• Which home underdogs going up against ranked teams have strong value this week?
By Max Meyer
September 25, 2019

Losing weeks happen when you bet, and unfortunately we suffered our first one this season. But even after last week's 1-3 record, we're still 13-8 here, good for 61.9%. Don't be alarmed that there's only three best bets here for now, I just wanted to get these up immediately since two of the games are Friday night. There are more games that I'm keeping an eye on in regard to injury situations (like USC-Washington and Auburn-Mississippi State), and there will be a second best bets article either Thursday night or Friday afternoon. SI Gambling will be using current odds from New Jersey sportsbooks (FanDuel, DraftKings, William Hill, PointsBet) for best bets every week.

No. 12 Penn State at Maryland: Maryland +6.5 (-110) at PointsBet

I was not a big fan of Penn State heading into the season, and the Nittany Lions haven’t done much to change my mind despite their 3-0 start.

The offensive line has been rough. Buffalo had three sacks and seven tackles for loss in Week 2, followed by Pitt generating three sacks and five TFLs in Week 3. Because of the faulty OL, Penn State hasn’t been able to get a consistent ground game going either. At first glance, you see 245 yards on 56 carries (4.4 YPC) over the past two games. However, 143 of those yards came on two carries—Journey Brown’s 85-yard run vs. Pitt and Sean Clifford’s 58-yard scamper vs. Buffalo. On the 54 other carries besides those two, the Nittany Lions have averaged 1.89 YPC.

Another big problem for this offense has been third downs. Penn State ranks 127th in third-down conversion rate at a paltry 23.3%. There are a couple reasons for that, whether it’s facing several third-and-longs because of a mostly ineffective rushing attack or strange play calls from offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne.

The Maryland matchup could pose a major problem for Penn State’s OL because of how much pressure Maryland brings. The Terps average 8.67 TFLs per game, which ranks 10th in the country.

Penn State seemingly has the run defense to shut down Maryland’s explosive ground attack, as the Nittany Lions have the fourth-lowest YPC allowed in the country at 1.91. But the best rushing offense they’ve faced thus far is Buffalo at 70th in CFB (4.31 YPC). In that game, Penn State gave up six runs of at least 10 yards. Maryland’s offense is a big jump up from Buffalo’s, though, as the Terps rank 14th in CFB at 5.99 YPC. Maryland is very explosive on the ground too, as its 12 runs of at least 20 yards is tied for fifth in the nation, and that’s come in just three games.

When Maryland and grad transfer QB Josh Jackson opt to pass, there could also be trouble for Penn State in that department. After finishing seventh in sack rate last season, the Nittany Lions have dropped all the way down to 42nd in this campaign. The drop-off in pass rush has caused Penn State to become more susceptible to allowing big plays, as its 15 plays surrendered of at least 20 yards ranks 59th in college football (it ranked 21st in that department last season). Giving up chunks of yardage has been prevalent on third down as well, Penn State allowed Buffalo and Pitt to combine to convert for a third- or fourth-and-10 or longer a whopping eight times.

It may be tough for you to back Maryland following its 20-17 upset loss to Temple on the road. But that loss felt fluky because the Terps scored just twice on six red-zone opportunities. It was a bizarre game where Maryland couldn’t convert in short yardage situations against a strong Temple defense. But the Terps are still an extremely explosive group that cause plenty of havoc on the other side of the ball as well. I love the home underdog to cover here on Friday night, and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Maryland pulls off the outright upset to boot.

Arizona State at No. 15 California: Arizona State +5 (-110) at DraftKings

Underdog Friday? Why not!

Cal is a great story. The Golden Bears are the Pac-12’s last remaining undefeated team, and just knocked off an SEC team on the road in Ole Miss this past weekend on a goal-line stop as time expired. But now they have another cross-country flight, which can be draining especially for a short-week game like this. And Friday night games are where Pac-12 ranked favorites go to die.

So why are we backing an Arizona State team that just lost to Colorado at home? The Buffs offense exploded in Tempe, and I think the Sun Devils defense was thrown off by Colorado mixing in an uptempo style of play. This is still a solid defense with a nice back seven, and I don’t think Cal has the type of offense or personnel that can exploit it—though the Golden Bears certainly showcased a surprisingly explosive aerial attack in Oxford.

