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Against All Odds, Week 12 (Give Thanks)

Michigan State may have been off this week, but thankfully there was a lot of other college football action. Come to think of it, there is quite a bit for MSU fans to be thankful for.

The 100th Rose Bowl Game - Stanford v Michigan State Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

In this space, I would typically provide my general thoughts on the results of MSU’s last game, the general direction of the season and program, and any other random thoughts that I might have. But, as we all know, MSU’s game with Maryland was cancelled, leaving me with less to say than usual.

But, with the impended Thanksgiving Holiday approaching, it seems like a good time to stop and reflect about the things that we are thankful for. It is sometimes hard to feel thankful in 2020 with all that is going on in the world. Let’s be honest, it’s a real crap-show out there. I am certainly thankful for my friends and family, my day job, and all that good stuff. But, I am also genuinely thankful to be a graduate and life-long fan of Michigan State University.

First, I am thankful for the world-class education that I received during my time on campus. I earned an honors chemical engineering degree in 1998 and then went on to graduate school at Purdue. I never found my education lacking in any way compared to my peers, whether they were from China, India, UC-Berkeley or especially a certain other Big Ten school in Washtenaw County. Every day of my career I have been proud to call myself an alumnus of Michigan State University.

Second, I am thankful for the great memories that I made while on campus. I am thankful for the lifelong friends that I made there (including my lovely wife) and for all the adventures that we had. I am thankful for Case Hall, Sparty, The Tundra, the Engineering Library, Beaumont Tower, the Dairy Store, and the Chemistry Building. I am thankful for Gruff Sparty, the “script state” logo, and the fact that we stopped Nike from changing the Spartan logo that currently adorns the football helmets.

Third, I am thankful Spartan Hockey. When I was a student, ice hockey was the hot sport in East Lansing. Coach Ron Mason (rest in peace) had built an empire in the C.C.H.A. (also rest in peace). Student tickets were so hard to get that a lottery was held almost every year. I never had an actual seat to watch a duel between the Spartans and Wolverines on the ice while I was a student.

My favorite sports memory as a student was watching from behind the net as Spartan Goalie Chad Alban shot and scored a goal on an empty in the closing minutes of his Senior Night against Ferris State. I am still mad that team didn’t win the National Title in 1998. While Spartan Hockey has fallen on hard times over the past few years, I am thankful for Coach Danton Cole and I am optimistic about the future.

Fourth, I am thankful for Coach Tom Izzo and Spartan Basketball. I was also on campus for Coach Izzo’s first three seasons and personally witnessed the rebirth of MSU hoops, spearheaded by our beloved Yooper and his first class of Flintstones. As I reflect on his long list of accomplishments since 1996, it is simply staggering: six Big Ten Tournament titles, 10 Big Ten regular season titles, and eight Final Fours.

That’s 24 banners in 25 years for those scoring at home. If Coach Izzo can average just 14 wins over the next four seasons, he is on pace to break Bob Knight’s all-time Big Ten wins record. That record may never be broken. Along the way, he just might pick up some additional hardware for the trophy cases of Breslin Center. I am personally fond of those crystal basketballs that get awarded in early April. I would like more of those.

Fifth, I am thankful for Spartan Football. While Coach Mark Dantonio’s achievements pale in comparison to Coach Izzo’s (but whose don’t?) the memories that he created for us fans during his 13 seasons on the sidelines still make him a legend. The list is long: Little Giants, Rocket, the wins in Indianapolis, the 100th Rose Bowl win, the Outback Bowl, the Cotton Bowls, “It’s not over. It will never be over. It’s just starting,” Trouble With The Snap, and the seven other times Coach D brought the Paul Bunyan Trophy home to its rightful place in East Lansing.

Finally, I am thankful for Coach Mel Tucker and the new staff. It is never easy to follow in the footsteps of a legend. The task at hand is not an easy one, and the first year has not gotten off to the start that we had all hoped. But, I am still optimistic about the direction and future of the program. It might take a year or two to truly build the team in his image, but I believe that he is the right man for the job. With any luck, the next great chapter in MSU sports history is just around the corner.

Week 12 Results and Betting Review

In accordance with the usual fall tradition, Figure 1 below summarizes the full results of the college football action of Week 12, relative to the opening Vegas lines.

Figure 1: Summary of the college football results from Week 12 relative to the opening Vegas line

The teams that significantly overachieved in Week 12 include Alabama, Iowa State, Air Force, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Georgia State. The only favored team that underachieved significantly, yet still won was Georgia. As for the upsets in Week 12, those are summarized below in Table 1.

Table 1: College football Week 12 upset results.

I count a total of 10 upsets in Week 12, which was exactly the number predicted by my weekly simulation. However, that was assuming that all 53 of the originally scheduled games took place. In reality, only 40 games actually took place, so the number of upsets is a bit high. Based on the opening Vegas line, two of the three biggest upsets of the week occurred in the Big Ten. Illinois over Nebraska (-14) and Northwestern over Wisconsin (-8).

As for the performance of the computers, once the cancelled games removed from the board my algorithm went 3-3 for the week (50 percent) while the FPI went 2-1 (67 percent). Year-to-date, my algorithm is 17-17 (50 percent) on upset picks, while the FPI is 15-6 (71 percent).

Table 2 below summarizes the results of the recommended bets for Week 12.

