Friday, December 20, 2013
Take Two: B1G's most improved bowl team
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.
Coaches always harp on the importance of the 15 bowl practices, not just for the development of their young players but the entire team. Although the Big Ten went 2-5 in bowls last season, teams such as Minnesota and Michigan made strides even in losing efforts.
Today's Take Two topic is: Which of the Big Ten's seven bowl teams -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota -- will make the most improvement before kickoff?
Take 1: Adam Rittenberg
To me, this comes down to teams with weaknesses that can be fixed in several weeks of practices and those who are what they are with certain elements. Ohio State's pass defense, for example, is what it is and likely will be exposed by Clemson's ridiculously good wide receivers. I feel the same way about Wisconsin's passing game, although Jared Abbrederis could have a big performance in his final collegiate game. Michigan's offensive line looked better against Ohio State, partially because of the scheme, and should progress with some added practice time. My concern there, however, is the health of quarterback Devin Gardner. So I'm hesitant to go with the Wolverines.
My pick here is Minnesota, mainly because we saw the way the Gophers improve on offense between the end of the regular season and last year's Texas Bowl. The offensive line stepped up as Minnesota piled up 222 rush yards and 31 points. The group carried that over into this season, and Minnesota ranks fifth in the Big Ten in rushing at 200.9 yards per game. Minnesota needs to see the same type of progress from its passing game before returning to the Texas Bowl to face Syracuse on Dec. 27. I think it can happen. Quarterback Philip Nelson has a chance to get healthy and improve his chemistry with promising young wide receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. It'll be tough without top wideout Derrick Engel, but I expect a strong offensive showing from Minnesota in Houston and a double-digit win.
Take 2: Brian Bennett
I'm with you on Michigan, which would likely be my pick if we knew with more confidence how healthy Gardner would be. But good health is a reason I'll go with Nebraska.
The Huskers were a seriously beat-up team by the second half of the season, and their offensive line was being held together by spit and string because of so many injuries. I think that greatly contributed to Nebraska's poor performance in the finale against Iowa (though the Hawkeyes had an awful lot to do with that as well). The break between the regular season and the bowl game has already helped many of those players heal up, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who was hobbled by an ankle problem. The offensive line should be as close to full strength as it has been in a long time.
And don't forget how many young players and first-time starters Bo Pelini played on defense this year, including several freshmen in the front seven. Extra bowl practices should prove very beneficial for them, and this is a defense I think has a chance to be special in the next year or two. The players also shouldn't be worrying about the status of their head coach as some undoubtedly were in November.
Add all that up, and I expect the Cornhuskers to look much better than they did while limping to the regular-season finish line. Whether that's good enough to beat Georgia remains to be seen.