Bowl week part 2 in an on-going series on the teams of the Big Ten conference...
Welcome back Big Ten fans. Selection Sunday has ended and now we know where the conference teams will be heading for the post-season. TCU, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi State, Missouri, Baylor, and Texas Tech will take on Big Ten teams this year - but will any of them be successful?
Before we get to the bowls, a quick news update, Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill has been named the new head coach of the Minnesota Gophers. A press conference will be held this week. Over the weekend rumors had looked at Chris Petersen of Boise State and Randy Edsall of UConn. While Jerry Kill is a good pickup for Minnesota -- he's had some success at the directional Illinois schools he's coached at, the stunning loss to Miami (OH) in this weekend's MAC Championship notwithstanding -- he's certainly not the home run that Chris Petersen or Randy Edsall would have been.
The only other coaching vacancy in the conference left right now is at Indiana. Much of the talk has focused on Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, with Wisconsin Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst also mentioned. That job should be wrapped up by the end of the week.
Bowl Analysis and Previews:
I think the conference got some favorable breaks with draws in the Outback and Insight Bowls, but the slate as a whole looks like a bigger challenge than the games last year. Having eight eligible bowl teams is great for the conference - but it does mean that at the bottom we have some questionable participants, and losses might be likely. So where can the conference look for wins and where should we brace for losses? Read on to find out...
As expected, our Rose Bowl matchup features Wisconsin against TCU. These two teams are very similar in offensive profile. Wisconsin has been averaging 202 passing yards and 247 rushing yards per game, while giving up 192 passing yards and 126 rushing yards a game. TCU averages 230 passing yards and 261 rushing yards per game, and gives up 126 passing yards and 89 rushing yards per game on average.
When it comes down to scoring, Wisconsin is extremely lopsided. Across their 12 games this year they've had 17 passing touchdowns. In those same 12 games they've scored 46, yes, 46 touchdowns on the ground. TCU is somewhat similar - when it's time to get the ball in the end zone they tend to go the ground route, with 28 passing TDs on the year and 39 run TDs. The problem for TCU here is that Wisconsin is extremely stingy when it comes to on-the-ground defense in the red zone. Wisconsin has given up just seven rushing touchdowns all season. Something is going to give in this game - and I think it's the Horned Frogs' running game.
In some ways, TCU drew an unfortunate BCS matchup. I'm sure TCU is excited about being in the BCS in the first place, and going to the Rose Bowl is about the best consolation prize they can get if they aren't in the national championship game. Buut.... They'd have a much better chance at winning with their rushing attack if they were going up against Virginia Tech, UConn, or Oklahoma. Out of all the bowl games the Big Ten will be in this year, I think this is the one most poised for a victory.
Hilary's Pick: Wisconsin
Sugar Bowl (At-Large):
Also as expected, the at-large selection from the Big Ten will be the Ohio State Buckeyes who will meet the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State has had a relatively balanced attack in terms of yardage this year - averaging 229 passing yards and 220 rushing yards. They allow 156 in the air and 94 on the ground on average. This will play favorably for Arkansas, who is about as pass-happy as a team can get. The Razorbacks average 338 in the air and 151 on the ground per game. Their defense isn't nearly as lopsided, giving up 182 yards in the air and 157 on the ground on average.
When it comes time to score, the Buckeyes can hurt you either in the air or on the ground, with 28 passing TDs and 25 rushing TDs on the year. The Razorbacks, as their yardage lopsidedness indicates, prefer an air route, scoring 34 times on the pass and 22 times on the run this year. Much like their Big Ten brothers the Badgers, though, Ohio State is very good at defending scores in their opponents chosen method. The Buckeyes have allowed just seven pass TDs all year. Ryan Mallet is something else, but so is the Ohio State secondary.
Perhaps the only wrinkle for the conference here has been Ohio State's historic ineffectiveness against SEC teams in bowl games. The Buckeyes are certainly as good, if not better, than the Razorbacks this year, so there really is no excuse for another loss. I think they stand a good chance, but it's going to have to come down to whether they can force Arkansas to run the ball when it counts. Do that, and their chances of a victory go up by quite a bit.
Hilary's Pick: Ohio State
Capital One Bowl:
It's the battle of the current Spartan coach versus the old Spartan coach. Mark Dantonio was hired by Nick Saban back in the day, and now, he will take him on in a bowl game. Both of these teams must be somewhat disappointed to be in this bowl. Michigan State is a co-champion in the Big Ten, at 11-1, and yet gets shut-out of the BCS thanks to Ohio State and the BCS rule that limits conferences to two teams max. Alabama is the defending national champion, but losses to South Carolina, LSU, and Auburn meant that they also would miss out on the BCS this year.
