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Against All Odds, Week Two: Dr. Green and White and the Football Weekend of Madness

Week Two created more questions than it answered. Are Texas and USC back? Is the SEC West washed? Is any team from the Big Ten West good? Closer to home, what should we make of Michigan State’s performance through two games? Let’s use #math to sort through the madness.

Marvin Hall/The Only Colors

Week Two of the 2022 college football season just wrapped up, and it has already taken some Strange turns. All across America on Saturday, the results kept getting weirder and weirder. At times, it felt like we had been sucked into a parallel universe.

In the first game of the afternoon, Alabama barely escaped its superhero battle with Texas. Is Texas back? Is Alabama washed? That is a plot twist that I never saw coming.

Later in the day, there was chaos, as a group of interlopers from the Sun Belt dimension and a tag-along from the Pac-12 dimension wreaked havoc on teams such as Notre Dame, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Texas A&M. At least one casualty of a main character’s career was confirmed (R.I.P. Scott Frost’s tenure in Lincoln).

In one case, I am pretty sure time-travel was involved. A team from the mountains of North Carolina stuns a crowd of over 100,000 people? Didn’t we see that movie back in 2007? There was even a brief visit to the basketball dimension as Kansas and Duke both picked up upset wins.

Then, there were the odd events that took place in East Lansing. The Michigan State Spartans looked shaky on defense early, quarterback Payton Thorne struggled with his accuracy and threw two interceptions, yet the final scoreboard showed that Michigan State pitched a shutout and won by 52 points. Strange.

Ultimately, Akron did not turn out to be much of a sparring partner, at least not after its starting quarterback DJ Irons left the game with an injury. For the most part, the Spartans are still just playing against themselves and their own standard of excellence. You don’t need a third eye in the middle of your forehead to see that a lot of work still needs to be done.

Next week, the challenge will be much greater. Michigan State is going to need to be much sharper in Seattle against Washington if the sequel to last year’s blockbuster 11-win season is anywhere near as good as the original.

Week Two Results

As is my weekly tradition, Figure 1 below shows the results of all 47 games involving two FBS teams in Week Two.

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

Despite the current flaws that coaches and fans are seeing from the Spartans, Michigan State was one of only eight teams in Week Two that beat the spread by more than one standard deviation (i.e. 14 points, as denoted by the dashed diagonal line). Toledo, Air Force, Memphis, Kansas State and Illinois were among the other overachievers.

Alabama was the only team that underachieved by more than one standard deviation, yet still won. A total of 14 teams were not as lucky as the Crimson Tide. Table 1 below summarizes those 14 games compared to the upset picks from earlier in the week.

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

There were a lot of high-profile upsets in the wild second weekend of the season, including two upsets (to Nebraska and Notre Dame) where the spread was approximately 20 points. In addition to the upsets mentioned above, Kentucky’s win over Florida and Iowa State’s win over Iowa are likely to have the biggest impact.

When it comes to picking upsets in 2022, the computers are off to a tough start. My algorithm only got one of its four picks correct this week. The FPI did a little better by batting .500 on its four picks.

The results of the computers’ pick against the opening spread are shown below in Table 2.

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

Similar to the upset picks, the picks against the spread (ATS) were not great in Week Two. My algorithm got only one pick correct out of five. Year-to-date, my machine is a dismal 29 percent ATS on recommended bets. The FPI did a little better, getting three picks correct out of seven, but ESPN’s computer dug itself a big hole last week and is only 22 percent ATS after two weeks.

When all 47 games in Week Two are considered, the FPI actually did fairly well at 26-21 (55.3 percent). My algorithm was a bit worse at 22-25 (46.8 percent) and is sitting with a record of 43-57 (43.0 percent) year-to-date.

While I do not have a good explanation for the poor performance of my algorithm this year (other than a suspicion of witchcraft), I do have a possible solution. Late in the week, I devised a modification to my calculations where the results of game versus FCS teams can now be accurately accounted for. Had I used those numbers instead, my picks against the spread would have been much better. I will make this correction permanent moving forward.

Updated Big Ten Odds and Expected Wins

Following the results of Week Two, I have re-run the full season Monte Carlo simulation using the updated power rankings, including the current uncertainty in those rankings, in order to update the season odds for each team. Table 3 below gives the update for the Big Ten conference and Table 4 shows the updated Big Ten win distribution matrix.

Table 3: Updated Big Ten rankings, expected wins, strengths of schedule and season odds following Week Two.
Table 4: Updated Big Ten win distribution matrix after Week Two.

The current odds are based solely on the results of just two games combined with the summertime opinions of various sports journalists, which are still factored into my calculations. In addition, these odds also now take into consideration the results of games against FCS opponents, which was not the case last week. As a result, there is a lot of volatility in the numbers compared to last week.

In the Big Ten East, the numbers were kind to Michigan State and Penn State (both teams covered in Week Two) and not as kind to Ohio State and Michigan (neither team covered). The updated odds still favor the Buckeyes (35 percent) to win the division, with the Nittany Lions now in second place with 31 percent odds.

