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SOLON'S PICKS, 10/27/05: CONFERENCE BREAKDOWN

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Prepped and ready to rip Vegas a new one this weekend, Solon gets all analytical and looks at which conferences have been kind to the campus gambler this weekend and which ones have been kneecapping punters in the parking lot.

Seeing as how we have just passed the halfway point of the season, I think it's a good time to look back on the season as it has been so far from a gambling standpoint. Keep in mind that pointspread records reflect actual performance of a team relative to expectation, i.e., you operate under the assumption those risking money have some idea regarding how good the teams are. This is largely a safe assumption, relatively speaking; while they are by no means omnipotent, I would certainly trust the bettors more than I would trust the talking heads or columnists.

For the first order of business, I want to look at the pointspread performance of each of the major conferences thus far. Please note that games against 1-AA opponents are unlined, therefore performances such as Cincinnati's close win over Western Carolina or Stanford's inexplicable loss to UC-Davis are not considered.

Big 10: 17-12-2 (58%)
Pac-10: 12-9-2 (57%)
Big East: 13-11 (54%)
Big 12: 15-13 (54%)
SEC: 10-12 (45%)
ACC: 11-16 (41%)

Once again, just to be clear, if these records tell us anything it is how the conferences have done relative to expectation levels. It does NOT tell us the best conference.

Solid performance from the Big 10, which in my estimation is probably the best conference in the nation top-to-bottom. Even bottom feeders Illinois and Indiana have put together solid non-conference pointspread slates, even against non-conference BCS opponents.

On the other hand, the ACC has been a disappointment. This is probably more down to the expectation level surrounding the conference than anything else; it is difficult to assess, but I think the consensus during the offseason was that the ACC was the strongest conference in the nation. Few would argue that they have matched expectations.

As for teams, here are the overachievers:

Texas 7-0
Notre Dame 6-1
Virginia Tech 6-1
East Carolina 6-1
Wisconsin 6-1-1

Texas has just been amazing. For a team to be a preseason #2 and win their first seven games against the spread is particularly impressive (by way of comparison, #1 USC is 3-4 against the spread). On a related note, for totals players, Texas had gone over the total in every game this year, until last week's contest against Texas Tech where the final score was 1 1/2 pts below the listed 70 1/2 point total.

Full credit to new coaches Weis and Holtz; kudos are due as well to Colonel Kurtz, whose Badgers have beaten my ass a couple of times this season.

And the biggest underachievers:
Utah 0-8
Duke 0-7
Rice 0-6
Purdue 0-6-1
Oklahoma State 1-5

Of these teams, the one that makes the least sense, to me, is Purdue. They were believed by some (Phil Steele, in particular) to be a major contender for the Big 10 title. Instead, despite returning 11 starters on D, they have collapsed on that side of the ball and are giving up 34 ppg; while some thought they were overrated (full credit to you, CFR) no one could have foreseen what has happened to them.

Keep in mind that Oklahoma State's one win against the spread (against Florida Atlantic) was fairly fortunate.

Back to the present--thanks are due to legendary Brit gangster Don Logan, who had particularly solid pregame "chats" on my behalf with Penn State and Northwestern, and I find myself back on the plus side of the ledger at 42-41. Here are this week's picks:

PENN STATE (-15) v. Purdue
For all of their problems, Purdue's O can still score points. That said they have not faced a D like this one. The closest thing to an elite D they have faced is that of Iowa, and against them Purdue only managed 17 points. People will eventually figure out that Penn State has a good offense, but they have not yet. They can run the ball as well as anyone, and Robinson, while poor, is getting better and doesn't need to do much anyway. I expect PSU's D to blow up Purdue's O and the Penn State O should have no trouble scoring a bunch of points against the poor Purdue D.

Wake Forest (-14) v. DUKE
It seems crazy to give double digit points on the road when the 11th best team in the ACC plays the 12th best team in the ACC, but that is how large the gap is between Duke and the rest of the conference. Oddly enough, Duke has started to run the ball fairly well, but in my opinion this a product of non-competitive games and not down to the ability of the Duke O. Wake, on the other hand, has not played a run D this weak since the ECU game, in which they ran for 380 yards. They may not match that number but they should be able to sort out a Duke team that is playing out the string, especially if QB Randolph is healthy. Since this is the final home game for Duke they should be up for it for a quarter or so, but eventually they will get worn down and Wake should get the cover.

