Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Big Ten and the bowls: Turning the tables?

Without NCAA-sanctioned Ohio State and Penn State, which have been replaced in the Big Ten's bowl lineup by underwhelming Minnesota and Purdue, the odds are stacked against the Big Ten this bowl season. How can the league score some upsets?

It’s holiday season and bowl season, which means the national media and college football fans are frothing at the opportunity to jam down another helping of honey ham, and then slam the Big Ten for bowl game failings.

And this season, Big Ten haters have an additional advantage: Two of the top teams in the league are ineligible for bowl play.

The usual disadvantages usually are enough to bury the Big Ten: Bowls frequently are played in the backyard of the Big Ten’s opponent (such as the Rose Bowl, against the Pac-12 champ), and most of the Big Ten’s matchups are against the two best conferences, the SEC and Big 12. Six of seven matchups this year are against the SEC or Big 12. Not a cupcake in the lot.

With the Big Ten’s top team, undefeated Ohio State, as well as Leaders Division runner-up Penn State, under NCAA sanctions and out of the bowl picture, several league teams thus moved up a slot or two in the bowl pecking order - and into more challenging games. Heck, it’s a little surprising the Big Ten even managed to get seven teams bowl-eligible considering OSU and PSU were a combined 14-2 in league play.

The end result: Every Big Ten bowl team - a perfect 7-for-7 - is a betting underdog this week.

The lineup of fearsome foes includes the No. 6 (Georgia), No. 8 (Stanford) and No. 11 (South Carolina) AP-ranked teams. The Big Ten’s bowl teams are walking a tightrope on a windy day over a pit of alligators.

The odds are stacked against the conference. But not quite as much as the experts think. The Big Ten’s recent history of bowl shortcomings has led to exaggerated point spreads this season.

What can the Big Ten do to turn the tables? Well, it can’t count on reasonable reporting: All season long, the media have been carping that the Big Ten is downway down, this season, when in fact it’s having an average season for the Big Ten. Six league teams currently are in the Top 28 in the AP poll, and overall it is the 4th-best conference, just behind the Pac-12, with the Big 12 and SEC ranking Nos. 1-2 (

Of course, the six Big Ten teams in the top 28 of the AP poll includes Ohio State and Penn State, who, did we mention, aren’t playing in a bowl game?

The only thing the Big Ten can do to earn respect is surprise the experts and win bowl games. Multiple games. At least three. Here’s how it could happen:

1. Northwestern (9-3) beats Mississippi State (8-4)
  • Gator Bowl, Jan. 1, Noon, Jacksonville
Northwestern is the better team despite being a 2-point underdog. Not only do the Massey Composite Rankings say so (Northwestern is No. 27, Mississippi St. No. 37) but the Wildcats easily could have been more highly ranked: They blew double-digit 4th quarter leads to Penn State and Nebraska, and were the victim of a miracle defeat at Michigan. This is the toughest Northwestern team since the glory days of 1995-96. Mississippi State is no pushover, but it’s no high-end SEC team, either. The Wildcats and playmakers Venric Mark and Kain Colter will win this game - Northwestern’s first bowl win since 1949. Book it!

2. Between Michigan St., Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan, 2 of 4 must win
  • Michigan St. (6-6) vs. TCU (7-5), BWW Bowl, Dec. 29, 10:15 pm, Tempe
  • Wisconsin (8-5) vs. Stanford (10-2), Rose Bowl, Jan. 1, 5:00 pm, Pasadena
  • Nebraska (10-3) vs. Georgia (11-2), Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1, 1:00 pm, Orlando
  • Michigan (8-4) vs. So. Carolina (10-2), Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, 1:00 pm, Tampa
The Big Ten obviously would take more than two wins in these four games, but it must get at least two.

Michigan State (a 2.5-point ‘dog) lost its mojo in 2012 and has played down to the competition. Talent-wise, the Spartans compare favorably to TCU, but the problem for MSU all season has been mediocre play from QB Andrew Maxwell and a green WR corps. This will be another tough-sledding, low-scoring affair; the Spartans played eight games decided by four points or less, and had seven with the total points under 36. Nationally, this game might not get the pulse racing, but it almost certainly will be big-hitting and very tightly contested. MSU and its rugged defense can make amends for a very disappointing season and nab the Big Ten its much-needed first bowl win on Saturday.

