'Pick Six' is your weekly college football column that breaks down six of the upcoming weekend’s best bets and takes a look at moves and news around the sports betting industry.
News & Notes
• Nebraska’s streak of winning an astonishing 30 consecutive home openers came to an end on a Hail Mary from BYU's Tanner Mangum to receiver Mitch Mathews. While the pass had no spread implications, it had significant “awesomeness” implications, and it pushed the total over 55. It was also the second game-ending Hail Mary in Lincoln in the last two years—Nebraska beat Northwestern with a last-second heave on Nov. 2, 2013.
• September lightning storms reared their annoying head all over the South and Midwest, but nowhere so rudely as in the matchup between Georgia (-35.5) and Louisiana Monroe, which was called with 9:54 left in the fourth quarter with Georgia leading 51–14 and poised to cover. While Georgia will be credited with the S/U win, games must last until the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter to be considered official at sportsbooks. Eager Georgia backers were left penniless—and it was Bulldogs coach Mark Richt who lobbied officials to call the game!
• One of the weekend’s bigger surprises came in Evanston, where Northwestern dispatched Stanford. Northwestern has now won outright its last four games in which it has been an underdog of at least seven points. (Conversely, the Wildcats have failed to cover the spread in the last nine games they’ve been favorited in, and they are favored this Saturday against Eastern Illinois). The question for Stanford now becomes one of perception: How much will bettors lay off Stanford, and barring a sexy September resurgence, when/against whom will the Cardinal strike unexpectedly during Pac-12 play?
• Many bettors love Baylor’s high-octane offense, often taking the Bears’ spread and the total without much thought. More than two-thirds of bettors had money on Baylor (-36) against SMU. When the Mustangs showed some juice in their passing game and managed 21 points to Baylor’s 56, SMU paid out by one point.
• Virginia’s garbage touchdown in the closing minutes of its game against UCLA ruined many positions by making the margin on the game 18. This illustrated the value of line shopping. Many people took UCLA at -17 or -18 earlier in the week, but there was eventual value: The line spent roughly 72 hours in the -19 to -19.5 range from Thursday to Saturday. Virginia backers who waited for the best possible line of the week got rewarded.
• The Pick Six award of the week goes to Marshall’s Tiquan Lang, who had two interceptions of the eponymous variety against Purdue on Sunday, the latter of which ensured a 41–31 win and a backdoor cover for the Thundering Herd (-7).
Opening Deals That Didn't Last Long
• North Texas at SMU Pick'Em (line now at SMU -4.5)
No. 7 Oregon at No. 5 Michigan State (-4.5, since moved to -3.5)
Oregon is routinely underestimated when it goes on the road during the regular season. Since 2000, Oregon is 19-11 ATS when an underdog, 4-1 ATS when a road underdog and 10-3 ATS in nonconference, regular season-road games (two of the three spread losses, to Utah and Purdue, were by one point).
The Ducks’ backfield trio of Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James is almost unfairly quick and elusive. But Michigan State’s front seven was the main reason it held opponents to the fewest rushing yards per game of any team in the country last season (although it did allow a relatively high 18 rushing touchdowns).
Oregon’s striking ability may need to come through the air. Look for Vernon Adams to target big Dwayne Stanford, a 6'5" receiver matching up against defensive backs he has at least three to four inches on. Another reason Oregon could go to the air? The Spartans allowed 365 yards and two touchdowns to Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell last week.
Oregon’s defensive line also looked strong against Eastern Washington. But that was against Eastern Washington. Assuming Oregon will be more aggressive in order to counter Michigan State, Connor Cook has to use his mobility to get out of the pocket and get the ball out of his hands. If he can just get it to Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings and Josiah Price on curls, crossing routes, whatever, Michigan State has a strong chance to move the ball consistently.
Remember: Oregon didn’t give up 42 points to Eastern Washington last week. Oregon’s defensive backs gave up 42 points to Cooper Kupp & Friends through the air.
