The best coaches once B1G play begins and picks for Week 7
Which coaches are better than expected in Big Ten play? Against the spread records offer some insight.
For some, fall begins with the annual pumpkin spice invasion. Never mind that the invasion begins in the summer now. If all you need for it to feel like autumn is hints of nutmeg and clove, even when it’s 88 degrees outside, you aren’t weird, you’re advanced.
For me, fall begins when nonconference play ends in the Big Ten. That day arrives this week when Penn State hosts Massachusetts. After that, nothing but Big Ten-on-Big Ten battles the rest of the way.
It really is almost a different season within the football season itself. Slower, like root vegetables braising in the oven. Crunchier, like leaves underfoot. Colder, like…well…it’s just actually colder. The back half of a Big Ten season is when teams harvest whatever they planted in the offseason. Some will be pleased, some won’t.
Which coaches tend to produce the best yields? As Line Items is a point spread-focused column each week, I wondered about Big Ten coaches’ against-the-spread records in conference play compared to all games.1 Who is better against conference foes. Who’s worse?
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This doesn’t have anything to do with gambling, for me at least. I like ATS records as a way to eyeball2 if a coach is performing above, at or below expectation. It doesn’t explain everything on its own, of course, but it’s a decent baseline for starting additional conversations. The spread, theoretically, makes every game a coin flip, so over a long enough span these ATS records fall within a narrow range. The best Big Ten team against the spread (all games, all coaches) since 2003 is Ohio State (.564) and the worst is Illinois (.437). Those are roughly the parameters we’re working with here—if a coach is better than, say, 55% against the spread over multiple seasons he’s pretty consistently getting the most out of his team, lower than 45% and he might not be.
A couple of notes on the list below: 1) I only included winning percentages for coaches at their current Big Ten schools (i.e. Bret Bielema’s Wisconsin years aren’t included. P.J. Fleck’s numbers include only Minnesota, etc.), 2) I didn’t include the interim coaches at Northwestern or Michigan State due to sample size and 3) we’ll look at Luke Fickell and Matt Rhule’s six years each in other conferences separately. All that noted, here’s the list of the remaining Big Ten coaches with their ATS winning percentage in all games next to Big Ten games in order of conference ATS winning percentage.
(Coach, School| ATS Win % All Games | ATS Win % B1G Games)
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan | .526 | .604
Ryan Day, Ohio State | .540 | .588
Bret Bielema, Illinois | .500 | .571
James Franklin, Penn State | .578 | .550
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa | .540 | .533
P.J. Fleck, Minnesota | .541 | .509
Greg Schiano, Rutgers | .553 | .464
Tom Allen, Indiana | .452 | .453
Mike Locksley, Maryland | .449 | .343
Taken in tandem, I think those numbers lend evidence to some potentially interesting theories.3 I’m going to resist the urge to go coach by coach lest this newsletter stretch to 3,000 words (we can do that in the comments if anyone has thoughts to share), but here are three quick ones.
It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing if Big Ten ball just suited Bielema, would it?
Not the numbers you want, but isn’t Tom Allen consistent?
Isn’t this the challenge, in a nutshell, for Mike Locksley at Maryland, which appears to be pretty good at the moment?
Now to Rhule and Fickell, who are 2-1 and 0-2 respectively ATS in Big Ten games in their first year in the league. Halfway through his seventh college season, Rhule still maintains a .603 winning percentage against the spread in all games and .692 in conference games. I’ve noted this before at various times, but it’s an insane, almost impossible to maintain winning percentage against the spread.
I say almost because over the past 7.5 seasons there has been a Power 5 team that has maintained such a percentage. It’s Penn State (.626 since 2016), Rhule’s alma mater. The next-best Power 5 team against the spread over that span is Kansas State (.589). The Nittany Lions also have the best ATS winning percentage in conference games (.615), but it’s not as good as what Rhule managed against the AAC, Big 12 and in three games against the Big Ten. None of which is to say Rhule is a wizard or anything. But if the question is “have Rhule teams performed at or above expectation more than others?” I’m comfortable answering yes to that, and that’s particularly true in conference play.
Fickell is a trickier example. Nobody would say his Cincinnati tenure (2017–22) was unsuccessful. He took the Bearcats to the playoff in 2021 while winning two conference titles. It was as good a six-year run as you can probably have at a Group of 5 school, though Cincinnati has left that designation behind as a Big 12 member.
That’s why I was surprised his ATS winning percentage (.487) wasn’t better, and it was even worse in AAC games (.441). Why weren’t the Bearcats covering more often? I wouldn’t try to answer that question without taking a close look at every Cincinnati game during his tenure, but I also haven’t done that for any other school mentioned thus far.
There was a brief period before Nebraska announced Rhule as its next head coach when it seemed like Fickell was the top candidate. Nobody would’ve had a problem with that, In fact, I’ve seen some social media posts saying the Huskers should’ve hired Fickell instead.
