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*All stats below refer to S&P+ unless otherwise noted
Buffalo -3.5 vs. Northern Illinois (MAC Championship Friday in Detroit)
These teams did not meet in the regular season. Their first meeting of 2018 is a fascinating battle between the conference’s old, reliable force (NIU, which has won the MAC West seven of the last nine years and the MAC itself in three of nine) and the up-and-comer Buffalo, which broke out with a 10-2 regular season.
Northern Illinois is a straightforward handicap. They have an exceptional defense (No. 13) but are awful on both offense (No. 120) and special teams (No. 112 — Buffalo is also poor on special teams, so that facet of the game nullifies itself in the handicap).
The Huskies cannot pass, and Buffalo’s pass defense is strong. So NIU is doing nothing through the air on Friday. The Huskies have an efficient but entirely non-explosive running game (No. 63) that is pretty paint-by-numbers. Defensively, NIU is dominant against the run (No. 6) and a little more generous against the pass (No. 40).
The handicap of NIU games always comes down to two questions: 1.) Will they be able to run the ball at all on offense?, and, 2.) Can the other team pass and protect the quarterback?(NIU is No. 6 in sack rate and leads the nation with 46 sacks.
The answer to the first question in this matchup is yes, likely. Buffalo’s run defense is the weakness of the unit. Buffalo is good at preventing explosive runs (No. 31), but poor against efficiency (No. 101) and in stuff rate (No. 117). NIU ranks No. 32 and No. 16 in those categories offensively.
Churning out tough yards on the ground is basically all NIU can do, and Buffalo has shown a habit of getting nicked. Buffalo’s two worst defensive showing of the year — also Buffalo’s two losses — came against Army and Ohio, two teams equipped to consistently move the ball on the ground.
The answer to the second question, however, is also yes. Buffalo is No. 7 in offensive sack rate, and the Bulls have an elite G5 passing offense (No. 7 nationally). The Bulls regularly rip off explosive plays downfield, and that’s an area of the game that will test NIU as well. The Huskies want to play the entire game in a phone booth. They’ll get their wish on offense, but on defense, Buffalo is equipped to attack the few softer areas of NIU’s defense.
I think each offense could have a bit more success against the opposing defense than most assume. So the over is probably a good idea, particularly if you think Buffalo is going to win. And I do. NIU beats you when they can control the tempo of the game and discombobulate your offense. Buffalo has too many weapons, and QB Tyree Jackson’s game is too multi-faceted.
Even if NIU spends most of Friday’s game pitching a perfect game defensively, they’re still susceptible to Jackson uncorking a few long balls to KJ Osborn or Anthony Johnson that could accrue enough points to put NIU’s anemic offense out of reach. And NIU can absolutely not afford to fall behind to a team like Buffalo. If the Huskies do, and if they stray from their gameplan trying to catch up, Buffalo will make them pay.
Washington -5 vs. Utah (Pac-12 Championship Friday in Santa Clara, Calif.)
This line opened at a mere Washington -3. That was something of a stunner, as the Huskies were favored by four at Utah on Sept. 15, a game they won 21-7. This time, Utah doesn’t have home-field advantage. They also don’t have QB Tyler Huntley or RB Zach Moss.
It’s pretty fascinating, then, that with home-field taken off Utah’s ledger, the price of this game opened lower than the first rendition. Before we get into the matchup, let’s revisit that first game.
Washington benefited from a 3-1 turnover advantage, but their two-touchdown win was no fluke. In fact, S&P+ found the game to be even more lopsided, giving Washington a 17.6 adjusted postgame scoring margin. Utah, at full strength and in Salt Lake City, had all kinds of problems generating offense. The Utes finished with a 13% offensive percentile performance, half their next-lowest output in any other game this season (interestingly enough, that one was against Northern Illinois’ vaunted defense).
Utah got upset by Arizona State the game Huntley went down. But since then, they’ve shockingly played well, winning three straight over Oregon, Colorado and BYU. A handicapper I respect told me over the weekend that he thinks QB Jason Shelley is an upgrade over Huntley.
As a runner, I would agree. But the undersized dual-threat remains unrefined and ineffective in the pocket, and Utah has gotten away with more or less game planning around that. But what happens if Washington has a second half lead on Friday? You’ll have an extremely raw 6-foot, 181-pound dual-threat throwing into one of the nation’s best secondaries. Utah cannot afford to fall behind.
