College Football Week 3 Best Bets: Take Advantage of Inflated Lines

Max Meyer
Sports Illustrated

We had seven college football best bets across two pieces last week, and finished with a 4-3 record, pushing us to 8-5 on the season. I'll roll with these four best bets for now, but I could have more in a later piece this week as I continue researching. SI Gambling will be using current odds from New Jersey sportsbooks (FanDuel, DraftKings, William Hill, PointsBet) for best bets every week.

No. 21 Maryland at Temple: Temple +7.5 (-110) at DraftKings

The college football world cannot get enough of Maryland after the Terps’ first two games. They’ve beaten Howard and then-No. 21 Syracuse by a combined score of 142-20. The offense has looked unstoppable and the defense has looked much improved. But this seems like an ideal spot to fade Maryland because of how inflated the line is.

Maryland is now the No. 21 team in the country, and opened as a four-point road favorite at Temple. That line jumped up to eight, though it currently resides at 7.5.

Temple beat Maryland 35-14 last season, but that was a Terps team without Mike Locksley at coach, without Josh Jackson at QB and still fighting the emotions surrounding the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair. This is obviously a much different Maryland team now, but that is still a lot of points to lay on the road against a Temple team that people shouldn’t be sleeping on.

After Geoff Collins left for Georgia Tech and Manny Diaz spurned the Owls for Miami, former Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey is now running things in Philly. Temple’s only game so far this season was a 56-12 victory over Bucknell, so it’s hard to read too much into the immediate impact Carey has brought. With the Owls coming off a bye, however, they get an extra week of rest and more film to prep for the new-look Terps than the other way around.

Temple has a lot of talent though, and this line is suggesting otherwise as the Maryland bandwagon is starting to overflow. Anthony Russo went 7-3 as the Owls’ starting QB last season and looked very sharp against Bucknell, despite missing two weeks of practice in August after suffering a calf injury. Temple has nice depth at tailback, an experienced offensive line and do-it-all wideout Isaiah Wright—Wright has scored a receiving, rushing, kickoff return and punt return TD in back-to-back seasons. Getting back starting tight end Kenny Yeboah from injury will help this group too.

But the defense is the biggest strength of this team, led by arguably the best linebacking corps of any Group of Five team. Seniors Shaun Bradley, Chapelle Russell and Sam Franklin all return after starting a season ago, and combined for 211 tackles in 2018. The defensive line has some disruptive players as well.

Temple was one of the best defenses last season at preventing explosive plays (ranking 10th in IsoPPP), which is what you need to thrive at when facing Maryland. The Owls did lose a couple impact players in the secondary, including first-round pick Rock Ya-Sin, however they did return six starters overall from that defense, which doesn’t even include last year’s team leader in sacks and current starting defensive end Quincy Roche.

So with Maryland being one of the biggest stories in college football the past two weeks, this dangerous Temple team is flying under the radar. Sure there’s a revenge angle for Maryland after the 2018 loss to Temple, but I like the Owls coming off the bye and having more time to prepare for the Terps. I also think the line is inflated given some overreaction to Maryland’s strong start. Give me the home dog here.

Air Force at Colorado: Air Force +3 1H (+100) at PointsBet

In last week’s picks, I went with a first-half underdog that runs the option against a favorite coming off an emotional comeback win. The thinking behind that Tulane pick against Auburn was that it’s difficult for a team to prepare for that type of offense in just a week, and that the Tigers may have trouble getting up for an inferior opponent early on after an exhilarating win over Oregon. Tulane, which was getting 10 points in the first half, was outscored 14-6 before the break.

I’m going with a similar approach for the Air Force at Colorado game this weekend. The Buffaloes are coming off a 34-31 overtime win over rival Nebraska, who was ranked No. 25 at the time. Colorado managed to come back from a 17-0 halftime deficit and 24-14 score in the fourth quarter. Now the Buffaloes have to face an Air Force team that runs the triple option and is coming off a bye.

This opening line immediately jumped out to me because it was just Colorado as a 1.5-point home favorite over Air Force. It’s now up to -4, but it’s interesting to see how oddsmakers view the Buffaloes. Even though I was impressed with the comeback win over Nebraska (and I was incorrect picking the Cornhuskers as a best bet last week), I’m still not sold on Colorado, particularly its defense.

