If I were to pick a single word to describe MSU’s football season so far, the word would be “inconsistent.” Thinking back to the only to the ugly losses against Rutgers and Iowa, a different word might come to mind: “stinky.” But, then there is that tremendous win over Michigan. It seems like it was at completely different group of guys on that day.
Therein lies the problem. If MSU had simply been awful for three straight weeks, we would likely have come to the conclusion that they just are not a very good team. But, the team that soundly defeated the Wolverines two weeks ago was different. They were physical, sharp, and virtually error free. In other words they were the opposite of what we saw last week.
MSU fans have seen something similar before many times, believe it or not, on the hardwood. Pretty much every year like clockwork, MSU’s basketball team enters a mid-season swoon (usually in late January or early February) and everyone freaks out. We usually just don’t remember the swoon because more often than not (12 out of the past 23 years, to be exact) by early March the team is raising a banner of one kind or another.
Along the way, Coach Izzo (sidebar: GET WELL SOON, COACH!) would often comment that his team needed to “get down to brass tacks.” For those that don’t speak Yooper, that means to get back to work, especially on the fundamentals. In this case, I think that Coach Tucker and the rest of the top brass in the Skandalaris Center should heed Coach Izzo’s advice — and it sounds like Coach Tucker wants to do exactly that. This week, with the Old Brass Spittoon on the line, I can think of no better time.
The challenge this week will not be an easy one. The Indiana Hoosiers are coming to town, and for the first time in decades, they appear to have a shot at the brass ring that is the Big Ten title. Seriously. These Hoosiers are pretty good and have the Lion and Wolverine pelts to prove it.
However, up until this week, the Hoosiers have largely been the scrappy underdog looking to knock off the established program. This week, they come to East Lansing as the favorite with a brassy top -10 ranking next to their name. The opening line suggests that Indiana’s odds to win are around 74 percent. The experts will all pick the Hoosiers. The question now is can our cream and crimson rivals live up to their new and lofty expectations?
In a similar situation back in 2010, a young Kirk Cousins brought an undefeated and top five-ranked Spartan team to Iowa City. He left town with an ugly 37-to-6 “L” tattooed on his forehead. I am not predicting that MSU is going to blow out Indiana; far from it. But, this is uncharted territory for Indiana, and some times it is easier to climb the mountain than it is to stay at the summit, especially when the other teams is sharp and a bit pissed off.
Of course this begs the question as to whether MSU can actually be sharp and if they will be angry enough to put a dent in the Hoosiers. We have seen it, and Coach Tucker is certainly doing his best to make sure that we see it again. If Michigan State truly does get down to brass tacks this week and the Spartans improve their collective focus, intensity, and execution, then MSU will have a shot of holding on to everyone’s favorite brass trophy for another year.
If not, Coach Tucker and Spartan Nation might be mad enough to spit nails. Unfortunately, we would no longer have the right receptacle to catch them.
Picks of the Week
As is my weekly tradition, Figures 1 and 2 below summarize the game outcomes for Week 11 projected by both my algorithm and ESPN’s FPI.
As a general observation, as more data accumulates over the weeks, the correlation between the computers models and the Vegas line seems to be improving. As a result, there are not as many upset predictions or recommended bets than we have observed in the past few weeks. But, there are a few. Table 1 summarizes the upset predictions for the week.
There are five total upset picks on the board this week, all from my computer, three of which the FPI agrees with. Interestingly, three of the upset involve Big Ten games, suggesting that it might be a wild week in the conference.
For reference, my weekly simulation suggests that we will most likely see 12.5 plus-or-minus 3.0 upsets this week out of the total 56 games involving two FBS teams this week. This total is based on the full schedule, without the inevitable cancellations, some of which have already been announced.
In addition, Table 2 below summarizes the recommended bets for Week 11.
I count a total of 11 recommended bets in Week 11 including five from my computer and seven from the FPI, only one of which overlaps: the Michigan/Wisconsin game. That said, the COVID-19 situation in Madison (which the computers ignore) is clearly impacting the line, and for this reason I would generally stay away from that line entirely.
The next highest picks on the board would be for Wake Forest, Northwestern, UAB, and Indiana (sigh...) to all cover. I feel like my computer is trolling me this year. I tell you, that machine has some serious brass...capacitors. A summary of my detailed picks can be found here.
MSU and Big Ten Overview
Over the weekend, my simulation suggested that the line for the MSU game was likely to open just over 10 points. When the actual line opened at MSU +9, I was mildly surprised. The fact that the line has continued to drop (I have seen it as low as MSU +6.5 in some places) is also curious.
My feeling here is that the line and its movement reflects the recent history of this rivalry. Based on my records, this is the first time since at least 2000 (and likely much longer) that Indiana has come into East Lansing favored. In fact, the tightest line that I see was in 2007 when the line opened at MSU -5.5, closed at MSU -3.5, and the Spartans wound up winning by a score of 52 to 27.
