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Against All Odds, Week Two: (un)frozen

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It is still early, but all the signs point to a thawing of Michigan State’s offense after the big win over Youngstown State. Let’s review the Spartans’ performance as well as the rest of the week’s action. This week’s betting advice was a bit chilly.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal
The Penguins never bothered the Spartans in any way.
Nick King/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Once upon a time, the Michigan State Spartans’ offense seemed dormant, perhaps even frozen. In the final few years of the Mark Dantonio era, the yards and points seemed harder and harder to come by, and with that, the win total also decreased. The MSU offense was a bit of a fixer-upper, and after the shortened season of 2020 it was unclear if things were improving. It seemed as though program was headed into the unknown and was potentially lost in the woods.

In the summer of 2021, there were signs that the situation might be improving. The staff dipped into the transfer portal for running backs, an offensive lineman and a quarterback. A few players (such as Matt Allen) who had struggled with injuries appeared to be healthy for the first time in forever. There were signs that a rejuvenated Spartan offense just might show itself come fall.

In the first game of the season, it was pretty clear that things were headed in the right direction. The Spartans put up 38 points and over 500 yards, against a Big Ten opponent in Northwestern, no less. But, over half of those yards and all but one touchdown came from one player: Kenneth Walker III. As in any first installment, it is necessary to see the sequel before we can really pass judgment.

That sequel presented itself this weekend as the Penguins of Youngstown State came to East Lansing for the Spartans’ home opener. Although the Penguins are just a FCS program, it seems clear that the MSU offense is thawing nicely and that the Spartans are not just a one-trick reindeer.

The Green and White once again scored on the first play from scrimmage, just like against Northwestern, but this time on a flea-flicker pass From Payton Thorne to Jayden Reed for 75 yards. Unlike in Week One, there were multiple Spartans who shared in the offensive onslaught.

Last week’s hero, Walker, only carried the ball seven times for 57 yards and a single touchdown. Meanwhile, Jordon Simmons led the Spartan rushing attack with 121 yards on 16 carries. Elijah Collin and true freshman Donovan Eaglin also chipped in 32 yards and 33 yards, respectively, of the total 272 yards on the ground.

Through the air, Jayden Reed led all players with 181 total yards and two score. That said, 11 other Spartans also recorded at least one catch. Payton Thorne generally was sharper and more accurate than in Week One.

While the Spartans cruised to victory, MSU is still far from a perfect or complete team. One could certainly argue that the offense still left some points on the field and that the defense perhaps could have kept a better lid on the YSU offense. I am also a bit concerned about the apparent growing number of injuries, especially on the defensive line.

Nonetheless, the Spartans are heating up, just in time for the level of competition to increase as well. If MSU wants a chance to knock off a ranked Miami (FL.) team on the road next week, they are going to need to continue to improve, and continue to do the next right thing every day in practice. Some things never change.

Week Two Results

As is my weekly tradition, Figure 1 below shows the results of all 45 games in Week Two that featured two FBS level teams.

Figure 1: Results of Week Two showing the actual point differential relative to the opening spread.

As we can see the major overachievers of the week included Houston, Florida Atlantic, North Carolina, Georgia, Purdue, Michigan, Temple and Virginia. As for the teams that failed badly to cover, yet still won, that includes Boston College, Notre Dame, Minnesota and Texas A&M.

As for the upsets of the week, those are the games that fall under the red horizontal line. Table 2 below summarizes the upsets for the week in comparison to the computers’ predictions.

Table 1: Summary of the upsets in Week Two

Week Two only resulted in a total of seven upsets, relative to the opening Las Vegas lines, which is on the low side of what was expected for the week. The two biggest upsets both involved Pac-12 teams, as Stanford upset USC in Pac-12 after dark action and Oregon put Ohio State on ice in Columbus.

But, the computers only managed to get one of the total six upset picks correct: Iowa over Iowa State. My algorithm went 1-2 for upset picks this week, but is still over 40 percent for the year. The poor FPI is still waiting for its first correct upset pick of the year.

If I thought that the upset picks had a rough week, as Table 2 shows, the highlighted picks against the spread (ATS) were even worse.

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

My algorithm only went 1-3 on the first ATS picks that my computer has made all year. The FPI did slightly better, going 5-6 for the week. The combined system is now 9-9 overall, right at 50 percent.

Overall, my algorithm was a chilly 18-27 for the week (40 percent), while the FPI was 24-21 (53 percent). For the year, my algorithm stands at 44-51 (46 percent) while the FPI is doing a little better at 49-46 (52 percent).

While my computer’s performance for the week certainly leaves me feeling a bit cold, I suppose that I will just have to let it go and hope that it does better next week.

Updated Big Ten Odds and Expected Wins

With only two weeks now in the books, the Big Ten race continues to be in flux. Table 3 below give the updated rankings, expected wins, strengths of schedule, and season odds for the conference, based on my most recent full-season simulation. It was a strong weekend in the B1G as only Ohio State and Illinois dropped games and only Minnesota and Wisconsin failed to cover the opening spread of the teams that did win.

Table 3: Updated Big Ten rankings, expected wins, strengths of schedule and season odds.

