It is hard to believe that it is already the final week of the regular season. But, the calendar says that it is late November, Christmas music has made an appearance at the local grocery stores, and the standings tell us that the Michigan State Spartans have already played 11 of the team’s 12 scheduled regular season games.
Many of us this week are working on a plan to execute a Thanksgiving feast for friends and family. Meanwhile, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker and the Spartans are planning to face the final challenge of the 2021 football season in the form of the Penn State Nittany Lions this Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
When it comes to both the Thanksgiving meal and to college football, planning is just the first, very important step. The difference between feast and famine, however, is the execution.
Penn State offers an interesting final exam for Michigan State this season. If the Spartans can execute and earn the win, they will enjoy the bounty of a guaranteed 10-win season and likely the accolades of Tucker’s first New Year’s Six bowl game. However, if the Spartans cannot find a way to win on senior day, the postseason situation becomes much more complicated.
As it stands now, No. 12 Michigan State is viewed as the third best team in the Big Ten behind No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan, based on Tuesday night’s College Football Playoff rankings. A win against Penn State would allow the Spartans to hold at that position. A particularly strong performance by the Green and White, coupled with a blow-out win by the Buckeyes could even vault the Spartans ahead of the Wolverines and earn MSU a ticket to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl (assuming that Ohio State wins the Big Ten Championship game).
However, a loss to Penn State would mean the Spartans would have dropped three of their last four games. If No. 14 Wisconsin wins at Minnesota this week and if No. 16 Iowa survives the trip to Nebraska, it is very possible (if not likely) that MSU will slip behind both teams in both the College Football Playoff Rankings and in the eyes of the bowl game officials.
The Spartans could even get leap-frogged by Penn State. The Nittany Lions would still be a game back in the standings, but they would benefit from the head-to-head win and a slightly tougher overall schedule. A loss on Saturday could send the Spartans tumbling all the way down to the Las Vegas Bowl or Music City Bowl.
If the situation with Michigan State’s roster were what it was at the end of October, I would be much more confident in a Spartan victory. But, the injury bug has bitten the Spartans over the last few weeks, and MSU will likely be going into battle with several key players out or at less than 100 percent. While the cupboard isn’t bare, Chef Tucker will be working without a few key ingredients and kitchen tools.
The truly great chefs are always able to improvise. Hopefully Coach Tucker and his staff will be able to whip up something delicious that will leave Spartan fans satisfied come Saturday evening. Even in the worse case scenario, a nine-win season is an unexpected delight. But, losing three of the final four games on the schedule would still leave a slightly bitter taste in the mouths of the Michigan State faithful.
Picks of the Week
Let’s take a look at Figures 1 and 2 below for this week’s projected point spreads for each of the 65 games involving two FBS teams. All 130 FBS teams are in action this weekend. It is a veritable cornucopia of college sports. 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.
Table 1 below summarizes the combined upset picks for the week, based on the data shown above in the two Figures.
There are only nine total upset picks on the board, but several of them have major postseason implications. Most notably, my math suggests that Michigan is going to upset Ohio State and that Penn State is going to upset Michigan State. Based on this, my computer will be relegated to sitting at the kids table with the Speak-and-Spell and the Commodore 128 this week.
The other notable picks include both Mississippi State and Oklahoma State earning upset wins over their respective top-10 in-state rivals. These two upsets would shake up the New Year’s Six landscape significantly to the potential benefit of Michigan State. No. 9 Ole Miss and No. 10 Oklahoma are currently sitting just above the Spartans in the current College Football Playoff rankings.
Based on all of the Vegas lines this week, my computer simulation suggests that a total of 16.0 upsets, plus-or-minus 3.3 upsets, are likely to occur in the final week of the regular season. Also note that Western Michigan has already defeated Northern Illinois on Tuesday night, so that pick is already in the loss column.
My recommended picks against the opening Vegas spread can be found below in Table 2.
If you are hungry for a long list of delicious picks against the spread, I am sorry to report that there are only five in total on the menu this week. As more data has accumulated over the full season, the computer picks tend to correlate more strongly with the Vegas lines, which makes it more difficult to find the outliers.
Michigan State and Big Ten Overview
The Spartans’ game this week against Penn State is tricky to evaluate. Both teams are a bit banged up and it feels like there is more uncertainty headed into this game than there is in most season finales. Penn State’s offense has been feast or famine. The Lions struggle to run the ball, but they have a potent passing attack when starting quarterback Sean Clifford is healthy. He is expected to play this weekend.
On the other side of the ball, Penn State is very strong on defense. The Spartans’ offense has been balanced and explosive this year, but that is when Payton Thorne has had his full drawer of kitchen gadgets at his disposal. Yards could be hard to come by for the Spartans.
