Ohio State and Michigan State have stayed undefeated so far this season, but neither one has played to expectations. In fact, that might be the understatement of the year. If you bet both the Buckeyes and Spartans in every game this year, you would be 1-11 against the spread (ATS)! Michigan State hasn’t covered the number yet this year. Ohio State’s only cover came in the first game of the season against Virginia Tech, and had Tech’s quarterback not gotten hurt, they might be sporting an ATS goose egg of their own.
Now, each team will be in the national spotlight this week. Michigan State’s visit to Michigan (3:30 PM ET, ESPN) will be the platform for ESPN’s Gameday. And the ABC prime-time game will be Ohio State’s home game with Penn State, kicking off at 8 PM ET. Will the Buckeyes and Spartans see their ATS fortunes change?
We’ll begin with Michigan State, whose problems seem deeper and whom has already suffered in public esteem. The Spartans, after rising as high as #2 in the polls a couple weeks ago, has been dropped to #7 without actually losing a game. For handicappers, the more noteworthy development is that Michigan State has lost regard in the betting markets.
They opened as a six-point underdog to Michigan and that line was quickly bet up to (+8). It’s an astonishing reversal in perception of both teams that’s taken place in a very short period of time.
I can understand why. Michigan State has, at one point or another, struggled in just about every phase of the game this year…
- Against Western Michigan, the Spartans pass defense was routinely beaten by WMU receivers
- In a 31-28 home win over Oregon as a (-4) favorite, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook was unable to make big plays. This win has lost all of its luster with the Ducks having lost twice since, including a 62-20 shellacking at home by Utah.
- Sparty couldn’t run the ball consistently against Air Force
- A 30-10 win over Central Michigan was 17-10 in the fourth quarter, and proved to be another game where Michigan State’s defensive backs had problems with a passing offense from the MAC.
- The rush defense was terrible in a 24-21 escape against Purdue, giving up nearly five yards a pop.
- More mediocre run defense followed in another harrowing escape, this one 31-24 over Rutgers.
Michigan State’s offense ranks 99th in the country. The defense is better, but ranking 43rd isn’t what this program had gotten used to in recent years. A combination of personnel losses and seeing coordinator Pat Narduzzi take the head job at Pitt have clearly taken their tool on Sparty’s defense.
That’s bleak outlook, but let’s remember two things. The first is that Michigan State has still won all of those games outright and from a handicapping perspective, they are no longer going to be overpriced. Sometimes you have to buy a stock when a value has fallen and that’s Michigan State right now.
The other, especially as pertains to Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor, is that drastic changes in public perception in a short period of time have to be treated with skepticism. The scope of this article doesn’t focus on Michigan, whom I respect greatly. But at the start of the season this game was seen as a mismatch in favor of the Spartans. Are we really ready, on the basis of a month and a half, with both teams’ biggest tests still to come, ready to turn that perception on its head? That’s the question we’re asking ourselves right now and one we’re looking for answers to on Saturday afternoon.
Ohio State is going through offensive problems of their own. The quarterback position, seen as an embarrassment of riches at the start of the season, has flirted with simply being an embarrassment. Cardale Jones has thrown just seven touchdown passes against five interceptions. J. T. Barrett can’t make big plays, averaging a poor 5.48 yards-per-pass, a number that gets worse when you consider how many yards his receivers can get after the catch. As well as Braxton Miller has played at receiver, it’s worth wondering if Urban Meyer doesn’t regret the decision to shift him away from the QB spot.
The Buckeyes have flirted with outright defeat in two unlikely spots. Northern Illinois, a good MAC program, but one who lost at Boston College, only lost 20-13 in Columbus. Indiana was able to try a potential game-tying pass into the end zone on the final play of 34-27 loss to the Buckeyes—a game in which IU went much of the way with a backup quarterback.
When the offense got in gear against dissension-racked Maryland last week in a 49-28 win, the defense lost its bearings, being taken apart on the ground by mobile quarterback Perry Hillis.
Ohio State ranks just 51st in the country on offense, in spite of all their most difficult games—Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State and even a road trip to Illinois that suddenly doesn’t look easy—ahead of them.
The Buckeyes are probably much safer from an outright upset than are the Spartans, because Meyer can always give the football to Ezekiel Elliot, who bailed out his team at Indiana with 274 rush yards, and is averaging nearly seven yards a carry. But though Ohio State is less likely to lose outright, the fact they’re still #1 in the country indicates that the market is less likely to adjust to their shortcomings when it comes to the Vegas spread.
Insiders are aware of this—Ohio State opened as a (-21) favorite over Penn State and that number was quickly bet down to (-18), and in some places it’s gone as low as (-17), a key threshold number. But the market clearly anticipates a blowout in any case.
Over time, the Vegas number finds the right level and things even out. That would suggest that Ohio State and Michigan State will start to get some ATS wins. But as we saw last year with Alabama and Florida State, sometimes it takes into the following season for the proper market correction to take place. With Michigan State, the market has moved drastically. With Ohio State, it’s barely nudged. Saturday’s games will be a great test case of where we’re at with both teams.
Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he began a Network that emphasized a team approach to handicapping. Hurley consults with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL and college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at www.winningedge.com.