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Against All Odds, Week Five: Lost

Where are we?

Michigan State v Maryland Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Just a few short weeks ago, fans of the Michigan State Spartans were sitting up in the first-class cabin, perhaps sipping a vodka and tonic, flashing back to the fond memories of a 11-2 season and Peach Bowl victory in 2021, and dreaming about the glory that 2022 and beyond might bring.

Three weeks ago, the plane hit some turbulence somewhere over the Pacific Northwest. At first, we all thought that it was a couple of normal and benign bumps. Two weeks ago, the turbulence got a lot worse. This past weekend, it seems as if the top of the airplane has been ripped off and now Spartan fans seem to have crash-landed on a desert island. The scene is one of complete chaos.

Against Washington, the problems mostly seemed to be on defense. Against Minnesota, the defense was still bad, and the offense sputtered as well. Against Maryland, special teams crashed and burned and neither the offense nor the defense played a particularly good game for the full 60 minutes. Everything seems to have gone completely sideways. It is enough to make Michigan State fans ask: “Where are we?” The answer, for now, is that the Spartans seem completely lost.

Unfortunately, the path ahead is fraught with danger. Next up is a giant Scarlet and Gray smoke monster in Ohio State and soon after that, Michigan State will pay a social call to Ann Arbor and the Michigan Wolverines. As for the rest of the schedule, those others cannot be trusted either.

It is hard to imagine what other plot twists and turns are going to occur this season and beyond for the Spartans. The numbers and the science look grim. There are likely to be several more casualties in the weeks to come. That said, I still believe that this team will provide some good moments before the season finale.

I have faith that Coach Mel Tucker has a plan and can eventually tie all these story arcs together. I wish that I could flash forward a couple of weeks or even years and tell you that everything is going to be OK, but that script is not yet written. However, I remain optimistic as to the overall direction of the program. All is not yet lost.

Week Five Results

As is my weekly tradition, Figure 1 below shows the results of all 57 games involving two FBS teams in Week Five.

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

It was a good weekend for several west coast teams as well as the state of North Carolina. Utah, Washington State, Boise State, San Jose State, North Carolina and Duke all beat the spread by more than 14 points. In the other timeline, Penn State and Georgia were the two teams who underachieved noticeably, yet still won.

The Nittany Lions and Bulldogs were a bit lucky, however, as there were a total of 17 favorites who were feeling just as lost as the Spartans this week. Those teams are summarized below in Table 1 along with the upset picks made by both my algorithm and ESPN’s FPI.

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

Not only were there a lot of upsets in Week Five, but there were also a lot of big upsets. Fresno State and Pittsburgh both lost as 24-point favorites (to UCONN and Georgia Tech, respectively). These are the second biggest upsets of the season so far and the fifth and sixth upsets where the opening spread was at least 20 points. Historically, there are usually only around five total upsets of this magnitude in any given year.

My computer actually performed fairly well on upset picks in Week Five, getting three of the seven picks correct (43 percent), including correctly predicting Tulane’s win at Houston and Illinois’ win at Wisconsin. This success rate is almost exactly equal to my algorithm’s historical performance, and is significantly better than its performance so far in 2022 of 6-20 (23 percent) overall.

The FPI went only one-for-three (33 percent) this week to bring its tally for the year to 9-13 (41 percent).

Table 2 below gives the results of last week’s Bad Betting Advice against the spread (ATS).

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

My computer took a conservative approach this week, which I suppose worked out as it only got two picks incorrect (out of a total of two picks). The FPI did slightly better, going 3-4 (43 percent). Overall, my algorithm went 27-30 (47 percent) against the spread in Week Five while the FPI was 31-26 (54 percent).

Year-to-date, both computers are struggling almost as much as the Spartans. As shown above in Table 2, the cumulative performance for the recommended picks has a success rate of only 41 percent for the FPI and 27 percent for my algorithm.

If this keeps up, my computer might as well switch over to picking lottery numbers. So far, it really likes the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42. Hmmmm.

Updated Big Ten Odds and Expected Wins

In the Big Ten East, it is increasingly clear that the eventual division champion will be either Ohio State, Penn State, or Michigan. In Week Five, Michigan covered the spread by a few points, Ohio State did not cover by a few points, while Penn State failed to cover by a more significant margin.

All three teams appear in the top-10 of my updated power rankings, and as the numbers shake out now, the Buckeyes (48 percent) still have the best odds to win the division with Penn State holding steady at 29 percent and Michigan currently in third place at 20 percent.

The updated Big Ten odds, based on a 60,000-cycle Monte Carlo simulation of the remaining regular season is shown below in Table 3. Note that starting this week, I have removed the influence of the preseason rankings completely.

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

Maryland is making a clear case for the fourth best team in the division with four wins and home games against Rutgers and Northwestern still on the schedule. As Table 4 below shows, the Terrapins’ expected win total is now at 8.06 wins with a 97 percent chance for Maryland to get to six wins and bowl eligibility. As for Rutgers, Indiana, and sadly, Michigan State, just getting to six wins and qualifying for a bowl game is going to be challenging.

