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Bad Betting Advice, Championship Week Edition

Michigan State is not playing on Saturday, but the holiday destination for the Spartans is at stake this weekend. Let’s break down the possible scenarios and review the picks for the week.

Penn State v Michigan State Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Michigan State University does not play football this weekend, but there are several games on the schedule that will ultimately impact the holiday destination for the Spartans. For this week’s preview of Championship Week, I would like to take a bit of a deep dive into the various scenarios that could play out this coming weekend. But first, I will start with my typical sampling of potentially dubious financial advice. Let’s jump right in.

Picks of the Week

As usual, Figures 1 and 2 below summarize this week’s projected point spreads for each game this weekend. Figure 1 shows the picks from my algorithm relative to the opening 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 Championship Week.
Figure 2: Comparison of the projected final margins of victory based on ESPN’s FPI to the opening Vegas Spreads for Championship Week.

With only 11 games on the schedule (10 conference championships and the rescheduled contest between California and USC), the data is straightforward. There are only a handful of upset picks or picks against the spread. Table 1 and Table 2 summarize those picks, based on the projected point spreads from the computers.

Table 1: Upset picks for Championship Week.
Table 2: Picks against the opening spread for Championship Week.

As for upsets, the machines suggest a total of three, two of which are in Group of Five conference championship games. The third upset is for Wake Forest (+3.5) to win the ACC Championship game, which as we will see will have only a very minor impact on the New Year’s Six Bowl lineup.

A Monte Carlo simulation of the week’s action suggests that a total of 4.1 upsets, plus-or-minus 1.6 upsets, are likely to occur in the 11 total contests.

As for picks against the spread, my computer only has one to suggest this week and that is for Georgia to cover the 4.5-point opening spread in the SEC Championship game against Alabama.

Table 3 below provides the detailed data on the 10 conference championship games, including my computer’s projected final score.

Table 3: Summary of the action in Championship Week, including my algorithm’s 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.

New Year’s Six Bowl Scenarios

Of the 10 conference championship games on the menu this week, six of them will not impact the New Year’s Six bowls and by extension, the holiday destination for Michigan State fans. In the Group of Five, the Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt championship games are all in this category.

In the Power Five, the ACC Championship game and Pac-12 Championship games will also not make a significant impact on the overall New Year’s Six landscape. The Pac-12 champion (either Utah or Oregon) will play in the Rose Bowl, while the ACC champion (either Pittsburgh or Wake Forest) will very likely land in the Peach Bowl. The loser of each contest will fall out of the New Year’s Six.

This leaves a total of four conference championship games that will impact the final bowl pairings. Those are:

  • SEC Championship: No. 1 Georgia (-4.5) versus No. 3 Alabama
  • Big 12 Championship: No. 5 Oklahoma State (-6.5) versus No. 9 Baylor
  • Big Ten Championship: No. 2 Michigan (-10.5) versus No. 13 Iowa
  • AAC Championship: No. 4 Cincinnati (-10) versus No. 21 Houston

With four games impacting the final standings significantly, this results in 16 possible final scenarios. It is fairly straightforward to define each scenario, but in order to make projections for the New Year’s Six bowls, it is necessary to make some guesses about how the committee is likely to respond to the different outcomes of the four games above. Here are my assumptions:

  1. Georgia will remain No. 1 with a win over Alabama and will fall no farther than No. 4 with a loss (in other words, the Bulldogs are in the College Football Playoff in all 16 scenarios).
  2. Michigan will stay at No. 2 with a win over Iowa, but will drop out of the top-four with a loss.
  3. Alabama will take over the No. 1 spot with a win over Georgia, but with a loss, it will fall just below Notre Dame in the final standings.
  4. Oklahoma State will leapfrog Cincinnati and into the College Football Playoff with a win over Baylor.
  5. Cincinnati will stay ahead of No. 6 Notre Dame with a win over Houston, but will fall to below No. 11 Michigan State (and out of the New Year’s Six) with a loss.

The top-two assumptions seem safe, but the other three are more controversial. As for Alabama, the major question is how far the Crimson Tide would fall with a loss to Georgia. Considering the number of narrow escapes the Tide have had over the past month, I think that it is very reasonable that any of the other remaining one-loss teams should be given the opportunity to make the playoffs if Alabama cannot beat Georgia on a neutral field.

As for Oklahoma State, in my opinion, a win over Baylor and a conference championship would trump Cincinnati’s perfect record. As for Cincinnati, the bigger question for me is how far the Bearcats would fall with an upset loss to Houston.

This might come down more to politics, however, as Houston would automatically qualify for a New Year’s Six spot as the highest-ranked champion from the Group of Five conferences (assuming that Houston jumps over San Diego State in the final poll, which seems inevitable). The playoff committee would then essentially need to decide if both the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl would have to accept an AAC team. I strongly suspect that the answer to this question is “no,” and Cincinnati would fall completely out of the New Year’s Six with a loss.

With these assumptions in mind, Table 4 below gives my breakdown of the 16 possible New Year’s Six Bowls scenarios. Based on the opening spreads for the four games of interest, the scenarios are listed in descending order of likelihood. My prediction for Michigan State’s bowl is highlighted in green in each row.

