College football best bets, picks, favorites, underdogs, over/unders

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has thrown 15 touchdown passes to only two interceptions.  (The Washington Post illustration/AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has thrown 15 touchdown passes to only two interceptions. (The Washington Post illustration/AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

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I scratched and clawed my way to a 2-2 record last week, with Nebraska hanging around to cover against Purdue and TCU-Oklahoma State going over the total (though they needed overtime to get there). But for the second straight week, I put too much faith in nebulous quarterback injury news; Illinois signal caller Tommy DeVito surprisingly played to help Illinois doom my Minnesota pick. And the less said about my pick of the under in the Alabama-Tennessee game, the better. (A mere 101 points were scored.) A 16-11-1 record for the season is okay, but hopefully it will improve this week.

This column will give out four picks per week: the game of the week, a favorite, an underdog and a wild card, which can be anything (another favorite or underdog in a game that might be flying under the radar or a total, for instance). Hopefully we’ll all be rich by the time the clock hits zero in Inglewood, Calif., on Jan. 9.

All spreads and totals were taken Wednesday from the consensus odds at VegasInsider.com unless noted. All times Eastern on Saturday unless noted.

College football winners and losers from Week 7

No. 9 UCLA at No. 10 Oregon, over 69.5 points, 3:30 pm, Fox

Both teams move the ball well through the air, and both have trouble defending the pass. It’s a recipe for the over, even though this game features one of the highest totals on the board.

The Bruins’ offense ranks second nationally in passing success rate and fifth in expected points added (EPA) per pass. The Ducks’ defense ranks 106th in passing success rate and 117th in EPA per pass. UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson averages 9.3 yards per attempt and has thrown 15 touchdown passes to only two interceptions. The Ducks have allowed opposing quarterbacks to compile a 142.21 rating (100th nationally). Plus, the Bruins rank third in the country at 4.03 points per drive, and the Ducks rank 110th in points allowed per drive (2.98).

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Oregon’s defense also struggles to keep opponents from scoring once they cross the 50. Over the past three games, Arizona, Stanford and Washington State drove into the Ducks territory 20 times and scored on 16 of those possessions (nine touchdowns, seven field goals). In its previous game against Utah, UCLA crossed the 50 or got the ball in Utes territory nine times; six of those drives ended in the end zone, and of the three that didn’t, one ended with a missed field goal and another was a victory-formation situation at the end of the 42-32 win.

Oregon’s passing offense ranks sixth in success rate and 10th in EPA per pass; UCLA’s defense ranks 88th and 75th in those categories. The Bruins gave up 32 points to both Utah and Washington and 31 to South Alabama, a team in the bottom half of the offensive SP+ efficiency rankings.

It’s a lot of points, but the over is the play.

Northern Illinois (-3) at Ohio, 2 pm, ESPN Plus

This is less of a bet on the Huskies than a fade on the Bobcats, who have been involved in some deceiving games of late.

Three weeks ago, Ohio lost by seven in overtime at Kent State, but the score probably should have been worse. In the second half, the Golden Flashes fumbled to end one drive, had two possessions end on downs and missed two field goals. Four of those drives ended in Bobcats territory, and the other fell apart at the Kent State 49.

Last week’s second-half box score in Ohio’s 33-14 win over Western Michigan was even more peculiar because Broncos quarterback Jack Salopek threw five interceptions in the final two quarters. And the two Broncos possessions that didn’t end on a pick ended on downs, one of them at the Ohio 19.

Northern Illinois quarterback Rocky Lombardi returned from a leg injury last week in a 39-10 win over Eastern Michigan. He had five touchdown passes and only one interception before suffering the injury against Vanderbilt on Sept. 17, and the Huskies went 0-3 in the games he missed. I’m not sure his return is being valued enough, particularly against an Ohio team that is allowing 367.1 passing yards per game, by far the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Bobcats also rank 115th in terms of rushing success rate on defense — they gave up 24o rushing yards to Kent State’s Marquez Cooper — and Northern Illinois running back Harrison Waylee is among the Mid-American Conference’s best at the position. Give me the Huskies here.

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Liberty (+6.5) vs. BYU, 3:30 pm, ESPNU

Of the 15 FBS teams that are bowl-eligible, 6-1 Liberty is the lowest ranked in terms of the SP+ efficiency metric at No. 82. The Flames needed four overtimes to beat Southern Mississippi (3-3, No. 73 in SP+), trailed Akron (1-6, 129th) in the fourth quarter before pulling out a 21-12 win, failed to cover the 22.5 -point spread in a 42-24 win over Massachusetts (1-6, dead last at 131st) and most recently were seen needing a fourth-quarter touchdown to score a 21-20 win over Gardner-Webb, a Football Championship Subdivision team that’s 2-5.

So why on earth are we putting our money on Liberty to cover against BYU? Because the Cougars are a mess right now, particularly on defense, and 6.5 points is too many for two teams that are more equal that most realize.

BYU is coming off a 52-35 home loss to Arkansas in which it surrendered 644 total yards and 7.9 yards per play. A week earlier, Notre Dame held the ball for 40 minutes 55 seconds and averaged 6.8 yards per play in a 28-20 win. (In their five other games, the Fighting Irish have averaged 5.3 yards per play.) The Cougars rank 113th in defensive success rate and 97th in points allowed per drive. The defensive letdowns prompted Coach Kalani Sitake to talk this week about “options” and “major changes,” perhaps taking over defensive play-calling from coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki.

This is hardly ideal ahead of a long road trip to play in what Liberty Coach Hugh Freeze is calling “the biggest home football game this program has ever had.” The Flames’ offense is far from great — they rank 118th in success rate and have struggled to score against some truly awful teams — but they put up 36 points in their only game against a Power Five team this season, and Wake Forest’s defense is much better than BYU’s. Plus, Liberty’s defense has intercepted 11 passes — only USC and Illinois have more — and leads the country with four sacks per game. That should be enough.

James Madison at Marshall, Marshall team total under 19.5 points, 3:30 pm, ESPN Plus

The Dukes’ first trip into the Associated Press top 25 was a brief one — their 45-38 loss to Georgia Southern sent them tumbling out of the rankings after a one-week stay. The Eagles’ 45 points were 17 more than the previous season high by a Dukes opponent but should be taken with at least a few grains of salt: Georgia Southern returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in the second quarter, and James Madison’s offense kept giving the Eagles chances by committing four turnovers and surrendering the ball on downs twice. Plus, Georgia Southern decided to attack the Dukes’ rushing defense — which leads the nation in success rate and allows a minuscule 1.35 yards per carry — by barely attacking it at all. The Eagles ran the ball 16 times for 12 yards while attempting 64 passes.

The Thundering Herd’s offense is not built to operate that way. Marshall runs the ball 60 percent of the time (13th in the country) but with a success rate that ranks only 50th and an EPA per rush that ranks 92nd. Quarterbacks Henry Colombi and Cam Fancher have been sacked on 14.3 percent of their dropbacks, a number exceeded by only two FBS teams, and James Madison’s defense ranks 16th nationally in sack percentage (8.3 percent).

In its past two games against FBS opponents — losses to Louisiana Lafayette and Troy, teams with defenses as stout as James Madison’s — the Thundering Herd has scored 20 combined points. I think Marshall will struggle again Saturday against a JMU team that matches up well.



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