(Guess what? I published a book this offseason. It’s about baseball. The Cubs. The White Sox. And that one time they played each other in the World Series. Check it out. It’s only available via Amazon Kindle right now, but a paperback, print on demand option is in the works)
Week Six has arrived. We’re creeping towards the midpoint of the college football regular season.*Sheds small tear* It’s already been crazy, like all the seasons before it. Louisville, Washington, Houston, and Texas A/M are in the playoff hunt. Oregon, Michigan State, Florida State, and Oklahoma are not. Michigan is back. So is Tennessee, Miami, and Colorado. As for Alabama and Ohio State, well, they are still Alabama and Ohio State. And still the betting favorites to win all the marbles. The Tide and Buckeyes all but sit as betting co-favorites with +300 and +325 odds to win it all. Clemson, last year’s national runner-up, is next in line at +500. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the B1G, all signs point to an Ohio State-Michigan game for the ages, but there are still seven Saturdays of football to play between now and then. One thing college football has taught us is, if you give it enough time, it will rain plenty of chaos. Where and when is anybody’s guess. So don’t break out those countdown clocks just yet. Well, except for the #RevengeOfHarbaugh one that now reads 22 Days.
But the pecking order is clear. At the top, it’s Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. At the bottom, it’s Illinois, Purdue, and Rutgers. As for 5-12, does anybody know? With the resurgences at Indiana and Maryland and the ongoing soap operas at Michigan St, Penn St, and Iowa, I’m interested in seeing how it shapes up and if any of them can get going in a strong enough direction to threaten the current contenders.
Onto our picks for the B1G and national games of the week.
(Season Record: 13-14-1. Big 10 Games: 6-4-1. The difference between a winning and losing record is a goal line stand by Cal--of all teams--against Utah a week ago. We had the Utes.)
Indiana +30 over Ohio State: Indiana's Defense is good......
Wait. No lightning, fire, or brimstone coming from above? Let me check my feet? Nope. Not frozen. Let's try that again.
Indiana's Defense is good.....
Maybe good is still a streeeeeetttttttch, despite the lack of earth imploding reaction. Let's go with 'excitedly improved' and move on. I have always said the Hoosiers don't need to be good on defense. With their offense and Team Chaos identity, they just need a decent defense, instead of one that's always one of the worst in the country, to develop into a consistent winning, bowl program. So far, so good in that department in 2016. It's just four games in, but some of the statistical improvements need to be shared. That's why we have charts. (Refer to this for success rate explanations.)
|Rush Success Rate||33.3%/17th||44.4%/86th|
|Pass Success Rate||35.5%/28th||42.7%/87th|
|Yards Per Play||5.13/37th||6.38/112th|
|Yards Per Rush||3.72/43rd||5.22/113rd|
|Yards Per Pass||6.6/40th||7.4/81st|
How good are those numbers for Indiana? So good that Kevin Wilson is now coaching like his defense can win games, an unheard of philosophy at Indiana. Urban Meyer says the Hoosiers are the best defense they will have faced so far this year. They’re in the top third nationally in all those categories, a year after being in the bottom third, in some cases the depths of that bottom third, in all of them. What's at play with the better play so far? Here's four quick reasons.
1.) First year defensive coordinator Tom Allen is proving to be one of the more underrated hires of the offseason. His previous experience included three years as linebackers coach at Ole Miss during a time when the Rebels' defense improved and last year as the defensive coordinator at USF, where he had the Bulls in the top third in several AAC defensive categories. His hiring was significant because Indiana usually ends up hiring whatever poor soul--usually somebody whose just been fired from a job--they can convince to run the Hoosier D. Not this go around. They hired one of the game's young, up-and-coming names. The pursuit of Allen was so important that Wilson cashed in an important recruiting day to go to Tampa to woo Allen to IU. As for now, Indiana's defensive unit is playing with a level of confidence that we've haven't seen much of in Bloomington. That's a reflection of their coach.
2.) It's also reflection of their experience. Indiana threw a bunch of freshmen and first year starters to the wolves in 2014. They did the same a year ago. The result in 2016 is a an experienced defense with players who have turned into decent college defenders as their upperclassmen years arrive. Tegray Scales and Marcus Oliver (who were great against MSU) are solid B1G linebackers. Jonathan Crawford and Tony Fields are a solid B1G safety duo. Rashard Fant is a solid B1G cornerback. All five of those players have played since Day 1 of their eligibility.
