The 2021 season has been a wild ride so far. There were signs that head coach Mel Tucker was making serious progress in the offseason towards reshaping the Michigan State Spartans into a competitive squad. Most reasonable fans were right to temper expectations until we had actually seen MSU take the field a few times.
But, now we have seen the Spartans for five weeks, and what we have seen so far has been impressive. Michigan State dismantled a pretty good Western Kentucky team with a combination of great play on special teams and on offense, specifically quarterback Payton Thorne, as well as from a bend-but-don’t-break defense that generally kept the Hilltoppers out of the end zone.
Now, the Spartans are undefeated and have swag-surfed their way up the national rankings to No. 11 in the polls. A few more wins and MSU will be hanging around in the top-10. Michigan State is 5-0 for the first time since 2015. Oh, 2015? MSU was a real Big Ten Kahuna back then. When Michigan State fans contemplated bowl trips to sunny locales, they usually just said, “Book ‘em! Dantonio!”
The question now is how long Michigan State can stay in the pocket and how close to paradise Mel Tucker can bring his Spartans in 2021. A tricky Big Ten road trip is now on the horizon and MSU hopes to ride the current wave of momentum. If the Spartans can avoid a wipeout, they would be sitting at 7-0 with a top-10 ranking and two full weeks to prepare for the Wolverines. Based on my most recent calculations, this scenario is more likely than not.
Surf’s up and conditions are looking fine. Let’s continue to enjoy the ride.
Week Five Results
As is my weekly tradition, Figure 1 below shows the results of all 61 FBS games in Week Five.
The teams that rode the big wave of overachievement this week include Nebraska, Iowa, Iowa State, Coastal Carolina, Ohio State, Georgia, Pittsburgh, Georgia Southern, Florida Atlantic, Appalachian State and Air Force. Only one team got barreled but still managed to win: San Jose State.
Then, there were the wipeouts, and there were a lot of them. I predicted a total of 16 upsets, which is more than usual, and the actual number wound up being 23, which is a full two standard deviations on the high side. Table 1 below summarizes those upsets in comparison to the picks from the computers from last week.
Despite the high number of upsets, the largest one of the week was Navy’s (+14) upset of Central Florida. As for the most impactful upsets of the week, that would include Florida, Texas A&M and Oregon all getting eaten by the upset shark. While I did not officially make these three picks last week, I did mention that some of my alternative calculations put all three of these teams on upset alert.
Officially, both my algorithm and ESPN’s FPI went .500 on upset picks with a 4-4 and 3-3 record respectively. This bumped up the year-to-date percentages a little, but both computers are lagging behind their historical averages of 40 to 50 percent.
As for picks against the spread (ATS), the computers did a bit better this week, as is summarized below in Table 2.
Both computer systems hit on about two-thirds of their highlighted picks this week, including five of the top seven picks on the board. This helps to boost the year-to-date totals to over .500 and closer to the 55 percent benchmark.
Overall, my algorithm went 31-30 ATS (51 percent) and thus was above water for the first time since Week One. Year-to-date, however, my numbers remained submerged at 122-144 (46 percent) for the year.
As for the FPI, my analysis of that data was not pretty for our friends at ESPN. I chart the FPI as 24-37 ATS (39 percent), which drags down the year-to-date totals to 131-135 (49 percent).
Updated Big Ten Odds and Expected Wins
Following the results of Week Five, 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.
There were only two surprises in Big Ten play this week, and both were very minor. Michigan (+4) upset Wisconsin and Minnesota (+3) upset Purdue. In addition, Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State all had big wins. As a result, Iowa has tightened its grip on the West Division race, with odds of returning to Indianapolis now at 88 percent.
Despite last week’s upset to Bowling Green, Minnesota (4.7 percent) now has the second best odds in the West, followed closely by Nebraska (3.2 percent), and interestingly, the Cornhuskers are now up to No. 17 in my power rankings after their 49-point win over Northwestern.
As for the East race, the Michigan Wolverines (55 percent) still have the best odds, but Penn State made a major move following their shutout win over Indiana. The Nittany Lions jumped up to No. 4 in my power rankings, with a 29 percent chance to win the East. Due to this jump, literally every other Big Ten East team saw their odds drop a bit, including the Spartans, whose odds in the East now sit at 8.2 percent.
The updated Big Ten win distribution matrix is shown below in Table 4.
Michigan State’s expected win total has crept up to 8.56, which essentially means that the odds of winning nine games or more is 50-50. MSU’s odds of getting to at least a 10-2 record is now at 28 percent, and the odds of 11 wins or more is 11 percent. The odds of a gnarly wipeout where the Spartans are home for the holidays now stand at less than two percent.
