The 2020 Big Ten football season, much like all of 2020, has been a long, strange journey filled with plot twists and turns, and the final chapter is almost upon us. This coming weekend marks the end of the most irregular of regular seasons in the modern era. The Spartans (2-4) travel to State College this weekend to face the similarly humbled pride of Nittany Lions (2-5). At stake is perhaps the ugliest of all college football trophies: the Land Grant Trophy.
Speaking of pride, it also happens to be about the only other thing that the teams will be playing for this weekend. The game will also impact the pairings for the following week’s season postscript and maybe even a bowl game, but those seem like an afterthought at this point. Bowls are being canceled left and right, and we still don’t even know the venues for the “Champions Week” games. I have more to say about those matchups later.
Penn State entered the season as a consensus top-10 team, but proceeded to lose its first five games of the year. But, the Lions did show some pride in their last two wins over Michigan and Rutgers. I am sure that PSU will want to finish the season on a three-game winning steak. But, even if the Lions can win their final two game, they will finish the season with a losing record. That is tough to swallow for such a proud program.
As for Michigan State, back in the summer my math-based pre-judgement of the Spartans’ record suggested that three wins on an eight game schedule was about all that MSU fans should expect. If MSU gets the win this weekend, on some level, the Spartans will have overachieved. Spartan fans would certainly take some pride at beating both Michigan and Penn State in the same year, even if both of those teams are down. The trophy cases in the Skandalaris Center don’t care about the opponents’ final records.
It has clearly been an up and down season for MSU. Quantitatively, there have been twice as many downs as ups. Furthermore, some of the efforts that the Spartans have given in those down games are not something to be proud of. While it is still premature to judge the Mel Tucker era, I am keenly interested in the fight that the Spartans show this Saturday. Coach Tucker had some strong words for his team following the loss to Ohio State. I expect that we will see a better showing.
Based on Penn State’s late season surge, even if the Spartans do bring an effort close to that of the Michigan and Northwestern games, it might not be enough to get a win on the road. The Nittany Lions still have enough talent on the roster that MSU’s A-game might not be enough. But, sharp execution, good decision making, and consistent discipline would be a welcome sight. That is what I hope to see.
It has not been the year or the season that any of us had hoped for following the Pinstripe Bowl win and the introduction of our new coach back in February. For so many reasons, that seems like a lifetime ago. But, Michigan State is also a proud program with a proud fanbase. It is time to finish strong and to lay those first bricks into the foundation for a better 2021.
Picks of the Week
As usual, Figures 1 and 2 below give the game results for Week 15 as predicted by both my algorithm and ESPN’s FPI, relative to the opening Vegas Lines.
The upset picks for Week 15, as always, can be extracted from Figures 1 and 2 and are summarized below in Table 1.
Both computer systems predict a total of four upsets in Week 15, one of which overlaps (Washington State over Cal) for a total of seven picks overall. The machines also like UCLA, Wisconsin, and Wake Forest to win in other notable action.
Table 2 below summarizes the recommended bets against the spread for Week 15, which can also be extracted from Figures 1 and 2 above.
My spreadsheet only came up with three total recommended bets this week, while the FPI chipped in an additional eight picks for a total of 11. Five of these recommended bets come from Power Five match-ups, three of which are in the Big Ten. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Rutgers are all projected to cover, as are LSU and Colorado.
MSU and Big Ten Overview
At the beginning of the year the regular season finale at Penn State looked like one of the toughest games on the Spartans’ schedule. As the season started and Penn State struggled, the possibility of a win seemed to increase, but the projected spread was consistently in the double digits. Sure enough, the initial line released on Sunday afternoon showed Penn State to be a 13-point favorite, which corresponds to an 18 percent chance that the Spartans pull the upset. Since then, the line has crept up to 15 points or higher in some places.
Historically, this year’s line is very similar to the two previous visits to State College for the Spartans. In 2018, MSU opened at a 14.5-point underdogs and wound up winning on a late touchdown pass from Brian Lewerke to Felton Davis. In 2016, the Spartans were 11.5-point dawgs and wound up losing 45-12. It should also be mentioned that Michigan State was a larger underdog at Penn State in both 2008 (+16) and in 2001 (+21) but MSU was blown out in both of those contests.
