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Against All Odds, Week Three: Storms Brewing

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Michigan State went into the eye of the Hurricane(s) this week and emerged unscathed. Are the Spartans now the storm? Let’s check the results of last week’s Bad Betting Advice and check in on the other numbers in the Big Ten and beyond.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Miami
The Spartans brought the thunder against D’Eriq King and the Miami Hurricanes this week.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Toward the end of ABC’s broadcast of the Michigan State Spartans’ impressive 38-17 road win over the then No. 24-ranked Miami (FL) Hurricanes, the cameras focused on a thunderstorm close to Hard Rock Stadium. It appeared as a roughly rectangular block of solid rain, surrounded by blue skies. Apparently, this is normal in southern Florida, but to this Michigander, it was rather surprising.

Strange things are certainly afoot in 2021. Winds of change are blowing. Based on the sheer oddness of the 2020 college football season, 2021 was bound to be unique. But, so far, it has been more surprising than I expected.

I have not been shocked by MSU’s strong start to the 2021 campaign. I have only been mildly surprised. That said, I still expected the Spartans to return from Miami with an “L.” I am a very optimistic fan by nature, but the data and the weight of history led me to the conclusion that the most likely result was a close loss.

But that did not happen.

In the fourth quarter, it was the Spartans who stood tall and put the Hurricanes away in the closing minutes. In a situation where even very good past MSU teams had faltered (on the road in challenging weather conditions against a Power Five team in September), this year’s team stood tall.

Fate whispered to the Spartan warriors, “A storm is coming.” The Spartan warriors whispered back, in unison, “No... We are the storm.”

And so it came to pass. The Spartans are 3-0. Sunshine seems to be in the forecast.

But as the Spartans celebrated their well-earned victory, the dark clouds of uncertainty swept across the Big Ten. Ohio State had its own Hurricane (of Tulsa) to deal with on Saturday. While the Buckeyes survived, there were some tense moments which left OSU looking a bit battered and windswept.

But if the Buckeyes aren’t the team to beat in the Big Ten East (and they still might be) then who is? James Franklin and Penn State? Most of the time the Nittany Lions are mostly just a low pressure system. Indiana? They are in a bit of a tropical depression. Michigan? Over the last 16 years, the Wolverines have been nothing more than hot air.

Even Rutgers and Maryland are 3-0, with wins over Power Five teams. Can we really discount them? If not, then why not Michigan State?

Yes, the winds of change do seem to be blowing, and right now, that wind is at the backs of the Spartans. Perhaps a storm is coming. We already know that “Tuck Comin’.” Is the rest of the Big Ten ready for Mel Tucker and Michigan State?

Week Three Results

As is my weekly tradition, Figure 1 below shows the results of all 52 games in Week Three that featured two FBS-level teams.

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

The teams that overachieved by comfortably beating the spread include Texas, Michigan, Washington, Minnesota, Baylor, Wyoming, Ole Miss, USC, UAB, Arkansas, Iowa State and Wake Forest. As for the teams who fell well short of the spread (but still won), Oklahoma and Clemson fit that bill. Alabama came close to this category as well. Is it possible that the “usual suspects” are all a bit overrated? The winds of change may be howling on the national scene as well.

The 13 teams that failed to cover so badly that they actually lost are shown below the red line in Figure 1 and summarized in Table 1.

Table 1: Upsets based on the opening Vegas line compared to the upset projections from last week.

My algorithm did not have a great week with upset picks. It only went 2-5, bringing the year-to-date (YTD) record to just 5-9 (36 percent). The FPI did a bit better, getting four correct picks this week out of seven to bring its YTD record to 4-8 (33 percent).

The biggest upsets of the week had spreads just into the single digits. Western Michigan’s upset of Pittsburgh (-13) was the headliner, along with several upsets by Mountain West teams. I should mention that I was also a Hail Mary away from correctly predicting an upset by Louisiana Tech over SMU.

Table 2 summarizes the results of the potential wagers highlighted in my weekly Bad Betting Advice preview.

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

This week, the computers provided the longest list of recommended bets that I can recall, and the results were very positive. My algorithm went 8-2 (80 percent) on the week, while my curated picks from the FPI data were 10-5 (67 percent). The combined strategy was 14-7 (67 percent).

