Line Items: Rhules of the Road and a Look at the Big Ten
Matt Rhule lost his Nebraska debut in excruciating, familiar fashion, but it was very on brand in at least one way.
Statistically speaking, you can witness a turnover in a college football game and think “oh, that’s a five-point swing.” That’s what the numbers say, and they’re remarkably stable year to year. Nebraska was -3 in turnovers, that’s 15 points in the red, and lost 13-10 on a field goal with 3 seconds left at Minnesota.
It brings me no satisfaction to point out that things aren’t really adding up again. I’ve been doing it for too long with this program. That was the story of the previous regime, and, based on the first game it looks like Matt Rhule couldn’t change that in one offseason. But I’d also point out it was just the first game. As familiar as that loss felt, you can’t punish Rhule for one game that looked like many that came before it.
Nebraska looked like a team with some real limitations. Despite those, it had a big edge in success rate1, doubled up the Gophers in explosive-play percentage and won the field position battle against a team that wins it most of the time. Do those three things and a team should win about 90% of the time.
Unless it’s -3 in turnovers.
So, Rhule’s first game at Nebraska didn’t instantly change the narrative around Husker football. It was never going to, but an eerie reminder of how far he has to go with this team can still hurt.
Looking beyond that, I think there were a lot of encouraging aspects to the game. I’ll only mention one here as this is a weekly story on what the point spread is telling us about the Big Ten. Rhule entered Thursday night 18-8 (.692) against the spread as a road underdog as a college coach. That’s an extraordinary record. A good against-the-spread percentage is 58 or 60%. The line is designed to make every game close to a toss-up.
Rhule’s track record is as a coach who gets his team to play better than expected, particularly on the road. While Nebraska lost, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day, the Huskers covered the spread easily. Despite the four turnovers, despite some major concerns in the passing game (offensively and defensively), based on the spread the Huskers exceeded expectations.
Once you’ve processed the loss—both that it happened and how it happened—I think the Minnesota game was mostly Rhule-affirming. He’s a builder. The loss to the Gophers did more to support that reputation than refute it.
If you want more postgame thoughts, great news. Our YouTube channel is officially live, and here’s our quick discussion of the game minutes after it ended.
On to the rest of the week in the Big Ten.
The Conference of Broad Shoulders
The Big Ten sat out “Week 0,” but it gets going this week with a range of games including three conference matchups, a rivalry renewed, multiple MAC and Mountain West opponents, a classic cupcake and Harbaugh-less Michigan against a not-helpless opponent.
Before we check out the lines on those games, your standard “for entertainment purposes only” disclaimer here: It’s really hard to beat math, and sports betting is a game the user is not supposed to win. For those who are smart enough to find a consistent edge, taking advantage of it typically requires accounts at every book that will have you, shopping and betting the lines the moment they come out, then hoping the books don’t notice you’re exploiting an edge and refusing or limiting your bets. If you’re willing to deal with all of that hassle and stress, then maybe you’re already answering the question “wouldn’t it be fun to just make a living picking games?”
Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to me, so this really is just entertainment in this case. That said, I’ll make a pick on each of these games and keep track of the record, which will allow us a) to laugh at the futility of it all when I’m batting .400, or b) I’ll make fun of myself after a few lucky weeks in a row and a .600 winning percentage on the year because I know it can’t last.
This is an anti-picks picks column.
