Football can be deceptive to the naked eye.
A reason so many Power-5 contenders schedule “thrash for cash” games to open the season, for instance, is that it’s hard for fans and pundits to imagine the team ever losing while watching players gallop untouched for TDs.
No one needs a full semester to learn the difference between hometown headlines (“Cleveland stuns New York with great comeback”) and how the opposing beat writer sees things (“New York blunders away lead in worst game ever”) but which story is objectively true? Like modern politics, football can become 2 different movies on the same screen.
Most fans are also familiar with the John Madden Principle, or “it’s never as good as you think it is when you win, and it’s never as bad as you think it is when you lose.” But like all-things-gridiron, the flawed-perception principle is more complicated than it seems.
Remember that pundits and handicappers are not simply chalking-up Ws and Ls. They’re watching for 60:00 of game clock and examining every unit, every position, every play. The scoreboard and stat-line success or failure of specific parts of a pigskin team – such as a defense – can cause ‘cappers to forget the evidence of our eyes and ears and to forget what happened 2 or 3 games ago.
If a hand-off up the middle gains 15 yards, that’s a “win.” But what if the blocking was lousy and the RB make some fluky move that just happened to work? If a defense holds an opponent to 14 points, that’s a “win” for sure. But what if the offense – and a rash of turnovers by the other guys – made it easy?
What I’m getting at is that the final and most-crucial step for the successful speculator is to learn to ignore a final score when necessary. It doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story that we need so desperately to process prior to the next round of scrums.
Last week, the Navy Midshipmen played the Memphis Tigers in a nationally-televised kickoff at the Liberty Bowl. From an analysis POV the Memphis program seems to be ranked firmly “2nd-tier” by FBS sharks, more-so than a lot of very comparable mid-majors. But the Tigers are hard to beat when hosting, and Navy did a pretty good job of it for a while, then fell behind and stayed behind to lose by 2 touchdowns, 35-23.
Scoring 23 points makes the Navy offense look bad. And 21 points for Memphis in the 2nd half makes Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s entire squad look bad.
Yet I have a mind that the final score isn’t telling the story, not this time anyway. Factors that are highly unlikely to affect Navy’s upcoming battle with rival Air Force have been heedlessly weighed-into Las Vegas moneylines that appear to reflect the Falcons (-180) as a solid favorite.
It’s never as bad as you think it is when Memphis wins 35-23. If you’ve got an Air Force moneyline bet slip already, though, then it’s worse than you think it is.
Here’s a handful of my picks on Week 6 college football action. Despite the usual emphasis on hidden gems and Group-of-5 bargains, Friday night’s contest is a Top 25 tout.
UCF Knights at Cincinnati Bearcats
Last season Central Florida dealt Cincy an ugly loss, which is now threatening to become the 1st in a string of memorable blow-out defeats for the Bearcats. Central Florida has already had to deal with heartbreak against the Power-5 in 2019 but hasn’t suffered a humiliation of the sort that can cause a crisis of confidence. Ohio State’s recent whitewash of the Bearcats puts Cincinnati solidly in that “2nd-tier” of Midwestern schools right alongside Memphis.
UCF still has the bitter taste of the Pitt loss on its palate. Heupel has been tinkering with all kinds of quarterbacks, and the lack of long-term stability may have finally bitten the Knights on 9/21 as Dillon Gabriel tossed 2 interceptions at Heinz Field (if it’s any consolation, lots of NFL QBs have thrown at least 2 picks in 60 minutes there) and defense proved vulnerable to the razzle-dazzle, giving up TD passes to 3 different Panthers. UCF got hot and put on a circus in the 3rd quarter but the Knights were bamboozled in the end.
To keep a running theme going here – it’s best to shrug-off the impact of that 42-0 Ohio State-Cincinnati score prior to the Bearcats and UCF kicking-off on Friday night.
Cincy matches-up OK with Central Florida this time around, especially at home. Graduated stud Titus Davis landed 3 full sacks for UCF in the scrum last season – QB Desmond Ridder will not have to deal with Davis in ’19.
If UCF cannot destroy a rival’s OL while playing on the road, that means Cincinnati’s offense will have more room to operate than it did in the dreary Columbus loss. Cincy’s attack was also in fine form last weekend against Marshall as Ridder only whiffed on 4 passes in the 52-14 laugher.
Central Florida’s powerful push on the line-of-scrimmage and the team’s moxie in the clutch could both eventually contribute to a (-5) cover…but I’d be more inclined to pick the visitors on the moneyline frankly.
I expect the Over/Under (60) to be surpassed, perhaps easily, given that each squad is notoriously exciting on special teams, and a circus-like battle between talented skill players will extend beyond the offenses in Ohio.
South Florida Bulls at Connecticut Huskies
I was extremely lucky with my UCF-UConn pick last week, which was Connecticut-to-cover a 42-point spread. Thankfully I did not breathlessly hype an “Under” wager to Saturday gamblers even though my idea was that Josh Heupel would stop playing roulette with his offense and settle down with a nice ball-control victory.
Instead, it turned into a track meet. Central Florida’s athletes completely overwhelmed the field and UConn from the start.
