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Against All Odds, Week Four: Nosedive

Things have suddenly gotten dark and dystopian for the Michigan State Spartans. Is there a way to pull out of this? Let’s take a look at what the #math has to say.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan State Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like a lifetime ago, but on Sept. 12, the Michigan State Spartans were 2-0 and ranked in the top-10 of the Coaches Poll. The last two weeks have been disappointing to say the least. It feels almost as if Michigan State fans have passed through some sort of black mirror into a darker dimension of pain where all the preseason dreams have been blown to smithereens.

Week Three’s beating in Seattle against Washington was bad. But the Spartans did manage a late rally and there were at least some reasonable travel-based excuses for why Michigan State did not operate at peak performance.

But Saturday’s beatdown at the hands of Minnesota was a completely different story. Michigan State was playing at home and the Spartans should have been fully focused. Starting with the National Anthem and ending with the final whistle, the Spartan were flat-out humiliated by a team from the Big Ten West.

As we will see below, the prospects for the Spartans’ season have taken a serious nosedive. Over the summer and into the first two weeks of the season, Spartan fans expected the Green and White to be right back in the mix for a possible New Year’s Six bowl. Now, just getting to any bowl game seems like a dream.

It is honestly hard to fathom how things went south so quickly over such a short period of time. Sure, there were concerns coming into the season about the offensive line, the running back position and the pass defense. It seemed reasonable to expect that at least some of these areas would be serviceable. Four weeks into the season, they are all anything but.

There were some indications last year that the Spartans were a team with a small margin for error that benefited from some good fortune. So far in 2022, Michigan State did look good at times in the first two weeks. But, add a couple injuries, some bad bounces, losing the turnover battle and facing a hot quarterback, and you wind up getting trucked by a team with a rodent for a mascot.

I would love to provide a few words of wisdom and optimism as to how and why the Spartans will turn this season around. Unfortunately, I really don’t have much to offer. What I will say is that sometimes the weight of expectations can be a heavy burden. Once that weight is lifted, it can be liberating.

The Spartans must simply take things one game at a time, one practice at a time and one play at a time with a goal of just getting better. Will that be enough to somehow salvage this once promising season? Perhaps not, but for now, it is all that MSU can do. It’s time to shut up and get back to work.

Week Four Results

As is my weekly tradition, Figure 1 below shows the results of all 60 games involving two FBS teams in Week Four.

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

A handful of teams overachieved significantly relative to the opening spread this week including Louisville, Temple, California and West Virginia. Unfortunately, that list also includes Minnesota and San Jose State (which beat Western Michigan). The only good news from a Michigan State perspective was that Washington and Akron both beat the spread.

The teams who underachieved significantly, yet still won, include Georgia, Liberty, Kentucky and Purdue. A total of 13 teams were not as lucky and wound up on the upset list. 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 Four based on the opening Vegas line compared to the upset projections from last week.

There are a few teams out there that had an even worse week than Michigan State did in Week Four. Miami was a 26-point favorite against some school called Middle Tennessee State (you may have heard of them, as I hear that the Blue Raiders also play basketball). The Hurricanes lost by two touchdowns and now own the honor as the team that suffered the worst upset (so far) in the entire history of the 2022 season. Northwestern, Boise State, Oklahoma and Texas all also suffered upset losses.

If Michigan State’s performance on the field this weekend was poor, my algorithm’s performance was awful. My computer went zero-for-three on upset picks, bringing the year-to-date tally to 3-16 (16 percent). That’s simply terrifying.

As for FPI, despite my dogging of the algorithm early on this year, ESPN’s metal-headed machine went 2-3 this week on upset picks and is currently sitting north of 42 percent for the year.

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 Four.

The results here are downright dystopian. The nosedive continues for my algorithm, which went a shocking 1-9 this week with a year-to-date performance of 8-20 (29 percent). The FPI was not much better at 1-4, which brought the performance of ESPN’s algorithm down to 14-21 (40 percent) for the year.

Overall, both the FPI and my system went 27-33 (45 percent) against the opening spread in Week Four. For the year, both algorithms are performing at right around 47 percent.

Much like the Michigan State football team, I have little or no explanation for the terrible performance of my algorithm so far this year. All that I can say is that my machine still has a thing or two to learn. So far this year its intelligence has been largely artificial.

Updated Big Ten Odds and Expected Wins

In Big Ten action this week, the conference did not exactly shine in non-conference play. Indiana was blown out by Cincinnati and Northwestern was upset by Miami of Ohio at home. Penn State and Purdue both failed to cover against Central Michigan and Florida Atlantic, respectively.

In conference play, Iowa and Ohio State managed to win and cover versus Rutgers and Wisconsin, respectively. Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, Michigan had trouble putting away Maryland and failed to cover by a touchdown.

