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Against All Odds, Week One: A New Hope

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In Week One, a hero rose, and as a result, the Michigan State Spartans’ performance was out of this world.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Michigan State at Northwestern
Kenneth (Sky) Walker the third. Jedi Knight?
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A long time ago, in a world that sometimes seems far, far away, the Michigan State Spartans used to be able to run the football. Some of the names are legends among the Spartan faithful: Le’Veon Bell, Jeremy Langford, Javon Ringer, Lorenzo White and many more. In past years, these runners used to cut through defenses like a light saber through the arm of some ruffian at the Mos Eisley Cantina.

However, recently, turmoil has engulfed the Spartan running game, and with it, the MSU offense and team. In 2020, as the remnants of the previous coaching staff have been mostly swept away, the MSU running game seemed to reach a new low. It was a dark time for the Spartan republic.

But Master Mel Tucker (a former Padawan under Master Alvarez of the cheese planet and Master Saban of some hot, swampy planet) had a plan. In the offseason, Tucker kept his on eye on distance worlds. He plucked a scrappy young back from a place in the ACC outer rim territories that is such a backwater that it makes the traffic in East Lansing look bad. Over the summer, Master Tucker began to teach his new student the ways of the Spartan Dawgs.

Prior to the first kickoff in Evanston, Illinois on Friday night, Master Tucker deployed a series of Jedi mind tricks on Grand Moff Fitzgerald. The depth chart for the Spartans only appeared as a blank page. (“These aren’t the starters you’re looking for...”)

But once the game started, it was clear that a new hero had arrived for the Spartans. He received the ball from Admiral Payton Thorne and immediately dashed around the line all the way into the end zone. He looked at fast as the Millennium Falcon during the Kessel Run.

The hero’s name? Kenneth Walker III. All night long he appeared to be walking on the sky. For the Spartan offense and running game, a New Hope seems to have arrived. Even his name evokes the word “trilogy.”

By the end of evening, young (sky) Walker had rushed for 264 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries. These feats were so impressive that no Spartan had achieved 200 yards in a game since Bell in 2012 and no Spartan had rushed for four touchdowns since Edwin Baker in 2010. For the soft-spoken Walker, it seemed no more impossible than bullseying womp rats in his T-16 back home.

When the clock hit zero on Friday night, Michigan State had earned its first victory for the 2021 campaign. Now, Michigan State fans are left with the anticipation for the sequel in this epic adventure. Can the Spartans build on the current momentum and look to return to their former glory in the Big Ten galaxy?

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done and more battles to fight. Those stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herders from Ann Abor claim that they have built another Death Star. But, history shows that never works out too well for them. The Wolverines’ talk in September is typically no more accurate than the aim of your average stormtrooper cadet.

As for the Spartans, while it is perhaps too early to break out the medals and hold a celebration ceremony, things certainly are looking up. Only time will tell, but for now, it looks like we might have a bona fide franchise brewing.

Week One Results

In my Bad Betting Advice preview of Week One, I presented the picks of my football algorithm as well as the picks from EPSN’s FPI metric as compared to the opening Vegas spread. Now, it is time to check our work, starting with a visual summary of the results of the week, which plots the actual final point differential of each game as a function of the opening Vegas line.

Figure 1: Recap of the action from Week 1 comparing the actual game results to the Vegas line (only including games where both teams are FBS)

In this case, the solid diagonal line represents a push where the final result exactly agreed with the opening Vegas line. The dashed line represents the historical standard deviation of the difference between the spread and the actual results: about 14 points.

For my money, this is perhaps the most interesting single piece of analytical data in all of college football. The Vegas spread, on average, is correct, plus or minus two touchdowns. About a third of all college games in a given week will fall outside of these dashed lines.

Favored teams that win by more than 14 points over the spread I usually label as the key overachievers of the week. In Week One, that included Rutgers, Marshall, NC State, Michigan, Iowa, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Texas Tech.

On the other side of the coin are the favored teams who still won, yet whose margin of victory was at least 14 points under the spread. This is hard to do, as in most cases this simply results in an upset, but Oklahoma and Mississippi State both pulled off that dubious feat in Week One.

In total, there were 12 upsets in the games involving two FBS teams this past week. These games are all shown below the vertical red line. Based on my simulation of the week’s action, this was just on the high end of what was expected.

But, there were also a shocking five upsets of FBS teams by FCS teams, as Tulsa, Colorado State, Vanderbilt, Washington and UNLV all dropped games to FCS opponents. The FBS-only upsets are summarized below in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary of the upset from Week One involving two FBS teams

Of these 12 upsets, 10 of them were in games with points spreads below seven points. But, Northern Illinois’ upset of Georgia Tech (-18) and Utah State’s upset of Washington State (-16.5) were a bit bigger. Upsets of this magnitude are not that rare, however. A typical year will see seven to 10 upsets with spreads that large or larger.

In the Bad Betting Advice preview, I made four total upset picks, two of which came to pass (UCLA over LSU and Nevada over Cal). Ironically, it was the two upsets that my metric and the FPI agreed upon that did not happen.

As for my highlighted bets against the spread (ATS), those results are summarized below in Table 2.

Table 2: Results of my suggested bets from Week One

While the FPI did miss out on the highest confidence picks on the board (Miami covering against Alabama... oops) the other three picks were correct, giving the combined metrics (so far just the FPI) a record of 3-1 on the week.

Technically, the FPI also nailed a pick in Week Zero of UCLA covering against Hawaii, so it will officially go into the record books as 4-1 so far. Hey, that’s not bad at all!

Overall, my algorithm was 24-22 ATS (52.2 percent) for the week, just edging out the FPI at 23-23 (50.0 percent).

