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Against All Odds, Week 13 (Neon Signs)

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What a win for the Spartans this week! How did they do it? They got back to some elemental principles. It is a very good sign. Let’s talk about that, as well as my periodic review of the weekly picks.

Northwestern v Michigan State Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

I have a few confessions to make this week. The first one may be pretty controversial: I love the neon uniforms. I am not sure if they are supposed to appeal to “the kids” or what, but I can tell you that this 40-something dude thinks that they are pure platinum. Those helmets with the neon spartan logo on the dark green background? Fire.

I still feel that those uniforms are responsible for MSU’s 51-17 blowout win over Western Michigan last year, as well as the 28-3 whopping that the Spartans put on the Illini last year. At least, I recall that being the score in the second quarter. I don’t remember how that games ended up, but I am sure that it was fine.

Here is my second confession: I was almost sure that MSU was going to get absolutely blown out on Saturday. I am a numbers guy and the number all pointed to a virtual carbon copy of the game at Iowa and versus Indiana...or worse. For years, the Wildcats have been the Spartans’ kryptonite, especially in East Lansing. But, once Rocky Lombardi’s first deep shot flew threw the air and into the hands of Jalen Nailor, who then ran like quicksilver down the sidelines for a touchdown, I knew that the Spartans had a chance.

As the game rolled on and Northwestern eventually took the lead, my faith was a bit shaken. When Lombardi threw yet another bad interception, I was afraid that I would need to write a story here about moral victories only. But then, the MSU defense rose up with a few turnovers of their own. After that, despite the wind, Matt Coughlin nailed a pair of fourth quarter field goals. Finally, the Spartans pounced on the ball in the end zone after a series of laterals to secure win and to bring those top-10 Wildcats back down to earth.

I am pretty sure that it was the neon.

Along the way, there were quite a few signs of improvement. While Lombardi was far from perfect, he was steady, resilient, and showed his iron will. He (mostly) avoided the big mistake, took what the defense gave him, and took advantage of Northwestern’s few weakness, such as one suspect corner and struggles accounting for a scrambling quarterback.

The much maligned offensive line and running game also showed some encouraging signs against an excellent rush defense. It wasn’t only Lombardi’s feet, however. Connor Heyward had perhaps his best outing as a rusher, and Elijah Collins showed flashes of his old self. Together, they amassed almost 200 yards on the ground (4.1 yard per attempt) without a run over 21 yards, and they did it against one of the best rush defenses in the country.

Finally, there was the Spartan defense. While Northwestern does not have a high-powered offense, and while we have already seen some positive signs from this group, all three levels of the defense played perhaps their best game of the year. The line put pressure on Ramsey, especially late. The linebackers made difficult tackles in space, and the secondary flat out made plays. Shakur Brown now has five interceptions on the year (tied for first in the FBS). The no-fly zone may be back in East Lansing.

So while the 2-3 record for MSU is still smells a bit sulfurous, Saturday’s win was a bit of a silver lining on this shortened season. The Spartans showed that the win over the Wolverines was not just fool’s gold. The Mel Tucker tenure is showing signs of progress and rebirth.

All signs are now pointing toward yet another cancellation next week. If that happens, as crazy as this sounds, MSU just might be able to beat Penn State in two weeks to get back to 0.500. After that, MSU would have a chance to beat a team like Purdue or Minnesota to get to 4-3, and then we might even be able to talk bowl games, whatever that will actually look like in 2020.

It is hard to believe after the past two games that a winning season and a bowl game is actually on the table. But, these days things can change in the tick of a cesium atomic clock.

All-in-all there were a lot of good signs on Saturday. Actually, I think that I do have to retract one of my previous statements. I don’t actually think that it was the neon; I think that it was the program, and the program suddenly seems to be back on track.

Week 13 Results and Betting Review

Figure 1 below provides a visual summary of the complete results from Week 13 (at least based on the original schedule for the week).

Figure 1: Summary of the results from college football’s week 13, relative to the opening Vegas line

Almost all of the over-achievers for the week were in the Group of Five conferences, including Louisiana, UTSA, Ohio, Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State, Buffalo, and Wyoming. Georgia Tech was the only Power Five team in this category this week. As for the underachievers who avoided an upset, only Western Michigan and UCF fail into this bin.

Table 1 below summarizes the 10 total upsets observed in Week 14.

Table 1: Summary of the college football upsets from Week 13 relative to the opening spread.

The biggest upsets of the week were Oregon State’s downing of the Ducks (-16.5) on Friday night and Rutgers’ come-from-behind win over Purdue on Saturday. It is also notable that three of the five games in the Big Ten that actually got played ended in an upset, including a very happy evening in East Lansing, and a very sad one in Ann Arbor.

As for the computers’ performance, there weren’t a lot of picks this week. My algorithm went 1-1 (50 percent) while ESPN’s FPI was a perfect 3-0. Table 2 below gives the results of my recommended bets for the week.

Table 2: Summary of the results my recommended bets for Week 13 relative to the opening Vegas line.

This week, two games were cancelled out of original 10 recommended bets on the list. But, based on my computer’s performance, it would have been better if more of those games had been cancelled. My algorithm got only one prediction correct out of five (20 percent) while the FPI only did slightly better at 1-3 (25 percent). Combined, the computers went 2-6 (25 percent).

Overall against the spread, however, the number were a bit kinder. For the 41 games that I tracked this week, my algorithm was 22-19 (54 percent) while the FPI was 24-17 (59 percent). Year-to-date, my algorithm is 145-142 (50.5 percent) overall, while the FPI is 153-134 (53 percent) since late October.

