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Big Ten Schedule Mathematical Breakdown: Third Time’s a Charm

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Let’s try this one more time. Now that the new, eight-game schedule has been announced, what does math tell us about how the season might shake out?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go again. It is my annual tradition to perform a detailed mathematical analysis of the coming football season based on the tools and trends that I have assembled over the past 20 years. Back in late July, I explained the methodology in detail and gave a detailed breakdown of the Big Ten and the rest of the Football Bowl Subdivision. But, soon after that work was done, the original schedules were scrapped.

A few days later, the Big Ten put out a revised, 10-game, conference-only schedule. I then proceeded to conduct an analysis of that schedule. A few days later, the Big Ten decided to cancel the whole season (I am also considering a detailed analysis of COVID-19 to see if I can get that cancelled as well).

But, this past week the Big Ten decided to reverse course. Now, we have yet another revised schedule, this time with only eight conference games, starting the weekend of Oct. 24. So, it is time once again to dust off the slide rule and see what impact the new schedule will have on the fate of the 14 Big Ten schools.

Revised Schedule Overview

A summary of the latest revision to the Big Ten football schedule is shown below in Table 1, including the consensus preseason rank of each team (based on ESPN, Athlon, and Lindy’s), the cross-over opponents for each team, and the team that was dropped to move from nine opponents to eight.

Table 1: Summary of the updated, eight-team Big Ten schedule for 2020

The generation of this schedule was actually very straightforward. The Big Ten took the original nine-game schedule for each team and dropped one of the three division cross-over games. For teams in the Big Ten East, a home game was axed and for the Big Ten West members, a road game was axed.

In addition, the changes to the location of several games in 2020 was also modified. For example, MSU will once again travel to Ann Arbor to face Michigan, but Indiana will return to East Lansing. This change (along with a similar venue swap between Purdue, Wisconsin, and Nebraska) was made when the 10-game schedule was announced in August. It was announced that this change would be permanent, and the new, eight-game schedule does reflect this change.

Regarding Michigan State, the Spartans keep Northwestern on the schedule and now do not need to face Minnesota in 2020. As we will see, this appears to be a positive for MSU, as the Gophers are expected to be a stronger team than the Wildcats this year.

Updated Strengths of Schedule

Based on the updated schedule, I updated the strength of schedule calculation for each Big Ten team, as shown below in Figure 1. My method, as explained here, calculates the expected number of wins that an average Power Five team (roughly ranked No. 25) would win with each schedule, based on the preseason rankings and projected point spreads for all match-ups. Figure 1 compares the schedule strength of each team in comparison to that team’s original, nine-game schedule.

Figure 1: Updated strength of schedule for the new schedule compared to the original nine-game conference schedule

Similar to the original schedule Ohio State has the easiest overall path, due to part to the fact that they do not have to play themselves. An average Power Five school would be expected to win just over five games with the Buckeyes’ schedule. Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, and Purdue round out the top-five of the teams with the easiest revised Big Ten schedules.

As for the Michigan schools, both the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans have virtually identical strengths of schedule (4.38 vs 4.44 expected wins), which is the third and fourth hardest in the conference, just behind Maryland and Nebraska.

The teams that benefit most from the new schedule appear to be Northwestern, whose strength of schedule rank moved from fifth place to 12th, and Iowa, who moved from second place to seventh. This makes sense, as the Wildcats and Hawkeye got to drop Penn State and Ohio State from the schedule, respectively.

Updated Conference Title Odds

In addition to the strength of schedule calculation, I was also able to re-run a Monte Carlo simulation of the revised Big Ten schedule which takes into account the historical variance in the preseason rankings. The results of that simulation are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Updated Big Ten expected wins, division, and conference odds, based on a 50,000 cycle Monte Carlo simulation

As usual, this table contains a ton of information, including the detailed strength of schedule numbers that were displayed in Figure 1. The expected win totals roughly correlate to a projected over/under for the season. Based on this analysis, MSU is most likely to finish the regular season with a 3-5 record in the revised schedule.

Regarding the divisional and conference odds, the removal of one game did not make a huge impact to the overall landscape, especially in the East. Ohio State is still the favorite to win the division and conference and the revised scheduled does give the Buckeyes a half of a percentage point boost in the odds to win the division and the conference overall. Both Penn State and Michigan’s East Division odds dropped by about a half of a percentage point.

As for MSU, I estimate the odds for the Spartans to win the East to be 1-in-55 and the odds to win the conference to be about 1-in-150. The division odds are slightly better than they were with the original nine-game schedule and the conference odds are about the same.

Both schedules are better for MSU than the short-lived 10-game schedule, where MSU’s odds were only 1-in-70 to win the division and 1-in-180 to win the conference. Of course, none of these odds are great. For MSU to have a championship-level year, a tremendous number of things would be to go just right (both in player development and on the field of play). This calculation is just meant to quantify exactly how lucky MSU would need to be to have that kind of a year.

As for the Big Ten West, the revised schedule appears to have a much bigger impact. Wisconsin is still the perceived favorite, but the odds for the Badgers drop by almost six percentage points to just above 40 percent. The big winner in the west seems to be Iowa, whose divisional odds rose by almost four percentage points to over 18 percent.