Colorado (-7.5) v. KANSAS STATE
I have said on many occasions that I do not believe in this K State team. This has bit me in the ass in the past but this week they are running into the 2nd best team in the Big 12 and will be overmatched. K State cannot run the ball against Big 12 defenses and Colorado's run D will be one of the better ones they have faced; I would not be surprised to see negative rushing yards out of K State this week. Evridge threw for a bunch of yards against the Texas A&M D last week but Colorado's D is a bit tougher; Vince Young tore them up but Evridge is no Vince Young. K State has a good run D, but they have not played too many teams that could throw, and the ones that could (Texas Tech, Marshall) lit them up and Colorado should as well. Colorado's losses were to Miami and Texas on the road and there are not too many teams in the nation that would be unscathed with that slate.

Iowa State (+10) v. TEXAS A&M
A&M was unfortunate not to get the cover against K State last week, leading 23-8 going into the 4th quarter and 30-21 with two minutes to go before giving up a late TD. In any event, Iowa State is a better squad and they will have their hands full this week. A&M has played one above-average squad this season and the result was an embarrassing performance against Colorado where the 41-20 final flattered to deceive. Texas A&M's O consists pretty much of QB McNeal's running the ball; Iowa State handled Mizzou's Brad Smith, holding him to 39 yards on 11 carries. A similar performance this week will stifle A&M's offensive production; outside of great performances against poor pass Ds SMU and Okla St, A&M is averaging just 5.6 ypp against 1-A competition. Iowa St does not have a great O, but they can throw a little bit (averaging 7.9 ypp in Big 12 play) and that is the way to beat A&M, who has given up 7.74 ypp against a schedule that includes only a few good QBs. Iowa State has played well in some pretty hostile environments this season (going to OT at Nebraska and Mizzou), and they should stay close enough here for the pointspread win.

Ohio State (-4) v. MINNESOTA
The PSU-Minnesota game is instructive here. The OSU and PSU Ds are similar, and Minnesota's powerful rushing offense should be neutralized much as they were in that game (30 carries, 117 yards). When their running game is shut down, Minnesota cannot win games with their passing game. Ohio State has a pretty good offense that has gotten better as the season has worn on; they lit up Iowa, and while they gained 392 yards against MSU they did it on only 40 plays, which is quite amazing. The Minnesota D is fairly average and should not provide too stiff a test. And if Mortenson is playing QB for Minnesota, the line can't be high enough.

Washington (+16.5) v. ARIZONA STATE
The Washington passing game has been pretty solid for most of the season, averaging over 8 ypp and amassing a serviceable 8:4 TD:Int ratio. Their D has been pretty average but they are light years ahead of what they put out on the field last season. They should be in good shape here against a relatively poor ASU D; they have given up an average of 30 ppg this season, and have given up an average of 270 ypg passing (7.63 ypp). It is a good matchup for UW and I expect them to continue their success passing the ball. ASU is a quality side, but their performance against Stanford last week struck me as that of a team that had given up on the season. They need to sort themselves out quickly, because they need to win 3 of their last 4 to get to a bowl game and they now have no margin for error with a road game to UCLA on the horizon. I expect Keller to play this week, but their OL is very gimped up and they will struggle to run the ball or protect the QB. Nevertheless, I think ASU will turn it around and get the win, but Washington should be able to score some points and with the 16 1/2 that should be enough.

KANSAS (+6) v. Missouri
My ex-fiancee went to Mizzou, and I will always have a soft spot for Columbia, which is my second favorite college town. Despite this, Mizzou's football team is living on borrowed time this season. How they've managed to win five games so far is a mystery to me. Brad Smith cannot win games by throwing the football, only by running with it; he has only managed 5.91 ypp this season. Kansas' D is legit; no 1-A opponent has managed 100 yards running the ball against them. Mizzou will probably be the first reach that number, but they will not get too much more and their O will struggle to score. Kansas' O has struggled this season but they finally catch a break going up against a below-average D. Even if QB Luke misses the game (listed as questionable), they should be able to throw some against a weak Mizzou pass D and as long as they do not implode on special teams like they did last week they should get the outright win in their first home game since September 17th.

NORTHWESTERN (+3) v. Michigan
As impressive as the NW O has been this season, their best performances have been in their last two home games, where they scored 51 in handing Wisconsin its only defeat thus far this season, and 29 against a great Penn State D. The NW D is obviously not their strength but they seem to be improving as well; they have picked off 10 passes in 4 Big 10 games and in their last two matches they are giving up just over 6 ypp. Michigan is obviously a good team but of their three conference wins, two have come in OT (each by 3 pts) and the other is a 2 pt win on the last play of the game against PSU. The Michigan D is solid (3rd best in the Big 10 behind the brick walls of PSU and OSU), but as the PSU game showed NW can run up yards and points against anyone. In addition, Michigan is banged up on the defensive side of the ball and will probably be less effective than usual.

