5 College Football Unit Mismatches Bettors Can Exploit in Week 8

Oct 19, 2018 8:55 PM EDT
  • We continue to get a more robust data to determine specific strengths and weaknesses of each college football team.
  • We'll examine some of the biggest mismatches of Week 8 that bettors can take advantage of.
  • This week features TCU's turnover woes, Akron's pass defense, Alabama's special teams and other intriguing matchups.

As we head into Week 8 of the college football season, we continue to get a more robust data set (once adjusted) to determine relative strengths and weaknesses of the 130 FBS teams. Whether you want to look in the trenches, at the skill positions or even at special teams, it’s critical for bettors to understand glaring unit mismatches.

Power ratings should be your starting point, but situational angles and matchup analyses should help finalize your card.

Each week, I will point out five noteworthy unit mismatches for Saturday’s slate, which will hopefully help you make more informed betting decisions. I will point out a major discrepancy in a standard statistic and then provide supporting evidence that the underlying metrics back up.

Let’s take a look at the five for Week 8.

TCU Turnover Margin vs. Oklahoma

  • Oklahoma -8 at TCU
  • O/U: 60.5
  • Noon ET, ABC

If we remove its season opener vs. FCS school Southern, TCU has 15 turnovers (nine interceptions, six lost fumbles) and just three takeaways in five games this season. Excluding FCS opponents, TCU’s -2 turnover margin per game is tied with lowly UConn for the worst in the nation. While Oklahoma’s subpar defense doesn’t generate many turnovers, its offense has only turned it over six times in six games.

Per S&P+, TCU ranks 130th in Expected Turnover Margin, so the turnovers haven’t necessarily been unlucky, while Oklahoma ranks 56th. With a few likely extra possessions, expect Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray and his elite offense to once again have their way with a TCU defense that struggles to defend passing explosiveness (much like it did last season in two losses by a combined 42 points to Oklahoma).

Michigan Third Down Success vs. Michigan State

  • Michigan -7 at Michigan State
  • O/U: 41.5
  • Noon ET, FOX

The Wolverines rank  13th in the country in third-down conversion rate at 49%, which dwarfs Sparty’s 35.2% clip (104th nationally). It’s not rocket science as to why: the Wolverines have a significantly more reliable rushing attack, which makes third downs more manageable.

The advanced metrics paint the same picture using different brushes. Just take a look at some of these drastic discrepancies.

Look no further than that last statistic, which essentially means that Michigan faces third-and-short situations approximately three times more than Sparty.

In a game featuring two elite rush defenses, Michigan should have more success on the ground on early downs. That will inevitably lead to longer, sustained drives for Michigan and third-down passing situations for Michigan State — which spells absolute disaster against this Wolverines defense that thrives on obvious passing downs.

And I didn’t even go into the fact that the Spartans have turned it over twice as often (10-5) as Michigan in one fewer game.

Buffalo Passing Attack vs. Toledo

  • Buffalo -1.5 at Toledo
  • O/U: 62.5
  • Noon ET, ESPN+

Buffalo makes the cut two weeks in a row. This mismatch analysis worked out for the Bulls last week, as their offensive line held up against Akron, allowing quarterback Tyree Jackson and company to get the cover. They should have a similar advantage in the passing game this Saturday against Toledo in the Glass Bowl.

These are two very explosive offenses, but Buffalo’s defense does a much better job at preventing big plays than does the Rockets’. Per S&P+, Buffalo actually ranks in the top 30 in IsoPPP+ (adjusted explosiveness measure) on both sides of the ball, while Toledo ranks a respectable 38th on offense but a very troubling 115th on defense.

Expect Buffalo to hit more downfield explosive plays behind an offensive line that remains first overall in Adjusted Sack Rate. The Bulls have allowed only one sack in seven games — a national-best .14 sacks per game allowed. And just like last week, that OL should hold up against a Toledo team that has accumulated just eight sacks in six games — good enough for 122nd in Adjusted Sack Rate. It also won’t hurt that future NFL wide receiver Anthony Johnson appears to be getting healthy.