Revised Win Distribution

One of the additional features of the Monte Carlo simulation is that I can tabulate the odds that each team will win anywhere from zero to all eight conference games. Those data are summarized below:

Table 3: Updated Big Ten win matrix, but on the new schedule, derived from the 50,000 cycle Monte Carlo simulation

It is difficult to compare these odds directly to the odds that were generated for the original 12-game schedule or the modified 10-game schedule. But, a reasonable benchmark is to look at the odds to win half the games. For the original 12-game schedule, MSU’s odds to go 0.500 were around 45 percent. In the 10-game schedule, those odds dropped to 36 percent. In this latest schedule, MSU’s odds to win at least four games are right at 40 percent.

If you are a huge optimist, MSU’s odds to win seven or more games are just below two percent. That means that a whole lot would need to go right for MSU to have that kind of a season. That is the equivalent of winning a football game as a 30-point underdog. It happens, but at a rate of once every three years or so in college football.

The odds of MSU going 6-2 or better is seven percent. That translates to the odds of winning straight-up as a 20-point underdog. Again, it is possible, but it would take a lot of luck. For reference, an upset of that magnitude or worse happens about five times a season in college football.

The odds of winning at last five games are a shade under 20 percent. That is roughly the same odds as winning as a 12-point underdog in college football. That big of an upset happens several times in any given week of the college football season. So, a 5-3 record for the Spartans is essentially the most reasonable of the optimistic picks.

But, as the table shows, it is most likely that MSU will win somewhere between two and four games, with the most likely result being a 3-5 season. If MSU really is only the 50th best team in the country, than this range is quite likely.

For the Debbie Downers out there, I should also point out that there is also a 15 percent chance that MSU wins only one game or less. That is equivalent to losing a game as a 15-point favorite.

Just for reference, the math suggests that there is only a 35 percent chance that our friends in Ann Arbor win six or more games this year, and 42 percent chance that the Wolverines win four games or less. My calculations suggest that the most likely record for Michigan is 5-3, which I am guessing is a bit lower that your maize-and-blue clad neighbor may be expecting.

Did the Big Ten Really Give Nebraska the Shaft?

A big topic of discussion this week, especially in Lincoln, Nebraska was the schedule that was given to the Cornhuskers. Nebraska’s two East cross-over games are against Penn State and Ohio State (try playing in the East Division every year, Nebraska), and as a result, it is true that the Huskers have the most difficult slate of opponents of all 14 Big Ten teams. Nebraska officials were certainly vocal critics of the original decision to cancel Big Ten football for the fall. Did the Big Ten intentionally stick it to the Cornhuskers?

While we cannot know for sure, I am very confident that the answer to that question is, “no.” The reason, oddly enough, is due to the nature of the Purdue/Indiana rivalry.

The logic goes like this: Purdue is in the Big Ten West, while Indiana is in the Big Ten East. When the East/West division were set up, it was agreed that this rivalry would be “protected” such that the Hoosiers and the Boilermakers would play ever year. It is only natural to assume that one of the key constraints in creating the modified eight-game schedule would be to preserve this match-up in 2020, if possible.

With this in mind, recall the process that was needed to generate the new schedule. Indiana’s original nine-game schedule included games at Wisconsin, vs. Illinois, and vs. Purdue. One of the two home cross-over games needed to be dropped from the schedule, and the obvious choice is to drop Illinois and keep the contest with the in-state rival, Purdue.

Once this choice is made, the choice for all 13 remaining Big Ten schools is fixed. For example, now consider the schedule for Illinois. The Illini can no longer play Indiana, so they must play the other East team on their original schedule, which is Rutgers.

Now, consider Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights must play Illinois as their West cross-over, which means that they cannot play the other West team on their original schedule...which happens to be Nebraska. Therefore, the Huskers must play Ohio State if the Purdue-Indiana match-up is to be protected. This logic cascades down the entire schedule.

Table 4 below summarizes the two potential options that were available to the Big Ten schedule makers. In addition, I calculated the strength of schedule for each team and for each of those two options. As explained above, the Big Ten selected “Option A,” most likely due to the Indiana-Purdue protected rivalry.

Table 4: Comparison of the two possible options for the revised Big Ten schedule

The impact on this scheduling decision to each team can be quantified by simply comparing the difference in strengths of schedule for the two options, which is shown in the final column of Table 4. More visually, those differences are shown below in Figure 2. Once again, the unit on this metric is “expected wins” so these numbers have a physical meaning.

Figure 2: Strength of Schedule difference for each Big Ten team between the released and alternate eight-game schedule

As Figure 2 shows, there were clearly going to be winners and losers regardless of the decision that was made. For nine of the Big Ten teams, this difference was less that a quarter of an expected win, which is relatively small. But for Northwestern, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, the impact is much larger. For Nebraska, the stakes were the highest.

So, on one hand, Nebraska did get the short end of the stick. But, then again, so did Michigan and Wisconsin. Either way, those three teams were either all going to be big winners or big losers. The same can be said for Illinois and Northwestern.

As for the conference as a whole, “Option A” is a net benefit for over half of the conference, including MSU. In addition, the standard deviation of the strengths of schedule is slightly smaller for Option A, which suggests that Option A is the option with more parity.

All things considered, I think that the Big Ten made the right decision. It definitely did not benefit the Cornhuskers, but I do not believe that it was intentional. I would categorize it more as a “hilarious coincidence.” That said, Nebraska does open the season at Ohio State, followed by vs. Wisconsin. That might have been intentional, and the Huskers might have had that coming.

That is all for today. No matter what happens, this season will be a unique one, and I will be here to the do the math. As always, enjoy, wear your mask in public, and wash your freaking hands. Go Green.