What a 'Bettor Better Know': Notes from NCAAF Week 7

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David Malinsky

Monday, October 16, 2017 2:15 PM GMT

Monday, Oct. 16, 2017 2:15 PM GMT

Upsets swept across the college football board in Week 7 Like a Hurricane (yes, you can cue Neil Young). ... Khalil Tate and Tom Herman were at it again, but why didn't anyone back them?

Point Blank – October 16, 2017

It is a fascinating set of postmortems across the football results this week, a running theme that was in play throughout, beginning with South Alabama’s upset of Troy last Wednesday. It was a cycle of big upsets in the betting markets that also had something in common on the field – not all that many of them genuinely looked like upsets as the games unfolded.

There were 16 NCAA teams that opened as double-figure underdogs that had the lead in the fourth quarter of their games, and several of them went on to win, while Utah came up just a two-point PAT short at USC. In the NFL, there was a rare board in which two teams were favored by 13 or more at kickoff and both of them lost outright.

Sorting through these games will tell us a lot not just about the particular outcomes, but also the foundations of the sports as well. With a long Monday read ahead as usual the jukebox gets plugged in for some background to ease you along, and with outcomes that swept across the wagering landscape like a hurricane, including four Top 10 teams losing in the college ranks, let’s tie in some classic Neil Young, this gem from Farm Aid in 2012 …

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I am going to run through those NCAA major upsets in schedule order, looking for the best way to evaluate short term, and also to the more general handicapping issues where they apply. …

SOUTH ALABAMA (+18.5) 19, TROY 8: It wasn’t difficult to spot the gap in emotional energy that could put the Jaguars in the game – it was a rare chance to play in front of the national cameras, a big spark for them, while the Trojans had just won at LSU on national television and were subject to a letdown. But there was another aspect in play that goes to the notion of “layering” that I write about here often.

Did the South Alabama players think of themselves as 18.5-point underdogs? Probably not. The fifth-year seniors had gone 2-2 SU against their in-state conference rivals, winning the scoreboard across those four games by a collective 105-93. Do not underestimate that factor – when an underdog has a legacy of success against the opponent they are facing, it can mean a far greater level of confidence and more energy in practice and preparation than the pointspread would indicate.

In terms of what took place on the field, the Jaguars got a +3 turnover advantage and played sound defense, not allowing any big plays, which was more than enough in a game in which their own offense only sputtered to 12 first downs and 236 yards. And in terms of going forward, I would not project the usual letdown notions that get associated with a big dog that wins a game – since this is the third time that the fifth-year seniors have beaten Troy, it should be easier for the Jaguars to consider it as business as usual going forward.

SYRACUSE (+24) 27, CLEMSON 24: The fascinating thing about watching this one is that if you did not know the history of the programs or the line and just watched the game, you would not have known who the favorite was. The Orange had 26 more offensive snaps, which led to advantages of +12 in first downs and +123 in total offense more yards, and it was a major turnover that helped keep the favorite alive – the lone miscue in the game was a Syracuse fumble that the Tigers returned for a touchdown.

There were extenuating circumstances – Clemson starting QB Kelly Bryant was lost on the final possession of the first half, and the Tigers missed a pair of field goals, but this was not an underdog needing breaks to survive, and for me the takeaway may be more about the Orange than it was Dabo Swinney’s team.

There was a question as to whether Dino Babers could get enough talent on the field to compete at the tempo that he prefers, but Syracuse may be developing ahead of schedule. Despite losing at LSU and N.C. State, the Orange played hard, without backing off of what they want to do. They ran 160 plays in those tough road settings despite being underdogs by a collective 35.5 points, not concerned with shortening the game as all, and they covered the spread by 18.5 points in the process. Now the question becomes whether that breakthrough in front of the national cameras on Friday ignites the ability to get some first-rate talent to the Carrier Dome, where guys who want to play on Sundays might relish showcasing their talents in uptempo schemes on a fast playing surface.

For Clemson might a clunker be the almost inevitable result of having played so many games the past three seasons, 15 in 2015 and 15 again in 2016? It isn’t easy to play at a high level each week, and no matter how much Dabo would have preached before Friday’s kickoff, his players may have struggled to erase the memory of a 54-0 walkover vs. Syracuse from 2016. In terms of going forward, do not expect this to be much more than a blip on the radar screen – the irony is that the loss does not damage their playoff hopes all that much; if they sweep out from here, they are back in the brackets for the third straight season.

