Though the bowl season has been underway for more than a week now, it seems like forever since we've had a taste of Big Ten football. Other conferences have had their championship games, and some of the lesser bowls have occurred, but the last time we saw a Big Ten team in action was all the way back in the beginning of December when the Illinois Fightin' Illini traveled west to take on the Fresno State Bulldogs. As Tuesday approaches, however, we'll finally get to see the teams of the conference back in action. The majority of the conference's bowl games occur on New Years Day this year, but the Iowa Hawkeyes kick things off a bit early on Tuesday night when they take on the Missouri Tigers in the Insight Bowl. And, lucky for us, the very next day we'll see the return of the Illini, who travel to the Texas Bowl to take on the Baylor Bears.
This is the first of four editions of the Big Ten Digest in which I take the bowl games on two at a time. Below I look at the key issues for the teams of the Big Ten and run some simulations to see how they'll fare in their match-ups. We'll look at the Insight and Texas bowls in this edition, but stay tuned as over the next several days we'll hit all of the Big Ten's bowl games...
For the Iowa Hawkeyes, the theme for this bowl season is "coping." A season that looked to end in a slow, disappointing spiral exploded suddenly a few short weeks ago as Iowa lost two significant offensive players - one to criminal charges, another to academic issues. Now the Hawkeyes must travel back to the desert of Arizona, to the place where the nightmares from this season first reared their heads, and try to put that behind them and earn a victory. Will they overcome the loss of two of their playmakers and bounce back against a 10-2 Missouri Tigers squad that has endured its own disappointments this season (despite finishing with a 10-2 record, losses to Nebraska and a less-than-stellar Texas Tech team have left Missouri slotted into the pre-New Years day Insight Bowl)? Or will the losses prove more than they can bear and spell doom for the Big Ten's first bowl game of the season?
Though these two states share a border, this is not a familiar rivalry. Indeed, the Hawkeyes and the Tigers haven't met in more than a century. Given Missouri's longstanding rivalry with Illinois, that seems almost improbable, but the last time these two schools played against each other was in 1910. Though these two teams have records at odds, they match up relatively well in key categories. The Tigers have the slight edge in total offense, averaging 401.1 yards (45th in the FBS) per game, with the Hawkeyes only slightly behind at 379.4 (61st). In passing yards per game, they are nearly identical -- 248.7 per game for the Tigers and quarterback Blaine Gabbert (47th) and 249.2 per game for Iowa and Ricky Stanzi.
Stanzi, though lacking some of the late game magic he had last year, has improved considerably over the 2009 season. He's sitting at just over 2,800 passing yards on the season, with 25 TDs. Most impressive, though is his four interceptions on the season, down from 15 just a year ago. On the season he has a 160.5 passer rating (good for 11th in the FBS), but like the rest of the Hawkeye team, the last few games have shown a slide. Before and including the game against Michigan State on October 30th, Stanzi sported a 186.7 rating, which, had it continued through the end of the season would have been just a tad below Cam Newton's record setting mark of 188.2.
Of course, as I said, the last few games haven't been quite as kind to America's quarterback. Over the last four games of the season, Stanzi's rating declined to 129.75, not entirely surprising considering his six TD to two INT ratio. Were that 129.75 rating his number on the season, he would drop from 11th in the FBS down all the way to 61st, in the realm of the Adam Webers, Dayne Christs, and Nathan Scheelhaases of the league. A major question, then, for this Iowa team is, especially considering the loss of DJK, which Stanzi will show up to this game? The one who headed up a team that looked like it could compete for the Big Ten title? Or the one who's team lost Floyd of Rosendale to Minnesota for just the second time in the last decade?
Though Stanzi's performance on Tuesday night is certainly in the forefront of Hawkeye fan's minds, the performance of the Missouri quarterback isn't a foregone conclusion either. With a 126 rating on the season, 2,752 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, Blaine Gabbert more closely resembles the 2009 version of Ricky Stanzi than the current iteration. He's been relatively solid this season, but even with good yardage numbers his rating is dragged down mainly because of the scoring. In terms of getting the ball into the end zone, Missouri prefers to run it in rather to pass. Missouri has 15 passing TDs on the season and more than 25 on the ground across all of their backs.
