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Bad Betting Advice, Week 12: The Nutcracker

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The Buckeyes will be a tough nut to crack, but the Spartans may have a lot of the right tools. A win on Saturday could lead to the re-establishment on some recent holiday traditions in East Lansing.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Ohio State at Michigan State
Payton Thorne was able to dance down the sidelines for a touchdown last year against the Buckeyes.
Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Southeast Michigan saw the first snowfall of the year this week. This fact, coupled with the impending Thanksgiving holiday, has gotten a lot of us in the holiday spirit.

Each family tends to have their own holiday traditions. Some families prefer ham while others prefer turkey. Some families like to watch sports over the holidays, while others prefer to attend a seasonal concert or ballet. Some even like both.

For the Michigan State University football family, there are also several holiday traditions. Right around Halloween, us Spartans enjoy beating the Michigan Wolverines. This has resulted in the origin of yet another tradition: listening to a list of excuses as to why something that happens 70 percent of the time is actually a fluke due to weather or some grand officiating conspiracy. It’s a lot of fun for everyone.

From roughly 2010 to 2015, the Spartans had a tradition of beating the teams that they should beat on their schedule, playing meaningful games in November, challenging for Big Ten titles, and even winning a few of them. This then led to yet another early January tradition of playing in and winning high-profile bowl games.

Over the last few years, the Green and White strayed a bit from some of these traditions. But in 2021, head coach Mel Tucker seems to have re-established the winning culture in East Lansing that needed to be restored, and can perhaps even build on some of these customs.

This week, Michigan State will face its biggest challenge yet in the form of a road trip to Columbus to face the Ohio State Buckeyes. Over the past decade, the Buckeyes have been the Mouse King of the Big Ten conference. They are a tough nut to crack.

But the secret to breaking through that shell is to have the right tools. On offense, the Spartans have a nice variety of weapons. Quarterback Payton Thorne, wide receiver Jayden Reed and running back Kenneth Walker III have all shown that they can play at a championship level.

Walker, in particular, has a shot to be crowned the Prince of college football by the Downtown Athletic Club (aka, the Heisman Trophy winner) for his ability to run, jump-cut, spin, and dance his way through opposing defenses. Incidentally, he also has a great attitude.

But in order to get to the sugar-plum sweet center of the nut, it is the Spartans’ defense that will likely need to rise to the occasion. Stopping the Ohio State offense will be a high barre to clear. The full complement of Spartan soldiers will need to be on pointe, or the Buckeyes will run through them like they are made of tin or gingerbread.

Yes, the challenge is daunting, but the potential reward is great. A win in Columbus would all but guarantee a New Year’s Six Bowl for the Spartans and would put MSU just one win away from returning to Indianapolis for a shot to win the Big Ten Title. With Mel Tucker on the sidelines, perhaps this will be the start of a new Spartan tradition in early December.

Picks of the Week

As I do every week, let’s take a look at Figures 1 and 2 below for this week’s projected point spreads for each of the 62 games involving two FBS teams. Figure 1 shows the picks from my algorithm relative to the opening Las Vegas lines and Figure 2 shows the picks from ESPN’s FPI.

Figure 1: Comparison of the projected final margins of victory based on my algorithm to the opening Vegas Spreads for Week 12.
Figure 2: Comparison of the projected final margins of victory based on ESPN’s FPI to the opening Vegas Spreads in Week 12.

Table 1 below summarizes the combined upset picks for the week, based on the data shown above in the two Figures.

Table 1: Upset picks for Week 12.

The most notable upset picks on the list will directly impact the Big 12 race, which will also make a big impact on the eventual College Football Playoff race and New Year’s Six Bowl selection. My computer predicts that Oklahoma will pick up a second loss while the FPI predicts a key win for Baylor. My computer is also projecting a win for Wake Forest over Clemson.

Based on all of the Vegas lines this week, my computer simulation suggests that a total of 14.7 upsets, plus-or-minus 3.2 upsets, are likely to occur here in Week 12.

My recommended picks against the opening Vegas spread can be found below in Table 2.

Table 2: Picks against the opening spread for Week 12. The picks are listed in order of confidence score.

For whatever reason, the computers do not have a lot of advice to give this week. To make matters worse, the two MAC games on the list are already in the books. I will note that Eastern Michigan did, in fact, upset and cover against Western Michigan, and Toledo did cover the spread against Ohio on Tuesday night. The only Power Five game on the list from the computers is Iowa State to cover at Oklahoma.

