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Weekly Picks

Week 5 CFB Best Bets

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: November 14, 2018, 1:50 pm ET

Boston College -13.5 vs. Temple

The Eagles no-showed last weekend and got summarily pummeled by Purdue. Now that they’ve gotten that out of their system, I’d expect them to revert to the disciplined, hard-playing bunch we’ve come to know and love.

If we get the pre-last-weekend Boston College Eagles, we’re going to cover here, perhaps even comfortably. I have serious lingering concerns about Temple, and we’re getting some nice value on this line because of some deceiving recent results.

Temple lost to an FCS team in the opener and got upset at home by Buffalo a week later. But since then, they’ve blown out Maryland on the road and beaten Tulsa 31-17 (last Thursday). The Maryland game was won with a very clever gameplan. As the coaches explained afterward, Temple’s goal was to stack the box and force Maryland to throw. Terps QB Kasim Hill bombed (7/17, 56 passing yards, 1 INT) and that was that.

Last week’s result against Tulsa was a bit fluky. Tulsa won the yardage battle by 103, controlled the clock for almost 14 minutes more and had double the first downs that Temple did (32-16). But Tulsa turned the ball over five times (Temple did twice). Two of Tulsa’s turnovers were returned for touchdowns.

Backing BC in this spot requires a belief that they’ll put last weekend behind them and revert to the team they were before. Last weekend was ugly. Purdue basically did to them what Temple did to Maryland. RB A.J. Dillon was held to 59 yards on 19 carries. That put all the onus on QB Anthony Brown, who was coming off a career game with five touchdown passes. Brown imploded and threw four interceptions.

For Temple to stay close here, they’ll have to trot out the Maryland game plan again and hope it catches BC off-guard, or hope that BC comes out flat again. Because if you hold Dillon under 75 yards and Brown implodes, you’ve got a shot to win outright.

The issue is that, 1.) BC has tape on Temple’s machinations against Maryland and isn’t going to get fooled by the all-or-nothing plan after the Eagles got caught unprepared last week against Purdue, 2.) BC is better than Maryland and Temple is worse than Purdue, 3.) BC isn’t likely to come out flat after last week’s effort, 4.) Over the past calendar year, A.J. Dillon hasn’t been held under 100 rushing yards in consecutive games — you think Temple will be the team to end that streak?

If Dillon gets back on track, Temple is in a lot of trouble. The Owls can run it a bit with Ryquell Armstead having a resurgent campaign, but their aerial attack is terrible. If Temple falls down by double-digits early, this thing could get ugly as the overmatched Owls’ passing game goes weakness-on-strength against a BC pass defense that has a Round 1 edge rusher (Zach Allen) and a pair of stud safeties (including high-end NFL prospect Lukas Denis).

Pitt +13.5 at UCF

I’ve tried to fade UCF twice and whiffed both times. What’s the definition of insanity? Don’t answer that. This is a case where nothing I’ve seen has caused me to back off my preseason conviction that UCF would be down. Meanwhile, UCF remains overpriced at the window and in the court of public perception (No. 13? Really?).

The Golden Knights are undefeated. But they’ve played only three games, one against an FCS team and two against UConn and FAU. Look around the nation and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a softer opening month than UCF had. And here’s the crazy thing: Against UConn and FAU, UCF allowed an average of 446.5 yards per game. Toss in the FCS opponent and UCF is still allowing nearly 400 yards per game.

UCF has surpassed my expectations on offense. I thought they might have a rocky acclimation period from Scott Frost’s sleek hybrid system to Josh Heupel’s Air Raid-with-a-twist. Instead, the offense has been firing on all cylinders early (with the obvious opponent strength caveat).

That may well continue — Frost left a war chest of offensive talent behind, and Heupel is no dummy. But the defense is a major, major problem. And that’s going to manifest itself against tougher opponents. Pitt qualifies, though they aren’t the easiest team to support. The Panthers are coming off a three-point loss to UNC where they gave up 300 yards passing to a team that doesn't have UCF’s offensive talent.

