Big Ten: 2011 Gator Bowl

Anytime the SEC and the Big Ten square off, conference pride is at stake. Most of those matchups usually occur in bowl season, and this year is no different. The two leagues will face each other in three Jan. 2 bowls, with South Carolina playing Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl, Michigan State taking on Georgia in the Outback Bowl and Florida and Ohio State staging a 2007 national title game rematch in the Gator Bowl.

So which league will come out on top this year? SEC blogger Chris Low and Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett debate that topic:

Brian Bennett: Well, Chris, it's bowl season again, which means some more SEC vs. Big Ten showdowns. I think I read somewhere that the SEC has had a little bit of success in the postseason, especially against the Big Ten. So I suppose you want to brag a little bit about your league. Let's go ahead and get that out of the way first, shall we?

Chris Low: Brag? Coming from SEC Country? We don't need to brag. We just flash our jewelry in these parts, and that usually suffices. Sure, it's been another banner year in the SEC with Alabama and LSU set to play for the BCS national championship and three other SEC teams ranked among the top 16 in the final BCS standings. But you've got to prove it every year, and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida all have tough matchups with Big Ten teams in the bowls. Speaking of the three bowl showdowns matching the SEC and Big Ten, which one do you think is the worst matchup for the Big Ten?

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Zuma Press/Icon SMIWill Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez be able to run the ball effectively against South Carolina's speedy defense in the Capital One Bowl?
BB: Very restrained of you not to bring up last New Year's Day, Chris. I actually think all three Big Ten/SEC showdowns this year are good matchups that could go either way. If I had to pick the toughest one for the Big Ten, I'd probably go with the Capital One Bowl. While Nebraska had a nice season at 9-3, it has a challenging assignment in trying to solve South Carolina's defense. Especially up front, the Gamecocks can cause serious problems for the Huskers' run game, and I don't think the option is going to work well against all that speed. Taylor Martinez will have to have one of his best games, and when Nebraska has to rely on the pass, it doesn't always look pretty. Then again, South Carolina isn't exactly a juggernaut of an offensive club, either.

What's your take on that one?

CL: Couldn't agree more about South Carolina's defensive line. Those guys have played lights-out all season, and you're going to see three or four of them playing in the NFL at some point. They've made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks this season, and other than the Arkansas game, didn't give up much of anything the last nine games of the season. They're not the kind of dynamic pocket passing team you're used to seeing under Steve Spurrier, but sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw is tough as nails and isn't afraid to take off and run. They'll also run the zone read play with him. Honestly, the big concern with the Gamecocks is that they've been so wretched in bowl games. They've lost their past three and haven't played well in any of them. I want to see them break that drought before I get too high about their chances in the postseason.

Speaking of poor bowl performances, can Michigan State rebound from last year's debacle?

BB: I think so. The Spartans ran into an Alabama buzz saw last year, and I don't see Georgia being nearly as talented or as angry as the Crimson Tide were a year ago. This Michigan State team was playing extremely well down the stretch and came within a play or two of going to the Rose Bowl. The Spartans can dominate defensively, especially up front with All-America tackle Jerel Worthy, and they can knock a quarterback off his rhythm with their blitz schemes. But I think the biggest difference between this year's Michigan State and the one that got manhandled last year is a more productive, diverse offense. Kirk Cousins was very sharp in the second half of the season, and the offensive line continued to improve. Both teams have top-five defenses, but Georgia may have a harder time scoring.

Motivation will be a key for both teams, though, as they each lost in their conference title game. How good are these Dawgs, really?

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Dale Zanine/US PresswireGeorgia's Aaron Murray should get a stiff test from Michigan State's defense in the Outback Bowl.
CL: Motivation shouldn't be a problem for Georgia. At least, it better not be. The Bulldogs have a chance to win 11 games and really set themselves up nicely going into next season. Georgia has a chance to be a top-10 team in 2012 and build the kind of momentum this program hasn't had in the offseason since its Sugar Bowl victory over Hawaii to cap the 2007 season. How good are these Dawgs? They're a good team, not a great team. Defensively, they should be the best test the Spartans have faced all season. Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree are an exceptional linebacker tandem. Jones was the SEC's best big-play defender this season, and the Bulldogs didn't give up much in the secondary, either. I wouldn't underestimate Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. He spreads the ball around and threw 33 touchdown passes this season.

What's your take on the Urban Meyer Bowl?

BB: The Meyer angle adds intrigue, but I'd be more interested to see these teams play next season. As is, we have a pair of 6-6 teams who had all kinds of offensive issues this year. Ohio State lost its final three games after looking like it might have turned things around. But at least the Buckeyes will be motivated to audition for Meyer, and they're a young team that should benefit from the extra bowl practices. Plus, the Buckeyes have a blossoming star at quarterback in freshman Braxton Miller. Maybe a new offensive coordinator can jump-start the Gators' attack, but we could be looking at a low-scoring game in Jacksonville. A 6-6 tie in regulation seems appropriate.

