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College Football Week 1: Rise of the Tech-ola Crap, the Fall of Big Schools #2’s

Around the country, top teams struggled with lesser competition. I’m not even going to count Ohio beating Penn State and Nevada downing Cal in new Memorial Stadium-Florida, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Georgia all struggled on some level to put away lesser, unheralded mid-majors at home. Pitt lost to FCS Youngstown State-by two scores at home, and Maryland barely got by William and Mary. Of course, Duke went out and crushed upstart Florida International, so who knows.

As I reflect on this phenomenon, I’d cite two reasons, beyond the Appalachian State effect. First there’s the super-conference effect: teams in every conference, not just the SEC are playing tougher conference schedules and can only count on so many carries from their stars in early season games (Rex Burkhead not coming back for Nebraska against Southern Miss, for example.) Depth has been depleted not just by scholarship reductions, but transfers. Two, all the mid-majors know they are going to have chances to move up, and need to showcase themselves in these games.

Florida, if you wanted an easier week one opponent, you should have scheduled a Big 10 team. But let’s not scorn Michigan-they took on the challenge of Alabama and there isn’t as much shame in being humbled by the nation’s best program and coach happens. The serious causaulty is that Dennard Robinson got hurt again. And speaking of the ‘Nard Dawg, shouldn’t Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez be even more commended for sliding and getting help with his passing game in light of Robinon’s constant injuries?

Big 10 teams exhausting lead backs in Week 1. Le’Veon Bell, Damon Bullock, and Montee Ball all needed to tote the rock more than thirty times to lead their teams to victory. Meanwhile, Nebraska lost their workhorse back Burkhead and thrived on offense. With all these teams exhausting their running backs with big games still to come, it could be long years in East Lansing, Madison, and Iowa City. Iowa has the most to be concerned about, with their losses at tailback in the off-season. But Michigan State and Wisconsin have new quarterbacks who should help shoulder the load as the season goes on.

The biggest assistant coaching gain and loss may have been on display in the Georgia Dome Saturday night, as Clemson’s defense, now under the leadership of Brent Venables, stopped Auburn’s offense, now minus Gus Malzahn. Nothing made me happier last year than watching Clemson revive their tradition behind a funky offense with Tahj Boyd and Sammy Watkins; with Venables, they could shoot into the stratosphere.

It’s only one loss, but the slow trot toward exile begins at PSU. The Nittany Lions are going to get every teams best shot, as teams know they are down. And judging by Bill O’Brien’s press conference, he doesn’t have the personality of an elite recruiter. Ouch. With games at Virginia, and home against Temple and Navy, Penn State is going to struggle to get a win in September.

Final point: great to see Erin Andrews hosting on Fox, but seriously, could ABC or Fox have a competitive game to switch to at least?

Betting key Big 10 games this weekend

Minnesota at Northwestern (-15.5): Northwestern has had me fooled two of the last three week. After they lost to Penn State, they went to 1-3 against spread versus Big Ten teams (only cover against overrated Illinois). So I looked them up, and going back to last year, found that of their nine wins, only three had been by more than a touchdown. Including in those six TD or less are wins against woeful Central Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and Boston College this year. I came to the conclusion that, since Northwestern had played it close against the tough teams like Michigan and Iowa, they didn’t have anything left for the lesser teams. But the public, who mostly bets the Michigans and Notre Dames, only accounts for Northwestern’s good games against their teams. Going into their game at Indiana, I figured Indiana at +9 had some value, given that the last four games between the teams had been close, so I took the Hoosier.
Needless, to say, I was disastrously wrong, as Northwestern blasted Indiana 59-38. This past week, I factored in the same in Northwestern’s game against Rice, figuring there would also be a hangover factor from Northwestern’s win over Nebraska. Again, I was wrong. This week, I am tempted to say that enough’s enough, throw up my hands and throw in the towel. But I may not.
Granted, Northwestern likely will play with some urgency because they need this win for bowl eligibility. (They play Michigan State next week, who may need to win to get into the Big 10 title game.) But they’ve had three high powered weeks in a row. The blowout at Indiana, the upset at Nebraska, the crushing of Rice. Vegas always sees trends coming and gets in front of them, especially when a team consistently covers.
Now the question remains, is -15.5 too many for Minnesota to cover. Right now, the Golden Gophers are just playing for pride, but they have a first year coach whose message is probably fresh. Teams with first year coaches often do elevate late in the year, as they are looking to the long term. Minnesota played well in their last road game at Michigan State, and they may play up now that they’re not facing such a daunting opponent; however, they did get shredded by Purdue’s spread attack.
This line has gone down from -17.5; leaning softly toward Minnesota, but I am going to wait until kickoff to decide.