Tennessee Special Teams vs. Alabama

  • Alabama -28.5 at Tennessee
  • O/U: 75
  • 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

If you’re looking for one Alabama weakness, take a look at its special teams. While the Tide’s return units have been productive, their inexperienced kicker and punter have both struggled this year.

Freshman Skyler DeLong has struggled when asked to punt, which isn’t too often with Alabama’s offense. (DeLong just used up his redshirt last game after not seeing the field in the previous two.) Two of his last four punts have gone for less than 13 yards.

More concerning is kicker Joseph Bulovas, who has only made eight of 12 field goals — and his missed extra point cost Crimson Tide -34.5 bettors a cover in a 34-point win against Arkansas. The redshirt freshman actually took over in the second game for senior graduate transfer Austin Jones, who missed a field goal and THREE extra points. Alabama is only in this entire kicker mess because current Arizona State stud kicker Brandon Ruiz decommitted last year.

On the other hand, Tennessee has excelled in the special teams department. After some growing pains as a freshman, sophomore kicker Brent Cimaglia has been solid this year, connecting on seven of eight field goals (one blocked) and all 17 extra point attempts.

Even more surprising, freshman punter Joe Doyle (who has a long of 71) has been tremendous. Opponents have only returned four of the 29 punts off the foot of the Knoxville native for a total of -2 yards (-0.5 average ranks third nationally).

The advanced metrics also show that Tennessee has a decided edge on special teams. Per S&P+, Alabama ranks 97th in the country on special teams, while the Vols rank 12th. And as I mentioned before, Alabama has been excellent on kick returns — but if the Tide are returning a lot of kicks, that means the Vols are scoring.

While a shanked punt or hooked field goal won’t put Alabama at risk of losing a game (until possibly the postseason), it could swing a cover — especially with the line hanging right above a key number this week.

For your reference, here are some others that should have a special teams advantage on Saturday, per S&P+:

  • Rutgers (8th) vs. Northwestern (120nd)
  • LSU (3rd) vs. Mississippi State (104th)
  • Ohio (27th) vs. Bowling Green (128th)
  • New Mexico (2nd) vs. Fresno State (101st)
  • Duke (14th) vs. Virginia (111th)

Houston Rush Defense vs. Navy

  • Houston -12.5 at Navy
  • O/U: 60.5
  • 3:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN

Led by defensive lineman and potential future top-five NFL draft pick Ed Oliver, Houston possesses a dominant run defense. The Cougars have given up just 2.8 yards per rush — eighth-best nationally — which will come in handy against a Navy team that ranks top 30 in yards per carry.

Meanwhile, Navy allows 5.0 yards per rush — which sits outside the top 100 in the FBS. That’s not ideal against a Houston offense that averages the seventh-highest yards per rush (6.2) in the country.

Per S&P, the Cougars own the country’s third-most efficient run defense. They do struggle to pressure the quarterback and at times with coverage in the secondary — but Navy’s triple-option attack can’t exploit either deficiency.

Before wrapping up, let’s circle back on that IsoPPP+ measure again. Houston’s offense ranks sixth in that adjusted explosiveness measure, which spells doom for a Navy defense that ranks 111th. Look for the Cougars, who rank 10th in Rush Explosiveness, to hit countless big plays on the ground against a Midshipmen D that ranks 122nd in that same metric.

The Navy offense also has almost zero explosiveness, ranking 108th nationally. Navy also runs as much as any team (highest frequency on passing downs and second-highest on standard downs). That will play right into the hands of the Cougars, who should dominate in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

From an actionable betting standpoint, take a look at Houston first half. Not only is Navy always a viable backdoor cover risk as an underdog, it has started slow all season. In five games vs. FBS opponents, Navy has a TOTAL of three points in the first quarter. In complete contrast, Houston has scored 66 first-quarter points against five FBS teams, including 21 against both Arizona and Texas Tech.

Credit:

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Buffalo wide receiver K.J. Osborn (8)

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