But concerns about Pitt’s defense are probably a bit overstated. Their yards per game allowed numbers are similar to UCF’s but they’ve played a far harder schedule. Pitt got rolled by Penn State 51-6, but they actually held the Nittany Lions to 390 yards in that game.

Pitt’s passing attack isn’t there yet, but it has shown signs of life since Indiana transfer WR Taysir Mack got ingratiated. The jury remains out on QB Kenny Pickett but he does have tools. It’s the Panthers’ running game that is really going to give UCF problems. Pitt should deploy a ground-heavy keep-away strategy here, and I think it’ll be effective. The Panthers have two starting-caliber Power 5 running backs in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, and that duo has combined for 518 rushing yards as both are averaging over 6.0 yards per carry. Motor Singletary just had 131 yards and three TD against UCF.

The Panthers are 2-2 and have an extremely difficult schedule to come which features six ACC opponents and Notre Dame. This team knows it needs four wins to qualify for a bowl and I don't think we’ll see waning effort in potentially winnable games. Despite the spread, I think this game qualifies. I’m not going to call for the upset but I like Pitt to keep things closer than expected and stay within the number.

Ohio State -3.5 at Penn State

I continue to think that Penn State is overvalued. On Saturday, I’ll finally find out if I’m right. But much like UCF, Penn State has done nothing to this point to dissuade me from my preseason read.

The Nittany Lions were lucky to escape with an OT win over Appalachian State in the opener. The final score of the blowout of Pitt, as mentioned above, was a bit misleading (yardage discrepancy under 100). And last week, Penn State trailed lowly Illinois midway through the third quarter before the Nittany Lions ripped off 42 consecutive points as the Illini wilted down the stretch. Illinois ran for 245 yards in that game. Illinois! This is a good time to mention that RB Mike Weber appears to be at full strength again.

 

And sure, if I’m going to make the PSU-has-had-misleading-final-scores argument, I also need to acknowledge that Ohio State allowed over 500 yards of offense to TCU. But I’ll say this: Ohio State has played, and beaten by double-digits, a marquee opponent. PSU’s best opponent to this point is Pitt. Losses or no losses, PSU had the returning talent to skate through their first four games. On Saturday, they’ll need more.

The Nittany Lions lost a boatload of talent over the offseason, both in on-field personnel and also on the sidelines. We know all about the offensive studs that walked out the door, but PSU also returned only three starters on defense. The scoreboard hasn’t always shown it, but they’re still acclimating. PSU QB Trace McSorley is completing fewer than 55-percent of his passes and has yet to throw for more than 230 yards in a game.

 

Has he regressed? No! McSorley's never been a world-beater. He only looked like a Heisman candidate last year because he had Joe Moorhead on the sidelines, Saquon Barkley next to him in the backfield, and Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton to throw to. He's a good college quarterback, but not the type of talent who can go into God Mode and take over games. To use an NBA comparison, he's Ricky Rubio.

 

Surround him with shooters and he'll run a sleek offense for you. To use an NFL comparison, he's Case Keenum. The better the supporting cast, the better he'll be. And vice-versa. The Trace McSorley of last year isn't walking back through that door. Because when he turns around to last season and sees two sets of footprints in the sand, he'll know that it was Saquon and JoeMo who were carrying him through the hard times.

On the other side, Buckeyes QB Dwayne Haskins has been a revelation. I think we’re about to see his true national coming out party. He’s completing a ludicrous 75.7% of his throws and averaging a ridiculous 10.4 ypa with a 16/1 TD/INT rate. The Buckeyes are No. 3 in the country in total offense. I don't think PSU’s inexperienced defense, which collapsed late against Appy and couldn't stop Illinois on the ground, is up to the task of slowing this group down.

Michigan -14 at Northwestern

I believed in Michigan heading into the year and they burned me in the opener against Notre Dame. Since then, they’ve given signs that they might be the team I thought they could be, destroying the last three opponents (all FBS teams) they faced by 46 (WMU), 25 (SMU) and 46 (Nebraska).

