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Against All Odds, Week 14 (Every Rose Has Its Thorne)

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MSU’s up and down season took another downturn this week and left fans singing a sad, sad song.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to success on the gridiron for the Michigan State Spartans in 2020, it’s just like the DJ on the radio says about love: it’s a game of easy come, easy go. Last week against Northwestern, things came pretty easily. The defense played well, Rocky Lombardi made good decisions, and the run game suddenly looked serviceable. This week against Ohio State, a lot of that was gone, and the Spartans were once again blown out, 52-12.

To make matters worse, the Spartans did not even face a full-strength Buckeye team. OSU was down multiple starters and close to 20 scholarship players. Yet, the Buckeyes cut through the Spartans like a knife, and MSU received yet another scar from 2020 in the form of a third 20-plus-point loss in only six tries. Despite OSU’s reduced personnel, the Buckeyes and Spartans still seem miles apart.

It was speculated that the Buckeyes were going for style points. Many feel that OSU needed a big win to bolster their case for a potential Playoff bid and Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl appearance in the scenario where Ohio State cannot play for the Big Ten Championship. But, I feel this loss had more to do with MSU than with OSU.

The 2020 Spartan season feels like a story of two different teams. When the team beat Michigan and Northwestern it was focused, disciplined, and sharp. When the team lost to Rutgers, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio State it was sloppy and mistake-prone. Of course, it is a very strange year, and some level inconsistency can and should be expected. But, based on Coach Mel Tucker’s post-game comments, he is pretty angry. MSU can and should be better right now.

I thought that there was a chance to at least keep things close if MSU were to get a few good bounces this weekend. The ways things shook out, MSU was not going to beat OSU. Some of those bounces almost presented themselves in the form of what felt like dozens of bad snaps from OSU’s backup center and at least one Buckeye fumble. But, Justin Fields always seemed to corral the snap and scramble for 15 yards. That dude is a problem. It also would have helped if MSU would have been the team to get the deflection pick-six and could have avoided multiple foolish penalties and missed tackles that extended Buckeye drives.

Easy come. Easy go.

I will disagree with Coach Tucker on one point, however. Just like every night has its dawn, I did see a few, small bright spots in Saturday’s debacle which gives me hope for the future. The first of which was MSU’s rush defense. While the raw numbers don’t look that good, a lot of that is due to Fields (once again: problem) and a few long runs on what looked like busted coverages. It sure seemed like a majority of the running back carries for OSU ended in little or no gain.

MSU’s front seven and especially the young defensive line, played well. Was a lot of that due to Ohio State’s patchwork offensive line? Perhaps. But on balance this felt like a net positive to me. The future of the MSU defense still seems bright, as long as the mistakes can get cleaned up. With the current staff, I fully expect this to happen, but maybe not until 2021.

The second major bright spot was the play of backup quarterback, Payton Thorne. Once inserted into the lineup, Thorne seemed to immediately spark the offense. He was sharp and decisive and MSU’s offense finally came to life. While Thorne was certainly not perfect, he completed his first 11 passes, he moved the offense, and he eventually got MSU on the scoreboard.

With only one game left in the regular season, it will be interesting to see which MSU quarterback the coaching staff will gift with a rose in the form of the starting job next week in Happy Valley. We have seen what Rocky Lombardi can do, and the results are mixed. I think it is time to try somebody new, and I think that rose should go to Thorne. It is time to start looking to the future. That future begins next week in Happy Valley.

Week 14 Results and Betting Review

As usual, Figure 1 below provides a visual summary of the full results of Week 14, relative to the opening Vegas line.

Figure 1: College football result from Week 14, relative to the opening Vegas line.

The overachievers in Week 14 include Miami, Texas, Iowa State, Troy, Akron, Air Force, Georgia Southern, and Ohio State. For the sixth consecutive game, MSU wound up outside of dashed area in this plot, which is one standard deviation (14 points) from the expected result (the Vegas line). Once again, MSU is Team Chaos, but not in a good way.

As for teams that underachieved, yet still won, only Texas Tech falls into that category. As for the rest of the underachievers, they are summarized below in the table of Week 14 upsets.

Table 1: Summary of the college football upsets in Week 14, relative to the opening Vegas line

I count a total of 12 upsets this week, the biggest of which was Rice’s (+25) shutout upset of Marshall. Week 14 also saw five additional upsets in games where the line opened greater than 10 points, including Eastern Michigan’s upset of Western Michigan, Indiana’s win over Wisconsin, and Cal and Stanford’s wins out west. I will also note that both Wyoming and Oklahoma State lost in upset fashion this week, confirming that every Cowboy was, in fact, singing a sad, sad song this weekend.

