This week, SI's Will Green breaks down Missouri-Kentucky, USC-Arizona State, TCU-Texas Tech, and offers an indefensible parlay opportunity consisting solely of Michigan underdogs.
Week 4 could be the Pac-12's coming out party. Or its sorting-itself-out party. Some sort of party will take place. In any event, the attractive prospect of exciting games doesn't negate the Larry Scott #FootballAfterDark Principle: Consistently betting on the Pac-12 is a cruel, often pointless practice that can end in cardiac arrest, desperate loan applications and failed marriages. Resultantly, make sure you tread lightly on games like Utah visiting Oregon, UCLA going to Arizona, and Arizona State hosting USC. The Utes-Ducks tilt could be especially fraught with peril, and by peril I mean suspect (non-existent?) quarterback injuries and discrepancies in the projected scoring outcome that are leaving wagerers half-mad with intrigue. A line on the game wasn't even offered at most shops until Wednesday morning.
This weekend also sees the potential for a wholly irresponsible Michigan State Schools Underdog Parlay, specifically involving the Michigans of the Western, Eastern and Central variety. But before we get to the picks, let’s take a look at the week that was.
Six Notes on Week 3
• Connecticut (+21.5) and Missouri both agreed to show up at Faurot Field at 11 a.m. local time last Saturday and play football. But each team broke that agreement and instead played some drunken version of two-hand man-grab that led to an SEC team managing two points in a half against an AAC team. Bettors were on to something early in the week when the O/U dropped from 44 to 39, although 29 or even 19 would’ve worked. UConn and SMU were the two worst covering teams in the FBS last season. So far, they’re a combined 5–1 ATS with the lone loss being by two points. Missouri will visit UConn in 2017 to return the home-and-home agreement. O/U 20?
• If you’ve signed up for the emotional drain of betting on Western Kentucky so far this season, you might have noticed some razor-thin margins against already tiny spreads. Lines in Western Kentucky’s three games this season have totaled eight points, and the team has either pushed, covered or failed to cover by a combined margin of six points. Vegas was dead on in the team’s opener against Vanderbilt, favoring the Hilltoppers by two in a 14–12 win. In Weeks 2 and 3, Western Kentucky was back-to-back 2.5-point underdogs, winning 41–38 over Louisiana Tech and losing 38–35 at Indiana. This all might change in Week 4, when the Hilltoppers are 20.5-point favorites at home against lowly Miami (Ohio).
• Week 2’s Backdoor Cover Award went to Rice, which was down 28 points and snuck in +14.5 against Texas with two garbage-time touchdowns. Week 3’s award would have gone to that very Texas team, which found itself down 21 points to start the fourth quarter last Saturday, only to cover +6 against Cal (and then lose in the most excruciating way possible). I say “would have” because the award must instead go to Nebraska (+3.5), which against Miami came from 23 points down in the final nine minutes to tie the game against the Fighting Fire Al Goldens, only to lose in overtime by three points and cover by half a point.
• While Oklahoma (-32) might have been interpreted by some as too generous of a spread for a Sooners team that’s a) playing against a dangerous offense and b) needed a series of near-miracles to score more than three points against Tennessee, others forgave it due to recent Tulsa history. Oklahoma has an annual September tradition of wiping the floor with Tulsa, covering the Golden Hurricane six of the past seven times they’ve played. But 2015 was different. Despite Baker Mayfield throwing for the fourth-most passing yards in a game all-time for the Sooners, Tulsa covered the points easily in its 52–38 loss. Sharp money would’ve been on the O/U 71 in this game, especially after Oklahoma came off a poor scoring week.
• Air Force (+24.5) became the first team in the country to go 3–0 ATS on the season, scoring just enough and using a decent ground defense to keep the clock running and cover against Michigan State in a 35–21 loss. The Spartans, meanwhile, became the first team to go 0–3 ATS in 2015. This is notable because the Spartans were one of the best covering teams in all of 2014, with a 9–4 record ATS. The spread loss continues the 2015 trend of teams that were on top of the ATS world last season (see: TCU, Ohio State, Arkansas) who are now struggling to race ahead of bettors’ perceptions this year.