A closer look at Michigan State’s remaining schedule
Figure 2 below gives my updated projections for the Las Vegas lines and win probabilities for all of the games remaining on MSU’s schedule.
With another week of data in the books, the picture has continued to shift. Michigan State basically beat Western Kentucky by approximately the margin that my computer projected, so the changes in the projected odds are due entirely to movement with the opponents. Rutgers, Indiana, Purdue and Maryland all both lost and failed to cover. So, the Spartans now project as the favorite in each of those four games.
On the flip side, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State all had very good weeks, so those games all now look a bit tougher. On balance, it is a slight improvement.
Furthermore, while my computer projected an opening spread at Rutgers to be merely a point, the line on Sunday opened with Michigan State favored by six points. That line corresponds to a 66 percent chance that the Spartans will remain undefeated for another week.
Based on this actual line and the projected line in Bloomington, the numbers say there is a 52 percent chance that Michigan State is 7-0 going into the Michigan game, a 41 percent chance of a split on the road against Rutgers and Indiana, and only a seven percent chance of dropping both road games.
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 decided to completely drop the preseason ranking data starting this week, so there is more movement than usual.
The race in the ACC continues to be weird. Wake Forest (5-0) took care of business against Louisville this week and continues to hold the best odds in both the Atlantic Division, and in the ACC overall. In the Coastal Division, the big winner this week was Pitt (4-1), who demolished Georgia Tech and leapt past Virginia Tech for the best division odds at 65 percent.
In Big 12 action, the race for the two spots in the Big 12 Championship Game is still wide open. The two Oklahoma schools are at the top of my leaderboard following the Sooners’ (5-0) win at Kansas State and the Cowboys’ (5-0) win against Baylor. That said, Iowa State (3-2) and Texas (4-1) both also won this week and are still very much in play.
The rogue wave in the Pac-12 this weekend was Oregon’s overtime loss at Stanford, which has thrown the race for the Pac-12 North into chaos. My computer has basically decided that all six of those teams are bad, and as of now the Oregon State Beavers (4-1) are the least bad, or at least have the best odds (41 percent).
In the Pac-12 South, however, things actually got a bit more clear. Arizona State (4-1) had a decisive win over UCLA and as a result now have the best odds to win the division (53 percent) and the conference (27 percent).
Down south in SEC action, there were a lot of good games, but the picture really has not changed. Georgia (5-0) now projects to have a 92 percent chance to win the East and Alabama (5-0) has a 77 percent chance to win the West. Kentucky upset Florida this weekend, and in two weeks, the Wildcats will get a shot at Georgia in Athens. That seems to be about the only way the Bulldogs don’t win the East.
As for Alabama, I still have Ole Miss (3-1) with the second best odds to win the West at just under 10 percent. Considering Bama beat the Rebels by 21 points this week, it seems like a bout of food poisoning in Tuscaloosa is the best chance to avoid an Alabama/Georgia matchup in the SEC Championship game.
My updated Playoff Leaderboard shows the top four teams as Georgia, Iowa, Michigan and interestingly... Wake Forest at No. 4. Alabama, Penn State, Pitt, Notre Dame, Kentucky and Oklahoma round out the top-10. Michigan State is at a respectable No. 15 this week, with 4.3 percent odds to make the College Football Playoff.
In Group of Five action, the biggest news of the week was Cincinnati’s (4-0) win over Notre Dame. The Bearcats will be huge favorites in all of their remaining games, and they have almost a 90 percent chance to make the AAC Championship Game. It would take an upset loss in that contest to a team like Houston (currently with the second best AAC Championship Game odds at 53 percent) to keep Cincy out of the New Year’s Six.
The more pertinent question is whether an undefeated Cincinnati team would earn a Playoff spot. The Bearcats are currently sitting at No. 11 in my Playoff Leaderboard with 12.5 percent odds.
If Cincinnati were to get knocked out of the New Year’s Six discussion, the next most likely team to take the Bearcats’ place is Coastal Carolina (5-0), according to my Group of Five leaderboard. That said, the Chanticleers still need to get past Appalachian State (4-1) in the Sun Belt East, which remains in a virtual dead heat, according to my odds.
Western Michigan (4-1) had a nice win over Buffalo this week and is the only hope for the MAC for New Years’ Six glory. Meanwhile, the Mountain West race was thrown into chaos this weekend, as both Boise State (2-3) and Fresno State (4-2) suffered upset losses to Nevada and Hawaii, respectively. Nevada (3-1) now has the edge in the West Division, while my computer has a sudden affinity for Colorado State (1-3) in the Mountain Division.
Finally, Conference USA still exists as well. My computer now likes Marshall to edge out UAB in the eventual conference title game.
That is all I have for today. Until next time, enjoy and Go State, beat Rutgers.