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Bad Betting Advice, Week 14 (An Ode to Chaos)

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The 2020 Big Ten football season has certainly been a rollercoaster ride like no other. I think that it is time to simply embrace the chaos.

Ohio State v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In a normal year, the final weekend of the regular season would now be in the books and we would likely be talking about the upcoming Big Ten Championship Game between Ohio State and Northwestern (or Wisconsin). In addition, we would either be discussing which bowl MSU would be playing in or (more likely) reflecting on what we learned from the first full year of the Mel Tucker era and thinking about a better finish in 2021.

But, it is 2020 and literally nothing is “normal” right now. In fact, the word that keeps coming back to me right now is “chaos.” As a “data guy” one of the most important things that I look for are large and consistent sets of data. But 2020 is providing neither. The shortened and disconnected schedules make it difficult to truly evaluate any team or make any reliable predictions (not that that is stopping me from trying).

Furthermore the constant reshuffling of the weekly schedule due to COVID cancelations is enough to make my eyes cross. This pales in comparison to the serious nature of pandemic, the virus itself, and all the destruction that it is causing to society, but it’s still annoying.

As for the Michigan State season so far, the results of each week have also been rather chaotic in nature. The final score of all five of MSU’s games thus far have ended more than one standard deviation (14 points) from the opening Vegas line. Every single outcome has been an outlier, essentially, and MSU is the only team in the country with this distinction. The math of the normal distribution would suggest that the odds of this happening are about 1 in 300.

Furthermore, I don’t see any evidence in the data that there are more “outliers” in 2020 than normal. So far almost exactly one-third of the games that I have tracked (97 of 288) have fallen into this category, which almost exactly where it should be (33.6 percent versus 31.7 percent to be exact, which is a difference of only five games out of almost 300). Basically MSU is Team Chaos!

That bring us to this week. Based on the current schedule, the Spartans are supposed to host Ohio State this week, but with the current COVID outbreak in Columbus puts that game into question as well. If the Buckeyes are forced to cancel, even more chaos will occur in the Big Ten East, as the scarlet and gray would no longer be eligible for the Big Ten Championship Game.

In theory, Indiana has a lock on second place in the East, would simply take the place of the Buckeyes, and would face Northwestern. By the way, the Wildcats have now clinched the West due to the cancelation of their scheduled game this week with Minnesota (thanks, Chaos!) Honestly, this is a delightful amount of chaos in my life, but it would be even more fun if Indiana quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. had not suffered a season-ending injury last weekend. That flat out stinks for the kid, Indiana, and frankly the Big Ten. He is fun to watch and easy to root for.

If this isn’t enough chaos for you, think about a situation where:

  • The MSU-OSU game is canceled and MSU beats Penn State next weekend to finish 3-3
  • Maryland and Rutgers both lose another game to fall below 0.500
  • COVID strikes Bloomington in two weeks and the Hoosiers cannot play in the Big Ten Championship game

Based on my reading of the Big Ten tiebreaker rules, I think that the conference would actually cancel the Championship Game. There is only a contingency to send the Division “champion” or “runner-up” to Indianapolis. But, if Ohio State is ineligible, are they still the “champion” or is Indiana the “champion?” Is Indiana the “runner-up” or is the runner-up actually... Michigan State?

As I read the rules, I am almost certain that Ohio State would be defined as the “champion” (albeit, an ineligible one) and Indiana as the “runner-up.” But, this is starting to have the feel of a Big Ten Constitution Crisis. CHAOS! But, imagining a possible Northwestern rematch with a 0.500 Michigan State team in Indianapolis would be the most “2020” thing that I can imagine.

Oh, chaos, how I love you so.

Picks of the Week

As usual, Figures 1 and 2 below provide a visual summary of the originally scheduled action for Week 14. The two figures compare the opening Vegas line of each game to the game results projected by both my algorithm and ESPN’s FPI.

Figure 1: Comparison of my algorithm’s projections for college football Week 14 compared to the opening Vegas Line
Figure 2: Comparison of ESPN’s FPI projections for college football Week 14 compared to the opening Vegas

The weekly upset picks from the very logical computers that hate chaos are shown below in Table 1.

Table 1: Upset picks from the computers for college football’s Week 14

The computers both project four upsets this week, with two of those picks overlapping to result in a total of six upset picks in Week 14. The most notable picks are for Auburn to upset Texas A&M, UCLA to upset Arizona State, and TCU to upset Oklahoma State.

As for the recommended bets for the week, those are summarized below in Table 2:

Table 2: Recommended bets for Week 14 from both computer systems

My spreadsheet likes only three bets this week while my analysis of the FPI data results in four additional picks for a total of seven. Sadly, the FPI likes the Buckeyes to cover this weekend against the Spartans, if that game actually goes forward.

A summary of (almost) all of my picks for Week 14 can be found here.

MSU and Big Ten Overview

As of the time of this posting, there is some momentum that the MSU-Ohio State game will actually take place this week, which is in pretty stark contrast to the way the wind was blowing over the weekend. If the game does get played, the numbers do not look great for the Spartans. But, then again, they didn’t look great before the Michigan or Northwestern games, either.

