at 7-6, and with 15 starters back, they might even be a bit better this year. Give me the Bulldogs off a bye to put a scare into the hungover Tigers.

Buffalo -5.5 at Rutgers

I’ve cashed on the Bulls in each of the past two weeks in their wins over Temple (which upset Maryland last week) and Eastern Michigan (who previously beat Purdue). Making it three-for-three will require only that they beat the Power 5’s worst team by a touchdown or more. I think Tyree Jackson and Anthony Johnson can handle that.

Rutgers is coming off one of the more humiliating losses you’ll ever see, a 55-14 beatdown by a Kansas team that lost to an FCS school in the opener and previously hadn’t been favored over a Power 5 team since 2009. Rutgers true freshman QB Art Sitkowski went 7-for-19 for 47 yards and three interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns. Sitkowski has now thrown seven interceptions in eight quarters and change.

Rutgers is apparently mulling a quarterback change. Really, there isn’t a good choice to be made: You either pull the plug on your four-star true freshman quarterback who was brought in as the face of the program in favor of proven bad veteran quarterback Gio Rescigno, or you leave Sitkowski in to get eaten alive. Sitkowski is talented, but he’s absolutely not ready: The 18-year-old was beaten out for the quarterback job last year in high school at IMG Academy by Zack Annexstad, currently Minnesota’s QB.

So that’s Rutgers’ QB situation. Buffalo is in good hands. Jackson, a jumbo dual-threat with a bazooka arm who will have the NFL fawning over him soon, is 68-of-94 (65.3 percent) for 789 yards and a 12/1 TD/INT rate through three games. Buffalo has found a legit WR2 behind Johnson in KJ Osborn, who’s been shredding defenses who leave him in single coverage (16-300-5).

Jackson hasn’t been sacked once all season! Rutgers, meanwhile, couldn’t manage even one sack against Kansas. So you’d expect that the big fella will have plenty of time to survey his options and light up this beleaguered secondary. Rutgers’ corners were expected to be a strength, but Blessuan Austin was lost for the season to another ACL tear and sophomore Tre Avery has been out. Redshirt senior Isaiah Wharton is a solid player, but things have gotten so bad that Rutgers is starting a true freshman across from him. This is not a good problem to have against a team like Buffalo.

If these teams keep tending to the ball the way they have, it could get out of hand. The Bulls are plus-6 in turnover margin while Rutgers is minus-9. The difference in discipline between the two teams also is apparent in the penalty stats, where Buffalo is a top-20 team in terms of being adversely affected by penalties and Rutgers is a bottom-60 team in basically all penalty stats.

The 3-0 Bulls and 1-2 Scarlet Knights are headed in opposite directions. Think about this: If Buffalo wins this game, they’ll likely only be underdogs in one other regular season game, the mid-October tilt at Toledo. Nobody is talking about Buffalo as a potential New Year’s Six party crasher, but they should be. We may be headed for a special season. As for Ash and crew, their post-Kansas comments are pretty telling. This crew is already panicking, and it’s hard to blame them.

Northern Illinois +10 at Florida State

Last week, we cashed big on Syracuse +3.5 and the Syracuse ML. It’s time to fade FSU again, because Vegas continues to price them as a relevant ACC team. They’re not. I don’t believe FSU will make a bowl game this year. They shouldn’t be laying double digits to any FBS team outside of the bottom-30. I think NIU has a real shot to win this game.

Florida State has issues everywhere. But the biggest issue is the offensive line, which is an abomination. To save time, I’m going to refer you to Bud Elliott’s story on SB Nation “How did Florida State’s offensive line get this bad?

The cliff notes: RT Landon Dickerson, a natural guard, is injured. His backup, Derrick Kelly, is also a guard. Kelly got whipped in the Syracuse game and went down injured at the end of the game. He was replaced by Brady Scott, another guard. To replace Kelly at guard, FSU has used Arthur Williams, a player who just transitioned over from DT this summer. He’s not ready. The other guard, Cole Minshew, has suffered from injures all year. The backup Mike Arnold is a developmental failure.

