clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Processing the Numbers, Football Edition |
The Big Cotton Bowl Preview

Michigan State will have to find a way to stop Bryce Petty and Shock Linwood if they want to win this one

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

All statistics are courtesy of Football Outsiders, home of the F/+ Combined Ratings for college football.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) was created by Brian Fremeau; check out his website BCFToys for other goodies.
The S&P+ rating was created by Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.
Hat tips to Addicted to Quack's kalon and FO's 7th Day Adventure column for the inspiration.

So, what’s next?

This time we’re looking at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, which will be contested by the B1G’s Michigan State Spartans and the Big-12 co-champion Baylor Bears. The game kicks off at 11:30 PM CST / 12:30 PM EST on January 1st at Jerryworld, and will be televised by ESPN. Michigan State is an outstanding team with the misfortune of playing two playoff participants in Oregon and Florida State, whereas Baylor fell just short of the playoff due to a midseason stumble at West Virginia. The RBR staff put together a nice discussion about this one already, so check that out if you missed it.

Before we get to The Goods, let’s take a look at how these two teams got here.

The Resume — Baylor

As a reminder, the schedule tables do not include games against FCS teams, primarily because the advanced metrics are not calculated for those teams. In the event of a schedule that does NOT include FCS schools, the lowest-rated FBS opponent by F/+ will be omitted from the table so everyone’s on a level playing field.

Team F/+ S&P+ FEI OF+ DF/+
BAYLOR 27.0% (9) 243.9 (8) 0.218 (9) 13.7% (11) 11.7% (16)
TCU 28.7% (5) 239.5 (10) 0.229 (8) 9.6% (20) 15.9% (6)
OKLAHOMA 22.3% (13) 237.3 (12) 0.155 (22) 13.8% (10) 6.3% (36)
KANSAS STATE 17.5% (21) 220.3 (25) 0.146 (24) 10.5% (16) 2.1% (51)
WEST VIRGINIA 12.6% (34) 224.5 (22) 0.098 (38) 2.8% (49) 9.4% (25)
TEXAS 3.0% (57) 217.7 (32) -0.010 (64) -5.7% (94) 11.9% (14)
OKLAHOMA STATE -2.8% (68) 195.5 (73) -0.058 (80) -3.4% (77) -2.8% (71)
TEXAS TECH -5.4% (76) 193.6 (77) -0.077 (85) 5.2% (41) -9.9% (109)
IOWA STATE -11.8% (91) 175.9 (112) -0.084 (87) -0.8% (64) -11.3% (113)
BUFFALO -16.1% (102) 183.3 (96) -0.136 (99) -3.3% (75) -9.6% (107)
KANSAS -17.4% (107) 180.3 (102) -0.134 (98) -12.0% (117) 0.2% (62)
SMU -32.0% (127) 153.3 (127) -0.256 (125) -19.2% (128) -10.9% (112)
AVERAGE -0.1% 201.9 -0.012 -0.2% 0.1%

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.


  • Average F/+ Opponent: Georgia Southern (F/+ #62)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Iowa (S&P+ #61)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Western Kentucky (FEI #65)
  • Average Offense: Colorado (OF/+ #59)
  • Average Defense: Maryland (DF/+ #61)
  • Best Win: TCU (F/+ #5)
  • Wins against F/+ Top-25: 3 (#5 TCU, #13 Oklahoma, #21 Kansas State)

Well that’s not very good now is it? The crux of TCU’s argument for getting into the playoff over Baylor is clear when you see this chart. Both teams scheduled one of the country’s worst teams, SMU, for one of their out-of-conference slots. Baylor scheduled Buffalo, also among the worst teams in the country, for their other slot, whereas TCU went with Minnesota. You can see the difference that makes, as TCU’s average opponent had an F/+ rating 2.4% higher than Baylor’s. That being said, Baylor’s signature win was a 61-58 shootout over TCU, and that evidently made the difference for the playoff committee as Baylor got the higher ranking at the end of the season.

Much like several of the teams we’ve talked about this week, Baylor was extremely close to making the playoff, with only a mid-season hiccup on the road in West Virginia preventing an undefeated season. The typically explosive Bears offense couldn’t get it done in that game, going just 3-16 on third downs, alongside 215 yards in penalties that were produced mostly by the defense and special teams. Outside of that game, the shootout at TCU, and a near-disastrous fourth quarter collapse against Texas Tech, Baylor detonated pretty much everyone else on the schedule. As I’ve said before, you can play a crap schedule as an elite team and still come out ok in the advanced stats, but you’ve got to beat those teams badly to do it — that’s just what Baylor did.

