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Against All Odds, Week 11

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This week, I explore the impact of luck and I make the case for Coach Dantonio

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Illinois at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I almost started this post with a painful, blow-by-blow recap of the painful ebb and flow of the disaster that I witnessed in person on Saturday night in Spartan Stadium. But, honestly, I don’t see the point. If you are reading this, you know what happened. MSU had an early 28-3 lead and through a long, bizarre, and painful series of improbable and unfortunate events MSU lost a heart breaker with 5 seconds left.

I could go on for paragraphs about tipped passes, hail Mary’s, blown calls, blown assignments, or missed tackles, but the overall weirdness of the game can be summarized by one simple example. Even the fact the Illinois missed a late extra point was a catalyst for MSU to lose the game. Had they made that PAT, Illinois likely would have played for OT and not the win in regulation. These things just don’t happen to other teams.

The past cannot be changed. MSU is 4-5 and the season is now in crisis. That, everyone can agree with. But, in order to make good choices about the future, we need to understand the past, and in times like these I always find that the cold, hard numbers are a good place to start. But before I do that, let’s cut right to the main point:

I am still very much pro-Dantonio. Despite the fact that we are on course for 2 consecutive disappointing season, I strongly believe that me is still the right man for the job. Let’s break my logic as follows:

1) This team is not as bad as you think; they just aren’t very lucky.

Yes, MSU is 4-5. But, three of those losses came against teams that were all at one point in the Top 6 of the country, two were on the road, one was in terrible weather and the three games were played consecutively. That is terrible schedule luck. If nothing else, I strongly believe that if MSU could rearrange its schedule (for example, play Michigan and Illinois in November and Wisconsin in November) the win count would improve by several games.

As for the other loses, MSU was the better team, but still lost. In this case, when I say “better team,” what I mean is that if MSU were to play Arizona State and Illinois 100 times each, MSU would win more than half of those games. There is a large amount of data to support this claim.

Anecdotally, MSU won more individual snaps in both of those games. Actually, MSU won quite a few snaps against OSU as well. The team that wins the most snaps should win the game more often than not. MSU also out-gained Illinois by 120 yards and Arizona State by almost 200. The better team usually wracks up the most yards.

More quantitatively, one interesting measure is the ESPN game cast probability tracker. While the methodology behind this measure is not clear to me, it does provide an interesting data point. With 1:30 left in the Arizona State games, MSU had an 81.3% chance to win. At the end of the 3rd quarter of the Illinois game, MSU’s odds to win were a staggering 99.6%! MSU lost both games. While this is slightly dubious, simple multiplication suggests that the odds of MSU losing both of those games in that exact situation is literally 1 in 1,300. If we just think about the dozens of plays in each game ALL of which had to go against MSU in order for those games to be losses, that number actually makes some sense. This is not normal.

Finally, I should point out the that various computer models also back up the claim that MSU is the better team. My algorithm still has MSU (#40) higher ranked than both Illinois (52) and Arizona State (43) . My math suggests that MSU would win 60-70 times if they played each team 100 times. The S&P+ is similar. ESPN’s FPI actually has MSU ranked much higher at #25 overall. MSU is not that bad, folks but things have NOT gone our way. But, these numbers ALL back up the claim that MSU is significantly better than the current ugly record.

Now, the counter argument is certainly that the difference between a good team and an average team is the ability to execute and out-play bad luck. That is true to some extent. Execution and other “quality control” issues have been a problem, and there have been some coaching errors. In many respects, you have to make your own luck. Yet, if I think back to the various series of unfortunate events that led to those key losses, a majority of the events were either random (tipped balls), outside of MSU’s control (questionable officiating), or very low probability (hail Mary throws). How, again, is this the fault of the coaching staff? Also, I am not even going to go down the road of injuries and the sudden loss of senior captain Joe Bachie.

No one likes the idea that luck might be mostly to blame. It just seems like the easy answer. It doesn’t require any action. You can’t fire luck and you can’t out-recruit bad luck. You just have to wait for the monkey to leave your back and go pick on someone else’s team. BUT, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the primary cause. Based on the evidence at hand, that is my conclusion. But, that also doesn’t mean the answer is to do nothing. There are other, smaller problems that can and should be addressed. However, the answer is not to burn the house to the ground just because there are a few mice in the basement.

2) Coaching continuity is under-valued and these coaches are proven

Back in Week 4, Coach Pat Fitzgerald commented that one of the reasons MSU has had so much sustained success is that the coaching staff has been together for so long. In the college game, players come and go and matriculate. It is the coaches that give programs stability. It is easy to forget that in the midst of a 4-game losing streak, but it’s true.

Also, most of these same coaches were on the staff from 2013-15. Do you think they all suddenly forgot how to coach? Is that seriously a better argument to some of you than we are just not lucky over the past 2 years?

3) The grass is not always greener on the other side

Ok, so let’s say you want Dantonio gone? What is your plan? I am sure that you have your favorite replacement coach in mind who is going to take MSU to the next level such that we will be competing with Alabama and Clemson on yearly basis. Sure, sign me up!

But, before you do, please just do me one favor: give me 3 examples of programs who have done this and it has worked. Bonus points if they are from programs that don’t play players. I’ll wait. While you think, here are the cautionary tales just off the top of my head: Nebraska, Minnesota (with Mason), and Michigan (post Lloyd Carr). They all gave up good to chase great and they wound up bad for at least a decade.

