The (revised) kickoff of Big Ten football is now a little under three weeks away. Based on the testing protocols that have been put into place for Big Ten schools and the general (but certainly not perfect) level of success that the rest of the country has had with college football, the idea that we will actually get to see the Spartans take the field this year seems more and more likely.
In that spirit, it is time to take a more in-depth look at MSU’s schedule. For each game, I am utilizing some of the mathematical tools in my tool box in order to make predictions about the Vegas spread and win probability for all eight of MSU’s currently scheduled games.
My methodology for this analysis is similar to that which I used in my various preseason analyses. I used a composite preseason ranking to generate a power index for each Big Ten team. This power index can be used to then estimate a point spread and victory probability for all eight games.
In this case, I also deployed an additional twist. I used the known uncertainty in the preseason rankings and conducted a series of Monte Carlo simulations on the new Big Ten schedule. This data provides the probability for MSU to win any of the eight games on the schedule. I then backed out the point spread for each game based on these probabilities.
For all calculations, MSU’s composite rank is taken as No. 50 based on the rank of No. 50 by Athlon, No. 39 by Lindy’s, and No. 67 by ESPN. When I set up the simulation in the summer, these were the three sources that ranked all 130 FBS teams. I summarize the rankings of all eight of MSU’s opponents below.
All of the calculation shown below are based on these preseason rankings and use my historical correction factor for home-field advantage. A lot has certainly changed since these rankings were formulated. But, there is no way to systematically correct for COVID-19’s impact. Thus, while all of these rankings and calculations must be taken with a grain of salt, I believe that they represent a reasonable baseline of what MSU can expect for this coming season.
Week 1: Rutgers at MSU (-11); Odds to Win: 80%
Rutgers Composite Rank: 96 (Athlon: 107, Lindy’s: 94, ESPN: 82)
In some places, I’ve seen early odds for MSU’s opening game listed in the single digits. With both MSU and Rutgers having a new coaching staff and no spring football, there is a lot of uncertainly in this game in general. If the line really does wind up being under 10 points, this will imply the oddsmakers believe that ESPN’s evaluation of MSU and Rutgers is closer to reality than Lindy’s or Athlon’s evaluation.
I personally think a line of around 10-points is reasonable. For comparison, MSU has never been below a 15.5-point favorite at home versus Rutgers and the tightest line in the past 20 years was when John L. Smith brought MSU to Piscataway for a non-conference game. MSU was favored by touchdown in that contest and wound up losing 19-14. But, since Rutgers joined the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights have yet to taste victory against the Spartans in either football or basketball. This game is a “must win” unless Rutgers is drastically better than expected.
Week 2: MSU at Michigan (-12.5); Odds to win: 19%
Michigan Composite Rank: 17 (Athlon: 15, Lindy’s: 17, ESPN: 19)
Even before the offseason losses of Nico Collins and Dylan McCaffrey, Michigan was not considered a top-10 team, so even the ranking of No. 17 might be generous. That said, the preseason rankings and the resulting simulation gives MSU just a shade below a one-in-five chance to go into Ann Arbor and steal a victory.
For comparison, MSU opened as a 12.5-point underdog in 2004 in Ann Arbor. The Spartans led that game 27-10 with just under nine minutes to play. Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton was injured late in the first half (inspiring a raucous cheer from the always classy fans in Ann Arbor). Backup quarterback Damon Dowdell struggled in relief duty as the Wolverines stormed back to force triple overtime and an eventual a 45-37 win.
MSU was a 11.5-point underdog in 2012 in the Big House. The Spartans held a late lead in that contest until a late field goal from Brendon Gibbons sealed the 12-10 victory for the Wolverines. MSU also opened as a 12-point underdog in Ann Arbor in 2017 and won 14-10 in the rain.
So, MSU has certainly been competitive in recent years in Ann Arbor when the spread was in this range. In fairness, however, the Spartans were only a slightly larger 14-point underdog last year and wound up losing 44-10.
Week 3: MSU at Iowa (-10.5); Odds to win: 23%
Iowa Composite Rank: 22 (Athlon: 25, Lindy’s: 22, ESPN: 22)
Iowa’s preseason rankings are not significantly lower than Michigan’s rankings and as such, the odds of a win in Iowa City are only slightly better than a win in Ann Arbor. The Hawkeyes have also experienced some controversy over the summer and it remains to be seen if this will spill over onto the field or not. MSU does own a two-game winning streak in the series in games played at Kinnick Stadium, but this year’s game looks challenging.
