Way back in the “before time” Michigan State was scheduled to play Northwestern on Labor Day weekend in what was expected to be Coach Mel Tucker’s first game on the sidelines of a full Spartan Stadium. At first glance this game looked like one of the most difficult games to predict on the Spartans’ entire schedule.
The situation in East Lansing was unclear due to the coaching change in February, and the situation in Evanston was only slightly clearer. Last year, Northwestern was in a word, bad. But, there were some hints that they might be at least a bit improved. The Wildcats added Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey in late May, and a few preseason preview magazines had Northwestern ranked right around No. 60 in the nation, not far behind the rough consensus for MSU, which was around No. 50.
But, the real head-scratcher was ESPN’s preseason FPI ranking, which had Northwestern ranked all the way up at No. 25. I honestly thought that this was a calculation error. Seriously, the Cats won a single Big Ten game last year. Furthermore, it is not like Coach Pat Fitzgerald suddenly started bringing in top-20 or even top-50 recruiting classes on a consistent basis. The math did not add up.
But, here we are past the halfway point of the modified Big Ten schedule and Northwestern is 5-0 and firmly in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West. I still don’t know what ESPN’s computer knew that the rest of the world didn’t, but if anything, the FPI’s prediction seemed to be conservative. ESPN’s current calculations have the Wildcats in the top-20. My computer has been even more impressed. Northwestern is all the way up to No. 2 in my system, behind only Alabama.
Regarding Michigan State, my calculations tell the same story that our eyeballs have been telling us over the past few weeks: things are not going well. Every time that I have inputted the results of the weekend into my spreadsheet and recalculated things, the Spartans’ position has gotten worse. Right now, I have the Spartans ranked No. 101 in the FBS. ESPN’s FPI is slightly more generous and has MSU ranked No. 90.
As a result, this weekend and the two weekends are not predicted to go well. My calculations suggest that Michigan State only has a shade over a 20 percent chance to win another regular season game this year. The odds are not in our favor. To this point I can only offer one piece of potential solace from my standard, optimistic point of view:
Probability is not destiny.
My head tells me that MSU won’t win this weekend or the next two. But, my heart still believes that there is a chance. Coach Tucker has had two more weeks in the computer lab to work with this group of guys. He was able to motivate and coach them to an impressive performance and win over Michigan. I have to believe that it is at least conceivable that he can do it again.
Do I expect that? No. Do I believe and hope that it can happen? Absolutely. On some level, this is what being a sports fan is all about. It’s about constantly recalculating and adjusting our expectations based on the data that we have at hand. Right now, the data doesn’t look very good, but there is no reason to lose hope. Football is a crazy game and even though Northwestern (and Ohio State and Penn State) are all likely a lot better than MSU this year, they only have 60 minutes to prove it.
At this point in 2020, it is a blessing just to have the privilege of watching our team play at all. Enjoy the ride, and maybe, just maybe, the numbers will smile on the Spartans at least once more this season.
Picks of the Week
Figures 1 and 2 below show the full summary of the projected outcome of each game relative to the opening Vegas line from both my algorithm and ESPN’s FPI, respectively.
As for the upset picks of the week, there are not too many. The two computer systems combined only have four total, which are summarized in Table 1 below. The most notable is the prediction from the FPI that Penn State will upset Michigan.
My weekly simulation suggests that out of the 58 games on the original schedule this week, a total of 11.7 plus-or-minus 2.9 upsets are likely to occur (20 percent).
The list of recommended bets is a bit longer this week, as summarized below in Table 2.
Sadly, both computer systems have Northwestern covering the opening nine-point Vegas line against the Spartans this week. Texas and Iowa covering are also worth mentioning. A full list of all of my computer’s raw predictions can be found here.
MSU and Big Ten Overview
As my comments in the opening section imply, the #math for this weekend’s MSU game do not look good in any regard. The Vegas line opened with Northwestern as a nine-point favorite which would give MSU about a 26 percent chance to pull an upset. But, over the next few days, the line has grown to almost two touchdowns and the likelihood of an upset have shrunk to about 17 percent.
Based on my records, this will be only the second time that the Wildcats have been favored to beat the Spartans since 2000, and the first time in East Lansing. In 2001, Northwestern was a 6.5-point favorite in Evanston and wound up winning 27-26. The narrowest line since 2000 in East Lansing was in 2016, prior to the wheels falling off from the MSU bus. MSU opened as a 4.5-point favorite and wound up losing 54-40.
As for performance against the spread (ATS), the trend over the past 20 years is absolutely strange and also does not bode well for the Green and White. Since 2001, the road team is 13-1 against the spread, and the only home team to cover was Northwestern in 2017. MSU is 0-7 ATS versus the Wildcats in East Lansing going back to 2002.
Unfortunately, the computer both predict that this trend will continue. The FPI projects a 17-point victory for Northwestern and my algorithm spits out a final score of 35-7. No matter how many times I hit F9, my spreadsheet gives the same result.