This is in fact the one area where the Tigers and the Hawkeyes aren't well matched - Missouri averages 162.9 yards rushing per game (48th in the FBS) while Iowa is only at 142 (76th). And that of course was with Adam Robinson, who Iowa has now benched for the bowl game after his academic troubles. Compounding the problems, the backup to Robinson's replacement, Brad Rogers, will also be held out of this game because of cardiology problems that just turned up in a test. This means that if Marcus Coker were to be injured during the bowl, Iowa would really be up a creek.
Iowa won't be completely helpless out of the backfield, as they'll be starting freshman Marcus Coker in Robinson's place. Coker only has one TD on the season, but he has averaged 5.0 yards / carry, which isn't really anything to sneeze at. He'll really have to be on top of his game though, as, like Iowa, Missouri has one of the better defenses in the league, giving up just 15.2 points per game (6th in the FBS, compared to Iowa's 7th overall ranking at 16.4 points per game). In some ways, Iowa's draw of Missouri in this game does not bode well. I think even a depleted Iowa would have been able to handle a team similar to Texas Tech - high powered offense, no defense - but without their playmakers, playing against a team nearly identical to them, solid offense, good defense, will be quite the challenge.
The only defensive advantage Iowa may have is in Adrian Clayborn - Gabbert's offensive line has allowed 21 sacks on the year, including six in Missouri's first loss of the season to Nebraska. It seems that pressure on Gabbert is going to be critical to any success for Iowa. In that game, Gabbert was also just 18-for-42. Get pressure on Gabbert, and do at least an okay job of limiting the run, and Iowa might be able to claw out a victory. Of course, this assumes that the Iowa offensive line is able to stop Aldon and Jacquies Smith - Missouri's top two pass rushers - and avoid repeating their own six sack disaster that happened the last time they were in the desert.
Though I think that Iowa can earn a victory in the Insight Bowl, I am pessimistic about this game on the whole and I'm not alone. Iowa is only a 3 point underdog in this game, but I don't even know if they'll be able to get close to that. I decided to run a few simulations using tools from Accuscore to see if my anxiety was well founded and what I saw suggests that just how Iowa comes to this game is going to be critical to whether they can win. They can either play like they did in their first four conference games in the month of October, or like they did in their four during November.
If Iowa turns in a performance in this game that meets the averages for Ricky Stanzi, team rushing, and Adrian Clayborn sacks for October (at least 230 passing yards, 2 passing TDs, and no interceptions, along with at least 134 rushing yards, and 1 rush TD, and one or more sacks) then, regardless of how Missouri plays, then Iowa not only wins, but wins in a blowout, by nearly 20 points.
If we remove the limitations on the run game - i.e., just Stanzi performs up to October norms while the run game performs in any fashion - then Iowa still wins, but by a less convincing margin of about 10 points. The same is true if we don't constrain Stanzi's performance, but do have Coker hitting the October averages. Iowa wins, by at least eight points.
On the other hand, if Iowa plays like they did in November, the simulations aren't nearly as favorable (220 pass yards and one pass TD or fewer for Stanzi, along with one or more interceptions, 107 or fewer rush yards for Coker, with no rushing TDs, and no sacks for Clayborn) the Tigers walk away with the game, winning by anywhere from ten points to two touchdowns.
It seems, then, that the Jekyll and Hyde nature of this team cannot be overstated. Either they come out and play like they did in October and get a win, or they play like they did in November and lose badly.
Hilary's Pick: With slight reservations, I'm picking Missouri in this one. I want Iowa to come out and get a win for the Big Ten and show that they can rise above the challenges that befell them late this season, but I'm not betting on it.
The second bowl game the Big Ten will see this year is the Texas Bowl, which features the surprisingly bowl eligible Illinois Fighting Illini against the also surprisingly bowl eligible Baylor Bears. If I had told you at the beginning of the season that Texas would be staying home this year, while Baylor would be in a bowl, you'd probably have laughed at me. But somehow we find ourselves with that exact scenario on our hands. Much like the Iowa and Missouri matchup above, Illinois and Baylor are very similar teams. Both teams use a variation of the option in their offenses, though the Illini favor the run out of theirs - running (between quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and running back sensation Mikel Leshoure) twice as often as they attempt a pass. The teams are nearly identical in points scored per game - 32.1 for Illinois (34th in the FBS) and 32.6 for the Bears (29th) and in rushing yards per game with the Illini at 242.3 (13th in the FBS) and Baylor at 200.5 (23rd).