But I struggle to see how they can avoid that scenario. Washington’s run defense (No. 10) actually grades out higher than its pass defense in the advanced metrics. Utah may again have issues moving the ball on the ground, and that’s going to sink them if it happens again. Utah has the No. 11 run defense, but their No. 45 pass defense has a few holes. QB Jake Browning should take advantage.
It’s also worth noting that Washington has an extra day of rest after it beat Washington State on Friday. The next day, Utah held off BYU in a closely contested rivalry game. But I should also say, in closing, that while I think Washington’s offense and defense are 10 points or more better than Utah’s offense and defense on a neutral field, Utah has an enormous special teams edge that could manifest itself. It’s the one area of the game that gives pause when purchasing a UW ticket.
UAB +1.5 at Middle Tennessee (CUSA Championship)
Getting deja vu? This game was played last weekend in the same location, with MTSU blowing out UAB 27-3. That win locked down home field advantage in the title game for the Raiders. That could prove crucial, as UAB is undefeated at home since rebooting the football program last season.
I was on UAB in that game, unfortunately. Two things sunk me: Marshall’s upset win earlier in the day locked up MTSU’s inclusion in this game, setting up the rematch. UAB perhaps put all their preparation eggs into this week’s basket, punting last week’s meaningless game in deference to this one.
Perhaps more importantly, UAB is suffering from three OL injuries at the moment. Another UAB offensive lineman was ejected in the second quarter of last week’s game. Three of those OL have a “questionable” designation for this game. Starting QB AJ Erdely and RB Spencer Brown are also both questionable, while two of their primary backups are already out for the year.
Brown was yanked from the last game after only one carry. Erdely made an appearance but didn't play much either. Seven starters in total didn’t factor into UAB’s gameplan last week.
Here’s my theory: UAB essentially tanked the game but not playing anyone who was banged up. And that’s on me for not factoring that into my handicap of the game, but it’s not something that’s going to linger into my thinking on this game. Brown has already been upgraded to probable. He’ll play.
My thinking on this matchup remains the same: UAB matches up very well. MTSU has issues preventing explosive plays, and UAB is adept at ripping them off on the ground and through the air. And MTSU’s offense is extremely dependent on passing efficiency because their ground game is sub-mediocre and the passing attack isn’t explosive.
UAB’s pass defense (No. 30) is one of the best in the G5. It particularly excels at preventing completions (No. 6). The Blazers also have an elite pass rush (No. 2), while MTSU struggles to protect the quarterback (No. 103).
I happen to think that most of UAB’s players withheld last week with non-season-ending injuries will play this time around. That’s an educated guess based on what I’ve read. However you handicap this game, your read on that situation needs to factor in prominently. Because if UAB is out 10 starters again, they’re not likely to win.
But if half or more are back, UAB should bring their best effort in a prime (and unique) bounce back scenario. MTSU dominated throughout last week and may be in for a letdown, a surprise, or both if the Blazers show up near 100% ready to go. I think they will.
Texas +8 vs. Oklahoma (Big 12 Championship at Jerry’s World in Arlington, Texas)
Do not play Oklahoma because of the “it’s almost impossible to beat a good team twice” narrative, a disproven cliche that has no statistical backing. In fact, Oklahoma itself is a good example of the contrary, having beaten TCU (for the second time that year) in last season’s Big 12 title game reboot.
Texas’ three losses came to Maryland, West Virginia and Oklahoma State (by a combined nine points). They were favored against the Terps and Pokes, and pushed as a one-point underdog to the Mountaineers when WVU converted a last-second two-point conversion. HC Tom Herman remains the country’s undisputed champion as an underdog. He’s now 13-1-1 ATS as an underdog as a head coach with 10 outright wins and 23-1-1 ATS going back to his offensive coordinator days.
Oklahoma’s lone loss, of course, came to Texas in October, a 48-45 setback that cost DC Mike Stoops his job. The Sooners’ defense never made a turn for the better without him, coughing up 47 ppg this month even though Kansas accounted for 25% of that sample size. These were not fluky points. The Sooners have allowed 623 ypg over their last three.
The 11-1 Sooners have a shot to make the playoff with a win. But doing so while require the defense to put up some semblance of resistance on Saturday. The Sooners only finished 4-7-1 ATS this season because the defensive charges consistently let lesser opponents hang around in games they had no business being in (the way-closer-than-it-should-have-been-15-point win against KU jumps to mind). Oklahoma’s combination of elite offense and dreadful defense has led to 11 of its 12 games going over the total. Heck, six of Oklahoma’s last eight games have gone over 90 combined points (the other two were 79 and 65).
