Monday, December 5, 2011
First take: Big Ten bowl lineup
By Adam Rittenberg
We've had some time to digest the bowl selections and examine the Big Ten's bowl lineup for this season.
Here are some thoughts after looking over the bowl landscape:
- As usual, the Big Ten's bowl lineup will be challenging, but not as daunting as it was last year. Having two teams in BCS bowls every year makes things tougher for the squads in non-BCS bowls, especially given the locations of the games. It's vital for the Big Ten to get at least a split in the BCS bowls. Although Oregon is a tough draw, Wisconsin can put up points and control possession time. Michigan State exposed Wisconsin's lack of speed on defense, and Oregon will try and do the same. Wisconsin will need a bunch of eight-minute scoring drives to win this game.
- Michigan will be a popular pick against Virginia Tech, which has been miserable in BCS bowls, but those thinking the Wolverines will roll the Hokies should tone it down a bit. If Denard Robinson limits mistakes, he'll be a tough matchup for Virginia Tech.
- The SEC-Big Ten matchups look more favorable after the Big Ten embarrassed itself against its rival conference in last year's bowls. Nebraska's offense will be challenged by South Carolina's ferocious defense, but the fact the Huskers are so run-oriented should help them against a team that is good but not great against the run. Michigan State and Georgia are evenly matched, and while the Spartans are disappointed after their Big Ten title game loss, they should be motivated to get their first bowl win under Mark Dantonio. As Dantonio said last week, the Spartans showed in the 2011 Capital One Bowl that they weren't BCS-worthy. They have another chance to change perception against Aaron Murray and Georgia, and they must take advantage. Ohio State and Florida both are mediocre, but I like this matchup for the Buckeyes, who should benefit from bowl practice. Buckeyes linebacker Andrew Sweat (concussion) should be back, and he'll provide a big boost against an anemic Gators offense.
- The Big 12-Big Ten matchups are by far the toughest on paper, and it's tough to see the Big Ten doing any better than a 1-1 split. Iowa and Northwestern both are sizable underdogs against Oklahoma and Texas A&M, respectively. Although Oklahoma has been the most overrated team in America for much of the season, the Sooners boast a lot of talent. Iowa has been fabulous in bowls under Kirk Ferentz, but the Insight Bowl will be a major test. Texas A&M's motivation could be an issue for the Aggies, who saw their coach fired last week. This would play into Northwestern's favor, as the Wildcats will be geared up to get their first bowl win since the 1949 Rose. But Northwestern's defense has been pretty awful for most of the season, and without top cornerback Jordan Mabin, the Wildcats could struggle against a dangerous A&M offense.
- Speaking of motivation, it will be the key factor for Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl. The Lions deserved a better bowl after going 9-3, and the players were unfairly punished for a situation they had no part in creating. As you can see here and here, Penn State players weren't too thrilled about their bowl placement. If Penn State shows up to play, the Lions have a great chance to beat Houston, which showed itself to be a fraud in the Conference USA title game. The Cougars can't stop the run, and Penn State's Silas Redd should have a huge day in Dallas. But if the Lions don't care, Case Keenum could shred them.
- Ricardo Allen and Purdue's secondary will be tested by Western Michigan's passing attack, led by quarterback Alex Carder and receiver Jordan White. It's another good opportunity for Allen to showcase his skills against an elite wideout. The Boilers will miss top running back Ralph Bolden (knee), but they have other backfield options and face the nation's No. 107 rushing defense. Pretty even matchup in Detroit.
- It's hard to know what to expect from Illinois or UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. Both teams had their coaches fired, and both had disappointing finishes to the season. Will Illinois coordinators Vic Koenning and Paul Petrino, both in the mix for other jobs, still be around to coach the game? Illinois' defense should be able to contain a UCLA offense that averages just 23.8 points per game. But if the Illini offense doesn't figure things out and show life for the first time since early October, it likely won't matter.
- Remember that a .500 record typically qualifies as a strong bowl performance from the Big Ten, which faces the nation's toughest lineup almost every year. It's crucial the Big Ten wins at least one of its BCS games and performs better against the SEC. If the Big Ten can get 5-6 wins with one BCS victory and a 2-1 mark against the SEC, the bowl season should be deemed a success. But there aren't many gimmes in the lineup and could be another rough year for the league.