In a normal year, Labor Day Weekend marks the full-fledged return of college football. In a normal year, Saturday would have marked the debut of MSU’s 25th head football coach: Mel Tucker. Instead, college football limps along in a bizarre state of flux. While some schools plan to press on, full speed ahead, others stop and start and stop again. The Big Ten might play in January, or November, or October, or not at all.
In this unprecedented situation, I thought that it would be fun to imagine another world, in a parallel universe, where COVID-19 does not exist. In this universe, the original college football schedule would have been played, as planed. Last week, I introduced my plan to simulate the entire 2020 college football season, using the mathematical tools and historical data that I have developed and acquired over the past 20 years. Today, I report on the full results of Week One in the parallel universe, starting in East Lansing.
Northwestern at Michigan State (-3)
It was truly a beautiful day for football. As tailgaters gathered on campus in the early morning hours, there was a distinct chill in the air that signaled that autumn was, in fact, on its way. Old friends gathered, exchanged hugs and stories of their springs and summers. Children looked bigger and taller than they did the fall before. A few infants even made their first trip to East Lansing to mark the start of a new family tradition. As always, the first football Saturday had all the hallmarks of new beginnings.
From Akers Hall to Brody Complex and from Holden Hall to Gilchrist, undergraduates either shirtless or in crop-tops enjoyed tossing a football or playing an intense game of corn hole. Rumors soon spread of tailgates where free beer might just be available. The Rock had a fresh coat of paint, and the line at the Dairy Store was at least 30 minutes long.
As kickoff approached, the temperature crossed 70 degrees under partly sunny skies. The Spartan Marching Band looked sharp as the band members made their way from Adams Field to Spartan Stadium. The sweet sound of “Victory of MSU” echoed off the ivy-covered halls. During The Series, the band shouted, “Go State, Beat the Wildcats.”
As the Marching Band finished their first pregame performance of the season, the anticipation began to build in Spartan Stadium. Then, the time came for the familiar sounds of Thunderstuck. An army clad in green helmets, green uniforms, and white pants, took the field behind a new general, Coach Mel Tucker.
MSU got the ball first, and Rocky Lombardi took the field as the starting quarterback. The first play from scrimmage was play-action pass to Matt Dotson over the middle for a gain of 15 yards. The capacity crowd at Spartan fans went nuts. But, the enthusiasm quickly waned, as the Spartans failed to pick up another first down, and were forced to punt.
The MSU defense took the field with an intense energy, but some nerves appeared present as a gap error on the defensive line almost lead to a big gain on the Wildcats first play from scrimmage. A shoe-string tackle by co-captain Antjuan Simmons limited the gain to 17 yards. After that, the defense tightened up and forced their first punt of the season.
The Spartans’ second drive found more success. The Spartans stayed mostly on the ground, and behind the veteran offensive line, Elijah Collins found some running room. The Spartans’ first touchdown of the season was a seven-yard run by Collins. Then, Coach Tucker showed a bit of flair, deciding to go for two after his first touchdown as the Michigan State head coach. The Wildcats seemed caught off guard, and Lombardi found an open Trenton Gillison at the back of the end zone to give the Spartans an 8-0 lead early in the first quarter.
Following a three-and-out by the Spartan defense, Rocky soon found the ball in his hands again. This time, the Spartans struck more quickly, and mostly through the air. Jayden Reed scored his first touchdown as a Spartan on a 25-yard corner route to give the Spartans a 15-0 lead.
But, the Wildcats were not about to go down without a fight. While Northwestern struggled with drops on its first few possessions, the Wildcats probed the run game a bit more starting with the team’s third possession and found more success that way. In the closing moments of the first quarter, Northwestern, staged a 75-yard drive, mostly on the ground, and cut the Spartan lead to 15-7.
A poorly timed holding penalty stalled the Spartans’ first drive of the second quarter, and the Wildcats were once again on the move. This time, they scored on a deep throw where MSU cornerback Shakur Brown bit on a pump fake and allowed the Northwestern receiver to get behind him. Northwestern attempted to tie the game with their own two-point conversion, but Naquan Jones blew up the play on the snap, keeping the score at 15-13.
As the second quarter drew to a close, MSU was able to move the ball once again, but the drive stalled on the 15-yard line and the Spartans had to settle for a 32-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin. Northwestern then executed a nearly perfect two-minute drill, finding the end zone once again on a quarterback scramble from the 11-yard line to take a 20-18 lead into halftime.
Although the late touchdown seemed to deflate the crowd at Spartan Stadium, the mood was lifted as Tom Izzo and the 2020 basketball team was honored for their historical March Madness run which culminated in Tom Izzo winning his second national title and MSU’s third overall. The Spartan Marching Band entertained the crowd with a rousing medley of ‘90s alternative hits.
Northwestern received the ball to begin the second half, and the MSU defense seemed energized, forcing a punt after just five plays. The Spartan offense also seemed energized, as it marched down the field and regained the lead, 25-20, on a swing pass to Ant Williams out of the backfield. But, the lead was fairly short-lived, as the Wildcats responded with a long drive of their own, regaining the lead 26-25. Coach Fitzgerald decided to try another two-point conversion to expand the lead to three points, but Chase Kline knocked away a pass on the try to keep the margin at just one.