CALIFORNIA (+16) 37, WASHINGTON STATE 3: “There’s no bright spot. We were pathetic. We were a bunch of pathetic front-runners.”

That was how succinct Mike Leach was after his team’s fiasco on Friday night, and it would be difficult to argue with him. There is a level of creativity he brings that has made his teams dangerous through the years in an underdog role, but also a laziness that can set in when favored – the Cougars have lost outright as favorites of a full touchdown or more four times in the Leach years and had to escape in overtime vs. Boise State in the role earlier this season.

This outcome did have some bounces attached. Washington State turned the ball over seven times, but while a degree of that goes to the sloppiness of the Cougars, there should also be some focus attached to how Justin Wilcox is quickly changing the mindset at Cal. Defense had been an afterthought for the program in the Sonny Dykes era, but the Golden Bears have already come up with 20 takeaways this season, returning three of them directly for touchdowns. Let’s put the career arcs of the fifth-year seniors into perspective, based on points per game and yards per game allowed:

Season      PPG   YPG
2013          46     453
2014          40     494
2015          31     529
2016          43     513
2017          26     423

Now that defense faces the challenge of Arizona QB Khalil Tate, which I will get to in a moment, but there are still several more upsets to sort through.

CONNECTICUT (+10.5) 28, TEMPLE 24: This one might not register on the Richter scale for folks following the sport, since it will not be news these days and into the future when Temple loses, the Matt Rhule era certifiably over. But this may not have been an ordinary game for Connecticut. In his first season back at the helm of a program he once had major success with, Randy Edsall has been looking to jump-start things by playing at a faster tempo, much like Babers at Syracuse, which can create a spark for recruiting. But there was also the matter of the fifth-year seniors having been 15-39 prior to facing Temple and coming off of a 70-31 demolition at home vs. Memphis in which they seemed to lose heart in the second half.

Edsall may have viewed it as an early crisis moment, and it led to the type of pregame speech that usually does not take place for such a nondescript road game. Let’s start with this take, which should go into the files:

I just made some statements from the heart. That's what I did. They listened. They took it to heart and went out and got a win. I feel very great for them. You don't play this game not to win, but you have to respect the game and put the effort and the preparation in to win, which they have to learn now if they're going to be successful in what they do in life. You talk about a life lesson today and all the criticism you hear about this sport. There's nothing that can teach you what this sport can teach you. It was evident today."

And now from the player’s perspective, QB Bryant Sherriffs:“He was really fired up and I think it had an effect on how we played today. … When you're playing for somebody, when you know that it means so much to them, it's easier to sacrifice."

The Huskies still aren’t very good and were outgained 473-248, needing a lot of football fortune to get the scoreboard win. But in terms of mindset, this may have been the foundational win that Edsell can begin rebuilding the program from.

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (+13.5) 23, TULANE 10
TULSA (+14) 45, HOUSTON 17

I am going to combine these two because they show us that grading is a process that never truly ends. First, note that there wasn’t anything fluky about either underdog winning, which tells us something. FIU controlled Tulane to the tune of 25-16 in first downs and 444-259 in total offense, the Golden Panthers going for more than 200 yards both running and passing. The Tulsa scoreboard was misleading, the game flow having been pretty even and the Golden Hurricane benefitting from a +2 in turnovers, one of them a fumble returned for a TD, but it was an advantage of 5.9 to 4.6 in yards per play for the underdog.

There wasn’t an appearance of a talent gap on the field in Tulane-FIU because there may not be one – the fifth-year seniors for the Green Wave had only been favored 10 times in 53 games prior to Saturday, never by more than -5.5. What had influenced the markets so much? A big part of both of these games may have stemmed from Tulane’s 62-28 domination of Tulsa last week, a game that was every bit as bad on the field as the scoreboard indicated, the Green Wave leading 48-7 at halftime and running for 493 yards.

What the hell happened in New Orleans last Saturday? It becomes a bigger question now. Was it a case of the Golden Hurricane waving a white flag, which calls on us to lessen the impact of that game on our handicapping consciousness? There were some unusual circumstances to it, the kickoff being moved up to 8 AM because of the approaching storm, and very few fans in attendance, which might have made it easier to pack it in when the game started so poorly. It was a database wrecker of an outcome, especially this early in the season, and the market reactions of downgrading Tulsa and upgrading Tulane were out there in full force – Houston was bet up from -11 to -14 at kickoff, and Tulane went from -11.5 to -13, before there was some late FIU buy-back.

