Author Douglas Adams once wrote:
“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”
In many ways, this quote seems to capture the entire experience of 2020. Moreover, it perhaps also explains the experience of MSU fans last weekend.
Big Ten fans have had a lot of time on our hands to think about life, the universe, and everything that might have happened in the 2020 season. Some people even simulated the entire 2020 season based on the original schedule just for fun. But when the current eight-game schedule was released, excitement started to build. For fans in East Lansing, expectations were moderate (most people predicted a record of 3-5), but hope was starting to build that maybe, just maybe, the Mel Tucker era would get off to a strong start.
Then last weekend happened.
Instead of a fun afternoon of football, MSU fans witnessed something that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a competent effort on the gridiron. Not only did MSU lose to a team that had not won a Big Ten conference game since 2017, but several of MSU’s opponents, including Indiana, Northwestern, and Michigan, all looked potentially better than we expected. The events put a huge Dent in fans’ hopes for a football-fueled reprieve from the bizarre and inexplicable COVID-saturated world of 2020. Sometimes being an MSU fan means feeling like something is fundamentally wrong with the universe.
Not to sound like a paranoid android, but it’s funny how just when you think life can’t possibly get any worse, it suddenly does. Because the next team up on the schedule just happens to be the Michigan Wolverines.
Great. Those “arrogant asses.”
Just a few weeks ago, Michigan State’s schedule seemed to set up nicely. The best available information (preseason ranking and the Vegas lines) suggested a relatively easy warmup for MSU (and we know what happened there), while the Wolverines were to get a stiff test in Minneapolis. Instead the Gophers merely demonstrated the need, in 2020, to have a good set of backup kickers and reserve offensive linemen.
Objectively, the results of last weekend were extremely unlikely. But Wolverine fans seem to be acting as if they believe that this is the new normal. This is not terribly surprising, as the Wolverine fanbase’s struggles with reality are voluminous and well documented.
These struggles include a strange feeling of nostalgia for the 1970s, the thought that a rivalry is beating a team only twice since the turn of the century, the belief that the definition of a blue-blood program mostly involves consistently beating unranked teams, and a strange inability to correctly count the number of General Studies majors on their own roster (it was at least 16 last year according to the media guide). It is, once again, both bizarre and inexplicable.
While things look grim for the Spartans this week in Ann Arbor, I would like to offer up a very simple piece of advice for Spartan Nation:
As you read that, I imagine that some of you are looking at me through your screens like I have two heads and three arms. It may seem like there are a “Trillian” reasons to panic. Besides, MSU fans are really good at panicking. But don’t. Hear me out. No matter what happens on Saturday, the Mel Tucker era is just beginning. The Paul Bunyan rivalry isn’t over. It will never be over. Mel is just getting started.
A few weeks ago, when the world seemed filled with hope and optimism for a change, it was easy to point to the many positives on Mel Tucker’s resume: his place in the Nick Saban coaching tree, his connection to MSU, his coaching experience in the NFL, the SEC, and at Ohio State, his relative youth, energy, and his ability to connect to recruits. All of these things are still true.
In contrast, the coach down the road has an odd history of inviting himself for sleepovers at the houses of teenage boys, has a confusing vendetta against poultry, is selling the “success” of last winning the Big Ten when current recruits were just learning to walk, and generally seems to be a half step away from a John L. Smith-level press conference incident at any time. Seriously, we’re losing recruits to that guy?
Despite what went down last week, there is still a good chance that Mel Tucker is the right man for the job in East Lansing. If he is, the 70-year modern history of the MSU — U of M rivalry suggests that the Spartans will quickly return to fielding a competitive team for the foreseeable future, and that Michigan State will continue to rack up wins against the maize and blue with some level of regularity. Whether they want to admit it or not, this is the Wolverines’ worst nightmare.
