Depending on your point of view, this is either one of the best or one of the worst weeks on the sports calendar. It’s rivalry week. Fans of both the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines have been talking for roughly 51 weeks about how the 2022 football contest might play out. As September has turned into late October, the trash talking has only intensified. This Saturday, the two teams will once again play for the Paul Bunyan Trophy on the gridiron in Ann Arbor.
Six weeks ago, this looked like a very competitive game on paper, but the season has gone a bit upside-down in East Lansing. Injuries, a lack of development in a few key areas and perhaps a little bit of bad luck have plagued the Spartans all year. At times, the Spartans have looked more like a rag-tag group of kids from the Hellfire Club than Division I athletes. As a result, Michigan State comes into the contest as a huge underdog.
Naturally, the Wolverines are acting like it’s the 1980s or something and that victory is virtually guaranteed. This attitude is somewhat of a never-ending story with that fan base. But I have news for our friend in Maize and Blue that may sound a bit paranormal. Michigan State absolutely can win on Saturday. After all, stranger things have happened.
One only needs to look at the recent history of the rivalry to understand why. The Spartans have five upset wins over the Wolverines since 2010 and have won five of the last seven games in Ann Arbor. Most recently, Michigan State beat the Wolverines in the “Big House” in 2020 despite entering the game as a 23-point underdog. A win on Saturday would make it eleven of 15 games for the Spartans since 2008.
If nothing else, imagine the scenario where Michigan State does find a way to beat Michigan. Coach Mel Tucker would be 3-0 against the Wolverines and Jim Harbaugh. All of a sudden Michigan’s season would be the one turned upside down. The minds of Wolverine fans, coaches and players would be flayed. They would all likely feel as if they were suddenly launched into some other-worldly dimension of pain... just in time for Halloween.
It would be glorious.
That said, based on what we know about each team so far this year, beating the Wolverines is going to be a steep climb. But I believe the Spartans can run up that hill. I believe that they can be heroes, even if it is just for one day.
Picks of the Week
As I do every week, Figures 1 and 2 below give this week’s projected point spreads for each of the 47 games involving two FBS teams. Figure 1 shows the projected point differentials from my algorithm relative to the opening point spreads, courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook. Figure 2 shows a similar analysis using the picks from ESPN’s FPI.
Table 1 below summarizes the upset picks that are derived from the two figures above. Combined, my computer and ESPN’s FPI have 10 upset picks for the week, six of which they agree upon. The biggest upset on the board is the pick for UCONN (+9.5) to take down Boston College. The most impactful upset picks would be for Oklahoma State to upset Kansas State (-1.5) or for UCF to beat Cincinnati (-1.0), but both of those contests are virtual tossups.
Note then when my computer tossed the virtual 20-sided die a few thousand times, it came to the conclusion that 12.9 upsets, plus-or-minus 3.0 upsets, are most likely in Week Nine.
Table 2 below summarizes the recommended wagers that are implied from Figures 1 and 2 above (i.e. the games that fall outside of the dotted diagonal lines).
A total of 10 selections made the list this week. Notably the computers like Iowa State, Illinois, USC and Syracuse to all to cover the spread.
Table 3 below summarizes the recommended point-total (over/under) bets for the week.
With this collection of eight picks (five of which are “locks”), I am hoping that my computer can stay right-side up for over/under bets in 2022.
Michigan State and Big Ten Overview
On paper, this weekend’s game between Michigan State and Michigan should not be close. The current line on DraftKings is +22.5, which is essentially identical to the highest spread that I can find on record for the rivalry back to 1997. The spread fluctuated in the lower 20s in both 2016 and in 2020. The good news is that the Spartans were surprisingly competitive in 2016 and actually won in 2020. The bad news is that based on historical trends, Michigan State only has about a six percent chance to win straight-up.
My computer does not feel any more optimistic about Michigan State’s chances. The machine’s official prediction is a final score of Michigan 40, Michigan State 14. The current over/under on DraftKings is listed as 55.5, which is just a point higher than what my computer predicts. Considering that scoring 41 or 42 points is easier than scoring 40, it might be best to sit this one out. My computer suggests that Michigan will cover the spread for just the third time since 2006. The FPI picks the Spartans to cover.
But in the battle for Paul Bunyan, it is wise to throw both the record books and the computers out of the window. In the words of Dustin Henderson (and Han Solo): “Never tell me the odds.”
Despite the huge spread, I do see a potential path to victory for the Spartans. Fortunately, none of these paths involve crossing inter-dimensional barriers, fighting demonic bats with heavy metal music, or breaking out of (and later into) a Soviet-era gulag. At least we have that going for us.