Michigan State and Big Ten Overview

There is no reason to dance around the subject. Michigan State’s contest this weekend is a steep, uphill climb. It will be about as difficult as a fouetté. The odds are very much against a victory for MSU. More specifically, the Vegas line opened with the Spartans as an 18-point underdog and has since crept up to 19 points. This translates to just a one-in-10 chance that the Spartans will leave Columbus victorious.

The computers are more optimistic that the Spartans can keep it a little closer, but only by a few points. My computer’s official prediction is a score of Ohio State 37, Michigan State 25. Honestly speaking, holding the Buckeyes under 40 points would be a moral victory in and of itself. Only Nebraska, Oregon and Penn State have been able to hold the Ohio State offense under that value.

Historically, Michigan State has had some success against Ohio State. Since 2011, MSU is 3-7 against Ohio State and 4-6 against the spread. While this does not seem like much, three wins is more than any other Big Ten team has against the Buckeyes in that span. In fact, MSU is the only Big Ten team with more than a single win over OSU since 2012.

But, none of those three wins came in years when the opening line was this large. In 2015, the Spartans opened as a 13-point underdog and the odds of a straight-up win were roughly double what they will be this weekend. It is also notable that the Buckeyes have covered the spread four times in a row against Michigan State.

That all said, there is a reason why we actually play the games instead of just simulating them or talking about them. Anything can happen over 60 minutes with that crazy oblong ball. The Spartans will need to be very sharp and will likely need Ohio State to be a bit sloppy or mistake-prone. Is that likely? No. It is possible? Absolutely, yes.

As for the rest of the action in Big Ten land, the data on the seven contests are summarized below in Table 3.

Table 3: Summary of Big Ten action in Week 12, including my algorithms’ projected scores. The teams shaded in green are projected to cover by my algorithm. The teams shaded red are projected to cover by the FPI.

Outside of Columbus, the action is a bit dull. Michigan (-15) and Penn State (-18) are heavy favorites at Maryland and versus Rutgers, respectively. Either underdog would become bowl eligible with an upset win. In the West, Iowa (-10) and Purdue (-12) also seem like safe bets at home against Illinois and Northwestern, respectively.

There are only two games where the spread is under 10 points. The first is Nebraska (+9.5) at Wisconsin. The Badgers currently control their own destiny in the West, but a loss to Nebraska would hand that control back over to Iowa.

It looked for a couple of weeks like Minnesota might make its first trip to Indianapolis this year, but back-to-back losses to Illinois and Iowa have the Gophers playing mostly for bowl position. Minnesota (-5) is favored to win on the road at Indiana this week, which will be necessary to stay in the hunt for the Big Ten West title.

Notable National Action

Finally, let’s pirouette and take a look at the rest of the national action. Table 4 below gives the details for the games that I will have my eye on this penultimate weekend of regular season football prior to next week’s coda.

Table 4: Summary of other notable action in Week 12, including my algorithm’s projected scores.

The ACC race will very likely be over by the end of the weekend as both divisions have key matchups. In the Atlantic Division, Wake Forest (+4) can clinch the division title, but they will need to travel to Clemson to do it and the Tigers are favored. On the Coastal side, Pittsburgh (-11) can also clinch a division title with a home win over Virginia.

The Big 12 race will also be more clear come Sunday morning. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are tied at the top of the standings. Both teams have tricky, but potentially manageable tests this week versus Iowa State (+8.5) and at Texas Tech (-10), respectively. That said, my computer predicts that a Cyclone is going to blow the Sooners right out of title contention.

Baylor is just a game back in the standings and also still has a shot at earning a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. However, the Bears (+2) are slight underdogs at Kansas State this week.

The Pac-12 also has a big game this week, which is very likely a preview of the Pac-12 Championship game as Oregon travels to Utah (-2.5). A win by the Utes would likely knock Oregon out of playoff contention. In this scenario, the potential rematch in two weeks would decide which school goes to the Rose Bowl.

The rest of the action is less compelling. Neither Georgia nor Alabama (-22.5) are likely to be tested in the SEC and Notre Dame (-18) is a huge favorite over Georgia Tech. All three of those teams will likely be playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl.

In the Group of Five, everyone is waiting to see if No. 5 Cincinnati falters. The Bearcats host SMU (+15) this week and should be safe. Meanwhile, several of the other possible Group of Five contenders for the New Year’s Six berth could find themselves in trouble.

No. 24 Houston (-9) could have trouble with Memphis, and No. 19 San Diego State (-11) might get into trouble at UNLV. In addition, No. 22 Texas-San Antonio (-3) will likely have its hands full with UAB, while Louisiana (+4) is an underdog at Liberty.

That is all the advice that I have for you this week. With a little bit of luck, maybe we will all feel like dancing come Saturday night. Until next time, Go State, beat the Buckeyes!