The game opened with the Spartans as a one-point favorite, but the line has since shifted to Penn State’s side by a point or two. As mentioned above, my computer is even less optimistic. My official prediction is Penn State 28, Michigan State 21 once I round my computer’s result to a more reasonable football score.
Overall, the recent historical trends for the Penn State/Michigan State series are very even. The overall series is tied 17-17-1. Since 2001, Penn State holds a 9-7 edge and interestingly, the victorious team has covered the spread in each of those 16 games. Michigan State is also 4-4 straight up against Penn State in East Lansing this century and 3-3 when the line is five points or less. In other words, everything points to a toss-up.
As for the rest of the action in the Big Ten this week, the data on the seven contests is summarized below in Table 3.
Basically all of the games not involving teams from the state of Illinois will have some bearing on the postseason. In the Big Ten East, the winner of the Michigan/Ohio State game will make the trip to Indianapolis this year. The opening line gives Ohio State about a 66 percent chance to win, but the line has also shifted in the direction of the Buckeyes through the week and is now close to eight points (or 72 percent odds).
Also note that the winner of the toss-up game between Maryland and Rutgers will go bowling, while the other will (likely) not.
The race in the Big Ten West is also at stake, based on the results of the three other games on the board this weekend. Wisconsin has a 71 percent chance to return to Indianapolis and can lock things up with a win at Minnesota. There is also one other low-probability scenario where Wisconsin could lose to Minnesota, but win a three-way tiebreaker with the Gophers and Hawkeyes.
If Wisconsin does lose, Iowa could claim the crown with a win at Nebraska. This scenario has overall odds of 16 percent. The remaining 13 percent of the odds are the scenario where Minnesota beats Wisconsin, Iowa loses to Nebraska and Purdue beats Indiana to force a four-way tie for first place in the West. The Gophers would then be the division representative in Indianapolis.
Notable National Action
Finally, let’s take a look at the rest of the national action. Table 4 below gives the details for the games that will have an impact on the remaining, unsettled division races as well as the New Year’s Six and College Football Playoff landscape.
In ACC action, Pittsburgh has already won the Coastal Division, but the Atlantic Division crown is still up for grabs. If Wake Forest (-5) can win at Boston College, the Demon Deacons will win the division. This scenario has odds of 64 percent. If Wake Forest loses, North Carolina State can claim the crown with a win over rival North Carolina (+5). The odds of this scenario stand at 23 percent.
In the scenario where both Wake Forest and NC State lose (13 percent odds), Clemson will back into the division title, whether the Tigers can beat South Carolina (+14) this weekend or not.
In the Big 12, there will be bedlam in Stillwater as No. 7 Oklahoma State hosts No. 10 Oklahoma in a contest with both Big 12 and national implications. The Cowboys are already assured a spot in the Big 12 Championship game. The Sooners can claim the other spot and force a back-to-back rematch with a win over Oklahoma State or with a loss by Baylor (-13), which hosts Texas Tech. The opening line favors Oklahoma by a point, but that line has now moved to Oklahoma State’s side and is up to four points.
Based on the current line, Oklahoma still has a 68 percent chance to force the rematch with the Cowboys. Baylor’s odds at making the Big 12 Championship game stand at 32 percent.
In the Pac-12, Utah has won the South Division, but Oregon still has some work to do in the North. The Ducks can make their reservations for the Pac-12 Championship game with a win over rival Oregon State (+13) which has odds of 82 percent.
If the Beavers score the upset, they will claim the North Division title as long as Washington State (+3) does not upset Washington on Friday in the Apple Bowl. I currently give Oregon State 10 percent odds and Washington State seven percent odds for the division crown based on the opening lines.
In the SEC, the championship matchup between Alabama and Georgia is already set. Alabama (-18.5) could use a strong performance against Auburn to bolster a possible playoff argument in case the Crimson Tide falls to Georgia next weekend. Otherwise, the game to watch is No. 9 Ole Miss (-2) at Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. The Rebels are a potential bowl opponent for the Spartans as well as the competition for spots in the Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl.
As for the remaining Group of Five action, Cincinnati (-14) is on pace to wrap up a perfect regular season at East Carolina this weekend before the Bearcats get ready to face Houston in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. Table 4 also lists all of the other contests that will impact the remaining division races or potential New Year’s Six spot if Cincinnati chokes on a wishbone over the next two games.
The most notable game to watch is Boise State (-2.5) at San Diego State. At 10-1, the Aztecs likely have the best chance of all the teams outside of Houston and Cincinnati to sneak into a New Year’s Six Bowl. But, they need to beat the Broncos and win the Mountain West to have any chance at all.
That is all the advice that I have for you this week. Until next time, Go State, beat the Lions!