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Cotton Bowl Betting Preview & Pick: Michigan St. vs. Baylor

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Michigan State is one of the best teams in college football that no one pays attention to, especially the national media.  As a result of the media “blackout” on the Spartans, bettors have an excellent opportunity to exploit a line that is predicated, in part, on public [mis]perception.  My math model actually favors Michigan State by one point, while two other algorithms have the game as a pick.  The Spartans are 13-4-1 ATS versus teams with a winning record, 5-1-1 ATS in their last seven non-conference affairs and 5-0 ATS in their last five neutral site games.

When the majority of sports bettors hear Michigan State, they immediately think defense, which is a fair reaction in light of the Spartans’ excellent stop unit. However, the Spartans also arrive at the Cotton Bowl with a potent offense that is averaging 43.1 points per game on 496 total yards at 6.6 yards per play and 11.5 yards per point against teams that would combine to allow just 5.7 yards per play to a mediocre offensive squad.  The Spartans are one of the most successful college football teams on the road this season where they are averaging 39.8 points per game on 488 total yards at 6.2 yards per play and 12.3 yards per point.

In fact, the Spartans are 4-1 away from home where they lead the nation at +180 yards per game.  Michigan State’s underrated offense is led by junior quarterback Connor Cook, who earned 2nd Team Big 10 honors after throwing for 2,900 yards with a 22-6 ratio, and senior running back Jeremy Langford, who led the Spartans with 1,360 rushing yards at 5.5 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns.  The success of both Cook and Langford would not be possible without an outstanding offensive line that is anchored by 1st Team Big 10 center Jack Allen, who is one of the best lineman in all of college football.

Overall, Michigan State is 0.7 yards per rush play, 1.4 yards per pass play and 0.9 yards per play better than average offensively, which is good enough to have some success against a solid Baylor stop unit that is 0.3 yards per play better than average (5.2 yards per play to teams that would combine to average 5.5 yards per play).  The concern for Baylor is the fact that it is yielding 26.2 points per game on the road on 426 total yards at 5.7 yards per play.  I just don’t see how the Bears will be able to slow down a Michigan State attack that has averaged the most total yards since 2005 and the most rushing yards (235) since 2004.

As I stated in the opening paragraph, Michigan State also possesses a very good defense that is allowing 19.9 points per game on 293 total yards at 4.8 yards per play to teams that would combine to average 5.6 yards per play.  While the Spartans’ stop unit is 0.8 yards per play better than average, Baylor’s attack is 0.7 yards per play better than average (6.6 yards per play against teams that would combine to allow 5.9 yards per play to a mediocre offensive squad).  Michigan State’s secondary is the bedrock of the Spartans’ defense as it allowed less than 200 passing yards per game for the fourth consecutive year (50.3% completion rate and 13-17 ratio).

Most bettors would be surprised to learn that Michigan State possesses a 0.1 yards per play advantage defensively over the Bears’ attack.  Motivation will also be an issue for Baylor as head coach Art Briles lobbied extensively for his squad to be included in the college football playoffs.  After being snubbed by the Committee, it’s hard to believe that the Bears will be excited to be playing against a Big Ten team.

Meanwhile, Michigan State relishes the underdog role as the Spartans have pulled upsets in their last three bowl games. The Spartans have never played in the Cotton Bowl, and Mark Dantonio is one of the most underrated head coaches in all of football.  The wrong team is favored in the Cotton Bowl – grab the points with Michigan State and invest with confidence.