What a 'Bettor Better Know': Notes from NCAA Week 8

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David Malinsky

Monday, October 23, 2017 2:24 PM GMT

Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 2:24 PM GMT

What a 'Bettor Better Know' from NCAAF Week 8, and why learning to hear the different notes as players, coaches and bookmakers sing the blues is so important. ... Meanwhile, Boston College and Syracuse showed us that last week wasn't a fluke.

Point Blank – October 23, 2017

One of the reasons why college football brings so many opportunities to find edges is what begins to happen around this time of the season with struggling teams. The Sports Mediaverse pays little attention to them, the primary focus going to much to the playoff hunt (ludicrously so), and then to the Heisman Trophy, teams searching out bowls and other matters in a top-down approach. Yet the oddsmakers have to keep pricing these teams, and they provide some of their greatest challenges; hence some of our biggest opportunities.

I’ll bring the concept to the lead this week because there are a pair of Thursday games that go under this particular spotlight, which will help to get the handicapping week started, and this is also a prime subject to focus on in your long-term methodology. Careful sorting through various levels of late-season blues can be awfully good for your bankroll, and to set up some background on the jukebox for another long Monday read, let’s go to the late great Gary Moore, who brought his own sensibilities to the guitar, which led to some incredible moments. Like this one, “The Loner”, live from Stockholm a way back:  

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Now let’s roll up the sleeves, because there is a lot of work to be done. …

 Item: The goal of the oddsmakers is to make BYU cover a game

I’ll begin the week with one of the most extreme cases of the guys setting the lines having the blues, the inability to anticipate how far the Brigham Young program had fallen before the season started, and now the struggles to catch down to them. The Cougars have opened 0-7 ATS, and you could even track an 0-8 for the lethargic opening showing vs. Portland State, which does not go into my records.

BYU’s game at East Carolina on Saturday brought something I could not find anywhere in the archives, a 0-6 ATS vs. a 0-5, but in the guessing game of market opinion there was a clear side taken, the Pirates being bet down from +7 to +5 in a game they controlled 33-17. That creates the rare 0-7 on the other side.

About a month ago there was a deep dive here into the reasons for the decline of the BYU program, which I believe will fall into a mediocrity, though it will not always be as bad as this season. One of the issues of that slide is being an independent, and that does connect to what we do next with the Cougars' power ratings. Yet while there may be a bandwagon forming to keep piling on against them, there needs to be an acknowledgment that the oddsmakers are most aware of that now, and will be doing their best to counter it. The question is whether the Brigham Young players and coaches do their best the rest of the way.

Here is the gist: Because of that independent status, late-season scheduling is a headache for the program. The remainder of this season brings San Jose State, Fresno State, UNLV, Massachusetts and Hawaii. Can that list possibly supply any kind of spark to a team that can only go 6-7 even if they do sweep out?

I will be reading between the lines carefully because the mindset of this program is a little different than others, almost being close to one of the military academies in terms of discipline and focus. Hence I filed this away from HC Kelani Sitake, and have to determine if it is coach-speak, or a real assessment:“Between myself and the coaches, it is on us. The players are giving us all the effort they have. It has been like that all year. This one is on us coaches.”

Are the players still giving their all? If that is the case, there could be some sneaky value ahead if the oddsmakers find the proper water level. My reading between the lines will be on that front, looking any evidence that there is a motivation in play. Sitake has at least found something to start from: I feel bad for the seniors but we have to honor them in the way that we play the rest of the season. We get to go home and try to get a win against San Jose State. That’s our focus right now. Just trying to figure out a way to get a win for these seniors.”

Sophomore WR Micah Simon then echoed some of that: “We’re going to play the rest of the season for our seniors. They’ve grinded for so hard for four years here. It’s tough for them to not be able to go to postseason play - bowl games and things like that. We’ll continue to play our hearts out in each game for these seniors.”

