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Against All Odds: Week 11 (Penix Envy)

It was another tough week for Spartan fans, so maybe it’s time to lie down on the couch and talk about our feelings and dreams. While we are at it, let’s see our weekly predictions fared.

Indiana v Michigan State Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

It goes without saying that 2020 is a weird year. What’s down is up and what’s up is down. Penn State and Michigan? Combined, they are 1-7. Northwestern and Purdue? Combined, they are 6-1. Weird. It is enough to make one feel a certain sense of dissociation from reality. Then, there are the 4-0 and top-10 ranked Indiana Hoosiers.

A few year back when Tom Allen took over the head coaching duties in Bloomington, he cited Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State Spartans as the type of program that he wanted his Indiana program to emulate. You could perhaps say that he was green with envy. He was likely envious of MSU’s defense, toughness, and attention to detail. He was likely also envious of MSU’s long line of All-Big Ten honorees, skilled quarterbacks, and long list of high profile wins over ranked opponents.

But, in this particular year and on this particular weekend, it is the Indiana Hoosiers who have the tough defense, play close to mistake-free football, and appear to have the All-Big Ten level talent. It is the Hoosiers who are racking up the high profile wins, and the Hoosiers who have Michael Penix, Jr. This time, it’s the Spartans who are envious. This weekend, it was the Spartans who were shut out in their own empty stadium, and now the thoughts of a successful season in East Lansing are all but a dream.

Hidden inside these confusing feelings is perhaps a lesson for 2020 as a whole: sometimes things can change very quickly. Just ask the fans in State College, Ann Arbor, and Evanston. In five years, Coach Allen has built an impressive and surprising top-10 football team in Bloomington of all places, and he did it with recruiting classes ranked No. 54, No. 65, No. 45, No. 38, and No. 48.

Granted, the challenge that Indiana will face next week in Columbus against Ohio State is on a completely different level. The Hoosiers most likely won’t pass the test. But, that’s not the point. The point is that good coaching, evaluation, development, attention to detail, and execution will lead to an awful lot of wins on the gridiron. Just ask Mark Dantonio.

As for Michigan State, it is not going the way Coach Tucker and MSU fans had hoped so far. The path back to simple competence starts with execution and attention to detail. From there, it is a question of whether the current staff can find, develop, and coach talent. If they can, the Spartans have a chance to once again be the envy of the bulk of the Big Ten. The jury is still out on that question, and after four weekends in the middle of a global pandemic, it is far too early to pass judgement.

Based on what we have seen so far this year, it is easy to get pretty depressed. Spartan fans are coveting the current success and win-loss records of teams like Indiana, Northwestern, and even Purdue. It is enough to make one hysterical. In my experience, MSU fans have developed a complex set of defense mechanisms in difficult times like these. As for me, my particular psychological coping mechanism is optimism, and I will continue to choose to be optimistic. Here is why.

I think that the defense has a lot of promising young talent and that the unit played fairly well on Saturday, despite being placed in difficult situations all day long. The challenges on the offensive side of the ball are greater, but I still have faith. It will be interesting to see who starts at quarterback next week (or whenever MSU takes the field again) but Payton Thorne showed some potential once he settled into the game. I don’t think that MSU has a Michael Penix, Jr. on the roster, but I believe that at least one of the guys will be serviceable over the next few years.

The run game is likely a longer term project, but Coach Tucker is starting to win some battles on the recruiting trail for backs and offensive lineman that will hopefully start paying off sooner rather than later. The climb back up the Big Ten mountain will be a steep one, but just like any other journey, it is made up of individual steps.

The next step is just trying to get better one game and one day at a time. Next up (COVID willing) is Maryland. Hopefully we will see some improvements, even if they are just incremental. That would certainly be good for the psyche of Spartan Nation, present company included.

Week 11 Results and Betting Review

As usual, Figure 1 below gives a visual summary of the all of the results from Week 11, relative to the opening Vegas line. The teams that notably overachieved relative to the spread include Iowa, UTSA, Houston, Kent State, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Tulane, Boise State, Indiana (sigh...), West Virginia, and San Diego State. The only favored team that significantly underachieved while still winning was Kentucky.