Similarity — Michigan State

  • Offense — Rushing: TCU (RUSH OS&P+ #13)
  • Offense — Passing: Oklahoma (PASS OS&P+ #13), but not really.
  • Defense — Rushing: West Virginia (RUSH DS&P+ #17)
  • Defense — Passing: West Virginia (PASS DS&P+ #14)

Baylor’s seen a team that can run like Michigan State before, and they were pretty effective in that game. TCU managed just 139 yards on 41 carries, and almost half of those yards came on a single run by Aaron Green. 3.4 yards per carry is the very definition of pedestrian; Jeremy Langford may not find much running room against the Bears. Baylor hasn’t seen a passing offense of Michigan State’s quality (currently #4 according to S&P+), but they did get close in Oklahoma, and that doesn’t bode well for the Spartans either. Trevor Knight was abysmally bad in that game, managing just 146 yards at 5.4 yards per attempt. If Baylor manages to limit both Langford and Connor Cook the same way they played in these two games, this one will be done in a hurry.

It’s hard to draw too much from such a sloppy game, but as noted Baylor had a heck of a time getting anything going against West Virginia. The Bears only generated 318 yards of offense, averaging just 6 yards per attempt through the air and 2.3 on the ground. The 95 yards on the ground was their lowest rushing output of the year, and the 223 passing yards second only to the Texas game, where the Bears piled up 278 yards on the ground to compensate. I suspect this performance was an aberration, as Baylor has faced much better defenses than West Virginia’s and put up considerably better numbers. Nobody really stops Baylor so much as they stop themselves1, and I’m not anticipating that they will have a significant issue on that side of the ball against the Spartans.

1 | Where have I heard that before…

The Resume — Michigan State

Team F/+ S&P+ FEI OF+ DF/+
MICHIGAN STATE 23.6% (11) 248.9 (6) 0.165 (19) 11.1% (15) 9.7% (24)
OHIO STATE 36.5% (2) 266.0 (2) 0.257 (5) 18.8% (4) 15.4% (7)
OREGON 35.6% (3) 253.4 (3) 0.317 (1) 19.9% (2) 12.6% (13)
NEBRASKA 15.1% (27) 218.6 (31) 0.130 (29) 6.0% (39) 5.4% (41)
MARYLAND 6.3% (45) 203.3 (59) 0.017 (58) 1.6% (54) 0.2% (61)
PENN STATE 3.6% (54) 215.0 (34) 0.032 (51) -7.9% (104) 14.2% (10)
MICHIGAN 1.6% (60) 205.9 (56) -0.024 (69) -3.1% (72) 4.7% (43)
RUTGERS -4.4% (73) 198.6 (67) -0.091 (88) -0.3% (60) -4.2% (78)
PURDUE -7.4% (80) 187.3 (92) -0.056 (77) -5.8% (95) -1.1% (65)
INDIANA -9.5% (85) 191.7 (84) -0.066 (82) -5.3% (89) -3.3% (72)
WYOMING -20.7% (119) 178.6 (108) -0.174 (117) -4.6% (83) -8.8% (104)
EASTERN MICHIGAN -36.8% (128) 152.2 (128) -0.321 (128) -18.7% (127) -13.0% (120)
AVERAGE 1.8% 206.4 0.002 0.1% 2.0%

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.


  • Average F/+ Opponent: Utah State (F/+ #59)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Virginia (S&P+ #55)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Cincinnati (FEI #62)
  • Average Offense: Louisiana-Lafayette (OF/+ #57)
  • Average Defense: Western Michigan (DF/+ #46)
  • Best Win: Nebraska (F/+ #27)
  • Wins against F/+ Top-25: 0

Michigan State’s schedule was one of extremes, as they were the only team in the country to play multiple playoff participants, but also faced the country’s worst team according to F/+ in Eastern Michigan as well as a Wyoming team that wasn’t much better; the inbetween was the fluffiest the B1G had to offer. The week 2 road trip to Oregon was the big game that weekend, and the Spartans had a 9 point lead five minutes into the second half before they were Oregon’d2. They played well against Ohio State, but J.T. Barrett had one of his better games of a fine season. This is a solid, well-coached team that beat the schools they were supposed to beat, and played hard against the teams that beat them. Not really much more you can ask.