Iowa (-1.5)at Purdue: This is a game where situation dictates how I will bet it. Iowa is going on the road, where they are 0-3 this season (remember, they started out as one of the youngest teams in college football this year). Last week, they got embarrassed at home by a Michigan State team that had been terrible on the road up until their win in Iowa City. Since the loss at Minnesota, the Iowa media has once again criticized Kirk Ferentz for not earning his paycheck. Now, Ferentz can take his team on the road, where they can relish the underdog role.
Purdue, on the other hand, made their season the week before beating Ohio State. Yes, they still need a win to become bowl eligible, but they have just as good a chance getting it next week at feeble Indiana. They have won their last two meetings with Iowa, in ’07 and ’08, Joe Tiller’s final two years.
The play here is simple: Iowa has gotten more experience, and Purdue is hung over and can get the win they need next week. Iowa has more to gain, given that this is their most winnable game left. Iowa is a bargain, whether you get them at -1.5 or even -3.

Penn State at Ohio State(-7.5): This the game were Penn State’s distractions start to affect the team. Last week, there really wasn’t an appreciable drop off in Penn State’s play; the energy from playing at home and the pregame activities probably helped the Nittany Lions play harder, and have a chance to win at the end of the game. But now reality sets in: Penn State has lost their head coach, and they have lost arguable one of their top offensive assistants who made adjustments on the sidelines and talked to the players directly when they came out of the game. At home, they may have been okay, but on the road, they’re going to be challenged. In addition to that, Penn State probably is an overrated team who wasn’t even covering against the bad teams of the Big 10, winning with defense, and who didn’t have confidence in their quarterback. A road game at Ohio State should exploit all those problems.
In addition, Ohio State is in a perfect position to pounce on Penn State. Ohio State is returning home from a bad road loss at Purdue, and young teams often play much better at home (witness-Ohio State’s last second upset of Wisconsin, an opponent they dominated for three and a half quarters). It is Senior Day in Columbus, and probably the last home game for interim head coach and Buckeye lifer Luke Fickell. Also, wide receiver Devier Posey is finally returning from suspension. Yes, the Buckeyes are ultra conservative, but their edge playmakers are better than Penn State’s by a mile. I bet this at -7, but even at -7.5, the Buckeyes are a good bet.

Nebraska at Michigan (-3.5): Full disclosure, I’m a Nebraska-native, die-hard Cornhusker fan. I don’t bet my team often, but I pick my spots (I am 5-0 betting Nebraska games this year). I don’t have really strong lean in this game, but if I were betting it, I would probably go with Michigan.
For the record, Michigan is the pick of Vegas Runner, Marco DeAnglo, and Steven Nover of Pregame.com. Here are my thoughts.
Before the season, I thought Nebraska would go either 8-4 or 7-5 in the Big 10; they’re 8-2 now, so any win they get from here on out is gravy for me. The major reason I thought they’d slip would be that they’d have a hard time adjusting to the physicality of the Big 10, a run straight ahead conference. They had primarily built their team to be undersized to deal with the Big 12’s wide open spreads. Sure enough, they’ve had a plethora of injuries at both defensive tackle and at offensive line Only two guards traveled with the team to Penn State last week, and star defensive tackle Jared Crick is out for the year. The Huskers are going to rely on two or three defensive tackles to play most of the snaps. They had to go on a long road trip to Penn State last week, and now have to do it again. Their offense consists mostly of running quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead, who at times has looked exhausted from overuse. With Michigan’s improved defense, they could slow down Nebraska’s options.
Michigan, on the other hand, is peaking. They are team that is embracing coaching and stepping up in spots. Much like Nebraska, they are team that is very reliant on Dennard Robinson, and the Husker coaches have shown in the past that they are capable of slowing down big play reliant offenses.
A key stat that came to me via Jon Nyatawa on twitter: Dennard Robinson has thrown an interception once every sixteen passes. Nebraska’s defensive backs have been jumped the ball pretty consistently the second half of the season and Nebraska typically drops seven into coverage on third and long. Could provide opportunities for Nebraska.
Motivation wise, both teams should have max motivation as this could be a de facto play-in game for an at large BCS bid, and Nebraska is still alive for the Big 10 title game. Yes, I think Nebraska, who is 3-7 against the spread, could put up a fight. But I like Michigan’s direction, and if you’re going to bet this, follow the sharps and take Michigan.

Wisconsin (-14.5) at Illinois: I don’t really have a huge feel for this game. Wisconsin, like many teams in the top 10, has consistently covered the spread this year, except in two places you’d almost automatically fade them, at Michigan State and at Ohio State. This game is on the road, and yes, Illinois is starting to turn into same old underachieving Illinois with four straight looses and Ron Zook’s job is in question. Wisconsin needs this one if it’s going to stay in the conference race, and if I were going to bet, likely I’d take the Badgers. But there are better games out there.

Indiana at Michigan State(-27.5): Like the previous game, I don’t have a good feel for this one. Michigan State is a naturally conservative offense, and they don’t always put up as many points on lesser opponents as they should. This could be a good spot to fade the Spartans, as they are coming off a huge road win at Iowa, dispelling some of the critics who say they can’t play on the road. The Hoosiers are 3-3 ATS, and even Illinois cover against them. Personally, I think Wisconsin to cover versus Illinois is a better bet then Michigan State cover against Indiana.

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