Line Items: The Huskers could be dogged dogs and other Week 5 picks in the Big Ten
Nebraska is a big underdog against No. 2 Michigan, but a strong defense could give it a shot against the spread in a game with few possessions.
No team in 2021 outperformed the spread more than Michigan. It’s easy to forget now as the Wolverines have won 29 of 32 games since the start of that season and are chasing a third-straight playoff appearance, but the 2021 team was a surprise. Unranked in the preseason poll, Michigan outperformed the line on its games by 8.8 points on average.1
Through four games this season the Wolverines (0-3-1 ATS) are on the other side of the plus/minus coin, almost exactly, at 8.6 points below the line per game. While I firmly believe ATS numbers can provide meaningful information—that’s the entire concept of this weekly look at them—there is a give-and-take here that’s important to remember.
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Was Michigan 8 points better than expected in 2021 because it took the numbers time to catch up to a surprise team? Maybe. Is it 8 points below expectation now because it entered the year as a playoff favorite and has been a huge favorite against all four opponents? Perhaps.
It’s also possible Michigan is just a little off the expected pace so far in 2023.2 Saturday’s game at Nebraska should provide a good test of this theory. It’s the Wolverines’ first road game of the season (and they are apparently expecting to be greeted by a tractor. Somebody please bring one.)
The Huskers represent a tough out defensively, particularly against the run. While Nebraska is only 2-2 ATS (-2.1) this season, historically Matt Rhule teams have been particularly dogged dogs. At Temple and Baylor, Rhule’s teams were 35-16 ATS (.686) as an underdog and and 16-7 ATS (.696) as a home underdog.
On Thursday, the line for Saturday was sitting at Michigan -17. That’s pretty close to where FPI (-16.5) and the Prediction Tracker Average (-18.5) had things, but SP+ favors the Wolverines by nearly 22.5.
I picked against Michigan the first three weeks of the season and was rewarded. I was ready to do it again last week against Rutgers before talking myself out of it, and that game ended in a push.
Back to the old ways this week. Nebraska will lose some battles one-on-one against running back Blake Corum, but should be able to hold its own against the run more broadly. Forcing quarterback J.J. McCarthy3 into some incompletions might be the bigger, and more important, ask.
That’s not as big an ask, however, as how the Huskers put points on the board. There’s no simple solution there, but the pace tomorrow should be close to glacial given what we’ve seen from the two teams so far. I’ll take Nebraska and the points based on that alone.
For a full breakdown of Nebraska-Michigan, see below, then on to the picks.
The Conference of Broad Shoulders
Season Record: 23-17-2 (.571)
Welp, first losing week (3-4-2) of the year finally arrived. Let’s try to not make a habit of that and preserve at least the 57% we’ve earned through a third of the season, though things are getting more difficult as we move deeper into conference play.
Penn State -27 at Northwestern (Prediction Tracker Average: PSU -23.5)
Northwestern stormed out of nowhere last week to steal a win from Minnesota after the Gophers led 31-10 entering the fourth quarter. Nice moment for the Wildcats, but Penn State is on a tear. Since the start of last season, the Nittany Lions have been 7.6 points per game better than the spread (13-3-1 ATS). Only Duke (+9.2) has been better. Pick: Penn State -27
Louisiana at Minnesota -11 (PTA: Minnesota -11)
In two wins this season, Minnesota’s secondary has grabbed four interceptions, allowed one touchdown and limited opposing QBs to a 51.3 completion percentage. In two losses it’s two interceptions against six TDs with a 69.2 completion percentage. Louisiana lost starting QB Ben Wooldridge “for the foreseeable future” two weeks ago, but backup Zeon Chriss has completed 73.5% of his throws as the primary passer in two games. He also has four rushing touchdowns, part of a rushing offense ranked fifth nationally at 6.26 yards per carry. The Gophers will probably grind out a win, but give me the points. Pick: Louisiana +11
Indiana at Maryland -14.5 (PTA: Maryland -16.5)
The Hoosiers needed four overtime periods to beat Akron last week as a 17-point favorite, and Indiana’s postgame win expectancy, via SP+, was only 31%. Not a lot to like on the crimson side going into this one. This game will mark the end, however, of Maryland’s gentle downhill slope into the season (Towson, Charlotte, Virginia and reeling Michigan State). Ohio State awaits after the Terps calmly put away Indiana to move to 5-0. Pick: Maryland -14.5
Illinois at Purdue PK (PTA: Illinois -1.5)
What if you took last year’s Illinois team and subtracted a 1,600-yard rusher, the starting quarterback, the defensive coordinator and an NFL secondary? You’d have a team that plays a lot like this year’s Illini so far, and the slight slide isn’t entirely unexpected. Purdue was more of a mystery in the offseason. Led by Ryan Walters, the aforementioned DC subtracted from Illinois, the Boilermakers aren’t blowing anyone away defensively but they do have five interceptions in four games (27th). Illini QB Luke Altmeyer has thrown seven interceptions so far (125th), and six of those were in the two losses. The game probably comes down to that—does he or doesn’t he?—but Illinois should find enough success on the ground to limit its Altmeyer exposure in our first pick’em of the year. Pick: Illinois PK
Michigan State at Iowa -12.5 (PTA: Iowa -10.5)
At some point this season, already-left-for-dead Michigan State will rise up and beat a team it shouldn’t with a performance that’s hard to explain given the currently ugly situation in East Lansing. The last two outings sans-Mel Tucker, however, have not been encouraging. Nor was Iowa getting blanked at Penn State, but the Hawkeyes are back home and now OC Brian Ferentz is really incentivized to pour it on. I’m thinking a late field goal to make it 26-7. Pick: Iowa -12.5
No line yet as it’s an FCS-FBS matchup, but Rutgers gets to beat up on Wagner this week.
While I tend to treat 2020 college football as an alternate universe, the Wolverines were the third-biggest underachiever by the spread that year, falling short by an average of 11.8 points. Perhaps that’s why they weren’t ranked to start 2021.
See also: The conversation around Georgia’s general sluggishness to start the season. The Bulldogs have fallen short of the line by 9.6 points per game and is 0-3-1 ATS.
McCarthy is completing 79.5% this season, but has thrown three interceptions.