How’s it going, Spartans fans? Did you have a good weekend? I had a GREAT weekend. How was work on Monday? Quiet? Yeah, me too. I must admit that while working from home has its advantages, it would have been a lot more fun to go into my office in Ann Arbor this week.
A week ago, it seemed like MSU’s season was all but over almost before it had even begun. Now, even though MSU is just 1-1 on the season, the Mel Tucker era has already scored a tremendous, program shaking victory. Last week the Spartans went into Ann Arbor, fought the fight and won the war for Paul Bunyan and in the process won a lot of praise. The Spartans are on the rise, and the Maize and Blue empire is showing the cracks that usually come before a fall. They seem a bit blue this week.
As for the Spartans, the small query for this week is simply: what comes next?
Well, according to the schedule, next up is a road trip to Iowa City to face the Hawkeyes. It has been a rough last few months for the Iowa program. It has endured an offseason of controversy, the Hakweyes are off to an 0-2 start, and their top wide receiver is suspended for this Saturday’s contest. That said, winning on the road in the Big Ten, even with an empty stadium, is not going to be a picnic.
For the MSU coaching staff, what happens now is the next great test. It is perhaps easy to motivate a team to face a rival after getting embarrassed by Rutgers. It may be much harder to lead a team after last weekend’s truly awesome win. (Once again, WOW, was that fun. Also, nine of the last 13 games... insane...)
But, I think Coach Mel Tucker and company have a clue and will get that part figured out. It is also not like the coaching staff is all alone and on their own in the leadership category. This game is a special one on the calendar for MSU quarterback and Iowa native Rocky Lombardi. He has already displayed more poise, leadership, and skill this season than most fans were aware that he even had. It is hard to believe that his teammates won’t go to war with him once again to make sure his homecoming is a success.
If MSU can win on Saturday, all of a sudden the next three games will look very winnable as well. But, for now, it most important to focus on what’s next. Iowa. One game at a time.
Picks of the Week
Not to change the subject, but let’s jump to one of my favorite subjects. As is my tradition, the figures below below give a visual summary of the point differentials projected by both my algorithm (Figure 1) and ESPN’s FPI (Figure 2).
Regarding the upset picks of the week, Table 1 below summarizes the picks from both my algorithm and the FPI.
In a normal year, after nine weeks of football the computers and Vegas are usually in very good agreement and the number of projected upsets and recommended bets drops to close to zero. In 2020, some teams have played up to seven games while the MAC and Pac-12 have yet to kick off. As a result, there are a large number of upset picks on the board this week: a total of 11, with my algorithm contributing eight, and the FPI providing seven, four of which overlap with my picks.
The boldest upset picks of the week are for Illinois (+9) to hand Minnesota a third consecutive loss and for South Carolina (+8) to stun Texas A&M. My algorithm also picks Clemson to fall to Notre Dame (+4) in South Bend.
As for the picks where the computers agree, those include Cal upsetting Washington in the Pac-12 opener, Arkansas over Tennessee, BYU over Boise State, and a certain team from Ann Arbor perhaps taking a second loss in a row in Bloomington. For reference, my Monte Carlo simulation predicts a total of 14.1 plus-or-mine 3.1 upsets total week.
The recommended bets for the week are shown below in Table 2.
Once again, this is a huge number of picks: 15 overall. Based on my confidence score, the three highest confidence picks of the week are for Penn State, Wyoming, and Utah State to cover. The fact that both my computer and the FPI recommend the top two picks is notable, but likely does not add significantly to the likelihood that either cover will actually take place.
For reference, this link shows all the picks from my spreadsheet, in detail.
MSU and Big Ten Overview
When the line for MSU’s road trip to Iowa City came out on Sunday with the Hawkeye’s favored initially by nine points, a lot of MSU fans seemed surprised. However, both my algorithm and the FPI spit out a virtually identical line of +10.1. Basically, the Spartans’ preseason rankings and opening weekend performance are still negatively influencing MSU’s prospects with the computers and also with Vegas.