Oregon won the cover battle at Auzten last year, and both teams were in the top 10 in the country in terms of covering the spread in 2014. The more this line creeps up for Michigan State, the more inclined I am to give Oregon the benefit of the doubt against the spread.
The Pick: Oregon +4.5, Michigan State to win
No. 14 LSU (-4.5) at No. 25 Mississippi State
The SEC’s first major conference game of 2015 isn’t as clear-cut as you would expect of a typical No. 14-No. 25 tilt. Very few people have actually watched either team. LSU’s first game against McNeese State was cancelled after only a handful of plays, the first time that’s happened to the Tigers since World War I, while Mississippi State kicked off against Southern Miss at 10 p.m. ET Saturday just as marathoning college football junkies, eyes glazed, were limping away from their couches for the evening.
Those that did watch the Bulldogs saw quarterback Dak Prescott sleepwalk through three quarters before leading a game-sealing drive in the fourth to ensure a 34–16 win. It was slightly alarming to see one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks not hit a groove against a Conference USA team.
One factor that can single-handedly turn this game in LSU’s favor is quarterback Brandon Harris. The Bulldogs gave up 311 yards through the air to Southern Miss’s Nick Mullens. The untested Jennings could do the same if he’s itching to play as much as Les Miles says he is.
Until the 2014 season, LSU had beaten Mississippi State 14 consecutive times and covered in 11 of those 14 contests. Baton Rouge bettors have been conditioned to believe—assuming a 2014 Bulldogs team with many of the same playmakers as this year was just a one-time aberration—that Mississippi State is a near automatic win and cover for LSU. This could partially be the reason why the line, which conveniently opened at the crucial -2.5 mark instead of -3, moved up two points for a road favorite.
The real play here is to not bet this game. But if forced to make a pick, take note: more than 80% of the handle as of Wednesday morning was LSU money. Bettors fading an SEC home underdog in the low single digits against a team no one has seen raises a red flag or two.
The Pick: Mississippi State +4.5
Another close game with two teams that are hyped up, Sooners-Volunteers is one of the more intriguing matchups of the entire nonconference season.
One of these two opened the season at home against a MAC team that SBNation ranked 92nd in the country. The other of these teams opened the season at home against a MAC team that SBNation ranked 93rd in the country. One team allowed three points. The other yielded 30 points and nearly 550 yards of total offense. Can you guess which team is which?
Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Lincoln Riley have a chance Saturday to torch Tennessee through the air just like Bowling Green State did (O.K., I gave it away) last week. This is Sterling Shepard’s time to shine.
It’s unclear who Volunteers quarterback Josh Dobbs’s targets will be in Week 2. On Saturday, stud wideout MarQuez North was invisible, Pig Howard was out due to suspension and the highly touted and newly reinstated Von Pearson caught just two balls. But that might not matter if either of tailbacks Alvin Kamara or Jalen Hurd get going on the ground.
Outside of its linebacker corps, Oklahoma’s defense is far from infallible. But so is Tennessee’s. And Oklahoma’s offensive weapons, regardless of setting, are better proven. Then there's this: Tennessee has lost 26 of its last 27 games against ranked opponents. While the AP poll contains a high degree of subjective B.S., this stat nonetheless paints a broad enough picture of the hump the Vols are trying to get over.
Strangely, spread bets on Oklahoma (PK) are 3 to 1 in this game, but moneyline bets are 2 to 1 for Tennessee. That’s odd when the spread is the moneyline, as it is in this case.
The Pick: Oklahoma -1
No. 20 Boise State (-3, since moved to -2.5) at BYU
Three factors—one understandable, the second useless and the third important but not critical—are swaying perception of this game in the direction of Boise State being the clear victor.