If the spread does wind up being in the double-digits, it will be the largest spread in Iowa’s favor in the series going back to at least 2002. That said, the Spartans have not fared well at all in Iowa City this century any time the spread opens over three-points. The line opened at +6.5 in 2002 (MSU lost by 28), +7.5 in 2004 (MSU lost by 22), and +4.5 in 2010 (MSU lost by 31).
Week 4: Indiana at MSU (+1); Odds to win: 48%
Indiana Composite Rank: 36 (Athlon: 40, Lindy’s: 41, ESPN: 23)
The contest with Indiana has all hallmarks of a season-defining game on MSU’s schedule. The general consensus is that Indiana is slightly better than MSU this year, but there is not full agreement. ESPN’s model suggests Indiana is quite a bit better than MSU, while Lindy’s actually gives MSU the slight nod. The Spartans will be at home again this year (which may or may not matter). If I take all these factors together, the Hoosiers emerge as a very slight favorite.
In the records that I can find, IU has only been favored once to beat the Spartans this century. That occurred in 2002, as MSU was coming off a 49-3 beating at the hands of the Wolverines that also ended Bobby Williams’ tenure as MSU’s head coach. Indiana opened as a three-point favorite, but interim coach Morris Watts led the Spartans to a stunning 56-21 victory in Bloomington, his only win as MSU’s head coach.
History is definitely on MSU’s side in this rivalry. The Spartans have faced the Hoosiers 17 times since 2001 and only lost three times. Indiana only has two wins in East Lansing going back to the 1970s. With Michael Penix Jr. at the quarterback position, the Hoosiers are a legitimate threat in 2020. But, this is a game the Spartans need to find a way to win.
Week 5: MSU at Maryland (+2.5); Odds to win: 58%
Maryland Composite Rank: 80 (Athlon: 86, Lindy’s: 70, ESPN: 79)
The Terrapins are predicted to be a bit better than Rutgers this year, but this contest is on the road. As a result, my calculations suggest that MSU will only be a slight favorite, with just below a 60 percent chance to win.
The historical series with Maryland is obviously limited, but MSU has been in a similar situation twice recently. In 2016, MSU opened as a three-point favorite at Maryland, but wound up losing 28-17. Two years later, the Spartans opened as a 2.5-point favorite and on that occasion won 24-7. Similar to the Week Four game vs. Indiana, this one is a virtual toss up that MSU needs to find a way to win.
Week 6: Northwestern at MSU (-2.0); Odds to win: 56%
Northwestern Composite Rank: 47 (Athlon: 59, Lindy’s: 58, ESPN: 25)
The Wildcats are perhaps the most perplexing team on MSU’s schedule. The composite rankings listed above give a hint at this confusion. ESPN’s FPI ranked Northwestern No. 25 in the preseason, which is significantly higher than Athlon’s or Lindys’ ranking and a pretty big shock considering the way the Wildcats looked last year.
My best guess is that ESPN’s model is impressed with quarterback and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson’s five-star rating in high school or the fact that Northwestern picked up transfer graduate transfer Payton Ramsey from Indiana in the offseason. The Wildcats’ quarterback play probably cannot be any worse than it was last year, but a No. 25 ranking seems like a major stretch.
All things considered, my math says that MSU projects to be a small favorite with a 56 percent chance to win. The way the schedule lays out, MSU will be playing in the three toss-up game in a row when the Wildcats visit Spartan Stadium on Thanksgiving weekend.
The recent history of the Michigan State - Northwestern series has been interesting. The Wildcats have notched eight wins total against the Spartans since 2000, and a shocking six of those wins took place in East Lansing. The Spartans were favored in all eight of those games by at least 4.5 points, and did not cover a single time. In contrast, MSU has won five of the last six contests in Evanston (covering every time), but this year the game is at home. Once again, this is a game MSU needs to win, but history, in this case, is not on the Spartans’ side.
Week 7: Ohio State at MSU (+13); Odds to win: 19%
Ohio State Composite Rank: 2 (Athlon: 3, Lindy’s: 1, ESPN: 2)
The Buckeyes were a consensus top-three team in the preseason, and by all accounts they are still on track to be at that level. From this point of view, the line and odds seem generous for the Spartans. This line looks low to me as well. My simulation takes into account the odds that the Buckeyes are simply overrated, which is possible, but I suspect that my model does not quite account for the benefit that the truly elite teams (like Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State) possess.