2 | Defined as "oh @$*% where’d those 28 points come from???"

Similarity — Baylor

  • Offense — Rushing: Nebraska (RUSH OS&P+ #21)
  • Offense — Passing: Rutgers (PASS OS&P+ #10)
  • Defense — Rushing: Michigan (RUSH DS&P+ #12)
  • Defense — Passing: Purdue (PASS DS&P+ #50

Nebraska had a woeful performance against the Spartans, managing just 47 yards on 37 carries, which is really pathetic — and yes, Ameer Abdullah was playing in that game. In more good news for Baylor, Rutgers #10 passing offense managed a whopping 139 yards in that game, in which both of their quarterbacks managed single digit QBR ratings and combined for 3 interceptions. It should be noted Bryce Petty is a heck of a lot better than either of those guys; something tells me he’ll be a little more successful against the Spartans.

The Bears have a stout run defense, but Michigan’s did not matter much as Langford put up 177 and 3 TDs on the Wolverines. As a team the Spartans put up 4.8 yards per carry, which is nothing exceptional but is more than enough to get the job done. The one soft spot on this Baylor team is the pass defense3, as evidenced by the comparison to Purdue. Connor Cook had an average game against the Boilermakers, putting up 238 yards at 6.4 yards per attempt for a QBR of 77.6. That game was in West Lafayette, whereas the other three were all in East Lansing. The Cotton Bowl, while ostensibly a neutral site, will likely be more of a road environment to the Spartans, and I would expect performances more like the Purdue game than Nebraska or Rutgers.

3 | That game against West Virginia featured a comically high number of pass interference penalties – more about this later.

The Goods

Overall Quality
F/+ 23.6% (11) F/+ 27.0% (9) PUSH
FEI 0.165 (19) FEI 0.218 (9) PUSH
S&P+ 248.9 (6) S&P+ 243.9 (8) PUSH
Spread +2.5 Spread -2.5 Baylor

When Michigan State Has The Ball
OF/+ 11.1% (15) DF/+ 11.7% (16) PUSH
OFEI 0.333 (22) DFEI -0.353 (23) PUSH
OS&P+ 121.5 (8) DS&P+ 123.9 (11) PUSH
Rush OS&P+ 124.5 (17) Rush DS&P+ 120.3 (19) PUSH
Pass OS&P+ 145.9 (4) Pass DS&P+ 108.2 (45) MICHIGAN STATE
SD OS&P+ 128.4 (10) SD DS&P+ 109.6 (40) MICHIGAN STATE
PD OS&P+ 144.1 (7) PD DS&P+ 122.5 (24) MICHIGAN STATE
OALY 110.2 (34) DALY 123.2 (9) BAYLOR
OASR 176.8 (8) DASR 144.9 (9) PUSH

When Baylor Has The Ball
DF/+ 9.7% (24) OF/+ 13.7% (11) PUSH
DFEI -0.187 (43) OFEI 0.504 (12) BAYLOR
DS&P+ 127.4 (6) OS&P+ 120.0 (11) PUSH
Rush DS&P+ 126.5 (14) Rush OS&P+ 121.1 (23) PUSH
Pass DS&P+ 135.0 (8) Pass OS&P+ 131.4 (11) PUSH
SD DS&P+ 117.6 (20) SD OS&P+ 123.8 (15) PUSH
PD DS&P+ 158.7 (5) PD OS&P+ 125.3 (24) MICHIGAN STATE
DALY 132.3 (4) OALY 113.2 (26) MICHIGAN STATE
DASR 126.2 (24) OASR 107.2 (56) MICHIGAN STATE

The Matchup on Special Teams
ST F/+ 2.8% (14) ST F/+ 1.6% (33) MICHIGAN STATE
FPA 0.549 (9) FPA 0.553 (7) PUSH
FGE -0.25 (95) FGE 0.168 (39) BAYLOR
KE -0.216 (29) KRE -0.07 (28) PUSH
PE -0.243 (19) PRE -0.126 (79) MICHIGAN STATE
PRE -0.099 (70) PE -0.247 (17) BAYLOR
KRE 0.048 (6) KE -0.09 (90) MICHIGAN STATE

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

Wondering what all these terms are?

