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  • Best bets are now 12-5 on the season, and we have four underdog plays for Week 4, including three getting double digits.
By Max Meyer
September 18, 2019

Week 3 treated us kindly here, as a 4-0 record pushed our best bets season mark to 12-5. Admittedly, I don't love the board as much for this weekend's slate, but I still have a few underdogs that I think present value. SI Gambling will be using current odds (as of 6:18 p.m. EST on Wednesday) from New Jersey sportsbooks (FanDuel, DraftKings, William Hill, PointsBet) for best bets every week.

Tennessee at No. 9 Florida: Tennessee +14 (-110) at PointsBet

For me, this game features an underdog that is a nice buy-low option and a favorite that screams sell high. Tennessee suffered two home losses to start its season, including to Georgia State as nearly a four-touchdown favorite. Florida, meanwhile, is 3-0, including close wins over Miami in Orlando and on the road at Kentucky.

The Volunteers are coming off a 45-0 win over Chattanooga. That may seem like a “who cares” result, but there were some encouraging signs. Tennessee only mustered 3.0 yards per carry against Georgia State, and that game showed that if it can’t get its run game going, the offense is in trouble. The rushing attack has improved over the past two games, though, with the Vols averaging 4.9 and 5.1 YPC against BYU and Chattanooga respectively. Overall, Tennessee ranks 25th in the country in opportunity rate at 54.6%, a measure of what percentage of carries go at least four yards (this doesn’t include situations where there aren’t four yards to gain, like first-and-goal from the 3-yard line). While Jarrett Guarantano hasn’t had the best start in new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s offense, a dynamic run game can go a long way toward helping out a quarterback.

Tennessee also had senior linebacker Daniel Bituli return against Chattanooga for his first action of the season. The defensive leader’s presence alone helped a linebacking corps that really struggled in the first two games of the season. Another boost to the defense would be if top cornerback Bryce Thompson returns from an indefinite suspension following an arrest for allegedly threatening his girlfriend. Thompson has practiced this week, but we’ll see if the team continues to discipline its star cover man. This was a defense that was missing those two along with seniors Emmit Gooden and Baylen Buchanan to start the season, so it was an adjustment period. With Bituli back and the possibility of Thompson returning, however, this defense could rebound in Gainesville.  

On the other side, Florida is really banged up. Starting quarterback Feleipe Franks is out for the season. Backup Kyle Trask played well in the Gators’ comeback win over Kentucky this past weekend, and he and redshirt freshman Emory Jones both figure to see playing time in this upcoming game. Top playmaker and jack-of-all-trades wideout Kadarius Toney also will be out for this one due to a shoulder injury. Florida head coach Dan Mullen said he does not expect star defensive end Jabari Zuniga (ankle) and star cornerback CJ Henderson (ankle) to practice this week, but they could play vs. Tennessee. Zuniga exited early against Kentucky, and Florida’s elite pass rush really suffered. The Gators lead the country with 16 sacks, but only one of those came in Lexington last week.

Whether it’s Trask or Jones under center against Tennessee, they’ll be carrying a big load since the ground game has been really hampered by shoddy run blocking. Florida’s running backs are averaging 3.76 YPC, and one of those carries was reserve redshirt freshman tailback Iverson Clement’s 41-yard touchdown run against Tennessee-Martin, his only carry of the year. Florida had to replace four offensive linemen with a combined 141 career starts heading into the season, and it’s clear that there are growing pains up front.

This seems like an ideal time to play the Gators with all of the injuries piling up there. Florida hasn’t exactly impressed in its wins either—the Gators needed fourth-quarter comebacks to beat Miami and Kentucky. The national sentiment is still sour on Tennessee, but I think the Vols show up this week and keep this game competitive. While I can’t guarantee that Tennessee will mark the third straight week that a 14-point best bets underdog wins outright (after Cal over Washington in Week 2 and Arizona State over Michigan State in Week 3), two touchdowns here is enough value to bite on.

No. 11 Michigan at No. 13 Wisconsin: Michigan +3.5 (-110) at PointsBet

It wasn’t that long ago when Michigan was considered the Big Ten favorite at quite a few sportsbooks, and the Wolverines were a five-point road favorite over Wisconsin in the Golden Nugget’s preseason Game of the Year lines. Sure, Michigan had to eke out a win over Army and didn’t look its sharpest to open the season vs. Middle Tennessee. Sure, Wisconsin has beaten USF and Central Michigan by a combined score of 110-0 to start its season. But having Michigan now as a 3.5-point road underdog here screams overreaction.

That’s not to say Wisconsin shouldn’t be favored—the Badgers should be slight favorites. At over a field goal, though, is simply too steep. I also think bettors may be hesitant to take Michigan here because of the “Jim Harbaugh sucks as an underdog” narrative. You're going to hear all week about how Harbaugh is 0-6 at Michigan as an underdog. It’ll be the same people who said that Tom Herman is 13-2 against the spread and 10-5 straight up as an underdog heading into the LSU game. And guess what? Texas lost! It’s idiotic to rely on a small sample size that's driving a narrative like this, and a “trend” like that shouldn’t be a factor for which games to put your money on.