Last week’s game against Nebraska was particularly indicative, with the Wolverines jumping out to a 39-0 halftime lead in the eventual 56-10 laugher. That game proved to us that we can comfortably lay a big number with the Wolverines against lesser Big 10 teams.

 

Northwestern is a lesser Big 10 team.

The Wildcats are 1-2 and have looked quite bad since the four-point season-opening win at Purdue. Two weeks ago, they got outscored 36-13 in the second half of a demoralizing home loss to Akron. QB Clayton Thorson, coming off an ACL tear in the bowl game and not 100-percent, was supposed to be platooning early in the season as he acclimated back.

Instead, against Akron, the coaches left him in to throw 52 times. Thorson threw two interceptions, including a pick-six, and lost a fumble on a strip-sack that was recovered in the end zone for an Akron touchdown. The Zips got points off all three turnovers. Northwestern outgained Akron by over 100 yards, but I’m not prepared to call that result fluky because the pocket passer Thorson dropping back 50 times while compromised is asking for trouble. But Northwestern doesn’t really have a choice, because TJ Green has proven he’s not ready (30.4 adjusted QBR).

And here’s the scary thing: Star Wildcats RB Jeremy Larkin retired a few days ago due to a degenerative spinal condition. Larkin had performed quite well in the Justin Jackson role early on. Now, the Wildcats have to turn to John Moten as the RB1. Moten is averaged less than two yards per carry in limited action.

This is an offense built around the running back. Without Larkin, even more pressure will be thrust upon Thorson to carry the offensive weight. I don't think he's physically ready for it. Even if he was, Northwestern’s receiving options are poor. If Moten isn't productive immediately, this offense is headed for the tank. It wasn’t good as is, averaging 4.9 yards per play.

And I’m not done with the bad news. Northwestern’s offensive line is dealing with injuries, with starters Rashawn Slater, Blake Hance and Tommy Doles all missing time. Michigan has one of the nation’s nastiest defensive lines and registered 14 tackles for a loss in the win over Nebraska. NU superback Cam Green — who functions as the super-important H-back in this offense — suffered a leg injury against Akron while posting an 11-catch, 125-yard game. We’ve heard no status updates yet. If he’s anything less than 100% on Saturday, the offense will feel it.

In this spot, against of the nation’s five-most talented defenses, this offense is in real trouble. This spot is very similar to last week’s Nebraska game. You’ve got a rabid skin eating lion happening upon wounded prey. Saturday’s game will get out of hand unless Northwestern can cook up offense from an unexpected source.

And you just don't have many options when trying to project something like that. Will Thorson be 100% on Saturday and come out dealing like a high-end NFL prospect? Not likely. Will Moton immediately be able to give a passable impression of Jackson or Moten? Doubtful. Can Northwestern generate consistent push against Michigan's front? No chance. Northwestern's receivers are all mediocre possession types. You get the point.

Northwestern is coming off a bye, though in this case that might not be an advantage. Strangely, HC Pat Fitzgerald is 3-10 SU and 5-8 ATS coming off a bye during his career. Meanwhile, Michigan is rolling. I’ll lay the points.

Purdue -3.5 at Nebraska

Nebraska, Michigan’s most recent victim, remains a fade team until the lines begin to reflect just how bad the team is.  

Nebraska’s offense is a mess. It managed only 132 yards against Michigan and had scored only three points before a garbage touchdown late in the fourth quarter got them to double-digits. RBs Greg Bell and Maurice Washington had a combined nine carries for five yards. The offensive line didn't help one iota. QB Adrian Martinez managed only 22 yards and an interception on 15 attempts to post a QBR of 3.1.

Walk-on QB Andrew Bunch was more effective when he came on in garbage time. And he actually might be the better option right now, because the true freshman Martinez is a raw dual-threat quarterback whose mobility has been sapped by the ankle injury he suffered against Colorado. That deprives him of his greatest strength.