South Carolina (+14) v. TENNESSEE
Tennessee is another team that just might have given up on the season. Even if they keep it together, they are more likely to be looking ahead to the ND game next week where they can make a splash on the national scene. The UT D is very strong, but the O is pretty pedestrian; since taking over 3 games ago as the starter, Clausen only has a phantom TD on the last play of the game against Georgia. With Riggs out, the anemic UT run O will likely not produce even as much as they did with him, which was not much regardless. Despite two blowouts against 'Bama and Auburn, the S Car D has actually played quite well, particularly against the pass; as long as their CBs play this week they should continue to do well. I do not expect UT to solve their problems on O this week. As I said earlier, the UT D is solid but S Car should be able to throw the ball enough to get some points, and since points will be at a premium, that should be enough with the 14.

Nevada (+21) v. BOISE STATE
Boise State appears to have recovered from their early season swoon and now sit 5-2, but they are not the same Boise State team as they were in years past. They defeated Hawaii in a game in which they were thoroughly outplayed, and limped to a 7-point home win over 1-AA Portland State the following week. They have followed that up with wins over 1-A bottom feeders San Jose State and Utah State. The only quality win they have is a win over a Bowling Green team that looks less impressive by the week. The primary culprit is their pass D, as opponents have managed 7.26 ypp against some pretty average pass offenses that have run up a 20:2 TD:Int ratio. The Boise pass O is also worse than it has been in recent memory; they have only hit 300 yards once this season and they are averaging 233 ypg, 7.47 ypp, and have a 12:9 ratio. Oddly enough, I think Nevada has an edge in the passing game; they average 269 ypg, 7.33 ypp, and have a 11:5 ratio against a stronger slate of Ds than Boise has played, and they have the advantage of getting to play against the Boise pass D this week. Boise has an edge in the running game that will probably give them the win, but I think Nevada will score some points and play this one close enough to get the pointspread win in this spot.

UL-LAFAYETTE (-3) v. Troy
I have mentioned many times in this space how bad Troy is and their 5-point home win over Fla Intl last week did little to dissuade me of that notion. Troy's O is very pedestrian, averaging 3.5 ypc and 5.7 ypp. Louisiana-Lafayette does not have a good D, but they can match what Troy is putting out on the field this season. In addition, their O has been pretty solid running the ball, averaging a very strong 4.9 ypc. Starting QB Babb went out injured against Central Florida, and while his backup Desormeaux has been a worse passer he has been a more accomplished runner. Babb is listed as questionable for this weekend, but whichever QB plays Troy will have trouble dealing with it as they are not adept at defending either the run or the pass.

Other games of note:
Solon (+4) v. Orson/Stranko
Georgia QB Shockley's injury has amazingly caused a 9-point shift in the pointspread, which I've never seen before (the largest I can remember for any player is a 6-point shift; it's a different game altogether, but the one player whose absence has the most effect in the NFL, Atlanta QB Michael Vick, moves a spread 2.5 points). Further illustrating how large this is, when the LSU/Zona St game was moved from Baton Rouge to Tempe this season, it caused a 6-point shift in the pointspread. To be honest, part of the move is due to Shockley, and part of it is due to Tereshinski.

I believe the line move is excessive, for several reasons. First, in situations like this, teams like Georgia tend not to underperform until the second game in which the starter is out. The primary reasons for this are that the entire team tends to step up in the absence of the starting QB, particularly if the replacement has played poorly in relief the game prior; after the first full game, this factor is lessened as teams will tend to relax. Second, the Georgia D has been running on fumes the last couple of games, but return several players to the spine of their D and as a unit they will play more like they did against Boise State and Tennessee than they did against Vandy or Arkansas.

Against the better defenses in the SEC, Florida has struggled mightily on offense. Against Tennessee, Alabama, and LSU, they have averaged 12 ppg and 234 ypg. The Georgia D is certainly in the class of those defenses and even if they struggle on offense as long as they do not turn the ball over Florida will struggle to score points. By the same token, the Florida D has played well against the run this season; they are giving up less than 3 ypc. They have been vulnerable against the pass this season (particularly in losses to LSU and 'Bama), but it is unlikely they will be exploited this week.

What does it all add up to? A low-scoring game, decided by turnovers and special teams. Georgia has a special teams edge, and Florida will probably have the turnover edge. It could go either way, and four points are too many to give in a game like this.