Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Michigan State Pointspreads: Spartans Draw Early Action in Nonconference Games

(Originally posted at JustCoverBlog on June 25, 2012)

Two weeks ago the Golden Nugget released lines on 111 college football games for the season, including nearly all of the major showdowns. This past weekend it presented a list of all the lines again, highlighting some of the major changes (bettors are extremely high on Ohio State). Here’s a look at the Spartans, who had six of their 12 games placed on the book and opened for business. MSU was favored in four of the six games and – using some common sense logic one would assume the Spartans would be favored in their other six non-listed games – is favored in a total of 10 of 12 games.
Since the release of the spreads two weeks ago three lines have remained steady while three others have moved at least a point. Here are the released Michigan State spreads, compliments of The Golden Nugget:
What we’re seeing is the public’s sorting of the Big Ten teams based on their expectations. Michigan and Wisconsin continue to generate the most love while Ohio State climbs up Mt. Hype daily. Michigan State, despite being a favorite against the Buckeyes, seems to be No. 4 in the conference’s pecking order. Naturally, home-field advantage is playing a major role in some early line movement. The Buckeyes, for instance, opened as a 2-point underdog hosting Michigan but are now 1-point favorites. Here’s a quick breakdown of of where Michigan State’s six listed spreads stand:

The line opened with MSU as a 6-point favorite. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this line is moving. What would be surprising is if the line doesn’t move any more before kickoff. That isn’t to say the Spartans will continue to give more points, however. Expect the Broncos to pull in some bets with their recent clout, especially against BCS big boys in season openers. I would expect this line to move closer to MSU -6 before moving back up where it is now.Beyond the Bets, which projected lines for 798 college football games, pegged MSU as a 7-point favorite. Regardless of how it moves one thing appears to be clear: MSU will be a near-touchdown favorite for the Friday, August 31 kickoff.
One interesting note is how Boise State has actually been favored in its past three season openers against Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia. None of those games were played on the road (Oregon was in Boise while the Hokies and Bulldogs played at home-friendly neutral sites). The last time Boise State ventured on the road for a top-flight game was 2008 against Oregon. Despite entering Eugene as 10-point underdogs Boise State won, 37-32, and finished the regular season unbeaten.

No surprises here; a Notre Dame-Michigan State contest is expected to be around a field goal. Before a run where three of the last five games have been decided by 16, 17, 18 points, respectively, each meeting was decided by a touchdown or less dating back to 2000. That’s a pretty impressing run of one-possession games, many of which were decided by late field goals, late touchdowns and even major choke jobs. Don’t expect the line to move much more, if at all, before the season starts. While MSU opened as a 3-point favorite, the public will have a better feel for both MSU and Notre Dame after each plays two games (MSU has the big contest with Boise State while Notre Dame travels to Dublin to play Navy and hosts Purdue). If MSU loses to Boise while Notre Dame seems to have solved some QB issues this could be closer to a 2-point game at kickoff.

This is the ultimate wild-card game. Urban Meyer’s presence alone is making people consider Ohio State an extremely dangerous team — one that could win the national title if it were eligible for postseason play this season. The Buckeyes are moving lines everywhere in their favor and this is just one example. MSU was a 4.5-point favorite has already given back two points. Beyond the Bets’ original prognostication had MSU giving 1.5 points. There are so many unknowns with both teams that this is already one of the more intriguing games in 2012. If the Buckeyes look explosive – which they should – in four fairly-easy nonconference games and MSU has a hiccup or two we could see a different team getting points on Sept. 29.

Going for a fifth-straight win in this series will be the most difficult challenge yet for Mark Dantonio’s team. Expectations are sky-high for the Wolverines, which is one reason Brady Hoke’s team is nearly a touchdown favorite despite losing three of the past four games by at least 14 points. The line hasn’t budged in two weeks and it makes sense; bettors like the Spartans enough to give them anti-blowout respect but like Michigan more to see the Wolverines winning by about a touchdown. Expect the line to move once the season begins, but it’ll fall in the 4.5 to 6.5-point range (Beyond the Bets set it at 6.5) when October 20 rolls around.

The Spartans have never fared well in Madison. The last two games have been the most respectable losses at Wisconsin in recent memory, with MSU losing 38-30 in 2009 and 37-34 in 2007. Prior to that, most of the losses resembled defeats like the one under then-coach John L. Smith in 2003: Wisconsin 56, MSU 21. Heck, even Nick Saban’s best team in East Lansing was whitewashed in Madison. The Badgers embarrassed that 10-2 Spartan squad with a 40-10 beatdown. While the line hasn’t budged yet, I would expect to see Wisconsin closer to a touchdown-favorite on Oct. 27, which is exactly what Beyond the Bets projected.

The Spartans just haven’t fared well against the Black Shirts. Prior to last year’s inaugural Big Ten meeting, which Nebraska dominated 24-3, the Spartans last played the Cornhuskers in the 2003 Alamo Bowl in another one-sided affair (Nebraska won, 17-3).It didn’t help that the other meetings in the series came during the Tommie Frazier dynasty years in 1995 and 1996. Nebraska won those games 50-10 and 55-14, respectively. So, while it’s only a small, 4-game sample size, the Spartans have never beaten the Cornhuskers. If that stat gets more airtime during the season coupled with the fact this year’s MSU-Nebraska meeting, like last year’s, comes at the end of a semi-gauntlet stretch, and MSU might only be giving a field goal. (Beyond the Bets agrees with me with its initial spread of MSU -2.5). There is one thing most books are pretty sure of: MSU won’t be giving more than six points on November 3.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Conference Championship Odds: The Big XII