Where the teams diverge is in passing and total offensive output. The Illini have one of the weakest passing attacks in college football, putting out just 154.3 yards per game, good for 115th overall. The Bears, on the other hand, average 287.3 and are 12th in college football. In terms of total offensive yardage, this passing disparity give the Bears a great advantage as they rank 12th in the FBS with 478.5 / game while the Illini languish at 57th with 385.8.
Of course, with both of these teams, the offense isn't really the giant question mark heading into this game. The question is the defense. The Illini's defense were the sensation of the early Big Ten season, and seemed like they would carry Illinois to a good bowl game. Then, all of a sudden, they fell off a cliff. Over their first eight games of the season, the Illini averaged just 16.75 points allowed per game, with a low of 3 points against SIU and a high of 26 against Michigan State. In their last four games, however, the Illini allowed an average of 39.25 points per game, including 67 and 38 point disasters to Michigan and Minnesota. Like Illinois, Baylor's rather average defense turned in some mind boggling performances to close the season, giving up an average of 50 points during their last three games. Of course, those games were all to ranked teams - Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M, but that's still pretty horrid.
If Baylor's poison on defense has been a ranked team, then for the Illini it's an effective passing quarterback. This is a bit counter intuitive, considering that the Illini's worst defensive performance on the season was against Michigan, but it's true. (Interestingly, Denard Robinson was quite pass-happy in that game passing for more than 300 yards). Across their six losses, the Illini gave up an average of 33.8 points, 2.5 passing TDs, and 232 passing yards. In two of those games they allowed more than three hundred yards, with the one anomaly being the game against Ohio State where they limited Terrelle Pryor to under 100 passing yards, but lost anyway.
In their six wins, meanwhile, the Illini defense gave up just 14.6 points on average, along with .6 passing TDs, and 164 pass yards to the opposing quarterback. Of course, there's a bit of a chicken and egg element to this. Did the Illini have trouble in their losses because effective quarterbacks shredded their secondary, or were these quarterbacks made to seem effective because the secondary failed to show up?
No matter what the answer to that question is, the Illini's trouble matches up relatively well with that of Baylor's. Though quarterback Robert Griffin III had impressive total season stats (he's probably one of the most electric quarterbacks you've never heard of) at 3,195 yards, 21 touchdowns, and only 8 interceptions, he was at his worst in the Bears' last three losses. During those three games Griffin averaged just 201 pass yards, 0.3 passing touchdowns, and 1 interception. These are down from his average over the previous nine games of 317.5 passing yards, 2.2 passing touchdowns, and 0.5 interceptions.
So, this game is going to come down to Griffin and the Illini secondary's effectiveness. The simulations run using Accuscore's tools bear this out.
If Robert Griffin throws for 317 yards or more (his season average during the first nine games), along with 2 or more passing touchdowns, and 1 or fewer interceptions, the Bears win by a touchdown in an offensive shootout - 42 to 36. If, on the other hand, Griffin performs like he did in Baylor's most recent three games, at 201 pass yards or fewer, 1 or fewer pass TDs, and 1 or more interceptions, the Illini win by 10, 32-22.
So, which of these scenarios is more likely? Well, accuscore doesn't express much confidence in my Illini favoring scenario, estimating just about a 2% chance of Griffin hitting those numbers or worse, while there's about a 30% chance that he hits the good numbers or better. Yikes. Unfortunately, that conforms to how I feel about this game. While, as with the Iowa game above, I want a bowl win to boost the image of the Big Ten as a conference, I'm not exactly optimistic. I am slightly more optimistic here than in the Iowa game above... unlike with Iowa, the Illini aren't heading into this game hobbled. They just need to show up, especially in the secondary. If the Illini secondary has a good game and the defensive front can get to Griffin, this game is theirs for the taking. If not? This could get ugly quick.
Hilary's Pick: Baylor, by a nose. But I reaaaaaally want Illinois to win (seriously, I mean it this time!)