Both teams favor the pass slightly more than the run. The Spartans average 238 pass yards to 169 rush yards, while the Crimson Tide averages 260 pass yards to 175 rush yards. The story is pretty much the same on the other side of the ball - both teams will allow more yards in the air than on the ground.
In scoring, the teams are roughly equivalent also, splitting their touchdowns between the pass and the run. The one factor that could change this game is pass protection for the quarterback. The Michigan State offensive line has allowed 19 sacks on the year, while the Crimson Tide has allowed 30. If Sparty finds a way to take advantage of it Alabama will have to rely more on the run and will become easier to defend.
As cliché as it might be, I think this game comes down to which team can control its disappointment better. Neither is happy to be here, but the team that lets their destination get to them will be the team that loses. I like Michigan State here, but I think this game could go either way.
Hilary's Pick: Michigan State (hoping I don't watch a Sparty, NO! game)
In a bit of a surprise, the Florida Gators have jumped up into the Outback Bowl and will be taking on Penn State. This is probably a good thing for the Nittany Lions - the other potential teams that they could have faced, South Carolina or Mississippi State would be more of a challenge than the Florida Gators who have regressed an astounding amount since last year.
In terms of yardage, Penn State has been preferring the pass - 231 yards to 142 yards - while Florida is just about even - 191 yards to 166 yards. Penn State allows roughly equal averages in the air and on the ground - 188 to 165 - while Florida allows slightly more in the air than rushing - 173 to 130. The surprise perhaps is just how lopsided Florida is in the red zone. The Gators have scored just 12 passing touchdowns all year, but have run the ball in for points 29 times.
This could be a problem for Florida. Penn State has allowed just eight rushing touchdowns this year. Now, the Nittany Lions have given up points, so it's hard to say whether the low total is due to it being hard to get the ball into the end zone on the ground against PSU, or it being easy to get the ball into the end zone in the air. Either way, if Florida wants to win this game John Brantley will have to step up and show that he can throw a touchdown pass.
I'm a little nervous about this game. Don't get me wrong, I think Penn State got just about the best matchup they could hope for, but their upward trajectory notwithstanding, I'm still not fully sold on Joe Paterno's squad. If the top three games of the Big Ten look like 2-1 or 3-0 for the conference, this might be the point where things start getting tough for the good guys...
Hilary's Pick: Penn State
Despite losing the head-to-head battle to Iowa earlier this year, Michigan still jumps them in the bowl order and heads to the Gator Bowl. They'll face a newly tough Mississippi State Bulldogs team that will give the Wolverines all they can handle.
I'm going to be upfront and say I don't like this game. Sure, Denard Robinson is a phenom, but the Bulldogs give up just 122 rushing yards per game on average. Robinson is going to have to complete his passes and avoid getting knocked out of the game for Blue to move the ball against Mississippi State.
And do we even need to talk about Michigan's defense? Or the fact that they really don't have one? Though the Bulldogs went 8-4 this year, all four losses were to quality SEC West teams in LSU, Auburn, Arkansas, and Alabama. And they're 16th in the country in overall rushing yards. Why is this bad? Think about what happened to Michigan when they faced the team with the 12th overall rushing attack in the country... that team would be Wisconsin. Things didn't exactly go well for Michigan in that game, typified by the fact that Wisconsin passed just one time in the second half while scoring 24 points.
I'm not saying the Wolverines are doomed, exactly, but they really are going to have show up defensively to have a chance here.
Hilary's Pick: Mississippi State
Iowa's late season skid also dropped them precipitously in the bowl order, as they fell from a potential Outback participant down to the Insight Bowl where they will face the Missouri Tigers of the Big 12. This year, even though Adam Robinson has emerged as a quality running back, Iowa has still preferred the pass. They've put up an average of 237 air yards and 142 rush yards per game, and scored 26 passing TDs to 14 rushing TDs. Of course, having quality receivers in DJK and Marvin McNutt might have something to do with this.
The Tigers have been similar in yardage if not in scoring. They've put up an average of 238 pass yards and 163 rush yards per game, but scored just 16 pass TDs in comparison to 26 rush TDs.
Like Wisconsin and Penn State, though, Iowa is very tough against the run in the red zone. They've given up only seven rush TDs all year... but four of those have come in their last three games. If they play like they did in their first nine games of the season, I think they handle the Tigers. If they play like they did in their last three? This'll get ugly for the Big Ten.
Much like with Michigan State, motivation is going to be a question here. Iowa is undoubtedly disappointed about where they ended up. Dreams of a potential Big Ten or National Championship this year with a strong returning squad were dashed, and now they are in the 6th best bowl slot in the conference. I guess it could be worse, but not by much.
