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Bad Betting Advice, Champions Week (Dear Santa...)

As it ‘tis the season, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to add a few Spartan-football-related items to my Christmas List. In return, I gave Santa some free betting advice

Michigan State v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Dear Santa,

How’s it going, big guy? As you know, it’s been a pretty wild year everywhere south of the arctic circle. I am sure that your army of elves has filled you in on COVID-19. It sucks pretty hard, honestly. The kids are wondering if we are going to be able to see Grandma is person this year.

I hear that you are immune and are still going to be able to make the rounds this year without any problems. Something about 800-year old elf magic, right? That’s a relief. I was afraid that you were going to have to wear a mask, have your temperature checked, change your shoes, and apply hand sanitizer before dropping off each and every load of presents. That’s a lot of extra time for a man on a deadline. Plus, you’d have to bring an extra sleigh full of lotion just to keep your hands from falling off.

I am sure that you have also heard that it’s been a tough year for MSU fans. The year started off well. The men’s basketball team won the Big Ten and really hit their stride right at the beginning of March. But then, COVID hit and the NCAA Tournament was canclled. It was like receiving a lump of coal the size of Rhode Island.

Then, as the summer wore on, it looked like Big Ten football wasn’t going to happen at all. But, the conference put stricter testing protocols into place and we finally saw the Green and White take the field in late October. Things didn’t go so well on that particular Saturday, but it was a tremendous gift to see an MSU team play any sport after such as long layoff.

So far, the season has been up and down. The Spartans beat Michigan (which was awesome) and knocked off a top-10 rated Northwestern team, but MSU lost the other five games, all by double-digits. Now, MSU has one more game this weekend against at Maryland.

Since we are just a few days away from Christmas, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask you what I would like to see from the Spartans in this final week of the season. You can just add it to the list of stuff that I emailed you last month. I hope you don’t mind.

First, I would like to see Payton Thorne get another full game of live action. He looked good last week, and regardless of Rocky’s health, I want to see what he can do against another Big Ten defense. It sounds like I will get my wish. Second, I would like to see well executed blocking from the offensive line and good decisions from the running backs. Also, I would like to see a healthy Jordan Simmons get most of the carries.

Next, I would like to see the receivers run crisp routes and exhibit good hands. Also, minimizing penalties like false starts, delay of game, and late hits would also be great. I hope that’s not too much to ask. Since I am on a roll, I would also like to see good tackling and no coverage busts on defense. Just for good measure, solid special teams play with no big returns would also be great. Oh...also, no turnovers, please.

I suppose that I shouldn’t dance around the issue. All I want for Christmas, simply put, is a win. Santa, I would really like to see the Mel Tucker get his third win this weekend. That would be a really nice way to kick off the week leading up to the 25th. I promise that I have been a pretty good boy this year. I only argued Michigan fans on Twitter a little. You know how they are...

Speaking of Michigan, I have one more request. If you could pull some strings and see if you can get Jim Harbaugh to stay in Ann Arbor for a couple more years, that would be great. He’s had a tough year, too. It seems that his entire team had had COVID for three weeks and I would hate to see the poor man try to sell his house over the holidays. That just doesn’t seem fair.

That should just about do it for this year. Thanks for listening. I promise to leave out your usual plate of cookies and glass of milk this year along with a few carrots for Comet, Cupid and the rest of the crew. Also, you might want to just land in the back yard this year. Our roof is pretty steep and we don’t want to repeat “the incident” from last year. Right?

Best Regards,

Paul (a.k.a. Dr. Green and White)

Picks of the Week

As a gift to you, dear reader, Figures 1 and 2 below once again give the results for this week’s games as projected by both my algorithm and ESPN’s FPI, relative to the opening Vegas Lines.

Figure 1: Champions Week game projections from my algorithm, relative to the Vegas line
Figure 2: Champions Week game results projected by the FPI, relative to the opening Vegas line.