For upsets, my computer is an even 18-18 for the year, while the FPI is an impressive 18-6 (75 percent). As for the recommended bets, my picks are now under water at 12-14 (46 percent) for the year, while the FPI is 19-17 (53 percent) and the combined strategy is 29-26 (53 percent).

Updated Expected Wins and Season Odds

With the season drawing near to its conclusion and with the accumulation of cancellations and a potentially hydrogen-bomb-level disruptive COVID situation brewing in Columbus, my computer simulation of the seasons odds seem less and less relevant and accurate. So, I will skip that data table this week and simply show the updated win matrix.

Table 3: Updated win distribution matrix for the Big Ten following Week 13

The situation in the Big Ten West is not completely resolved, but fairly straightforward. Despite the Wildcats’ loss to MSU this weekend, Northwestern still has a safe lead. In order to get into trouble, the Cats would need to lose to both Minnesota and Illinois in the next two week (if those games are both played). I currently estimate the odds of Northwestern losing twice at about one percent, so it still seems like a copper-bottomed bet.

In the rare case where the Cats do fall to 5-3, Iowa has a path back into the title game if they can survive their final two games against Illinois and Wisconsin (if those game are both played). If the Hawkeyes were to drop one or both of those games, all sorts of messy tiebreakers between a group of three-loss teams including some subset of Northwestern, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue are possible.

In the East, in theory Ohio State just needs to beat either MSU or Michigan over the next two weeks. But, they need to actually be healthy enough play. If they are forced to cancel, the Buckeyes would fall below the six-game threshold to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game. In that scenario, my understanding of the tiebreaker rules would mean that Indiana would be the Big Ten East participant in Indianapolis.

Honestly, this seems like the most likely scenario, unless the Big Ten were to somehow modify the “six game” rule in the current 2020 tiebreakers. Some have suggested that the Big Ten will change the rules just to give OSU a better shot to make the playoffs, but this seems like tin-foil hat territory to me. It would also open the door for Wisconsin in the West, if Northwestern were to lose just one more game.

A more likely scenario is one where the entire College Football season is extended by a few weeks to allow for teams such as Ohio State and Wisconsin to make up enough games to qualify. There has been internet rumors to this effect and the result would be Conference Championship games around Christmas, with the Playoffs and other bowls played sometime in mid-to-late-January. I wish I could tell you the odds of this scenario. All I can say is that it would not shock me.

As for MSU, the Spartans’ expected win total is now at 2.29 and the odds that MSU wins one more game is now at 26 percent. As stated above, there is a path for MSU to get to 3-3 and maybe even better if things continue to trend positively for the Spartans.

What’s Next for MSU

As I have done for the last several 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 by used to back out a projected spread. Here are the updated projections for MSU’s remaining two games.

  • Ohio State at MSU (+19.5, 9 percent). This is a pretty significant increase from last week’s projection, but it is still not great. It also felt a little low to me when I first saw it. Sure enough the actual line opened at +24. But, it has since dropped to +22. It is honestly very difficult to imagine MSU beating OSU, but I said the same thing before the Michigan and Northwestern games. This year, who knows? Still, there may be advantages for MSU in having this game cancelled. While I hate to root against MSU playing football, the prospect of going 3-3, coupled with the delightful chaos of a Northwestern/Indiana Big Ten Championship game makes it a tough decision.
  • MSU (+12, 20 percent) at Penn State. First, I just wanted to congratulate the Nittany Lions on their first win of the season. The fact that they earned that win while dropping Michigan to 2-4 was a shot of schadenfreude that made me so giddy that you would have thought that I inhaled a full balloon full of helium. All things considered, this line looks pretty reasonable. Even though MSU is still a long shot, the Spartans have now shown that they can play winning football versus the best that the Big Ten West has to offer. I see no reason why MSU cannot compete with and defeat the 1-5 Lions.

I wish I had a nickel for every time I have said this in 2020, but what a difference a week can make. After the loss to Indiana, MSU’s season was sinking like a lead balloon. Suddenly, the world and MSU’s prospect seem much, much brighter. We still have three more weeks on this rollercoaster. Let’s enjoy the ride.

Playoff Landscape

Finally, Tables 4 and 5 below show my updated Playoff and Group of Five odds following Week 13.

Table 3: Updated College Football Playoff following Week 13

With Oregon’s loss at the hands of the Beavers this week, the Pac 12’s odds to field a playoff team has taken a big hit. My leaderboard now features Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Clemson, but it is currently the Crimson Tide who are taking all of the oxygen in the room. I currently project that Alabama not only has over a 75 percent chance to make the playoffs, but the Tide has a 45 percent chance to win the National Title.

The most surprising team on the leaderboard this week is Colorado, who checks in at No. 5 with slightly better odds than Pac 12 South foe USC (No. 9). Those two teams were supposed to play this weekend, but with the cancellation, I am not sure how that tiebreaker might work if both teams go undefeated.

Table 4: Updated Group of Five Leaderboard for the spot in the New Years Six Bowls

Despite not playing, Cincinnati continues to have a firm lead for the New Year’s Six spot. Coastal Carolina did pass Marshall for second place this week, and Buffalo is now occupying fourth.

That is all for now. MSU may get another bye week, but I will still be here with the math on all the other action in Week 14. Stay tuned, enjoy, and Go Green.