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Against All Odds, Week 12: Glass Ceilings

Michigan State seemed to have found its ceiling in 2021. The Spartans crashed into it face-first this past weekend in Columbus. But, if the powers that be in East Lansing are right about the man in charge, in the future, the ceiling might be through the roof.

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Michigan State v Ohio State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

My summary of Michigan State’s brutal 56-7 loss to Ohio State this weekend can basically by summed up as follows:

It could have gone better.

We all knew going into the game that it was going to be a challenge. The Spartans were going to need to be sharp, the Buckeyes were going to need to be a little sloppy, and MSU was likely going to need to get some good bounces. When exactly zero of those things happen, a 49-point blowout is the result.

Michigan State is having a dream season so far. Even the most optimistic fan would have been hard-pressed to predict a 9-2 record with a win over Michigan by the time the Thanksgiving turkey was finished cooking. But, I think that it is clear the Spartans have been flying by the seats of their pants for some time now.

Coach Mel Tucker has been squeezing every last ounce of potential out of this team every week. That effort has been good enough to beat almost every team on the schedule. That is always the first step in any rebuilding process: to get back to winning the vast majority of the winnable games on the schedule. Coach Tucker has done that.

However, at this point in the rebuild, it is completely expected that there is going to be a hard ceiling on what the roster can accomplish. The Spartans crashed face-first into that ceiling in Columbus on Saturday. Michigan State has a good team this year, but it is not quite ready to go toe-to-toe with the truly big dogs of college football, at least not yet.

In the 21st century, college football is very much a sport of haves and have-nots. There are only a handful of programs that have all of the pieces needed to win a national title. Ohio State is a team that has those pieces. Michigan State is a program that is trying to collect and assemble them. One of the best ways to do that is to simply look through that glass pane to see what a championship-level team looks like. The Spartan got a good look on Saturday.

While Michigan State is currently hovering just below that glass ceiling, there are signs that the Spartans are assembling the tools needed to crack it wide open. Michigan State football used to be a true blue-blood program. In the 1950s and 1960s, Duffy Daugherty built a championship-caliber team using his so-called “Underground Railroad” of players from the south. He acquired four claimed national titles along the way.

In the 50 years since the great run of Daughterly, the Spartans have slipped back below the glass ceiling. For long stretches, MSU was far below it. Now, Michigan State University believes that it has found the man who has the ability to chop a hole in that glass ceiling. MSU appears poised to soon make Coach Mel Tucker one of the highest paid African American coaches in all of sports.

Only time will tell whether the potential investment will be a good one. I, for one, am optimistic. I have seen enough of Tucker and the way that he runs the program to believe that he can do great things in East Lansing as long as he is given the tools and resources that he needs.

While some people have scoffed at the bold, record-setting contract that seems imminent, just remember that the glass ceiling only exists because people who are above it (or who think that they are) are afraid that they may soon be displaced. College football is very much a zero-sum game.

That all said, I am confident in this: records are meant to be broken, and so are glass ceilings. In the not-so-distant future, the ceiling at Michigan State might just be through the roof.

Week 12 Results

As is my weekly tradition, Figure 1 below shows the results of all 62 games involving two FBS teams in Week 12.

Figure 1: Results of Week 12 showing the actual point differentials relative to the opening spread.

The teams that overachieved this week include Ohio State (insert sad emoji face), Michigan, Tennessee, Utah, Clemson, Louisville, Cincinnati and California. As for the teams that underachieved, but avoided upset losses, Army, LSU, Alabama and TCU all fall into that category.

There were a total of 13 upsets relative to the opening Las Vegas spreads in Week 12, which was very much in line with expectations. Table 1 below summarizes these upsets in comparison to the picks made by the computers last week.

Table 1: Upsets based on the opening Vegas line compared to the upset projections from Week 12.

The majority of the upsets either involved Group of Five teams or were in games with fairly tight point spreads. That said, South Carolina’s upset of Auburn and Missouri’s upset of Florida were both notable.

Both computers went a ho-hum 2-4 this week (33 percent), which brings the year-to-date performance of both systems to around 39 percent. This number is still under the ceiling of historical upset performance (which is closer to 45 percent).

Table 2 below gives the results of my curated picks against the opening lines for Week 12.

Table 2: Results of the highlighted picks versus the spread in Week 12.

It was a slow week for picks against the spread (ATS), but my algorithm was a perfect 2-0. My picks using ESPN’s FPI went only 2-3 (40 percent for the week), which resulted in an overall performance of 4-3 (57 percent).

Year-to-date, my computer is 63 percent ATS, while the FPI-based picks are under the ceiling at 49 percent. Overall, the combined picks are just under 55 percent, which is at the historical benchmark.

For all 62 games in Week 12, my computer’s performance was not quite as strong. It was an even 31-31 relative to the opening spread. Year-to-date, my machine is now 323-332 (49.3 percent). As for the FPI, it had a better week at 36-26 (58 percent), which brings its year-to-date tally up to 327-328, just one game shy of .500.