  • FEI: The Fremeau Efficiency Index, an overall team quality metric that is drive-based and opponent-adjusted. For a more detailed discussion of FEI, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.
  • OFEI: The offensive component of FEI.
  • DFEI: The defensive component of FEI.
  • FPA: FEI Field Position Advantage, a measure of how much field position value a team earned against its opponents.
  • Fremeau Special Teams Efficiency Components - The special teams component of F/+ is based on Brian Fremeau’s Special Teams Efficiency, which is made up of the following five components of special teams play (per FootballOutsiders):
    FGEField Goal Efficiency, the scoring value per field goal attempt earned by the field goal unit as measured against national success rates.
    PREPunt Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent punt earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
    KREKickoff Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent kickoff earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
    PEPunt Efficiency, the scoring value per punt earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
    KEKickoff Efficiency, the scoring value per kickoff earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
  • ASRAdjusted Sack Rate, which is a version of sack rate (defined as sacks / [sacks + passing attempts] ) that has been opponent-adjusted. The metric is scaled based on an average rate of 100; the higher the rate the better. ASR is calculated for both the offense (OASR) and defense (DASR).
  • ALYAdjusted Line Yards, which is a measure of success in the running game specific to the line. This is accomplished by taking each carry by running backs only and weighting the yardage as follows:
    • Runs for a loss are weighted 120%.
    • Runs for 0-4 yards are unweighted.
    • Runs for 5-10 yards are weighted 50%.
    • Runs for 11 or more yards are not included.
    After the weighting process, the runs are further adjusted for game situation and opponent, and then averaged out per carry, resulting in adjusted line yards — a more detailed explanation of the entire process is available here. ALY is calculated for both the offensive line (OASR) and the defensive front seven (DASR).
  • S&P+: Another overall team quality metric, S&P+ is primarily play-based and consists of three components: Success Rate, Equivalent Net Points per Play, and a drive efficiency component. The "+" refers to opponent adjustments. For a more detailed discussion of S&P+, check out this sectin of the PTN Football Primer.
  • OS&P+: The offensive component of S&P+.
  • DS&P+: The defensive component of S&P+.
  • Rush OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at running the ball.
  • Rush DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at stopping the run.
  • Pass OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at throwing the ball.
  • Pass DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at defending the pass.
  • PD: Passing Downs, defined as later downs with medium yardage or more to go (3rd, 4th downs in excess of 5 yards to go), as well as 2nd down with more than 8 yards to go.
  • SD: Standard Downs, defined as all downs that are not Passing Downs.
  • SD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.
  • SD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.
  • PD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.
  • PD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.
  • F/+: The F/+ combined ratings combine FEI and S&P+ into one metric that serves as Football Outsiders' official rankings for college football. For a more detailed discussion of F/+, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.
  • Off. F/+: The offensive component of F/+.
  • Def. F/+: The defensive component of F/+.
  • ST F/+: The special teams component of F/+.
  • Swanson Giddiness Index: Easily the most accurate predictor of success in college football, the Swanson Giddiness Index is a qualitative, completely unsupportable metric that is presented via the tone of that week's image/animated gif of Ron Swanson — beloved Parks and Recreation character and official spirit animal of Processing the Numbers.

Wondering what all of this means? Check out the PTN primer!

So, what do we know?

Like all of the New Year’s Six bowls, these two teams are very closely matched. S&P+ and FEI more or less agree on where Baylor’s slotted, but FEI isn’t as fond of Michigan State — there’s a very good reason for that which I’ll get into in a minute. Vegas has Baylor installed as a 2.5 point favorite, which underscores how much of a tossup this one appears to be.