As for the rest of the Big Ten, the remaining action is all simply positioning for “seeding” for the postseason round of Dec. 19 and most of the games this weekend are not expected to be close. Ohio State (-30) travels to Illinois this week and although both computers suggest that the Illini will cover, an upset is extremely unlikely (my double-checked calculations suggest less than a two percent chance).
The Badgers needed a near miracle to get back into the Big Ten West race. On Tuesday, the Wisconsin-Minnesota game scheduled for this week was cancelled, which by rule now means that the Badgers are not eligible to play in the Big Ten Championship Game. Kevin Warren is now officially relieved that Northwestern won lost week such that a very awkward conversation with Barry Alvarez is no longer necessary.
A host of other Big Ten games are expected to be a little closer. Maryland at Indiana (-15), Rutgers at Purdue (-13), and Nebraska at Iowa (-12) all have the potential to get interesting, but in most cases the favorites are likely to cover. The FPI does favor the Scarlet Knights to cover the spread versus Purdue, but other than that the math recommends betting on the favorites.
Finally, on paper the best game of the weekend is expected to be Penn State at Michigan (-4). At the beginning of the season, many expected the winner of this game to be the most likely challenger to Ohio State in the East. Instead both program are crashing and simply looking for a sliver of hope before attempting a reboot next spring. While Michigan opened as the favorite, the line seems to be moving the direction of Penn State, which agrees with the computers. My algorithm still favors Michigan to win by a field goal, while the FPI picks Penn State to win by a single point.
Other National Action
The race in the ACC is nearing the end, but there is still the potential for some drama. I project Clemson to have a 75 percent chance to make the ACC Championship game. Those odds will likely creep up a little with an expected win over Pitt (+26) this weekend. Notre Dame (93 percent) currently has the inside track to the ACC Title Game and the Irish have a stiffer test at North Carolina (+7.5).
The Tar Heals at 6-2 are still projected to have a six percent shot to make the ACC Championship game, but they would need to beat the Irish to keep those hopes alive. Miami is the other teams that could spoil the party, but a COVID outbreak on South Beach has put the Canes on pause until next weekend... hopefully.
The Big 12 currently appears to have the most competitive remaining race of all of the Power Five. Iowa State is the only remaining team with less than two conference loses and currently project to have a 61 percent chance to secure a slot in the Big 12 Championship Game. The Cyclones travel to Austin to face the Longhorns (pick’em) this week and a win would likely solidify their spot. Conversely, I currently give Texas a 50-50 shot to make the Championship Game. This week’s game has the feel of a semifinal.
Both Oklahoma (60 percent) and Oklahoma State (22 percent) are also in the running for (most likely) the other Big 12 Championship spot. The Sooners (-10.5) are traveling to West Virginia while the Cowboys (-13) host Texas Tech. If either team stumbles, they might play themselves out of the race.
In the Pac-12 the biggest question each week is really which games will actually take place. The Apple Bowl between Washington and Washington State has already been deleted from the schedule, but so far Oregon (-16.5) is still on schedule to face their in-state rivals from Corvallis. As of now, the race in the North looks likely to come down to the final weekend showdown between Oregon and Washington.
In the Pac-12 South, USC (73 percent) took control of the division last week with a late-night win over Utah. This weekend the Trojans host the most likely remaining challenger, Colorado (+11). If the men from Troy can avoid the upset, the South title will be all but theirs.
In the SEC, everyone is just killing time and trying to stay healthy until the SEC Championship Game between Alabama and Florida which is all but decided. Alabama (-23.5) does host Auburn this weekend and can officially clinch the West with a win. Florida has a little more busy work to do, starting with a game with Kentucky (+21.5) this weekend. LSU also travels to Texas A&M (-14.5) this weekend in a battle of team that sure seem like should be relevant (but aren’t).
Finally, in notable Group of Five action, Cincinnati continues to lead the pack, especially after the win last weekend over UCF. The Bearcats currently have the best odds (53 percent) to earn the group of five slot in a New Years Six Bowl and are unlikely to be challenged this weekend at Temple (+32). Basically, Cincinnati will need to beat Tulsa twice (once in the regular season finale and then again in the AAC Title game) and the bid is theirs.
If Cincinnati does crash, Marshall (16 percent), Coastal Carolina (14 percent), Western Michigan (six percent) and San Jose State (four percent) are the most likely teams to reboot their New Year’s Six dreams. Marshall has the week off while Coastal Carolina (-16) is a heavy favorite at Texas State. Western Michigan (-18) is also a big favorite versus Northern Illinois while San Jose State (+14) is a sizable underdog at Boise State.
That is all for this week. Enjoy the Thanksgiving Holiday and the tip-off of Spartan basketball. Until next time, Go State, beat the Wildcats.