Based on these results, the updated Big Ten odds based on a 60,000 cycle Monte Carlo simulation of the remaining regular season are shown below in Table 3.

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

Ohio State over-performed in Week Four, while Penn State and Michigan both underperformed against the spread. As a result, the odds for the Buckeyes to win the Big Ten East rose to 55 percent. The Scarlet and Gray also now have just under a 50 percent shot to make the College Football Playoff, which is the highest odds of any team not named Georgia (65 percent).

In the Big Ten West, my computer has come around to the idea that the Golden Gophers are the current frontrunner to make their first trip to the Big Ten Championship game. Minnesota’s odds to win the West now sit at 39 percent, with Illinois (28 percent), Iowa (16 percent) and Wisconsin (13 percent) still solidly in contention.

As for Michigan State, the Spartans have dropped to No. 42 in my power rankings and now have less than a one percent chance to win the East. Just to add insult to injury, MSU’s bear of a schedule now ranks No. 3 overall in the country.

Michigan State’s remaining schedule

Table 4 below shows the updated win distribution matrix for each Big Ten team following the action in Week Four.

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

As expected, the situation for Michigan State looks rather dark. The expected win total for the year dove down to 4.98, which is a drop of two full games since Week Three.

Based on my calculations, the Spartans have just a 35 percent chance of getting to the six wins that are most likely needed to secure a bowl bid and avoid enjoying a white Christmas in East Lansing over the holidays. Figure 2 below provides a more detailed breakdown of Michigan State’s remaining schedule.

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.

At this point, the Spartans only project to be favored in two of the remaining eight games on the schedule, which are the two November home games against Rutgers and Indiana. The odds and projected point spreads in those games are also now nosing down.

If Michigan State is going to turn things around enough in 2022 to make a bowl game, the Spartans need to win both of the November home games and find a way to win two additional games. Based on Figure 1, the most likely candidates are next week’s road game at Maryland (projected to be +5.5, but opened at +7) and the Oct. 15 home game against Wisconsin (+3).

The remaining four games on the schedule all project to have double-digit spreads. I would guess that the actual spread against Ohio State will be much higher (+15 million feels about right), but my computer also seems to be overvaluing Illinois substantially. I would expect that spread to be much lower when that game comes around, but my computer may be on to something with regards to Illinois being a bit better than anyone thinks right now.

National Overview

To round things out this week, let’s take a quick look at the other national action in Week Four.

In the SEC, basically all of divisional contenders underperformed this week with the exception of Alabama. As a result, the race looks essentially unchanged on both sides of the conference. In the East, Georgia (78 percent) still has a commanding lead in odds with Kentucky (13 percent) and Tennessee (nine percent) still in the race. In the SEC West, Alabama (55 percent) is the clear leader with Ole Miss (21 percent) as the most likely challenger.

The Big 12 had its share of drama this weekend as both Texas and Oklahoma were upset by Texas Tech and Kansas State, respectively. Oklahoma (47 percent) is still in position to make the conference championship game, but Kansas State (49 percent) has jumped into first place in my odds table. Texas (29 percent) and Baylor (29 percent) are now neck-and-neck for third place.

In the ACC, the races in both the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions are shaping up to be competitive. In the Atlantic Division, Clemson (29 percent) has reclaimed the lead in odds ahead of three other undefeated teams (Syracuse, Florida State and North Carolina State). In the Coastal Division, Pittsburgh (32 percent) has the best odds despite dropping 22 slots in my power rankings this week. That all said, not a single ACC team is ranked in the top-20 of my current power rankings.

In the Pac-12 this week, both USC and Oregon avoided scares at the hands of Oregon State and Washington State, respectively while Utah easily handled Arizona State. The Trojans (68 percent) are still holding onto the top spot on my Pac-12 leaderboard with Utah (47 percent), Oregon (29 percent) and Washington (25 percent) still in solid contention.

Finally, it was quietly a wild weekend in the Group of Five this week, as four of the top-five teams on last week’s Group of Five Leaderboard suffered upset loses (Tulane, Boise State, Appalachian State and Toledo). In addition, Louisiana was upset by Louisiana Monroe in Sun Belt action.

The Group of Five slot now looks like it will almost certainly go to the winner of either the American Athletic Conference or the Sun Belt Conference. In the AAC, Cincinnati (35 percent) has the highest odds, with UCF (17 percent) and Tulane (18 percent) in contention.

In the Sun Belt, my calculations now give FBS newcomer James Madison the bests odds to win the conference (40 percent) over South Alabama (23 percent). That said, James Madison is not eligible for either the Sun Belt Championship game or a bowl game as it completes the transition to the FBS.

Against all odds, we have reached the end for this week. Stay tuned for a new batch of Bad Betting Advice coming soon.