So, can Kirk Ferentz find a way to motivate his troops before it's too late? I think so, but Hawkeye fans better have their fingers crossed.
Hilary's Pick: Iowa
Despite the worse overall record, the Illini still jump Northwestern and claim the bowl spot in the Texas Bowl. This is interesting, partly because reports indicate that the reason the Illini stayed here despite a loss to Fresno State was because Northwestern wanted them to.
Wait, you say, why would Northwestern be okay with playing their bowl game on ESPNU when they could have better exposure on ESPN in the Texas Bowl? Surely they could have persuaded the Texas Bowl to take them over a 6-6 Illini team.
Ultimately, this comes down to Northwestern's desire to win a bowl game. They haven't since 1949, and they would much prefer to take their chances with a pass-happy Texas Tech team (as we'll see below) than the Baylor Bears and their run-pass option. Baylor has a balanced offense, slightly favoring passing in yardage, but scoring 22 times in the air and 24 times on the ground. Given what the Illini did to Northwestern via the run, it's not really a surprise that the Wildcats would be happy with the match-up they'll get in Dallas. Ultimately, it's win-win for the conference.
The Illini, it should come as no surprise to anyone who's seen Mikel Leshoure play, like the run. 25 of their 43 touchdowns on the year have come on the ground, and they average nearly 250 rushing yards a game.
While I'm nervous about this game - I think Baylor is a lot better than many give them credit for - I do think the Illini have a better chance here than Northwestern would, so from a conference superiority perspective it's a bit better for the Big Ten.
Given the way the Illini played in their games against Minnesota and Fresno State, however, I'm skeptical. I've got this one initially chalked up to a close loss, but, who knows, maybe the Fighting Zookers will come out and play like they did at Wrigley Field and get the conference a win...
Hilary's Pick: Baylor
The last bowl for the conference sees Northwestern take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Though Mike Leach is gone from Tech, the air raid lives on. The Red Raiders are a pass happy team, averaging 315 yards in the air and 138 yards on the ground per game. They're similarly lopsided when it comes to scoring - 35 pass TDs to just 15 rushing TDs. Despite Dan Persa's slippery reputation, Northwestern has slightly favored the pass themselves, putting up 243 average air yards to 149 average run yards. They've scored slightly more on the ground than via the pass, though, 19 to 16 as far as touchdowns go.
Of course, Dan Persa isn't going to be playing in this game, and that might be the difference. I hope the extra practice time will give Evan Watkins more time to get comfortable in the offensive system - certainly more time than the week he had before the game against Illinois after Persa got hurt, at least. But... I just don't know.
Perhaps even more key is going to be the play of the Wildcat o-line. They've allowed 39 sacks this year, a horrid number. Evan Watkins is a pocket passer and not a terribly mobile quarterback, so if the o-line gets pushed around by Texas Tech, Northwestern will find it hard to move the chains. Given the way the defense degrades when they've been asked to stay out on the field... and the speed at which Taylor Potts and Tech can score touchdowns, that could spell disaster for Northwestern.
Still, I am heartened by the fact that Northwestern has been very competitive in its recent bowl games against Auburn and Mizzou. Yes, those ended up narrow losses, but the Wildcats stayed in those games til the very end. It's definitely possible for Northwestern to get their first bowl win in 51 years, but I still wish Dan Persa was out there under center...
Hilary's Pick: I'd rather not think about it.
So that's the way I see things right now. I have the conference probably going 5-3, with 6-2 as the best case scenario, and 3-5 the worst. But I really think the conference can find its way to at least .500 this post-season, and with eight bowl eligible teams out of 11, that's not a terribly poor showing. Maybe a bit down from last year, but still good overall.
I'll take closer looks at each of these games as the bowl season progresses, and the Digest will also recap them once the scores are final. Don't forget to check out the Digest's basketball coverage during this month too, we're only a short ways away from the beginning of in-conference play!
Before we go... one last edition of my picks...
Most Likely Rout: Insight Bowl. Iowa vs. Mizzou. If the Hawkeyes show up for this game, they could give the Tigers all sorts of trouble.
Most Likely Upset: Rose Bowl. Wisconsin vs. TCU. So, in my mind, this isn't really an upset because Wisconsin should be favored. But, TCU is somehow the higher ranked team here, so I guess when Wisconsin walks away with a win that's how it'll be portrayed.
Best Games to Watch: The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowls will be exciting. Secondary to that, the Cap One, Insight and Texas Bowls should all be competitive affairs as well.
Big Ten Player of the Bowls: Oof. How do you pick just one? I'm going to say on offense that Scott Tolzien and Ricky Stanzi have great games. On defense, I like Greg Jones and Adrian Clayborn. I think all four play in ways that make the pro scouts drool.