Last year was the first time since its 1996 inception that the Big 12 conference didn’t play a conference championship game. It was also first time since 2003 that a team not named Oklahoma or Texas wore the conference’s championship crown. Mike “I’m a Man, I’m 40” Gundy’s Oklahoma State Cowboys sprinted to the title in 2011. The Red River Rivalry is slated to determine the conference’s BCS bid in 2012, but don’t tell that to a pair of newcomers that could very well represent the Big 12 at the Fiesta Bowl. West Virginia enters the league after a roller-coaster ride in the Big East while TCU slides in after it became tired of dominating the Mountain West Conference. Both teams are good enough to win the conference every year, making the league’s Top 5 as strong as any other league’s Top 5.
In the 15-year Big 12 Championship Game era, either the Sooners or Longhorns played in 13 of the 15 title bouts, winning 10 (7 for Oklahoma, 3 for Texas). That’s why before looking at sleepers and major long shots, the smartest play is to always scan the Oklahoma and Texas rosters and schedules; one of those teams is the most likely to be playing on a BCS stage in January. Here are the odds to secure the automatic BCS bid from the Big 12 this season:
***The oddsmakers are pretty clear about their expectations in the Big 12: The path to a title runs through  Norman, Oklahoma. Only USC (-130) in the Pac 12 is more of a favorite to win its BCS conference than the Sooners. There’s also no bigger gap between the favorite and second favorite than in the Big 12 – there is a +295 difference between Oklahoma and Texas. (Only the USC-Oregon difference [+280] comes close but most are between +20 and +150). What that should tell you is it is pertinent to be extremely confident Oklahoma will trip up in the conference before looking elsewhere. The early portion of Oklahoma’s schedule should be a breeze; at UTEP, Florida A&M are two easy openers and Kansas State, as you’ll read below, is highly overrated and should be another rest-your-starters-late victory. That same should be said about the early-October trip to Texas Tech, but remember it was those Red Raiders who whipped Oklahoma in Normal last season. But, for the sake of coupling Oklahoma’s expectations and the odds, let’s assume the Sooners run wild and start 4-0. Here is where things change: Four of Oklahoma’s final eight games are doozies: Texas (in Dallas), at West Virginia, Oklahoma State, at TCU. In fact, those final three are a much tougher-than-it-looks gauntlet to close the season. The Notre Dame game on Oct. 27 will only hurt or help Oklahoma’s national title outlook therefore we won’t spend any time dissecting the potential ups and downs of that game in regards to OU and the Big 12. The above-noted four-game quartet will determine if Oklahoma is the Big 12 Champion and possibly secures a spot in the BCS National Championship Game or if the Sooners chalk up another disappointing season under Bob Stoops. Put simply, anything less than a 3-1 record against Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and TCU will derail any championship aspirations. It isn’t inconceivable that Oklahoma could lose two (or more) of those games. It also isn’t unimaginable that Oklahoma could run through the regular season 12-0 and, due to the absence of a Big 12 title game, find itself playing for the national title. One thing is clear: The two weeks from November  17 to December  1 will be the judge and jury. Landry Jones’ return is the main reason Oklahoma is thought so highly entering 2012, but it also helps that OU returns 8 of 11 starters from an offense that was one of the nation’s best in 2011. Regardless of wins and losses you’ll likely be hearing and seeing highlights of the Jones-to-Kenny Stills connection all season. At +105 you have to be prohibitively sure that the conference’s prohibitive favorite will do what it’s supposed to do: Finish no worse than 11-1. It’s a gamble willing to take with fairly unassuming payday.
***The Longhorns are another team to love but, unlike it did with Oklahoma, the schedule makers are attempting to dictate Texas’ future by October 13. That week closes the following 3-game stretch: at Oklahoma State, West Virginia, vs. Oklahoma in Dallas. If Texas somehow survives the “Stretch of Death” the Longhorns should coast to the Big 12 crown. Since the 2009 conference title (and national runner-up finish) Texas has been terrible by Texas standards. After a miserable 5-7 year in 2010 the Longhorns followed that up with an 8-5 campaign capped off with a Holiday Bowl win. Needless to say, the defense never seemed to be the problem last season, that is, if you ignore the Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor games. Take away the combined 141 points surrendered in those games (47 points per game) and Texas allowed just 148 points in its other 10 contests (14.8 ppg). The defense was solid and is expected to be the same this season. With nine returning starters on offense it appears likely we won’t be seeing 5-point rotten egg performances such as the one Texas laid at Missouri last year in a 17-5 defeat. Naturally, it all starts with the QB position and if David Ash can make plays this team will look more like the Vince Young teams than the Garrett Gilbert squads. Like its rival, Oklahoma, Texas needs to finish an at-worst 3-1 in the four-game bracket of Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma and TCU. (If the loss is to the Sooners it would obviously mean OU would have to finish 2-2 in the same stretch). It’s definitely doable and given how Texas looks to be a major national surprise this fall a small wager at +400 is a safe and smart play.