Can that be enough to generate some spark? We shall see. But at least they have found at least a little ammunition. I am not sure where Ball State’s comes from. …

 Item: Ball State is playing a standalone on Thursday

I couldn’t help but tweak one sportsbook steward on the fact that Ball State is hosting Toledo in front of the national cameras on Thursday night, a standalone kickoff at 7 p.m. ET, his response being: “Lovely. Just f’ing lovely.”

It tells you a little about the difference between a weeknight game in television and one buried in the middle of a deep Saturday board, and tells even more about the current state of affairs with the Cardinals.

What brought the promise of being a season in which Mike Neu’s team might have competed for a winning season and a bowl spot, injuries to QB Riley Neal and several other keys have turned a 2-1 opening into a 2-5 overall, but most importantly a 0-3 opening to MAC play in which they have been outscored 142-15 and lost to the spread by a rather staggering 96.5 points. The past two games were against conference middleweights Akron and Central Michigan, and they still got pummeled 87-12.

How bad is it? All of their MAC points came on field goals, the offense on a streak of 253 plays over 43 drives since they last reached the end zone. All Neu could do after Saturday’s 56-9 drubbing vs. CMU was be succinct: "Fragile football team right now. As much as I hate to admit it, we are struggling to overcome some of the injuries. It's not for a lack of want-to. Guys are working hard. But we're dealing with some things that are uncharacteristic of our football team. … I encouraged every young man in that locker room: There's better days ahead. You just have to continue to fight, and you have to continue to believe. You can't let the negative that happened affect you." 

Can this be fixed? Unlike at Brigham Young, where there is at least a legacy of success, there isn’t much in Muncie to fall back on. Neu is in his second season, which means that the upperclassmen were not his recruits, which makes it harder to crack the whip. I do not believe he faces any job jeopardy, being a Ball State grad, but can he find a way to keep his veterans going hard week after week after their confidence as a team has been crushed?

Neu faces a challenge to get them inspired on this short practice week, and in particular for them to play hard all game in front of the cameras, regardless of the score. The sportsbooks face the challenge of one-sided action because this game will draw a betting crowd, something far less likely to happen if it was buried in a deep Saturday afternoon slate. And where will that crowd flock? Largely against the Cardinals. There can be a price set high enough to get some sharps to nibble on the underdog, but when you see the way that small bets and parlay cards come in, you will note over time that this is the toughest kind of game for the shops to balance their lower-tier action.

 

Item: And also on Thursday, could the blues set in at Eastern Michigan?

There is a different dynamic at play when Eastern Michigan travels to Northern Illinois, but also one that is worthy of a handicapping deep dive. Chris Creighton has been building something in Ypsilanti, at one of the toughest places in the nation to win, and after getting the Eagles into a bowl game last year he has them competing hard to win every week.

So what is the problem? The fact that while the talent is better, there isn’t enough yet to get over the hump in comes of those close calls, and the current stretch has been gut-wrenching, five consecutive defeats in games they trailed by a total of just 10 points at the end of regulation. The streak started with a double-overtime loss to Ohio, and was capped with another OT defeat vs. Western Michigan this past Saturday, a tough outing in a game they may have wanted more than any on their schedule.

This is both a physical and psychological matter. Physically those are grueling games that each went to the final possession, which meant more time for the starters, and harder time. From the standpoint of their psyche, might the team be brittle at this stage? I bring that up because of the way that Creighton has talked about effort through the years, including this from the Saturday post-game: “Our guys put everything they have into this program, and into this team, and into this preparation, and fight their hearts out.”

Consider how different the energy flow could be from the end of last season to this one. To earn their bowl bid in 2016, the Eagles were 3-0 in games decided by five points or less during the regular season. That naturally makes it easier to buy in, and keep working harder. Off of this series of frustrations, might they find it difficult to maintain those levels of enthusiasm? I’ve got them under the handicapping microscope because while there was a bit of a breakthrough in 2016, the fifth-year seniors went 2-10, 2-10 and 1-11 in their first three campaigns, which is a challenging legacy to be carrying at a time like this.