[Marc Lebryk/USA Sports]
3.) The emergence of Marcelino Ball. Allen plays a 4-2-5 defensive system with that fifth DB playing a more hybrid DB/LB role. A lot of teams do this and, in Indiana's case, they have dubbed the position 'Husky.' The Hoosiers may have discovered a star at Husky in Marcelino Ball, a true freshmen from Georgia. Hyped as a game changer for the defense when the season began, he’s lived up to that billing in the first four games. He's third in the team in tackles, athletic in pass coverage, and, from an eye test standpoint, already looks like a good defensive piece for IU. His defensive stats aren't otherwise gaudy, but he sure seems to be involved in a lot of plays. They've also added another freshman defensive back into the mix in A'Shon Riggins, who broke up a pair of passes against MSU. Those two players added to Crawford, Fields, Fant, and Chase Dutra and all of a sudden the Indiana Hoosiers have a secondary (Back 7, really) that could crack the top-half of the B1G. We've come a long way since the 2013 Michigan-Indiana, Jeremy Gallon Game.
4.) More players from football states. Speaking of that game, here is the breakdown of IU's top-20 defenders that day and season and where they played their high school ball: Indiana, 6; Ohio, 5; Florida, 3; Georgia, 2, Texas, 1; Wisconsin, 1, Illinois, 1; Kentucky, 1. Here's a similar breakdown for the current top-20 defenders on the team: Ohio, 9; Florida, 5, Georgia, 2, Illinois, 2, Indiana, 2, South Carolina, 1; Texas, 1. Which one would you take?
The improved numbers will be put to a serious test this week at Ohio State and next week against Nebraska. They will have more than their hands full just knocking Curtis Samuel off his historic pace. If the numbers above stay in the top half of the national rankings after playing all the weapons the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers have, then the defensive improvements will have a louder ring of authenticity to it, even if the Hoosiers lose both those contests.
The spread in this game is huge. In each of the last two years, the Hoosiers gave the Buckeyes all they can handle, losing by 14 and 7 in games that weren't decided until the fourth quarter. But in both of those games, IU had to rely a lot on Zander Diamont at QB. With Richard Lagow running the show instead, the Hoosiers ought to be able to keep this game also somewhat interesting and cover the spread.
Michigan -28 over Rutgers: This line is about two touchdowns too low. This will be a controlled scrimmage for the Wolverines. The last time we saw Coach Harbaugh tinkering with his controlled scrimmage machine, he had it set at 49-10 with special focus on breaking the quarterback. This week, Dad has it locked into a 40-0 score, mostly so Michigan can work on field goal kicking. Last week, I joked the real bet would be the combined total margin of defeat Rutgers would face against OSU and UM in consecutive weeks. I said it would go over 90. After OSU's 58-0 win a week ago, we're well on our way here. We need some more creative props to make this game interesting:
Rutgers Total Incomplete Passes –3.5 vs. Michigan Total Complete Passes
Rutgers Total Gained Yards Rushing –14.5 vs. Rutgers Total Lost Yards Rushing
Rutgers Total Points –6.5 vs. Michigan’s Sacks
Total Michigan Players Scoring TDs, Over/Under 4.5
Wilton Speight Yards Per Pass –3 vs. Chris Laviano Yards Per Pass
BYU +6 over Michigan State: BYU's season so far: Win over Arizona by 2, Loss to Utah by 1, Loss to UCLA by 3, Loss to West Virginia by 3, Win over Toledo by 2. News Flash: BYU plays a lot of close games. In fact, 18 of their last 31 games have been decided by a touchdown or less. I'll ride that against a reeling MSU team looking less and less Dantonio Vintage each week. They’re calling player only meetings. They can't keep any linebackers healthy. They're allowing 9 yards per pass attempt against FBS teams. The offense is broken. They converted just 8 of 28 third down attempts in their 0-2 B1G start.They've been constantly tinkering with their offensive line. And then there is a QB situation. Tyler O'Connor's honeymoon is over, at least judging by the fanbase's temperament. He has not been good when they've needed him the last two weeks. State's Passing Down Success Rate has tumbled from a year ago. O'Connor hit a bomb to RJ Shelton on State's second drive against the Hoosiers. However, toss that play out and MSU has gained just 130 yards in the air on 30 O'Connor drop backs in passing down situations the last two weeks. Faced with a pair of such downs in overtime against the Hoosiers, they allowed back to back sacks. A year ago, getting the Spartans in a passing situation meant dealing with Connor Cook and Aaron Burbridge, an elite collegiate QB-WR battery. This year, so far, where are the threats? In its first four games, BYU held their opponents to below their current season average for total yards. Then Toledo blew up on them last week. But the Rockets offense is excellent and probably better than Michigan State's and most of the B1G. State is not doomed. Never count Dantonio out. But it's looking more like a transition season than a championship one in East Lansing. I expect the Cougars to hit an MSU team that's still licking its wounds with some early points. Maybe the early punch might wakes MSU, but it will be enough at least to keep the Cougs in the game until the very end.