***Newcomer No. 1, West Virginia, is a great play at +500 for a few reasons: First, if you believe the bowl game acts more like an opener to the following season rather than the conclusion of the previous year then no team should have a better outlook than the Mountaineers. West Virginia dismantled, dismembered, and absolutely pilleraged ACC Champion Clemson in the Orange Bowl, 70-33. And that was taking the foot off the throat by scoring just one touchdown in the final 24 minutes! If the NCAA wasn’t pushing its sportsmanship campaign so much we just might have seen Georgia Tech-Cumberland 2! The win capped off what was the most under-the-radar 10-3 season in recent memory. After a nationally-televised home loss to LSU, the Mountaineers could never crack the spotlight again because of a 26-point loss at Syracuse (despite being 14-point favorites) and a narrow defeat at home to Louisville (despite being 12-point favorites). With an offseason to instill more of his offense, Dana Holgorsen will have the Mountaineers scorching scoreboards across the country. Geno Smith is a sleeper Heisman candidate and the receiving corps is led by Tavon Austin, a kid who might be one of the most overlooked WRs in the country. The issue in Morgantown will be the defense; Holgorsen’s team will score with the best of ‘em, but can his squad really win every game in 50-40 shootout fashion? The Mountaineers draw both fellow newcomer TCU and Oklahoma at home but that means road games vs. Texas and Oklahoma State. Whichever team wins the Big 12 will be battle tested and the Mountaineers have as good of a shot as any; that makes +500 more than intriguing.
***My thoughts on TCU, newcomer No. 2, will be short and sweet: I love Gary Patterson’s team. I love how it plays as a unit. I love the toughness. I love the way winning has become an expectation while losing always seems like a shock. The problem with TCU this season is it plays three of the four other big boys (Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas) on the road. It finishes the season with Oklahoma at home, the very week after visiting the Longhorns in Austin. Needless to say, if you’re looking for a sleeper Big 12 champion in 2013 or 2014 the Horned Frogs will be in the mix, but there are a few too many obstacles in the way this season and +525 isn’t worth it. This team might finish the regular season 9-3 and it could very well be a Top 10 team that’s ranked closer to the 20s.
***The worst odds in the Big 12 – and possibly the country –  go to… Kansas State. Bill Snyder has a way of working his magic but last year’s 10-3 campaign was a major overachievement. What’s amazing is the Wildcats were favorites in just four – four! – games last year and still posted double-digit wins. It took down years from Miami and Texas as well as an early Baylor stumble for the Wildcats to get off to the red-hot 7-0 start. I like Collin Klein’s decision-making at QB and his experience means the Wildcats won’t be terrible. But this has the look of an 8-4 team with all losses in conference play. This is just a terrible play at +1050, however you spin it.
***One of my favorite plays nationally is Oklahoma State at +2100. Losing Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon looks like death blow on the surface but the Cowboys are still loaded with athleticism and the defense is expected to be one of the top units in the conference. Here’s why the Pokes could return to the Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State gets Texas, TCU and West Virginia at home. Stillwater has become a very difficult place to play, especially when TV execs turn the day games into night games. We should know early on whether the Cowboys can survive with freshman Wes Lunt at QB; the conference opener is against Texas on September 29. Lose that game, which is sandwiched between two bye weeks, and the Cowboys will probably settle for a third- or fourth-place Big 12 finish. A win there and it’s off to the races. At 21/1 the Pokes are definitely worth a play (or two, or three).
***If you have an extra Ben Franklin lying around and you don’t care what you do with it, put it on Kansas at +14000. The Jayhawks are major long shots but I believe the 2007 team that finished 12-1 wasn’t exactly expected to light up the world. Charlie Weis surprised his first year at Notre Dame and, now that he picked up Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist, a player who played under him for two years in South Bend, there is some optimism in Lawrence. Your expectations should be extremely low, as in this team is closer to winning four games than it is winning the Big 12. Nevertheless, despite being favored just once each of the past two seasons you never know what could happen. Home games against TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas make it feasible to think the Jayhawks have it in them to make a BCS splash in 2012. Again, it’s not likely and you should make this play expecting to donate your money. Still, 140/1 odds have never felt so good.
Bottom line: The Big 12 seems to be a four-team race unless TCU proves to be better than I thought. Oklahoma and Texas are the best plays and, given recent history, are most likely to win the conference. Nevertheless, given the odds and recent history, Oklahoma State might be the best team in the conference again. I really, really like West Virginia but I’m cautioned by the hype Nebraska received joining the Big Ten in 2011 before staggering to a 9-3 finish. That is exactly what could happen with the Mountaineers… or West Virginia could finish 11-1 or, gasp!, 12-0. All four of the teams are good plays and, had I made the odds, would have probably done it this way: Oklahoma (+200), Texas (+225), West Virginia (+275), Oklahoma State (+300). That shows there is no clear favorite but a handful of worthy selections.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