Figure 1: Summary of the results of all games in Week 11, relative to the opening Vegas lines

As for upsets, there were only seven in Week 11, and they are summarized below in Table 1. Note that this is a small number out of the 44 games total games that were actually played, as a good rule of thumb is that 25 percent of all college football games end in an upset. Based on the opening line, Colorado’s (+7) upset over Stanford and Illinois’ (+7) upset over Rutgers were the biggest of the week.

As for the most entertaining upset, that would be the Wolverine’s little slip up at the hands of the Badgers. I am not sure if that counts as a true Freudian slip, but it really tickled my id to see those egomaniacs from Ann Arbor humbled once again. It was just super.

Table 1: Upset results for Week 11

The computers had a very good week overall, starting with the upset picks. My algorithm went three-for-five (60 percent) while the FPI was two-for-three (67 percent). The recommended picks were even better, as shown below in Table 2.

Table 2: Summary of the recommended bet results for Week 11

Once the two cancelled games were removed from the board, my algorithm was a perfect four-for-four in recommended bets, while the FPI was right behind at five-for-six (83 percent). The combined strategy got eight of nine bets correct (89 percent). The overall performance against the spread was also strong for the computers this week. I have the FPI as 24-20 (55 percent) while my spreadsheet did slightly better at 26-18 (59 percent).

I will say, however, that all of these picks are relative to the opening line and in many cases the line moved significantly as the week went on. Just like the games themselves, the football data in 2020 has difficult to put on the couch and psychoanalyze. Even if the line moves by more than a touchdown, I will always reference the opening line with the assumption that a bettor would jump on the recommended bets as quickly as possible.

Year-to-date (starting with the first weekend of Big Ten play) my algorithm is 14-14 (50 percent) for upset picks, 9-8 (53 percent) for recommended bets, and 110-96 (53 percent) overall against the opening spread. The FPI is an impressive 13-5 (72 percent) for upset picks, 16-11 (59 percent) for recommended bets, and somehow also 110-96 (53 percent) overall. The combined recommended betting strategy is now at 24-17 (59 percent) against the opening spread.

Updated Expected Wins and Season Odds

Table 3 below gives the updated expected win totals and season odds for the Big Ten, based on my Monte Carlo simulation of the remainder of the Big Ten season. For MSU, Saturday’s loss put to bed even the most remote hopes for Big Ten glory. MSU’s power ranking in my system has sunk to No. 102 and the expected win total now stands at just 1.51. It’s not great.

Table 3: Updated Big Ten expected win totals and odds following Week 11

As for the rest of the Big Ten, both the East and West look to be two-teams races right now between Ohio State and Indiana in the East and Wisconsin and Northwestern in the West. Any other team who thinks that they have a chance is basically in denial. Those also happen to be exactly the matchups for next week, so it appears that the Big Ten Championship Game participants will be all but be decided by Saturday evening.

In the East, the winner of the Ohio State/Indiana game can start making travel plans for Indianapolis. Ohio State can likely sleep walk through the remaining games on their schedule, while the Hoosiers could survive a loss in Madison and still earn a trip to the Big Ten Championship game as long as they beat Ohio State. The Buckeye’s roughly 70 percent odds reflect my projected spread in that game of about eight points. That said, the real line seems to have opened at the much higher line of OSU -21 against Indiana, which would peg the Buckeye’s odds at well over 90 percent to win the East.

In the West, Northwestern looks to have a very manageable schedule following their date with the Badgers, but Wisconsin still needs to face IU and travel to Iowa. As such, my math gives Wisconsin only a 54 percent chance to win the West even though their odds to beat Northwestern this weekend are a bit higher than that (61 percent).

