2018 CFB Top 10 Hidden Gems… plus 1
By Joe Gavazzi Winning Sports Advice
As we approach a new season in College Football, the quest begins for early season value. Based on my vast experience, I have found that it can be extremely profitable to search for a group of teams who fell just short of achieving a winning record last year but have ample experience returning for the upcoming season. These teams have the blend of hunger and experience along with veteran leadership to turn a losing season of last into a winning season in 2018.
Following is a list of the parameters necessary to make my list of Top 10 Hidden Gems (plus 1) for the 2018 CFB Season.
1) A 2017 record of .500 or less in which they had 4 to 6 wins
2) Did not win a Bowl game LY (lost or were not invited)
3) Return at least 7 offensive AND 7 or more defensive starters from last year
4) Have the same Head Coach and returning QB
The following chart represents the 2018 CFB teams who qualify under these parameters. A brief thumbnail sketch will follow for each team. Teams listed in alphabetical order.
|TEAM||COACH||# YRS||2017 SU||LY FINISH||OFF RS||DEF RS|
|Buffalo||Lance Leipold||3||6-6||No Bowl, 3-0 SU||8||7|
|California||Justin Wilcox||1||5-7||No Bowl, 0-2 SU||10||7|
|Miami (OH)||Chuck Martin||4||5-7||No Bowl||8||8|
|Old Dom||Bobby Wilder||11||5-7||No Bowl||9||7|
|Rutgers||Chris Ash||2||4-8||No Bowl, 0-3 SU||7||8|
|Texas Tech||Kliff Kingsbury||5||6-7||Lost Bowl, 2-6 SU||7||10|
|Tulane||Willie Fritz||2||5-7||No Bowl||9||6|
|UL Monroe||Matt Viator||2||4-8||No Bowl, 1-6 SU||9||8|
|U. Mass||Mark Whipple||4||4-8||No Bowl, 4-2 SU||10||6|
|Utah State||Matt Wells||5||6-7||Lost Bowl||9||9|
|Liberty +1||Turner Gill||6||6-5||No Bowl||9||7|
Vast improvement in offense from 16/354 to 28/432 AND DEFENSE from 32/436 to 25/399 sets up the “buy sign” for 15 returning starters for 4th year HC Leipold. Fueled by a 3-0 SU finish and an 8-3 ATS record, look for this team whose 6 losses averaged only 5 PPG, to break through at the start of this season. With competition at the signal caller spot, it is no surprise to this bureau that the Bulls are about to rampage their way thru the MAC EAST.
California Golden Bears
The 5-7 SU year-over-year record of California may have been identical. But it was the influence of 2nd year HC Wilcox, long known as a defensive specialist, who put his imprint on the Bears program in his first season. You see, the defense improved from 43/518 to 28/430 including 273/6.2 rushing to just 164/4.1 LY. It showed in the cash column with an 8-3 ATS mark. With a full complement of 10 offensive starters returning led by QB Bowers, the entire line and a deep array of RBs, this year’s offensive improvement figures to match that of last year’s defense. A pair of late season losses at Stanford and UCLA, each by only 3 points, prevented a winning record and leaves this team hungry for the 2018 season.
Miami OH Redhawks
Slow but steady improvement under 5th year HC Martin means that his commitment to youth in the early seasons of his tenure are about to pay off. For the 3rd consecutive season, the Red Hawks return 16 of more starters. The improvement began to show midway through the 2016 campaign making their record 11-8 SU on the run. Of equal note, is that 4 of the Red Hawk losses last season were by 5 or fewer points. It comes as no surprise, based on that huge number of returning starters in recent seasons, that 18 seniors will vie for the majority of the playing time this season. With QB Ragland at the controls (Red Hawks averaged 238 PY last year) operating behind an OL that returns intact, there is plenty of reason to believe Miami OH gets to the winning side of the ledger this season.