Table 2: Summary of the recommended bet performance against the opening spread for Week 12

Of the original nine recommended bets, three of the games were cancelled, leaving a total of only six picks for the week. My algorithm went 2-2 for these picks (50 percent) while the FPI went 2-3 (40 percent). The combined strategy was 3-3 (50 percent) in total. The year-to-date totals are 11-10 (52 percent) for my algorithm, 18-14 (56 percent) for the FPI, and 27-20 (57 percent) for the combined strategy.

Overall against the spread (ATS), my computer’s weekend went about as well as a discussion of politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table. My accounting shows a record of 13-27 (33 percent) ATS which may very likely be its worst weekly performance on record. For the year, this drops my algorithm’s record to an even 123-123 (50 present). The FPI did much better, but was still under water. I have its record as 19-21 (48 percent) for the week and 129-117 (52 percent) since Oct. 24.

Updated Expected Wins and Season Odds

Table 3 shows the updated expected wins totals and season odds for the Big Ten, based on my Monte Carlo simulation of the remainder of the regular season.

Table 3: Big Ten expected win totals and season odds following Week 12

As expected, the results of this weekend pretty much sealed the deal on the race in both the Big Ten East and West. The Wildcats mashed the Badgers while the Buckeyes squashed the hopes of the Hooisers. As a result, Ohio State (98 percent odds) and Northwestern (99 percent odds) will almost certainly square off in a rematch of the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game. The Wildcats will join Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State as the only programs with multiple appearances in Indianapolis. Cool beans.

Interestingly, my computer currently has Northwestern ranked No. 2 in my power rankings and gives the Wildcats a 63 percent chance to win the Big Ten over Ohio State. I don’t actually believe this, but it suggests that perhaps the gap between the two teams is not as big as it appears. Recall that my algorithm also suggested that Indiana could stay within a touchdown of the Buckeyes, which wound up being correct.

In addition, Table 4 below gives the updated win distribution matrix for the Big Ten, following the action of Week 12.

Table 4: Updated win distribution matrix for the Big Ten following Week 12.

MSU’s current expected win total is just 1.24. The win distribution matrix suggests that the Spartans’ odds to win another game are only 21 percent. Despite the fact that the Spartans were an underdog at Maryland, it looks increasingly likely that that game was MSU’s best remaining chance to win a second game prior to the Big Ten dessert course round on Dec. 19. As for that match-up, the data in Tables 3 and 4 both suggest that MSU will mostly face Nebraska.

What’s Next for MSU

Also consistent with my fall tradition, 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 by used to back out a projected spread. Here are the updated projections for MSU’s remaining three games.

  • Northwestern at MSU (+23, 5 percent). I have been suggesting for weeks that maybe the Wildcats are overstuffed and not as good as people think, but the fact is that they are now 5-0 and are making solid plans to visit Indianapolis in a few weeks. As mentioned above, Northwestern has risen to No. 2 in my power rankings. My computer certainly is convinced that the Cats are for real and it gives MSU only a five percent chance to pull the upset. The actual betting line seems to have opened as MSU +9, which is a lot lower than my simulations projection of +23. Either way, a Spartan win is a long-shot.
  • Ohio State at MSU (+23.5, 5 percent). Oddly, my simulation gives MSU almost the same odds to beat Ohio State that it does to beat Northwestern. Indiana was able to hang with Ohio State, which shows that the Buckeyes are at least mortal. I think that the best hope for MSU is if the Spartans are somehow able to harness the same level of execution that they showed in Ann Arbor while at the same time OSU is perhaps suffering from the same tryptophan-induced coma that they sometimes fall into (see: at Iowa in 2017 and at Purdue in 2018). Sure, that’s possible, I guess.
  • MSU (+15.5, 14 percent) at Penn State. Based on my calculations, MSU’s best hope to score a second win in the regular season is in State College. The Nittany Lions are in free fall right now and it would not shock me if they are 0-7 entering the final weekend. Actually, my math gives that scenario about a 25 percent chance. If MSU can get their act together by then, this game could be competitive. Maybe.

In summary, it looks about as ugly as that time your uncle tried to deep fry that frozen turkey. At the end of the day, MSU does not seem to be quite as good as the preseason predictions suggested, and unfortunately, a lot of MSU’s opponents (Rutgers, Indiana, and Northwestern) are a lot better than we had originally thought. While it is possible that a late season turn around could result in MSU stealing maybe one of the above games, that is perhaps the best that we can hope for.

Playoff Landscape

Finally, Tables 5 and 6 below show my updated Playoff and Group of Five odds following Week 12.

Table 5: Updated College Football Playoffs odds following the action of Week 12

In a bizarre twist, Northwestern has now risen to No. 2 in my Playoff rankings with a 63 percent chance to make the Football Final Four. Alabama’s odds (76 percent) are currently the best with Notre Dame (44 percent) and Oregon (42 percent) rounding out the field.

At this point, it sure looks like the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC champs are “in” with the Pac-12 champ likely to fill the final slot. The most likely wildcard now is Notre Dame, who might be able to slip into the playoffs along with Clemson, assuming that the Tigers win the potential rematch with Notre Dame in the ACC Championship game and the Pac-12 descends into chaos.

Table 6: Group of Five leaderboard for the New Years Six Bowl representative following Week 12

As for the Group of Five, Cincinnati survived its test at UCF this weekend and the Bearcats’ odds to win the American Athletic Conference and claiming a New Year’s Six bowl slot are now over 50 percent. If they do doze off after dinner, Marshall (17 percent), Coastal Carolina (14 percent), and maybe even Western Michigan (6.5 percent) are there to potentially claim the wishbone.

That is all for Week 12. Stay tuned for a preview of Week 13 in the coming days along with another generous helping of Bad Betting Advice.