Hot Reads: Projecting Big Ten Win Totals
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Projecting Big Ten Win Totals

May 03, 2019

On Thursday I tried to reverse engineer some game-by-game win probabilities for Nebraska using ESPN's Football Power Index. With those probabilities, you can then estimate a projected win total.

Read all about that here.

But I also did that same calculation for each Big Ten team and every game on those schedules. So let's zoom out a bit and look at Nebraska's number in context of the conference. Again, these aren't ESPN's actual numbers just my attempt to offer a rough prediction of what it might be.

Big Ten West

Minnesota 8.49
Iowa 7.91
Wisconsin 7.90
Nebraska 7.85
Purdue 5.52
Northwestern 5.46
Illinois 4.39

I don't know how close this model will be to what FPI actually spits out for game-by-game predictions when those are finally released, but the results here are encouraging. When ESPN analyst Brad Edwards was on Hail Varsity Radio a few weeks ago, he said this of the West: "Maybe more interesting is that the team with the best chance to win the West is Minnesota. It's really close. Minnesota's 33%, Iowa's 28% and Nebraska's 26%, Wisconsin [is] all the way down at 7% and Northwestern at 4%."

Here, trying to replicate what FPI might look like, Minnesota does indeed have the highest projected win total. There's very little to differentiate Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin. I'm guessing the Badgers have a better chance here than what Edwards mentioned because of the home-field adjustment. I used a standard 2.5 points for every team that's playing at home. I'm guessing that FPI has a more fine-tuned home-field advantages baked in. Going on the road to play Illinois is not the same challenge as going on the road to play Wisconsin, though they're treated as the same in my calculation. A small difference in that number would be enough to flip Nebraska slightly ahead of Wisconsin and Northwestern slightly ahead of Purdue, which is the order Edwards mentioned.

Having these game-by-game probabilities really highlights the key stretches for these teams. Nebraska's is probably Ohio State-Northwestern-Minnesota. How the Huskers do in those three will go a long way toward setting up the rest of the season. Northwestern, which opens at Stanford, has a win probability less than 30% in five of its first six games. Wisconsin's late-season Ohio State-Iowa-Nebraska swing will probably decide the Badgers' fate. Part of the reason Minnesota is generating some buzz is because the Gophers, using FPI's power ranking, are favorites in their first eight games then close with four coin flips.

Based on these projections, you're looking at four bowl teams from the West: Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and pick one between Northwestern and Purdue.

Big Ten East

Michigan 10.07
Penn State 8.95
Michigan State 8.67
Ohio State 8.54
Indiana 6.44
Maryland 5.54
Rutgers 3.6

So the big story here, of course, is Ohio State. Fourth-best win total in the East? Again, that all stems from where FPI has the Buckeyes.

". . . [I]t's worth noting that FPI is awfully low on Ohio State — maybe even too low — because it isn't explicitly aware that the Buckeyes have added via transfer an elite quarterback prospect in Justin Fields (transfer QBs are noted in FPI only when they have significant starting experience)," Seth Walder of ESPN Analytics wrote in April

Based on the playoff probabilities ESPN has released, Ohio State should probably be a little ahead of Michigan State. Again, I'll chalk that up to the home-field advantage. The Buckeyes' road games are a little more favorable than the Spartans' (which include a trip to The Horseshoe).

I'm not as high on Penn State as what's presented here. The Nittany Lions play four consecutive coin-flip games in the middle of the season that will be very telling.

The Big Ten East, due to its pretty rigid hierarchy, is inherently less interesting (to me at least) than the West, but if you're looking for a team outside the typical four who could make some noise it's probably Indiana. The Hoosiers should have a decent chance to go bowling.

The Hoosiers visit Lincoln on Oct. 26.

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