Wisconsin is better than its record and better than the 6.5-point spread in this game. In fact, if not for the upheaval in the Badgers’ coaching staff - five assistants have departed to four schools, in addition to head coach Bret Bielema’s departure - Wisconsin likely would win this one outright, it says here. The Badgers are coming off a spectacular 70-point eruption in the Big Ten title game and have plenty of Rose Bowl experience, and with 5 losses they would have been easy for Stanford to underestimate. Alas, with the coaching shakeup, Wisconsin will be hard-pressed to play its best game. Still, expect the Badgers to get a boost from having Barry Alvarez on the sideline, and to play hard for their legendary former coach (who is 3-0 in Rose Bowls; Bielema was winless), battling Stanford to the end.

Nebraska is not better than its record indicates. But it is a talented, if flawed, team, and has some clear psychological advantages vs. Georgia. The Cornhuskers might seem way overmatched at first blush - they are a 10-point ‘dog - based on most recent performance: Nebraska was destroyed by Wisconsin, while Georgia went toe-to-toe with Alabama. But the ‘Huskers have a huge motivation edge. They were humiliated in the Big Ten title game, are in need of redemption and have had a month to get things sorted out on defense. With a healthier RB Rex Burkhead, Nebraska is capable of scoring on the vaunted Georgia defense. It’s hard to see the ‘Dawgs mustering an A+ effort after the incredible disappointment of the SEC title game defeat. C+ is more likely from Georgia. Nebraska, against conventional wisdom, should have a chance to pull this one out.

Michigan, a 6-point ‘dog, is another talented albeit flawed team, much like Nebraska. It also should have a slight motivation edge, as South Carolina has to be disappointed it didn’t land a little higher up the bowl totem pole. Also, the Gamecocks don’t have injured star RB Marcus Lattimore, and their best player, force-of-nature/wrecking machine DE Jadeveon Clowney (6-6, 256), will match up with Michigan’s best player, OT Taylor Lewan (6-7, 302), a projected 1st-round draft pick this spring. So Clowney shouldn’t totally dominate and draw constant double teams like he normally does. This should be another close game, though the toughness edge (and most likely the victory) goes to the Gamecocks.

3. Steal one between Minnesota and Purdue - or at least don’t get blown out
  • Minnesota (6-6) vs. Texas Tech (7-5), Meineke Bowl, Dec. 28, 9:00 pm, Houston
  • Purdue (6-6) vs. Oklahoma State (7-5), Heart of Dallas Bowl, Jan. 1, Noon, Dallas
In these two games the Big Ten is a decided underdog. Minnesota and Purdue don’t deserve to play in a bowl game, and if Ohio State and Penn State had been eligible, they probably wouldn’t.

Minnesota is a well-deserved 13-point underdog, but the bizarre vagaries of bowl motivation and coaching instability can help the Gophers. Texas Tech has a solid team but is dealing with some intangible chaos, abruptly losing head coach Tommy Tuberville this month. Offensive line coach Chris Thomsen will coach the bowl game before Kliff Kingsbury takes over, an awkward arrangement. Minnesota will be jacked for its first bowl since 2009 after back-to-back 3-9 seasons, and Tech’s coaching turmoil works to the Gophers’ advantage, but Minnesota won just two league games and likely isn’t good enough to capitalize. However, it’s important for the league’s collective psyche that the Gophers not get drilled: This is the first of the seven Big Ten bowls, and it can set the tone, one way or the other.

Purdue, a whopping 17-point underdog, also has an interim head man, wide receivers coach Patrick Higgins (the play-caller), after Danny Hope was fired (and before Darrell Hazell takes over). Again, a weird scenario. How will the team react? Purdue’s primary hope against the potent Cowboys is if Okie State somehow thinks it should have been in a better bowl, and if the Cowboys lose the turnover battle by at least two. Purdue did play its two best games of the year against unbeatens Notre Dame and Ohio State. So the Boilermakers have the potential to play up in class, and they should enjoy the freedom of very low expectations. It should be almost like a home game for Okie State, four hours down I-35 in Dallas, and it’s hard to see Purdue pulling the upset without receiving a slew of turnovers.

For more insight, analysis and opinions about Penn State football, check, or follow Pete Young on Twitter @AllPSUfootball.

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