As for the computers, it was a much happier tune. My algorithm went 3-1 (75 percent) for upset picks, bringing the year-to-date (YTD) performance to 21-19 (52.5 percent). The FPI did not fare quite as well but did hit 50 percent at 2-2. YTD, the FPI is now 20-8 (71 percent) which is outstanding. Historically, if the computers can get over 45 percent on upset picks, it is usually a good year, so both systems are over-performing in 2020.

Table 2 below summarizes the results of my recommended bets for Week 14.

Table 2: Summary of the result of the computers’ recommend bets for Week 14

My algorithm has struggled a little this year with recommended bets, but this week it was perfect, going 3-0. The FPI also performed well, going 3-1 (75 percent) for the week. The combined strategy was 6-1 (86 percent). Year to date, my algorithm is now at 15-14 (52 percent) for recommended bets. My picks derived from the FPI are now 22-18 (55 percent) and the combined strategy is 35-27 (57 percent).

For the entire week, my algorithm also did very well. My accounting shows a record of 28-14 (67 percent) against the spread (ATS) bringing the YTD total to 173-156 (53 percent). The FPI went just 22-20 for the week (52 percent) brining its YTD tally to 175-154 (53 percent).

What’s Next for MSU and the Big Ten

As the regular season draws to a close, the season odds and win distribution matrix is less relevant, especially considering the unbalanced schedule and general chaos of the 2020 season, so I will forego those visuals for the rest of the year.

MSU is now sitting at 2-4 with one game remaining at Penn State. As I have done all season, I can use my season simulation to project Vegas lines the odds for MSU to win next week at Happy Valley:

  • MSU (+16, 13 percent) at Penn State. The odds for this game look a bit worse than they did last week at this time, due to a combination of MSU’s poor performance against the Buckeyes as well as Penn State’s win over Rutgers this week. The actual line seems to be opening at around +13, which feels reasonable. As for MSU’s prospects to win, it really all depends on which MSU team shows up. Based on Coach Tucker’s quotes after the Ohio State game, I expect a fire or two to be lit and a better effort next week. I am actually optimistic that MSU can get a win.

Regarding the rest of the Big Ten, Northwestern has already secured a spot in the Big Ten Championship game in Indy on Dec. 19. Ohio State simply needs to play a sixth game in order to also qualify. This brings up the very awkward conversation that will likely dominate the discussion in Big Ten land for the next few days: will Michigan be able to play next week or will they unintentionally (or intentionally?) Poison the well and Ohio State’s chances at a Big Ten Championship?

There is already some discussion that the Big Ten will take action to allow the Buckeyes to play for the title, even if they do not play the required six games. I personally feel that this is very bad precedent to set. Rules are rules, and if the Big Ten office needs to live with the rules that they put into place in August. Fortunately, there is another option.

Instead of changing the rules, I think a better option is to change the schedule. The ACC and other conferences have taken a similar route and I see no reason why the Big Ten cannot follow suit. First, I think Michigan needs to be given a deadline early in the week to make a decision on whether or not they can play. If they said they can play and then cancel later in the week, game should be ruled a forfeit, and OSU should officially be credited with a win. If Michigan cancels early in the week or is uncertain, the Big Ten office should take the following action.

As I look at the schedule for the final week of the regular season, there are several changes that could be made to give Ohio State a new opponent, but most of the adjustments would involve breaking up an in-state rivalry game (such as Indiana versus Purdue or Illinois versus Northwestern) or would involve a potential rematch (such as Penn State, Michigan State, Rutgers, and Nebraska). But there is one option that I feel makes sense.

Wisconsin is currently scheduled to play a road game at Iowa this week. While this is somewhat of a rivalry, I think sending the Badgers to Columbus next week makes sense. Iowa is one of only four Big Ten teams to have played seven games so far, so they could use and afford the week off. he Hawkeyes could even tentatively be scheduled to host the Wolverines if there is some doubt of the Wolverines availability.

If Michigan does cancel (which seems likely) Iowa could also be given the option to schedule another game next week if they so choose (which would also have the fun side-benefit of annoying Nebraska). Perhaps Iowa State would be interested in playing Iowa as a tune-up to the Big 12 Championship in two weeks? The current Big Ten rules do not not allow for non-conference scheduling, but the Big Ten is going to need to get creative in order to avoid a major problem. This scenario seems to be a win-win for all parties and would effectively mitigate risk to the conference. If anyone in the Big Ten office is reading this: think about it. Seriously.

