When we last saw the Michigan State Spartans, it was just after morning, and the sun was out. Spartan Stadium was shaking and pretty loud. MSU’s offense was purring, and the defense hemmed Youngstown State in. There was very little wrong with the Spartans’ second win.
But there are more days to come and new places to go. Michigan State’s got to leave East Lansing; it’s time for a show. This week the Spartans head to South Florida, and the goal is to rock the Miami Hurricanes.
Are you ready, baby?
The more relevant question is: “Are the Spartans ready?”
What we have seen so far on the field from Michigan State is encouraging. I think that it is safe to say that MSU already appears to be stronger than many prognosticators thought during the offseason.
Meanwhile, things in Miami have not exactly gone to plan. The Hurricanes were ranked in the teens nationally by most outlets this summer, and were as high as No. 8 in S&P+ rankings. But, Miami was blown away by Alabama in Week One and failed to cover in Week Two versus Appalachian State.
As a result, a wind of change has blown the two programs much closer together. Miami is down to No. 24 in the AP poll, while the Spartans are around No. 30, based on the number of total votes. My power rankings have Miami currently at No. 40, while Michigan State is No. 42.
Over the summer, I projected the Hurricanes to be about a 17-point favorite over the Spartans. That line is now down to less than a touchdown. An upset by MSU would shock no one at this point.
That said, the Spartan defense has yet to face a dual-threat at the quarterback position quite like Miami’s D’Eriq King. He accounted for 279 of the Hurricanes’ 375 yards last week against Appalachian State with both his arms and his legs. With depth on Michigan State’s defensive line starting to thin, and with the MSU back-seven still a bit unproven, this is an area of concern.
While the Green and White offense has been prolific so far this year, on paper, Miami’s defense should be, by far, the toughest test yet. Over the summer, Phil Steele proclaimed that Miami should have the second best defense in the ACC behind only Clemson. That said, the Hurricanes have yet to prove that on the field.
It all adds up to an intriguing early Saturday matchup. This early in the season, almost anything is possible. If the Spartans can return from Florida with a 3-0 record, the next few weeks start to look very, very manageable. MSU would find themselves ranked and poised to race up the charts. How many more wins in a row might follow? Three? Four? Five? Dare I say seven?
Yes, a win this weekend for Michigan State might be a signal for blue skies ahead, but before that, the Spartans need to weather the storm.
Picks of the Week
As is my usual tradition, Figures 1 and 2 below give this week’s projected point spreads for each of the 52 games involving two FBS teams. Figure 1 shows the picks from my algorithm relative to the opening Vegas lines and Figure 2 shows the picks from EPSN’s FPI.
While there is still a general correlation between the Vegas lines and the computer predictions this week, there is an unusually high number of picks that either differ from Las Vegas (upset picks) or that fall outside of dashed lines and therefore make it onto my weekly list of highlight picks against the spread, which are summarized below in Table 1.
This week, the computers have an amazingly large 21 picks against the spread (ATS), which I believe is a record for my method of analysis. The highest confidence picks on the board are Arkansas (-18), Texas A&M (-25), UMASS (+21) and Kansas State (+2) all to cover. The two systems agree on three of those four, which this week in particular (with the data still rather sparse) gives me a bit more faith.
As for possible upsets, Table 2 summarizes the picks from the computers this week.
The math has 10 total upset picks for Week Three. Seven of those picks are in games where the line opened at three points or less. But, there are three picks on the board that are more eyebrow raising, including Louisiana Tech, Utah State and San Diego State all for the win. In other words, the forecast for this weekend is calling for stormy weather.
I will also note that my weekly simulation suggests that the computers are at least correct about the total number of upsets that we should see. The simulation yields a total of 10.7 upsets, plus-or-minus 2.8. It remains to be seen how many of these picks will wind up being correct.
Michigan State and Big Ten Overview
This weekend’s game in Miami presents a tremendous opportunity for head coach Mel Tucker and the Spartans. But, the fact remains that the Spartans enter the game as an underdog. At opening, the Vegas spread was +8.0 for MSU, which translates historically to just a 29 percent chance that the Spartans leave Miami Gardens with a 3-0 record.
The line moved immediately in the direction of the Spartans, however, and at the time that I am typing this, it is sitting at +6.5. Both the FPI and my computer give the Spartans even slightly better odds at +5.5 and +4.3, respectively. But, at the end of the day, these numbers still translate to a narrow loss for the Spartans, and thus, that is my prediction this week. My computer specifically says Miami 30, Michigan State 25 (without any regard as to how the teams get to those point totals).