Sam Ehlinger threw his first interception since the opener against Kansas last week (308 straight passes without an interception). Ehlinger’s injured shoulder remains a concern. But Oklahoma’s atrocious secondary won’t exactly require John Elway to hit an open Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey downfield.
Texas’ style under Tom Herman is disparate from most of the rest of the conference, and that’s the primary reason that the Longhorns match up well with Oklahoma. They do not try to beat Oklahoma at Oklahoma’s game, which is the only recourse that schools like West Virginia and Oklahoma State have.
But Texas’ success in this series stretches beyond Herman’s hiring. The Longhorns have covered the last six games in this series by an average of 14 ppg. Oklahoma’s defense is too shoddy to lay this kind of number to a quality opponent. That defense leaves very little margin for error, so Texas backers would do well to do a little sprinkle math and spread their bet over the spread and moneyline.
Memphis +3.5 at UCF (AAC Championship)
We get a redux of last year’s classic, when Central Florida outlasted Memphis 62-55 in double overtime as 6.5-point favorites in Orlando (speaking to an earlier point, that was UCF’s second win over Memphis last year). Earlier this season, Memphis nearly ended what is now a 23-game UCF winning streak, falling 31-30 at home as five-point underdogs.
So this will be the fourth time these teams have played in the past 14 months. This one is going to look different than the others, because UCF QB McKenzie Milton has been lost for the season to a serious leg/knee injury. Milton averaged 396.0 yards of total offense and 3.7 touchdowns per game in the three previous games against Memphis. This time around, redshirt freshman Darriel Mack draws the start at quarterback.
Mack has shown to be a strong runner in limited action, but he’s also shown to be ineffective through the air. And that’s where this handicap starts to get away from UCF. I would love to back the Knights, as the price of this game has dropped so far that a UCF bet is now — perish the thought — a contrarian play.
But my numbers have this line at UCF -6 — and that’s without factoring in Milton’s injury. He’s worth 7-10 points on the number. With that line of thinking, Memphis should actually be the small favorite. And that’s how I see this game.
Memphis has an elite rushing attack. That’s the Achilles heal of UCF’s defense. If the Tigers are running at will, how will the Knights keep up? This feels like a prime opportunity for one of UCF’s biggest rivals to snap the Knights’ winning streak on their home field.
Boise State -2.5 vs. Fresno State (Mountain West Championship)
Speaking of games we’ll be seeing for a fourth time in a little over a year’s time!
I just handicapped this game three weeks ago. Back then, Boise State was a three-point home dog. I took the points and was rewarded with a 24-17 outright upset. BSU also won last year’s title game with Fresno 17-14 (a week after Fresno won in a game that isn’t a datapoint because it meant nothing for BSU). This time around, in contrast to earlier this month, it’s BSU who’s laying the short number.
It’s not instructive to think of that development as “I’m getting six points of line value on Fresno State based on the line three weeks ago.” As I wrote in the preview of the Nov. 9 game, my model had that game as a pick ‘em — the Vegas line was a little off. That Boise would have to lay a few more points after beating both Fresno State and Utah State isn’t a surprise.
Boise State is another straightforward handicap. They have three weaknesses: Don’t generate enough explosive plays on offense, allow too many explosive plays on defense, and play shoddy special teams. The Broncos are strong everywhere else.
So I play on the Broncos when they play a team that can’t exploit those weaknesses, and I play against them when they play against a team that could (and that system actually burned me, in a way that gave me more respect for the Broncos, last week when I was on Utah State and Boise State beat them by nine behind a superb offensive showing).
Fresno State doesn’t match up well with Boise. They didn’t three weeks ago, and they won’t this weekend. The Bulldogs’ offense is mediocre in generating explosive plays and its special teams is also poor, nullifying two of Boise’s three biggest weaknesses.
The Bulldogs also remain a bit overpriced because of their 10-2 record. But get this: Fresno State is 2-2 against top-60 S&P+ teams, and 8-0 against teams ranked No. 76 or lower (with an FCS team tossed in). One of those two top-60 wins came in an enormous situational edge spot with Toledo traveling cross-country west for a late kick.
The other was a nine-pointer over San Diego State, which was amid a 1-4 swoon to end the regular season (including losses to two teams ranked No. 100 S&P+ or lower) as the Aztecs succumbed to numerous injuries.
I’m not overthinking this one. Ring me up for another Broncos ticket.