Michigan’s rushing attack has struggled and Shea Patterson has been sacked six times in two games, but the Wolverines should get a much-needed boost along the offensive line with left senior left tackle Jon Runyan expected to suit up for his season debut. While Donovan Peoples-Jones’s outlook isn’t as optimistic as Runyan’s, there’s still a chance Michigan’s top wideout also plays for the first time in this campaign. Patterson also suffered an oblique injury vs. Middle Tennessee State, which could explain why he hasn’t made an impact running the ball on zone-read plays.

The Wolverines’ offense has been plagued by mistakes, whether it’s turnovers, penalties or drops. Michigan’s 2.5 fumbles lost per game is the worst rate in the country, and you figure there’d be some positive regression in that department. I think Michigan’s bye week came at the perfect time, since it allows an extra week of recovery for Runyan and Peoples-Jones while it also gives the offense an additional week to work out the kinks of first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’s newly implemented spread concepts.

Wisconsin’s defense looked great against South Florida and Central Michigan, yet this is still a Badgers front seven that had one returning starter and several question marks. MIchigan's offense is also a massive step up in talent compared to Wisconsin's first two opponents.

On the other side of the ball, elite tailback Jonathan Taylor is the engine of the Badgers’ offense. He actually ran for 5.9 YPC last season against Michigan, and 6.9 YPC in 2017 vs. the Wolverines. A big difference between Wisconsin’s 24-10 win over Michigan in 2017 and Wisconsin’s 38-13 loss to Michigan last season? Quarterback play. Alex Hornibrook averaged 7.5 yards per ttempts in 2017, but that number dropped all the way down to 5.0 last year. Junior Jack Coan has looked great so far in 2019, but I’m concerned about Wisconsin’s offensive line having to replace four of five starters from last season. As good as Taylor is, he can’t win this game by himself, and this group faces an extremely tough task in Don Brown’s Michigan defense.

This will probably be a low-scoring, defensive grinder type of game—at least that’s what the over/under suggests (it’s currently at 43 after opening at 51). I trust Michigan’s aerial attack and offensive line more than its counterpart, and I also think the Wolverines have the edge on defense and with their coaching staff—sorry, I’m not sold on your 0-6 Harbaugh record as an underdog argument. Getting the hook in a defensive slugfest between good teams is already something I like, and I like it even more when I feel like I’m getting the 3.5 points with the better overall team. If you want to put some more money on the Michigan moneyline, I wouldn’t fault you there, either.

No. 16 Oregon at Stanford: Stanford +10.5 (-110) at PointsBet

I have been watching and betting on Pac-12 sports religiously for years now. This is the conference that I follow the most closely. And if there’s one way to sum up betting on this conference, it’s this: Expect the unexpected.

Stanford has been a tire fire the past two weeks, and the Cardinal didn’t look that sharp against Northwestern to open the season either. Oregon has rolled against fraudulent Nevada and FCS program Montana after a heartbreaking Week 1 loss to Auburn. But if you dive deeper into this game instead of just analyzing on the surface level, this is an intriguing spot to back the home dog.

First and foremost, I think Stanford has been put in an incredibly tough position the past two weeks. The Cardinal didn’t have K.J. Costello against USC and they simply couldn’t match up at all with the Trojans’ elite receiving corps. Then, Stanford had to fly across the country in between two major Pac-12 games to face a hungry Group of Five foe that had been waiting to host a legitimate Power 5 program. It was also hot and humid in Orlando, which surely benefitted a UCF team that utilizes its strong depth with constant subsitutions. 

Stanford has gotten shredded through the air by true freshman quarterbacks in consecutive weeks. USC’s Kedon Slovis averaged 11.4 YPA in Week 2 and UCF’s Dillon Gabriel averaged 11.6 YPA in Week 3. So that means Justin Herbert should follow suit right? Well, USC and UCF have superior talent at wideout than Oregon does, as the Ducks have suffered multiple injuries there. Just three Oregon players have had more than seven receptions through three games. One is wideout Jaylon Redd, who is averaging a paltry 6.8 yards per catch on his 14 receptions. Another is tight end Jacob Breeland, but with Stanford having a star tight end of its own in Colby Parkinson, I think this is a position the Cardinal can defend quite well since they have plenty of experience doing so in practice. The leading receiver is Johnny Johnson III with 19 grabs, but this seems like the player that Stanford would want to have shutdown corner Paulson Adebo handle.

Herbert only averaged 6.5 YPA against Auburn in Week 1 because his receivers had trouble getting separation. Stanford’s secondary has been a disappointment so far, but this group will still be a tougher challenge than what Nevada and Montana put forth. I think the Cardinal will have an easier time containing Oregon’s passing game because the Ducks simply don’t have the aerial weapons that USC or UCF do.