Old Dominion Monarchs
Credit to veteran 11th year HC Bobby Wilder for righting the Monarch’s ship following a series of early season injuries and inexperience. A 6 game mid-season losing streak ended on a positive note when 17 year old true Frosh QB Williams settled in and reached his potential. With a veteran OL and receiving corps plus RB Cox, I am looking for a major return to form from an offense that slid from 35/434 in 2017 to 21/332 in 2018.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Last season, the 2nd under former Ohio State Assistant Chris Ash, saw the Scarlet Knights improve from 0-9 SU, 3-6 ATS to 3-6 SU, 6-3 ATS in Big 10 play. There was improvement in both the scoring offense and the scoring defense. This season, with 15 returning starters, the most of the Ash tenure, there figures to be additional improvement. A manageable early season schedule (excluding Ohio State in Game #2) means the Knights will have an opportunity to settle in offensively under new OC McNulty who has been highly successful in that position at previous jobs. With little expectation of this downtrodden program, do not be surprised to find them on the winning side of the ledger as they enter the meat of the Big 10 schedule.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
TTRR does not fully qualify under the parameters above as last year’s QB Shimonek will be replaced by either Carter or Duffy at the signal callers spot. Changing starting QBs, however, has rarely been an issue for the Raiders under 6th year HC Kingsbury. Coming off a pair of losing campaigns, a 2-6 SU, ATS finish, and an offensive dip from 44/567 to 34/475, I am expecting vast offensive improvement. The return of the entire OL is a signal that the improvement will come immediately. Even better news is that 10 returnees on defense, that improved from 43/554 to 32/444, will benefit from 10 returning starters on the stop unit. Off a pair of sub .500 seasons, look for Kingsbury and company to respond positively to this year’s challenge.
Tulane Green Wave
If the old adage is true that a coach’s team makes the most improvement in his 3rd year, then we can expect good things from the Green Wave in their 3rd year under Willie Fritz. Faithful readers will remember our love for Fritz in 2014 and 2015 when, as coach of the Georgia Southern Eagles, he posted an 18-7 SU, 15-8 ATS record that lined our pockets with green. Those teams led the Nation with 2 year combined stats that saw the Eagles rush for 373/6.8. When Fritz took over Tulane, the Green Wave’s ground game averaged 116/3.5 the previous season. In his 2 years in New Orleans, those numbers have been improved to 230/4.7. With 9 returning starters including the starting signal caller, 4 OL, a group of upperclassmen with 2 years of experience, and an outstanding recruiting class, it is time to “ride the Wave”.
UL Monroe Warhawks
Here is another 3rd year mentor in HC Matt Viator who has 17 returning starters with experience in his program. The offense made major strides last year going from 23/373 to 34/459. With 9 returning starters on offense including 4 OL, QB Evans and WR Green, the offensive explosion will continue. Major key to success is if 8 returning starters on the stop end can improve from the combined 40 PPG and 506 YPG of the previous 2 seasons when they were part of the “200 Club” on defense. Watch those defensive numbers closely to determine the right time to jump on board.
U Mass Minutemen
Looking for a team to continue their turnaround momentum of 2017? How about the U. Mass Minutemen who, after beginning the year 0-6 SU, did not give up the fight in going 4-2 SU in the 2nd half of the season. Less you believe this team was an empty golf bag to start last year’s campaign, note that none of those first 6 season opening defeats came by more than 10 points. QB Ford returns to lead 10 returning starters on offense who averaged 31/433. As is the key with many of these Hidden Gems, your “buy sign” may well come with defensive improvement from a team who has consistently allowed more than 30 PPG in recent campaigns.
Utah State Aggies
HC Matt Wells enters his 6th year in Logan with his most veteran team ever with 9 returning starters on each side of the ball. Could be now or never for Wells who, although leading his team to Bowl games in 4 of 5 seasons has failed to post a .500 or better mark since going 10-4 in 2014. In 2017, a veteran group of 15 returning starters stood 6-5 after a 38-0 shutout of Hawaii November 18th. A 3 point loss to Air Force (out gained the Fly Boys 521-440) preceded a loss to New Mexico State, 26-20, in their Bowl game despite again outgaining the counterpart Aggies, 441-375. I am looking for plenty of upside with Utah State this campaign as this veteran team should reward us with plenty of value based on their 12-23 ATS record of the previous 3 seasons. The fans at Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium will be excited and proud.
Our “Plus 1” Hidden Gem is a Liberty team who crashes the board as the lone addition to the 130 online teams this season. Looking for a school who has plenty to prove? Consider a Liberty team who despite the positives of a fan-base from the Nation’s largest private University was snubbed by the Sun Belt and CUSA for inclusion. Under 7th year HC Turner Gill, best known for his offensive prowess as Nebraska signal caller, these Flames return an offense whose 9 starters averaged 32/449. Their 6-5 record of 2017 includes an opening game upset of the Baylor Bears, 48-45, when they racked up 585 offensive yards. With over 80% of its offense returning intact, you can look for more fireworks from the Flames as they burst onto the landscape of the Big Board this season.