Nonetheless, even if the Wolverines win by 42 points on Saturday, the trajectory of their season and their program will most likely remain the same. As a general rule, the last 70 years of history have also taught us that Michigan Football is mostly harmless. With Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State, and even Indiana on the schedule this year, this weekend might be the last bright spot for the Wolverines this year.
Going forward, Michigan will likely continue to beat the unranked teams that it is supposed to beat. But the Wolverines will also likely continue to lose two to four games a year, including their annual punishment session with the Buckeyes and their bowl game.
The odds of the Wolverines cycling up to a level where they win 11 games or more in a season, win New Year’s Six bowl games, and finish the season in or near the top-five consistently appear to be similar to the odds of a sperm whale suddenly being called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet.
I am sure that the Wolverine faithful will likely disagree, but answer me this: you haven’t done it in 70 years, why are things going to change now? Michigan is not an elite program now and perhaps never was. They are just consistently above average. Once again, they are mostly harmless.
Besides, in 2020, what does any of this mean anyway? By mid-November, the whole sport might get shut down with Indiana and Northwestern declared as the Big Ten East and West co-champs. Or, the Earth might simply get destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a hyperspace bypass. It’s 2020. I can’t rule anything out.
Picks of the Week
Continuing with the same process as last week, I present below a summary of the computer picks for Week Nine, starting with my picks in Figure 1 and ESPN’s FPI picks in Figure 2. For reference here is a link to the raw data table.
Regarding the upset picks of the week, Table 1 below summarizes the picks from both my algorithm and the FPI.
Finally, Table 2 below summarizes the combined recommended bets of the week, using a combination of my system and the FPI.
Despite the general chaos and sparsity of data so far in the 2020 season, the correlations between the computer picks and the opening Vegas lines are still quite strong. The computers like a total of eight upsets this week for teams including (most notably) Kansas State, Texas, Northwestern, LSU, and Baylor. A simple simulation of the weeks action predicts a total of 11.2 upset plus-or-minus 2.8.
As a reminder, the lines above are the opening lines (to avoid trying to hit a moving target throughout the week) and in some cases, the initial favorite sometimes becomes the underdog almost immediately. For example, at the time of this posting, LSU seems to be favored over Auburn.
Regarding the recommended bets for the week, the computers like a total of eight teams to cover, and five of those picks come from the traditionally conservative FPI. Based on my confidence estimate, the top-three teams on the board for Week Nine are Wyoming, Tulane, and Cincinnati now that the Wisconsin game has been cancelled.
MSU and Big Ten Overview
Another painfully obvious feature of Figure 1 and Table 2 is the projection of my traitorous algorithm for the Big Game this weekend. My computer engaged in some deep thought on Sunday morning and came back with the number 38 as a point differential. More specifically, my math predicts that Michigan is going to beat MSU this weekend by a score of 52 to 14.
As expected, the actual line opened at the lower value of +23 for MSU, but the differential between that line and my prediction is large enough to place the game solidly in Table 2 as a game where it makes sense to bet on the favorite to cover. The line suggests that the odds for MSU to pull the upset in Ann Arbor are a shade above five percent.
Let’s just say that while I feel obligated to report the cold, hard numbers as they appear, I would far rather be happy than right any day. Furthermore, if my computer does wind up being close to correct, I plan to google phrases like “what does the command “format C:” do?” before shutting the machine down and unplugging it for a day or so.
However, since 2001 Michigan State is 12-6-1 versus the spread (ATS) against the Wolverines and 6-3 ATS in Ann Arbor, including three upset wins in 2010, 2015, and 2017. This includes a streak from 2008 to 2017 where MSU covered 10 straight time. The spread has only been over 20 points once before this century (it closed at -25 in 2016) and MSU wound up losing that contest by only nine points. In 2020, that counts as a glimmer of hope.