• The grand tradition of a team covering after a straight-up loss to Alabama continued in Week 3 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and it wasn’t even close. Not only did Middle Tennessee cover 18 points against FBS newcomer (and theretofore 2–0 stalwart) Charlotte, it put up 42 points in the first quarter en route to a 73–14 blowout. Teams are now 36–22 ATS the week after losing to Alabama. (And if anyone knows the record for most points scored by a team in a quarter, let us know.)
Six Picks For Week 4
Western Michigan at Ohio State (-31.5)
The Ohio State University nearly became The Biggest Upset Victim of the past several seasons on Saturday when it escaped disaster at home against Northern Illinois. While the Buckeyes’ Joey Bosa-spearheaded defense looked strong, the much-touted offense looked strangely lost.
The word strangely is invoked because Ohio State had a 99.7% chance of winning the game, according to simulations conducted by Paul Bessire and John Ewing of PredictionMachine.com. Perhaps the Buckeyes were caught looking ahead. According to the same researchers, Ohio State had a 54% chance of going undefeated for the regular season when it headed into the game against the Huskies. Michigan State will likely be the only elite team that Ohio State faces down the the Big Ten stretch.
As top teams like Alabama and USC pick up their first loss and miss the chance to go undefeated in the regular season, those team’s fans will surely clamor that Ohio State’s schedule isn’t as tough as theirs.
So how would the Buckeyes fare if they faced Alabama’s or USC’s schedule? Well, according Bessire and Ewing, they would still fare better than Alabama or USC. They found the Buckeyes would have an 18.1% chance of running the table against Alabama’s opponents and a 25% chance of running the table against USC’s schedule, as opposed to the Tide (10.1%) or the Trojans (11.3%) doing it themselves.
This weekend, Ohio State (-31.5) hosts Western Michigan, a feisty piece of MAC-tion that explodes at random intervals for points like a volatile chemical compound. P.J. Fleck’s squad rode a surprising and confident offense to the third-best cover record (10–3) of any team in 2014, and has already played Michigan State closer than expected this season.
Urban Meyer has been dominant against the spread in his career, posting a 99–63 career record, which is fourth best among active coaches. And prognosticating that Ohio State’s offense would struggle to score against anyone would’ve induced tantrums from pundits and poll voters as recently as a week ago.
But this is an Ohio State team that’s gotten progressively worse over three weeks (yes, even in a 38–0 win over Hawaii, there were several “huh?” moments). The Buckeyes remain awesome, and will assuredly come out of the gates Saturday with more urgency and coordination. Take -31.5 at your own risk, though. The Broncos have covered four of their six games against Power 5 opponents under Fleck.
The Pick: Over 57 (since moved to 60)
No. 3 TCU at Texas Tech (+6.5)
Hey, remember TCU? The top covering team of 2014 with the 2015 Heisman contender quarterback? The team that was supposed to actually make the College Football Playoff this year?
The Horned Frogs have had an inauspicious start to 2015, going a quiet 3–0 while taking significant losses of another type. TCU had 11 guys who comprised one of the nation's most vaunted defenses—on Saturday in Lubbock, it’ll have three of those 11 suited up, having lost the other eight due to injury or other issues.
Meanwhile, Texas Tech just dropped the mic in an SEC team’s face and is playing confidently. This game is a shotgun-Over bettor’s dream: a late afternoon tilt in Texas with two prolific offenses. Tech always manages to score, and TCU just gave up 37 points to SMU, so really anything is possible. Look for the O/U 79 to rise even higher.
Despite only a small majority of spread money (55% at last count) coming in on Tech, the line dropped 2.5 points points from its onshore open of -10, not to mention its offshore open of -13. By positioning the No. 3 team as only a 6.5-point favorite, Vegas is incentivizing bettors to pile money back on the Horned Frogs. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this line rise back up later in the week.
If you’re backing TCU, for this game, the time to pounce is now. If you’re backing Tech, wait up to grab the most available points closer to kickoff. Ergo, here's your first conditional pick of the 2015 season.