2012 Big 10 Previews: Wisconsin Over/Under Props

With the dusted-off JCB Prop Creating Machine spitting out some numbers to help predict Northwestern’s season last week, the gigantic, non-energy efficient piece of steel is taking a crack at the defending Big Ten Champion Wisconsin Badgers this week.
Over the past decade the Badgers have quietly put themselves on a pedestal next to Michigan and Ohio State as Big Ten dynasties of sorts. While the Badgers’ run hasn’t exactly netted multiple national championships, let alone one title, you’d be surprised to see how Wisconsin has done in the past 8 years. Since 2004 Wisconsin has posted nine wins in seven of those seasons, with two years each at 10 and 11 wins, respectively, and a 12-1 season. Michigan’s similar span went from 1985-1992. The Wolverines tallied nine wins in seven of eight seasons while registering three 10-win years and an 11-2 season. A more recent comparison is Ohio State from 2002-2011. During those nine seasons, Ohio State had double-digit victories eight times, including the 14-0 NCAA National Championship campaign in 2002. The point is simple: Wisconsin is playing with some swagger these days and has created a juggernaut in Madison; expect great things. Here are the props to stat and track for 2012:
Wisconsin wins: Over/Under 9.5
previous JCB post, using win totals posted by 5Dimes, had Wisconsin’s over/under set at 8.5 with serious juice on the over (-260) and a you’ll-hit-it-big-if-the-plague-hits-Madison under (+180). All things considered, anything less than nine wins for the Badgers will be a major disappointment in 2012 for a plethora of reasons.
Like most teams, the Badgers play three gimme nonconference games with one “challenging” contest. This year’s toughie is a road game at Oregon State. First, give props to Wisconsin for scheduling a home-and-home with a Pac-12 school rather than filling the schedule with a Sun Belt opponent. Traveling cross country in September is never easy. Just ask Lloyd Carr’s Michigan Wolverines. How many times did Michigan travel to the west coast and, despite being a semi-heavy favorite, lay an egg? (2003: 31-27 loss at Oregon; 2001: 23-18 loss @ Washington; 2000: 23-20 loss at UCLA). It shouldn’t be a surprise then to learn Michigan hasn’t played a nonconference game on the West coast since that ’03 Oregon loss. The Wolverines have shown it’s anything but a gimme scheduling a West coach team on the road. Wisconsin has played some cross-country teams on the road in recent years, beating UNLV in Vegas in 2010 (41-21), Fresno State at Bulldog Stadium in 2008 (13-10), and UNLV in 2007 (20-13).  (It should be noted that middle Wisconsin team finished a forgettable 7-6 overall, the worst season in recent memory for Badgers fans). The last time Wisconsin played a BCS-West coast school was 2004 when the Badgers beat the Arizona Wildcats, 9-7.
What does this trip down Wisconsin memory lane have to deal with the 2012 projected win total you ask? Put simply, the Oregon State game might be solely responsible for the Badgers celebrating another 10-win season or chalking up another solid-but-not-quite-as-sweet-as-desired 9-3 campaign. It’s the ultimate swing game. Cash in another 4-0 nonconference slate and a very doable 6-2 Big Ten record would hit the over. And, if you take the over and happen to be a Pink Floyd fan you’re more than welcome to belt out these lyrics: “…Money / It’s a Gas / Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash ; New car, caviar, four-star daydream / Think I’ll buy me a football team.”
Now that you’ve stopped singing over there, Roger Waters, realize finishing 6-2 in the Big Ten is no given. The positive is, given recent history, Wisconsin won’t fall short of five conference wins; that’s happened just once in the past seven years – the lowly 2008 season when the Badgers amassed just three Big Ten victories. The schedule sets up fairly nice for the Badgers as Wisconsin doesn’t play Michigan, Iowa or Northwestern in the Legends Division. All three would cause Wisconsin trouble and would be potentially fatal road blocks toward 10 wins. Instead, Wisconsin draws Michigan State, Nebraska and Minnesota from the Legends Division. Only the Nebraska game is on the road and, based on last year’s showing, the Badgers are more than confident. Michigan State won’t be a gimme, obviously. Heck, it’s more likely to be a classic as that seems to be a yearly requirement for the Spartans-Badgers contest. In their own division, only Ohio State is a real threat, though the season finale at Penn State, despite the Nittany Lions’ changing of the guard, won’t be a cakewalk either. So, if we break down the conference schedule the Badgers have four they-should-win-this-game-as-a-loss-would-be-quite-an-upset contests: Illinois, at Purdue, Minnesota, at Indiana. It’s the four above-mentioned games (at Nebraska, Michigan State, Ohio State, at Penn State) that’ll determine what number ends up in Wisconsin’s final ‘W’ column. If we assume Wisconsin beats Oregon State and goes 4-0 in nonconference play, that means a split in the quartet of games is enough for 10 wins. Lose the Oregon State game and the Badgers can only afford one slip-up. Now you see why the Oregon State game is the swing game?
In the end, the Oregon State game won’t just play a huge role in those gambling on Wisconsin’s over/under win total; it’ll play a huge role foreshadowing the upcoming season. I would venture to say the game in Corvallis is fifth toughest game on Wisconsin’s schedule. If the Badgers lose that game, imagining a 3-1 finish between the Nebraska-Michigan State-Ohio State-Penn State quartet is only possible in the Jimmy-Hendrix-pot-clouded mind. The luckiest news for bettors playing the 9.5 number: You can circle September 8 on your calendar: That’s when Wisconsin travels to Reser Stadium in Corvallis and when much of the 2012 Badgers’ story will take shape.
Combined touchdowns between Montee Ball and James White: Over/Under: 41.5
Had it not been for Robert Griffin III (shoot, can I say that now that it’s trademarked?) and the eventual No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft Andrew Luck, Montee Ball’s season would have been more than just Heisman-esque. It would have won the Heisman Trophy. Ball totaled 40 touchdowns, 33 rushing, six receiving and one passing. The 39 non-passing TDs ties Barry Sanders’ single-season record set in 1988**. Some might say Ball can’t possibly duplicate that performance again. They would likely be right as Wisconsin scored 42 or more points in nine of its 14 games last season. The gaudy offensive numbers coupled with a dynamic defense allowed Wisconsin to start playing the ball-control, eat-up-the-clock offense in the third quarter. And don’t think for a minute Ball was just a goal line back; he totaled 307 carries on the season for a robust 6.3 yards per attempt.