The LT Jauan Williams didn’t play the past two years. He came back having not developed, and he’s been so bad that FSU benched him for Abdul Bello, a recruiting misfire who was so brutal after coming on in relief for the Syracuse game that one particularly brutal rep has been satirized to death on Twitter. The team’s best tackle Josh Ball was dismissed after last season, and Brock Ruble, a backup tackle last year, transferred. “There is not anyone healthy on FSU's roster who can play tackle at ACC level,” Elliott summed up.

Because of that group’s epic failure, FSU has been awful on early downs. Its average distance on third downs is over eight yards. Not surprisingly, FSU is one of the country’s worst teams on third downs. RB Cam Akers gets no room to breath, and QB Deondre Francois has zero time to look for targets downfield. When he does get the ball off, and when it is accurate, his receivers will sometimes drop it.

Defensively, FSU doesn’t have much of a pass rush, its linebackers are plodding and ineffective, and the secondary gave up nearly 500 passing yards to Samford.

NIU is a bad matchup for FSU. The Huskies are only 1-2, and they have a tendency to fall into offensive ruts, but boy do they have an active front seven. DE Sutton Smith is one of the most active defenders in the nation, racking up an incredible 14 sacks and 30 TFL last year. Smith has three sacks and 6.5 TFL this season. The undersized whirling dervish is one of the country’s most enjoyable defenders to watch. This is a plum opportunity for him to make his case for NFL evaluators, and I expect him to go bonkers against what is essentially an FCS-caliber offensive line.

I find it really hard to picture in my head a scenario where FSU gets to 21 points. The Seminoles have managed a mere 10 points total in two games against FBS defenses. Last week’s showing against Syracuse was particularly telling. Syracuse, which gave up nearly 35 points per game against FBS teams last year and allowed 42 points to Western Michigan in the opener, shut out FSU until a garbage touchdown with six minutes left last Saturday.

I’m all over the points, here, and I’ll be sprinkling some on the money line as well. The under 45 is absolutely worth a look, too.

TCU -3 at Texas

As you could probably tell above, I’m not as impressed by Texas’ 37-14 win over USC as maybe some others were. I’m still a little bit hung-up on the loss to Maryland in the opener (a team that just got whipped by winless Temple) and the sluggish seven-point win over Tulsa a week later (Tulsa just lost at home to the Sun Belt's Arkansas State).

Meanwhile, TCU is coming off an impressive loss to Ohio State, a 40-28 setback as 12.5-point underdogs on a quasi-neutral site. The yardage total was about even (OSU 526-511). The game flipped on turnovers. TCU had three, OSU had zero, and two of OSU's were returned directly into the end zone. Those two defensive scores were the difference between TCU being the toast of college football today and TCU being a mere three-point favorite over this so-so Texas bunch.

After the OSU game, Gary Patterson gave a brief statement to the media. He ended it with: “On to Texas.” If we truly boil it down, it's not the Ohio State game that Patterson truly wants -- it's this one.

TCU has owned Texas recently, winning each of the last four games by scores of 48-10, 50-7, 31-9 and 24-7. It would be easier to buy the Longhorn revenge narrative if I hadn’t heard it espoused the week leading up to the past three games between these schools. This is a game Patterson prioritizes. Not only is it a crucial game for TCU’s Big 12 title aspirations every year, but it’s also important that he can tell recruits: Why go to Texas? We’ve blown them out in each of the past four years. Why not come to the premier program in Texas?

Beating Texas on Saturday would make it five straight, a new program record for TCU. I expect Patterson and crew to get it done.

Iowa +3.5 vs. Wisconsin

I went back-and-forth on whether to include this pick in the column all week. A little background.