Clemson -27.5 vs. Pitt (ACC Championship in Charlotte)
How’s this for an incredible stat?: Clemson has never beat Pitt. It’s true! I swear. These teams have only played once since 1978 (a Pitt win in the first game of the series). You know what happened: Pitt stunned Clemson in 2016. That turned out to be the Tigers’ only loss of the season as they went on to win the national title in Deshaun Watson’s last year on campus.
So there’s that.
I can count on one hand the amount of times I have laid over 14 points on the number this season. And this being a Power 5 championship game, it wouldn't seem to be an ideal situation to start. But Pitt matches up very, very, very, very (times infinity) poorly with Clemson.
The Panthers have a very strong rushing attack, but they cannot pass. Clemson has an elite rush defense, but they allow too many yards through the air. Pitt simply isn’t equipped to take advantage of the latter quirk — the Panthers must attack the strength of Clemson’s defense. And let’s not understate this: Clemson not only ranks No. 1 in S&P+ run defense, but they allow the fourth-least rushing yards per attempt (2.2) since 2007. When I say elite, I’m not talking this season — in this case, I mean historically so.
Clemson’s defense looked awful in allowing 35 points and 600 yards to rival South Carolina last week. DC Brent Venables called it an “embarrassing” performance (510 of them came through the air). You’d figure the lackadaisical effort and the consternation it caused the coaching staff would wake this crew up and set up an F-U bounce back-showing. An inspired defensive effort should be enough to hold Pitt to 14 points or less. Perhaps even single digits.
A number this high leaves very little leeway. But it’s certainly justifiable. Of Clemson’s opponents, Pitt is ranked by S&P+ as closest to Georgia Southern and Duke, two teams the Tigers beat by 31 and 29 points, respectively. Eight of Clemson’s 12 wins have come by more than 26.5 points. Two of the others were by 20 and 21 (including last week’s defensive no-show against the Gamecocks).
The only two teams to keep it close were Texas A&M in early September when Kelly Bryant was the starter, and Syracuse later that month when QB Tyler Lawrence went down with an injury. Put another way: Clemson hasn’t won by less than 20 points in a game Lawrence has started and finished.
As for Pitt, they’re a paper tiger, an imposter that got exposed in last week’s 24-3 loss to Miami. That Hurricanes team is full of warts, but they’re very good at stopping the run. Not as good as Clemson, mind you, nobody is. Pitt simply isn’t built to beat teams that can shut down the run. They have no other recourse, no other phase of the game that will bail them out. The passing attack isn’t only feeble, but it’s sub-mediocre at protecting the quarterback while Clemson’s pass rush is top-notch.
I would love to go contrarian and take the points. But frankly, even at +28, you need to figure out a path for Pitt to reach a minimum of 14 points. In my handicap, I just couldn’t find a way that didn’t feature at least one fluky long TD, like a kick return TD or a pick-six. So I’ll lay and pray. As ESPN noted, favorites of 24 or more points in conference title games are 4-1 ATS (with all four winning by 31 points or more). Maybe I shouldn't be as trepidatious as I am.
Northwestern +14.5 vs. Ohio State (Big 10 Championship in Indianapolis)
Northwestern has played a top-25 schedule to this point. Of their four losses, two came by five points or less, one came by 10, and one came by 14. That schedule included two teams ranked higher by S&P+ than Ohio State (Notre Dame and Michigan). So you might say that I think this line is a tad disrespectful to the men in the purple corner.
And listen: I don’t understand how Northwestern keeps getting it done, either. Even as I watch them, it’s hard to know. They’re like a late-career Greg Maddux, tossing slop that is so effectively placed and so intelligently sequenced that they’re impossible to get your timing down against.
That feels like a bad matchup for this Ohio State team when you consider the two-TD-plus point cushion. The Buckeyes have not handled expectations well this season. Since DE Nick Bosa went down in the TCU game, Ohio State is 2-7 ATS as a favorite. One of those ATS “wins” required bush league tactics in the waning seconds against Tulane, with HC Urban Meyer pushing for a final TD up 42-6 as 38-point favorites (I was holding a Mean Green ticket… no lingering bitterness, as you can tell).
And one last thing: While listening to folks break this game down the past few days, I’ve heard plenty of arguments centered around the idea that Ohio State is going to come out roaring to try to blow out Northwestern for “style points.” First off, this win isn’t assured. There is no game-planning going on right now to accrue “style points.”
This is a false narrative. And frankly, if that was OSU’s mindset, it would play into Northwestern’s hands, as they’ve consistently made teams pay for underestimating them. The Wildcats are 12-3 ATS and 9-6 SU in their last 15 as underdogs (and they’ve covered seven in a row in-conference). But it gets crazier. As a double-digit underdog, Northwestern is 10-1 ATS and 7-4 SU over their last 11. That’s 64% SU wins as a DD ‘dog! Incredible.