The Pick: TCU (-6.5)
Vanderbilt at No. 3 Ole Miss (-26, since moved to +24.5)
As chronicled extensively in this space last week, the price on Ole Miss has never been higher. The Rebels pulled off two 70-plus point performances in Weeks 1 and 2, they earned the biggest road win of the season when they won at No. 2 Alabama, Ole Miss is 28–14 ATS under cover star Hugh Freeze and this column took Alabama -6.5 last week and paid the consequences.
The Rebels need no further introduction.
Instead of setting this line at a smaller margin that would have likely prompted a rash of hype money to come in on the Rebels, books set it at four touchdowns for Ole Miss. Still, spread money has come in so far at a 3-to-2 ratio for the Rebels. Then, reverse line movement happened.
This is when a line moves in the opposite direction of the money coming in. For example, if a majority of money comes in on Ole Miss -28, the line will likely move up to, say, -29 for Ole Miss, in an effort by houses to even out the amount of money on each side and incentivize bets on the Commodores. Instead, so far this week, bets have come in 60% in favor of Ole Miss, and the line has moved down between two and three points at most shops. This is an indication that sharp money could be in on Vanderbilt, signifying that the Commodores are the side to choose here.
I think the (supposed) sharps are right on here. While Vanderbilt’s offense isn’t exactly fluid, its defense is better than many give it credit for. Ole Miss could also experience a hangover effect in this game.
Then there’s this: Vanderbilt is 10–4 as an SEC road underdog in September since 2000, 8–3 ATS as a road dog overall since the 2012 season and 7–1 ATS as a road underdog at Ole Miss all-time.
|Date @ ole miss||vanderbilt underdog line||score||vanderbilt result|
|Nov. 10, 2012||Vanderbilt +2.5||Vanderbilt 27, Ole Miss 26||S/U win, ATS win|
|Sept. 18, 2010||Vanderbilt +11.5||Vanderbilt 28, Ole Miss 14||S/U win, ATS win|
|Sept. 20, 2008||Vanderbilt +7||Vanderbilt 23, Ole Miss 17||S/U win, ATS win|
|Sept. 18, 2004||Vanderbilt +5.5||Ole Miss 26, Vanderbilt 23||S/U loss, ATS win|
|Sept. 21, 2002||Vanderbilt +22.5||Ole Miss 45, Vanderbilt 38||S/U loss, ATS win|
|Dec. 1, 2001||Vanderbilt +16||Ole Miss 38, Vanderbilt 27||S/U loss, ATS win|
|Sept. 18, 1999||Vanderbilt +17.5||Vanderbilt 37, Ole Miss 34||S/U win, ATS win|
|Sept. 27, 1997||Vanderbilt +4.5||Ole Miss 15, Vanderbilt 7||S/U loss, ATS loss|
The Pick: Vanderbilt (+26)
No. 25 Missouri at Kentucky (-3)
The SEC is notoriously hard to figure out on a week-to-week basis. One thing that isn’t hard to figure out, though, is that the Kentucky Wildcats have struggled to win games in the conference.
Per BetLabs, ranked teams are 59–50 ATS, or +6.3 units, when getting points on the road against an unranked team. It happened last week when Northwestern (when is that ATS bubble going to burst, by the way?) got points at Duke and won outright. And it’s happening again this week in Lexington.
This line is undoubtedly suffering from Missouri's aforementioned bad PR following the UConn game. For as bad as the Tigers looked in the late morning start, their defense remains formidable, specifically in the secondary.
SBNation’s Bill Connelly notes over at FootballStudyHall that Missouri had the second-best havoc rate (the rate of plays in which a defense recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble or broke up a pass) of any team in 2015 at 25.5%. Kentucky has struggled to get the passing game going so far this season against weaker competition, so don’t expect the Wildcats to suddenly air this game out.
In what should be another low scoring contest, Kentucky’s going to have fight this game on the ground, where it’s ran 57% of its plays so far this season. An O/U sitting at 44 seems just about right, if not a shade too high. Yes, I remember in Week 4 last season Missouri lost as a 15-point favorite to an Indiana team with a similar profile.
While Kentucky is certainly an improved team, and while it certainly could win Saturday, there’s a difference between respecting a team and definitively choosing it to win outright. I can’t bet on a result like the Indiana loss or last weekend’s UConn mess happening again to Missouri, even if Kentucky is “favored.”