1. Relatively few people actually watched a 10:30 p.m. ET kick on Friday night between Washington and Boise State. Because of this, few saw that Boise State and new quarterback Ryan Finley looked lost against one of the Pac-12’s worst teams, in primetime at home, where all the right kinds of energy should have been flowing for them. Instead, most just saw a Boise State victory in the win-loss column. Ergo…
2. The Broncos’ win, also known as Cameron Van Winkle’s missed field goal with time expiring, somehow earned them a rise of three spots in the AP poll. Now, this matchup is no longer Boise State going on the road against BYU, but instead No. 20 Boise State going on the road against unranked BYU. The AP poll’s misleading sculpture of perception represents the most inimical threat to logic-based betting there is. Boo, AP poll.
3. Above all, the optics of Taysom Hill’s third season-ending injury are scaring people off of BYU. Bettors are sure to remember a Hill-less Cougars team losing the game and the spread last October in Boise. You’re giving me an undefeated, ranked team against BYU without the only player on their roster I’ve ever heard of? Bring it on!
Boise State could end up having a great year. It could end up bouncing back this week, looking more solid in the passing game and beating BYU. But there’s no direct evidence yet to assume it will do these things.
Meanwhile, BYU beat Nebraska in Lincoln. Tanner Mangum filled in nicely for the electric Hill, and completed some sort of long pass I saw people on Twitter talking about Saturday afternoon. The team is all around a tougher out than Washington at this point, and the Broncos will be forced to vanquish the Cougars in LaVell Edwards Stadium. BYU has been a home dog only once in the past five seasons.
These teams are in year four of a 12-year home-and-home series. Here are how the first three matchups played out:
|Oct. 24, 2014||BYU at Boise State||Boise State -7||Boise State 55, BYU 30||S/U loss, ATS loss|
|Oct. 25, 2013||Boise State at BYU||BYU -6.5||BYU 37, Boise State 20||S/U win, ATS win|
|Sept. 20, 2012||BYU at Boise State||Boise State -6||Boise State 7, BYU 6||S/U loss, ATS win|
The Pick: BYU +3
South Florida at Florida State (-29, since moved to -28)
Fans outside of the American Athletic Conference tend to forget about Willie Taggart’s Bulls. But if there’s one stat you should know about the former Western Kentucky Hilltoppers quarterback and current USF coach it’s this: In the past five seasons he’s a bewildering 22-5 ATS on the road and 11-27 ATS at home.
Conversely, Florida State was notorious in 2014 for being slow out of the gate in games regardless of their location, then winning straight up but not covering. It led to the Seminoles losing more games against the spread (not to mention 1H lines) in 2014 than any of the other 127 FBS teams.
Just as teams are not the same year-over-year, neither, necessarily, are spread habits. On Saturday the Seminoles eventually did cover 30 points by a comfortable margin. But they maintained their relatively slow start out of the gate.
Favored by 17 in the first half, Florida State never came close to that margin, and went into the locker room leading 21–10. Then it pulled away late in the second half as Everett Golson looked more and more comfortable.
This game pits the quintessential slow-out-of-the-gate favorite with the quintessential road-covering team and coach. Watch the first half of this one and see if this Florida State trend continues.
The Pick: South Florida 1st Half (+17)
Ball State at Texas A&M (-31, since moved to -30)
It’s time to give America what its wants: an in-depth read on the Ball State Cardinals’s betting chances. O.K., it's not time for that. But those looking to fade the public might not find a better game than this.
I know what you’re thinking. There’s no conceivable way Texas A&M wins this by less than 50, right? Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray both looked strong at quarterback, and on defense—the Aggies’ biggest question mark in the past—Myles Garrett did his best Jadeveon Clowney impression.
But there are several telltale factors hinting at a possible backdoor Cardinals cover:
Texas A&M riding a wave of hype after a big win on a big stage, pushing the opening line many points higher? Check.
An overwhelming majority of money on the Aggies -31? Check. (93% of the spread is on A&M as of Wednesday.)
A Ball State team that has one of the biggest road underdog ATS splits (22-7 ATS as a road underdog since 2008) in the country? Check.
Me losing the privilege of doing this column when Texas A&M wins by 60? Check.
The Pick: Ball State (+31)
Cumulative ATS record: 4-3-1; Cumulative ML record: 1-0; Cumulative O/U record: 1-1