Maybe they should’ve. As the preseason favorite in the West, Wisconsin is in the driver’s seat now as the only division team that’s undefeated in conference play. But Fickell’s ATS record would’ve been a caution flag for me. We’re all guessing when it comes to coaching hires, and that includes the ADs backed by search firms that make the hires. If I were an AD, I wouldn’t have removed Fickell from my list because of his ATS record. No, I would’ve paid a company probably six figures to show me why it wasn’t better.
On to this week’s picks…
The Conference of Broad Shoulders
Season Record: 28-22-3 (.557)
Went 3-2 last week, to bump the season record up slightly. The biggest surprises to me were Northwestern not winning easily against Howard and Iowa covering easily against Purdue despite the Hawkeyes’ complete lack of a passing game. Ohio State also managed to cover against Maryland by a half point. This week’s Big Ten slate is…well…if you’re trying to use Nebraska’s bye week to earn good will with family and friends it’s not a bad week to do that minus one game Saturday afternoon.
Indiana at Michigan -33.5 (Prediction Tracker Average: Michigan -33.5)
Gross. The Wolverines covered easily as a 17.5-point favorite at Nebraska, then did it again as a 19.5-point favorite at Minnesota. Indiana is worse than either of those previous opponents, but at some point the Wolverines might get disinterested again late in blowout. I have no matchup insight to offer here—Michigan is better everywhere you turn—but 33.5 points is a lot. I’d rather lose this game because the Wolverines smashed the Hoosiers as expected than I would lose this game because Michigan declined to put an extra score on the board. Pick: Indiana +33.5
Ohio State -19.5 at Purdue (PTA: OSU -20)
Prior to last week, I could make a case for Purdue as “better than you think.” The six-point loss to Iowa, which could’ve been worse, scared me off that. Ohio State wasn’t dominant at all against Maryland, but it still found a way to cover the number. One of these games we’ll get a “vintage” Buckeye performance, and I’m guessing it’s this game. Pick: Ohio State -19.5
Michigan State at Rutgers -4.5 (PTA: Rutgers -7.5)
Do I have to pick this game? Similar to my feelings about Ohio State, one of these days Michigan State, out of nowhere, is going to play like the team everyone thought it could be in the preseason. I assumed the Prediction Tracker Average would be in the Spartans’ favor here, given that power ratings have no idea what’s happened in East Lansing. But the power rankings, on average, say there’s about three points of value on Rutgers, so I’ll take that in a game I don’t care to think about all that much. Pick: Rutgers -4.5
Massachusetts at Penn State -41.5 (PTA: PSU -47.5)
Six touchdowns, huh? Almost no matter the degree of difference between two teams, a six-touchdown favorite has to be almost perfect to cover. No fumbles. No “it was 28-0 in the second quarter and I thought I could make dumb throws just to see” interceptions from the quarterback. No 60-yard gains allowed out of boredom for the defense. Without a strong feeling that the line is way too low—and the power rankings are indicating it might be—I’ll almost always take the dog in big-spread games like this and just count on something stupid to happen. Pick: Massachusetts +41.5
Illinois at Maryland -14 (PTA: Maryland -16.5)
If I were going solely on the coaches’ ATS records above, this would be an easy play on Illinois. But I was in Illinois last week. I didn’t get the feel from the players or from Bielema’s postgame press conference that the Illini are having a ton of fun right now. They need a bye week in the worst way, and it’s still two weeks away. Meanwhile Maryland jumped out to a decent lead and couldn’t hold it at Ohio State, meaning (in my mind) the Terps are a little bit angry entering Saturday. Pick: Maryland -14
Iowa at Wisconsin -10 (PTA: Wisconsin -7)
If you’re planning a trip to the pumpkin patch or apple orchard this weekend, do your thing (I might try to do the same), but this is the game to watch for Nebraska purposes. The Huskers aren’t out of the division race, but, at 1-2 in conference play, things would get a lot easier if Wisconsin didn’t remain undefeated against the Big Ten. I don’t think, given the state of the offense, Iowa’s the team to knock the Badgers from that category this week, but I’m also scared of the Hawkeyes’ unique ability to just be illogically tough against any team. The 10-point line felt a little high here, and it’s not like Wisconsin has been mowing its opponents down to this point. Pick: Iowa +10
I chose all games over nonconference games for sample size reasons, but I think it’s still apparent which coaches have been better in conference play. We’re measuring the same thing, maybe just not with the stark differences of doing it the other way.
“Eyeball” is an important word here. I think ATS records serve as a deeper dive into coaches, but there’s a wide gray area when using them. If a coach won 70% of his games outright but was only 40% against the spread, a fan of that team probably wouldn’t care. Real wins always trump ATS wins, but once those real wins are in the past, I think the ATS record tells us more. If a team is 6-0, everything is great no matter how it got there. If a team is 0-6, everything is awful no matter how it got there. In a given year, however, I’d say about two-thirds of teams fall somewhere between those extremes and require additional context.
Only theories. I’d be hesitant to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions based on just these records.