Despite bringing in former Georgia and Alabama defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to be its head coach this offseason, Colorado has allowed 6.49 yards per play in its first two games, which ranks 114th in the country.

I’m particularly concerned about Colorado’s inability to stop rushing attempts near or behind the line of scrimmage. At first glance, you see Colorado has only allowed 4.03 yards per carry, which ranks 83rd. But the Buffaloes are tied for ninth in the country in sacks, and negative yardage on sacks impacts rushing numbers, which skews the YPC here.

So let’s dive deeper on Colorado’s run defense, particularly the players up front. Per Football Outsiders, Colorado’s defensive line ranks 117th in opportunity rate (percentage of opponents’ carries that gain at least four yards) and 125th in stuff rate (percentage of carries that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage).

Colorado’s pass rush will obviously help it against pass-heavy teams, but it will be neutralized here against Air Force. The triple-option Falcons attempted the fifth fewest passes per game in 2018, and threw it just once in their season-opening win over Colgate. As you would expect from a triple-option team, Air Force rarely gets stopped at or behind the line scrimmage (11th in stuff rate in 2018) and the Falcons sure look like they’ll get nice chunks of yardage on a lot of their carries in this one.

While Air Force’s run defense was excellent last season, the Falcons did not do a great job against the pass. The Falcons were really banged-up on the back end, though, and returned three senior starters from that secondary. If this group can stay healthy, it should be improved from last season. Going up against quarterback Steven Montez and star wideout Laviska Shenault is no easy task, but a goal for new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson is prioritizing the rushing attack more.

Having only one week to prep for the triple option is tricky, and a Colorado defense that has struggled stopping the run this season could very well be gashed early and often before second-half adjustments from Tucker. In fact, the Buffaloes have been outscored in first halves 38-21 in two games, while outscoring opponents in second halves/OT 62-24, so at least Tucker’s halftime adjustments have worked thus far.  

Colorado has also benefitted massively from turnovers, as its +5 turnover differential is tied for second in college football. But with similar personnel last season, Air Force had the 23rd-lowest number of giveaways, despite poor fumble luck—the Falcons lost 10 of their 15 fumbles (66.7%, which was tied for 115th in the country). Colorado’s defense has already had trouble getting stops, and if it isn’t forcing turnovers or generating sacks, that could lead to some big trouble.

This is the first time the two in-state rivals have faced off in 45 years, and Air Force will be amped to have a shot to prove itself against the best collegiate football team in Colorado. Even though the Falcons went 5-7 last season, all seven of those losses were by 10 points or fewer. I really like the spot here for Air Force, and I’m expecting a very tight game in Boulder, with the underdog making a statement in the first half.

Hawaii at No. 23 Washington: Washington -21 (-110) at DraftKings 

Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich thinks he and his team are hot stuff after beating two Pac-12 teams to start off the 2019 season. Rolovich tweeted out a Rose Bowl logo after Hawaii’s 31-28 win over Oregon State. Meanwhile, Washington is coming off a wonky and demoralizing weather-delayed 20-19 loss to Cal this past weekend. Not only will the Huskies be fired up following that defeat, but they could also want to make a statement for the entire Pac-12 after the conference’s disappointing first two showings vs. the Rainbow Warriors.

Even though this is a Washington defense that had to replace nine starters from one of the stingiest defenses in the country a year ago, the Huskies still represent a major step up for Hawaii compared to facing the lackluster Arizona and Oregon State defenses.

The Beavers have allowed 17 plays of at least 20 yards (tied for last in the nation), while the Wildcats are slightly better having surrendered 15 (tied for 122nd). Oregon State had one of the worst pass rushes in 2018, finishing tied for 119th in sacks, and Arizona finished 91st. The Wildcats have mustered just two sacks this season against Hawaii and Northern Arizona, and their only sack vs. Hawaii came on the final offensive play of the game. The Beavers have four sacks this season, and three of them actually came against Hawaii.

The point is, you can’t consistently give Cole McDonald clean pockets when he’s going up against subpar secondaries, or else he will shred you. Washington, meanwhile, ranks 16th in sack rate this season, notching seven quarterback takedowns in two games. The secondary did have to replace a lot of lost production, however this is still a talented group, and will be a much tougher test than either Arizona or Oregon State. And while the Air Raid is different than Hawaii’s run-and-shoot, the Huskies have thrived under Chris Petersen stopping pass-happy offenses. In five games against Mike Leach’s Washington State, Washington has allowed 13, 10, 17, 14 and 15 points.