In Bloomington, MSU has been an underdog once this century, in 2002, when the Spartans were fresh off a brass-knuckle beating at the hands of the Wolverines that so was so bad that head coach Bobby Williams was fired on the following Monday. Interim Coach Morris Watts brought MSU to Indiana as field-goal underdogs, but wound up winning by a score of 56 to 21. It was the only win of Coach Watts’ entire head coaching career.
In general, the Spartans have also fared well against the spread when playing Indiana, going 12-5 ATS since 2001. In total, the history definitely favors MSU. But, as mentioned above, the computers are betting against the Green and White this week. My machine projects a final score of Indiana 38 MSU 24 after rounding to the nearest reasonable football totals.
As for the rest of the Big Ten, the data suggests that it could be a wild week, as there is only one game on the schedule with a spread over 10 points, and that is Ohio State (-27) at Maryland. The FPI is confident that the Buckeyes will cover, while my computer is sensing some turtle power and picks Maryland to cover.
Rutgers (-7) hosts Illinois this weekend as a favorite for the first time in Big Ten play since 2015. Both computers models like the Scarlet Knights to cover.
In Big Ten West action, Iowa travels to Minnesota. In some places, the line opened even, but now seems to be over a field goal in favor of the Hawkeyes. The computers concurs and both like Iowa to cover.
West Lafayette will play host to a game that might wind up decided the Big Ten West, as undefeated Northwestern comes to town to battle undefeated Purdue (-2). That is a sentence that no one expected to type this year. Either way, the computers both predict that the Wildcats will get the win and perhaps a stranglehold on the division race.
That in large part depends, however, on what happens with Wisconsin. The Badgers (+3) are scheduled to play in Ann Arbor this weekend. After two weeks of COVID-19 prompted cancellations, no one is sure if this game will actually be played or not. If they are forced to cancel, Wisconsin is no longer eligible for the Big Ten Championship Game. But, if they play after two weeks of partial quarantine, then there is a great chance that they are completely unprepared. This also leaves Michigan in a very weird place.
If the Wolverines beat or even blow out Wisconsin, they likely won’t get much credit due to the circumstances. If Wisconsin cancels or somehow plays and wins, Michigan has virtually no shot at finishing at or above 0.500. Personally, a cancellation is perhaps the most amusing outcome, as the Wolverines would then have to sit in the funk of their two-game losing streak like a toddler with a full diaper in the back seat of a hot car on a long road trip. I have bad news, Wolverine fans: dad has no plans of stopping the minivan any time soon.
The final story line in Big Ten land this week takes place in Lincoln, as the winless Nittany Lions (-4) face off against winless Nebraska. Something has to give. Vegas believes that Penn State will finally taste victory and the FPI projects that the Lions will even cover. My algorithm, however, has the Huskers winning in upset fashion.
Other National Action
Notre Dame took over sole possession of first place in the ACC following Saturday night’s overtime win over Clemson. The Tigers are off this week, and the Fighting Irish (-16) are heavy favorites at Boston College, assuming of course that there is not a huge COVID-19 outbreak in South Bend this week.
As for the race for second place in the ACC, there are two games worth keeping an eye on: Miami at Virginia Tech (-2) and Wake Forest at UNC (-17). Those four teams all project to have between a three and 17 percent chance to finish the season in the top two. That said, a Clemson/Notre Dame rematch is by far the most likely result.
After last week, the Big 12 appears to be a true four-team race for the top two spots between Texas (54 percent odds to make the Big 12 Championship Game), Oklahoma State (50 percent), Iowa State (40 percent) and Oklahoma (39 percent). All four of those teams have a bye this week but the two remaining games, Baylor at Texas Tech (-2) and TCU at West Virginia (-1) both have tight spreads, so at least that should be interesting.
The Pac-12 was off to a rough start in their opening week as two of the six scheduled games were cancelled prior to kickoff. So far we don’t have a lot to go on, but Oregon and USC both won last week and project to be the current favorites in their respective divisions. Both teams opened as 10-point favorites at Washington State and at Arizona, respectively.
In SEC country, COVID seems to be running amok and three of the scheduled seven games have already been postponed (Alabama at LSU, Texas A&M at Tennessee, and Auburn at Mississippi State). No matter, as the Crimson Tide project to have a 96 percent chance to win the West, while in the East, Florida (90 percent) took control after defeating Georgia last weekend. The Gators (-18) host Arkansas this week, and are expected to win comfortably.
Finally, in notable Group of Five action, current favorite Cincinnati is not expected to be tested vs East Carolina (+25) this week, and Marshall (-24) is a similarly big favorite over Middle Tennessee State. Darkhorse candidate Coastal Carolina (-5) looks to have a stiffer test this week at Troy State. In the Mountain West, San Jose State is undefeated and at the top of their conference on my leaderboard. The West Coast Spartans (-15) are healthy favorites vs. UNLV.
That is all for this week. With any luck, the Spartans will get to keep our favorite expectoration bucket this weekend. Until next time, Go State. Beat the Hoosiers!