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Bad Betting Advice, Week One: Family Ties

After a summer of BTN reruns, it’s finally time for the season premiere of college football. The Big Ten is bound to provide plenty of drama and perhaps even some comedy. Here is a dose of dubious betting advice.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan State
Both Jayden Reed and Payton Thorne have strong connections to their Week One opponent.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Every year around this time, a new set of programs take to the airwaves (and the fields) to entertain the masses. The weekly cadence of games is almost episodic in nature. Over the next 13 weeks, the story of the 2022 season will unfold and many of us will be huddled around our televisions just waiting to see what will happen next.

Sure, some of the programs out there are a bit stale and boring. (I am looking at you Wisconsin and Iowa.) Some are strong, but a little too predictable (Ohio State). Some feel like they just may be starting to get good (Minnesota? Purdue?) A few others seem on the brink of cancelation (Indiana and Rutgers), while others seem to keep chugging along even though no one is watching (Maryland).

Sometimes there are a few key actors who are just fun to watch (Pat Fitzgerald!) and other times these are those who seem to be so bad at their craft that it’s not clear how they still have a job (James Franklin). But often times it’s the reoccurring characters and special guests that make the magic happen. (Hey, is that Tom Hanks playing Alex P. Keaton’s drunk uncle? Nah... that’s just Bret Bielema.)

In some places, the situation is indeed comical (Nebraska! LOL!) In other places, the drama is manufactured by a guy who reminds me a bit too much of “Skippy” (Michigan). But nonetheless, I think that there is something that all Big Ten fans can agree upon:

Welcome back, college football. We’ve missed you.

The first episode of the 2022 Michigan State Spartans’ season debuts at 7 p.m. on Friday on ESPN against the Western Michigan Broncos. While the first season of the Mel Tucker-directed Spartan reboot was a bit rough, the show really hit its stride in its sophomore season. Sure, some of last year’s stars moved on to other projects, but many of last season’s primary actors are back and ready for the spotlight. Some critics think that 2021 was a bit of a fluke, while others believe that truly special things are coming soon.

Friday night in Spartan Stadium promises to be a very special episode. You see, two of the Spartans’ most important players, junior quarterback Payton Thorne and senior wide receiver Jayden Reed, both have some serious Family Ties to the Western Michigan program. Reed started his career in Kalamazoo before transferring to East Lansing for his second year.

Meanwhile, Thorne was committed to the Broncos for a solid six months in 2018 before flipping his commitment to the Spartans just a few days before the early signing period. But, his connections run even deeper. Back in February, Payton’s father, Jeff Thorne, was named Western Michigan’s offensive coordinator.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a plot twist.

Granted, the Spartans are entering Friday night’s game as huge favorites. On paper, the game should be a laugher. But the backstory here is enough to make me wonder if there will be a bit of drama on the field. Either way, the debut episode is a time to set direction and get a feel for how the new season is likely to play out. Let’s hope for a happy ending for Spartan fans and not one of those tragic episodes where we all learn a valuable lesson.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programing.

Picks of the Week

As this is the first week of the season, I will take a little extra time to explain how this weekly preview works. (Previously on “Bad Betting Advice...”) In the month of August, I explained how I use some math and simulation tools to make predictions about the entire college football season. I can (and do) also use these tools to make predictions on a week-by-week basis.

Each week, I will present my computer’s predicted margin of victory as compared to the opening betting lines according DraftKings SportsBook. For additional comparison, I will make a similar figure using the lines predicted from ESPN’s Football Power Index or FPI. Figure 1 and Figure 2 below show these two comparisons for all Week One matchups featuring a pair of FBS teams.

Figure 1: Comparison of the projected final margins of victory based on my algorithm to the opening DraftKings lines for Week One.
Figure 2: Comparison of the projected final margins of victory based on ESPN’s FPI to the opening DraftKings lines for Week One.

When the data are plotted in this manner, it is easy to visualize a set of two possible predictions or bets that I will recommend for each week. First, any game (data point) that falls to the left of the red vertical line in either plot is a possible upset pick. In other words, the computers have identified a different winner than the Las Vegas line.

For Week One, the computers together predict a total of eight upsets, which are summarized below in Table 1. Most notably, my algorithm likes Cincinnati to win at Arkansas, Illinois to beat Indiana and Appalachian State to upset North Carolina. As for the FPI, the computer at ESPN picks Florida to upset Utah and Boise State to upset Oregon State.

Table 1: Summary of upset picks for Week One.

Based on the collection of point spreads for all 46 games involving two FBS teams, it is possible to run a simulation of the week to project the total number of upsets. Based on that simulation, the total number of upsets in Week One is likely to be 10, plus-or-minus 2.5. As the season goes on, we will see that this prediction is accurate roughly two-thirds of the time.

Second, if any contest falls outside of the dashed lines on either plot, this is a signal for a recommended bet against the spread. Note that the threshold to trigger this recommendation is different for each computer system. However, I have several years of data that suggests these picks versus the opening spread are accurate 55 percent of the time. Table 2 summarizes the recommended bets for Week One.

Table 2: Picks against the opening spread for Week One. The picks are listed in order of confidence score.