The Vegas line opened at MSU +24, which corresponds to a shade below a five percent chance that MSU wins straight-up. Note that this is virtually identical to the line for the Michigan game (+23). This is also the biggest line in the series since 2001.

The next largest line in the recent series was the 21.5-point line in 2016 where MSU rose up and nearly pulled the upset before falling 17-16 in East Lansing. Last year’s line of 20-points was also similar, and in that contest the Buckeyes won by 24 points in Columbus. In the Mark Dantonio era, MSU was 5-6 against the spread versus the Buckeyes, but OSU did cover each time in the last three years.

As for this year, my algorithm nailed the line almost exactly (+24.9) which still suggests that the Buckeyes will cover. As a result, my official score prediction is a 42-17 win for Ohio State. The FPI is even more confident and has the Buckeyes favored by 30 points, which places this game on my recommended bet table above. That said, with Coach Ryan Day not able to attend the game, an unknown number of players unavailable, and with limited practice time, might there be an opening for a little more Big Ten chaos? Sure. It’s 2020. Why not?

Elsewhere in the Big Ten, it seems like there is more intrigue surrounding which games might get canceled as opposed to the actual games. As mentioned previously, Northwestern at Minnesota is already canceled, OSU at MSU is in doubt, as is Maryland at Michigan (-7). If the Wolverines do play, the computers both like them to cover, just barely.

On paper, the Hoosiers’ trip to Madison to face the Badgers (-14) should be fun. If Indiana can still win without Michael Penix, Jr. it would certainly continue the feel-good story in Bloomington. My computer likes IU to cover (but it doesn’t know about the injury situation) while the FPI actually favors Wisconsin to cover.

Penn State (-10) looks to string two wins in a row this week at Rutgers. The computers both project the Nittany Lions to win but not to cover. To round out the action in the Big Ten, Iowa (-12) travels to Illinois this weekend while Nebraska visits Purdue (-1). The computers like the favorites to both win and cover.

Other National Action

The ACC had been remarkably unchaotic this year as it still appears to be a slow march to the ACC Championship game for a Clemson and Notre Dame rematch. Clemson is a 21-point favorite at Virginia Tech this week, while Notre Dame is an even bigger 32-point favorite over Syracuse in South Bend. If Clemson wins, the race is officially over.

If Clemson loses, Miami can still make the ACC title game by winning this week at Duke (+11) and next week vs. UNC. If Clemson wins, the Canes are done, as Tuesday the ACC adjusted the overall schedule by canceling Notre Dame’s final game against Wake Forest. As a result, Notre Dame has clinched a spot in the ACC Title Game.

As predicted, the Championship Game situation in the Big 12 is much clearer this week. Iowa State now has sole possession of first place at 7-1 after last week’s win in Austin. The Cyclones can wrap up the No. 1 seed with a win versus West Virginia (+8). ISU will most likely face Oklahoma (5-2) in the Big 12 Championship Game, who is a big favorite over Baylor (+23) this weekend. That said, Oklahoma State (5-2) is also still alive, as is Texas (5-3) and West Virginia (5-3). The Cowboys (-3) travel to TCU this week while Texas (-7) plays at Kansas State.

Considering Oregon’s upset loss to Oregon State last week and the general scheduling chaos out west, I am not sure that the Pac-12 is even worth discussing. The North Division still seems likely to come down to next week’s matchup between Oregon (3-1) and Washington (3-0). This week, however, the Ducks (-11) face Cal, while the Huskies (-10) are hosting Stanford.

In the South, the division as a whole is down a total of nine games so far this year after only four weeks, so it’s been...chaotic. Right now, Colorado (2-0) and USC (3-0) are at the top of the standings. Colorado (-2) is scheduled to play at Arizona while USC (-13.5) is planning to host Washington State on Sunday. We will see if either game actually happens.

In the SEC, both Alabama and Florida are just one win away from officially locking up the West and East Divisions, respectively. That is likely to happen this week as Alabama (-25) travels to Arkansas and Florida (-18) travels to Tennessee. As for the other teams still technically alive, Texas A&M (-4) is expected to be tested at Auburn, while Georgia (-35) is not expected to be tested versus Vanderbilt.

In notable Group of Five action, Cincinnati is just (most likely) two wins in consecutive weekends over Tulsa away from locking up the New Years Six Bowl bid. Due to various schedule chaos, however, the Bearcats are off this week.

If Cincinnati were to drop one of those games, Coastal Carolina is the next most likely beneficiary. The Chanticleers have the Sunbelt East Division clinched and in a few week they will face Louisiana-Lafayette for the Sunbelt Title. Before that, however, they have a tricky little game this weekend against Liberty (+7) before closing the season with a make-up game against Troy next week.

Marshall (7-0) is also still alive in the NY6 chase and will face Rice (+25) this weekend. Both Buffalo (4-0) and Western Michigan (4-0) are still undefeated in MAC play, but with just a six-game-conference-only schedule an eventual MAC champion stealing the NY6 bid seems unlikely. That said, Buffalo (-7) travels to Ohio this week while Western Michigan (-14) hosts Eastern Michigan.

That is all for this week. Whether MSU winds up playing this weekend or not, I will be here on Monday to check in on the results. Until next time, enjoy, and Go State; Beat the Buckeyes (maybe...)!