Can Florida finally put it all together?

CL: Florida could use anything remotely resembling a quality win this season. Of course, I don't know that you could call Ohio State a quality win. One of these days, the Buckeyes are going to beat an SEC team in a bowl game and have that win stick. The win over Arkansas last season was vacated thanks to tattoo-gate, so technically Ohio State is still 0-9 against the SEC. The Gators were hard to watch on offense this season, and there's no reason to think they will be significantly better in the bowl game. I agree that a 6-6 tie sounds about right with somebody winning in overtime on a field goal. The Gators are good enough on defense to get it done, so I'm predicting an SEC sweep.

That's right, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida will all come out victorious. And not only that, but something tells me the SEC stands a pretty good chance of winning the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, too. Call it a hunch.

BB: OK, so Ohio State's win over Arkansas may not count, but I was there and I know it did happen. So the Big Ten can actually beat the big boys from the SEC. I may be naive, but I think the Big Ten gets a little revenge this bowl season. All three games are winnable, and I predict the league I cover takes two out of three from your southern friends. And maybe someday soon the Big Ten will be back in the national championship debate.
Let's look at three keys for Michigan heading into its Progressive Gator Bowl matchup against Mississippi State.

1. Strong defensive line play: Everyone knows Michigan's biggest weakness is the secondary, including Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and his players. The Wolverines need to help their shaky defensive backs with strong play up front. Nose tackle Mike Martin must be a difference maker, and Michigan needs Craig Roh and others to penetrate the backfield. Bowl prep provides Michigan's young defenders the time to improve, but the Wolverines don't win this game without a good performance up front.

2. Hang onto the ball: This applies not only to Michigan players who have the ball, but Wolverines receivers trying to catch it. Michigan had too many dropped passes at critical times, and Denard Robinson needs Roy Roundtree, Darryl Stonum and others to be sure-handed in this game. Turnovers were a real problem down the stretch in Big Ten play, and Michigan will need to make the most of every possession in this game.

3. Start fast: If Michigan wins, I see the game playing out much like the season opener against Connecticut. The Wolverines must set the tone from the get-go, score some points, avoid drive-killing turnovers and gain the emotional edge. Michigan fell behind big in too many Big Ten games before finding a rhythm on offense. That formula won't cut it against Mississippi State in Jacksonville.
Michigan is back in a bowl game for the first time in three seasons. The Wolverines' last trip to the Sunshine State worked out well, and they'll try to end an up-and-down season on a good note.

Here's a look at Michigan's matchup against Mississippi State in the Progressive Gator Bowl.

WHO TO WATCH: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Who else? One of the most exciting players in college football returns to his home state and will try to lead Michigan to a much-needed victory. Robinson's health has improved in the past five weeks after getting banged around throughout the regular season, and it will be interesting to see if he can recapture his big-play ability. Mississippi State defends the run well, so Robinson will need to showcase his arm and take good care of the football.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Wolverines' young defense. Michigan has played more true freshmen and more young players on defense than it ever imagined before the season, and the results have showed. The good news: a long layoff before the bowl has provided valuable practice time for the Wolverines' defenders, who need to upgrade their fundamentals and techniques for a good Mississippi State offense. If Michigan can create a turnover or two and find ways to get off of the field on third down early in the game, it could slow down the Bulldogs.

WHY WATCH: In case you haven't heard, Rich Rodriguez might be coaching for his job at Michigan. Rodriguez's future remains uncertain heading into the bowl game, and he certainly could help his cause by sending an improved product onto the field. Michigan is 8-0 in nonconference games under Rodriguez the past two seasons and should benefit from the lengthy layoff before the bowl. A convincing win against Mississippi State could buy Rodriguez more time, while a poor showing might send him packing.

PREDICTION: Mississippi State 34, Michigan 28. Robinson will do some damage on home soil, but I don't have enough faith in Michigan's defense or the defensive coaching staff to see a substantial improvement for the bowl game. Dan Mullen is a terrific offensive coach who will find the fairly obvious weaknesses in the Wolverines' defense. Michigan keeps it close, but Mississippi State wins.
I really enjoyed reading Tate Forcier's quotes this week about his drama-filled career at Michigan.

The sophomore quarterback talked about losing his starting job to Denard Robinson, nearly transferring early this season and then choosing to stick it out in Ann Arbor. He discussed his maturity, his respect for Robinson and how everything is part of a plan.

Here's Forcier in his own words:
On Rich Rodriguez's statements last spring about Forcier's immaturity: "Just being a freshman, hitting the freshman wall. Having too much success, letting it get to my head, going out [partying]. I used to love going out. Now it's like, it's old. Being a freshman, everything's so new to you. You get overwhelmed with everything. Believe it or not, it hurt me having a lot of success so early. You take any kid, not just a quarterback, and put them on a stage like this and have success, it's going to be hard for them to be able to handle it, especially being so far away from home. It's just different. I learned a lot after my freshman year. It's not all about you; it's about the team."