Why is James White included in this prop? Here’s a fact: 300-carry college running backs are fairly rare, thus it’s a fair comparison to take a 300-plus carry college running back and saddle him next to a young MLB pitcher who threw 200 innings in his first big-league season. For pitchers, Year 2 typically sees a major decline in productivity due to arm tiredness and, more commonly, arm injuries. Ball’s 307 carries included some big hits and while he probably won’t breakdown in 2012, he could resemble the oft-banged up 2010 version of John Clay. (Clay chronicled a 277-carry, 1517-yard 2009 before injuries limited him to 187 carries in 2010).
Enter Mr. White. The sensational then-sophomore carried the rock 141 times for 741 yards and six touchdowns. White played the role of Lightning in this de facto Thunder-Lightning duo. At worst, he’ll have similar numbers as last season but he’s due to shoulder more of the work load which means he’ll have more than six dates with the end zone. If the Thunder-Lightning combo finds the end zone as much as last year (a combined 45 times) it means the Wisconsin running game is doing its job and taking the pressure off fifth-year Maryland transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien. Russell Wilson, last year’s free agent, err, fifth-year transfer, had a special season. Wilson threw for 33 touchdowns and just four picks, adding an additional six touchdowns on the ground. O’Brien is not, and will never be, Wilson. He’ll definitely be an upgrade over Wisconsin’s past QB carousel of Tyler Donovan and Scott Tolzien types but if he’s asked to lead Wisconsin to comeback victories like Wilson did last season 2012 will be a major disappointment. The last year Wisconsin played without a NFL QB was 2010 with Tolzien. A modest 16-touchdown effort from Tolzien meant the running game needed to carry the team. Carry the team it did as the Clay-Ball-White trio combined for 46 rushing touchdowns. I’ll project O’Brien to hover around the 20-touchdown mark, meaning to match 2010 campaign – which produced an 11-1 regular season before a Rose Bowl loss to TCU – Thunder and Lightning will need to pound the rock into the end zone. The strength of the running game will dictate how the season plays out and the end zone tally will be the ultimate judge.
Sacks allowed: Over/Under 25.5
One of those yearly ESPN stats always shows how Wisconsin’s offensive line would be in the NFL’s Top 5 in terms of average weight. This year will be no different (projected starters have the line averaging 6’5” and 321 pounds). The difference will be the inexperience. Three starters are gone including right guard Kevin Zeitler and center Peter Konz who went in the NFL Draft’s first and second round, respectively. Like most Wisconsin teams, a solid stable of running backs will help mask any offensive line deficiencies. Even with Wilson under center, the team allowed 25 sacks last season. With a less mobile O’Brien in the backfield and an inexperienced offensive line, protection will be a high priority in the offseason.
There are a number of ways to focus on the 25.5 sacks number: If Wisconsin controls the clock by running the ball and scoring touchdowns instead of kicking field goals it limits the number of times O’Brien will be a sitting duck. The more the running game struggles or Wisconsin’s offense as a whole struggles and has to play catch up the more times defenses will be able to pin their ears back and send the extra guy (or two) on a blitz.
In 2010, despite not having Wilson’s mobility in the pocket, Wisconsin’s O-line surrendered just 14 sacks on the season (5.1 percent of drop backs). Naturally, since the O-line was able to pave the way for nearly 250 rushing yards per game it didn’t leave Tolzien vulnerable to many sack possibilities. Replacing three starters makes sack vulnerability a real concern. Another reason to worry, as mentioned above, is the second game on the schedule at Oregon State. The Beavers led the FBS with 44 sacks in 2007 and, while they’ve had issues the past few years, could return to that dominant form at any point; it is always wise to assume Mike Riley’s team will turn the line of scrimmage into a World War III of sorts.
Kyle French, field goal makes and field goal conversion rate: Over/Under 15.5, Over/Under 75%
While the Badgers never touched 80 points last season – it did in an 80-23 victory vs. Indiana in 2010 that, believe it or not, was the opposite of running up the score – a steady diet of 40- and 50-point games were filled with touchdowns. Kyle French and the graduated Philip Welch combined for just eight field goal makes in 11 attempts last season. Thanks to an 82-touchdown season the duo was busy on extra points (Welch went 54-for-55 on XPs while French was 26-for-27).
Wilson’s mobility bailed Wisconsin out on many occasions in the red zone. It would be foolish to assume Wisconsin will only attempt 11 field goals again this season. It’ll probably double that amount and, if that’s the case, French is going to need to be reliable, especially in that 35-50 yard range. Last year’s LSU-Alabama I showed us how field goal kicking can almost cost the best team in the country a chance to actually prove it’s the best team in the country. Alabama’s normally reliable kicker went 2-for-6 on field goal tries in that game and it took a few miracles (Boise State missing another field goal, Oklahoma State gagging at Iowa State, some BCS posturing) for Alabama to get a rematch where it cashed in for the championship. If Wisconsin has championship aspirations – and we’ll set the bar here for another Big Ten Championship – there are going to be a few bouts where the kicking game is key. If French proves to be reliable the way Welch was in the 2010 Rose Bowl season (Welch went 17-for-22 that season, making 8 of 12 field goals of 40-plus yards) then Wisconsin will be in good hands, err, feet.
**Unfortunately for Sanders, not only did the NCAA not “count” bowl game statistics before 2002, but the NCAA unexplainably won’t go back and include Sanders’ and other players’ bowl-game performances. Sanders tallied five more touchdowns (in just three quarters of Holiday Bowl action) for a what-should-be-the-record 44 touchdowns that season.

