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Against All Odds, Championship Week: Pop the Cork

It’s official. Michigan State is going to the Peach Bowl Atlanta as a part of the New Year’s Six. It’s time to celebrate a truly surprising and amazing year. But pace yourself, Mel Tucker and company are just getting started.

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

This weekend, champions were crowned, champagne was uncorked, some dreams were crushed and four teams advanced to the College Football Playoff with a chance to win a national championship. Eight other teams, by virtue of either a conference title or a top-10 finish, were selected to play in one of the other New Year’s Six bowls. Michigan State was one of those teams.

When the dust settled, the Spartans were matched with the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Peach Bowl. It will mark the first time that the Spartans have appeared in the New Year’s Six since their playoff appearance following the 2015 season.

If someone were to have suggested back in August that the Green and White were to be in this position, it would have triggered a sobriety check. Coach Mel Tucker, in just two years, took a team that was predicted to win only four or five games, and to finish last in the Big Ten East, to the New Year’s Six. That accomplishment is nothing short of incredible. There is plenty of celebrating to be done in East Lansing.

Win or lose in Atlanta, the future looks very bright for the Spartans. The MSU athletic department believes that it has found the right man to lead the program in Tucker. and the brass decided to show him the money. Michigan State has a young and energetic head man who has shown that he can compete and beat the best teams in the conference. Mel has swagger. MSU has swagger. Recruits are taking notice.

As for the rest of the Big Ten East, Ohio State under Ryan Day showed some potential weakness in 2021 (just not against Michigan State). Meanwhile James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh appear to be staying in State College and Ann Arbor for a while. As for the long-term prospects for those two gentlemen, let’s just say that past performance is the most accurate predictor of future performance. I expect the next decade or two to resemble the past decade or two for those two programs.

So while some programs are more likely to be flat than fizzy in the near term, Michigan State appears to be a program on the rise. While this year will be Coach Tucker’s first trip to the New Year’s Six, it likely won’t be his last. If everything goes right, there might be bigger and better celebrations in East Lansing in the not-so-distant future.

Championship Week Results

Figure 1 below shows the results of the 11 games played in this final week prior to the start of bowl season.

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

With just 11 games, the results are fairly clear. A total of four teams overachieved (Michigan, Utah, Pittsburgh and California) while six of the 11 games ended in an upset. Those upsets are summarized below in Table 1 in relation to the predictions made by the computers.

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

The total number of upsets was slightly higher than the 4.1, plus-or-minus 1.6, upsets that the weekly simulation predicted. The biggest upset relative to the spread was Baylor’s win over Oklahoma State.

The computers’ predictions had some pop during Championship Week. My algorithm got two-of-three picks correct and the FPI got its sole prediction correct. This brings the year-to-date performance of both computers to just under 40 percent, which approaches respectability.

The picks against the spread for the week were sparse, but Table 2 summarizes the result.

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

This analysis is as simple as it gets. My computer made just one pick, and it was wrong. But my machine still ended up 60-35 (63 percent) for the year. The FPI was only 56-58 (49 percent) and the combined predictions of both computers went 97-82 (54 percent), which is consistent with the historical performance.

Overall, my algorithm was 5-6 (45 percent) against the spread (ATS) for the week, while the FPI was a game better at 6-5 (55 percent). Year-to-date, my computer is 360-371 (49.2 percent) while the FPI is slightly better at 364-367 (49.8 percent).

Quick Bowl Preview

On Sunday, ESPN rolled out the six matchups that will make up the playoffs and the rest of the New Year’s Six. Throughout the afternoon and evening, the full slate of 42 bowl games that are planned to cap off the 2021 season were announced. As a recap, the New Year’s Six ended up as follows.

  • Peach Bowl (Dec. 30): Michigan State (+3.5) versus Pittsburgh
  • Cotton Bowl (Dec. 31): No. 1 Alabama (-13) versus No. 4 Cincinnati
  • Orange Bowl (Dec. 31): No. 2 Michigan (+7.5) versus No. 3 Georgia
  • Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): Ohio State (-7) versus Utah
  • Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1): Ole Miss (-2) versus Baylor
  • Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1): Notre Dame (-1.5) versus Oklahoma State

Note that this lineup is precisely what I predicted on Sunday morning. However, the committee was literally inches away from a major problem.

Had Oklahoma State beaten Baylor in the Big 12 Championship game, there would have been a debate between Cincinnati and Oklahoma State for the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff.

My gut feeling is that the Bearcats would have to lost out. In this scenario, I also think Michigan State would have wound up in the Fiesta Bowl facing Notre Dame had Oklahoma State converted on fourth-down-and-goal.

But as it stands now, the Spartans are headed for Atlanta and have opened as an underdog to the Panthers by just over a field goal. The historical odds suggest that the Green and White have a 40 percent chance to be celebrating in Atlanta on Dec. 30. As for the rest of the Big Ten, the six remaining bowl eligible teams will be participating in the following games:

  • Guaranteed Rate Bowl (Dec. 28): Minnesota (-6.5) versus West Virginia
  • Pinstripe Bowl (Dec. 29): Maryland (+3) versus Virginia Tech
  • Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 30): Wisconsin (-7) versus Arizona State
  • Music City Bowl (Dec. 30): Purdue (-2.5) versus Tennessee
  • Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1): Iowa (-1.5) versus Kentucky
  • Outback Bowl (Jan. 1): Penn State (-4) versus Arkansas

In the nine total bowl games, the Big Ten has opened as a favorite in six of the games. Only Michigan, Michigan State and Maryland are underdogs.

As a final note, I will say that the order of Big Ten team selection was odd this year. Penn State (7-5) getting the Outback Bowl over several 8-4 teams from the Big Ten West was very generous, and Minnesota (8-4) falling to the Guaranteed Rate Bowl behind Maryland (6-6) seems like a bit of a slight. That said, the Pinstripe Bowl likely prefers a more “East Coast” team and the Terrapins do fit that bill.

Against all odds, we have reached bowl season. I will be back to provide some advice on all 42 bowl games in due time. Until then, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Panthers!