Despite the strong performance with my highlighted picks, my algorithm did not do as well on the full set of games. Overall, it was 25-27 for the week (48 percent) bringing the year-to-date performance to 69-78 (47 percent). The FPI is doing a bit better so far, with a record of 28-24 (54 percent) this week and a year-to-date performance of 77-70 (52 percent).

Updated Big Ten Odds and Expected Wins

With another week of data in the books, the overall picture in the Big Ten continues to shift. Trying to project conference races this early in the year is a bit like predicting the weather.

The Big Ten results were a bit of a mixed bag. Michigan State, Penn State and Minnesota all had big wins over Power Five schools, and Iowa and Michigan both covered against MAC opponents. Even Nebraska didn’t get blown out by Oklahoma, which was a surprise. However, Ohio State looked shaky and Indiana, Purdue, and Northwestern all failed to cover and all lost winnable games against Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Duke, respectively.

Table 3 below gives an update on my computer’s projection for the Big Ten race.

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

In the Big Ten East, the Michigan Wolverines are sitting at No. 3 in my power rankings and I currently have them favored in all of their remaining games with a 44 percent chance to win the East. The expected win total is slightly over 10.0. The only comment that I will make to our friends in Ann Arbor is that I hope that they are enjoying the September weather, but I also hope that they packed an umbrella. Fall is coming soon.

Despite the Buckeyes’ struggles so far, my computer still gives Ohio State (25 percent) the second best odds in the division, followed by Penn State (19 percent) and Michigan State (seven percent). The Spartans made a big jump up in my power rankings to No. 22, despite the continued (but decreasing) negative impact of the preseason rankings.

I will also note that the weather is looking very stormy in Bloomington these days, as the computer continues to downgrade the Indiana Hoosiers. I now project the Crimson and Cream to only win two to four games, thanks in large part to the fact that the Hoosiers now grade out to have the most difficult schedule in the nation.

In the Big Ten West, the Iowa Hawkeyes (72 percent) continue to have a commanding lead in the divisional race and my computer has Iowa all the way up at No. 2 nationally. Overall, four Big Ten teams make up my current top-10, with an additional three teams in the top-25.

One of those top 25 teams is Minnesota, who made a huge jump to No. 13 with an impressive shutout win at Colorado. My math gives the Golden Gophers a 13 percent chance to win the West, which now exceeds the Wisconsin Badgers’ odds of eight percent. While I am not convinced that the Gophers are actually a top-25 caliber team, the computer has convinced me that they are a team to watch.

Table 4 below gives the updated win distribution table for the Big Ten.

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

Michigan State’s expected win total is now just under 8.0. I estimate that there is just under a 90 percent chance that MSU gets to .500. Furthermore, the odds of eight wins or more is now at 58 percent and the chance of making it to double digit wins is just over 20 percent.

A closer look at Michigan State’s remaining schedule

Figure 2 below gives my updated projections for the Las Vegas lines and win probabilities for all of the games remaining on Michigan State’s schedule, based on the most recent results of my latest 100,000 Monte Carlo simulations.

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

I now project MSU to be favored in five of the remaining games, starting with this weekend’s contest against Nebraska. This calculation has the Spartans favored by six points, which is slightly above the four-point Vegas line that I see as I type this.

The next few weekends are going to be interesting. The Spartans will need to return home and handle the expectations of being the favored team against the Cornhuskers. Michigan State will then need to take care of business against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers before a pair of sneaky East Division conference road games at Rutgers and Indiana that are close to toss-ups.

Rutgers is an interesting team. I am not sure if Scarlet Knights will bring gale-force winds or if they will just blow over. One thing that does play into MSU’s favor is that Rutgers travels to Michigan and then hosts Ohio State in back-to-back weeks prior to the Spartans coming to town. Advantage, Michigan State.

As for Indiana, the numbers currently are not kind, but I have a hard time believing that things are as bad as they may seem in Bloomington. If IU gets blown out by Penn State in two weeks to give the team its third loss of the season, the wheels just might come off. But, the Hoosiers have a bye week after that with a chance to lick their wounds prior to the contest with Michigan State. For now, I think that’s advantage, Hoosiers.

