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Against All Odds, Week 15 (Adjustments)

Following the second half collapse in Happy Valley, is it time to adjust our expectations?

Michigan State v Penn State
These helmets are still fire
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Let’s start off with the good news from last Saturday’s game in State College: the Gruff Sparty helmets were exactly as sweet as we had hoped and expected. Amiright? Do not adjust your set, the Gruff Sparty helmet era has arrived and it is glorious.

Speaking of adjusting my set, let’s talk about the MSU offense, especially in the first half. Was that not the best that MSU’s offense and quarterback have looked all year? In his first career start, Payton Thorne went 11-for-13 with three touchdowns in the first half. Tre’Von Morgan hauled in both his first career catch and first career touchdown on the same play. True freshman running Jordan Simmons looked quick, decisive, and elusive. He picked up five yards or more on eight of his 14 total carries for the game.

When MSU went into the break with a 21-10 lead, I honestly thought that the Spartans were going to win, just as they had when they started strong against Michigan and Northwestern. Who could deny the power of Gruff Sparty?

Then, something completely shocking and unexpected happened: Penn State coach James Franklin made effective halftime adjustments. Merely typing that sentence leaves me both confused and unsettled. James freaking Franklin. The same coach whose play-calling and clock management (see: the end of the first half) rivals only that of Jim Harbaugh in the Big Ten. Seriously. What happened?

In any event, whatever adjustments were made in the halftime locker room seemed to work for the Nittany Lions and not at all for the Spartans. Penn State scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions in the second half, while MSU punted after five plays or less on five of their first six second half possessions. That is not a recipe for success.

MSU’s season, just like all of 2020, has been a constant exercise in adjustment. We have all had to adjust to the “new normal” of a global pandemic. Players have had to adjust to a drastically different schedule. MSU’s player had to adjust to the new schemes and methods of a new coaching staff (and vice versa).

As the season progressed, MSU fans have had to continually adjust our expectations. After the Rutgers loss, the sky seemed to be falling. After the Michigan win, the sky seemed to be the limit, and that was only in a span of eight days. Then came the losses to Iowa and Indiana...but then came the upset win over Northwestern. Now, after back-to-back losses. Where, exactly are we?

The truth is, maybe no one knows, but I can tell you what I personally believe: I have seen enough bright spots on the season to make me optimistic about the future. Despite what happened in the second half at Penn State, the first half version of Michigan State looked pretty darn good. Some of the younger players on both sides of the ball flashed enough to make me believe that the program is headed in the right direction.

The future looks bright for underclassmen Payton Thorne, Jordan Simmons, Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor, Ricky White, Michael Fletcher, and Angelo Grose, just to name a few. Imagine what might happen when these players and the rest of the roster are combined with the new class of recruits hand-picked by Coach Mel Tucker and allowed to actually work out and practice in a (hopefully) COVID-free world. I am excited to see what that future might look like.

By the time MSU takes the field in the Fall of 2021, we will all be almost a year older and the world will hopefully be a much brighter place. The Spartans will look quite a bit different and just might look quite a bit better. We all might just need to adjust our sets once again, as well as our expectations. Upward. As always, I remain optimistic.

Week 15 Results and Betting Review

As I have now done every week of Big Ten play, Figure 1 below provides a visual summary of the full results of Week 15, relative to the opening Vegas line.

Figure 1: Summary of the college football results from Week 15, relative to the opening Vegas line.

The overachieving teams for the week include Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Alabama, Buffalo, TCU, Georgia, Louisville, Florida State, Iowa, and Virginia Tech. It should be noted that no favored team underachieved by more than one standard deviation, yet still won. It should also be noted that for the first time all season, the result of the MSU game was within a standard deviation from the Vegas line.

The upsets from Week 15 are summarized below in Table 1. Note that I have adjusted the format of the data tables to also show the year-to-date performance

Table 1: Summary of the college football upsets from Week 15

Relative to the opening Vegas line, I count a total of nine upsets, the biggest of which was LSU’s upset of the Gators in the swamp. Both Minnesota and Rutgers also scored fairly large upsets and although North Carolina was only a three-point underdog at Miami, the Tar Heels’ 36-point win was also notable as a major outlier in Figure 1.

As Table 1 also shows, my computer went 0-2 in upset picks this week to bring the year-to-date total to an even 21-21. As for FPI, it went 1-2 (33 percent) to bring the year-to-date tally to 21-10 (68 percent).

Table 2 below summarizes the results of the recommended bets for Week 15. For the second week in a row, the computers did extremely well. It seems that my algorithm requires no adjustment.

Table 2: Recommended betting results for Week 15 of college football

My algorithm only triggered three upset picks this week, two of which wound up being correct (67 percent) bringing the year-to-date total to 17-15 (53 percent). My analysis of the FPI data resulting in eight upset picks, seven of which wound up being correct (88 percent). Year-to-date, the FPI-based method has yielded a record of 29-19 (60 percent) since Big Ten play began. The combined method is now 44-29 (60 percent) year-to-date.

Overall for the week, my algorithm was 25-12 (68 percent) against the opening line bringing the year-to-date totals to 198-168 (54 percent). The FPI did almost as well at 23-14 (62 percent). Somehow, the FPI’s year to date performance against the opening spread is now identical to my algorithm (198-168).

What’s Next for MSU and the Big Ten

Following the action on Saturday, it was honestly not clear what the Big Ten was going to do regarding the potential bonus round of Big Ten games that were originally scheduled for the weekend of Dec. 19. Based on the original plan, the final division standing were supposed to by used to match up teams in the East and West for a final cross-over pre-Christmas treat. If the Big Ten would have followed this plan, Big Ten East “No. 7 seed” Michigan State would have drawn West No. 7 seed Nebraska.