But back to the false narrative. It feels far more plausible that Ohio State could find themselves in a situation where “style points” aren’t needed, but a win, even a three-pointer, most assuredly is.
Oklahoma-Texas kicks off in the morning, while this game takes place at night. The Buckeyes are ranked one spot beneath Oklahoma in the playoff standings. The Sooners are playing a better opponent this week — key for resume purposes — the one opponent to beat them earlier this year. Vanquish the Longhorns, and I don’t see how Ohio State hops Oklahoma.
But what if the Longhorns upset the Sooners again? You think Urban Meyer is going to screw around with Northwestern in the fourth quarter trying to push a two-possession lead to three when a simple win would clinch Ohio State a playoff berth (assuming Alabama holds serve against Georgia)?
And if Oklahoma wins in a blowout, or if Georgia upsets Alabama, Ohio State ought to know, deep down, that they’ve been eliminated from the playoff altogether before this game has even begun. That’s the type of thing that effects performance. An actual thing.
The only scenario where Oklahoma wins and doesn’t make the playoff — again, assuming Alabama beats Georgia — requires a last-second Sooners win where they were objectively outplayed coupled with an utterly dominant Ohio State performance. And a Georgia upset would nullify that ideal scenario.
So to recap: Ohio State’s only path to being theoretically interested in “style points” requires a narrow Oklahoma win in a game they should have lost and an Alabama victory. Both could happen. But parlaying each scenario occurring would give you fat odds.
And that’s before we address the fact that nobody — nobody — has dominated Northwestern this year. Ohio State’s victory in this game is seen as a foregone conclusion after one of the great regular season wins of Urban Meyer’s career.
This is a sneaky letdown spot, situationally as well as emotionally, in a game against an opponent who thrives when counted out. It wouldn't stun me if Northwestern upset Ohio State. Particularly if Oklahoma blows out Texas or Georgia upsets Alabama earlier in the day. This is not 2014 Ohio State. Just keep repeating it to yourself.
Cal +3 vs. Stanford
Stanford entered this season with high expectations but now appears to be a squad that desperately needs an offseason to reset. The pieces simply never came together. That’s on the running game — shockingly — and the defense. And whether the former issue is the fault of RB Bryce Love or his offensive line, that no longer matters.
This is a team that intersperses minimal rushing gains with occasional home run — picture it like the old baseball slugger Chris Carter, who once led the league in homers but was quickly ushered out of the big leagues because he struck out so often. The passing game is efficient, but the big aerial plays have dried up as the season has progressed. The defense has issues across the board.
HC David Shaw sometimes masks those during the periods of games where we decry him for being overly conservative. I no longer think it’s that. Not completely. At least not this year. I think this is a guy who knows his offense is limited and his defense stinks, so he plays keep away whenever he gets a two-possession lead from the mid-third quarter on.
Stanford is 3-4 SU in its last seven games (the wins were over Arizona State, Oregon State and UCLA), and they’d be 3-5 in their last eight if they hadn’t have pulled a rabbit out of their hats late in that wild overtime win at Oregon (the Ducks obviously helped in that regard, gifting Stanford the chance).
Cal, on the other hand, is ascending at the perfect time as HC Justin Wilcox’s vision has finally begun to coalesce. The Golden Bears have won four of their past five games, with two of those upsets over Washington and USC. Against the Huskies, Wilcox didn’t even need an offensive TD to do it.
To beat Stanford, you must erase the occasional explosive run, and you must be able to defend passing efficiency so the Cardinal aren’t able to move the ball even during the long periods where Bryce Love is getting stuffed at the line over and over again.
Cal is No. 7 against rushing explosion and No. 19 against passing efficiency. Cal’s top-15 defense does a lot of things well. Two of the best things of those things happen to be the areas you must excel in to discombobulate Stanford. Because when the long runs and quick-strike passes go away, Stanford becomes a team with a directionless offense and a bad defense.
Cal’s offense remains poor but I don’t think they’ll need many points to win this game. It could look a lot like the 12-10 win over Washington or the 15-14 win over USC. A Cal moneyline/under (47) correlated parlay looks pretty juicy to me.
***The writeups for the SEC and Sun Belt conference title games are coming Friday.
2018: 78-78 (50.0%) ATS
2014-2017: 397-345-16 (53.5%) ATS