Note that the top four scenarios have a total probability of 60 percent. Also note that the most likely outcome (40 percent) is for there to be exactly one upset in the four key games (scenarios No. 2 through No. 5).

Table 4: 16 New Year’s Six Bowl scenarios, based on the outcome of the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, and AAC Championship Games.

As for the College Football Playoff pairings and venues for the two national semifinal games, I made a few other simple assumptions. I assume that Georgia has a slight preference for the Orange Bowl, while Alabama has a slight preference for the Cotton Bowl. But, the strongest factor is that Oklahoma State would have a small, but noticeable home-field advantage in the Cotton Bowl.

Therefore, if the Cowboys are the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, I placed them in Dallas. However, if they are the No. 3 or No. 4 seed, I placed them in Miami to avoid giving the higher seed a disadvantage. I also strictly avoided a situation where Georgia would face Alabama again in the national semifinals. So, in some cases, I have Alabama seeded higher than Notre Dame, in spite of my assumption listed above.

Table 5 below summarizes the odds that each team will make the playoffs or one of the other four New Year’s Six Bowls, based on the opening lines and the probability of each scenario shown above in Table 4.

Table 5: Odds for each teams to make the playoffs or one of the other NY6 Bowls.

As Tables 4 and 5 show, I see Baylor playing in the Sugar Bowl in all 16 scenarios. The only way for Baylor to not play in the Sugar Bowl would be for Oklahoma State to win the Big 12, but not make the playoffs.

The Rose Bowl is obliged to take Iowa if the Hawkeyes upset the Michigan Wolverines, but otherwise, I have Ohio State making the trip to Pasadena. However, I could also easily imagine the Rose Bowl opting to avoid an Ohio State/Oregon rematch or the College Football Playoff committee preferring to pair Ohio State with Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, which would potentially send the Spartans to Pasadena instead.

Speaking of the Spartans, I have Michigan State playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl game in all of the scenarios where Michigan beats Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game. The only other way that Michigan State would get bumped out is in the situation is if Houston upsets Cincinnati and the committee decides to place both AAC teams in the NY6. In this worst case scenario, MSU odds to make the New Year’s Six are no worse than 60 percent.

If MSU does fall out of the New Year’s Six, a Citrus Bowl matchup against Kentucky or possibly Texas A&M is most likely. There is a small chance that if Houston and Michigan both win, Iowa could be selected for the Citrus Bowl and Michigan State would fall to the Outback Bowl, but this seems very unlikely.

Based on my pairings, the Spartans are most likely to play in the Fiesta Bowl (70 percent) and the most likely opponent is Notre Dame (45 percent), with Oklahoma State (18 percent), and Ole Miss (eight percent) also in play. There is also one scenario where I project Michigan State to the Peach Bowl to face either Pittsburgh (four percent odds) or Wake Forest (three percent).

Possible Disruptions

That all said, in regards to the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl pairings, I am making a few additional tacit assumptions that may not be true. For example, I am assuming that there is a desire to create a matchup between Notre Dame and a Big Ten team, if possible. I am also assuming that a Cincinnati Notre Dame rematch will be avoided, and finally, I am assuming that the Peach Bowl will lobby to take an SEC team (Ole Miss) if one is available.

Based strictly on the latest College Football Playoff rankings, higher-ranked teams such as Notre Dame, Ole Miss and Oklahoma State (if the Cowboys lose to Baylor) are more likely to be paired with each other than with Michigan State. If this is true, the Spartans would be more likely to face the ACC champion in the Peach Bowl (up to a 45 percent chance).

For example, if all of the favorite teams win this weekend (scenario No. 1 in Table 4), the current playoff rankings suggest that No. 6 Notre Dame should be paired with No. 8 Ole Miss in either the Peach or Fiesta Bowl. This would leave No. 11 Michigan State to play the ACC champion (either No. 15 Pittsburgh or No. 16 Wake Forest) in the other bowl. This is more typical of the way these bowls are assigned.

Scenario No. 3 may similarly result in a matchup between Oklahoma State and Ole Miss instead of Michigan State. But, in scenario No. 2, a matchup between Michigan State and Notre Dame is more likely, as it would avoid both a rematch between Notre Dame and Cincinnati or a game between Notre Dame and the ACC champion.

As for other possible disruptions to the table above, if the committee were to rank Big 12 Champion Oklahoma State outside of the top-four (for example in scenarios No. 1 and No. 2), this would likely improve Michigan State’s chances of facing Notre Dame.

In this case, Alabama would likely be in the playoffs, which would force a Sugar Bowl matchup between Ole Miss and Oklahoma State (as the highest-ranked remaining teams from the SEC and Big 12). Baylor would likely fall below Michigan State in the rankings and into either the Fiesta or Peach Bowl against the ACC Champion.

As for rooting interests, a win by both Michigan and Cincinnati would essentially ensure that the Spartans are in the New Year’s Six. Oregon beating Utah may increase MSU’s odds to play in the Rose Bowl, and Oklahoma State beating Baylor and a win by Alabama over Georgia may slightly increase the odds for MSU to face Notre Dame.

That is all the advice that I have for this week. Sit back and enjoy the action this weekend. Until next time, Go Green.