In the Big Ten East, with the Buckeyes’ loss this week to the Ducks, OSU has dropped to having only the third best division odds behind Penn State (43 percent) and Michigan (23 percent). Both the Nittany Lions and the Wolverines are now ranked in my top-10 with projected records of 11-1. Um...OK, computer.

Rutgers also shot up the charts this week. My computer now has the Scarlet Knights ranked in the top-20 with almost a 10 percent chance to win the Big Ten East, and favored in eight of their remaining games. As for Michigan State, the Spartans essentially were frozen in place at No. 42 in my power rankings, which makes sense as I do not track the results of games versus FCS opponents. But, the Spartans’ expected win total decreased to 6.34 based entirely on an uptick in MSU’s strength of schedule.

In the West, the Hawkeyes’ big win over the Cyclones on Saturday firmly establishes Iowa as the current favorite in the division with 76 percent odds to return to Indianapolis. That said, Iowa will still likely need to beat Wisconsin in Madison at the end of October. The other big mover in the West was Minnesota, as the close game versus Miami-Ohio caused the Gophers’ ranking to slide down by over 30 slots in my power rankings.

Table 4 below summarizes the updated win distribution matrix for the Big Ten.

Table 4: Updated Big Ten win distribution matrix after Week Two

As of now, I give the Spartans a 64 percent chance to get at least to .500, a 46 percent chance to get to at least seven wins, a 29 percent shot at at least an 8-4 record, a 16 percent chance at nine wins or more, and a seven percent chance to reach the double-digit-victory mark.

I will also note that I currently project Iowa to have a better than one-in-four chance to run the table in the regular season, and Penn State to have a little better than a 10 percent chance to do the same. Note that those two teams play each other in Iowa City on Oct. 9.

A closer look at MSU’s remaining schedule

Figure 2 below give my updated projections for the Vegas lines and win probabilities for all of the games remaining on Michigan State’s schedule.

Figure 2: Updates projections for the Vegas line and win probabilities for MSU’s remaining schedule

In general, my computer has cooled on Michigan State’s prospects a bit since last week, but this is mostly a reflection of the volatility of the data this early in the season as the algorithm “figures out” how good MSU and all of these opponents really are.

Several of Michigan State’s opponents (Rutgers, Michigan and Purdue specifically) all had solid weekends and therefore several games that were projected as toss-ups last week now look like MSU might be a touchdown or so underdog. These lines will continue to move.

The Spartans still project as a favorite against Nebraska, Western Kentucky and Maryland, and a long shot versus Ohio State and Penn State. The game at Indiana is still looks like a toss-up right now.

But, next week’s game at Miami all of a sudden looks a bit more winnable, as the Hurricanes only beat Appalachian State by two points and my computer has Michgan State as only a 3.5-point underdog in next week’s game. The actual Vegas line opened at around seven points. Either way, the game now seems winnable if the Spartans can bring their A-game.

National Overview

Finally, let’s take a quick look at the key action in the rest of the country this week. As I mentioned in my Bad Betting Advice preview, it was a bit of a quiet week on that front.

In the ACC, the biggest result was North Carolina State’s 14-point loss at Ole Miss. As a result, my algorithm has gotten over last week’s brain freeze and now agrees with the rest of the world that Clemson is the best team and favorite in the Atlantic Division. In the Coastal Division, the computer sees a near dead heat between the three undefeated teams: Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Virginia.

Also, it seems clear that ACC-lite Notre Dame is a very overrated. The Fighting Irish dropped to No. 27 in my power rankings due to their narrow win over Toledo. In reality, the situation is actually worse, as my computer does even know that Notre Dame’s Week One opponent (Florida State) dropped a game this week to Jacksonville State from the FCS.

The Big 12 had a rough week, as Kansas lost to a Sun Belt team (Coastal Carolina) and Texas and Iowa State were both upset. In addition, TCU and Oklahoma State both won their games versus California and Tulsa, respectively, but neither team covered. In the final analysis Oklahoma still projects as the team to beat, but an interesting dark horse has emerged in Kansas State. The Wildcats beat Southern Illinois this past weekend and handled Stanford easily in Week One, and then the Cardinal went out and upset the USC Trojans this week. That caused KSU to shoot up to No. 8 in my current power rankings with the second best conference odds in the Big 12.

In the Pac-12, the big news, of course, was Oregon’s upset win at Ohio State, which clearly solidifies the Ducks position as the favorite in the North Division. No other team in the division in currently ranked in my top-50. In the South, Stanford’s upset win over USC has elevated UCLA and Arizona State to the position of the teams to beat in that division.

In the SEC, things are basically status quo. Georgia is the clear leader in the East. Kentucky’s win over Missouri keeps the Wildcats in the race along with Florida, but the Bulldogs are still big favorites. In the West, Alabama was able to put a bit of distance between themselves and the rest of the division, thanks in large part to Texas A&M’s less-than-impressive win over Colorado. But, all seven West teams are ranked in my top-35, so there is still the potential for some bumps in the road as the season progresses.

In the Group of Five, most of the key contenders for conference and the New Year’s Six race beat FCS opponents. Cincinnati still leads the pack in my simulation (32 percent odds to secure the NY6 slot) with Coastal Carolina (15 percent) and UCF (11 percent) within striking distance.

That is all for today. Until next time, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Hurricanes!