All season long, my algorithm and the FPI have made quite a few upset picks and picks against the spread, but this week is like Silent Night. I am not even going to bother showing the upset and recommended bet tables because they are both basically empty.

Neither computer projects an upset this week, and only a single game triggers a “recommended bet.” That game is the Big Ten Championship game where my computer likes the Wildcats to cover.

I would rather not change this name of the piece to No Betting Advice, so while the following goes against my normal procedure, here is a list of possible additional bets where both computers agree on which team will cover. The games are ranked based on the weighted difference between the line and the computer projections:

  • Rutgers (+6) to cover vs. Nebraska
  • Alabama (-14.5) to cover vs. Florida
  • Ball St. (+14) to cover vs. Buffalo
  • San Jose State (+8) to cover vs. Boise State
  • Missouri (-1) to cover vs. Mississippi State

But, not every favored team will likely sleep in heavenly peace this weekend. My simulation suggests the we will see 6.1 plus-or-minus 2.0 upsets in this final weekend of the season.

MSU and Big Ten Overview

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I think that MSU got a good break in drawing the Terrapins for this week’s game. According to my power rankings, only Illinois would have been a weaker opponent, and considering the Spartans’ recent history with Lovie Smith coached teams (may his tenure rest in peace), I am 100 percent OK facing Maryland.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that MSU is actually last in the Big Ten in my power ranking and the game is on the road. I am sorry to be such a Grinch, but my computer’s official prediction is that Maryland will beat the Spartans, 31-24. Fortunately, Vegas is quite a bit more optimistic as is the early money. The line opened with Maryland as a five-point favorite and within hours the line was down to just two points or even less. This suggests that MSU has about a 45 percent chance to win straight-up. I will take those odds all day long.

The recent history of this Big Ten East rivalry is rather limited and the story line is a bit mixed. This is the first time since Maryland joined the Big Ten that the Spartans are underdogs in this match-up and the Terps only have one win on their side of the ledger, a 28-17 win in College Park in 2016. However, Maryland has covered the spread in three of the last four meetings. It would not be a very merry or jolly end to the season in East Lansing if Maryland covers this time.

As for the rest of the Big Ten, Northwestern will face Ohio State (-20.5) in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. As I explained above, my algorithm projects that this game will be quite a bit closer, and the FPI also projects the Wildcats to cover. If the Buckeyes win as expected, they will almost certainly secure a spot in the playoffs. If the Wildcats win, they are also assured a New Year’s Six Bowl bid.

The other Big Ten team with a great shot at a New Year’s Six bowl is Indiana. IU was scheduled to face Purdue this weekend, but the game has been canceled due to ongoing COVID concerns at both schools. As long as Indiana can get healthy by the end of the year a prestigious bowl seems to be in their future.

Iowa (6-2) is also in a strong position to secure a high-profile bowl in Florida. The Hawkeyes were big favorites (-13) to stuff a lump of coal into Michigan’s stocking on Saturday. However, late Tuesday the Wolverines cancelled for the third straight week, citing a desire to finish their Christmas shopping this weekend instead of traveling to Iowa City to get blown out. I don’t know about you, but it’s beginning to look a lot like Michigan just didn’t want to play any more this year.

If MSU beats Maryland (2-3), only one additional Big Ten team will exit the weekend over .500 and that will be the winner of the make-up game between Wisconsin (2-3) and Minnesota (3-3). The winner will also get to Deck the Halls with Paul Bunyan’s Axe for next 12 months. Wisconsin is a 14-point favorite and in this case my computer projects that the Gophers will do a bit better than that. The FPI does not agree.

Penn State cannot get to .500 but the Lion do look to get to four wins this weekend and are favored to do so versus Illinois (+15). The computers are split here as well against that spread. My machine likes the Lions, while the FPI favors Illinois.

