Dorian Thompson-Robinson of UCLA has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions.
Last week, I scratched and clawed my way to a 2-2 record, with Nebraska covering Purdue and TCU-Oklahoma State going over the total (though they needed overtime to get there). But, for the second week in a row, I put too much faith in hazy quarterback injury news; Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito surprisingly played to help Illinois defeat my Minnesota pick. And the less said about my underdog pick in Alabama-Tennessee, the better. (Only 101 points were earned.) A season record of 16-11-1 is adequate, but hopefully it will improve this week.
This column will provide four picks per week: the game of the week, a favorite, an underdog, and a wild card pick that can be anything (another favorite or underdog in a game that might be flying under the radar or a total, for instance). Hopefully, by the time the clock strikes zero in Inglewood, Calif., on Jan. 9, we’ll all be wealthy.
Unless otherwise noted, all spreads and totals were taken from the VegasInsider.com consensus odds on Wednesday. Unless otherwise noted, all times are Eastern on Saturday.
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College Football Game of the Week
Over 69.5 points, No. 9 UCLA at No. 10 Oregon, 3:30 p.m., Fox
Both teams move the ball well in the air and struggle to defend the pass. Even though this game has one of the highest totals on the board, it’s a recipe for the over.
The offense of the UCLA Bruins ranks second in the country in passing success rate and fifth in expected points added (EPA) per pass. The Ducks’ defense is ranked 106th in terms of passing success rate and 117th in terms of EPA per pass. Dorian Thompson-Robinson of UCLA averages 9.3 yards per attempt and has 15 touchdowns to only two interceptions. The Ducks have given up a 142.21 rating to opposing quarterbacks (100th nationally). Furthermore, the Bruins are third in the country with 4.03 points per drive, while the Ducks are 110th with 4.03 points allowed per drive (2.98).
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Oregon’s defense also has trouble keeping opponents from scoring once they cross the 50-yard line. Arizona, Stanford, and Washington State have driven into Ducks territory 20 times in the last three games and scored on 16 of those possessions (nine touchdowns, seven field goals). UCLA crossed the 50 or got the ball in Utes territory nine times in its previous game against Utah; six of those drives ended in the end zone, and of the three that didn’t, one ended with a missed field goal and another was a victory-formation situation at the end of the 42-32 win.
UCLA’s defense ranks 88th and 75th in those categories, while Oregon’s passing offense ranks sixth in success rate and tenth in EPA per pass. The Bruins allowed 32 points to Utah and Washington, as well as 31 points to South Alabama, a team ranked in the bottom half of the offensive SP+ efficiency rankings.
The most popular
Northern Illinois (-3) vs. Ohio (ESPN Plus), 2 p.m.
This is less of a bet on the Huskies and more of a fade on the Bobcats, who have played some deceptive games recently.
Ohio lost by seven points in overtime to Kent State three weeks ago, but the score should have been higher. The Golden Flashes fumbled to end one drive, had two possessions end on downs, and missed two field goals in the second half. Four of those drives ended in Bobcats territory, with the fifth coming to an end at the Kent State 49.
The second-half box score in Ohio’s 33-14 victory over Western Michigan last week was even more unusual because Broncos quarterback Jack Salopek threw five interceptions in the final two quarters. And the two Broncos possessions that did not end in a pick resulted in downs, one of which was at the Ohio 19.
Rocky Lombardi, quarterback for Northern Illinois, returned from a leg injury last week in a 39-10 victory over Eastern Michigan. Before his injury against Vanderbilt on Sept. 17, he had five touchdown passes and only one interception, and the Huskies went 0-3 in the games he missed. I’m not sure his return is being valued enough, especially against an Ohio team that allows the most passing yards in the Football Bowl Subdivision (367.7 yards per game). The Bobcats also rank 115th in terms of rushing success rate on defense — they allowed 240 yards to Kent State’s Marquez Cooper — and Northern Illinois running back Harrison Waylee is among the best in the Mid-American Conference. Give me the Huskies right now.
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Liberty (+6.5) vs. BYU, ESPNU, 3:30 p.m.
6-1 Liberty is ranked No. 82 in the SP+ efficiency metric among the 15 FBS teams that are bowl eligible. The Flames needed four overtimes to beat Southern Mississippi (3-3, No. 73 in SP+), trailed Akron (1-6, 129th) in the fourth quarter before winning 21-12, failed to cover the 22.5-point spread in a 42-24 win over Massachusetts (1-6, dead last at 131st), and most recently needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to beat Gardner-Webb, a 2-5 Football Championship Subdivision team.
So why on earth are we betting on Liberty to cover against BYU? Because the Cougars are a disaster right now, especially on defense, and 6.5 points is too many for two teams that are more evenly matched than most people realize.
BYU is coming off a 52-35 home loss to Arkansas, allowing 644 total yards and 7.9 yards per play. In a 28-20 victory a week earlier, Notre Dame held the ball for 40 minutes and 55 seconds and averaged 6.8 yards per play. (The Fighting Irish have averaged 5.3 yards per play in their previous five games.) The Cougars are ranked 113th in terms of defensive success rate and 97th in terms of points allowed per drive. Coach Kalani Sitake discussed “options” and “major changes” this week, possibly taking over defensive play-calling from coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki.
This is hardly ideal before embarking on a long road trip to play in what Liberty Coach Hugh Freeze describes as “the biggest home football game this program has ever had.” The Flames’ offense isn’t great — they rank 118th in success rate and have struggled to score against some truly awful teams this season — but they did score 36 points in their only game against a Power Five team this season, and Wake Forest’s defense is much better than BYU’s. Furthermore, Liberty’s defense has intercepted 11 passes, second only to USC and Illinois, and leads the country with four sacks per game. That should suffice.
The trump card
Marshall vs. James Madison, Marshall team score less than 19.5 points, 3:30 p.m., ESPN Plus
The Dukes’ first appearance in the Associated Press top 25 was brief, as a 45-38 loss to Georgia Southern sent them tumbling out after a one-week stay. The Eagles’ 45 points were 17 more than the previous season high by a Dukes opponent, but they should be interpreted with caution: Georgia Southern scored on a blocked punt in the second quarter, and James Madison’s offense continued to give the Eagles chances by committing four turnovers and giving up the ball on downs twice. Furthermore, Georgia Southern chose to attack the Dukes’ rushing defense, which leads the nation in success rate and allows a meager 1.35 yards per carry, by barely attacking it at all. The Eagles ran 16 times for 12 yards and attempted 64 passes.
The Thundering Herd’s offense is not designed to operate in this manner. Marshall runs the ball 60% of the time (13th in the country), but with a success rate of 50% and an EPA per rush of 92nd. Only two FBS teams have sacked their quarterbacks, Henry Colombi and Cam Fancher, on 14.3 percent of their dropbacks, and James Madison’s defense ranks 16th in sack percentage (8.3 percent).
The Thundering Herd has scored 20 points in its last two games against FBS opponents, losses to Louisiana Lafayette and Troy, both of which have defenses as strong as James Madison’s. Marshall will likely struggle again against a JMU team that matches up well.