Friday, June 15, 2012

NFL Over-Under Odds: NFC North

It wasn’t long after April’s NFL Draft that the NFC North hype machine was in full force. The Packers would return to the Super Bowl after a one-year hiatus; The Lions are now a playoff mainstay; The scrappy Chicago Bears are back, with an offense this year. All three teams wouldn’t just have a better-than-average chance to make the 2012 playoffs; rather all three teams would make the 2012 playoffs. When it released game spreads for the first 16 weeks (it didn’t post lines for Week 17 games, likely due to the inevitable resting of players by some teams) Candor Gaming had the Packers favored 15 times, the Bears 11 times and the Lions 10 times. Seems to me that’s punching a playoff ticket for all three teams, no?
The truth is it’s rare for three divisional foes to each occupy a playoff spot as it requires both wild card teams to come from the same division. Rare, however, doesn’t mean it never happens. Just last season three AFC North teams – Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati – secured playoff berths. In 2006, New York, Dallas and Philadelphia all represented the NFC East in the playoffs.
The barometer of a non-division winner playoff team is typically at least 10 victories. Naturally, 10 wins doesn’t guarantee a spot in the post season, sincerely the 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Despite a surprising-yet-solid 10-win season, Tampa Bay lost a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot.) Occasionally, nine wins is enough, proven by last year’s Cincinnati Bengals, but in the current NFL culture a spot on the Week 18 schedule almost always requires at least 10 victories.
That means all the hoopla surrounding the NFC North’s Big 3 assumes each will amass a double-digit victory total. Here are the over/under win totals on the Black and Blue Division for the 2012 season:
The Packers are one of just two teams (New England is the other) favored in every game this season. If the chalk holds, the Packers would complete just the second 16-0 season in NFL history. With the over/under set at 12 it seems like a no-brainer to take the over at this point, even with a little extra juice. Nevertheless, let’s break down Green Bay’s chances to top, match or fall short of a dirty dozen victories.
The Schedule
Despite many, including NFL.com, calling Green Bay’s schedule “Fairly Easy,” I find it anything but. The first four weeks will tell us a lot about this team and, more importantly, whether it’s still King of the NFC North and can amass 13 wins. The season opener against San Francisco pits last year’s top two NFC seeds against each other. So much for a cakewalk to kick off the season. Four days later the Packers play host to the much-improved Bears. After a Monday nighter at Seattle – always a place in the Pacific northwest where east coast teams go to die – in Week 3 the Packers return home to host the turmoil-stricken-but-dangerous-nonetheless Saints. Anything less than a 3-1 start should make “over” betters extremely timorous. Outside of a Week 6 game at Houston for Sunday Night Football, the Packers should roll between Weeks 5 and 9 (Indianapolis, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Arizona aren’t gimme wins for everyone in 2012, but they are for the Packers). Following a Week 10 bye, the schedule gets NFC North heavy as five of Green Bay’s final seven opponents are intradivision foes. The back-to-back games at Detroit and at the New York Giants won’t be easy, though it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Packers won a shootout with the Lions last year despite Matt Flynn playing 60 minutes.
Why they’ll go over 12 wins (-125)
Simply put, the Packers are built to win games. Last year’s team was a one turd showing at Kansas City away from a 16-0 regular season. Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback about as well as any quarterback has in recent memory. Just think of how much more lethal Rodgers would be if the Packers gave him one healthy running back, let alone a stable of healthy running backs. It doesn’t matter who’s at wide receiver or tight end, Rodgers is to the NFC what Tom Brady is to the AFC; he’ll take the pieces he’s given and turn them into hot commodities.
While going 13-3 or better is quite the challenge, a big question for Packer better is the following: “Are the Lions and Bears really good enough to split the season series with the Pack?” The Lions haven’t won in Green Bay since 1991 and while the Bears always have the pieces to give the Packers trouble it is rarely enough. Assuming – and we’ll have to do that a lot here in playing the “Project the Win Total” game – Green Bay goes unbeaten at home again, it’ll need to find four road games to lose. There are only five road games I’d consider remotely difficult: at Seattle (-6), at Houston (-1.5), at Detroit (-3), at New York Giants (-3), at Chicago (-3). It means Green Bay would have to win two of those games, at minimum, to get 13 wins. It definitely looks doable.
Why they’ll fall under 12 wins (-105)
This will be Aaron Rodgers’ fifth season under center for the Packers; last season was the first time Rodgers led Green Bay to more than 11 wins. While he’s definitely had Green Bay a perennial playoff team during the last three seasons, the Packers haven’t been Patriot-like in posting what feels like 13+ wins every year. For as good as the defense has been at creating turnovers it’s also been notorious for giving up big plays.
As mentioned above, the slab of five road games isn’t filled with a gimme victory. Plus, if last year was any indication, there might be a game on the schedule that the world chalks up as a Packers win (-9.5 at St. Louis in Week 7) where Green Bay forgets to show up.
The play?
I’d sit this one out only because the more I replay the schedule possibilities in my head the more I see 12-4. The chance Green Bay falls to 10-6 seems slim but an 11-5 season isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Then again, this is a team that is only likely to be healthier, and therefore better, than last year’s 15-1 team. The “perfect” line for the Packers probably should be at 12.5, as the chances are plausible the team gets a dozen wins. Whether it’s a common dozen or a baker’s dozen remains to be seen.

Following the team’s first playoff appearance since 1999 many of the immature youngsters on the Lions turned what should be an excited fan base into a hide-those-Lions-T-shirts until September one. It seems like we’ve read a weekly “Lions (fill in name here) arrested with marijuana” story this offseason. Shame aside, Detroit faithful are in the middle of a disgustingly disappointing Tigers season and are haven’t been more eager for a Lions season in eons. Detroit’s over/under is set perfectly at 9.5 as the Lions have the look of a fringe playoff team once again.
The Schedule
It’s an odd schedule to say the least. The Lions don’t play back-to-back home games until three in a row starting in Week 11. Prior to that, they play three pairs of back-to-back road games. And before we go all Green bay and assume Detroit will go unbeaten at home you should remember the following: The Lions went 5-3 at home last season, losing to the three best teams (Green Bay, San Francisco and Atlanta) they hosted at Ford Field. The three toughest home games this season appear to be the Packers, Texans and either the Falcons or Bears. If parts of 2011 hold true, it means the Lions will lose at least a pair of those games and with road games at San Francisco (Week 2), at Philadelphia (Week 6), at Chicago (Week 7) and at Green Bay (Week 14) the Lions can’t afford to slip up in any game it should win easily.
Why they’ll go over 9.5 wins (+110)
Last year’s team was one Matt Flynn I’m-going-to-become-a-hot-free-agent-QB performance from finishing 11-5 despite playing most of the season’s second half without a running game. With some new pieces on the offensive line (namely new tackle Riley Reiff, who might start from day one at either LT or RT) and the secondary via the draft, the Lions look like they’ve found the guys to exercise their offensive and defensive demons. Matthew Stafford became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards last season joining Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. People forget it was his first full season under center. Stafford has proven to be a china doll of sorts but when healthy he’s proving he’s one heckuva quarterback.
Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in the game, making Stafford’s job a little easier. Speedster Jahvid Best looks to be healthy again and, if he can kick his marijuana habit and avoid too long of a likely NFL-mandated suspension Mikel Leshoure should provide the Lions with the power back it’s desired for years. Offensively this team can outscore any other team in the league. In a QB-happy league driven by huge passing games the Lions rise to the top as one of the league’s best making a play on over 9.5 wins a decent proposition.
Why they’ll fall under 9.5 wins (-140)
We’ll start with the obvious: Megatron is obviously going to miss some games this season. With Calvin Johnson winning the Madden ’13 cover spot, a victory that made Lions fans squeamish immediately, a 16-game season for the new CJ2K seems like a stretch.
Curse-related news aside, while people will remember a few games the Lions could have won last season they likely will forget three oddly historic comeback victories. Despite trailing 20-0 at Minnesota, the Lions rallied to win the game, 26-23, in overtime. The following week Detroit trailed Dallas by 24 points in the third quarter before Tony Romo gagged the game away. In a home game chalked up as a gimme, the Lions trailed Carolina by 17 points in the first half before a second-half surge fleeced Detroit another win. Heck, that doesn’t even mention Detroit scoring 14 points in the final five minutes to win at Oakland in Week 16. The point is, Detroit was extremely inconsistent last season, not only over the course of 16 games but in the four quarters within each contest.
The play?
I’m a “show me” kind of guy and before I get giddy on a team I’d like to see a repeat of some sort. My former high school baseball coach used to say “any asshole can do it once” in reference to winning championships. In this case, we’re making the Lions the assholes. For the first time in 12 seasons the Lions made the playoffs. Before I expect the Lions to do it again I want the team to show me it can. Even with a perfectly quiet offseason I’d be skeptical. With a spring circus resembling Hard Knocks there’s no way I’d consider Detroit a 10-win team. I’m leaning heavily toward taking the under despite a little extra juice, but I can’t put it in stone. Yet.

