Covering prep football on Fridays is, as Sappho might have put it, a supreme experience on the black Earth. But even if I wasn’t addicted to the aura of pigskin in its purest form, I would still be well-advised to follow Friday night lights (the actual games, not the show with the immortal teenagers) to learn and improve my FBS and NFL handicapping.
For instance, is it possible to forecast the turning point when a close scrum turns into a laugher? High School announcers and pundits wrestle with that question all the time. Often, an underdog is capable of bothering a school with bigger and better athletes, but if the game turns into a blow-out there’s absolutely no question who will pull away. We wager a Coke-and-fries that a clash between Upstart Prep and Forever State Champion Catholic will finish with a winning margin of 4 or less touchdowns. But no serious consideration is given to a potential surprise-of-surprises occurring in the W/L column.
In college football the premise of a tightening point spread usually presupposes a tightening moneyline. If a team can conceivably come within 3, or 5, or 7 points of an established favorite, that means there’s a better chance that the underdog can get a lucky bounce or 2 and, you know, actually win the game straight-up. If it’s more likely that the program’s losing margin is 9 or more points, the odds of an upset victory spiral downward.
That principle has been lost among gamblers on “The Game” between Michigan and visiting Ohio State this year.
Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines were about a 2.50-to-1 to 2.75-to-1 underdog for The Game when action began at sportsbooks. That much hasn’t changed. But while the moneylines are holding fairly steady, the point spread is going bananas. Sin City handicappers put a sub-TD value on unbeaten Ohio State’s advantages over a 9-2 Michigan squad in the Big House on Saturday. Gamblers have disagreed en-masse, taking the Buckeye side of the spread until Bovada Sportsbook moved its line all the way to (-9.5) on the visitors.
I’m not here to tell you it doesn’t make sense. Michigan has always been an up-and-down outfit under Harbaugh, and chances are if Ohio State prevails it won’t look pretty to boosters in Ann Arbor. But shouldn’t the promise of the Buckeyes’ explosiveness also have some impact on the other betting markets? Heck, the Over/Under total for The Game is at (50) points and falling fast – and not all of that low-side action can be 100% due to the impending cold and precipitation.
And yet here we are making a fuss, and Michigan vs Ohio State isn’t even a state-championship game – the trademark of Rivalry Weekend in the FBS. There is also plenty of mystery on the odds-board for in-state rivalries. For instance, how exactly is Washington supposed to cover (-8) against Washington State when the Huskies can’t hand off and get 2 yards every now and then? And is South Carolina really a (+1450) underdog against undefeated Clemson after the Gamecocks gobbled yards and points in the contest last year?
Puzzles abound – on Friday and on Saturday. Not being an immortal teenager, I’d better get right to solving them before any more grey hairs appear. The outcomes of the games, as always, will be stressful enough for a weekend. Here’s a handful of quick picks and a few longer handicaps on a buffet of post-Thanksgiving NCAAF action.
Apple Cup: Washington State Cougars at Washington Huskies
There aren’t quite as many in-state games on Friday as there perhaps ought to be, and some of them – like Central Florida vs South Florida – are expected to be dull. Virginia Tech at Virginia is a midday kickoff which will intrigue ACC vs SEC partisans filled with leftovers, but Texas and Texas Tech can’t claim to be playing for a state championship game due to the prominence of Baylor and SMU.
But the Apple Cup hasn’t been this juicy for high-rollers in a while, with a pair of 6-5 teams and a thunderous-enough home-field advantage that Washington is more than a TD favorite against a comparable Washington State squad in Seattle. The Huskies’ dominant record in the past decade’s worth of Apple Cups isn’t hurting UW’s (+8) point spread either.
The other side of the story is that Washington State doesn’t have the numbers on defense to keep up with the offense’s Air Raid attack. The passing game was brilliant (what else?) against UCLA back in September, but the combined pace of each hurry-up scoring unit didn’t allow the Cougar defense to breathe, and Washington State lost by the eye-popping score of 67-63 in regulation. Similar outcomes occurred against ASU, Oregon, and Cal later in autumn, with the Cougars giving-up a combined 40 4th-quarter points in the 3 losses.
When an opponent is wounded and demoralized, as was the case against visiting Stanford in mid-November, the Cougar offense still carries the day. Anthony Gordon attempted 60 passes against the Cardinal, connecting on 44 throws for 520 yards and 5 touchdowns. But last week, Oregon State threatened to ruin the seniors’ celebration in Pullman when Gordon was harassed and pushed to the limit, trying a whopping 70 passes and getting picked-off 3 times as the Cougars (and a tired defense, of course) prevailed 54-53.
A sky-high Over/Under total should be falling, considering that the Huskies will need to run for short gains and move the sticks with caution. But it’s holding at (63.5) even though game-control will be Washington’s best weapon, and Chris Petersen knows that. Jacob Eason is a capable QB when protected – his 4 TD passes nearly made the difference against Utah this season. Still, I can see a lot of Huskie possessions ending with field goals or coffin-corner punts as the Cougars are forced into a field-position battle.
Cincinnati Bearcats at Memphis Tigers
The point spread is going haywire for this Friday afternoon’s match-up at the Liberty Bowl. You don’t normally see a pair of 10-1 teams handicapped with (-12) on the home team, but the Memphis Tigers are a hugely-popular ATS bet which has moved from a simple TD + XP since opening.
Cincinnati has already clinched a berth in the AAC Championship Game, but Memphis is being pursued by Navy in its division race and must prevail to earn a title bid. The explosive Tiger special-teams unit that bowled-over the Midshipmen in early autumn is just as good of a reason to take Memphis, but the Bearcats are prideful and likely to cover (+12) since Top 25 placement is at stake. If dominoes fall, any 12-1 American champion would make a nice New Year’s Six candidate.
