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Against All Odds, Week Seven: Guts and Glory

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Michigan State displayed a lot of guts this weekend in earning its fourth road win against a Power Five team. Heading into the bye week, a 7-0 record is rather glorious. But, are guts enough to win the Civil War on the horizon?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

I will start with a bit of an apology to the Indiana Hoosiers. In my weekly betting preview, I basically said that the Hoosiers were a bad team that Michigan State should blow out. While Indiana’s offense is certainly limited, especially without starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr., the IU defense was tough as nails and battled valiantly all day on Saturday.

Fortunately for the followers of the Green and White, the Michigan State Spartans were just a little tougher, especially on defense, and MSU escaped Bloomington with a 20-15 win. In all three phases of the game, the Spartans made the plays when they needed to do so.

Michigan State has shown a lot of guts this season, and so far the results have been glorious. The Spartans are 7-0, with four wins coming on the road against Power Five opponents. Only Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas-San Antonio can claim that record so far in 2021. While five of MSU’s wins have come by 17 points or more, the Spartans have also notched two gritty wins over Nebraska and Indiana.

Every really good football team has a few games a year where it struggles a bit, but still finds a way to gut-out a win. Are the Spartans actually a really good football team, or are they simply a little better than the teams that they have faced so far?

As Michigan State heads into the well-timed bye week, that is the key question. In all three phases of the games, the Spartans have shown flashes of brilliance, but also troubling inconsistency. Despite the glorious record, we still don’t know how these Spartans will look against the tougher competition looming on the horizon. But, we will know very soon.

A Civil War is coming to the Great Lakes State. In two weeks, the maize-bellies from Ann Arbor will attempt to invade East Lansing, looking for their own glory. By some measure, it is shaping up to be the biggest game in the series between Michigan and Michigan State in at least 50 years. Brother will turn on brother, one wearing blue and one wearing green. It feels a bit like Gettysburg.

But for now, it is time for General Mel Tucker to rest his troops and plan his strategy for the remainder of the Big Ten campaign. While no one can promise victory, guts travel. These Spartans are battle-tested and still hungry. I believe that MSU will be ready.

Week Seven Results

As is my weekly tradition, Figure 1 below shows the results of all 51 games involving two FBS teams in Week Seven.

Figure 1: Results of Week Six showing the actual point differentials relative to the opening spread.

The teams that overachieved this week include Virginia, Alabama, Colorado, North Carolina State, Cincinnati, Texas-San Antonio and several other Group of Five teams. As for the teams that underachieved, yet still won, Clemson and South Carolina fit that bill.

Table 1 below summarizes the 12 games that ended in an upset relative to the opening Vegas line and in comparison to the computer picks.

Table 1: Upsets based on the opening Vegas line compared to the upset projections from Week Seven.

From the viewpoint of impact, Purdue’s road win over the Iowa Hawkeyes was clearly the biggest result of the weekend. However, relative to the Vegas line, Louisiana-Monroe’s (+32) upset of Liberty is one of the biggest upsets of the last five years. This is actually the second upset this year with a line over 30 points, as Bowling Green (+31) took out Minnesota in Week Four. An upset of this magnitude should only happen about once every five years, so this was a very surprising result.

Beside those two upsets, several other notable teams were cannon fodder this week, including Boise State, Texas, Florida, Arkansas, Nebraska, Arizona State, BYU and Virginia Tech.

The computers once again had a mediocre week in this regard. My algorithm only got three picks out of nine (33 percent) correct, while the FPI did only slightly better at three out of seven (42 percent). Both computers are sitting just above 31 percent for the season, which is frankly no better than a random number generator would do.

The results of the computers picks against the opening spread (ATS) are shown below in Table 2.

Table 2: Results of the highlighted picks versus the spread in Week Seven.

My algorithm had a glorious week, going 9-2 overall (82 percent), which brings the year-to-date performance up to almost 65 percent. The FPI once again struggled, going only 7-8 (47 percent). The FPI’s year-to-date performance is just over .500. When I combine the wisdom of both computers, the performance is just under 55 percent for the year.

Overall, my computer was 26-25 ATS (51 percent) while the FPI was a bit worse at 22-29 (43 percent) against the opening lines. Neither computer is having that great of a 2021 campaign so far against the spread. My computer is sitting at 169-199 (46 percent), while the FPI is just slightly better overall at 174-194 (47 percent).

Updated Big Ten Odds and Expected Wins

Following the results of Week Seven, I have re-run the full-season Monte Carlo simulation using the updated power rankings, including the current uncertainty in those rankings, in order to update the season odds for each team. Table 3 below gives the update for the Big Ten conference.

Table 3: Updated Big Ten rankings, expected wins, strengths of schedule and season odds.

Despite the fact that there were only four Big Ten conference games this week, they all seemed to impact the overall conference and division races.

In the West Division, not only did Iowa get hit by a train, Minnesota gutted out a win versus Nebraska, and Northwestern ambushed Rutgers in Evanston. As a result, the Hawkeyes’ odds to win the division have been cut in half to 45 percent, which means that my computer now takes the field. As for the teams that could pass Iowa, Minnesota (25 percent), Purdue (19 percent) and Wisconsin (11 percent) all are in play.

In the East, while Michigan State did win and cover in the eyes of Vegas, my computer predicted a blow-out. As such, MSU slid a bit in the eyes of machines. What is also interesting is that the combination of events in the week led to Penn State edging ahead of Michigan for the top spot in my Big Ten power rankings, despite the fact that both teams were on a bye.

That said, the overall division odds did not change by much. Michigan (41 percent) still has the edge, with Penn State (34 percent) slowly closing the gap. My computer currently gives Michigan State the third-best odds (14 percent), with the Buckeyes (12 percent) also in the mix.

