Here we are in Week Five of the 2021 Michigan State football season, sitting at 4-0 after a gritty overtime win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers last weekend. Pretty soon, it will be time to head out on a little Big Ten road trip, but before the Spartans leave town, there is one more chance to hit the drive-thru and fortify the record with a late-night Group of Five snack.
On the menu this week is the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. The Hilltoppers mascot, Big Red, is a fuzzy red guy who looks like a cross between a fast food restaurant mascot and a rejected Jim Henson Muppet project. It is unclear if he is beef or pork (but he probably tastes like chicken). I am personally looking forward to a spirited round of fisticuffs between Big Red and Sparty. I am expecting our Green and White clad hero will eat Big Red for breakfast.
As for the actual football, the Spartans will also, hopefully, make quick work of the Hilltoppers. After all, WKU is almost certainly the weakest FBS team that the Spartans will face this year. This weekend’s contest was one of the few games back in the summer that projected as a likely win. Just like hitting a fast food drive-thru, we basically know what to expect. It may not be that healthy, but it should taste reasonably good, be fairly satisfying, and hopefully not be terribly memorable.
That said, there is always the concern that the 16-year old kid making under minimum wage forgets to wash his hands. Following the Spartans’ less-than-stellar performance against Nebraska, it is possible that Michigan State fans might have to endure some indigestion on Saturday night — Western Kentucky has a potent offense in the air raid system that could be hard to handle. Hopefully it will not manifest as full-blown gastrointestinal distress.
More likely than not, though, the Spartans should be OK. By the time the student section is ready for their fourth meal, the MSU fans who placed a bet on the season “over” will have guaranteed a payout with which to super-size their wallets. A 5-0 start would feel pretty nice, and yes, I do want fries with that.
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 61 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 ESPN’s FPI.
There continues to be volatility in the predictions made by the computers. My algorithm especially has a few eyebrow raising picks, but things have settled down since last week. As for the upset picks in Week Five, those are summarized below in Table 1.
The two biggest picks on the board are my computer’s bold suggestion that Ohio State and Oklahoma will be upset by Rutgers and Kansas State, respectively. The computers also have Wisconsin, Washington and TCU on upset alert. That said, the fact that both Michigan and Texas opened the week as underdogs was the truly surprising part.
Overall, my simulation of the week’s games suggest that a total of 16.3 upsets, plus-or-3.3 upsets, will be observed, which is a large number. In other words, a lot of fan bases might be reaching for the antacid come Sunday morning.
The highlighted picks against the spread (ATS) for Week Five are shown below in Table 2.
The data from the computers when taken together results in 12 total recommended picks ATS this week. Notably, the top-five picks on the board are consensus picks between my algorithm and ESPN’s FPI, and three of those picks involve Big Ten teams: Michigan, Michigan State and Rutgers.
Michigan State and Big Ten Overview
The opening spread for Michigan State’s game this week versus Western Kentucky was very surprising. The line opened with the Spartans as only an eight-point favorite. The line is now over 10 points, but this value is still quite a bit smaller than what the computers are projecting.
Western Kentucky opened the season with a big win over Tennessee-Martin of the FCS. Then, the Hilltoppers suffered two close losses at Army and versus Indiana. The key issue is that no one is really sure how good any of those teams actually are. Army seems to be better than its preseason average ranking of No. 86 (based on my calculations), while Indiana seems to be worse than its preseason ranking of No. 23.
Similarly, Western Kentucky was not supposed to be a top-100 FBS team, but the Hilltoppers seem better than that. The Spartans also are clearly overachieving their preseason ranking of No. 74. So where does this leave things?
According to Las Vegas, the gap between the Spartans and the Hilltoppers is not that great. Based on the line, the Spartans’ odds to win straight up is just over 70 percent. In addition, the Spartans are only 2-4 (33 percent) ATS versus Conference USA teams at home since 2001, including an upset loss to Louisiana Tech in 2003.
Based on the data above, the computers are much more optimistic about MSU’s chances. In fact both computer systems suggest that the Spartans will cover easily. The FPI suggests a margin of 18 points, while my algorithm projects closer to a 23-point victory for MSU. That corresponds to a highly palatable final (rounded) score of around Michigan State 42, Western Kentucky 20.
As the saying goes: “Vegas knows.” But in this case I am forced to wonder if “the computers know” just a little more. We will all find out on Saturday night.
The full details of the action in the rest of the Big Ten is summarized below in Table 3.
