Less than a week remains before Northwestern takes on Mississippi State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. The Wildcats are a consensus underdog (somewhere around - 2, depending on your source), as is every other Big Ten team playing in a bowl. Of the seven teams that qualified for the postseason, most pundits believe Northwestern has the best chance to pull an upset. Since we’ll be bringing you plenty of content on the Wildcats matchup in the next couple of weeks, it’s time to shift our focus to the rest of the league. Kevin and I have broken down the bowl game (excluding the Gator) from the Big Ten lineup we believe has the best chance of falling in the Big Ten’s favor. The conference has faced unfavorable postseason matchups in recent years, and the draw is even more difficult this season thanks to Penn State and Ohio State’s postseason ineligibility, which forces the rest of the league to play above the bowl slot its resume would typically garner. Within those brutal selections, we’ve chosen the two that look most amenable to a Big Ten victory. And remember, for the sake of expanding our horizons, we’re keeping the Wildcats out of this discussion.
Chris: Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl – Michigan State vs. TCU
If you’re looking for a high-paced, up-tempo, scoreboard-rattling track meet, you’ve chosen the wrong bowl game. Neither of these teams boasts an elite offense. Both quarterbacks, Michigan State’s Andrew Maxwell and TCU’s Trevone Boykin, have struggled in big spots. And there are few offensive skill players of note on either side. What the Spartans do have is Le’Veon Bell, a bruising running back with tremendous power, speed, size and, as we learned throughout this season, durability. He is the key to everything Michigan State does on offense, and unless Maxwell makes a major leap in bowl practices, you can expect more of the same on December 29 in Arizona. Bell is a grinder who punishes defenders, preserves momentum after contact and works for tough yards. Despite running behind a tenuous offensive line for much of this season, Bell logged 350 carries for 1,648 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The obvious counter to Bell is TCU’s vaunted rush defense, which ranks first in the Big 12 by a large margin – the Horned Frogs give up an average of 3.28 yards per carry, while second-ranked West Virginia allows 3.54. Gary Patterson’s defense may well be able to slow bell, just as Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State managed earlier this season. Here’s more bad news for MSU: TCU is nearly as stingy in the back end of the defense. The Horned Frogs yielded an average of 228.1 yards through the air per game. If there was any hope Maxwell could gel with his receivers, correct regular season mistakes and have his long-awaited breakout game in the postseason, TCU’s secondary is not exactly the most forgiving unit.
You can dig around and pinpoint minor bright spots on each offense. There’s the progressive improvement of Boykin at quarterback, or MSU tight end Dion Sims uncanny size-to-speed skill set, or speedy Horned Frogs receiver Josh Boyce. But after crunching the numbers, and accounting for countervailing forces on both sides of the ball, all of it comes back to one thing: defense. If I could simulate this game on a digital interface – which, at this stage of today’s technological development, is totally doable, but nothing I’m willing to try on this here MacBook pro – an infinite number of times, I can’t imagine the total scoreline would break the 40-point threshold on more than 20 percent of attempts. Betting-inclined observers would do well to take the under; this game is going to be low-scoring, and almost nothing seems to indicate otherwise.
Scoring-averse contests are often decided by one or two plays. This one should be no different. The Spartans’ fourth-ranked defense (4.33 yards per play) will keep them within striking distance throughout, and the Horned Frogs’ stout unit will likewise limit Michigan State from breaking the game open. It’s going to come down to which team can either a) control the ball in the fourth quarter or b) make one crucial play in crunch time. If the Spartans can feed Bell, mix in a few simple passes for Maxwell, and keep TCU’s defense on the field, they should be able to eat the clock and ride Bell’s 240-pound frame to victory. It won’t be pretty, but the gameplan – relying on defense; doing the bare bones minimum to score just enough points on offense – should be enough against a young TCU team.
Kevin: Rose Bowl — Wisconsin vs. Stanford
Like Chris, I also think Michigan State is the most likely team not named Northwestern to win its bowl game, but for argument's sake, I'll go with the third most likely team overall: Wisconsin. This doesn't really say as much to Wisconsin's strength or the Badgers' chances against Stanford as it does to how brutal of a slate this is to the Big Ten. The conference routinely is stuck with bad matchups because of its tie-ins and its tendency to get two teams into BCS games, and while there is only one BCS team from the Big Ten this year, the absence of two of the conference's better teams — Ohio State and Penn State — makes for some difficult games.
By no means am I picking Wisconsin to win this game, but if the Badgers show up like they did in the Big Ten Championship Game, then they certainly have a chance. Stanford's defense is one of the best units in the country and will probably be the best defense that Wisconsin has faced to date. The Cardinal rank third in the nation in stopping the run, while Wisconsin is the 12th best team in the country at running the ball. However, the Badgers might have an even better rushing offense than the numbers appear.
Star running back Montee Ball has exploded in the latter half of the season after a slow start and was at his best in the Big Ten Championship, rushing for 202 yards and three touchdowns against Nebraska. But it's not just Ball; Wisconsin has a potential three-headed monster at running back with Melvin Gordon and James White. Gordon rushed for 216 yards on nine carries for a whopping 24 yards per carry in the Big Ten title game, and while he'll surely never repeat that feat, his explosion and speed complement Ball's power game nicely. It all hinges on the run game for the Badgers, and while it will be a tough task to compete with an impressive Stanford defense, this unit has the potential to do it.
Wisconsin will need the rest of its team to step up in addition to the run game. Curt Phillips will have to have the best game of his career in order to open things up for Ball, Gordon and White, and the defense will have to improve after an inconsistent season. Again, it's not likely that Wisconsin finally wins a Rose Bowl in its third straight appearance, but the Badgers certainly have the tools to do it if everyone steps up.