There are not a lot of examples of non-conference, regular season road games against Power Five teams not named Notre Dame on the Spartans’ resume going all the way back to 2001. In fact, I only count four: Pittsburgh (2006), California (2008), Oregon (2014) and Arizona State (2018). MSU was only 1-3 both straight up and against the spread in those four games, and that was due to the mild upset win at Pitt.
However, if Notre Dame can be used as a relevant example (as sort-of an ACC team) the data is more favorable. The Spartans are 4-3 straight-up and 6-1 ATS at Notre Dame since the turn of the century. But there is a pretty big difference between South Beach and South Bend.
These numbers and the data for the rest of the Big Ten action are summarized below in Table 3.
The sole conference game in Week Three features Maryland (-5) at Illinois, while Rutgers faces FCS Delaware, and Wisconsin is taking the weekend off. The rest of the conference is engaged in non-conference contests of varying degree of difficulty.
Iowa (-21) and Michigan (-24) are both big favorites over MAC teams (Kent State and Northern Illinois, respectively). Former MSU and current NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi’s triumphant return to Ann Arbor is the main story line here. Ohio State (-31) is also a huge favorite over Tulsa.
On the other side of the coin, Nebraska (+23) looks likely to get blown away at Oklahoma. As for the remaining six games (including Michigan State at Miami) the spreads are all below 10 points and the action could get wild.
Penn State (-7), Minnesota (-3) and Northwestern (-2) are all narrow favorites versus Auburn, at Colorado and at Duke, respectively. However, the computers both pick Colorado to sting the Gophers, and the FPI is picking Duke over Northwestern. The Penn State versus Auburn game also feels very high-stakes. If the Nittany Lions get upset, the Big Ten East suddenly looks wide open, and Auburn just might be a contender in the SEC West.
Both Indiana (+3) and Purdue (+8) are underdogs this week versus Cincinnati and Notre Dame, respectively. The computers simply don’t know what to make of the Hoosiers so far this year and are split on which team will cover. The machines do agree that the Boilermakers will cover versus the Golden Domers, aka the Fighting Irish. Those games both look like possible toss-ups to me.
Notable National Action
As for the rest of the FBS action this week, Table 4 summarizes the remaining games that I will have my eye on.
The schedule has a nice combination of early conference battles, Power Five crossovers and several chances for some Group of Five teams to grab a headline.
The conference contests seem pretty tame, with the major exception of the huge interdivisional battle on Saturday afternoon between Alabama (-15) and Florida in The Swamp. Alabama has already humbled one team from the Sunshine State this year (Miami), and the spread suggests that Florida will be Gator Bait as well. The FPI, however, sees this game as a bit closer.
The other conference games that pique my interest include Virginia at North Carolina (-10) and USC (-10) at Washington State. Both the Tar Heels and the Trojans are off to stormy starts in 2021, but both are big favorites this week. The computers are a bit less confident and my algorithm even suggests that the UVA-UNC game is a near toss-up. An upset in Chapel Hill would put an even bigger hole in the Tar Heels’ quest for the ACC Coastal Division title.
As for Power Five crossovers, Stanford (-9) at Vanderbilt might be fun (and might also include a lecture on meteorology at halftime...NERDS!), but my eye is on Virginia Tech at West Virginia (-3). The Hokies are off to a good start after upsetting UNC in Week One, while the Mountaineers were bitten by the Terrapins that weekend. Vegas still likes WVU, but the computers both pick the road underdogs. If Virginia Tech can pick up the win, they will have a strong case as the favorite in the ACC Coastal Division.
The most interesting set of games this week seems to be in the Group of Five. In addition to the Indiana/Cincinnati contest, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) will have a chance to make some waves as UCF (-8) travels to Louisville, and Memphis (+3) hosts Mississippi State. Wins there could help both of those teams, and by proxy, the eventual AAC Champion.
In the Mountain West, Boise State (-4) hosts Oklahoma State, Fresno State (+11) visits UCLA, Nevada (-2) visits Kansas State and San Diego State (+7) hosts Utah. Right now, the Mountain West looks to be an underdog overall in the chase for the Group of Five spot in the New Years’ Six Bowls, but a few wins over Power Five teams could elevate their collective status.
Boise State and Nevada are both favored to win, but the computers both like Kansas State to handle Nevada. Perhaps to compensate, my algorithm projects that San Diego State will upset Utah.
To round out the notable action this week, BYU (+2) hosts Arizona State in a game that is up for grabs, while Coastal Carolina (-11) travels to Buffalo in what should be a fun intersectional Group of Five clash.
That is all the advice that I have for today. Until next time, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Hurricanes!