 

Item: Is there anything Larry Fedora can do with North Carolina’s closing stretch?

This was expected to be a down season for the Tar Heels because of so much inexperience, but not an awful one – there was a belief that off of a combined 19-8 the past two seasons the program had reached a level at which awful couldn’t happen. Then injuries began to pile up, the Tar Heels having more key cogs out than any other Power 5 team, and it has led to a current 0-5 SU and ATS slide, games in which they have come up 72.5 points below the market expectations, or 14.5 per game.

The handicapping dilemma in terms of projecting the remainder of the season brings multiple facets. It isn’t just that having some of their better players out naturally impacts their ability to execute plays; it is also about having to change the pace that they choose to run those plays. Fedora was building a program around keeping the foot on the pedal offensively, but they can’t even begin to think that way now; the last two games there have been 77 runs vs. only 40 passes. On Saturday it was 35-0 Virginia Tech at halftime, and the Tar Heels focused more on keeping the clock moving after intermission than anything that could be referred to as a “teaching moment”.

I sense some shock value in play here, the players and coaches not prepared for how bad this season has become, and in particular filed this away from freshman QB Chazz Surratt, who has shown a lot of promise when healthy, but has been taking quite a beating of late:“We’re really just trying to stick together as a family.”

That is not what you want to be hearing from a young player whom you hope to be building around because there is a hint of desperation. There shouldn’t have to be notions of sticking together, it should be an automatic. Hence a delicate juggling act for Fedora between getting what he can out of the remainder of this season, while also keeping the optimal flow into the extended future.

Meanwhile, for a coach down the street from me, if things don’t turn around over the remainder of this season there might not be a future.

 

Item: Is there anything Tony Sanchez can do with UNLV’s closing stretch?

This is a pivotal season for UNLV, and it began disastrously, a shocking 43-40 loss to Howard in a setting that had a posted line of the Rebels -45 (though I don’t use that line in my tracking). There were impressive wins over Idaho and San Jose State to show some signs of hope (or at least as impressive as wins over those teams can be), but now they may be close to a crisis moment, hence another place for the microscope.

Why is it a pivotal season? Because UNLV can now begin to use the new Raiders Stadium as a recruiting tool, players being pursued for 2018 and beyond  being told that they could play half of their careers in that facility (assuming 2020 is the completion date). That matters so much for this program because the Rebels currently play in one of the worst facilities in the nation, old Sam Boyd Stadium, which is far from the bright lights of the strip. The upgrade can be significant. But now the question now becomes whether Sanchez will ever coach a game in those new digs.

Last Monday one of the focus points here was on UNLV’s 27-0 lead at Air Force turn into a 34-30 defeat, despite the fact that the Falcons turned the ball over three times in the second half. That wasn’t just a one-off, however. Let’s look at the Rebel first half/second half splits over the past three games:

Opponent     First Half  Second Half
San Diego St       10-20         0-21 
Air Force              27-7           3-27
Utah St                28-28         0-24

Yes, that calls for a Yikes, especially because the San Diego State and Utah State games were at home, and in fact on Saturday it was UNLV that was favored. The injury to QB Armani Rogers played a major part in the offense again being ineffective after intermission, but the defense was simply abysmal, allowing a pedestrian Utah State offense to roll for 578 yards.

A good exercise to engage in across the NCAA landscape, where fragile psyches can play such key roles, is what I call Before/After, charting the coaches and players during the week, and then in the aftermath of games. Sanchez went under that spotlight last week because of how shattering the Air Force defeat could have been, yet he remained positive when asked about the mindset of his team after Tuesday’s practice: "If they were faking it, they did a heck of a job because there was a lot of energy out there, and those guys were flying around. There was not lack of effort. There was not lack of toughness of intensity.”

But then on Saturday:“We’re at a low right now, so we’ve got to figure out how to fight our way back out of this. There’s a lot of accountability that needs to be addressed.”