Central Michigan at Michigan State -14 (Prediction Tracker Average: MSU -16)
Mel Tucker is keeping his starting QB under wraps, but he’s choosing between a guy with 38 college snaps (Noah Kim) and a guy with six (Katin Houser), while his former starter, Payton Thorne will now do those honors at Auburn. If the QB play here isn’t awful, the Spartans should be fine. The Prediction Tracker average2 offers two points of value on MSU on a line of -14, but SP+ would have the Spartans as a three-touchdown favorite. Pick: MSU -14
East Carolina at Michigan -36 (PTA: Michigan -28.5)
Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter will coach this game while Jim Harbaugh begins his self-imposed three-game ban. The Wolverines are loaded, and not having the head man on the sidelines probably doesn’t make much difference, but East Carolina is no pushover. The Pirates went 8-5 last season with three one-score losses, though they do have to replace a lot from that squad. Still, I’ll take potentially disinterested and perhaps slightly more disorganized Michigan to miss on covering a huge number. Pick: ECU +36
Utah State at Iowa -24 (PTA: Iowa -23)
As you must know, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s offense must average 25 points per game this regular season or he will be put in stocks in the town square on Black Friday (or something like that). It is hilarious then that this line hovers at -24. If the Hawkeyes get exactly 25 points, and they only hit that or better three times last season, the defense would have to pitch a shutout to cover, which happened twice in 2022. Iowa hasn’t beaten any opponent by more than 24 points since Oct. 1, 2021 (Maryland), but I’m still nervous about this one as the line seems about right. Pick: Utah St. +24
Fresno State at Purdue -3.5 (PTA: Purdue -4)
I like Purdue’s new head coach, Ryan Walters, and his addition of Texas quarterback Hudson Card could be one of the best transfer pickups in the Big Ten by the time we get to the end of the season. But we’re at the start of the season, and the Boilermakers are mostly a wildcard. So might be Fresno State. Jeff Tedford kept the train on the tracks last season following the departure of Kalen DeBoer, leading the Bulldogs to 10-4, but the lack of returning production gives some pause. Pick: Purdue -3.5
Ohio State at Indiana +30 (PTA: Indiana +27)
Kyle McCord won Ohio State’s quarterback derby. He’s young and, of course, blue-chip, but he’s also largely untested. Is this the year the Buckeyes don’t have god-level QB play? Should Ryan Day be fired if he doesn’t improve upon his .882 winning percentage? These are the questions you get to ask at Ohio State. Don’t bring it up around Indiana, which might be going to zero this season. That would make me sad as I like Tom Allen, but the outlook here isn’t pretty at the start of a prove-it year. This game will be close for one half of one quarter—the first one. Pick: OSU -30
Buffalo at Wisconsin -28 (PTA: Wisconsin -21.5)
Another year, another stout Wisconsin team that pummels opponents with defense and its Air Raid offense. OK, so there’s some newness here outside of head coach Luke Fickell, and his offensive coordinator pick, former North Carolina OC Phil Longo, has been the subject of much fascination. It’s like going out to dinner with an uncle who, for the entire time you knew him, ordered a rare steak and baked potato, extra sour cream. Then one day he just has gazpacho. Interesting. It’s probably fine here, but I’m still team beef. The Bulls return a good amount from a 7-6 team, and there’s a huge 6.5 points of value if you put any stock in the PTA. Pick: Buffalo +28
Towson at Maryland NL
No line on this game against FCS Towson, which is the kind thing to do. The Tigers have lost their last five games against Power 5 opponents by a combined score of 271-44. If I had to set an over/under on Maryland points in this game, I’d put it at, say, 52.5.
West Virginia at Penn State -20.5 (PTA: -19)
Penn State is the team I’m most anxious to see this weekend. The Nittany Lions are a step behind division heavyweights Michigan and Ohio State, but they might be closing ground. Bruce Feldman’s annual Freaks list, and none of them were sophomore quarterback Drew Allar. The first-time starter might be the difference, given all the other talent on hand, between Penn State being a year away and being here now. The numbers probably point to picking West Virginia, but I like the Lions. Pick: PSU -20.5
Toledo at Illinois -9.5 (PTA: Illinois -14)
The statistical models say this line is too low, and I tend to agree. Toledo is a good MAC team, maybe the best MAC team in 2023. Illinois has to replace its quarterback, star running back, an NFL-caliber secondary and the defensive coordinator. Still, I think the upside here is on the Illini. Pick: Illinois -9.5
Northwestern at Rutgers -6.5 (PTA: Rutgers -4)
What a blessing that this game falls during the first week, when we football-starved souls will still consume anything, and it’s on a Sunday. If Rutgers wants to even flirt with a bowl this season, it has to win this game. Northwestern, meanwhile, was largely left for dead this season while Pat Fitzgerald was still the head coach. What to make of the Wildcats after all the tumult of his departure? I don’t know, but this game screams ugly to me so give me Northwestern to lose but lose 17-13 or something close to that. Pick: Northwestern +6.5
A measure of how often a team stays on schedule by gaining 50% of the yards to go on first down, 70% on second down and 100% on third or fourth downs. It’s maybe the most important stat in football.
I always a baseline to compare something to, and this baseline incorporates more than 50 individual power rankings. It’s not gospel, but it’s something.