Oregon’s offensive line was hyped up as one of the best in the country, but it’s been a letdown early on in the season. Per Football Outsiders, the Ducks rank 71st in line yards (FO’s metric to give the OL credit on rushing plays) and 42nd in sack rate allowed. Oregon also ranks 112th in opportunity rate (percentage of carries that go for at least four yards). There’s also some potential reshuffling there. Center Jake Hanson suffered an unspecified injury against Montana, and right tackle Calvin Throckmorton has been practicing at center this week. This would be Throckmorton’s second career start at center (compared to Hanson’s 40), and that would also mean a new starter at right tackle with Brady Aiello.

Stanford has major injuries along the offensive line as well, including losing All-American left tackle Walker Little for the season after Week 1. Starting right tackle Foster Sarell missed last game against UCF, so that meant Stanford played two freshmen at the tackle spots. Sarell’s status is up in the air for this game. But it is interesting to note that UCF leads the country in tackles for loss (34) and TFLs per game (11.3), but were only able to notch six against that patchwork Stanford offensive line. Oregon’s defense has been impressive to start the season under new offensive coordinator Andy Avalos, and it has 25 TFLs through three games (tied for 15th), but that may be attributed to the level of competition—which includes facing true freshman QB Bo Nix in his debut and an Auburn offensive line that has struggled. And as talented as Oregon’s defensive line is, the Ducks rank 76th in sack rate.

This is also the type of game where it’s hard to trust Oregon’s coaching staff. Who could forget last season, when Oregon crumbled at Autzen to let Stanford snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? Those problems reared their ugly head once again vs. Auburn. Mario Cristobal is an outstanding recruiter, but as an in-game coach, he’s been shaky. Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo’s play calls and gameplans have been puzzling in big games in the past as well. The Ducks have also struggled on the road in Pac-12 play recently, as they are 3-7 the past three seasons in that department with Herbert under center. Last season alone, that included trailing Washington State 27-0 at halftime before losing 34-20, getting trucked 44-15 by an Arizona team that finished with a losing record and losing 32-25 to a Utah team playing without starting QB Tyler Huntley or star tailback Zack Moss. And while it’s fun to laugh at Stanford coach David Shaw for punting at the opponent’s 35-yard line, he’s still one of the top coaches in the Pac-12. In fact, Stanford has been a home underdog four times in Shaw’s tenure, and the Cardinal have not only covered all four, they won all four outright.

Don’t get me wrong, this bet isn’t an easy one to make. But I think Stanford looks much improved this game in its return home to Palo Alto and this is a spot I have to back as we navigate another wonky season of Pac-12 football.

Old Dominion at No. 21 Virginia: Old Dominion +29 (-110) at William Hill

I’ll make this one short, but sweet. If you like spots, it’s hard to top this one. Virginia stormed the field this past weekend after a comeback win over Florida State. Its next two games after this one are at Notre Dame and, after a bye, at Miami. This week, the Hoos are a massive favorite hosting C-USA foe Old Dominion, who is coming off a bye. All this to say: this could be a tough game for Virginia to get up for. Furthermore, this looks to be Old Dominion’s only game against a ranked opponent this season and the Monarchs will be itching to upset in an in-state Power 5 opponent for the second straight year after beating Virginia Tech in 2018.

Besides the great spot, if I’m backing a four-touchdown favorite, ideally I'd want an explosive offense going up against a defense that doesn’t create havoc or negative plays (TFLs, fumbles forced, passes defensed). The reasoning is simple: an offense that is explosive moves the ball faster down the field, which means quicker drives and more scoring opportunities. A defense that has a strong havoc rate is more likely to force turnovers and stops behind the line of scrimmage, meaning fewer scoring opportunities and more difficult yards-to-go situations for the offense.

Virginia has one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC in Bryce Perkins, but the Hoos are far from explosive—per Sharp College Football’s database, the offense ranks 112th in the explosiveness metric. On the other side, Old Dominion hired ECU’s David Blackwell to be its new defensive coordinator this past offseason. Blackwell has implemented a 4-2-5 scheme and he loves dialing up pressure. In his lone season as ECU’s defensive coordinator, the Pirates improved from dead-last in havoc rate to 24th. Against Virginia Tech in Week 2, Old Dominion had 7 TFLs, two forced fumbles (it recovered both) and two passes defensed, so at least there’s early positive signs there.

Old Dominion lost a lot of starters from last year’s team but got a quick influx of talent and experience by landing 23 transfers, including 17 from junior college. I don’t expect the Monarchs to win outright, but if they can force a turnover or two with their pressure-heavy defense, that should boost their chances greatly of covering as a 29-point underdog, especially since Virginia doesn’t have the explosive offense to maximize scoring opportunities. Add in the tough spot for the home favorite, and I’ll gladly take the points here.

Season record: 12-5

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