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Week 11 Picks: How much does the past matter this late in the season?
Quick breakdowns and picks for all seven Week 11 games in the Big Ten
Circa Sports opened the line on Sunday for the Nebraska-Wisconsin game at Badgers -7. I’m sure there were a few different numbers out there somewhere—if you’ve somehow avoided all advertising for the past couple of years, I’m here to tell you there are a lot of sportsbooks now—but I always seek out Circa for one simple reason: It posts its lines at the same time every week. (Or at least around the same time, which makes the name fitting, I suppose.)
I wasn’t surprised by the opening line, but I was. I knew that most of the power rankings out there projected something like Wisconsin -5 or -7. The surprise was that’s what the power rankings were still saying. When I looked at Nebraska and Wisconsin in tandem, I saw two very similar teams in the numbers—strong all-around defense, an offense that clearly wants to attack one way but is only average, at best, at doing it. About the only difference I could find wasn’t a clash of tendencies, it was a clash of emotions.
The power rankings, however, see a pretty big difference between these two 5-5 teams. ESPN’s FPI ranks Wisconsin 41st, Nebraska 61st. SP+ is nearly the same at 38th and 57th respectively. FEI “only” has the Badgers 15 spots ahead of the Huskers. We could go on, but you get the picture.
My best guess as to the difference? All those models just mentioned had Wisconsin much higher than Nebraska to start the season, and the Badgers were higher to start the season because those systems look multiple years into the past to craft their preseason rankings. Now, those models wouldn’t do that if it didn’t improve accuracy as a whole, but that’s worth keeping in mind when trying to evaluate any one game, particularly one late in the season. How much weight is past success or failure carrying in any such rating?
If I knew for sure, I’d feel better about making a pick in this game. But the line has come down since it opened at a touchdown. It was Wisconsin -5.5 on Thursday night, up from -4.5 earlier in the day. I’m guessing it will hold in that 4-5 range, though the injury report will be important this week as it pertains to Badger running back Braelon Allen.
You can read my full breakdown of this game at the link above to find out what I think Nebraska needs to do to win, but I’m taking the Huskers this week because I believe they’re carrying less weight right now, there’s still some freedom to be loose on Saturday night. Not too loose, of course, in the turnovers department, but what can anyone actually do about that other than hope for the best?1
This line would probably have to get under 3 for me to start looking hard at Wisconsin, so at 5.5 we’ll take the machines on head-to-head this week. Pick: Nebraska +5.5
On to the rest of this week’s Big Ten games.
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The Conference of Broad Shoulders
Season Record: 42-39-3 (.518)
My quest for a .540 or better winning percentage, and pride, took a big hit with a 2-5 week. With 14 games left in the regular season, I need to go 9-5 or better. It’s probably not happening, but at least I won’t be alone. At The Prediction Tracker, none of the 50 some projection-making models tracked are above .530 through 10 weeks. That’s been a fairly recent trend. In 2019, for example, nine models hit .530 or better. The lines, folks, they’re good, and I am but a humble typist who enjoys the challenge.
Michigan -19 at Maryland (Prediction Tracker Average: Michigan -22)
Michigan* has been an ATS machine in Big Ten play, going 5-1-1 after failing ( or electing not?) to cover against three overmatched nonconference opponents. That said, if there were a potential lookahead spot for the Wolverines, this seems like the game given it’s sandwiched between bigger matchups (Penn State last week, Ohio State next week) and it was scheduled to come a day after Jim Harbaugh had his day in court. Then, on Thursday, Harbaugh just accepted his three-game suspension. I’m sure the Michigan* brass isn’t thrilled its head coach won’t be on the sideline for what could be the program’s 1,000th all-time win. Maybe that anger will be enough for Michigan* to pour it on Maryland. If it’s not there, I’d probably bank on this one being sort of ho-hum, a comfortable Wolverine win just under the number. Now, Michigan* at least has clarity and it still has the easy “everyone’s against us” button to push. Doesn’t matter that’s its own doing. Pick: Michigan -19
Rutgers at Penn State -20 (PTA: PSU -23)
