The calendar has turned to late September and as of today, Sept. 22, fall is officially here. In Michigan the temperature has started to dip and the leaves have started to turn. Signs for apple picking have sprung up and the tables at the local farm stands and farmers have begun to fill up with the bounty that is so indicative of the Midwest in the fall: potatoes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins and so much more. Harvest season is upon us.
This week, corn is on the menu for the Michigan State Spartans and hopes are high that it will be the sweet variety. The Nebraska Cornhuskers are coming to town and MSU is hoping to enjoy a nice early season meal. Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker put the pot onto the stove over the spring and summer. The water has been simmering for a couple of weeks, and last Saturday in Miami, it seems to have reached a rolling boil. All of a sudden, the Spartans are one of the hottest teams in the country and they still look hungry.
For the first time this season, MSU will be favored to win against a Power Five team. The local and national media have even started to butter the Spartans up a bit. For the first time in the Mel Tucker era, his team needs to handle the burden of expectation. It will be a new challenge, but certainly a welcome one. The Spartans will need to show that they have the onions to handle it.
So far, the 2021 season has gone far better than expected. By some measure, a win over Nebraska would already give Michigan State as many wins as some people (and computers...such as mine...) were predicting back in August. But expectations have now changed.
As I look over the schedule for the coming weeks, there is a tremendous opportunity to stockpile wins before the temperature dips further and the bite of winter enters the air. The back-end of the schedule still looks challenging, so it will be important to make as much hay as possible while the sun is still shinning. In other words, if the Spartans eat their vegetables, there should be a nice dessert waiting at the end of the season in the form of a bowl game in a place a bit warmer than New York City.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. The mission for the week is clear and simple. MSU needs to “beet” Nebraska. I believe that Michigan State is the better team, and it needs to play like it. If the Spartans can take care of business on Saturday night, by early Sunday morning the Cornhuskers may start to make plans about what to do after the Frost.
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 58 games involving two FBS teams. Figure 1 shows the picks from my algorithm relative to the opening Las Vegas lines and Figure 2 shows the picks from ESPN’s FPI.
Similar to last week, there is still significant deviation between the picks from the computers and the Vegas spreads. As such, there are several games where the computers are sounding an upset alert (symbols to the left of the red vertical line) and where a promising pick against the spread (ATS) is apparent (symbols outside of the dashed lines).
Table 1 below summarizes the upset picks from the computers this week, based on Figures 1 and 2.
My algorithm is feeling particularly frisky on the upset front this week. I have a total of nine upset picks on the board this week, three of which the FPI also picked. The most notable upset pick is for the North Carolina State Wolfpack to squash Clemson. I also have Kansas State, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Stanford all winning in upset fashion.
A simulation of the week’s action suggests that a total of 12.5 upsets, plus-or-minus 2.9 games, are likely. This is the largest number of upsets projected so far this year, so it could be a wild week.
As for picks against the spread, Table 2 summarizes that data for the upcoming weekend.
In this case, it is the FPI that is signaling a large number of picks this week. Based on my methodology, the FPI data suggests a total of 17 games where a pick against the spread appears prudent. My algorithm chips in an additional six unique picks resulting in a total of 23 suggested picks against the opening spreads as shown above.
Note that historically, my method to pick games against the opening spread is correct roughly 55 percent of time and almost 60 percent of the time year-to-date.
Michigan State and Big Ten Overview
So far this year my computer (and by extension, I) have been a little bit of a Negative Nancy. I picked Michigan State to lose to both Northwestern and Miami. I am very glad to have been so very wrong.
This week, it seems that my algorithm has finally caught up with the rest of the Big Ten and nation to realize that the Spartans are pretty good. Moreover, I think that both the humans and the machines are in agreement that Nebraska is perhaps...not so good.
Sure, Nebraska played Oklahoma close last week. In fact, the Huskers almost played the Sooners as close as Tulane did, and the Green Wave are one of the top-eight teams in the entire American Athletic Conference. Furthermore, Nebraska beat Buffalo way worse than Coastal Carolina did. Yup.
As it stands now, my power rankings have Michigan State at No. 22 and Nebraska at No. 41. The spread opened with MSU only as a three-point favorite, which translates to a 58 percent chance that the Spartans will win. The spread moved in MSU’s direction over the past few days to somewhere between -4.5 and -5.5 points.
My computer (after just a little rounding) spits out a projection of Michigan State 28, Nebraska 21 for this week’s game, which suggests that the Green and White will cover the spread. I think that looks about right, and I would not be “shocked” if the Spartans were to win by double digits.