Table 4: Updated Big Ten win distribution matrix after Week Five.

As for the Big Ten West, the results of Week Five threw the race into chaos. Coming into the week, it looked like Minnesota’s race to lose with Wisconsin as the most likely challenger. But the Gophers were upset at home by Purdue and Illinois beat the head coach right out of the Badgers in Madison. As a result, six of the seven Big Ten West teams have a 1-1 conference record with preseason favorite Wisconsin as the lone team sitting at 0-2.

My computer was high on the Illini before and it is even higher on them now. Illinois is ranked No. 2 nationally in my current power rankings and holds a 69 percent chance of winning the Big Ten West. Purdue currently sits in second place with 16 percent odds with Minnesota (eight percent) and Iowa (six percent) still in the race.

I do not believe that Illinois is a top-10 team, but as I look at the Illini’s schedule, the Big Ten West is theirs for the taking. Illinois draws Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue all at home. One way or another, the West title will go through Champaign.

Michigan State’s remaining schedule

As shown in Table 3, the Spartans’ expected win total has dropped once again to just 4.19 wins. Figure 2 gives a detailed breakdown of the projections point spreads and win probabilities for Michigan State’s remaining games.

Figure 2: Updated odds and spread projections for Michigan State’s remaining games, following Week Four and based on a 60,000 cycle Monte Carlo simulation.

Based on Table 3, Michigan State’s odds of getting to six wins and qualifying for a bowl game have dropped to just 13 percent, which feels roughly similar to the odds of finding a polar bear on a desert island. As we can see from Figure 2, getting four more wins out of the remaining seven games is going to be a challenge.

Michigan State still projects to be favored to beat both Rutgers and Indiana, but even those games now are not gimmes. Wisconsin at home on Oct. 15 looks like another “must win” game for the Spartans that projects as a near toss-up right now.

Even if the Green and White can get those three wins, the Spartans still need to find one more among a collection of three road games where the team projects to be at least a 17-point underdog or next week at home against Ohio State, where the Spartans have opened at +25.

Beating Ohio State seems like science fiction/fantasy at this point, but if the Spartans can get healthy and figure some things out over the bye week, then perhaps we can imagine a win in one of those three final Big Ten road games.

The Spartans almost always play the Wolverines tough. Illinois might turn out to actually be the frauds that everyone except my computer believes them to be, and as long as Penn State still has James Franklin on the sideline, you know that you have a chance to win in Happy Valley.

Is it probable that Michigan State will win one of those three games? No. Is it possible? Absolutely. Don’t lose faith just yet.

National Overview

Before we all completely lose focus, let’s take a quick look around the country at the other action around the country in Week Five.

The race in the SEC is essentially unchanged as Georgia (75 percent) has a commanding lead in the odds in the East and Alabama (57 percent) leads in the West after easily getting past Arkansas. The Bulldogs struggled to beat Missouri, but Kentucky (16 percent chance to win the East) lost to Ole Miss, which kept the odds in the East steady.

Speaking of Ole Miss, the Rebels (28 percent odds in the West) look like the biggest threat to Alabama with LSU (10 percent odds) still in the conversation after the Tigers’ comeback win over Auburn.

The race in the Big 12 continues to be as volatile as a stick of dynamite from 19th-century trading ship. This past weekend, three of the five conference games ended with an upset as Baylor lost to Oklahoma State, TCU destroyed Oklahoma and Iowa State lost to Kansas. As a result, I now project Kansas State (55 percent) and Texas (42 percent) to have the best odds to advance to the Big 12 Championship game with the undefeated pair of TCU (30 percent) and Kansas (28 percent) just behind.

In the ACC, Clemson got past North Carolina State and the Tigers now have a 57 percent chance to win the Atlantic Division. Undefeated Syracuse (27 percent) appears to be the biggest remaining threat, especially following Florida State’s upset loss to Wake Forest. In the Coastal division, Pittsburgh suffered an embarrassing loss to Georgia Tech, despite being favored by 24 points. As a result, 4-1 Duke now has a 61 percent chance to win the division.

There was only one minor upset in the Pac-12 this week as UCLA was able to protect its home field against Washington. As a result, USC (62 percent) and Utah (58 percent) are the teams most likely to meet in the Pac-12 Championship game with Oregon (27 percent) and undefeated UCLA (24 percent) still in contention.

Finally, in Group of Five action, Cincinnati avoided the upset bid at Tulsa, while Tulane was able to win in overtime at Houston. Both of these teams are sitting in the current top-three of my Group of Five leaderboard. The team to watch, however, is South Alabama from the Sun Belt. The Jaguars won at Louisiana this week and now own the best odds to win the conference (37 percent) and claim the New Year’s Six bid at 19 percent.

Against all odds, we have reached the end for today. Hopefully the Spartans can soon find what has been lost for the past three weeks. Until next time, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Buckeyes!