If the Spartans can maintain their current momentum, winning at least three of the next four games seems very plausible. That would put MSU at 6-1 or perhaps even 7-0 heading into a bye week prior to the Oct. 30 contest with the Wolverines.

It is also very plausible that Michigan will have a similar record and that both teams will be nationally ranked. At this rate, any residents of the state of Michigan who are not college sports fans may want to seek shelter on that particular weekend.

National Overview

Finally, let’s take a look at the weather around the rest of the nation this week. The updated conference odds can be viewed by clicking on the hyperlinks attached to each conference name.

Louisville provided a bit of sunshine for the ACC this weekend by upsetting Central Florida, but for most of the rest of the conference, the sky was cloudy. Miami and Virginia Tech both lost in games against Power Five opponents and Pittsburgh was upset by Western Michigan.

As for the divisional races, Clemson struggled to beat Georgia Tech, while Wake Forest throttled Florida State. As a result, my computer actually gives the Demon Deacons (31 percent) a slightly better chance to win the Atlantic Division than Clemson (24 percent). I don’t personally believe that, but it does raise one’s eyebrows.

Meanwhile, on the Coastal side of the conference, North Carolina beat Virginia, which gives every team in the division at least one loss. Despite their loss at West Virginia, my computer still gives Virginia Tech (39 percent) the edge over Pitt (21 percent) and North Carolina (21 percent) to win the division.

In the Big 12, the weather was rather pleasant, as both Kansas State and Oklahoma State scored upset wins, albeit over Group of Five teams in Nevada and Boise State, respectively. The only team that failed to cover in interconference play was Oklahoma.

Right now, I have Kansas State (No. 6), Iowa State (No. 10), Oklahoma (No. 14), Texas (No. 19) and Oklahoma State (No. 24) all ranked in my top-25 with K-State (55 percent) and ISU (39 percent) now with the best odds to meet for the Big 12 Championship. Kansas State is a team that I now have my eye on. The Wildcats face the two schools from Oklahoma over the next two weeks, including drawing the Sooners in Manhattan.

While the weather was calm on the Great Plains, storms continued to batter the West Coast. Arizona was upset by Northern Arizona of the FCS. Arizona State was upset by BYU, UCLA was upset by Fresno State, Utah was upset by San Diego State and Colorado couldn’t even score against Minnesota.

The only positives for the Pac-12 were a win over Vanderbilt by Stanford and the fact that Washington actually scored some points and won against Arkansas...State. The simulation now heavily favors Oregon to win the North (54 percent) and USC to win the South (45 percent) thanks in large part to a blowout win over Washington State by the Trojans.

In the SEC, Alabama wound up in a tighter game at Florida than expected, and Georgia did not cover against South Carolina, but both teams are still currently big favorites to win their respective divisions. Alabama (50 percent odds to win the West) seems to have slightly tougher competition in the form of Ole Miss (19 percent) and Texas A&M (14 percent). Georgia (87 percent) has a more comfortable lead (on paper) over Florida (seven percent) and Kentucky (three percent).

My current playoff leaderboard has Georgia (70 percent), Oregon (42 percent), Iowa (38 percent) and Alabama (35 percent) in the top four slots with Michigan, Kansas State, and Ole Miss knocking on the door as potentially interesting spoilers.

In the Group of Five, Cincinnati of the American Athletic Conference (ACC) had the best weekend by scoring a big win over Indiana. The Bearcats are sitting in a very good position to claim a spot in the New Year’s Six (NY6) bowls. I have them easily at the top of my Group of Five NY6 leaderboard with a 52 percent chance to finish the season as the highest-ranked Group of Five Champion. Following a bye this week, Cincinnati travels to Notre Dame. A win in South Bend would put the Bearcats into the conversation as a legitimate College Football Playoff candidate.

If the Bearcats were to stumble, there are a few other Group of Five teams to watch. Fresno State is my computer’s new favorite in the Mountain West after its upset win over UCLA. UTSA has the best resume in Conference USA, even if my math favors UAB in the wide open conference race.

Similarly, Coastal Carolina has the strongest resume of Sun Belt teams even though I project Appalachian State and Louisiana to have better conference title odds. Finally, the MAC is a very long shot to claim the New Year’s Six berth. Western Michigan has the best odds and is my current projected leader in the MAC West with Miami (OH) looking like the team to beat in the East.

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