However, on Sunday afternoon the official Champions Week pairing were announced and the conference clearly decided to adjust the original plan. Ohio State will still face Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, but the decision was made to reschedule some of the key Big Ten contests that were cancelled over the past eight week. Rivalry games were prioritized, such as Wisconsin/Minnesota and Purdue/Indiana. As for Michigan State, the Spartans will travel to Maryland to make up the game originally scheduled for Nov. 21.

For the remaining six Big Ten teams, the conference seemed to create matchups that avoid rematches. Rutgers had already played four of the other five teams and so the Scarlet Knight were paired with Nebraska. Penn State had already played Iowa, and thus were paired with Illinois. This left Michigan and Iowa as the remaining dance partners.

In summary, the matchups for the final week of Big Ten play are as follows, including the current Vegas line:

  • Northwestern vs. Ohio State (-21)
  • Michigan at Iowa (-14)
  • Minnesota at Wisconsin (-10.5)
  • Michigan State at Maryland (-2)
  • Illinois at Penn State (-15)
  • Nebraska (-5) at Rutgers
  • Purdue at Indiana (-11)

My calculations have Maryland favored by eight points next weekend versus Michigan State and the Vegas line late Sunday opened at five points. However, after just a few hours the line was down to just two points.

Honestly, this paring for the Spartans seems like a pretty good deal. Of the possible opponents that MSU could have faced (namely Purdue, Nebraska, and Illinois) only Illinois was likely to have been a more beatable opponent. My calculations suggest that MSU would have been at least a five-point underdog in each of those other matchups, even in East Lansing.

In any event, Maryland is almost certainly the weakest team that MSU has faced since at least Week Two and perhaps the entire year. A road game against the Terps (sporting, it is rumored, yet another alternative “script State” helmet) provides a nice final exam for the season and a chance to adjust the record upwards.

Furthermore, the opportunity to play another game gives the Spartans a chance to make a major move in the Big Ten East standings. The loss this week to Penn State dropped MSU to last place in the East based on win percentage. However, a win over Maryland would raise MSU’s record to 3-5 (38 percent) while simultaneously dropping the Terps’ record to 2-4 (33 percent). MSU would already be out of the basement.

Looking at the other games, Michigan is a big underdog at Iowa. If the Wolverines lose to the Hawkeyes, Michigan falls from 2-4 (33 percent) to 2-5 (29 percent). Even if Michigan waves the white flag one more week, MSU can pass them with a victory over Maryland. The same is true of Rutgers, who are underdogs next week against Nebraska.

In other words, if MSU can beat Maryland and if there are no other upsets, the Spartans could adjust their place from last up to No. 4 in the East. Even better, in the far less likely scenario that Illinois upsets Penn State in a win-one-for-Lovie-type situation, MSU could even pass a 3-6 (33 percent) Penn State team to claim third place. Basically, while the road game at Maryland may feel like an afterthought on a season and year to forget, there is a lot to play for and a lot to potentially gain.

Bowl and Playoff Landscape

If the Spartans win on Saturday, is a bowl bid still possible? Perhaps, but I think that it would be a long shot. Of the original nine non-New Years Six bowl games with Big Ten ties, I count four that have already been cancelled (the Pinstripe, Redbox, Quick Lane, and Las Vegas Bowls). This leaves only six or more likely seven total bowls at play for Big Ten teams.

Most prognosticators have two Big Ten teams in the New Years Six (namely, Ohio State and Indiana) which means that the Citrus, Outback, Duke Lending (formerly Belk), Music City, and Guaranteed Rate (formerly Cheez-It) Bowls will be able to choose from the remaining pool of Big Ten teams.

Iowa and Northwestern both have six wins now and would be locks. Penn State is favored to pick up a fourth win, and the winner of the Wisconsin (2-3) versus Minnesota (3-3) game will also finish at or above .500. Even if Minnesota loses, the Gophers would fall to 3-4 (43 percent) and would likely also be more attractive than a 3-5 Michigan State team.

But, if Minnesota beats Wisconsin and Nebraska beats Rutgers, the Spartans (3-5) would be in a group with Rutgers (3-6) and Nebraska (3-6) for that possible last Bowl slot in Phoenix at the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. No other Big Ten team would have more than two wins baring other upsets. Would MSU’s higher win percentage earn the Spartans a bid?

It’s possible, but it still feel like Nebraska would get the nod in this scenario. After all, it was their idea to bring back Big Ten football. It seems only fair as a reward to send them to the dessert in the middle of a global pandemic to face (and likely lose) to West Virginia in an empty stadium. Makes sense.

As for the College Football Playoffs, not much has really changed since last week. If Alabama and Ohio State both win next weekend, they are in the Playoffs along with the winner of the ACC Championship Game. If that ACC Champ is named Clemson (who are currently favored by just over 10 points) then Notre Dame will also make the playoffs and the committee will not need to adjust their current rankings by very much.

If one of those three favored teams losses, things could get interesting. That said, Alabama and Notre Dame might both already be safe and even the Buckeye might be able to sneak into the playoffs even if they were to trip up against the Wildcats in Indianapolis. A two-loss Clemson team would likely drop out to the benefit of Texas A&M.

As for the Group of Five, if Cincinnati beat Tulsa, the Bearcats are in. If not, Coastal Carolina needs to beat Louisiana in the Sunbelt Championship game. If somehow both of those teams lose, the latest playoff rankings suggest that the Ragin’ Cajuns would get the nod over the Golden Hurricanes.

That is all for now, as always, enjoy, and Go Green, beat the Terrapins!