Illinois joins Michigan State as the only other conference team to be playing a non-conference opponent this week. The Illini are favored by 10 points over Charlotte and both computers like Illinois to cover. The other six conference games all may impact the two division races.
In the East, Indiana (+9) travels to State College to face Penn State, while Ohio State (-17) makes the giant trek to New Jersey to face Rutgers. The Hoosier desperately need to win to right their ship, but the computers both pick the Nittany Lions to cover. In contrast, both computers expect Rutgers to give Ohio State all that it can handle, and my algorithm predicts an upset by the Scarlet Knights.
In the Big Ten West, Minnesota is still licking its wounds after last week’s huge upset loss to Bowling Green. The Gophers (+3) travel to West Lafayette to face Purdue this week, and the winner might be the biggest threat to Iowa in the Division race. The computer favor the Boilermakers.
In addition, Northwestern (+8) will face Nebraska in Lincoln this week. The computers both favor the Cornhuskers bouncing back and covering.
In interdivision play this week, Iowa (-3) visits Maryland. This spread is also much tighter than I would expect, but both teams are undefeated so far and the computers are split as to which team will cover.
That only leaves the marquee conference game of the week: Michigan (+4) at Wisconsin. If I consider the disaster that was the Badgers’ trip to Chicago to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last week, it is really hard to imagine why Wisconsin opened this game as the favorite. The computers sure do not understand it, as they both project a big win for the Wolverines.
Notable National Action
Finally, let’s grab a quick bite of the rest of the national action. Table 4 below gives the details for the games that I will have my eye on this weekend.
So far, the ACC has not gone as planned, and therefore there are several teams called something other than Clemson with a legitimate shot to win the conference. I have my eye on two key matchups in the Coastal Division: Pittsburgh (-3) at Georgia Tech and Virginia (+5) at Miami (FL). The two winners will look to challenge Virginia Tech (who has the week off) for the division crown.
In the ACC Atlantic Division, Wake Forest (-7) hosts Louisville with a chance to move to 5-0 and maintain their place at the top of my ACC leaderboard.
The Big 12 is also wide open right now, but a series of conference games will help sort out the standing this week. Baylor (+5) is a surprisingly narrow underdog at Oklahoma State, while Kansas State (+12) is a rather large home-dog to Oklahoma. The computers are split as to which teams will cover. Texas also opened a just a one-point favorite at TCU. The computers both find this spread to be far too small.
In Pac-12 play, the top-four teams in the North Division pair off this weekend as Oregon (-8) travels to Stanford and Washington (-4) heads to Oregon State. In the South, the top two contenders square off as Arizona State (+3.5) will challenge UCLA at the Rose Bowl. The computers like UCLA to cover, but are split on the contests up north.
In the SEC, that action is hot and ready now as almost every game has some potential impact on the division and conference races. Georgia (-18) and Alabama (-17.5) are both large favorites at home versus Arkansas and Ole Miss respectively. The favorites are likely to survive, but both challengers have looked good so far this season and could make some noise.
Elsewhere in the SEC West, Auburn (+4) will go to LSU and Mississippi State (+8) heads to Texas A&M. The most likely challenger to Alabama will probably emerge this weekend. In the SEC East, the most likely challenger to Georgia is either Florida or Kentucky (+8) who will be playing each other in Lexington.
In Group of Five action, the big game this week features Cincinnati (+1) at Notre Dame. A mild upset by the Bearcats would virtually seal a bid for them in a New Year’s Six bowl and would put them into the conversation as a College Football Playoff Contender.
In other notable Group of Five games, Liberty (+2) visits current Conference USA favorite UAB, and Nevada (+5) travels to Boise State in a key Mountain West contest. In MACtion, Eastern Michigan (+2) and Western Michigan (-5) both will try to protect their 3-1 records on the road at Northern Michigan and Buffalo, respectively.
As a final note, we are now at the point in the season where I need to decide when to completely remove the influence of the preseason rankings from my analysis. I ran the numbers both ways this week, and the “unbiased” predictions gave me a touch of heartburn.
The correlation to the Vegas lines was poor and there was also a slew of new upset predictions in the Pac-12 and SEC especially. This calculation put Oregon, Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M all on upset alert.
While I decided to pin the math to the preseason number for one more week, sometimes these unbiased numbers can be a sort of canary in the coal mine for big upsets that the experts don’t see coming. If a couple of those big name teams go down this weekend, just remember that you heard it here first.
That is all the advice that I have to give this week. Until next time, Go State, beat the Hilltoppers!