Jacob Eason struggled this past weekend, though I’ll give him a slight pass since he was facing arguably the best secondary in the country in Cal. His receivers didn’t help him much either, as they had quite a few drops. But Eason and Co. showed their upside in Week 1 against Eastern Washington, as the Georgia transfer completed 75% of his throws while racking up 349 yards and four passing touchdowns. A healthy Hunter Bryant and Chico McClatcher give Washington more aerial weapons than last season, and Eason has already shown his ability to stretch the field, which is an upgrade over Washington’s last signal-caller Jake Browning.

Going up against a Hawaii defense that has allowed 6.61 yards per play (118th in the country) and 16 plays of 20 yards or more (tied for 127th) should mean more of Week 1 Eason compared to Week 2.  

The Rainbow Warriors benefitted from hosting lowly Pac-12 teams on the island for their first two games, but this time it’ll be on the mainland for their first road game of the season. I think this is a great bounce-back spot for Washington, and that the Huskies will expose a Hawaii team that simply took advantage of facing the Pac-12’s worst defenses.

Arizona State at No. 18 Michigan State: Arizona State +14 (-110) at PointsBet

I’m holding my nose here, but at this number, I can’t pass up the underdog here. Yes, Arizona State has a true freshman quarterback making his first road start. Yes, Arizona State has a terrible offensive line that includes a true freshman center, the only one who started in Week 1. Yes, Michigan State has one of the best defensive lines in football, and that unit will have a massive edge in the trenches. Yes, this is the first stop of Mark Dantonio’s 2019 revenge tour, as the Sun Devils beat Sparty 16-13 in the desert last season.

But again, I think this is an inflated line and there is still enough to like here about ASU.

Let’s start with the game itself. The total opened at 47.5, and is now down all the way to 42. Backing that high of a favorite with a total that low is dangerous, and this is a Michigan State offense that struggled for most of 2018 and in its 2019 season opener against Tulsa. This will be the best defense Sparty has faced thus far, as Arizona State’s linebackers and secondary are both very solid in its 3-3-5. Granted, ASU has faced Kent State and Sacramento State in its first two games, but it’s still encouraging that the Sun Devils rank seventh in Bill Connelly’s defensive S&P+.

ASU’s defensive line is the weakness of this unit, but Michigan State’s run blocking has been subpar to start this campaign and while redshirt freshman Elijah Collins exploded last game against Western Michigan, I’m not sold on this rushing attack yet. I can’t erase that offensive performance against Tulsa just yet, as Sparty averaged 2.7 YPC against a team that was the 93rd-ranked run defense by S&P+ in 2018. This past weekend, San Jose State, which was 130th in rushing S&P+ last season, was able to muster 3.7 YPC against Tulsa.

Michigan State’s offensive line has been much better in pass protection, a big boost for quarterback Brian Lewerke. Going up against ASU’s secondary, though, will be a challenge. The Sun Devils have legitimate NFL talent back there, headlined by cornerback Chase Lucas and safety Aashari Crosswell. One of the defense’s biggest strengths last season was preventing big plays (27th in IsoPPP), and so far that unit has allowed 11 10-yard gains this season (tied for 21st).

If this game turns into a field position battle, ASU has the edge there. The Sun Devils have a punt god in Michael Turk. Turk punted six times for a 63.0 yard average in Week 1. This past weekend, four of his five punts went inside the 20, and the fifth was a 58-yard bomb. I don’t trust this Michigan State offense to consistently churn out long drives, and if the Spartans can’t force turnovers, that will be the position they could often find themselves in.

Speaking of turnovers, Arizona State has been rather unlucky in that regard. Opponents have fumbled 10 times vs. ASU, the most in college football. Yet the Sun Devils have only recovered three of them, and that 30% recovery rate ranks 97th. ASU has also lost both of its offensive fumbles, including one just short of the end zone against Sacramento State this past Friday. This seems like a fluky trend that should correct itself, and it can only help ASU if it continues to force fumbles at an elite rate.

I get it, there’s a lot to like about Michigan State. But the line has shifted too far, as it opened at 10.5 and it’s now as high as 14. The underdog is where the value lies, and I have to trust my gut with this number here.

Season record: 8-5

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