But HC Scott Frost has already announced that Martinez will start this game. And while Purdue’s defense has seen its share of struggles early after it lost seven starters over the season, it isn’t going to have a lot of issues with the Huskers offense, which has understandably gotten off to a slow start as it acclimates from Mike Riley’s pro-style system to Scott Frost’s hybrid attack. The injury to Martinez has neutered the aspects of Frost’s offense that rely on quarterback mobility. Which is to say most of it.

Purdue is 1-3, but dig a little deeper and you see why that’s deceiving. Nebraska has played three Power 5 squads expected to be bowl teams (Northwestern, Missouri and Boston College) and one MAC school that is likely to go bowling (EMU). What if I told you that Purdue outscored those four teams by nine points? It’s true. The 0-3 start came courtesy of a four-point loss, a one-point (walk-off) loss, and a three-point loss.

Last week, Purdue got sick of losing coin flips and blasted a really good Boston College team 30-13. In that one, the formerly beleaguered defense shut down AJ Dillon and picked off BC QB Anthony Brown four times. Shutting Dillon down was particularly impressive (and, frankly, astonishing). And if I’m a Nebraska backer, that terrifies me.

Because if the Purdue run defense shows up again, its going to wreck Nebraska’s mediocre offensive line and erase Bell and Washington from a second straight game. That would put all the onus of Nebraska's offensive success on Adrian Martinez’s arm. Martinez’s pocket game is the one part of his skillset that isn't expected to arrive on campus until 2019 or 2020.

Outside of the EMU game, Purdue’s offense hasn't been an issue. And in the past two games it’s been downright explosive. The Boilermakers appear to have scrapped the ill-fated QB rotation and handed the keys over to QB David Blough, who hung a combined 868 passing yards and seven total touchdowns on Missouri and Boston College. Nebraska’s pass D got lit up by Colorado in the opener (last week, Michigan lost interest in passing after it led by 30 points 21 minutes in). Now it meets freshman sensation WR Rondale Moore, who is averaging over 100 yards from scrimmage per game.

I think things get worse for Nebraska before they getter better this year. I can’t foresee a scenario where they go bowling. Frost is no dummy. Don’t believe his public comments. He’s a realist. This season is about building a foundation for next year. Development is more important to him at this point than selling out for short-term success — and that’s as it should be, because this team is D.O.A.

Lastly, on the motivation front, Frost told reporters following the Michigan game: “We’ve got a chance to get reset next week. This is a really good (Michigan) team we played. We get a game we can win next week (against Purdue).” Oh snap! Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said his team was aware of Frost's comment.

“I think everything that's said is heard, and our team needs to respond and understand that we've got to show up ready to play and this team will be licking their chops trying to get us,” Brohm said. Purdue is behind schedule at 1-3 with a brutal slate to come. It must beat the teams it’s favored against going forward, and I trust them to take care of business here.

Texas A&M -20.5 vs. Arkansas

Speaking of misleading box scores, I want to present you with a list of facts about the Auburn-Arkansas game: Arkansas had more yards (even first downs), more time of possession and were more effective on the ground than Auburn… and lost 31-3. No, really. It happened.

One read on that would be that Arkansas’ offense and defense played even with Auburn and that we should be impressed by that. That’s not my interpretation. Here’s how I see it: Arkansas played by far its best game of the season while Auburn showed up with its F- game — and the Hogs still lost by four TD. Arkansas’ special teams unit continues to melt down and give points away; at this point it should be considered one of the worst special teams units in the FBS.

If you look at the records, Texas A&M (2-2) is only a game better than Arkansas (1-3). But these teams are miles apart every other metric. A&M’s two losses were against the nation’s two-best teams, Alabama and Clemson, and they were competitive in each.

Not only did the Aggies cover both those games, but they’re now 4-0 ATS on the year (the only other 4-0 ATS in the nation are FIU, Virginia and Wazzu). The Action Network agrees with my read here and mentioned earlier this week that the Aggies, based on their power ratings, would be favored over 10 teams currently in the top-25.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Arkansas is one of nine teams that hasn’t covered a spread all year (Bowling Green, Louisville, Wake Forest, FAU, Nebraska, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, UTSA and USC are the others).