I’d get in on this now before it gets more expensive for the Tigers, if taking points as a ranked team can be considered as such.
The Pick: Missouri (+3)
No. 18 USC at Arizona State (+6, since moved to +5)
There was a time when Arizona State was going to be very good. Way, way back in ancient history, some time like four weeks ago, the Sun Devils came into the season ranked No. 15. Then they laid an egg against Texas A&M on a national stage, and Todd Graham hung up his skin-toned Britney Spears headset and sat alone with his thoughts. The team hasn’t been heard from since.
On Saturday, it’ll be thrust back out into the spotlight, at home, hosting USC, which to me was the Pac-12 South’s version of Auburn coming in to the season: clouded by so much hype that few saw any of its weaknesses. Kessler is a star, but from its head coach down to its defensive backs, it didn’t feel like a team in sync that would consistently dominate opponents.
The expectation by many heading into Week 3 was that USC would wear out a Stanford team that had regressed some in 2015. Instead, as was recommended in this space, Stanford +10 held up just fine.
Still, USC’s performance last week alone doesn’t mean one should just pick Arizona State to cover. The Sun Devils haven’t proven much so far. As with last week’s game, the question isn’t whether USC will score, but instead, how many points Arizona State will put up.
Mike Bercovici needs to complete mid-range passes and Arizona State has to limit turnovers in order for the Sun Devils to be successful. USC doesn’t operate the defensive buzzsaw the Sun Devils ran into on the opening Saturday, but Arizona State had a tendency last season to beat itself at times.
Arizona State is 7–3 ATS in last 10 games and 4–1 ATS against USC at home in their last five meetings. With a nearly 2-to-1 spread bet split in favor of USC, look for this line to move to a touchdown by kick. At that point, it could be wise to pick up some value on the Sun Devils.
The Pick: Arizona State (+6), Over 62
No. 9 UCLA at No. 16 Arizona (+4)
So, you want to give Arizona four points at home, huh? Last week was a profitable one for underdogs. In fact, of the 10 games picked in this space last week, nine underdogs covered (thankfully, this column picked eight of them to do so).
UCLA looked overmatched last week for three quarters against a very good BYU team. Josh Rosen’s luster faded a little bit when he only managed 11 completions and threw three picks against the Cougars. Meanwhile, Arizona hasn’t faced anyone of note yet. Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson and the rest of the Arizona offense certainly can be electric. But Rich Rodriguez teams are among the least advisable to bet on during Pac-12 play. His Wildcats are 11–17 ATS in conference and generally seem to not cover in close lines.
Another wrinkle for the Wildcats is the possible return of linebacker Scooby Wright. The initial prognosis after he tore his meniscus against UTSA in Week 1 was that he’d be out until mid-October. Wright is easily Arizona’s best defender, but he’s also over-eager to get back out on the field. One wonders if his return is being rushed for the Wildcats’ first important game of the season.
And just as Arizona likely gains a key linebacker, UCLA will lose one. Junior stud Myles Jack is done for the year after suffering a knee injury in practice Tuesday.
If Wright is back and at full strength, UCLA could struggle to run the ball up the middle with the dynamic Paul Perkins and Nate Starks, who combined for 300 yards against the Cougars. Conversely, one has to believe Jack was going to be a key component at stopping Wilson and disrupting Solomon's mid-range passes.
Part of UCLA giving the points here could be a result of the Bruins covering four of the last five games between the two. UCLA will enjoy the services of 2014 All-Pac-12 cornerback Ishmael Adams, who was reinstated to the team this week. I like this game as a close, high-scoring affair; in other words, a nice “Sandwich Pick” candidate.
The Pick: UCLA to win, Arizona (+4, since moved to +3)
Random 6-point State of Michigan Underdog Teaser you should not make if you value your financial standing: WMU +37.5 at Ohio State, CMU +35 at Michigan State, EMU +4 vs. Army.
Cumulative ATS record: 17–10–1; Cumulative < 5pt ML record: 2–0; Cumulative O/U record: 2–1