Line Items: There are winning programs and there are losing programs
Nebraska gets a home crowd behind it, but Northern Illinois is a "winning program" making a double-digit spread a little dicey.
After back-to-back weeks on the road against Power 5 opponents, Matt Rhule and Nebraska make their home debut Saturday with a game that’s more typical of those we’ve come to expect to open the season (i.e., at home, against a Group of 5 opponent). Northern Illinois, however, is not quite the soft open we may associate with September nonconference games.
“Northern Illinois is a winning culture,” Rhule said. “Programs are either winning or losing programs in my opinion. Northern Illinois is a winning program led by a man who won there as a player and is now there winning as a coach.”
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I’ve long held similar sentiments on scheduling games like this. Be careful against programs that have won over a long stretch at a lower level. NIU, with an all-time winning percentage of .535 and six MAC titles, has won in Lincoln before. Troy (.569, two-time Division II national champ) has won in Lincoln. Southern Miss (.574, also a two-time DII champ) has won in Lincoln before.
If the power program doesn’t exploit its natural advantages early in games like this, belief grows and teams that are used to winning already enter with a high level of belief.
A fast start powered by a night-game crowd would do wonders for the Huskers on Saturday. A little success early on offense wouldn’t hurt.
The line on this game opened Sunday as high as Nebraska -14.5. On Thursday, it was around -11 most places, which is good if you like the Huskers. The Prediction Tracker average favors Nebraska by 12, SP+ by nearly 14 and FPI has it right at 11.
If I didn’t have to make a pick for this column, I’d probably stay away from this game. I just can’t shake that Nebraska has scored three touchdowns this season and they’ve come on a circus play, a 50-yard burst by Jeff Sims and on a short field late in the Colorado game when it seemed like half the Buffs’ bench was already accepting congratulations from fans in the stands. The Huskers’ defense is the best thing going in this game on either side, but what’s realistic to expect from the offense in terms of points? The total here is 43, meaning something close to a 27-16 score.
I’ll tepidly take Nebraska -11 here because I do think the defense has a unique chance to help put points on the board, if not do it themselves. More on that in the full game preview, if you want an intermission, then on to the rest of the Big Ten picks.
The Conference of Broad Shoulders
Season Record ATS: 12-8 (.600)
Went 6-4 last week, again, and why would that change this week? Clearly, I have identified things in these Big Ten games more powerful than sophisticated algorithms paired with the wisdom of crowds. How does he do it? It’s just in me, I guess. Maybe I’ll sell you some of it.
I’m probably always going to joke about the weekly performance, whatever it is, but to be clear: I do put time into these picks, and I do prefer winning over losing. As mentioned at the outset, however, I just know that the game is very hard to beat, and I also know I’m not willing to put up with the hassle of trying to beat it for real.
Virginia at Maryland -14.5 (Prediction Tracker Average: Maryland -14.5)
Virginia is 0-2 and coming of a heartbreaking loss at home to James Madison.1 The Cavaliers exceeded expectations last week but rank in the bottom three nationally in offensive and defensive success rate. That’s a heavy burden to carry. So far Maryland has looked much like most of the good Maryland teams of the Big Ten era have—plenty of explosiveness, an offense that will put up points, a defense that’s basically fine, maybe topping out at 8-4. I don’t like the number here, I don’t have a great feel for the game, but the Terps have the strongest weapon (offense) on Saturday, and I’ll just hope that’s enough to cover two touchdowns plus the hook. Pick: Maryland -14.5
Penn State -14.5 at Illinois (PTA: PSU -13)
Both offenses rank in the top 20 in success rate after two games, but Penn State’s defense leads the nation in that category while Illinois ranks 123rd. The Nittany Lions probably won’t race to a big lead, but gradually grind the Illini down with consistent gains. The spread here, -14.5 on the road team, is one that always makes me pause. Since 2014, road favorites of 14.5 points have covered the number 52% of the time, not quite enough to just take any such team blindly and beat the juice, but close. Since 2019, however, road favorites of 14.5 points are 57% against the spread. I typically try not to take a trend-based approach, but this has become a number I look for and then see if there’s additional evidence to support the trend. I think there is here. Pick: PSU -14.5
Louisville -10 vs. Indiana (PTA: Louisville -11.5)
In a bit of an upset, defense has been the story through Jeff Brohm’s first two games leading his alma mater. The Cardinals rank 15th in success rate and first in explosiveness. The offense is ninth and 37th in those categories respectively. Indiana doesn’t come close to that on either side of the ball, but at least the Hoosiers will get to play in an NFL stadium for this neutral site game in Indianapolis. Pick: Louisville -10.5
Georgia Southern at Wisconsin -19.5 (PTA: Wisconsin -15.5)
Georgia Southern is another non-power program with a long history of winning, so the line here has me skeptical from the start. It’s tough to know what to make of the Eagles after an easy win over The Citadel and a two-touchdown victory over UAB (which might be quite bad). Wisconsin hasn’t really wowed or alarmed anyone through two games under Luke Fickell. The Badgers are fine so far, but the expectation entering the season was closer to extra fine at worst. Georgia Southern has enough on offense to keep this within 20 points. Pick: Georgia Southern +19.5