As for MSU’s potential final opponent during the final week of Big Ten play on the 19th, there are still several scenarios at play. If MSU loses to Penn State, the “No. 7 seed” is the most likely for the Spartans. In this scenario, MSU would either finish alone in last place in the East or in a tie with Rutgers (if they lose to Maryland). A three-way or two-way tie involving Michigan is also possible (if the Wolverines play and lose to Ohio State) which could elevate MSU’s seed. If MSU does wind up with the No. 7 seed, a game with Illinois is most likely.

[Author’s note: After looking more closely at the Big Ten standings and tie-breakers, I realized my analysis above of MSU’s seed was not quite right. The No. 5 or No. 6 seed is actually more likely. I will revisit this topic in Wednesday’s Bad Betting Advice column.]

If MSU were to beat Penn State, the Spartans would most likely shoot up to either the No. 3 seed (if Maryland loses to Rutgers) or the No. 4 seed. Based on the mostly likely scenarios, this would result in a matchup with either Nebraska or Wisconsin in the final weekend of the season, but Minnesota is also possible.

As a final note on this topic, if I were in charge of the Big Ten, I would absolutely adjust the matchups in the final weekend, as needed, to avoid rematches. For example, Rutgers has already faced both Purdue and Illinois this year, so I would personally assign them to play the loser of the Minnesota/Nebraska game.

No one wants to see Michigan play Wisconsin again, we don’t need to see Maryland play Minnesota again, and there is no need to assign Penn State to face Nebraska either. There is more than enough flexibility in the pool of teams available to avoid all regular season rematches on Dec. 19. Make it happen.

Playoff Landscape

My calculated playoff odds are getting a bit strange based on the unbalanced schedule, so I will suspend reporting that data table as well. In general, the situation is coming into focus. Both the SEC and ACC Championship Game are set and the winner of each game is almost a shoe-in to make the playoffs. The other two slot are more uncertain.

If Ohio State wins its contest on Dec. 19, whether it is in Indianapolis or not, I believe that the Buckeyes will also be given a Playoff slot. The main question is which team will earn the fourth spot?

If Florida were to beat Alabama in the SEC title game, I think that both SEC teams would earn a spot in the Playoffs. Texas A&M might have an argument as well, considering that the Aggies defeated Florida early in the season, but they likely need more help. Similarly, if Florida loses to Alabama, I think that the SEC likely only gets one team into the Playoffs.

The other question is what happens to the loser of the ACC Championship Game? If Notre Dame wins again, the Irish are obviously in, and Clemson might be in trouble. If Clemson wins, both teams seem to have a legitimate chance.

The most likely scenario is one where Alabama beats Florida and Clemson beats Notre Dame. If we assume that Ohio State is undefeated, then the selection committee’s job is easy. The matchups should look like this:

  • Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama versus No. 4 Notre Dame
  • Rose Bowl: No. 2 Clemson versus No. 3 Ohio State

If Florida beats Alabama, the loser of the ACC game is in trouble, unless Ohio State loses a game as well. In this scenario, we could see an all-SEC-all-ACC affair. The other scenario is one where Clemson and Ohio State both lose another game and perhaps only Notre Dame and Alabama are clearly worthy of a Playoff bid.

Which other teams might be able to sneak into the top four? Texas A&M is the most likely option, as the Aggies are 6-1 and sitting at No. 5 in the current Playoff rankings. Cincinnati might be undefeated, but the Bearcats’ schedule looks too weak to me to make the cut. Would a two-loss team like Iowa State or Oklahoma get a look depending on who wins the Big 12 Championship? Would an undefeated Pac-12 Champ like USC or Colorado? This seems unlikely, but may be possible.

As for the Group of Five representative in the New Year’s Six, I think that this math is still OK, so here is my updated leaderboard.

Table 3: Updated Group of Five leaderboard following Week 14.

As the recent Playoff rankings imply, Cincinnati just needs to beat Tulsa (twice) and they are in. Otherwise, Coastal Carolina, with a thrilling win over BYU now on its resume, is next team up, especially after Marshall’s stunning loss to Rice this week. However, it is a requirement that a team must be the official conference champion to be eligible, so there is a question as to which team would claim the spot if somehow both Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina lose in their conference title games.

Based on the most recent Playoff poll, Tulsa and Louisiana look to be the most likely replacement team, and those teams will also be the opponents in the AAC and Sunbelt Championship Games. But, undefeated San Jose State or Buffalo are still a possibilities. My math suggests that Buffalo would get the nod, but I wonder in San Jose State is more likely in reality.

That is all for this week. MSU will travel to Happy Valley this week to play for the ugliest trophy in college sports. Ugly or not, I would still prefer to win it back. Until next time, enjoy, and Go Green.