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 TaxSlayer.com 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?
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?
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.