My algorithm only recommends two bets on the week: Louisiana Monroe and Western Kentucky to both cover the opening spread. The FPI, however, provides an additional 10 bets to the table. In many cases, these bets involve Group of Five teams (such as Rice, New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech, Memphis, Ball State and Troy) covering double-digit spreads against Power Five teams (such as USC, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Ole Miss).

Time will tell if the FPI’s bold picks pay off or not. In 2021, my analysis of the FPI data resulted in a significant increase in the number of games that triggered a recommend bet relative to the previous few years. However, the accuracy went down. In other words, it is possible that the FPI has jumped the shark. I am not sure how much to trust this data in 2022.

MSU and Big Ten Overview

As mentioned above, there are a lot of interesting storylines surrounding Michigan State’s 2022 opener against the Western Michigan Broncos. But the game itself is not expected to be very competitive. According to DraftKings SportsBook, the line opened with Michigan State as an 18-point favorite. That line has since increased to 23-points with an over/under of 54.5.

It is my tradition that I always allow my computer to make my official prediction for the outcome of each Michigan State game. This allows me to completely take any emotion out of the equation. I simply follow the cold, hard numbers. In this case, those numbers suggest that the Spartans will cover and beat the Broncos by 28. I project a final score of Michigan State 42, Western Michigan 14.

The opening spread suggests that there is a 90 percent chance that the Spartans will beat the Broncos and history is certainly on the side of the Green and White. Michigan State is 14-2 all time against Western Michigan. The Broncos have never scored more than 24 points against the Spartans.

That said, the spread data that I have back to 2003 says that Michigan State is 3-3-1 against the final line in the previous seven meetings with Western Michigan.

As for the rest of the action in Big Ten country, Table 3 gives my projected final score for each game in comparison to the opening line on DraftKings and the predicted line from both the FPI and my algorithm. I also show my predicted over/under target and any identified upset picks.

Table 3: Summary of Big Ten action in Week One, including my algorithm’s projected scores. The teams shaded in green are projected to cover by my algorithm. The teams shaded red are projected to cover by the FPI.

The majority of the Big Ten teams are either facing FCS teams or low-level Group of Five teams in Week One. But there are a few notable exceptions. I suppose one of them is Rutgers’ road trip to Boston to face Boston College. The Scarlet Knights are underdogs by just over a touchdown, which makes this game about as compelling as watching Everybody Loves Raymond reruns on TV Land.

In early conference action, Indiana hosts Illinois, but neither team is likely to compete for a division title. The conference game of this week is clearly Penn State at Purdue. The Nittany Lions enter the game as a three-point favorite, but this contest screams toss-up. If Purdue can get the victory, the Boilermakers will suddenly look very much like a Big Ten West contender.

That all said, Big Ten country is also home to the biggest game on the entire schedule in Week One: No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes are a solid two-touchdown favorite according to DraftKings and the FPI, but my algorithm sees the game being a bit closer. Whichever team wins will get a clear boost and solid jumpstart to the season.

The game feels especially big for the Fighting Irish. If Notre Dame can go into Columbus and steal a win, I doubt that it would lose more than one more game on the season. If the Irish can start 1-0, I would pencil them into a playoff spot.

Notable National Action

Finally, let’s take a quick look at some of the notable action in the rest of the country. Table 4 below summarizes the data for a few other key matchups in the Power Five and beyond.

Table 4: Summary of other notable action in Week One, including my algorithm’s projected scores.

Of the seven total games in Table 4, four of them involve SEC teams. The headliner is the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs taking on the Oregon Ducks in Atlanta. Similar to the Ohio State-Notre Dame game, the Bulldogs are double-digit favorites, but an upset win by Oregon would significantly alter the trajectory of the entire college football season.

Pac-12 pride is also at stake as the current conference favorite, the Utah Utes, open the season at Florida. The Utes are a slight favorite on the road, but the FPI has sounded the upset alert. Not to be upstaged by their intrastate rivals, Florida State also has a big game to open the season at LSU. The Seminoles are also slight underdogs.

The remaining SEC team in a notable game this weekend is Arkansas, which hosts Cincinnati. But this contest is all about the Group of Five and the playoff race. The Bearcats made history last year by becoming the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff. If the Bearcats would like their feel-good underdog drama to get renewed, Cincinnati needs to put this game into the win column. The Las Vegas line and the FPI both favor the Razorbacks, while my algorithm picks Cincinnati by less than a point.

A pair of other Group of Five teams have great chances to build their New Year’s Six resumes in Week One as well. Appalachian State hosts North Carolina and Boise State travels to Oregon State. The opening DraftKings line has both Appalachian State and Boise State as slight underdogs. However, the computers suggest that one or both games are likely to end in upsets.

Finally, the only other ranked team that is playing a Power Five team is No. 17 Pittsburgh (-7), which will face West Virginia on Thursday night in a reboot of the “Backyard Brawl Series” that was canceled in 2011 after 104 seasons. Somewhere, a television network executive just woke up in a cold sweat.

That is all the advice I have for you today. As always, enjoy, and Go State; beat the Broncos!

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details