Minnesota at North Carolina -7.5 (PTA: UNC -3)
Intriguing. North Carolina is a deserving favorite after surviving against Appalachian State2 last week. For my purposes, I treat Minnesota like it’s 1-1 at this point rather than 2-0 based on postgame win probabilities. That said, the Gophers do tend to get better as the season goes along, a big credit to P.J. Fleck. They’ll try to drag any game underground, where they’re happiest. Game state might matter a lot in this one. If Minnesota gets to do Minnesota things early, the Tarheels are in for a slog. If it goes the other way—a quick score, a fluky drive in the first quarter—it’s probably advantage UNC, and I think the latter is slightly more likely. Pick: UNC -7.5
Northwestern at Duke -18.5 (PTA: Duke -16.5)
I don’t know. Duke is going to win this football game. It’s trajectory through 15 games under Mike Elko is basically a straight line up. But have we come so far that the Blue Devils deserve to be a three-score favorite over anyone? Maybe if that team is Northwestern, which to its credit blasted UTEP last week as a home underdog. Saturday will be tougher sledding in Durham. Duke’s given up one touchdown in each of its games, and the Wildcats managed just one touchdown against Rutgers. A 24-3 game would do just fine and that seems on the low end of the Blue Devils’ potential. Pick: Duke -18.5
Western Michigan at Iowa -28.5 (PTA: Iowa -25)
Here it is, Brian Ferentz. The worst defense Iowa will face from here on out. The opportunity to pour it on and boost that point total everyone’s watching because the AD made it a thing to watch. I just refuse to take a team to cover a 28.5-point spread when it has yet to score 28 points in a game. Call me old fashioned. Pick: WMU +28.5
Virginia Tech at Rutgers -7 (PTA: Rutgers -6.5)
This is a big one for Rutgers and potential bowl eligibility. The Scarlet Knights have one more guaranteed win on the schedule (Wagner), and some toss-up games, probably, against Michigan State at Indiana. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is making some slow progress under Brent Pry. The Hokies need this game, too. The line is trending pretty close to most of the projections, so this one looks like a coin flip. I’m seeing a back-and-forth, often ugly game that keeps Tech withing a touchdown. Pick: VT +7
Western Kentucky at Ohio State -29 (PTA: OSU -24)
Much like Brohm at Louisville, the story with Ohio State is that the early-season story isn’t about offense. The Buckeyes didn’t put up 40 points against Indiana or Youngstown State, and 40-plus is what Ohio State usually averages. However, Ohio State has only allowed 10 points on the season. Enter Western Kentucky, which is averaging 46.5 points per game, throwing the ball 44 times per game and completing 70% of those throws. It was certainly curious that Ryan Day came out and named quarterback Kyle McCord the starter this week given that he just did that two weeks ago. Ohio State will look Ohio State-like at some point this season, but the Hilltoppers should be the first team to score twice in a game against the Buckeyes and that might be enough to stay under the number. Pick: WKU +29
Washington -16 at Michigan State (PTA: Washington -10)
There’s always a chance that a team, faced with potential scandal out of nowhere, comes out and plays inspired football, particularly at home. But the question with Michigan State, since Mel Tucker’s breakout 11-2 season, has been one of culture. Heck, it was the question during his breakout year given how transfer-heavy the Spartans were. Washington is good. Quarterback Michael Pennix Jr. is good, and plenty familiar with the Big Ten. This line is heavy on the Huskies given the Tucker suspension, but I don’t know if the MSU locker room is strong enough to take advantage of that. Pick: Washington -16
Bowling Green at Michigan -40.5 (PTA: Michigan -37)
While Jim Harbaugh is off buying mulch or something, Michigan will be pummeling Bowling Green. There’s no question of that. But 40 points is a big number. Will the Falcons turn it over enough for something like 49-7 to be possible? Will the Wolverines be interested enough to tack on another touchdown late in the game? That’s been the question in each of the first two Michigan mismatches, and both have gone the way of the underdog. Maybe that means it’ll go the other way here, but no matter the disparity between teams, things basically have to go perfectly for any team to cover a spread approaching six touchdowns. Pick: Bowling Green +40.5
Syracuse -2.5 at Purdue (PTA: Syracuse -2.5)
Syracuse is ripping it up against inferior opponents with Rocky Long at defensive coordinator. Even if the opponents were better than Colgate and Western Michigan, that would still make sense. Long inherited this defense from Nebraska defensive coordinator Tony White, one of his own proteges. It gives the Orange an identity, which might be more than Purdue has at this early stage, though both the Boilermakers’ games have been decided by seven points or less. Purdue should be game here, but at -2.5 I think the upside is with Syracuse. Pick: Syracuse -2.5
Maybe the G5 program with a winning culture that no power team wants to play right now.
Mack Brown said after last week’s 40-34 win that he didn’t want to play Appalachian State any more, and he used to coach the Mountaineers. Makes sense. App State is a talented G5 team with a history of winning. There’s a trend here.