Pick: Cincinnati to win (+360)
South Florida Bulls at Central Florida Knights
My handicap for Friday night’s capper is based almost purely on gridiron psychology. At 8-3, UCF is not the kind of favorite that merits (-23.5) against a state rival right now.
Not that Central Florida isn’t a near-lock to win the game straight-up. But it’s easy to foresee an anxious outcome for a team that still misses QB McKenzie Milton, especially when USF ‘s similar athletes decide to play loose with nothing to lose. At least the Floridian mid-majors will be greeting a clear, warm day – few fellow FBS teams can say the same.
Pick: South Florida ATS or Over (63)
Clean Old-Fashioned Hate: Georgia Bulldogs at Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
They say that there’s a difference between the Army vs Navy rivalry and the Georgia vs Georgia Tech rivalry – the GT and UGA fans truly don’t like each other.
But the annual “COFH” afternoon in Georgia is threatening to turn into a dud. The decline and fall of Paul Johnson’s empire in Atlanta has led to a curious scenario that could turn Georgia Tech into an ACC also-ran until if and when the institution recognizes its mistake.
Administrators want to stop lining-up under center and cut-blocking 50+ runs per game? Fine. There are plenty of ways to open things up, and – as Nevada, Boise State, Georgia Southern, and even Notre Dame and Ohio State have proven in various years – maintain a dynamic threat in the option running-game. Instead, the Yellow Jackets have switched to a generic Read-Option system with “pro” looks under Geoff Collins in a vain effort to attract blue-chip NFL recruits to the elite engineering school.
That’s that – Georgia Tech is the Vanderbilt of the ACC. Georgia is a (-5000) moneyline pick and a (-28) point favorite on Saturday, and that’s probably too generous to the 3-8 hosts. Forget a much-hyped transition and learning process for the GT offensive line – this was a year to attack the ACC’s lower and mid-tiers and yet the Ramblin’ Wreck has scored nary a big win and stands at 3-7-1 against Las Vegas.
It’s easy to imagine how COFH will go in 2019. Georgia dominates for 3 and ½ quarters, with a surge of offense from GT sparking a brief roar from Atlanta faithful.
Pick: Georgia ATS or Over (46.5)
Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Wolverines
Bettors who have pushed this line to (+9.5) on Michigan may be forgetting their Big Ten history. The headline “Roses Bloom in the Snow” was penned after Michigan upset Ohio State in a low-scoring “Snow Bowl” played in a 1950 blizzard. It was about this time of year, too, and represented the 1st time favored Ohio State had faced multiple kinds of adversity at once. A major bowl bid – the Rose Bowl, obviously – was at stake.
Could it happen again in 2019? Like a dominant prep team that hasn’t run into any serious roadblocks so far, I can see the electric Ohio State offense and special teams taking a while to get the wheels turning and having a sloppy all-around day against an amped-up Michigan defense cheered by nearly all 100K+ spectators in the Big House.
The O/U line probably isn’t sinking fast enough, and Michigan could win the contest outright, if not cover in a close defeat.
Pick: Michigan ATS or Under (50)
Iron Bowl: Alabama Crimson Tide at Auburn Tigers
All of the media’s attention – and handicapping attention on a tight (-3) Crimson Tide point spread – will tend to focus on injured QB Tua Tagovailoa, a player who won’t even play in the Iron Bowl at Auburn on Saturday afternoon.
Alabama seems a little unglued without its star quarterback, and especially without former Tide backup Jalen Hurts of the 2019-20 Oklahoma Sooners. But that wouldn’t be the case if the visiting defense was anything near what it was 2 or 3 seasons ago.
Defense has declined at Alabama, which won’t stop Mac Jones from potentially flourishing in an offense filled with great blockers and rushers, but it might help a powerful Auburn team keep-up and provoke a 4-quarter (and OT?) battle that finishes at a score you’d associate with a slugfest.
Pick: Over (49.5)
Navy Midshipmen at Houston Cougars
WagerBop noted the epic mind-tricks played by Navy at the end of last weekend’s upset win over SMU. But even though the Middies are playing outside of the den-of-hexes known as Navy Marine-Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, they’re still my favorite evening pick ATS thanks to an opponent that’s been packing it in for weeks.
Houston (+8) beat Navy’s double-digit winners in 2015 with an almost-cruel game plan. Knowing that the Midshipmen would have to play cushion-ball against top-notch talent on the outside, the Cougars threw flair passes and swing-screens over and over again. With the short pass working as an extended set of “run” options against an overwhelmed academy defense, Tom Herman’s favored charges got out to an early lead and held on to it.
Quick screens and runs-after-catch are concepts right up current Houston skipper Dana Holgorsen’s alley. But the spread-offense guru is having a hard time building-up his passing game for the time being. QB Clayton Tune attempted only 12 throws and did not reach 100 yards through the air in last weekend’s 24-14 win over Tulsa.
There were brighter days in mid-season. Tune sang well in a 34-31 loss to SMU in which the Cougars netted 400+ yards through the air. But the health of a grinding ground game would decline along with an injury-decimated OL.
Chillingly for this week’s Houston-takers, the team’s head coach is making the ultimate excuse by blaming the schedule. “Our schedule sucked,” Holgorsen told a reporter, as if Week 14 ‘s outcome didn’t matter.
But it sure matters to a Navy team fighting for an American title.
Pick: Navy ATS
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.