I have heard the argument that this mindset is just motivated by fear and that you need to make bold choices in order to achieve greatness. Again, what a beautiful story. The next time you go to Vegas, make sure to put $10,000 down on the craps table that you will roll a hard eight on your next roll. No? What are you, chicken? BE BOLD. After all, the odds of success are likely the same. Understanding the odds is not fear, it’s pragmatism. It is the folks in the “fire Dantonio” camp that are being emotional. It feels good to take action. But often times, inaction is the smart, long term strategy.

4) Coach D has earned the right to retire on his own terms

That’s right. I said it. Dantonio is now the winningest coach in MSU history. That is nothing to sneeze at. He has given us some great memories and he is 63 years old. He won 10 games just 2 years ago. MSU has only won 10 games or more in a season 8 times in history. Coach D has never gone more than two years without at least 9 wins. This year might break that streak. That is not a fireable offense.

5) Reactionary moves will scare away potential new coaches

Coaches are not stupid. They know Coach Dantonio and they know what he has done and what he can do. They are watching this situation just like we are. While I am sure that they see some problems that could be fixed, I think they also see the what the metric are seeing, and that is that this team is not that bad. They are seeing a team that they would prefer not to play.

But, they are also watching the MSU fan base. What they are seeing is a group that has been spoiled by their own success. And it is a success that was built from scratch by the man that some want to run out of town. How do you think those high level, desirable coaches are going to think about walking into that situation? Will they jump at the chance to follow a (fallen) legend, only to be chased out of town in three years if they can’t get to 10 wins in one of the toughest divisions in college football? Or, will they wait to see if a job like USC, Arizona, Vanderbilt, or South Carolina opens up? You can already guess what I think would happen.

That all said, here is what I actually predict will happen:

Coach Dantonio will continue to get strong support from MSU’s administration. Soon Coach Izzo will also throw in his support. Do you want to argue with that legend as well? Coach D will return next year. However, he will make several staff changes. I think that he essentially has to. And next year, we will try this all again, hoping for a bit better luck. Honestly, I think we are due.

Big Ten Metrics Update

After the event of Week 11, the updated odds and expected wins for the Big Ten are shown below

The more visual representation of the expected win trends are shown here:

With the loss to Illinois, MSU’s 7-week slide into oblivion has continued. MSU has now dropped to 40 in my power rankings, and the expected win total has slipped to under 6 at 5.96. As for my projected spreads for the remaining three games, I have:

  • Michigan +16.9
  • Rutgers -29.2
  • Maryland -15.5

The line for the Michigan game opened at +12 and has crept up to +13.5. As for projected record, I have:

  • 7-5: 10%
  • 6-6: 77%
  • 5-7: 13%
  • 4-8: 0.2%

So, 6-6 and at least a bowl game and those valuable extra practices is the most likely scenario. But, the odds of missing a bowl currently are slightly better than the odds of beating Michigan. Awesome.

As for the rest of the Big Ten, nothing really changed in the East, despite Penn State’s loss to Minnesota. The winner of the Penn State-Ohio State is going to go to Indy unless something truly bizarre happens. I still project Ohio State as a 2 TD favorite in that match-up. The only lane that is now closed to the Lions is a back-door playoff bid if their were to have lost to Ohio State, yet finished 11-1. That was pretty unlikely anyway.

In the West, Minnesota’s win means that the Gophers still have a 2-game lead in the standings with 3 games to go. While that seems safe, Minnesota still has road games left at Iowa and Northwestern, followed by the home finale against Wisconsin. My metrics suggest the Gopher will be underdogs to both Iowa (which is true, it opened at +2) and Wisconsin, and as such, my math still give Wisconsin 50-50 odds to make a comeback. I am personally rooting for Minnesota such that one more team can claim to have been to Indy before Michigan.

Betting and Upset Pick Review

It is cold comfort, but at least the numbers were kind to me this week. Overall, my algorithm went 27-21 (56%) against the spread, marking the 3rd week in a row that it was over 55%. For the year, I am now 284-266 (52%) ATS. In contrast, the FPI failed to get over 500 for the 3rd consecutive week. It went only 20-28 (42%) which brings it’s year-to-date total to 261-289 (47.5%).

As for my recommended bets, those result are shown here:

I made three picks, and they all came true. Nice. This brings the YTD total to 47-31 (60%). The FPI chose not to play and held steady at 19-13 (59%) and the combined strategy now sits at 63-42 (60%).

As for upsets, the full table is shown here:

My algorithm went 2-2 (50%) bringing the YTD total to 26-30 (46%). The FPI went 0 for 1, which brings its totals to 18-17 (51%). Overall, there were a total of 16 upsets, which was a bit more than the 12 that I predicted. Also notable was the fact that there were two upsets bigger than MSU’s loss: Nevada over San Diego State and Tulsa over UCF. #smallvictories

National Overview

The overall results for the week are shown below in my standard graph

The notable over-achievers for the week include Ohio State (off scale), Florida, Notre Dame, Miami and Texas Tech. As for notable under-achievers, I would point out SMU, Virginia, Oklahoma, and BYU.

That is all for now. Let’s try to regroup just in time to ruin the day of about 100,000 losers in life next weekend. Until then, Go State, Beat the Sunkbears!