For example, if most teams suffer a rash of injuries, the boat starts to sink. But, if that happens to the Buckeyes or the Crimson Tide, those teams just roll out a younger five-star player off the bench. The bottom line is that I don’t really believe this line to be terribly accurate, but it is the line that is consistent with my methodology. Then again, elite teams are only elite until they aren’t, and college football is a weird and unpredictable game.
A look back at the recent history of the line for the Spartan-Buckeye matchup in Spartan Stadium is notable. This century, the opening line has only been over a touchdown once, in 2016, when the Buckeyes were favored by 21.5-points (and only won by a single point). Then again, MSU has only beaten OSU twice at home since the mid-1970s (in 1988 and in 1999).
If you would like a dose of blind optimism for this matchup, I can tell you that the game in recent history with the closest line to my projected one was the contest in 2015 when a Conner Cook-less Spartans came into Columbus as a 13-point underdog but ended the game with a walk-off field goal make and a windmill celebration by Michael Geiger.
Week 8: MSU at Penn State (-18.5); Odds to win: 10%
Penn State Composite Rank: 5 (Athlon: 5, Lindy’s: 6, ESPN: 7)
From a mathematical point of view, the Nittany Lions are only slightly behind the Buckeyes in ranking and this contest is on the road as opposed to at home. In my baseline analysis, home-field advantage is worth about three-points relative to the neutral field, so the home- versus-away swing is closer to six points. Add it all up and Penn State winds up being a tougher game than the Ohio State game by 5.5 points.
Once again, I am not sure that I completely believe these numbers. It seems more likely that the games will have a similar line or that the line versus the Buckeyes will actually be higher. Either way, the reality of the situation will be much more evident in early December, assuming that the season makes it that far.
Regarding recent history, the Spartans have been double-digit underdogs in Happy Valley multiple times. This includes being 14-point underdogs in 2008, 11.5-point underdogs in 2016, and 14.5-point underdogs in 2018. MSU did manage to pull a major upset in 2018, but the Spartans lost by over 30 points in the other two contests. Unfortunately, the closest line to the projected one occurred in 2002 when MSU was a 21-point underdog and proceeded to lose 61-7.
Add It Up
If we sum up the odds for each individual game, the total works out to 3.1, which is equal to the expected number of wins for MSU in 2020. In other words, a 3-5 final record is most likely. This is consistent with the analysis that I performed a few weeks ago when the revised schedule was released.
If we look at the schedule is more detail, there are clearly three distinct groups of games:
- Should win: vs. Rutgers
- Toss-ups: vs. Indiana, at Maryland, and vs. Northwestern
- Long-shots: at Michigan, at Iowa, vs. Ohio State, and at Penn State
The expected number of wins for the “should win” and “toss-up” games is 2.4 wins. If that doesn’t make you a bit nervous as a Spartan fan, it probably should. This suggests that it is slightly more likely that MSU goes 2-2 in those games than it is that MSU goes 3-1. The odds that MSU wins all four of those games is about 12 percent, based on the odds given above.
On the other hand, the expected number of wins for the four long-shot games works out to a value of 0.7 wins. So, it is actually slightly more likely than not that MSU finds a way to steal at least one victory from that group of games. Specifically, the math suggests that the odds MSU wins at least one of those four games is 55 percent.
The optimistic roadmap for MSU’s season then looks something like this. First, beat Rutgers. This is a must or the whole season is off the rails before it even starts. Then, try to steal at least one of the next two games at Michigan or at Iowa (preferably at Michigan, for obvious reasons). The Spartans would then be 2-1 headed into a stretch of tricky, but winnable games.
If MSU could then somehow sweep those three games, a winning season is guaranteed, which would be a great accomplishment. If MSU were to only win two of the three toss-ups, that would still ensure four wins season, and I would take that (especially with a win in Ann Arbor). Either way, the last two games against Ohio State and Penn State are just gravy.
The pessimistic roadmap for the season likely involves losing at both Michigan and at Iowa to start 1-2 or worse. Then MSU would need to win two of the toss-ups to avoid a 2-4 record or worse with Penn State and Ohio State remaining. That would not be ideal.
In any event, it is nice to speculate about a future when Big Ten football will actually make its return. If all goes well, kickoff is only 17 days away.