Updated Big Ten Odds and Expected Wins

For two months now, we have only had the combined knowledge of the college football prognosticators available with which to make any predictions as to how the season might pan out. Now, each FBS team has played at least one game. We have a lot more data to work with, but we still don’t know very much.

On balance, the Big Ten had a pretty good weekend. Maryland scored an upset win over West Virginia. Purdue, Rutgers and Michigan all avoided upsets and all beat the spread, and Nebraska managed not to choke on their cupcake. Illinois was the only real embarrassment in Week One, as the Illini had an acme anvil dropped on them by the UTSA Roadrunners.

In conference play, Penn State and Michigan State both pulled minor upsets, while Iowa had an impressive win over Indiana, and the Buckeye merely pushed the spread versus the Gophers. The updated Big Ten odds and win matrix are shown below in Figures 2 and 3.

Table 3: Updated Big Ten odds after Week One. The change in rankings and odds from the preseason are shown in parentheses. The strength of schedule numbers are noted with the updated national ranking in parentheses.

In this table, the changes in the rankings and odds since the preseason are shown in parentheses. For the strength of schedule calculations, the number in parentheses is the current national rank.

Table 4: Updated Big Ten win distribution table after the results of Week One

With so little data still available, it is foolish to try to read too much into this. That said, Michigan State’s expected win total is now right at seven total wins, which is a big improvement over the 4.5 wins that Las Vegas (and my math) projected just a few weeks ago.

Based on the updated numbers in Table 4, the Spartans now have about a 40 percent change to get to at least 8-4, a 24 percent chance to reach 9-3, and an 11 percent change to win 10 games or more.

I would certainly say that the Spartans looked like a bowl team on Friday night against the Wildcats. The math, for now, seems to agree. We’ll see.

The Spartans are also now projecting to have about a 1-in-20 chance to actually win the Big Ten East, which is a significant improvement over the roughly 1-in-100 odds just a week ago. The odds also are now the fourth best in the division. It is also notable that, for now, Iowa is the new projected leader in the race for the Big Ten West.

A closer look at Michigan State’s remaining schedule

In my Bad Betting Advice preview for the week, my computer not only predicted that Michigan State would lose the opener, it predicted that Northwestern would cover the spread rather easily.

Let’s just say that I find my computer’s lack of faith disturbing. After a good force-choking, it has agreed to check the math again in regards to the Spartans’ prospects for the remainder of the season. Figure 2 below shows the updated projected point spreads and win probabilities based on the results of the updated full season simulation.

Figure 2: Updated odds and spread projections for Michigan State’s remaining games, following Week One and based on a 50,000 cycle Monte Carlo simulation

These numbers has certainly changed significantly since the summer. I now have the Spartans favored in five of the remaining games, and as only a narrow underdog at Rutgers, at Purdue and versus Michigan. Even the game at Miami (FL) in two weeks now projects to have a spread just under a touchdown. As stated above, the expected win total is now solidly at 7.01.

Basically, three of MSU’s remaining games now look very winnable, two are still long shots, and the remaining six are in various stages of being tossups. Winning half of the tossups would get the Spartans to 7-5. Over the next few weeks, we will get a much better feel for how good MSU (and all of MSU’s opponents) actually are. For now, the math gives me hope.

National Overview

Let’s now take a quick tour around the rest of the FBS Galaxy.

On balance, it was a rough week in the ACC. Not only did both Clemson and Miami lose and fail to cover in their marquee matchups against Georgia and Alabama, respectively, Duke and Georgia Tech suffered embarrassing upset losses, and the presumed Coastal Division favorite, North Carolina was upset by Virginia Tech. Right now, my computer actually projects North Carolina State to face the Hokies in the ACC Championship Game. Huh.

It was not exactly a great weekend for the Big 12 either. West Virginia was upset by Maryland, Oklahoma barely scrapped by against Tulane, and Iowa State, Kansas and Oklahoma State all had near misses against FCS schools. The only real positive was that Kansas State, Texas and Texas Tech all covered and managed to avoid upsets, which I was not betting on in my preview. As a result, the Big 12 race all of a sudden looks more wide open.

The Pac-12 was even worse. The teams out west went 3-5 versus FBS opponents and Washington even managed to lose to an FCS team (Montana). Oregon was the only team from the North Division to win a game, and the Ducks struggled to beat Fresno State. The only real bright side was UCLA’s win over LSU and USC’s clubbing of San Jose State.

Down South, the SEC fared a bit better. Clearly, Alabama and Georgia had good weekends, as did the Aggies of Texas A&M. Right now, those look like the teams to beat (along with Florida) for the SEC crown. That said, Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky all had good weekends and covered easily, while Mississippi State and Missouri struggled a bit. But, at least they didn’t lose like LSU and Vanderbilt did.

Finally, in Group of Five action, it was a good weekend overall for the underdogs. As Table 1 shows, several teams from the MAC (Northern Illinois), Mountain West (Nevada and Utah State), and Conference USA (UTSA and Charlotte) pulled big upsets while several other teams gave their Power Five opponents a reasonable scare (such as Louisiana Tech, Central Michigan and Fresno State).

The Sunbelt was not as fortunate, as the most notable result was Georgia State getting both upset and blown out by Army.

By some measure, it was the American Athletic Conference that likely had the best outcome, despite the fact the AAC teams went only 4-7 for the weekend with only two of those wins coming against FBS teams. The two other wins were a blown-out victory by Cincinnati over Miami (OH) and a big win by UCF over Boise State. These two teams might just be on a collision course for the AAC Championship Game and a possible New Year’s Six Bowl bid.

That is all for this week. Until next time may the “Go Green, Go White” be with you. Always.