Interestingly, my algorithm now has Michigan State ranked higher than Michigan (No. 11 versus No. 16) and with equal odds to win the Big Ten East (16 percent). That all said, every team in the Big Ten East is 2-0 and essentially all seven teams had blowout wins against weak opponents in Week Two. It seems foolish to put too much stock into these numbers just yet.

In the Big Ten West, the story is a bit different. Four of the seven teams in the division (Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin) lost in upset fashion this week. Two of the teams (Purdue and Minnesota) blew out FCS teams in a way that does not tell us much. Illinois had a quietly impressive win over Virginia by three touchdowns.

When the red fog cleared on Sunday morning, my computer had Purdue as the highest ranked team in the West (No. 18) and with the best odds to win the division (29 percent). Minnesota (22 percent), Wisconsin (22 percent) and Illinois (15 percent) are right on the heels of the Boilermakers.

That said, Wisconsin still is projected to be favored in seven of its nine Big Ten games, including all six against Big Ten West opponents. The Big Ten West title will still likely need to pass through the cheese dimension.

The expected win totals for several teams also saw a lot of fluctuations after Week Two. Michigan State’s expected win total is back to the preseason value of around 8.5.

Michigan State’s remaining schedule

Figure 2 gives the updated projections for the remainder of Michigan State’s schedule based on the same Monte Carlo simulation referenced above.

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

Relative to last week at this time, the Spartans’ prospects have improved. Michigan State now projects to be about a touchdown better than four of the next five opponents, including Wisconsin. Furthermore, the games versus Ohio State and at Michigan project to be closer to toss-ups.

The home games against Rutgers and Indiana are still projected to have spreads around 20 points. The only games that now look more challenging following Week Two are the road games at Illinois and at Penn State.

However, I am not convinced that these numbers are accurate. I fear that these rosy numbers may be an illusion of mathematics (with limited data) that only considers final scores and that does not consider blocking, tackling, fumbling or over-shooting receivers. Even if these numbers are correct, the math still suggests that more likely than not, Michigan State will lose one of the next three games.

I fully expect a dog fight against the Washington Huskies on Saturday evening in Seattle. The early lines a week or two ago had Michigan State favored by between one and four points. The updated line on Sunday night, according to the DraftKings SportsBook, has Washington favored by three points.

National Overview

Finally, let’s take a quick spin around the rest of the country to see where the various conference races stand following the weekend of madness.

In the SEC, my calculations still have Georgia (69 percent) and Alabama (44 percent) as the clear division favorites. In the East, Tennessee and Kentucky continue to look like the biggest potential threat to the defending national champions.

In the SEC West, however, the plot looks more intriguing. LSU and Texas A&M each already have one loss. In Week Two, Alabama barely escaped an upset against Texas, and Auburn failed to cover badly against San Jose State. In contrast, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi are all off to solid starts. The math suggests that the field now has better odds than Bama to claim the West Title.

Nothing especially weird happened in the Big 12 this weekend with the possible exception that Kansas actually won a game (over West Virginia) and Baylor could not steal an upset win at BYU. My algorithm now says that Kansas State (59 percent) has the best odds of making the Big 12 Championship game in large part due to the Wildcats’ 28-point win over Missouri. Despite the loss to Alabama, Texas (56 percent) is not far behind since it was a non-conference loss.

Strangely, in the ACC my calculations now project Syracuse (38.5 percent) to have the best odds in the Atlantic Division over Clemson (26 percent). In the Coastal Division, Pittsburgh (29 percent) now projects to have better odds than Miami (26 percent). A lot of these shifts in the number seem to be due to the inclusion of the data from the FCS opponents. We will just have to wait and see how this story arc continues to develop.

In the Pac-12, USC covered the spread at Stanford and the Trojans are looking more like a conference contender. The updated math gives USC s (50 percent) the best odds to make the Pac-12 Championship game with Oregon State (40 percent), Utah (29 percent) and Oregon (24 percent) still in solid contention.

In Group of Five action, the main storyline this weekend was the three spellbinding upsets by teams from the Sun Belt over Power Five teams. As a result, one has to wonder if the eventual Sun Belt champion now has the upper hand in the chase for the Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Six. Appalachian State (36 percent) currently has the best odds in the Sun Belt after its stunning victory over Texas A&M.

That said, watch out for Air Force in the Mountain West. The Falcons destroyed Colorado over the weekend and their schedule is now ranked as the second-easiest in all of the FBS (behind only Florida International). For this reason, Air Force (19 percent) now sits at the top of my Group of Five leaderboard with Cincinnati (18 percent) just behind.

Finally, let us have a brief moment of silence for another character that seems to have been written out of the College Football Cinematic Universe. Notre Dame, at 0-2, unranked, and without a conference race has essentially nothing left to play for. Can you believe that in some universes, they were actually picked to make the national title game? Madness.

Against all odds, I have reached the final credits. Until next time, enjoy, and Go State; beat the Huskies!