Arkansas is giving away more than seven points a game on special teams so far. But let’s just say, for the sake of simplicity, that A&M is going to benefit from a flat six points of special teams supremacy on Saturday. Toss in four points of home field advantage for the game being at Kyle Field. Shave 10 points off the number above and that would mean that A&M’s offense-defense units would only need to be better than 10.5 points better than Arkansas’ on Saturday.

I like those odds as much as I like the idea of once again fading this soon-to-be 2-10 or 3-9 Arkansas team. Gimme the Aggies.

Mississippi State -7.5 vs. Florida

We’re getting a field goal-plus of line value in the Dan Mullen Reunion Bowl because Mississippi State just got punked by Kentucky (28-7) and Florida just trashed a garbage Tennessee outfit (47-21).

The Kentucky-Mississippi State result was one of the most surprising in all of college football last week. Kentucky’s resurgent defense completely shut down Mississippi State’s offense, which finished with just 201 yards. That doesn't happen to a Joe Moorhead offense. It just doesn’t.
Florida doesn't have Kentucky’s defense, and JoMo is no doubt looking at this spot as a prime opportunity to ingratiate himself to the faithful by whipping the coach who left for a better job over the winter. And while the Kentucky game was ugly, it was also probably not quite as bad as the scoreboard made it seem.

The score was 14-7 Kentucky with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter before a pair of UK TDs iced the game; the Wildcats managed a modest 300 yards of total offense, 229 of which came on the ground. Mississippi State’s standout defensive line isn’t gonna get whipped like that in consecutive weeks.

Let's talk about Florida’s 3-1 start. The Gators are plus-eight in fumbles (+10 in turnover margin), an unsustainable number headed for sharp regression. The Gators have played three terrible teams (FCS Charleston Southern, Colorado State and Tennessee) and one solid team (Kentucky). UF went 3-0 SU and ATS against the latter three and got bounced 27-16 by the Wildcats as 13.5-point favorites.

Florida is at least a year away. During this transition year, they’ll function as a sort of bowl gatekeeper. If you can beat Florida, you’re headed for the postseason. If you can’t, you probably aren’t. Mississippi State most assuredly is.

Mississippi State is the clearly superior team, they are in a prime bounce-back spot and they have homefield advantage, which is crucial in this spot. For the Bulldogs, this is the Starkville Super Bowl. MSU coaches, players and fans would all like to make a statement to Mullen. And I think they will.

Wyoming +17 vs. Boise State

Full disclosure: This didn’t become a play for me until Wednesday morning, a few hours before I posted this column. I’d circled this side on Sunday, but decided that in good conscience I could not put my money behind a Wyoming team that can’t play a lick of offense, line value or no.

But then Wednesday morning came around, and it was announced that Cowboys RB Nico Evans is being listed as a starter for this weekend’s game. A healthy and active Evans is an enormous development for the Cowboys. He is Wyoming’s only playmaker on offense. I’m not exaggerating. He’s the one guy on the entire roster who can create his own yardage.

Wyoming opened the season by blowing out New Mexico State. The next week, hosting a strong Washington State squad, Wyoming led 19-13 early in the third quarter when Evans was knocked out of the game. From that exact moment on, everything went to crap. Wyoming crumbled and Wazzu scored four straight TD to win 41-19. The next week, with Evans on the sideline, Wyoming got crushed by Missouri. And then two weeks ago, the Cowboys only beat FCS Wofford 17-14. In that game, Wyoming was down to two running backs with true frosh Jevon Bigelow out with a concussion.

Last week Wyoming was on bye (so was BSU). It could not have come at a better time for the Cowboys. Wyoming released their Boise State depth chart with Evans as the starter, as strong an indication that he’ll be back on the field as you’re going to get. Bigelow is also expected to return, helping the depth.

Why is Evans so important to this team? Wyoming is the Power 5’s LSU. They have a really strong defense. On offense, they want to play keepaway. They want to run to the ball, drain the clock, not turn the ball over and beat you in the field position game.