Minnesota +2 over Iowa: In less than one month, Iowa has gone from playoff contender to a team projected to only beat Purdue and Illinois the rest of the way. Ouch. The funny thing is they are still 3-2. You'd think sinking to where only the Boilers and Illini are your projected wins would have a disastrous 1-4-type start anchored to it. What you don't know is most computers have a 'you were outplayed by Rutgers' override that plunges your numbers a few more degrees.
So does having an offense that can’t walk across the street. Over the last three games, Iowa has averaged just 21.8 yards per drive. That covers 35 total drives, 14 of which lasted three plays or less before a punt or a turnover and another six that couldn't exceed five plays before a similar fate. Punting is not winning for Iowa. It's a given. They punted on four of their final five possessions in the North Dakota State loss. They began the Rutgers game with punts on their first three possessions. They had a streak later in that game during the second half of four possessions in a row with punts. Against Northwestern, the Hawks punted on consecutive possessions three different times. They cant protect the passer. Five of their 14 drives against Northwestern ended with a thud on a third down sack, with a sixth ending on an interception forced by a pressure, and seventh ending on a hopeless incompletion with Northwestern's Anthony Walker burying Iowa QB CJ Beathard as he threw it. If not for Desmond King and Riley McCarron's kick returns and a critical Northwestern turnover, Iowa losses to the Wildcats decisively.
Iowa looks like a listless, low energy football team right now. It's always dangerous to make those judgments while watching games on TV, but it looks like they've been sleeping walking since the game against The Bison. I worry about them in a heated rivalry game at a hostile road environment. Remember, they lost 55-7 on this field in 2014. In their two losses, they haven’t been able to run the football, gaining just 2.98 per carry. They're vulnerable against the run, ranking 87th and 66th in yards per game and carry respectively. They're in the bottom third of the conference in those marks. Now they’re on the road against a team that is pretty good at running and stopping the run. Minnesota let one get away a week ago at Penn State, mostly due to a back breaking red zone pick in the fourth quarter and a late scramble by PSU QB Trace McSorley. Back home, they wont let Iowa off the mat.
Maryland -1 over Penn State: These clubs have played a pair of tight, exciting games since the Terps joined the league with Maryland winning 20-19 in 2014 and Penn State returning the favor in a 31-30 game last year. Look for more of the same in a game ripe with local implications. In the end, I like the Terps and their 11th ranked pass defense in yards per attempt to contain the big pass plays of Trace McSorley. And until the Nits show they can stop the run, I will pick against them facing a good running team. The Terps are second in the conference so far in rushing yards per game, yards per carry, and rushing scores. Penn State's defense ranks 103rd in yards per carry against. Each of Maryland's top four rushers averages at least 6.5 yards per pop.
Illinois -10.5 over Purdue.....The loser of this game should have to play Rutgers the afternoon of the B1G Championship Game with relegation to the AAC or MAC on the line. The Boilers actually covered the spread as underdogs in all four of the B1G home games a year ago. Color me not convinced. Illinois hung around with UNC and Nebraska, two good offenses, before both games got out of hand late. That's enough to get them the check here.
Cincinnati -3 over UConn: Remember in 2010 when UConn somehow streaked to the Orange Bowl? Ever since, the Huskies have been one of the worst investments in sports, let alone college football. They're just 20-43-3 ATS since that season. Cincinnati does not scream reliability either, but they've been 13-9 ATS as road chalk the last four years, including 7-2 when laying only single digits. Earlier in the year, they won at Purdue 38-20 as 3-point favorites. Today's bar is not harder. Expect a similar score.
Colorado +5 over USC: We're all on the Colorado Bandwagon already. They’ve been taking care of business. This week, we're finally investing in it. I know, it's probably a sure fire way to careen this thing off the tracks. However, we have USC in a situation that's traditionally been a good spot to bet against them. USC rolled Arizona State a week ago. But ever since the Pete Carroll Dynasty began to wane, the Trojans have trouble handling success. They are only 8-25 ATS the week after a win. How about another 'cant handle success' stat: Since the beginning of the 2008 season, they're just 13-23 ATS the week after covering as a favorite, including a mere 4-15 ATS if they're conference chalk in the week after game. I like Colorado’s big play ability against a Trojan team that’s been vulnerable to that so far this year. The Buffs have been fast starters this year. They get off to another one, allowing them at least cover this number in the end.