There is still some sorting to do from those two results, but the real key to the sequence may have been an outcome from the previous week that just doesn’t mean as much as it will be tracked by those that attach a full weight to it. These were still upsets, but late in the season we will likely look back and see that neither favorite was supposed to have been in double figures.

BOSTON COLLEGE (+19) 45, LOUISVILLE 42: The Eagles entered this game averaging 16.3 points and 326.7 yards, yet exploded for 45 and 555, more than doubling their per-game rushing average with 364. Prior to Saturday, freshman RB AJ Dillon had 88 carries for 336 yards, just 3.8 per attempt, but he rolled for 272 yards and four touchdowns at 7.0 ypc. It was a rare case of a big road underdog rallying by running the ball, not passing, with the Boston College offense grinding away despite falling down 21-7 early.

When I began digging I thought I would find the expected answer – the Cardinals came out flat, right, with more focus on next week’s game with Florida State, and taking an opponent lightly that they had dumped 52-7 on the road last year. But I did not read that. What was interesting was to hear the word “work” come from both Bobby Petrino and Lamar Jackson.

Petrino did at least address the shortcomings of the run defense before he got to it:“It was a combination of everything. Technique, it was a combination of not getting enough guys to the ball, (having a) guy out there trying to tackle by himself. Worked hard on it. We’re just not getting it done yet.”

And then from Jackson: "No one likes losing, especially not me, or my team. We put in a lot of work. We busted our behind, and we didn't come out with a win."

The Louisville catalysts could have easily attributed this to being flat, but didn’t. That means time to put some focus on Dillon and the Eagle ground game – while there isn’t much of a passing attack to open things up (they were back to former starter Darius Wade at QB in the second half after Anthony Brown was injured), a power running attack can be a late-season plus vs. opposing defenses that are getting worn down.

ARIZONA STATE (+17.5) 13, WASHINGTON 7: Here is yet another game that is rather stunning because it didn’t look much at all like an upset if you were watching. It wasn’t about big plays or turnovers opening the door for an upset – the Huskies did not turn the ball over once. But the Washington offense never got anything going, managing just 14 first downs and 230 yards, and not scoring the lone TD until 5:32 remained in the game. This was against a Sun Devil team that had allowed all five previous opponents this season, and the last 11 in a row, to score at least 30 points. In two previous Pac-12 games, Oregon rolled for 35 points and 405 yards, and Stanford for 34 and 504, against that defense.

How does this get explained? There was no reason for the Huskies to be flat, having coasted past Oregon State 42-7 and California 38-7 the past two weeks, and with a bye on deck. If anything, this was to be the game in which the starters got a chance to stretch their legs out and go the distance. Of course many of them did play the whole game, but that was because Chris Petersen had little choice.

In searching to understand what did happen, sometimes we need to look at what didn’t, and in this case what didn’t were Washington big plays. How did the Huskies make their way into the playoffs in 2016? A big part of that was a +19 in turnover differential prior to facing Alabama, and they had six touchdowns from the defense and special teams, without allowing any. Prior to Saturday’s kickoff they were +7 in TO differential, and +4 in defensive or special teams TDs.

ASU did not turn the ball over, and there were no explosion touchdowns for Washington. That left it up to the Huskies to have to win on talent and execution in the other parts of the game, and might a case be made that while the program is on the rise under Petersen, the talent is still not head-and-shoulders above some of the others in the Pac-12?

AKRON (+12) 14, WESTERN MICHIGAN 13: This one had a lot of “Football Being Football” built in. For most of the game the Broncos looked like a 12-point favorite, with commanding edges of 26-14 in first downs and 426-215 in total offense, winning the yards per rush 4.6 to 2.8, and the yards per pass 5.9 to 4.9. The turnover counts were also even, and it was Akron that had 31 more penalty yards. But the Zips made the most out of their production, getting touchdowns the only two times they reached the red zone, while WMU was 1-4 on such trips, including an interception at the Akron 6-yard line and a failed fourth down at the 9. The Broncos also missed a pair of field goals.

How much of this do we attach to the game having been postponed a day after rain flooded the field on Saturday? It would be easy to assign weight to that, but on the field the game flowed about the way that it should have between the teams. This one had a degree of football randomness built into it, which will have me not adjusting the results all that much.