Without Evans, the Wyoming offense was an unwatchable three-and-out fest, and the defense, formerly one of the G5’s best, wilted away as it was stranded on the field for long stretches. So as big as Evans’ return is for the offense, it’s also enormous for the defense. Expect it to play up.

Wyoming has played the Broncos competitively recently, knocking off BSU in Laramie 30-28 in 2016 as 14.5-point underdogs and covering as 14-point underdogs in a 24-14 loss in Boise a year ago. Brett Rypien managed only 195 yards and a pick in that one. Wyoming is 14-4 ATS in its last 18 conference games and 11-5 ATS in its last 16 home games. Playing in Laramie is no fun, and with Evans back, BSU better not be on a post-Oklahoma State loss hangover or they'll fly back home with a two-game losing streak.

Texas Tech +3.5 vs. West Virginia

Texas Tech has been more impressive team to this point, they’re hosting a team that needs to travel 1,465 miles west… and they’re catching 3.5 points? Say no more, I’m in.

We’re going to get a shootout, obviously. Tech’s defense may be more reliable this year than they’ve been in the past. They rank No. 27 in the country in defensive pass completion rate despite the fact that they’ve already played three tough opponents.

Following a poor effort in the opener against Ole Miss, Tech shut out an FCS team, beat a strong Houston team by two touchdowns and then blasted undefeated Oklahoma State 41-17 last week on the road.

Meanwhile, West Virginia has beaten two bad P5 teams (Tennessee and Kansas State) and an FCS team. This is a quality team, absolutely. But the qualitative difference between the Red Raiders and Mountaineers is probably being overstated in this line, which implies that WVU is at least a TD better on a neutral field.

That in conjunction with the steep step up in competition for WVU in a tough travel spot makes Tech a play for me this week. The Red Raiders, who have lit up Houston and Okie State in consecutive weeks, now take on a WVU defense that ranked No. 96 S&P+ last season. That WVU defense returned only five starters and had to undergo major changes up front.

North Texas -7.5 vs. Louisiana Tech

I was on Louisiana Tech big last weekend against LSU and they came through with a cover. Despite losing by 17 (as 20.5-point underdogs), the Bulldogs outgained LSU by nine yards and averaged more yards per play. Tech actually had a shot at the enormous upset, down 24-21 with nine minutes left, but a big call went against them and things spiraled from there.

I talked last week about how important that game was for LTU players, playing a program many of them had grown up wanting to join and in a stadium many of them had grown up dreaming of playing in. One week after the near-miss, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t at least a minor hangover.

If Louisiana Tech doesn’t bring their A-game, North Texas is going to roll them by double digits. This Mean Green squad is legit. They’ve outscored all four opponents by at least 23 points during their 4-0 start, including a 44-17 thrashing of Arkansas in Fayetteville a few weeks ago.

QB Mason Fine threw for over 4,000 yards on 7.9 ypa last year. He and the passing offense have looked even better in the early going. Fine is averaging 332 passing yards per game on 64.8-percent completions and a 8.2 ypa with a sterling 10/1 TD/INT rate.

Last week, I talked about how we needed to start talking about Buffalo as a potential Group of 5 New Year’s Six entrant. Now that that’s begun, I think we also need to toss North Texas into the discussion as a darkhorse. The Mean Green will likely be favored in every regular season game going forward. The most challenging date left on the schedule is when FAU comes to Denton in mid-November.

Outside of that, it’s a relative cakewalk, as long as North Texas doesn't stub its toe in a spot like this very one. HC Seth Littrell took over a one-win team two years ago and hasn’t yet finished with a losing ATS record (they're 3-1 ATS this year and 3-0 ATS against the FBS). I think he’s one of the nation’s best young coaching prospects, criminally underrated, and I expect his charges to brush back LTU by double-digit on Saturday.

Two for the Road:

FAU -3 at Middle Tennessee
Kent State +8 at Ball State


***

2018- 26-22 (54.2%) 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!