The Bears are a model of consistency. Sort of. I’m not saying Chicago is the NFC’s version of the New England Patriots, who have made double-digit wins (typically 12+) and an AFC East title the norm, rather I’m saying no matter how good or bad the world assumes Chicago will be it’ll probably be right-in-the-middle good. Heck, the consistency even has an up-down-up-down feel to it. The biggest move this offseason was luring Brandon Marshall to Chicago and pairing him with Jay Cutler once again. What makes the move scary is the Bears have always had a good-enough-to-win-low-scoring-games offense because the defense always comes to play. Adding a bonafied Top 10 receiver means the Bears might actually average 20+ points each week and have some easy andwatchable victories.
The Schedule
The schedule screams EASY to me, though I’m not sure why. There are two games against both the Packers and Lions as well as road trips to San Francisco and Dallas. Soldier Field also plays host to Houston and Carolina, the former being a Super Bowl contender and the latter being a major sleeper this season. Yet, all the other games seem to be gimmes. Chicago’s travel also isn’t that bad; the Bears play back-to-back road games just once before the last two weeks of the season, although the first one is a Monday Nighter in Dallas (Week 3) followed by a Sunday game in Jacksonville (Week 4). The toughest back-to-back stretch might be a Sunday Night home game against Houston (Week 10) followed by a Monday Night trip to San Francisco (Week 11). Vegas is counting on the Bears somehow sitting at 8-7 heading into a Week 17 showdown in Detroit where both teams could have playoff aspirations on the line.
Why they’ll go over 8.5 wins (-130)
The schedule will help, that’s for sure. If Chicago can with the other eight games not listed above, it only needs to win one of the eight “toughies” to top the over. That seems like a decent bet. Moreover, Lovie Smith’s calling card has always been his defense. Chicago’s defense is going to be good enough to keep Chicago in every game thanks to timely strips, sacks and interceptions. With an actual receiving corps for Jay Cutler to throw to and an offensive line that actually improved, it seems like this team’s floor should be 9-7. What’s crazy is I haven’t even mentioned Matt Forte yet and we’re already approaching double-digit victories. Forte is one of the best all-around backs in the game. While his fantasy value might be hurt a bit by Marshall’s presence, his usefulness for the Bears will be better as he’ll create space for a Cutler-to-Marshall connection and Marshall’s ability to stretch the field will open up the dink-and-dump passes that Forte can turn into huge gains.
Why they’ll fall under 8.5 wins (-100)
Jay Cutler gets hurt and the reins end up in the hands of one of the three backup quarterbacks (Jason Campbell, Josh McCown or Nate Enderle). Let’s add an injury to Brandon Marshall as well. Outside of the plague striking this team I just don’t see how the Bears could possibly finish 8-8. Even if Matt Forte continues his holdout, Michael Bush will be more than able to fill in. Bush has always been an under-the-radar guy who has 1,500-yard potential in the right offense. Chicago’s offense suits him well.
The play?
The extra juice on the over and the straight-up 50/50 on the under has Vegas begging you to take the under. That’s a sucker bet as the only play here is on the over. The worst-case Chicago season is 8-8 which gets you a push and the chance to play again next year. The NFC North will be tough but the Bears will survive it as well as tackling challenges around the NFL. This is a 2012 playoff team, meaning at least nine victories. Book It!