After another high-profile loss to one of the two East Division heavyweights, James Franklin offered up the head of offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. Franklin’s next offensive coordinator will be his sixth in 10 years at Penn State, but this is the first time he’s made a move in-season. The Nittany Lions will play their remaining two games with play-calling duties split between the running backs and tight ends coach, and in this case I think that’s a plus. Absent the staff change, I’d be really tempted to take Rutgers with 20 points on my side, but my guess is Penn State will keep things pretty simple on offense, get its best players the ball more often and generally avoid scheme blindness. Pick: Penn State -20
Michigan State at Indiana -3.5 (PTA: Indiana -3)
Speaking of firing an offensive coordinator in-season, Indiana’s been a bit better since parting ways with Walt Bell on Oct. 1. Over the last three weeks, the Hoosiers pushed Penn State to the limit, beat Wisconsin and took Illinois to overtime. Even being a home favorite in this game seemed like a long shot a month ago, but here we are. If this line was -3, I’d happily take Indiana. Is a half-point enough for me to trust Michigan State? The Spartans didn’t show much life last week against Ohio State, and I’m starting to think MSU, post-Mel Tucker, had one arrow in its quiver and it shot it at Nebraska. The game should be pretty close, but if there’s big-win potential here I think it only exists with Indiana. If the hook gets me, it gets me. Pick: Indiana -3.5
Purdue -3 at Northwestern (PTA: Northwestern -2)
Last week, I thought Purdue being favored was fishy and picked against the Boilermakers anyway. They smoked Minnesota, but I’m going to do the same thing again this week. Northwestern made what I think is a smart move by removing the interim tag from David Braun. If clarity is good for Michigan*, it can be good for Northwestern, too. The Wildcats are playing for bowl eligibility while Purdue can only play spoiler. Also, I think Northwestern’s just better than Minnesota at this point in the season, so maybe the Wildcats can prevent me from feeling like dumb money two weeks in a row. Pick: Northwestern +3
Illinois at Iowa -3 (PTA: Iowa -11)
If Iowa wins it clinches the Big Ten West, and last week’s shutout of Rutgers certainly got my attention. This is all setting up a little too perfectly for the Hawkeyes. Your former AD makes you the butt of a season-long joke by putting in writing a scoring requirement for the offense coordinated by the coach’s son. The new, interim AD offers some November relief by announcing said coordinator won’t be back so everyone can stop tracking points. Seems like dad was out of the loop on this decision, a rarity, so he’s probably less than happy. Meanwhile, Iowa’s probably going to win the division, and possibly go 10-2, playing football the way it always has, which everyone says won’t work. Anyway, Illinois2 has a shot here, but then most teams “have a shot” against the Hawkeyes. And they’re still 8-2. Pick: Iowa -3
Minnesota at Ohio State -27.5 (PTA: OSU -28.5)
Things might be setting up perfectly for Ohio State, too. It’s not often the Buckeyes aren’t the story in the Big Ten, but I’d argue they haven’t been for most of the season. Yes, Ohio State has the best player in college football. Yes, they have quality wins. Yes, they were No. 1 for a couple of weeks in the CFP rankings. But Michigan’s* dominance, and then it’s alleged malfeasance and all that followed, have allowed the Buckeyes to just quietly go about their business. Since beating Penn State by eight in mid-October, OSU’s won by growing margins each week. Minnesota has dropped two straight and needs a win this week or next week against Wisconsin to reach six wins. This is a big number, but there’s some incentive for Ohio State to make this look as impressive as possible with the Wolverines up next week. Pick: Ohio State -27.5
If Nebraska continues at its current rate of 2.7 giveaways per game, it will finish the regular season with 32 turnovers. That would be the highest average (2.67) for any team since Duke had 39(!) in 11(!!) games in 2020, but you could tell me a team averaged a thousand points per game during that pandemic year and I’d believe it. Throw out that season, as I typically do, and you have to go back to 2017 San Jose State (42 giveaways, 13 games, 3.2 per game) to find a worse number. You have to go back to 2016 Kansas (36/12/3.0) to find a Power 5 team that gave the ball away more. Those Jayhawks went 2-10.
I noted last week how quarterback John Paddock, the fourth generation in his family to play at Illinois, got the sports-movie ending everyone deserves by leading a game-winning drive against Minnesota in his first important action of the season. Paddock had quite the sequel, throwing for 507 yards with four touchdowns in the Illini’s overtime win over Indiana. Luke Altmyer is expected to start this week against Iowa, and he was the starter all season long for a reason, but, c’mon, how do you deny a story like this? That’s another reason I’m taking the Hawkeyes. Give me Paddock, or give me Iowa.