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Against All Odds, Week 11: Mary, Mary

Back in the summer, a nine-win season seemed like a daydream. Now, Michigan State fans are all believers. Let’s look at the possible scenarios for the rest of the season as well as the results of last week’s betting advice

NCAA Football: Maryland at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

It may not look like it or feel like it, but the fact that the Michigan State Spartans bounced back after a loss and beat the Maryland Terrapins last weekend is a big deal. The Spartans are now 9-1, and all of the team’s goals are still well within reach. It is mid-November, and Michigan State is in the hunt for a national title.

The odds of actually achieving that goal are still pretty small. In fact, my computer says that they are less than one percent. But the fact that we can even write those words this late in the season is a testament to what head coach Mel Tucker has accomplished in a short time in East Lansing.

Even if the Spartans fail to win another game this season, winning nine games means that Michigan State is beating the teams that it should beat. The foundation for potential future championship-level teams is in place, no matter how this season ends.

In other words, beating Maryland should make even the most contrary Spartans fans, well... merry. Even the fans who dislike the neon uniforms (as they tend to draw the funniest looks from everyone we meet) should have had a smile on their face on Saturday evening.

Now that Maryland is in the rear-view mirror, it is time to look ahead at where Michigan State might be going to. Based on the remaining scenarios, what postseason destinations are possible where us fans could go, too?

In the most optimistic scenario, the Spartans win out, go to Indianapolis as a stepping stone, beat the Wisconsin Badgers (most likely) and find themselves in the College Football Playoff. Michigan State would likely be the No. 2 or No. 3 seed against a team such as Oregon or the Big 12 Champion (perhaps Oklahoma or Oklahoma State) in the Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl. That sounds nice.

In a more likely scenario where Michigan State finishes at 10-2 (most likely with a win over Penn State and a loss at Ohio State), the Spartans would almost certainly earn a New Year’s Six bid to either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. The Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl will host national semifinal playoff games this year, while the Sugar Bowl is a “contract bowl” and reserved for an SEC and a Big 12 team.

While the Rose Bowl, in theory, is also an option, it is hard to imagine a scenario where MSU earns that bid. The most likely Rose Bowl participant this year is the loser of the Michigan/Ohio State game or the Big West champion, if they can beat the Big Ten East champion in Indianapolis.

In case you are feeling more contrary, if the Spartans do lose the last two games of the regular season, I suspect that the Citrus Bowl might pick Michigan State. At the very least, MSU should drop no farther than the Outback Bowl. In either case, potential opponents would be Ole Miss, Texas A&M or Kentucky.

While losing the next two games would be disappointing, the thought of a bowl game in Florida back in the summer seemed like a daydream. That was then, and this is now. Coach Tucker has made us all believers.

Week 11 Results

As is my weekly tradition, Figure 1 below shows the results of all 60 games involving two FBS teams in Week 11.

Figure 1: Results of Week 11 showing the actual point differentials relative to the opening spread.

The teams that overachieved relative to the opening Vegas lines this week include Oklahoma State, Middle Tennessee, Louisville, Toledo, Virginia Tech, SMU, Notre Dame, Central Michigan and Miami of Ohio. The teams that underachieved noticeably, yet still won include Utah, Texas-San Antonio and Western Michigan.

Table 1 below summarizes the upsets that occurred in Week 11 relative to the opening Vegas line and in comparison to the computers’ upset predictions from last week.

Table 1: Upsets based on the opening Vegas line compared to the upset projections from Week 11.

As expected, it was a volatile week with a total of 18 upsets. That said, over half of those upsets were in games where the spread was four points or less, and only two of the upsets had a double-digit spread.

The big shocker of the weekend was Kansas’ (+30) overtime win over Texas. Upsets of this magnitude are rare, but this is already the third one of the year where the opening spread was at least 30 points. Bowling Green’s (+31) upset of Minnesota and Louisiana-Monroe’s (+32) upset of Liberty were the other two. The statistics say that this big of an upset should only take place about once every three seasons, so 2021 is shaping up to be an outlier when it comes to big upsets.

The computers both had a surprisingly good week for upset predictions, as my algorithm went 8-5 (62 percent) for the week and the FPI went 5-4 (56 percent). Both systems remain below 40 percent for the year.

Table 2 below summarizes the results of the Week 11 picks against the opening spread (ATS).

Table 2: Results of the highlighted picks versus the spread in Week 11.

My computer had another good week, going 6-3 ATS (67 percent) while the FPI had another below average week (44 percent). The week’s performance was in many ways a microcosm of the entire season. My computer did well, the FPI did poorly, and the method that is a little bit me and a little bit of the FPI is basically .500.

When I considered all the games this week, my computer’s picks were a strong 36-24 (60 percent) ATS. The FPI also had a strong week in this regard, going 33-27 (55 percent). Year-to-date, the two computer systems have almost equal records. My machine is 292-301 (49 percent) and the FPI is 291-302 (49 percent).

Updated Big Ten Odds and What’s Next for Michigan State

Table 3 below gives the update for the Big Ten conference, based on the updated simulation results.