The first step to victory is stopping Michigan’s run game. Michigan’s State defensive line has been banged up all year, but there is a chance that players such as Jacob Slade may be close to or at full strength on Saturday. If Slade and company are healthy and can rise up, the Spartans have a chance. Perhaps defensive end Jeff Pietrowski may return as well. If Michigan can run at will, things will get ugly very quickly.
If Michigan State can at least slow down the Wolverines’ running attack, the defense will also need to not get torched through the air. The return of a healthy Xavier Henderson on the back line was a tremendous help against Wisconsin. If Henderson can rally the secondary, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy is prone to make mistakes. Those mistakes might be enough to keep the Spartans in the game.
If the Michigan State defense can simply stay afloat, the game may then hinge on Payton Thorne, Jayden Reed and Keon Coleman. MSU’s offense may not be as dynamic or balanced as it was last year, but when healthy and on their game, Thorne, Reed and Coleman can be a problem for any defense.
Michigan State has had a lot of success over the past two years with the “throw the ball at Reed and let him make a play” strategy. I would expect a lot of deep shots and fade routes to one or both of the Spartans’ top-two receivers. If fortune is smiling on the Spartans, Thorne just might connect with enough of these passes (or draw pass interference) to keep the game close...or maybe even outscore the Wolverines. Maybe. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.
A summary of all of the games involving Big Ten teams can be found below in Table 4.
Indiana, Maryland, Purdue and Wisconsin are all on bye weeks, which leaves just four other games beyond the battle for Paul Bunyan. Ohio State (-15) is a double-digit favorite on the road at Penn State. Interestingly, both my algorithm and the FPI are taking Penn State to cover the spread. Either way, the results of this weekend should provide an improved sense of the relative strength of the Buckeyes and Wolverines.
In Big Ten West action, both Minnesota (-14.5) and Iowa (-11) are expected to get easy home wins over Rutgers and Northwestern, respectively. The most competitive and interesting game on the schedule is Illinois’ road trip to Lincoln to face the Cornhuskers.
Illinois is the current favorite in the West, which is something that my computer has been telling us for the last month. The Illini are only a six-point favorite on the road, but my computer projects a 26-point victory. Winning in Lincoln is a tough task, but Illinois is coming off of a bye week. If the Illini can win, it might be time to start checking hotel prices in Indianapolis in early December. It is best to check now, as some of those small towns in Indiana can get pretty scary.
Notable National Action
Let’s take a brief look at the other notable national action this week. Table 5 below gives the details for the remaining games teams that I will be checking out this weekend.
Last week I made the bold prediction that Ole Miss would be the surprising winner of the SEC West. The Rebels rewarded me by immediately losing to LSU by 25 points. Thanks, wastoids. This week, Ole Miss (-3) has a chance to redeem itself at Texas A&M. If the Rebels can win, they get a week off before hosting Alabama in a game that could decide the division crown.
Meanwhile, in the SEC East, Georgia has another speed bump on the road to the division title in the form of the Florida Gators (+22). A few hours up the road in Knoxville, Tennessee will attempt to stay undefeated against Kentucky (+12.5). Even if the Volunteers lose to Georgia in a few weeks, a playoff spot might be available if the Vols can go 11-1.
In Big 12 action, once again this week, two of the teams near the top of the standings will square off as Oklahoma State (+1.5) visits Kansas State. Both teams are 3-1 in conference play and the winner will greatly improve its odds to make the Big 12 Championship game. My computer picks Kansas State to cover easily while the FPI is taking the Cowboys in an upset.
TCU currently sits alone at the top of the Big 12 standings. The Horned Frogs (-7) plan to stay that way, but the Horned Frogs need to survive a business trip to the hills of West Virginia.
Clemson has all but clinched the ACC Atlantic Division, but the Tigers’ eventual opponent in the ACC Championship game is still to be determined. North Carolina is the current favorite and the Tar Heels get a visit from Pittsburgh (+3.5) this week. Both computers have Carolina covering. In other action, Notre Dame is a 2.5-point underdog at Syracuse.
In the Pac-12 this week, the four contenders for the top-two spots are all playing lower tier conference opponents this week. USC, Oregon and UCLA are all double-digit favorites. Utah is the only team with a game that projects to be closer than 10 points, as the Utes travel to Washington State (+8).
Finally, the race for the lone Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Six has essentially narrowed down to the race for the American Athletic Conference title. To this end, there is a big game this week as Cincinnati (-1) travels to Orlando to face Central Florida. With a win, the Bearcats can likely put an end to the Knights’ dreams of playing in the Cotton Bowl.
That is all the advice that I have to offer this week. Until next time, enjoy and Go State; beat the Skunk Bears!
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.