Personally, if MSU can build on last weekend’s win in Ann Arbor or at least play with a similar level of focus and energy, then I really like the Spartans’ chances to win straight up. That said, I make it my policy to always go by the cold, hard numbers and they say Iowa wins and even covers, 31-21 so I will keep that as my “official” pick. Based on the opening line, MSU’s odds to win are only 26 percent. But when push comes to shove, I have a very hard time believing that after what I saw last weekend.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten East, Ohio State (-37) and Penn State (-21) are both on cupcake duty this weekend as they host Rutgers and Maryland, respectively. My algorithm has the Scarlet Knight covering in Columbus just barely, but as is shown in Table 2, Penn State covering the spread versus Maryland is a top pick of the week.
Also in the Big Ten East we ask, who’s next for the Michigan Wolverines? [Checks the schedule...] “Michael Penix, Jr. and the 2-0 Indiana Hoosiers... against the Wolverine secondary... Good Luck!” While the Hoosiers (+2) are looking down at the Wolverines in the standings, Vegas gives the Wolverines a slim edge. But, as stated above, both my algorithm and the FPI like Indiana to pull the upset.
If that does happen, and the Hoosier send the Wolverines crawling back to Ann Arbor with another “L” tattooed on their forehead, start popping the popcorn, as things might get really fun. At that point, I might even start to feel sorry for Jim Harbaugh. That poor man, they are going to eat him alive. They will tear each other into pieces. In fact, it might already have started.
In the Big Ten West, the top game on the docket was supposed to be Purdue at Wisconsin (-6) but on Tuesday this game was cancelled, leaving the Badgers on the brink of no longer being eligible for the Big Ten West title. One more cancellation and the Badgers are done.
As a result, Purdue remains undefeated and Northwestern also looks to stay that way as it hosts Nebraska (+3). The computers like the Wildcats to win and cover as well. Finally, Minnesota (-9) travels to Champaign this weekend to face Illinois. Both computers like the Illini to cover, while my system goes farther in predicting a straight-up upset. Either way the loser stays in last place in the West.
Other National Action
Wisconsin is not the only team struggling with COVID problems as the Trevor Lawrence-less Clemson Tigers narrowly avoided disaster versus Boston College last weekend. This weekend, Lawrence is still out-of-play and the test will be much tougher: at Notre Dame. While the Irish opened as four-point home dogs, my algorithm projects an upset.
Either way, though, a Clemson-Notre Dame rematch in the ACC Championship Game is still the most likely scenario. The other team with the best shot to sneak into the title game is Miami (5-1) who visits N.C. State (+9) this weekend.
After Texas edged Oklahoma State in overtime last week, The Cowboys dropped into a three-way tie in the loss column with Kansas State and Iowa State in Big 12 action. As luck would have it, Oklahoma State (-11) will have the chance to break that tie in a road trip to Manhattan to face the Kansas State Wildcats. The computers both have OK State winning but K-State covering. Iowa State (-14) hosts Baylor this weekend and will also try to stay in the lead pack. In general, there are no games in the Big 12 this weekend with a single digit spread, so it could wind up being a rather boring weekend.
Six of the 14 SEC teams have byes this week, including Alabama, but the SEC East features the annual contest between Florida and Georgia (-5), otherwise in 2020 known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Attendance Controlled, Socially Responsible, and Properly Masked and Distanced Party Which May Or May Not Include Alcohol. The FPI likes Florida to barely cover, while my algorithm likes Georgia in blow-out fashion.
The other SEC game that I have my eye on is Texas A&M (-8) at South Carolina. While the Aggies’ odds to win the West are low (it would require two Alabama losses) they will be even lower if they get upset by the Gamecocks, as my algorithm predicts.
This weekend also signals the return of the Pac-12. While we know even less about these teams than anyone we have discussed so far, there are several interesting games on opening weekend including preseason favorite Oregon hosting Stanford (+11.5), Washington at Cal (+6.5), and Arizona State at USC (-10.5). The computers both like Oregon and USC to win and cover, but they also both like Cal in the upset, straight-up.
Finally, in notable Group of Five action, the presumed G5 leader, Cincinnati might get a test this weekend hosting Houston (+10) but the computers both expect the Bearcats to win and cover. Marshall is on a bye, while Boise State has a very fun match-up scheduled against BYU (+3). Both computer models have the Cougars winning in upset fashion. Coastal Carolina will continue their quest for an undefeated season against South Alabama (+15). The computers like CCU to win and cover here as well.
That will do it for this week. Until next time, Go State, beat the Hawkeyes!