So why is USF only an (-11) point favorite, since the Bulls have proven in rivalry games to be as athletic on the gridiron as other big-time Sunshine State teams?
Mostly because Charlie Strong’s seat is nuclear-hot right now. The Bulls lost to Vanderbilt 2.0 (Georgia Tech) 14-10 in early September, were stomped by Wisconsin, and have managed only a win over the FCS – just like the Connecticut Huskies.
QB Blake Barnett had the better day of 2 quarterbacks against SMU in the Bulls’ last outing, but Strong is stubbornly going with Jordan McCloud anyway.
Isn’t there a line like that from a book or movie or something? Be glad your coach plays favorites, McCloud!
This game won’t be pretty, and South Florida has burned me on “gimme” favorites’ lines to-cover ATS in the past. But the Bulls tend to choke under bright lights – not on a nondescript Saturday at midday against a host that might as well be “FCS Opponent #6” on a video game at this point.
The visitors to Hartford are my favorite pick-to-cover from the early kickoffs of Week 6.
A road trip will be good for a speedy team with an embattled head coach like USF…and superior athletes will prevail by 3 touchdowns in a ragged blooper-bowl.
Pick: USF (-11)
Air Force Falcons at Navy Midshipmen
Everything seems rosy in Colorado Springs now that Air Force handled a hot San Jose State team with ease. B-back (and occasional shotgun-spread tailback) Tavin Birdow ripped through the Spartan defense for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns, and QB Donald Hammond III was effective through the air. Defense was exceptionally good just 1 week after the service academy bothered Boise State for 4 quarters in a 30-19 loss that stands as Air Force’s only loss on the season.
But especially going-into another massive rivalry scrum – this time in Annapolis – it is unwise for the public to give up on Navy’s chances to prevail or at least cover ATS. San Jose State was due for a “reversion” after beating Arkansas, and Navy put on their own clinic against a pedestrian conference foe when whipping East Carolina 42-10 prior to the Memphis road trip. The Midshipmen did produce around 400 yards of offense at the Liberty Bowl, with A-back Keoni-Kordell Makekau joining QB Malcolm Perry for explosive carries.
Navy’s defense looks off-the-hook compared to the traditionally-meager strength of the unit. The Middies have a new scheme and plenty of thick and fast defenders, and Memphis was held to less than 200 yards through the air and less than 350 yards overall. So how did the hosts manage to dominate and squash the Midshipmen in the 2nd half?
Special teams, mostly. Navy was so badly-outplayed by Memphis in the 3rd phase that the Tigers’ average-length punt of 44 yards stands superior to Navy’s entire punt and kick-return yardage on the night (43 yards). Memphis returners raced across midfield prior to several possessions and ran a kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown. Navy’s field-position disadvantage was atrocious.
That’s not likely to happen again against a fellow service academy. Navy must try to compete with American Athletic Conference foes as best as the Mids can on special teams, though schools like Central Florida and USF (and Memphis) will always have more pure speed to burn in the reserve ranks – the players who play a lot of special teams. But it’s easier for an academy which has been struggling to keep up on special teams to get by with spit and vinegar when their opponent suffers from the same endemic issues.
Air Force can’t overwhelm Navy on kickoffs and punts. If the underdog Mids out-gain the Falcons there won’t be as much for Trey Calhoun’s visitors to fall back on. Gamblers driving the lines are guilty of viewing all mid-major opponents under a big blanket, but in truth Navy’s loss was in some respects more impressive than Air Force’s most-recent win. An improved and underrated Annapolis defense will make the difference on Saturday.
Pick: Navy ML (+155)
Illinois Fighting Illini at Minnesota Golden Gophers
Why not another FBS underdog pick for a Saturday afternoon? Except this time it’s an ATS prediction…not moneyline hype for Lovie Smith’s woebegone Fighting Illini.
It’s time for my “mea culpa” on Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have faced 4 underrated programs – a speedy FCS outfit from South Dakota State, the Georgia Southern Eagles, the Fresno State Bulldogs (whom they needed OT to vanquish) and Purdue, which fell 38-31 to mark the 4th-straight 1-score-or-less triumph for P.J. Fleck’s unbeaten charges.
Minnesota will host Illinois in Week 6, an opponent which has managed a heartening start in a pressure-filled season. If things go badly for another autumn, the Illini will face a head coaching change and upheaval.
QB Tanner Morgan has given the Gopher passing game an upgrade and is expected to out-play Brandon Peters of Illinois. But I feel similarly about this game as I did about a Dallas Cowboys vs New York Giants scrum earlier this NFL season.
The Cowboys were a lock to win, but their opponents sure seemed like a high-% pick to cover.
It is of course unlikely that the Minnesota Golden Gophers will suffer a defeat at home to Illinois after surviving a 4-week gauntlet of challenges. But the roster hasn’t yet proven it can blow anyone out, not a Big Ten rival with desperation in its heart.
Smith, after all, is pretty good at keeping games close when his team is ultimately destined to lose – a trend of his head-coaching career at multiple levels of the game.
Pick: Illinois to cover (+14)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.