Forcier was candid and entertaining. He sounded like a guy who had evolved after dealing with some disappointment.

Now he's dealing with more disappointment, and so is Michigan.

The school announced Thursday that Forcier is ineligible for Michigan's matchup with Mississippi State in the Progressive Gator Bowl. According to a news release, Forcier "did not meet university standards." That sounds a little vague, but Forcier's situation likely relates to academics.

It's an unfortunate situation for a player who earned respect for remaining with Michigan and backing up Robinson throughout the season. Forcier appeared in eight games and passed for 597 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions.

His situation puts Michigan in a tough spot entering the bowl game. The Wolverines had been seeking a medical hardship waiver for freshman Devin Gardner, who appeared in the first four games this fall before back problems kept him sidelined. Gardner, who has been simulating Mississippi State quarterback Chris Relf on the scout team leading up to the bowl game, now is a play away from the field. Gardner won't retain a season of eligibility if he plays in the bowl.

Michigan really needs Robinson to remain on the field Saturday, for multiple reasons.

What's next for Forcier? We'll have to wait to find out.

Michigan defense gets back to basics

December, 30, 2010
Michigan's defense had a rough time playing against just about all of its Big Ten opponents this season.

So what's the best part about five weeks off before a bowl game? No opponent.

The Wolverines could simply worry about themselves.

"Having a month to prepare, you're not practicing for Mississippi State the whole time," Wolverines sophomore defensive end Craig Roh said. "You have like seven practices to practice just technique. That can help a lot of guys. You're always evaluating yourselves, and having that time off just to relax a little bit and really evaluate what we need to improve on does help the defense."

After finishing 102nd nationally in points allowed, 108th in total yards allowed and 111th in pass yards allowed, Michigan needs a much stronger effort from its defense Saturday against Mississippi State in the Progressive Gator Bowl.

Although the Wolverines' lacked noticeable progress on defense throughout the season, the unit was ravaged by injuries, player departures and other factors, particularly in the secondary. Michigan has played 13 true freshmen, including six defensive backs, and had three other defenders make their collegiate debut this fall.

Roh has seen the young players benefit greatly from the long pre-bowl layoff.

"I'm seeing a maturing," Roh said. "They're just starting to really become more confident. I was a freshman last year, and you just need to get some games under your belt and get some time under your belt to get confidence."

Roh has used bowl prep to fine-tune the technical aspects of his game. He played outside linebacker for a chunk of the season before settling in at defensive end, where he's most comfortable.

Michigan needs a strong performance from Roh and the rest of the defensive line against a Mississippi State offense that boasts several rushing weapons, including running backs Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins and quarterback Chris Relf.

"They're a really well-rounded offense," Roh said. "They don't really have a weakness or a weak guy that you can really pick on. They're all good players, so it's going to be a good challenge for us.

"We really need to get on our techniques. If we execute our game plan, we'll have a great chance of winning."
Denard Robinson can't put a percentage on his health at the end of the regular season, but he knows this much.

"I know I wasn't all the way to 100 percent," the Michigan sophomore quarterback said. "There's been a lot of down time lately. It helps to get a lot of treatment in."

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Don McPeak/US Presswire Michigan needs to have Denard Robinson healthy and at the top of his game against Mississippi State.
Michigan needs Robinson to be refreshed and recharged for its matchup against Mississippi State in the Progressive Gator Bowl. No Big Ten player had a bigger role in their team's fate this season than Robinson, the league's Offensive Player of the Year and the nation's No. 3 rusher (1,643 yards).

Although the lead-up to the bowl has given Michigan's much-maligned defense time to self-evaluate and grow, it's hard to imagine the Wolverines beating Mississippi State without a huge performance from "Shoelace" and the nation's No. 5 offense.

"These guys get to the ball pretty fast," Robinson said. "They've got an active front four, linebackers are pretty good and the secondary's not too bad. So I've got to be on my A-game."

A native of Deerfield Beach, Fla., Robinson is thrilled to be back in his home state. He estimates he'll have about 30 friends and family members in the stands for the bowl game.

"It's a big deal," Robinson said. "Great feeling to be back home. I'll have a lot of people come out and support me. I just thank God for giving me the opportunity to do it."

The uncertainty surrounding coach Rich Rodriguez's future at Michigan has been a hot topic leading up to the Gator Bowl, although Wolverines players are trying to avoid the incessant speculation. According to Robinson, Rodriguez has been "the same guy since when I first came in" leading up to the bowl.

Robinson's success this season appears to be the biggest reason for Michigan to retain Rodriguez, especially since the sophomore quarterback is such a perfect fit for Rodriguez's offense.

"If it was up to me, I'd tell them he has to come back," Robinson said. "We had a pretty good season, and our future's really bright. We've got a young team and we're just starting to jell now.

"I see us in the future winning a national championship or moving in the top 10."