There is a problem of a shortage of talent overall, with just 72 scholarship players of an allowed 85, and depth and inexperience hamper that defense, which only has three senior starters. But there also does need to be a focus on that coaching staff, and the prospect that they are getting outschemed in the second half of these games. There may not be a solution available.

There are similar issues at Kansas, where neither the players nor the coaching staff are of Big 12 caliber. …

 

Item: Is it OK to grade the Kansas-TCU box score as a full game?

Add Kansas to the list of teams that oddsmakers need to find a proper price plateau for – if not for an unexpected goal-line stand vs. West Virginia at the end of their game a month ago, it would be 0-6 ATS for the Jayhawks. The latest was a 43-0 drubbing at TCU on Saturday night in which the programs agreed to go with a running clock the entire fourth quarter, and for a while it did raise some questions in the betting world about whether or not the game would produce an official outcome.

By Nevada rules, which have become universal, football games are not considered official unless they get to the 5:00 remaining mark, which has already created an issue once this season, with UCF-Cincinnati a few weeks ago. In theory, a running clock in the fourth quarter could produce fewer plays than one stopped with a few minutes left, but after it has been called “official.” But there isn’t anything in the house rules for such circumstances, so it tracked as a full outcome.

The question from a handicapping standpoint is whether to consider that box score as being a full game, and that is tricky, especially when it comes to pace. It wasn’t that the clock kept running, it was that the teams decided to just get off the field anyway, with no passes thrown over the final 10:00. Even with the motivation to avoid being shut out, as the final Kansas possession began with 4:50 remaining, the Jayhawks opted for seven straight runs.

The irony was that it was one of the most productive Kansas drives of the game, the offense getting 17 of the 21 total yards they were credited with in the final tracking with. Yes, that is correct, they had four total yards entering that final drive.

What can HC David Beatty do with a team that has been been shut out in each of the last two games, combining for just 127 yards in the process? Something seems wrong beneath the surface here. While I ignore the game vs. SE Missouri State, QB Peyton Bender was 62-109 for 666 yards in consecutive losses to Central Michigan and Ohio early in the season. The past two games it has been 15-35 for 56 yards. In back-to-back games vs. Ohio and West Virginia, Khalil Herbert ran for 428 yards at 7.8 per carry. On Saturday, his six attempts generated eight yards.

It isn’t as though Kansas is bereft of talent on offense based on those early-season results, but the past two weeks there was no energy to be seen, even with the rare chance to play in front of a national television audience on Fox Saturday night. That means more digging, to see if Beatty has the team willing to compete for him.

 

Item: On grading the Michigan State final TD vs. Indiana
Sub-Item: And just why did Wisconsin kick a FG anyway?

Although it only boiled down to a single play, albeit a play that had a huge impact across the betting markets in determining the ATS outcome, that 18-yard TD run by L.J. Scott that capped Michigan State’s 17-9 win over Indiana on Saturday is also something that shouldn’t be in your databases.

To set it up, the Spartans were clinging to a 10-9 lead with less than 2:00 to play, and the Hoosiers were down to their last timeout, when Indy coach Tom Allen told his players to just stand straight up on the ensuing play, and let State go to the end zone. If the Spartans scored, it would have meant being down eight with enough time left on the clock to put together a drive that could tie the game. What Indiana could not afford was a first down, which would then put State in a position to kneel down and run the clock out.

The optimal strategy for the Spartans would have been for Scott to get past the first down marker and take a knee, but as we have seen other players do this season, he went on to the end zone. It did give the Hoosiers another chance, but after one first down a penalty set them back, and the game ended without much drama.

Should the handicapper count Scott’s run? No. It wasn’t a positive skill play by the Michigan State offense, nor a bad one from the Indiana defense. The official stat sources will count it, of course, but you shouldn’t.