Texas +11 over Oklahoma: It's Red River Shootout Weekend. And Texas showed up in the same outfit again. For the fourth year in a row, the Horns come into the game led by a beleaguered coach as double digit underdogs to their biggest rival. But the Horns circled the wagons to win two of those three games and cover the spread in all of them. The Texas defensive issues are real. But the Sooners are not great shakes on defense either. They have allowed 33, 45, and 46 points to the three Power-5 teams it's played, allowing over 6.0 yards per play to each. Texas is averaging 6.6 yards per play against Power-5 teams this year. Offensively, the Horns are 19th in overall success rate, 7th in standard down success rate, and are one the fastest starting teams in the nation. They've averaged almost 25 points per half this year. Oklahoma allowed 26.3 first half points to Houston, Ohio State, and TCU. Obviously, I could come up with a string a numbers showing how good Oklahoma's offense will be in this matchup. I am not ignoring those. However, I am always a sucker for big underdogs who I think can score all day on the team whose favored. And that's what we have here. Besides, Oklahoma is just 6-8 ATS as double digit chalk, but four of those covers came at the expense of lowly Kansas and Iowa State. Do those event count? Both teams land in the 30s in an exciting one possession game.
Tennessee +7 over Texas A/M: Don’t we all just feel more comfortable with the Vols when they’re an underdog? I know I do. They’ve covered five of their last six games when catching points during this Butch Kelly Renaissance. They’ve also covered six of their last eight SEC games overall. Speaking of comfort levels, we feel the same way when we see the Aggies laying chalk. Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies are just 4-10-1 when laying points in SEC play and are just 8-18 ATS overall in conference games. There’s an element of Rich Rod’s Michigan floating around the A/M program too. This is the third year in a row they’ve started the year off 5-0. But they followed those starts up the last two seasons with a combined 6-10 SU, 3-13 ATS record, including 1-6 ATS as a favorite.
North Carolina -2.5 over Virginia Tech: It's North Carolina and their 7th best offensive success rate against Virginia Tech and their 4th best defensive success rate in a key ACC Coastal Division swing game. Per PFF, it's a match between their 2nd best pass offense and 2nd best pass defense. I am siding with the offense in this game. I can't shake Virginia Tech's one game this year against a decent team, a 45-28 loss to Tennessee. The Vols' offense controlled long stretches of the game with a 51% success rate on standard downs and gaining 5.18 yards per play, a full yard more than Tech's current season average on defense. The Hokies hung around because of their dominance on passing downs. That will not happen here. UNC QB Mitch Trubisky and his deep, talented band of targets will be too much. North Carolina has been the play in ACC play for awhile now. They're 14-3 SU, 11-6 ATS in conference games, including wins in seven of their eight home games in that run. I'll back them as small chalk.
Washington -2/Stanford E (Teaser. Here's what a teaser isj): Is Oregon's dynasty over? They're on a 3-game losing streak and headed towards their worst season in years. Let's check in on Brady Hoke's defense, shall we? The Ducks are 118th in defensive success rate, 109th in points per game, and 125th in plays or 10 or more yards allowed. In their 0-2 start to Pac-12 play, they allowed 6.87 and 7.16 yards per play to Colorado and Washington State and allowed a better than 50% offensive success rate in seven of eight quarters. They've allowed scores on 15 of their last 23 drives, including 12 touchdowns. I am so disappointed there is not an Arizona-Oregon on the schedule this year. Thanks for nothing, Pac-12. The Ducks might still be ranked 23rd in the S&P, but they've playing one of the most balanced teams in the country this week. And their defense can't stop anybody. Washington has a lot of demons to exercise in this series, but they did not look like a team worried about historic bugaboos a week ago in their dismantling of Stanford last week. As for the second game, the Cougars are hot. Since the disastrous 3-9 SU, 4-8 ATS 2014 season in the third year of Mike Leach's tenure, Washington State is 11-6 SU, 13-4 ATS. And two of those losses have been defeats to FCS teams. Under Leach, the Cougars are 18-12 ATS as an underdog in league play. That said, I like Stanford's 9-1 SU, 8-2 ATS mark after a loss more. At least enough to put them in this teaser. We won a teaser in last week's column. We're obviously teaser experts.
That’s all I have. For any predictions, insights, and entertainment the rest of the weekend, check out the JCB Twitter Feed.
As always, good luck out there. Be careful if you’re anywhere near the hurricane. And in light of that, it’s probably a good weekend to help out a neighbor whether you’re near the hurricane area or not.