In the closing minutes of the third quarter, the Spartans began to take control for good. The Spartans went the ground once more, and hammered out 75-yard drive, mostly behind the legs of Collins, to take a 32-26 lead. Then, on the following procession, newly minted cornerback Julian Barnett once again looked like an offensive player, as he stepped in front of a Northwestern pass and took it to the house to extend the lead to 39-26 as the third quarter expired.
In the fourth quarter, the MSU defense once again forced a three-and-out, and the Spartans struck again quickly on a 60-yard catch and run by Jalen Nailor to give MSU a commanding 46-26 lead. But, the drama was not quite over for the afternoon. On Northwestern’s next drive, the Wildcats used a combination of short passes and delayed draw plays to march down the field and cut the lead to 42-33. The Spartan offense then seems to go into a shell. While the unit did milk some valuable time off from the clock, it failed to score and once again had to give up the ball.
The Wildcats used the same strategy of short, quick passes and misdirection runs to once again move the ball down the field. But, the Spartan defense forced them to burn a lot of clock in the process. Northwestern once again found the end zone to cut the lead to six, but only 15 seconds remained in regulation. On the next play, MSU covered the onside kick to ensure Tucker’s first win as a Spartan.
In Week One, MSU beat the Northwester Wildcats, 46-40. The Spartan offense gained an impressive 233 yards on the ground, primarily by from Collins (147 yards) and Ant Williams (74 yards). Lombardi was solid in the opener, picking up 159 yards in the air on 21 of 32 passes and no turnovers. The Spartan defense actually gave up 206 yards on the ground and 246 yards in the air, but a bulk of that came late as MSU protected its fourth quarter lead.
Other Week One Big Ten Action
The complete results in the Big Ten from Week One in the parallel universe are shown below in Table 1, including the projected Vegas spreads. Winners are shown in bold, and upsets are shown in red. (Note that all scores are computer generated based on total points and point differentials and may not represent the most typical football scores. I suggest just rolling with it).
Most of the action in the Big Ten was fairly unremarkable, as Illinois, Iowa, and Rutgers all blew out FCS opponents and Ohio State and Penn State blew out MAC opponents. Wisconsin (-15.5) also crushed Indiana, 41-17 in the both teams’ Big Ten opener.
As for the more notable results, Michigan (-1) managed to travel to the West Coast and earn a rare Big Ten road win, 36-19 over Washington in Seattle. On the other hand, Minnesota (-20.5) barely escaped a tussle with Florida Atlantic with a 33-29 win in Minneapolis. There was also a single upset in conference play, as Purdue traveled to Lincoln and beat Nebraska 48-46 on a late field goal.
Power Five Results
In the rest of the Power Five, Table 2 summarizes the results from Week One in the parallel universe.
In ACC action, Clemson started the season strong with a 54-8 win over Georgia Tech, and Florida State scored a strong win over West Virginia, 23-13. Boston College and Miami both had larger than expected wins over Syracuse and Temple, respectively and Virginia was able to stay surprisingly competitive with Georgia. Meanwhile, North Carolina got blown out by Central Florida and Wake Forest lost in upset fashion to Old Dominion, 34-22.
In the Big 12, Baylor did not have much luck against Ole Miss, losing in a 33-18 upset. But, Oklahoma State and TCU both were able to score convincing wins over Pac-12 opponents Oregon State and Cal.
It was a pretty rough opening weekend for the Pac-12 in general, however, as in addition to the losses from Oregon State, Cal, and Washington mentioned above, USC also failed to score an upset over Alabama, and Colorado and Washington State both were upset at the hands of Colorado State and Utah State, respectively. When the best win that your conference can claim is UCLA over Hawaii, it’s been a tough weekend.
In the SEC, most of the conference scored blow out wins over cupcakes, but a couple of teams did not fair as well. Tennessee escaped a scare from Charlotte, 28-16, but Arkansas and South Carolina were not so lucky, losing in upset fashion to Nevada and Coastal Carolina. The Gamecock’s loss was particularly surprising, dropping the game at home, 21-3.
Group of Five Results
Finally, the Week One results from the Group of Five in the parallel universe are shown below in Table 3.
In general, it was a good opening weekend for both the Mountain West and the Sun Belt. The two conferences together scored five total upsets as Colorado State upset Colorado, Nevada beat Arkansas, Utah State took out Washington State, Coastal Carolina stunned South Carolina, and Texas State eked past SMU (yes, in real life, SMU won, but this is a parallel universe, remember).
The Coastal Carolina and Texas State upsets, along with Old Dominion’s upset over Wake Forest all came with the winners as 18-point or larger underdogs. Overall, however, Week One only had a total of nine upsets.
Week Two Preview
Week Two of the college football season is not typically known for high profile match-ups, but there are a few worth noting including:
- Louisville at Clemson (-38)
- Penn State at Virginia Tech (+16)
- Ohio State at Oregon (-1)
- Iowa State at Iowa (-2)
- Texas at LSU (+5)
- Tennessee at Oklahoma (-15)
In addition, the 1-0 Michigan State Spartans will make a trip out west to visit BYU in Provo, Utah. The early line has MSU as a four-point favorite on the road. Can Coach Tucker earn his first road win as Michigan State head coach? Stay tuned, and Go Green.