Meanwhile, in the Big Ten there was another major pointspread swing on a score that also didn’t have to happen, and I have yet to figure this one out. Wisconsin closed -24.5 with a total of 49.5 vs. Maryland, and the Badgers had command of the proceedings most of the way, leading 35-13 when they took possession on their own 28-yard line with 6:04 remaining. They did what was expected, running and grinding the clock, before finally getting to fourth-and-1 at the Terrapins 23.

And then, with 0:36 remaining, Paul Chryst sent out senior kicker Rafael Gaglianone for a FG attempt. I have no idea why. The Badgers could have run a play to try for the first down, which would have ended the game if they made it, or given Maryland a play or two if they failed. I don’t know why a FG was the choice because it just doesn’t happen in such settings. But the fact that both the Side and Total swung on that kick created a buzz across the betting markets, and I have not read anything yet in the postgame that explains it, perhaps because the local writers covering the game would have felt it to be of such little consequence.

Now let’s focus on some positive storylines from the weekend results. …

 

Item: It was indeed Boston College Good, and not Louisville Bad, a week ago

In tracking various major upsets that took place last weekend, one of the focus points went to the 45-42 Boston College upset at Louisville, and how the notion of grading it as the Cardinals having gone flat might not be the proper storyline. Bobby Petrino and his players talked about having prepared well, and worked hard, in taking the Eagles seriously, but they may have lost for what would have seemed like an unlikely reason at the time – BC stepping up and playing well.

Fast forward to this past Saturday and Louisville was on track, gutting out a tense win at Florida State. Then there were the Eagles, who went from winning outright as a dog and beating the spread by 22 points at Louisville to again winning outright as a dog, and beating the spread by 38 points, at Virginia.

The Cavaliers came into that one on a 4-0 SU and ATS run in which they had outperformed the expectations by 53.5 points, and appeared to be making strides. Yet it was a beatdown, BC more than doubling them up in a commanding 514-247 edge in total offense.

I filed one takeaway as being extremely important, because it wasn’t just a repeat of what happened at Louisville. Steve Adazzio is pinning hopes for the program on freshman QB Anthony Brown, and the turnaround at Louisville took place after Brown had been benched, following an abysmal 5-17 for just 42 yards through the air in the early stages of that win. It was veteran Darius Wade who led the comeback. But Adazzio went right back to Brown vs. Virginia, and he was 19-24 for 275 yards and three touchdowns, without an interception. The confidence showed by the coach, and the performance by the young QB, is worth some serious attention.

In Brown and in fellow freshman A.J. Dillon at RB, there may be legitimate pieces to build an offense around, that unit having been the weakness of this program in the recent past. The two yearlings get a major test against the Florida State defense in front of the national television cameras on Friday that becomes prime viewing – those key cogs may still lack experience, but do they finally bring the kind of talent level needed to compete head-to-head with teams like the Seminoles?

 

Item: On grading Syracuse during the bye week

The Orange also deserve some follow-up, after also being a prime topic last Monday. It wasn’t just that they beat Clemson the previous week, but that they did it as a 24-point underdog with a -1 in turnover count, that turnover being returned directly for a touchdown. Big underdogs just don’t have that happen and win.

Fast forward to Saturday, and Dino Babers’ team was down just 20-19 in the fourth quarter at Miami, and had a final possession that started with 2:48 down 27-19, when there was the potential to drive for a tie. The Orange beat the spread by 10 points despite a -3 turnover disadvantage, for a two-game total of a +37 vs. the market expectations despite a -4 in turnovers.

Consider Saturday’s closing line, then look at the horrific passing performance put up by QB Eric Dungey, who was 13-41 for 137 yards, with four interceptions and no TDs. With the interceptions factored in it grades out as the worst passing outing of the season, even behind the 0-10 that Charleston Southern turned in at Indiana a couple of weeks ago. If a +18 has that bad of a showing from what should be the team’s strength, and yet is still alive to win the game outright, it is both a positive sign for that team, and also a negative as to where the markets have them rated (and to Dungey’s credit he competed hard through those aerial struggles, running for over 100 yards).

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