That said, the Spartans have won in three of the past four visits to State College (in 2010, 2014, and 2018). In addition, MSU has covered the spread against Penn State in five of the past seven contests. So, there is some historical reasons for optimism based on the Spartans’ recent performance against the Nittany Lions.
However, the computers are less optimistic this year about the Spartans’ prospects in this matchup. The FPI projects around a 16-point loss for MSU while my algorithm is even less optimistic and favors Penn State by around 20 points. As a result, my official prediction for this game is for Penn State to win by a score of 35-17 after I round to the nearest reasonable football score.
That said, the Nittany Lions are only averaging 25 points-per-game this season and the Spartan defense has been the strength of the team. Penn State was also giving up a whopping 36 points per game in its first five games. That has certainly improved over the past two games, but it begs the question as to if the Penn State defense is actually fixed and if the MSU offense is equipped to take advantage if it is not. The answer to that question will likely determine Saturday’s winner.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten are a series of mostly rivalry matchups of varying levels of intrigue. On paper, the best game should be Wisconsin at Iowa (-3). My algorithm likes the Hawkeyes to win and cover, but as is indicated in Table 1, the FPI picks the Badgers to win in upset fashion. Interestingly, even if the Badgers win, Iowa’s Big Ten winning percentage will still be higher than Wisconsin despite the fact that Iowa would have one more loss. Such is the crazy nature of Big Ten football in 2020.
As for some of the other teams near the top of the standing in each division, Northwestern (-15) hosts Illinois and Indiana (-11) hosts Purdue. My algorithm picks the favorites to cover in both cases. The FPI agrees for the Hoosiers, but has Illinois covering the by a single point.
As for games that will have the biggest impact on the final Big Ten pecking order, Minnesota at Nebraska (-10) and Rutgers at Maryland (-9) are the most likely. In these two games, while the computers both agree that the favored team will win, the computers also agree that the underdogs will cover in both contests.
The “Wolverine Problem”
The single game on the original schedule with the most intrigue this week is also the one with the largest Vegas Line: Michigan’s ill-fated trip to Columbus to face Ohio State (-30). Just after noon on Tuesday, the game was officially cancelled and now the Big Ten officially has a problem. Based on the original 2020 Big Ten tiebreaker rules, the Buckeyes are not eligible to play in the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 19 as OSU did not complete the required six conference games.
The Big Ten will either need to waive the rules for the Buckeyes (which is a terrible precedent to set, as it gives the impression that certain teams will get special treatment), or deny the Buckeyes a shot at Big Ten Title due to a cancelation from their most bitter rival. This is a bad, no-win situation for the Big Ten office in my opinion. Based on breaking news, it seems that the Big Ten is opting to waive the six-game requirement. Fans around the Big Ten are already mad about it.
To make matters worse, the Big Ten could likely have applied some proactive Sense and Sensibility to the situation earlier in the week (as I proposed in Monday’s Against All Odds Column) to mitigate this risk by changing the Week 15 schedule. So far, no action has been taken on this front and it does not look like it will be.
It’s not like we didn’t see this coming either. Last Tuesday, ESPN anchor (and OSU grad) Kirk Herbstreit lobbed a grenade when he suggested, “Michigan waves the white flag and doesn’t play Ohio State next week.” Herbstreit later walked his comments back and issued an apology. But the fact remains that the scenario originally described by Herbstreit is effectively what played out.
Perhaps Herbstreit is a bit prejudiced in his views on the Wolverines. So am I. But, it is hard to deny that Michigan doesn’t come out ahead on several fronts in this deal. First, they avoid an embarrassing 30-point (or 100-point) loss to the Buckeyes. Second, by avoiding a fifth or sixth loss (counting last week) the Wolverines are unlikely to fall lower that fifth place in the Big Ten East, likely finishing above MSU (assuming the Spartans lose this weekend). Third, if the Big Ten would have held fast to the original rules, the cancellation would have resulted in the Buckeyes not winning the Big Ten title, something the Wolverines have not been able to prevent on the field since 2004.
Late on Tuesday, Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel implied in his press conference the U of M would be in favor of allowing Ohio State to play in the Big Ten Championship Game despite the current rules. This perhaps help paved the way for today’s impending decision. On its face, this seems like a nice and reasonable gesture, and perhaps it is actually sincere.
On the other hand, as Elizabeth Bennet might explain, when it comes to the University of Michigan one always has to consider the difference between “superficial goodness and actual goodness.” In addition to the benefits already mentioned above, Michigan now has the added benefit of “taking the high road.”