That leaves the final Big Ten game on the shopping list: Nebraska (-6) at Rutgers. As stated above, the computers both favor the Scarlet Knight against the spread, but MSU fans are better served by pulling for the Huskers here. Otherwise, Rutgers will get to four wins as well and will certainly finish ahead of the Spartans in the Big Ten East standings.

Big Ten Bowl Landscape

As I mentioned above, the fact that MSU gets to play another game this year should be looked at as nothing but a positive. As it stands right now, the Spartans have back-to-back loses to chew on and are technically sitting in last place in the Big Ten East. If MSU doesn’t beat Maryland, MSU will still be in last place. In other words, there is nothing to lose. But, if MSU wins, there is quite a bit of upside.

I discussed on Monday how a win over Maryland would automatically move the Spartans past the Terrapins in the standing based on both total wins and win percentage. Now that Michigan has canceled, the Spartans will also jump the Wolverines with a win and will land in at least fifth place (13 percent odds) or more likely fourth place (27 percent overall) if Rutgers loses. There is even the rare scenario (four percent overall) where MSU jumps Penn State as well to move into third place in the East (based on win percentage) if Nebraska and Illinois both win along with MSU.

In the broader scope, there is still the open question of a bowl game for MSU. If the Spartans lose to Maryland, these odds will almost certainly go to zero. But, with a win, there is a chance that the Spartans won’t be home for Christmas. However, a big unanswered question is how many bowls will actually be available. Right now, three of the bowls with Big Ten tie-ins have been canceled (Pinstripe, Redbox, and Quick Lane), which leaves only five non-New Years Six Bowls in play (Citrus, Outback, Duke’s Mayo (a.k.a. Belk), Music City, and Guaranteed Rate (a.k.a. Cheez-It).

If we assume that at least two Big Ten teams make the New Year’s Six, this means that in order for MSU to be a likely candidate for another game, the Spartans would need to finish in the top seven overall in conference win percentage. There are a few scenarios where this does occur with a sum total odds of about six percent. However, in all cases they would involve a two-or-three-way tie with Nebraska and/or Illinois and there is no guarantee that MSU would be selected.

That said, there are now rumblings that the NCAA Football Oversight Committee is going to allow teams to schedule a bowl-like bonus game in situations where a team would have qualified for a bowl game but that bowl game was called off. For example, if MSU would have qualified for the now canceled Quick Lane Bowl, MSU could arrange a game with a MAC team sometime before the end of 2020. It seems likely that Spartan Stadium would host such as game, if this comes to pass.

In this scenario, MSU would likely only need to finish in the top -10 or so win percentage-wise to qualify, and as long as the Spartans win on Saturday, this will be the case (45 percent odds). Might we see one more game this season in Spartan Stadium against a team like Ball State, Western Michigan, or Toledo? Or, would MSU qualify for a Pinstripe Bowl make-up game or Redbox Bowl make-up game against an ACC or Pac-12 opponent? Do any other the athletic departments actually have the stomach to make that happen? It’s hard to say, but it at least seems possible.

New Year’s Six Landscape

As I look at the playoff and New Year’s Six landscape, the various scenarios and open questions are fairly clear. As for the playoffs, here is the way the I see it:

  • Win or lose this weekend, I think that both Alabama and Notre Dame will make the playoffs
  • If Ohio State loses, they are out
  • If Clemson loses, they are also out...maybe
  • Texas A&M will sneak into the playoffs if either Clemson or Ohio State loses.
  • The committee can and likely will tweak the seeding to avoid an all SEC or all ACC semifinal.
  • The No. 1 and No. 4 seed will play in the Sugar Bowl due to proximity.

If I take these assumptions to be correct, the playoff matchups are reasonably easy to put together except for one narrow set of circumstances: the case where BOTH Ohio State and Clemson lose this weekend (which I calculate has only a 2.2 percent chance of happening).

In this scenario, I believe that Ohio State would still be out and Texas A&M would be in, but Clemson would be on the fence. I think that the most viable replacement team, based on the most recent playoff poll, would be the Big 12 Champion, i.e. the winner between Iowa State and Oklahoma. Cincinnati simply has no quality wins and will not climb to No. 4.