Let’s look at Cal’s yards per play in its games this season: 6.3, 5.7, 5.4, 4.0. Clearly the 4.0 stands out. You’d think it would’ve come at Washington right? Wrong, it was vs. North Texas in Week 3. That’s significant because North Texas runs a 3-3-5 base defense, which is exactly what Arizona State employs.

One encouraging takeaway from ASU’s loss to Colorado was the offensive line. The OL had massive struggles to start the season, as true freshman Dohnovan West was inserted at center with senior Cohl Cabral injured. West was the only Week 1 true freshman to start at center in all of college football. As a result, this was a unit that got bullied by the likes of Kent State and Sacramento State. Cabral returned at center against Michigan State, and started again there vs. Colorado, with West moving over to right guard for both games. The one strength of Colorado’s defense coming into the ASU game was getting pressure on the quarterback, but the Sun Devils allowed just one sack in that game. A better OL can only help true freshman QB Jayden Daniels and star tailback Eno Benjamin.

Cal’s offensive line, meanwhile, is trending in the opposite direction. With its starting left tackle and left guard out, the Golden Bears have relied on a former walk-on at LT and a redshirt freshman at LG. Cal has averaged 3.1 and 1.8 YPC in its past two games respectively, and that’s also come with starting tailback Christopher Brown Jr. getting hurt vs. North Texas.

It’s going to be tough for ASU to score against Cal’s defense, but that’s what was said when Sparky played Sparty. ASU was able to move the ball then with lots of screens and quick passes, and if there’s a way to attack Cal’s incredible secondary, it’s that exact way. Additionally, even with the god-like Evan Weaver roaming the middle at linebacker, Cal’s run defense is middle of the pack—it ranks 62nd in yards per carry allowed.

This is going to be a low-scoring game; there’s a reason why the total is currently sitting at 40. I think Cal is a little overrated by the market heading into this one thanks to its undefeated standing, and I will gladly take the points here.

No. 5 Ohio State at Nebraska: Nebraska +17.5 (-110) at William Hill

Ohio State has been a freight train thus far, but traveling to Lincoln is its first big test of the season and I think the line is a little too inflated given the Buckeyes’ early-season success.

In Nebraska’s previous game, the Cornhuskers only won at Illinois 42-38. But that score is misleading if you look at the box score. Nebraska outgained Illinois in terms of yards per play 6.9 to 4.8, but the Illini recovered all four of the Cornhuskers’ fumbles. As a result, three of Illinois’s touchdown drives started inside the Nebraska 40-yard line, including two inside the 15-yard line. If it wasn’t for fumble luck, Nebraska would have easily won that game by double-digits.

Admittedly, though, Nebraska has had difficulty with ball security this season. The Cornhuskers have 14 fumbles and lost it nine of those times, both of which are the worst marks in the country. If they can do a better job holding onto the ball, this offense is extremely dangerous. After struggling in the season opener vs. South Alabama, Nebraska has racked up 29 plays of at least 20 yards over its past three games. If you think that’s a high number, it is. In fact, it’s four more 20-yard-plus plays than Ohio State has had this entire season.

On defense, there’s been encouraging improvement for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are tied for eighth in the country in tackles for loss per game. They are tied for fifth in interceptions and lead the nation in passes defensed. In terms of yards per play allowed, Nebraska is 33rd at 4.76. Now, Ohio State surging to among the best in the country in several defensive metrics (second in YPP, second in TFLs per game, tied for first in sacks) has been an enormous development this college football season. But the Buckeyes have not faced an offense nearly as explosive as Nebraska’s yet or with Nebraska’s talent—highlighted by electric QB Adrian Martinez, wideout JD Spielman and do-it-all offensive wonder Wan’Dale Robinson.

Ohio State is the Big Ten favorite and on the shortlist of teams that can challenge for a CFP bid, but this line is too high. This is Nebraska’s biggest home game of the season, and Lincoln in the College GameDay location this weekend. Scott Frost has built a team that has a very strong statistical profile, but hasn’t been getting national respect because of the overtime loss to Colorado and close win over Illinois. The Cornhuskers can compete with the Buckeyes, and if you can grab +17 or higher, I like the value here.

Season record: 13-8

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