The updated Big Ten win distribution matrix is shown below in Table 4.

Table 4: Updated Big Ten win distribution matrix after Week Seven.

Michigan State’s expected win total held steady at 9.44. The more detailed math in Table 4 now gives the Spartans a 46 percent chance to get to double-digit wins and a 15 percent chance to get to 11-1 or better.

A closer look at Michigan State’s remaining schedule

Figure 2 below gives my updated projections for the Vegas lines and win probabilities for all of the games remaining on Michigan State’s schedule. These numbers are generated based on the results of the full season Monte Carlo simulation.

Figure 2: Updates projections for the Vegas line and win probabilities for MSU’s remaining schedule.

Four of the Spartans’ remaining five opponents were idle, but the fifth team (Purdue) raised some serious eyebrows this weekend. A week ago, my computer was essentially chalking this game up as an easy win. Now, things are not so clear. The math suddenly projects MSU to be a slight underdog in West Lafayette.

The Boilermakers seem to have Iowa’s number, and the fact that they were coming off of a bye week may have created the perfect storm for the upset. Purdue has games against Wisconsin and at Nebraska in the next two weeks. My gut tells me that this is a situation where a team cycled up and will soon regress to the mean. I will be mildly surprised if Michigan State is an underdog for that game.

As for the rest of MSU’s schedule, the Spartans still project as big favorites at home versus Maryland (-19) and as underdogs against Michigan (+5), Penn State (+6.5) and at Ohio State (+4.0). Those lines are actually tightening a bit, most likely because the uncertainty in the rankings is decreasing every week.

Depending on the results of Michigan’s game next week against Northwestern, my gut feeling is that the line will be close to a pick’em when it comes out, despite what my computer says now.

National Overview

Finally, let’s take a quick look around the country at the rest of the action. Once again, the updated conference odds can be viewed by clicking on the hyperlink attached to each conference name.

I will start in the SEC this week, where Georgia knocked off Kentucky, 30-13 and in the process all but sewed up the SEC East. My computer gives the Bulldogs over a 99 percent chance to win the division, which seems about right.

In the SEC West, Alabama got back on track by bayoneting Mississippi State by 40 points. This win bumped the Crimson Tide back up to 57 percent odds to win the division. Auburn also scored a mild upset win over Arkansas and thus the Tiger (22 percent odds) are now positioned as the division’s only real remaining threat to surpass Bama in the final standings. If Auburn wins the next four games, it would set up a winner-take-all contest in the Iron Bowl, which this year is at Auburn.

In other news from the old Confederacy, we learned this week that beating Florida is not good enough to save your job (especially if you hit on the pregnant wife of a University official), and Tennessee fans have better aim with golf balls and water bottles than their student-athletes do with the pigskin.

In Big 12 action, the top four teams seem to have separated themselves from the pack as Oklahoma and Iowa State scored relatively easy wins over TCU and Kansas State, Oklahoma State upset Texas and Baylor upset BYU in non-conference play. As it stands now, my computer gives the edge to Oklahoma State (66 percent odds) and Iowa State (54 percent) to make the Big 12 Championship game over undefeated Oklahoma (42 percent) and one-loss Baylor (33 percent).

In the ACC, the big news was Pittsburgh upset win at Virginia Tech. By my estimation, Pitt now has an 89 percent chance to win the Coastal Division and a 46 percent chance to win the ACC (which is the best odds of all the ACC teams).

Wake Forest was on a bye, but retained the highest odds to march to victory in the Atlantic Division (68 percent), although North Carolina State (26 percent) gained a bit of ground thanks to a 26-point win at Boston College.

In the Pac-12, Arizona State came up short in Utah this week, which has propelled the Utes into my top spot in the South Division with odds of 62 percent. The Sun Devils’ odds dropped to 20 percent, while UCLA’s odds ticked up to 17 percent, thanks to the Bruins win at Washington.

In the North, Oregon struggled to beat Cal, and my computer just seems to have given up on the whole division. No Pac-12 North team is currently ranked in my top-40, and the machine likes either Oregon State (35 percent) or Oregon (31 percent) to carry the banner for the North when they battle with the South in the Pac-12 Championship game

My updated playoff leaderboard still gives Georgia the top spot, with a 94 percent chance to make the playoffs. Michigan (46 percent), Wake Forest (34 percent) and Pitt (27 percent) now round out the current top four. Notre Dame, Penn State, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, Kentucky, Iowa and MSU are the next seven teams in order.

In notable Group of Five action, in the AAC, Cincinnati cruised to victory over Central Florida to easily and comfortably remain atop my current Group of Five New Year’s Six (NY6) Bowl leaderboard with 72 percent odds to end the season as the highest ranked Group of Five Champion.

If the Bearcats were to be upset in the AAC Championship game (for example), Coastal Carolina from the Sun Belt is the next most likely NY6 candidate with just under 10 percent odds. The Chanticleers were not in action this week, but their odds to win the Sun Belt got a boost when Louisiana surprisingly blew out Appalachian State on Tuesday night.

As for other teams to watch, Texas-San Antonio out of Conference USA is undefeated and ranked for the first time, but my computer still favors UAB to win that league. In the Mountain West, Air Force (6-1) and San Diego State (6-0) are still in the conversation. The MAC is out of the race for the New Year’s Six, and my computer now favors Ball State to beat Miami (OH) for the eventual conference title.

Against all odds, I have reached the end for this week. The Spartans may have the week off, but data never rests. Stay tuned for a fresh batch of Bad Betting Advice coming soon. Until then, enjoy, and Go State, beat Michigan!