The top Big Ten game this week is clearly Ohio State’s trip to State College to face the Nittany Lions (+8). A few weeks ago, this game looked much closer to a toss-up, but following the Buckeyes’ strong opener at Nebraska and Penn State’s controversial (and hilarious) loss at Indiana, the Buckeyes are the clear favorite with a projected 72 percent chance to beat the Lions. My algorithm agrees with an Ohio State win, but it does like Penn State to cover.
Ironically, I stated in my Big Ten betting preview that OSU would need to be favored in this match-up by at least nine points in order to justify the extremely high odds that the Buckeyes were given in the preseason to win the Big Ten East. That analysis turned out to be a bit prophetic. Either way, if OSU can survive the weekend with a win, their schedule is the smoothest of sailing all the way to the final weekend date with the Wolverines. In other words, it would be safe to pencil them into the Big Ten Championship Game.
In the East, and I never thought that I would type this, the other game that I have my eye on is Indiana at Rutgers (+12). Both teams clearly got off to great starts in conference play, but it is hard to say if either team is actually good. One (or both) of them might be. My algorithm still likes IU, but has the Scarlet Knights covering.
In the Big Ten West, the Wisconsin/Nebraska game was cancelled just prior to this post, so that leaves the contest in Iowa City between the Wildcats (+3) and the Hawkeyes as the most intriguing match-up for the Big Ten West race. Both computer models like Northwestern straight up.
Finally, to round out Big Ten action in Week Nine, Minnesota (-18) travels to Maryland in a game that is not expected to be close, while Purdue travels to Illinois (+4) in a game that is not expected to be relevant. Both computer models like Purdue to cover, and my system favors the Gophers this week as well. The FPI, however, suggests that the Terps will cover.
Other National Action
In the ACC, so far it looks like Clemson (6-0) and Notre Dame (5-0) are on a collision course for the special 2020 version of the ACC Championship Game where there are no divisions. Neither the Tigers (vs B.C. [+32]) nor the Irish (at Georgia Tech [+18]) expect to be challenged this weekend, but they do face each other on Nov. 7 in South Bend.
If one or the other were to falter elsewhere, both Miami (5-1) and North Carolina (4-1) have a shot to sneak into the top two. Miami has a bye this week, while the Tar Heels (-4) have a tough road game at Virginia.
The Big 12 should be fun this week as three of the five games opened with spreads at five points or less, including both games with the current co-leaders: Oklahoma State (4-0) and Kansas State (4-1). The Cowboys (-4) host the Longhorns this weekend, and while my algorithm favors the Pokes to cover, as noted above, the FPI actually likes Texas in an upset. Meanwhile, K-State travels to West Virginia (-5). Although the Mountaineers opened as a pretty clear favorite, the computers both like the Wildcats for the win.
In the SEC, all but one of the contests have double-digit spreads this week, including all four games involving the top divisional contenders. Alabama (-33) hosts Mississippi State, which is not expected to be a challenge, but the other games might get interesting, including: Georgia (-13) at Kentucky, Missouri at Florida (-15), and Arkansas at Texas A&M (-15).
My algorithm likes Alabama and Florida to cover, but not A&M or Georgia. The FPI is betting on the Gators and the Dawgs. In the sole game this week with a tight spread, LSU (+2) opened as the underdog at Auburn, but the FPI says Geaux Tigers.
Finally, in notable Group of Five action, Cincinnati (-4) hosts Memphis in a key AAC match-up. While the line is obviously tight, my computer gives a strong signal to pick the Bearcats to cover here. In Conference USA, Marshall (5-0) looks to stay undefeated at Florida International (+21).
All six Mountain West games opened with lines at eight points and below, including an early key match-up between Boise State (-8) and Air Force. In the Sun Belt, undefeated Coastal Carolina (+1) looks to stay that way at Georgia State this week. The computers are also both pro-Chanticleers.
That does it for this week. As always, please remember to share and enjoy any and all (or none) of my Bad Betting Advice. So long, and thanks for all the fish.
And another thing: Go State, Beat the Skunk Bears!