Table 4 below gives the updated win distribution matrix for the Big Ten. MSU’s projected odds of winning at least one more game are not headed in a positive direction. I estimate that the Spartans have only a 33 percent chance of winning another game and only a seven percent chance to get to the preseason expected win total of three. The good news is that basketball season is right behind the corner.

Table 4: Update win distribution matrix for the Big Ten following Week 11

What’s Next for MSU

In line with the last few weeks, the expected win distribution matrix for MSU can be deconstructed by looking at the odds for MSU to win each of the remaining scheduled games. The simulation provides these odds, which can then be used to back out a projected spread. Here are the updated projections for MSU’s remaining four games.

  • MSU (+12.5, 19 percent) at Maryland. Maryland didn’t even play last weekend and the projected point spread for this game got worse by almost 10 points. Getting shutout has a tendency to do that. That said, the actual line seems to have opened as Maryland -3 and has since gone up to over -6. This just means that my computer will be picking against the Spartans for the fourth consecutive week. But, will this game even happen? This is likely MSU’s best chance to win another game in the regular season. But, is Spartan Nation emotionally ready to face the idea of losing to both Rutgers and Maryland in the same year? I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide if it is best to play this game or to pray for a cancellation.
  • Northwestern at MSU (+22, 6 percent). Is Northwestern actually for real? I am still not convinced, but my computer has the Wildcats all the way up to No. 6 in my power rankings. While I don’t see MSU actually being a 20-plus point underdog to the Cats at home, I don’t think a 20-point loss to any FBS team would be a surprise any more for this MSU team in 2020.
  • Ohio State at MSU (+24.5, 4 percent). This seems like a good week to just call in sick.
  • MSU (+17, 12 percent) at Penn State. At this point, the game at Penn State project to be only slightly more difficult than the road game at Maryland. The road ahead for Penn State is not exactly easy as they host Iowa and travel to Michigan and then to Rutgers in the next three weeks. I project about a 15 percent chance that Penn State is 0-7 entering the regular season finale. As schadenfreude is basically all that we have left, it is nice that we have something to look forward to.

After typing all of that out, I am sad. But, in my role as the Chief Optimism Officer, here is another dose of optimism. I think that three of the games above are still winnable, as crazy as that might sound. While it would take a near miracle to beat Ohio State, I think that Indiana is better than the other three teams on MSU’s remaining schedule.

Sure, MSU just got shutout by Indiana. That’s true. But MSU’s defense played pretty well against a very good offense, and they did it without three starters in the secondary. If the Spartan offense can find a way to avoid turnovers and other mistakes, I think that MSU can hang around in each of the other three games. That said, I am still very much a pragmatist with realistic expectations, so I will literally believe it when I see it. But, a late season surge is not completely out of the question.

Playoff Landscape

In all honesty, the constant parade of cancelled games and complicated tie-breakers with unbalanced schedules has been enough to give one bad dreams that are hard to interpret. That said, I still have at least an estimate of the current College Football Playoff odds and Group of Five New Years Six Bowl odds after Week 11. Those are shown below in Tables 5 and 6.

Table 5: Updated College Football Playoff odds following Week 11

As of now, the top four spots are held down by Alabama, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Clemson. It seems that the sudden high power rankings of other Big Ten teams such as Indiana, Northwestern, and Wisconsin are throwing doubt in the circuitry of my computer about the eventual Big Ten champs. A peak back at Table 3 suggest that my computer actually has both Wisconsin and Northwestern higher than Ohio State in my computer’s power rankings. Ohio State’s odds are likely a bit higher than what my computer currently projects.

Table 6: Group of Five conference leaderboard for the New Years Six Bowl slot

As for the Group of Five, Cincinnati is still the clear favorite to play in a New Years Six Bowl, with Coastal Carolina, Marshall, Buffalo, and San Jose State as the next most likely candidates.

That is all for this week. Will MSU actually play this weekend, or we will see the first COVID-19 cancellation of the Spartans’ season? I can’t give you the odds of that, but either way, I will be here for you to do the math as long as there are games left on the Spartan’s schedule.