However, at the end of the day, I think that Clemson would still stick at No. 4 and would make it into the playoffs anyway. Furthermore, I think that in the very rare case that Ohio State, Clemson, and Alabama ALL lose this weekend, Clemson and Alabama would still wind up in the top four and Florida would not be able to sneak in. Basically, I see two of the spots as fixed (Alabama and Notre Dame) with three teams only in play for the last two spots (Clemson, Ohio State, and Texas A&M).

If I run through the odds of each possible scenario, I can generate the follow table.

Table 1: Playoff scenarios based on the outcome of the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten Championship games

The truth is that the three big games this weekend (the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten Championship games) all have rather large spreads, so the most likely scenario has over a fifty-fifty chance of coming to pass. The top three scenarios combined have about 90 percent odds so it is very likely that we will see one of those three possible lineups.

As for the other New Year’s Six Bowls, here are the main points:

The Orange Bowl must take the highest ranked non-playoff ACC team to face the highest ranked remaining non-champion from either the SEC or the Big Ten. So, on the ACC side, this is most likely North Carolina (72 percent odds), but Clemson might also drop to this spot (28 percent). As for the opponent, Texas A&M (65 percent) will likely land here if both Clemson and Ohio State win, and if the Aggies make the playoffs, Florida (30 percent) will most likely be headed to Miami.

There are also a few scenarios where Georgia (four percent) or Ohio State (one percent) play in the Orange Bowl. These include scenarios where Florida beats Alabama and is ineligible for the Orange Bowl or when Ohio State loses in Indianapolis and ends up ranked higher than any non-playoff SEC team.

For the remaining three NY6 Bowls, three of the slots will be filled by the Pac-12 Champion, the Big 12 Champion and the highest ranked Group of Five Champion, which will be either Cincinnati (83 percent), Coastal Carolina (10 percent) or Louisiana (seven percent). Based on proximity, it only makes sense that the Fiesta Bowl would take the Pac-12 champ and the Cotton Bowl would take the Big 12 champ.

As for the other three teams needed to fill out the remaining slots, the committee generally will take highest ranked teams still on the board and pair up teams to create the best match ups. Based on the most recent playoff poll, my best guess is the the Big 12 Champ will be paired with Florida (if available), Georgia will get paired with Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl, and Indiana will be paired with the Pac 12 champ in the Fiesta Bowl. Some projections have the loser of the Big 12 Championship in the Fiesta Bowl, but a one-loss Indiana team should finish higher than a three-loss Oklahoma or Iowa State team, in my opinion.

Therefore the most likely New Year’s Six line up (if all the favorite teams win this weekend) looks like this:

  • Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Notre Dame
  • Rose Bowl: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State
  • Orange Bowl: North Carolina vs Texas A&M
  • Cotton Bowl: Oklahoma vs. Florida
  • Peach Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Georgia
  • Fiesta Bowl: Indiana vs. USC

Some of the most interesting other scenarios come in play if either Clemson or Ohio State lose and fail to make the playoffs. For example, if Clemson loses and falls to the Orange Bowl, it will knock North Carolina out of the NY6 to make room for another team.

Based on the current playoff poll, that next team up will either be Coastal Carolina or the loser of the Big 12 Championship game. In this case, the committee could either match up Cincinnati to play Coastal Carolina in the Peach Bowl or would split them up to play Indiana and USC, respectively.

If Northwestern beats Ohio State, the Wildcats would automatically earn a New Year’s Six bid as well. In most cases, Northwestern would most likely take Indiana’s place to face the Pac-12 champ in the Fiesta Bowl. In any event, by Sunday afternoon, all of the matchups should be released.

That is all for now. Happy Holidays. I hope that everyone out there enjoys a Green and White Christmas. As always: Go State, Beat the Terrapins!