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Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic primer: Michigan State vs. Baylor

12/31/2014


Since the start of the 2013 season, Baylor ranks No. 1 in the nation in total offense. Michigan State ranks No. 1 in total defense since 2013. AT&T Stadium is in for one heck of a best vs. best battle on New Year's Day when the Bears and Spartans face off in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on Thursday (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Max Olson break down the matchup:

How Michigan State can control the game: Baylor is going to score and put up big plays; that's pretty much a given. Michigan State's defense got gashed by the two other high-octane offenses it played this year, Oregon and Ohio State, so it's unrealistic to think the Spartans will shut down this one. But Michigan State's best defense might be its own high-powered offense, which can give the Bears problems with the power running game behind Jeremy Langford and the arm of quarterback Connor Cook. Michigan State might have to beat Baylor at its own game by lighting up the scoreboard. -- Bennett

How Baylor can control the game: Michigan State should expect gunslinger Bryce Petty and his limitless number of speedy receivers to do some damage, sure. But Sparty coaches who've been prepping for a month know by now the Bears win in lots of ways. Devin Chafin (elbow) is back and gives Baylor a three-headed monster at running back. Those backs will pound and bruise to set up the air show. Three-and-outs are the key on D, and Baylor forced more this season than MSU did. -- Olson

Michigan State's X factor: Defensive end Shilique Calhoun is likely playing his final game in the green and white, as he's widely expected to go to the NFL. He got off to a little bit of a slow start and whiffed on an important would-be sack of Marcus Mariota in the Oregon loss. But he bounced back strong and finished with 6.5 sacks. The Spartans need him to harass Petty and throw off the timing of the Baylor offense. -- Bennett

Baylor's X factor: Motivation. Even when Art Briles was irate about being left out of the College Football Playoff, he was quick to point out he hasn't forgiven or forgotten last year. Baylor laid an egg at the Fiesta Bowl -- a 52-42 loss to UCF -- but gets a redo this week: another chance for the first 12-win season in school history. Can the Bears channel their anger from the CFP snub and let loose against an even better opponent? -- Olson

What a win would mean for Michigan State: The Spartans are 10-2 but lost the only two marquee matchups on their schedule. So beating Baylor and claiming a New Year's Six bowl would add further validation to this season and make this a highly successful follow-up to last year's Rose Bowl championship season. With Ohio State surging and Michigan feeling the buzz of the Jim Harbaugh hire, Mark Dantonio's team can remind everyone that there's still a Big Ten East Division superpower in East Lansing. -- Bennett

What a win would mean for Baylor: In addition to those aforementioned incentives, the Bears are looking for a proper send-off for Petty, Bryce Hager, Antwan Goodley and the seniors who helped build up this program into a national title contender. Spencer Drango and Shawn Oakman made a major statement this week in electing to pass up the NFL for another run at the playoff. Baylor can make its own statement Thursday that, for a third straight year, this will be the team to beat in the Big 12. -- Olson