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

At this point in the season with just a single game left of the regular season game, the number of remaining scenarios are now very small. There were no upsets at all in Big Ten country this week, so the story is largely unchanged.

In the Big Ten West, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota are all still alive. Wisconsin can clinch the division with a win over Minnesota in Minneapolis this weekend. If the Badgers falter, things get interesting. Iowa could potentially find its way to Indianapolis if the Hawkeyes can beat Nebraska in Lincoln.

If both the Gophers and Corn Huskers win this weekend, Minnesota can still win a multi-team tiebreaker as long as Purdue can beat Indiana to force a four-way tie. If Purdue loses, the West crown would revert to the Badgers in this scenario. Overall, the opening lines for next weekend suggest that there is a 71 percent chance that Wisconsin will represent the Big Ten West in Indianapolis. Iowa’s odds are 16 percent, while Minnesota’s odds are 13 percent.

As for the Big Ten East, it just comes down to the Ohio State/Michigan game in Ann Arbor where the winner will take all. Based on the opening line of six points for the Buckeyes, there is a one-third chance that Michigan finally finds its way to Indianapolis.

If the winner between the Buckeyes and Wolverines is able to beat the West Division champion (most likely Wisconsin), that team will almost certainly make the College Football Playoff. The loser between Michigan and Ohio State is most likely headed to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

Of course, if the Big Ten West champion were to upset the East champion in Indianapolis, the West champion would head to the Rose Bowl, and Michigan and Ohio State would likely then fall to the Fiesta and Peach Bowls where the opponents would likely be some combination of the ACC Champion, Notre Dame or Cincinnati.

Regarding Michigan State, next week’s game versus Penn State is a big one for bowl positioning. If MSU can win and finish at 10-2, the Spartans are in great shape for a New Year’s Six Bowl, as long as the eventual East champion makes the playoffs.

If MSU were to lose to Penn State, the Big Ten bowl pecking order all of a sudden looks very murky. The Spartans could conceivably fall behind Iowa, Wisconsin and even Penn State in the eyes of the bowl committees. I don’t think that MSU would fall lower than the Outback Bowl, but it is possible.

The line for this weekend’s game with the Nittany Lions has opened with Michigan State as only a one-point favorite. It is basically a coin flip.

National Overview

Let’s now make a brief stop at each Power Five conference to see where each race stands.

The easiest place to start is the SEC, where the conference championship game participants are both set. Georgia will face Alabama in two weeks. Georgia will almost certainly be in the College Football Playoff no matter what happens, as will Alabama with a win over the Bulldogs.

The only real question here is if Alabama plays Georgia tight, but still loses. Will the committee still have the Crimson Tide ranked in the top-four in the final playoff poll? I would say absolutely not, but it is hard to say what decision the committee would make in this scenario.

In ACC action, Clemson handed Wake Forest its first official conference loss of the season, which prevented the Demon Deacons from clinching the Atlantic Division title. However, Wake Forest is poised to seal the deal this weekend at Boston College.

If Wake Forest were to lose this weekend’s game, North Carolina State could steal the crown with a win over North Carolina. If both the Demon Deacons and the Wolfpack were to lose, Clemson would win the division. In any event, the Atlantic Division champion will face Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship game, as the Panthers clinched the Coastal Division with a weekend win over Virginia.

In the Big 12, Oklahoma State secured a spot in the Big 12 Championship with a win over Texas Tech this weekend. Baylor and Oklahoma are also both still alive to claim the second spot after beating Kansas State and Iowa State, respectively. The Sooners can claim that spot by beating Oklahoma State this weekend in Stillwater. If the Cowboys are victorious, Baylor will claim the spot with a win versus Texas Tech.

Out West, Utah scored a huge win over Oregon this weekend, and as a result, has sewn up the Pac-12 South Division and simultaneously knocked Oregon out of playoff contention. The Ducks can force a rematch with the Utes in the conference title game if they can beat rival Oregon State at home this weekend. If not, both Oregon State and Washington State are still alive. Wazzou would win the three-team tiebreaker if they can beat Washington in the Apple Bowl on Friday.

In Group of Five action, both Cincinnati and Houston won this weekend and as a result, those two teams are locked into the American Athletic Conference Championship game. A key question is whether Cincinnati can break through the glass ceiling and make the playoffs as a Group of Five team.

If Houston does manage to upset Cincinnati, my gut feeling is that the Cougars would get the New Year’s Six nod. If not, the only other viable contenders are San Diego State, Texas-San Antonio and Louisiana, but each team would need to win out. UTSA has the easiest remaining path, while San Diego State has the toughest.

That said, San Diego State might be the only team left with a resume good enough to challenge Houston’s resume. The Aztecs finish the season at Boise State this weekend, followed by the Mountain West Championship game, perhaps against Utah State, if they were to win.

All this taken together, I will make a very simple update to my College Football Playoff projections. I will swap Michigan State and Ole Miss in the Peach and Fiesta Bowl. These matchups seem a bit more plausible.

  • 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 Ole Miss (10-2)
  • Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame (11-1) versus Michigan State (10-2)

Against all odds, I have reached the end for this week. Until next time, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Nittany Lions!