One needs only to look at the advance national championship lines to discern the difference between Notre Dame and teams like Alabama, Clemson and Michigan.
Notre Dame beat Michigan in their season opener at home that doubled as quarterback Shea Patterson’s debut with the Wolverines. But as of earlier this week, one offshore sports book listed Alabama as a 20½-point favorite over the Fighting Irish and a 14-point favorite over Michigan.
Notre Dame is a balanced team thanks to improved quarterback play by Ian Book. But the Irish have played four one-possession games, narrowly escaping another against Northwestern. The rest of the schedule has included teams with four to eight losses.
Syracuse has lost two games — to Atlantic Coast Conference division leaders Clemson and Pittsburgh — by a combined 11 points. Saturday’s game takes place in a strange venue at Yankee Stadium. Syracuse is No. 1 in the nation in special teams, per S&P+ ratings, and Orange coach Dino Babers is 8-3 against the spread as an underdog away from the Carrier Dome.
I like Syracuse plus 10½ in this game.
Four more plays (home team in CAPS):
Michigan State (-1) over NEBRASKA: The forecast calls for a wind chill below 20 degrees at kickoff, with winds in the 15-to-20 mph range. Nebraska’s offense has helped it win three of four with a competitive loss at Ohio State. However, Michigan State is built to play in inhospitable conditions on the road. The Spartans’ run defense ranks second in S&P+ and first in stuff rate. It does not give up big plays in the passing game. By contrast, Nebraska is 94th in S&P+ rush defense. The Cornhuskers allow opposing rushing attacks to be efficient and explosive. In a game dictated by conditions, I like the Spartans.
Middle Tennessee State (+16) over KENTUCKY: Middle Tennessee has not played well against Southeastern Conference opponents. But it’s 9-1 in its last 10 games against non-SEC teams and 4-1 ATS in its last five. QB Brent Stockstill has 11,249 career passing yards and won’t be intimidated by Kentucky’s defense. The Wildcats haven’t scored more than 17 points in a game since Sept. 29, and I don’t trust this team laying two scores or more. Kentucky has lost three of its last five games, with escapes against Vanderbilt (14-7) and Missouri (15-14). I don’t think the Wildcats will be motivated in what could be a real slog.
UCF (-7) over Cincinnati: I never thought UCF would be undervalued while riding a 22-game winning streak, but I think they are here. The Knights are 4-1 ATS in games with a spread under double digits during the streak. And, based on analytics and scouting, UCF is better in all three phases. Sure, the Knights haven’t played a tough schedule, but it has been tougher than the one Cincinnati has faced. I don’t think the Bearcats have the offense to keep up with UCF or the defense to shut it down.
HAWAII (-6½) over UNLV: QB Cole McDonald and WR John Ursua captivated college football early this season as Hawaii reinstituted the run-and-shoot offense. The team started 6-1 before losing four consecutive games, and is 1-8 ATS since Week 2. But Hawaii’s schedule was almost criminal as it played 11 consecutive weeks before a bye. And games 4-11 ping-ponged between the islands and the mainland, starting with a trip to New York. The last four games, Hawaii played BYU at altitude, hosted an improved UNR team and then played Mountain West frontrunners Fresno State and Utah State. Now off a bye, Hawaii hosts a bad UNLV team that just upset San Diego State.
Last week: 1-2-2 ATS
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Christopher Smith of AL.com, NOLA.com and MyBookie is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Follow @cfblocksmith on Twitter.