I went to grad school at Iowa. I’m a Hawkeyes fan. I follow the team particularly closely. This is a spot that over the summer I had circled as being extremely advantageous for my alma mater. Kinnick Stadium can be a house of horrors for favored visitors, as we saw last year with Penn State (which rallied back to win on the last play of the game in an easy Iowa cover) and Ohio State (which had the sky fall upon it in Iowa City last November).

 

The place is particularly eery and ominous at night, with clear skies, a chill in the air, nothing else going on in the 150-mile radius around it and 70,000 drunk, raucous Iowans going ballistic. Hawkeye football is different, man. Iowans don't have a pro sport team to back. They put all the passion you disperse between your NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL franchises and NCAA team and shoot it all into the heart of the Iowa football program.

I called my podcast co-host Mark heading into last weekend and told him of my belief that Wisconsin would win a close, physical game with BYU and then turn around and get upset by Iowa the next week. Of course, Wisconsin went on to get upset by BYU.

That evaporated some of our line value. But I’m going to ride with the Hawkeyes anyway. I found Wisconsin overrated coming into the season because they’d lost so much on defense and I didn't trust their quarterback (Alex Hornibrook). Since then, we’ve seen that even Wisconsin’s offensive line, which I thought was the best in the nation and quasi-impenetrable, can struggle.

Meanwhile, Iowa is better than I thought. I thought the defense might drop off a bit with the losses of Josey Jewell and Josh Jackson. That hasn’t been the case so far. Heading into the fourth quarter against Northern Iowa last week, the Hawkeyes had given up a total of 10 points in their first 11 quarters of play (three to Iowa State, seven to Northern Illinois — Northern Iowa, which was getting shut out until that point, scored a pair of garbage fourth quarter TDs).

Iowa’s defense front seven is vintage Iowa, extremely disruptive while remaining technically sound and gap disciplined. The group has ransacked all three teams it has played so far. Iowa State turned around and put up 450 yards of total offense against Oklahoma, so I tend to think this isn’t a weak opponent thing.

If Wisconsin’s offensive line doesn’t fix what ailed it against BYU, it’s going to have issues with Iowa’s front. And if it does, that’s a big problem, because Iowa may have an advantage in just about every other metric of the game. And while we’re here: Before you categorize the BYU game as a one-off for Wisconsin, keep in mind that the Badgers didn’t put away lowly New Mexico the week before until the Lobos’ starting QB Tevaka Tuioti got hurt.

I'm not telling you to follow me on this one. I have a conviction, which is why I had to include this game in the column, but I need to be recused for bias. Make your own call here. (But I should add that ESPN's FPI, for one, agrees with me -- it gives the Hawkeyes a 52% chance of winning this game).

Vanderbilt +2 vs. South Carolina

I think Vanderbilt is the better of these two teams, so I’ll happily take the points with the home team. The Commodores blew out a couple of G5 teams that may make a bowl to begin the year (MTSU and Nevada), and then last week should have beaten Notre Dame.

In the 22-17 loss, Vandy outgained the Irish 420-380 and averaged 6.0 yards per play and 7.6 yards per pass to Notre Dame’s 5.14 and 5.2 yards, respectively. The Commodores were done in by three turnovers (ND had zero), including a brutal fumble at the goal line that was recovered by Notre Dame for a touchback and eventually cost Vandy the win. Vanderbilt averaged a fluky-low 2.4 points per red zone trip.

South Carolina was humiliated last time out by Georgia. I expected the offense, which got so much ink over the offseason, to be improved. It wasn't. This looks like the same old South Carolina bunch we've seen the past few years. Last week, the Gamecocks endured Hurricane Florence and had their game canceled. They really could have used a cushy matchup in their return to the field. This isn’t it. Vandy absolutely looks like a bowl team.
 

Two for the Road:

 

Tulane +37 at Ohio State
Ball State -2.5 vs. Western Kentucky

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2018- 21-15 (58.3%) ATS
2014-2017- 397-345-16 (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!