Week 6 College Football Best Bets: Watch for Big Bounce Backs

Efficiency numbers suggest there may be some value in teams that underperformed last week. Let's take a look.

Many years ago, professional sports gamblers advanced a concept known as the zig zag theory. It held that, in the NBA playoffs, the market tended to overrate the winner of the previous game, and the value resided in the team coming off a loss.

Today, zig zag theory for the NBA playoffs is a bit hackneyed. Vegas bookmakers don’t rise to the top of their profession by being marks. The sportsbooks recognized that teams coming off a loss in the playoffs often performed better in the following game – given the need to win, especially in a short series – and those adjustments are now baked into the line.

However, the broader zig zag concept may have some applicability in college football, particularly early in the season. Inevitably, some teams begin the year by exceeding expectations or underperforming the preseason prognostications in their first few games.

An immediate result can be swings in the Vegas line driven by public perception where some teams’ stock rise dramatically, while others plummet. This can be especially true for teams that may have dominated or flopped in hyped nationally televised games. It is a classic case of recency bias.

Being able to spot which teams are becoming overvalued and undervalued can create an advantage in the betting market. That’s where numberFire’s nERD – an overall team efficiency measurement – comes in (you can find nERD ratings on our power rankings page). Each week these advanced metrics give clues about where the Vegas spread may be overcorrecting based on previous weeks’ performances. Importantly, these rankings arm prospective bettors with a statistical foundation that temper wild fluctuations caused by the week-to-week eye test. 

Here are just a few games where nERD suggests bettors should be zigging while the market is zagging (all lines courtesy of Bovada and are current as of Friday morning).

Please note: nERD is not the only thing we use when projecting game outcomes. If you'd like to see who our algorithms like this week, click here.

West Virginia (-6.5) vs. Oklahoma State

If there's a poster child for trusting the numbers over a one-week performance, it's West Virginia. The Mountaineers played Oklahoma tight for nearly three quarters in one of Week 5’s premier matchups. But the Sooners’ quarterback, Baker Mayfield, carved up West Virginia’s highly effective pass defense over the game’s final 16 minutes to lead Oklahoma to a lopsided 44-24 win in Norman.

But a closer look at nERD suggests that an overreaction would be foolish. West Virginia comes into its matchup with undefeated Oklahoma State ranked fourth in the nation in adjusted team efficiency. That is some 25 spots ahead of the Cowboys. According to nERD, the Mountaineers should be a double-digit favorite on a neutral field. If you give West Virginia an additional three points for home field advantage -- a conservative adjustment for a team that excels at home -- suddenly West Virginia appears to be a big favorite. That makes even more sense when you consider that the Cowboys 5-0 record may be a bit of an illusion; Oklahoma State is a couple of flute plays away from having two losses on its record, after narrowly escaping Big 12 rivals, Texas and Kansas State, in back-to-back weeks.

Even with star safety Karl Joseph out for the season with a knee injury, the Mountaineers laying the points is the safe play here.

Kansas State (+10.5) vs. TCU

TCU made a statement against an unraveling Texas team last week, lambasting the Longhorns 50-7. TCU dominated every phase of the game and the performance quickly restored TCU as the second-best team in the country among AP voters. Apparently, concern around TCU’s defensive depth and the consistency of quarterback Trevone Boykin subsided thanks to a single instate drubbing.

But nERD’s memory is a bit longer. Thanks to underwhelming performances against a trio of much weaker opponents -- Minnesota, SMU, and Texas Tech -- TCU’s overall efficiency ratings have the Horned Frogs ranked just 24th.

Bill Snyder’s Wildcats, meanwhile, have been a bit of an afterthought in the Big 12. Most Kansas State headlines today revolve around the rash of injuries that have hit the quarterback spot. The Wildcats have gone five-deep at the position and their hopes on Saturday depend in part on Joe Hubener, a third stringer who was knocked out of last week’s game.

But to focus solely on the quarterback position is to ignore how the 76-year-old Snyder consistently wins with inferior talent. The key for Snyder is protecting the ball, being efficient on offense, and playing stout defense. This year the Wildcats have given up a league-best 71 rushing yards per game. numberFire ranks Kansas State’s rush defense as the 7th best in the country. Limiting the Horned Frogs on the ground should make TCU’s high-octane offense one dimensional and put pressure on Boykin to make plays.

nERD has TCU only about 4.5 points better than Kansas State on a neutral field. Accounting for home field advantage, the numbers say the Vegas line of 10.5 points is just too high. Add the fact that Snyder’s teams are 10-2 against the spread in their last 12 games as a regular season underdog of a touchdown or more, and Kansas State plus the points becomes the obvious play.

Navy (+14) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame lost in heartbreaking fashion at Clemson last week, failing to convert a two-point try to force overtime. But Fighting Irish’s national reputation was hardly diminished after a valiant comeback in a hostile (and rain-soaked) environment. Sure, the Irish have been riddled with injuries, but Brian Kelly has made a believer out of the betting public after his team’s high-profile wins – and easy covers – earlier in the season against Texas and Georgia Tech. 

This week, Notre Dame hosts a Navy team that quietly is a perfect 5-0 against the spread. Perhaps most impressively, Navy is the nation’s 6th most efficient team according to nERD. As USA Today’s Paul Myerberg stated this week, “Navy is really dangerous. What Navy does really well under [coach Ken] Niumatalolo is make you not want to play Navy.” That means the eighth best rushing offense in the FBS which brings a (literally) bruising attack dependent on cut block after cut block. And the style has worked in recent years against the Irish. The Midshipmen have rolled up 419 and 454 yards versus Notre Dame in their last two meetings.

nERD projects this game to be much closer to a pick ‘em than a two-touchdown spread. Navy continues to be under the radar but the metrics tell an intriguing story: Navy, plus the points, is the play and Midshipmen are perhaps the best team in the country that no one is talking about.