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

With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, the race in both Big Ten divisions is still surprisingly wide open. Michigan made Happy Valley unpleasant on Saturday for the Nittany Lions and the Big Ten East is now a three-team race. If we assume that Michigan can win next week at Maryland, the scenarios are simple:

  • If Michigan State wins out (at Ohio State and versus Penn State) then Michigan State is the Big Ten East Champion and representative in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis.
  • If MSU does not win out, the winner of the Ohio State/Michigan game will go to Indianapolis

My computer is still insisting that Michigan is better than Ohio State and should be favored to beat the Buckeyes by six points. For this reason, Table 3 gives the Wolverines the best odds to win the East. My computer also is giving Michigan State better odds to beat the Buckeyes than Vegas is right now, which means that MSU’s odds are also likely inflated in the table above.

As for the race in the Big Ten West, wins by Wisconsin and Iowa and losses by Purdue and Minnesota resulted in the two latter teams going down according to the odds. Wisconsin holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over both Purdue and Iowa and therefore has a major advantage in odds (79 percent).

Wisconsin and Iowa both have to face Nebraska in the coming weeks and the Badgers also will travel to face Minnesota on Thanksgiving weekend, so there is still the potential for drama in the West. That said, I fully expect Wisconsin to represent the West in the Big Ten Championship game.

As for Michigan State’s remaining schedule and possible scenarios, the Spartans will travel to Columbus next weekend in another huge top-10 showdown. My Monte Carlo simulation actually gives Michigan State a 24 percent chance to win that contest, but the opening Vegas line of +18 suggests that the odds are closer to 10 percent.

My simulation is also predicting that Michigan State will actually be a one-point underdog to Penn State in two weeks. If this is true, the odds for the three remaining scenarios are as follows:

  • Michigan State wins out and goes to Indy (11-1): 4.8 percent
  • Michigan State beats either Penn State or Ohio State (10-2): 47.7 percent
  • Michigan State loses out (9-3): 47.5 percent

In other words, MSU has a small, but real, chance to win the East. If that does not come to pass, the odds of either finishing at 10-2 or 9-3 are essentially a coin flip.

National Overview

Finally, let’s take a quick look around the country at the rest of the action. Table 4 shows the division, conference, and season odds for all of the remaining realistic contenders in the rest of the FBS.

Table 4: Updated expected wins, strengths of schedule, and season odd for the rest of the FBS.

In ACC action, both Wake Forest and Pittsburgh survived stiff tests this week and still appear to be on a collision course for the ACC Championship game. It seems very unlikely that even a 12-1 Wake Forest team would make the College Football Playoff unless there is significant chaos nation-wide over the next two weeks. I think that it is safe to pencil the eventual ACC Champion into the Peach Bowl.

The Big 12 saw a total of three significant upsets this week. Kansas beating Texas was mostly just hilarious, but Baylor’s win over Oklahoma and Texas Tech beating Iowa State impacted the Big 12 race. This leaves the two Oklahoma schools at the top of the standings. However, my power rankings and odds now favor the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Baylor Bears to meet in the Big 12 Championship game.

If the Cowboys can run the table and finish at 12-1 (which my computer projects), then they just might be the one from the Big 12 to make the playoffs, while Baylor could stake a claim on the Sugar Bowl.

There were no upsets in the Pac-12 this week, which means that Oregon and Utah are increasingly likely to face each other in the conference title game. However, they also must face off next week in Salt Lake City. I think that Oregon needs to beat the Utes twice to make the CFP, and my computer feels that this is not at all likely.

In SEC action, Georgia teased Tennessee for a hot minute before winning by 24 points. Then, Auburn and Texas A&M both got beat by Mississippians to essentially end the race in the SEC East. So, the only real drama left is if Alabama can beat Georgia in the SEC Championship game or not. If the Tide rolls, both teams are in the playoffs. If not, Alabama should fall to the Sugar Bowl and out of College Football Playoff consideration.

In the Group of Five, Cincinnati continues to roll in slightly underwhelming fashion, just to keep things interesting. The Bearcats still have games left against SMU, at East Carolina, and (almost certainly) versus Houston in the American Athletic Conference Championship game.

An upset loss to Houston would be the most catastrophic, as it would knock Cincinnati out of College Football Playoff contention and simultaneously knock the Bearcats out of the automatic Group of Five New Year’s Six berth. One loss could be the difference between playing No. 1 Georgia in the Cotton Bowl and playing a 7-5 Florida team in the Birmingham Bowl.

Based on last week’s playoff poll, the most likely New Year’s Six replacements in the Group of Five include a few teams that are still hanging around, such as San Diego State (if it wins the Mountain West, which my computer does not project), Texas-San Antonio (if it runs the table and win Conference USA, which has better odds) and Houston.

With all of this taken together, it is time to use the odds (in combination with some gut feelings) to make some actual predictions. Here is my current College Football Playoff and New Years’ Six projection.

  • Orange Bowl: No. 1 Georgia (13-0) versus No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0)
  • Cotton Bowl: No. 2 Ohio State (12-1) versus No. 3 Oklahoma State (12-1)
  • Rose Bowl: Michigan (10-2) versus Utah (10-3)
  • Sugar Bowl: Alabama (11-2) versus Baylor (10-3)
  • Peach Bowl: Wake Forest (12-1) versus Michigan State (10-2)
  • Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame (11-1) versus Ole Miss (10-2)

I hope that you have enjoyed my words, but I think that is enough Monkeeing around for today. Against all odds, I have reached the end for this week. Be on the look out tomorrow for another dose of Bad Betting Advice. Until then, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Buckeyes!