Now let’s duck in a few key notes from across the other weekend results. …

 Item: Khalil Tate needs to be a talking point again

I wasn’t being extreme last Monday when I wrote about Tate’s explosive outing in Arizona’s win vs. Colorado being as good of a performance as I have ever charted from a college quarterback, and yet there were only crickets across the Sports Mediaverse as the week played out, before an enormous amount of money bet on UCLA against Tate and the Wildcats. If we use Pinnacle as the tracking source, which brings the highest level of market integrity, it went from Arizona -2.5 last Sunday night to UCLA -3 (-115) at kickoff.

And then all Tate did was go out and play just about as well as he had the previous Saturday. His 45-yard touchdown run put Arizona up 7-0 just 1:16 into the game, and the Wildcats never trailed in rolling 47-30.

Let’s put the two games together. Tate has rushed for 557 yards and six touchdowns on just 29 attempts, a nifty 19.2 per burst. Through the air it has been 21-for-26 for 302 yards and two more TDs, without an interception.

How good is this? The all-time single season record for rushing yards per game is 238.9, by Barry Sanders in 1988. Through his two starts Tate is at 278.5. The all-time single-season record for passing efficiency was set by Baker Mayfield last fall, at 207.3. Tate is a tick behind that at 203.7, which would rate #2.

Will he keep this up? No, it is an impossible pace. As more game films accumulate, opposing HCs and DCs will be trying to find ways to stop him, but as Jim Mora pointed out in Saturday’s post-game: “We put all our energy into stopping him, and we did not get it done.”

It isn’t just about what Tate does individually at the QB position, but the impact his play has across the rest of the team. When you believe that you can win, the mood around the program changes. Players hit the weight room longer and harder, and spend more time studying their game plans. Arizona overall isn’t special, but the QB is, and that makes for some intrigue in setting the power ratings in the weeks ahead, and a fun matchup this Saturday night against Wilcox and that improved Cal defense.

 

Item: I heard about Tom Herman’s underdog record all week, but I never saw anyone actually bet it

The opposite in terms of media coverage, especially in the sports betting world, was the talk last week about Tom Herman’s record as an underdog, as either an OC or HC. I have followed it closely because it was a PB topic at the old platform a long way back, those offensive game plans in Ohio State’s “upsets” of Alabama and Oregon to win the national championship a tip-off to his game planning creativity, and the current run is up to 18 consecutive covers in the role, all the way back to Herman’s Iowa State days.

What was quoted often throughout the week can now be updated because you are going to hear/read it again: Since becoming the OC at Ohio State the Herman record is 13-0 ATS as an underdog, with 11 outright wins. Yet despite how well publicized that became last week there simply wasn’t much buy-in for it from the markets – Pinnacle opened Oklahoma -7.5 and closed -9.

This will be interesting to track this week, with Oklahoma State opening -7 for the game against the Longhorns in Austin.

 

Item: The Air Force second half vs. UNLV was even more improbable than it might appear

Among the near-misses of the big upsets this week was UNLV’s 34-30 loss at Air Force, the Rebels closing at +10. They led 27-0 in the early stages, and carried a 27-7 advantage into the locker room at halftime. It is how the comeback by the Falcons took place that is worth a second look not only in terms of grading the game, but also Troy Calhoun’s team for the rest of the season (and in particular this week).

Consider the halftime mindset. Air Force was mired in a four-game losing streak, including a draining 48-45 loss at Navy the previous Saturday, a passion play of a game against a fierce rival. It would have been easy to lose heart.

Now consider how the third quarter opened, with the Falcons losing fumbles on each of their first two plays, though the defense held the visiting Rebels to just a field goal off of them to make it 30-7. As down as they could have been at intermission, those fumbles could have been a death knell in terms of the game outcome, and also perhaps send the season spiraling downwards.

Yet from the second fumble on it was a 27-0 run-out. That is rather phenomenal given the circumstances. Naturally some blame must be attached to UNLV, and the appropriate notations are made inside of the Rebels power rating, but from the mindset of mental toughness so much credit must go to the Falcons, and now perhaps a unique spark added as a result.

I thought Calhoun offered us all some insight:“We do have a group and they love to play football and they love to practice and they love to work. They love to play on game day. We haven’t fully grasped how to play well, but really that was our saving grace today.”

There may be something to see here going forward because one of the other prime near-misses on Saturday was Nevada’s 44-42 loss at Colorado State, the +24.5 Wolfpack leading 42-31 late in the third quarter before that one turned around. Now we have a team off of a major rally in Air Force, facing a Nevada team that just had one go the opposite way, and they meet head-to-head in Reno on Friday night. The psychological implications from Saturday’s results into that game may be major, and will be a prime reading-between-the-lines assignment over the course of the week.

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