To me, these characters in Ann Arbor feel more like George Wickham than Mr. Darcy. If nothing else, that particular institute of higher education has a tendency to display poor manners. As for the events of the last two weeks in Ann Arbor, you, dear reader, should come to your own conclusions.
Big Ten “Champions Week” Projections
With the announcement yesterday of the cancelation of the Michigan/Ohio State game, there is a lot up in the air regarding the line up of games on Dec. 19 (and possibly Dec. 18). The conference has been very vague about these matchups, but the basic idea is that the top team in each division will square off in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title. The No. 2 team in the East will face the No. 2 team in the West at a location to be named later. No. 3 in the East will face No. 3 in the West, etc.
Right now, it looks like Ohio State will be headed to Indianapolis to face Northwestern. The No. 2 team in each division also seems fixed as No. 2 Indiana (COVID willing) will square off with No. 2 Iowa.
As for the remaining matchups, the following table summarizes the odds that I calculate for each team to draw each seed, based on the remaining games. As the table shows, The No. 6 seed in the East is the most likely option for the Spartans at 61 percent, but the No. 3, 4, and 7 seeds are also in play.
Table 4 below gives all of the possible scenarios for the Spartans’ seed and opponent, based on my calculations. The most likely scenario involves MSU playing Purdue as the No. 6 seed (41 percent odds) although two addition scenarios where MSU faces Illinois as either the No. 6 or No. 7 seeds are also quite likely (27 percent odds). Both of these scenarios assume that Penn State beats MSU on Saturday.
[Author’s note: About an hour after this piece was published, the Indiana/Purdue game was cancelled which changed the possible Big Ten West seeding as well as the Spartans’ possible opponent during Champions Week. Tables 3 and 4 and the relevant text were updated to reflect these slight changes at 2:30 PM on December 9th. Once again, thanks for nothing, 2020.]
If MSU were to win in State College on Saturday, the Spartans would most likely draw either Wisconsin (nine percent), Nebraska (six percent), or Minnesota (two percent), but a small chance also exists for Illinois and Purdue matchups.
For the record, I would currently project the point spread for each of the Spartans’ potential match-ups on a neutral field would be:
- MSU vs. Illinois (-3)
- MSU vs. Minnesota (-7.5)
- MSU vs. Purdue (-9.5)
- MSU vs. Nebraska (-11.5)
- MSU vs. Wisconsin (-20)
It is also possible that the Big Ten decides to simply allow the athletic directors to horse-trade possible opponents to avoid regular season rematches, in which case everything above is moot. I would actually support such a measure. Once you throw out one rule, why not just throw them all out?
Other National Action
The action in the rest of the country seems a bit inconsequential this week, so I will be brief. In general, most of the other conferences are using this weekend to try to get in games that were canceled either in the season. In the ACC, the Clemson/Notre Dame rematch is set for the title next week and those teams both have the weekend off. North Carolina at Miami (-3) looks to be the best ACC game of the week.
The Big 12 Championship game will feature Iowa Sate versus Oklahoma in two weeks. The Cyclones have the weekend off while the Sooners (-12) will try to pad their record against West Virginia. I will also note that Texas (-31) travels to Kansas this weekend, which means that Austen will be pretty dead.
The situation is similar in the SEC as we await the matchup of Alabama and Florida next week in the SEC Championship. As a final tuneup, The Crimson Tide (-31) will face Arkansas, while Florida (-23) takes on LSU.
In the Pac-12 South, both USC and Colorado are undefeated, their head-to-head matchup was canceled, and there is no time to schedule a makeup game...so that’s fun. The Trojans (-2) face cross-town foes UCLA this week while Colorado (-3) plays Utah. My algorithm has UCLA in an upset, which would frankly solve a lot of problems. In the Pac-12 North, Washington travels to Oregon (-7) which sort of matters if anything that happens in the Pac-12 matters in the first place.
In Group of Five Action, Cincinnati now has a COVID outbreak but they are hoping to get the AAC Championship Game against Tulsa in next week. If they can’t, I would guess that Cincinnati might just get awarded the AAC de facto Championship as the highest ranked team in the College Football Playoff Rankings and then given the New Year’s Six bowl bid. This would be sad and anticlimactic for Coastal Carolina, who host Troy (+15) this weekend.
That is all for this week. As always, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Lions!