I miss the Vikings’ party boat days, if only because that’s when the Purple People Eaters actually fielded a relevant football team. Don’t get me wrong, the Vikings have some exceptional pieces (Adrian Peterson anyone?!?) but coaching and poor quarterback play has doomed this team in recent years. Peterson’s injury last season crippled this squad, propelling it to a pathetic 3-13 year. If there was one positive it’s that it forced Christian Ponder to grow faster and get up to NFL game speed without the help of a top-tier running back. Peterson’s return should allow Ponder to develop even more but the question remains: Will it be enough against the beasts of the NFC North?
The Schedule
As a whole, this is one of those schedules that doesn’t impress you on either end of the “easy” or “brutal” meter. That said the final eight games might be the most challenging in the league. Starting with Week 9: at Seattle, Detroit, at Chicago, at Green Bay, Chicago, at St. Louis, at Houston, Green Bay. There isn’t a gimme victory in that bunch, especially since the Rams will be playing at home in a season that has no expectations under new coach Jeff Fisher. The first half of the schedule has three “probably not going to win this one” games: San Francisco (Week 3), at Detroit (Week 4), at Washington (Week 6). The Week 8 game against Tampa Bay is also a Thursday Night special.
Why they’ll go over 6 wins (-100)
If used correctly Adrian Peterson is a horse any team could ride into the playoffs. The problem is the Vikings haven’t had a competent coach/quarterback combination with Peterson in the backfield. He’s a back who should get 25-30 carries a contest yet there are too many box scores that show 15-carry, 60-yard efforts. At least the Vikings used him in the passing game in 2009 (his 43 catches that season were more than his 2007 and 2008 totals combined) which allowed Peterson to become the all-around back everyone knew he could be. The Metrodome, dilapidated and all, is still a tough place to play. Jared Allen coming around the edge means opposing quarterbacks are always one snap away from being carted off the field, giving the Vikings a huge advantage. And, to help combat that scenario from opposing players, the Vikings added the best offensive tackle in this year’s draft (Matt Kalil) to protect Ponder’s blindside.
Why they’ll fall under 6 wins (-130)
Adrian Peterson can only do so much. Looking back at the schedule, let’s assume the Vikings lose those three tough games early in the season. Let’s also assume the Vikings somehow manage to close with two wins in the final eight games. That means Minnesota would be 2-9 with these five games to be played: Jacksonville (Week 1), at Indianapolis (Week 2), Tennessee (Week 5), Arizona (Week 7), Tampa Bay (Week 8). The positive there is four games are at home but the negative is the Vikings were worse than all but one of those teams last season. (Candor Gaming has the Vikings favored in the Arizona and Tampa Bay games while the Tennessee game is a pick’em).  All those games are coin flips, meaning even if we give Minnesota the benefit of the doubt and give it a 3-2 mark in those games the Vikings finish the year 5-11.
The play?
The ceiling for this team is most definitely 6-10, therefore taking the under, with the extra juice, is the only play here. If either the Bears or Lions were expected to struggle mightily this year maybe the Vikings could pull out a magical seventh victory. But with the three other divisional foes expected to be 8-8 or better it leaves the Vikings in a scramble-for-victories mode. There just aren’t that many on the schedule and a 5-11 campaign seems to be most likely. Minnesota is only favored in three games with another “pick’em” contest. This team isn’t 3-13 material again but it surely isn’t going to be sniffing .500. You won’t lose by taking the under here. You could push, but you definitely won’t lose. Book It!

Monday, June 11, 2012

16 Pitches That Changed The 2012 Tigers' Season

I made the proclamation shortly after the game ended: Those were 16 pitches that changed the Tigers' season. 

My wife, the only potential witness (unless you count my then 15-month-old son who wouldn't exactly make a great witness at the moment), may or may not have been listening. 

The Tigers were bumbling and stumbling their way through a near-disastrous season. It was the top of the eighth inning and Detroit was trailing the red-hot Cincinnati Reds 6-3. Logan Ondrusek had relieved starter Homer Bailey but proceeded to walk Ramon Santiago to leadoff the inning and then surrendered a bloop single to Gerald Laird. 

His night was done and in from the bullpen became Alrodis Chapman - a guy who had been pitching like a left-handed Mariano Rivera, just another eight- to nine-MPH faster. It was almost assured a typical Detroit cliche would rear its ugly head again: The Tigers threaten but do not score.

But that is when the season changed.

Brennan Boesch was pinch hitting for pitcher Bryan Villarreal. Boesch, a hitter who occassionally runs "runs into pitches" as manager Jim Leyland says, has always struggled against lefties. Advantage: Cincinnati.

However, after Chapman's first offering was a 100-mph fastball in the dirt (miraculously blocked by catcher Devin Mesoraco) Boesch took the second offering, a 99-mph fastball, on the ground into right field. The bases were now loaded.

Next up was Matt Young, a AAA player called up due to injuries.

Young was completely overmatched. He fanned badly on a pair of 99-mph fastballs that bookended a 100-mph heater up and in. Luckily for Young (and the Tigers), Chapman's fourth pitch - a 99-mph blazer - grazed Young's barely jersey for one of the cheapest hit by pitches you'll ever see. Reds 6, Tigers 4. And the bases still loaded.

Leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, who had homered off Homer Bailey three innings earlier, was supposed to be Chapman's next (or, in this case, first) victim.

Chapman was the victim once again. Ball one bounced in at triple digits. After taking a strike at 98 mph Jackson ripped the next pitch - in nearly the exact same spot - down the left field line for a ground rule double. In the ultimate game of inches, a pinch of chalk splashed into the air signaling Jackson's ball was fair. Reds 6, Tigers 6.

With first base open it was an obvious move to intentionally walk Quintin Berry to load the bases for Miguel Cabrera. Wait, what?

Okay, so it wasn't an intentional walk. It wasn't even one of those "unintentional intentional walks." Chapman just couldn't throw a strike to Berry as every single pitch missed low and away while registering at either 98 or 99 mph.

Now the bases were loaded for the most feared hitter in baseball, Miguel Cabrera.

Desperate to find the strike zone Chapman took something off the first fastball. Still at an intimidating 95 mph he couldn't locate the zone. Reaching back and hitting 99 again, Chapman hit the outside corner on the second pitch. After 15 fastballs - 14 of them ranging from 98 to 100 mph - Chapman went to his devastating slider.

It was devastating all right, but only for the Reds. The pitch skipped to the backstop after nearly shining Cabrera's cleats. Tigers 7, Reds 6.

After that pitch Chapman found a groove. Even with the infield in he got Cabrera to ground out to second. Prince Fielder struck out and Delmon Young also grounded to second to end the inning.

But the damage had been done. The Reds sent seven men to the plate the last two innings but only Jay Bruce reached (on a single and eventually got to second on a wild pitch). The Tigers, given the gift of life, grabbed hold and never relinquished it.

The Tigers are still four games under .500 and this might not be a game that starts a 10-game winning streak. Nevertheless, when this season ends this will be one of the games that helped Detroit reach the playoffs and however far the Tigers can advance.

UPDATE: Detroit not only won the American League Central at 88-74 (three games over the Chicago White Sox) but the Tigers beat the Athletics (3-2) in the ALDS and swept the Yankees in the ALCS to reach the World Series. While the 4-0 sweep by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series will undoubtedly leave a bad taste in Detroiters' mouths remember this: The Tigers very easily could have been a major disappointment, failing to reach the playoffs after being pegged as World Series favorites. There was that June game in Cincinnati that made all the difference. (October 30, 2012)