That said, the Spartans are only 2-4 straight-up and only 1-5 against the spread versus Nebraska since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. MSU only covered in the big win in Lincoln during the Rose Bowl season of 2013. It seems like the time is ripe to reserve those trends.
The overall action in the Big Ten this week is summarized below in Table 3.
Other than the Michigan State/Nebraska game, the headliner in the Great Lakes region is Wisconsin’s (-3) tussle with Notre Dame in Chicago. Both teams have looked shaky in limited action so far this year, but the Fighting Irish have looked worse than the Badgers. I am surprised the point spread is as tight as it is. If the Badgers can’t get the win, if nothing else, I am not sure any other team will catch Iowa in the Big Ten West. Perhaps the loser also gets to keep current Notre Dame (and former Wisconsin) quarterback Jack Coan.
Four other Big Ten teams play conference games this week as Michigan (-19) hosts Rutgers and Purdue (-10) hosts Illinois. Neither Purdue nor Illinois is likely to be a player in the Big Ten West race, but the loser is almost certainly out. Meanwhile, the Michigan Wolverines are off to a strong start in 2021 and their mouths are starting to water at the thought of a potential Big Ten East title.
While Rutgers is not expected to be much of a road block, my gut tells me that the Scarlet Knights may give Michigan a stiffer test than they are expecting. Even so, the Maize and Blue will likely still emerge 4-0 and spend yet another week writing letters to the Great Pumpkin, asking when their tickets to Indy will arrive.
The only other Big Ten game of note is Indiana (-9) at Western Kentucky — both of those schools also happen to be two of Michigan State’s next three opponents. The Hoosiers are sitting at 1-2 after playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation so far and could really use a win. The computers both like WKU to cover.
As for the rest of the conference, Maryland, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State are all double-digit favorites over MAC teams. Iowa (-22) is a big favorite over Colorado State, while Penn State will face FCS foe Villanova.
Notable National Action
The rest of the action this week is somewhat slim pickings, but I did find a few juicy matchups hidden in the leaves here and there. The games that I plan to keep an eye on this weekend are shown below in Table 4.
One of the most interesting conference races right now, believe it or not, is the chase for the ACC Atlantic Division. The obvious choice for the crown is Clemson. However, the Tigers have also underachieved a bit this year and at least my computer feels that the division race is still wide open. Clemson (-12) travels to NC State this week and my algorithm likes the Wolfpack in an upset.
The other team from the Atlantic Division to watch is Wake Forest, as the Demon Deacons travel to Virginia (-4) this week. Wake Forest actually has the highest power ranking and best division odds of all of the Atlantic teams, based on my calculations. If the Demon Deacons are able to upset Virginia on the road, the nation may need to take notice.
There are lots of delicious options on the table in the wide-open Big 12 this week as conference play starts in earnest. My algorithm has been the most impressed with Kansas State so far, and the Wildcats will get a fierce test this weekend at Oklahoma State (-9). If K-State can pull the upset, then it will be really cooking.
Iowa State (-7) travels to Baylor in a game that seems like it should not be as close as the spread suggests. Conversely, Oklahoma (-19.5) is hosting West Virginia in a game that seems likely to be closer than Vegas may think. Texas (-13) hosts Texas Tech and the Longhorns are always in danger of choking on something.
Things are a bit more quiet on the West Coast, as the two presumed division leaders (Oregon and USC) in the Pac-12 are both rather large favorites over Arizona (+27) and Oregon State (+13), respectively. This leaves UCLA (-4) at Stanford as the most interesting Pac-12 game on the board in a battle of potential division dark horses.
The situation in the SEC is similar. The two presumed division favorites, Georgia and Alabama, are enormous favorites over Vanderbilt (+31) and Southern Miss (+46), respectively. But, some of the potential spoilers have interesting matchups this week. I am specifically curious about how Texas A&M (-5) will look against Arkansas in Dallas and if Kentucky (-6) can survive a road trip to South Carolina.
In notable Group of Five action, most of the teams at the top of my New Year’s Six Leaderboard are not expected to be in competitive games this week as Fresno State (-30), Coastal Carolina (-36) and Wyoming (-29) are all huge favorites over UNLV, UMASS, and UCONN, respectively, while Cincinnati and UCF are both on a bye week.
There are a few intriguing Group of Five interconference matchups, however, as Memphis hosts UTSA (+5), Western Michigan (pick ‘em) hosts San Jose State and Appalachian State (-5.5) hosts Marshall.
That is all the advice that I have to give this week. Until next time, Go State, beat the Huskers!