Baylor’s front seven excels against the run, ranking 19th according to S&P+ and 9th in DALY. Strangely enough, that doesn’t come with a strong ranking in standard downs, and usually you see those three together. Still, ALY is the one area Baylor has an edge when the Spartans have the ball, and while I suspect Langford will find a hole here and there Michigan State will have to win this through the air. The Bears front seven is also good rushing the passer, ranking 9th in DASR due chiefly to the efforts of stud defensive end Shawn Oakman. Unfortunately, that has not translated to much success against the pass, as Baylor has some significant issues in the secondary. That West Virginia game featured seven pass interference penalties called on the Bears, plus two more that were declined or offset and a defensive holding to boot. Xavien Howard was responsible for five of those4, and he’s started almost every game this season at cornerback for the Bears. To be fair, four of those five came while attempting to cover Kevin White, which is something that got a lot of cornerbacks in trouble this season5. While lacking a talent on the level of White, senior Tony Lippett has been a bear6 to cover in his own right, putting up 42 less catches and 194 fewer yards than White but obviously producing a lot more yardage when he catches the ball. At any rate, Cook’s ability to keep things moving down the field with Lippett and the other Spartan receivers will be the key for them on that side of the ball.

4 | Plus a facemask. Not his best day.

5 | Bradley Sylve, come on down!


That FEI disparity when Baylor's on offense sure sticks out, does it not? Michigan State’s shockingly poor DFEI is a result of a susceptibility to big plays, as they ranked 79th in the country in FEI Explosive Drives Rate. Explosive Drives are defined as drives where the offense averages at least 10 yards a play, and that’s not something you want to be well below average in allowing, particularly when you’re facing off against Petty, Linwood, and Antwan Goodley. This defense is very good on a play-by-play basis, as they have strong marks in all of the S&P+ components, but you can still give up a lot of explosive plays and come out well in this metric as long as that’s all you give up. At any rate, Michigan State should win the line battle, as they have a healthy edge in both ALY and ASR, and a strong secondary to go with that pass rush earned them the #5 ranking on passing downs according to S&P+. Relatively speaking there’s some susceptibility on earlier downs, but this is a strong defense down the line. Baylor’s not going to win by grinding out methodical drives — they’ll need to find big plays to get over this defense.

Both of these teams have great special teams units, but there are two things to look out for. One, Baylor’s kickoff coverage is abysmal, whereas R.J. Shelton is one of the better kick returners you’ve never heard of7. The other is field goal kicking, which is greatly in favor of Baylor. This looks to be a pretty tight matchup, and when that’s the case the importance of field goals is magnified.

7 | Hipsters love ‘im.

This is one of the more interesting previews I’ve done this season, as this is a case of two teams with strong overall numbers save for critical defensive flaws that were their undoing this season. Michigan State has to find some way to keep Baylor from making big plays, which seems impossible for them to do. Baylor has to figure out how to cover good wide receivers, which seems impossible for them to do. Whichever side figures out how to limit their flaw is going to win, plain and simple.

Any intangibles to consider?

The Cotton Bowl moved to the domed AT&T Stadium in Dallas a few years ago, so weather will not be a factor. You may be aware that Waco is only an hour or so from that stadium, and that Michigan is considerably far from Texas. As such, I’d anticipate a home atmosphere for Baylor, which may end up being the difference in the game.

Baylor’s only significant injury appears to be sophomore RB Devin Chafin, who suffered an elbow injury against Texas Tech and is questionable for the bowl game. Linwood is the main man for Baylor, but Chafin did split carries with Johnny Jefferson in relief. There's some confusion here, as the media outlet I typically use for this stuff says Chafin's still questionable, but Baylor Football tweeted out that he was back, along with offensive lineman Desmine Hilliard. Oddly enough, I'm inclined to go with Baylor Football on this one.

Michigan State starting guard Travis Jackson is dealing with an ankle injury and is questionable for the game, which will be a significant loss if he can’t go.

Former Baylor offensive coordinator Phil Montgomery has been mentioned as a candidate for numerous head coaching positions, and he was able to lock down the job at Tulsa after the end of the season. Art Briles has promoted his son Kendal to coordinator, which is worth noting. Usually when you lose a coordinator in the middle of bowl prep it's a problem, but unless the younger Briles is absolutely not up to the task I don't think it'll be an issue.

On the other side, Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has a similar reputation to Montgomery (and is a former recipient of the Broyles Award), and will be the next head man at Pitt. Unlike Montgomery, Narduzzi will stick around for the bowl game, and I suspect he will be just as dialed in as he normally is.

THE PICK: Baylor Bears, who are just too explosive for this defense. Michigan State isn’t going to get blown out or anything, but this will be a home game for the Bears and I don’t think it will be quite as tight as Vegas does.