No, I don't have a crystal ball so I can't tell you exactly wha happened in the Big Ten bowl games... but I can tell you what might happen -- and why you might want to think about tuning in to them. (Except the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Don't watch that one. Just don't.) (And don't forget to enter the BHGP Bowl Pick 'Em group if you haven't already done so.)
ROSE BOWL: #9 Wisconsin (11-2) vs. #6 Oregon (11-2)
THE GAME: Do I really need to sell you on this game? Come on, it's the Grandaddy of Them All and two of the most exciting offenses in the entire nation to watch doing battle in one of the most picturesque settings in America -- of course you'll be watching this game.
PLAYER(S) TO WATCH: Montee Ball, Wisconsin RB and LaMichael James, Oregon RB. The best non-Trent Richardson running backs collide in a showdown that should be the college goodbye party for both players (James has already said he's going pro after this game (or not); Ball would be slightly insane not to do the same). Ball is best-known for putting up stellar stats (1759 yards rushing) and scoring a preposterous number of touchdowns (38 combined rushing and receiving scores, or one every eight times he touched the ball). He needs two scores to break Barry Sanders' hallowed record of 39 scores, and while Ball's record wouldn't be as impressive as Sanders' (Ball would do it in 14 games, while Barry set the mark in 11 games), it would still be pretty damn incredible. Seriously: there are 54 teams in college football this year who've scored 40 or fewer touchdowns. (Iowa, for reference's sake, has scored 43.) James' stats aren't quite so absurd (1646 yards rushing, 17 TDs), but they aren't exactly bad and he's still an electrifying runner to watch.
CHANCE OF B1G VICTORY: 25%. The blueprint for beating Oregon has been made pretty clear over the past few years by teams like Boise State, Ohio State, Auburn, LSU, and USC: you need a fast, disciplined defense that can stop Oregon's runs on early downs (and force them into clear passing situations on later downs, which makes their attack one-dimensional) and you need a powerful offense that can put up points and maintain drives. Wisconsin has precisely one of those things: a powerful offense. Unfortunately their best defense figures to be... that same offense. Simply put, Wisconsin needs to slow the game to a crawl, score on virtually all of their possessions, and limit Oregon's possessions as much as possible. Oregon should be salivating at the prospect of getting to the edge on Wisconsin's defense (and if they can do that... BANG ZOOM TO THE END ZONE) and they appear to have entirely too much speed for Wisconsin to handle in a back and forth game.
WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Oregon 45, Wisconsin 35
SUGAR BOWL: #13 Michigan (10-2) vs. #17 Virginia Tech (11-2)
THE GAME: Thanks to silly BCS rules, the Cotton Bowl is hosting the game that should have been here (#7 Arkansas vs. #10 Kansas State), so we're stuck with a Michigan team that slipped into the final BCS rankings and a Virginia Tech that got here by virtue of its, uh, Southern-ness. (They certainly didn't get here by virtue of their ability to sell tickets.) Bowl games, everyone!
PLAYER(S) TO WATCH: Denard Robinson, Michigan QB and Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech QB. In another world (or even just another decade), neither of these two men would be quarterbacks: Robinson would probably be a terrifying slot receiver/return specialist and Thomas would be a linebacker (or maybe even a defensive end). But we live in the open-minded spread-fueled offensive utopia that is college football in 2011 and so both men are dynamic quarterbacks. On paper, Thomas is the better passer (215/363, 2799 yards, 19/9 TD/INT to 133/237, 2056 yards, 18/14 TD/INT), while Robinson is the more explosive runner (1163 yards and 16 TDs on 208 carries versus 416 yards and 10 TDs on 137 carries). Of course, Thomas is also a devastating runner in short yardage and didn't need to run the ball as much as Denard, thanks to an accomplished sidekick like David Wilson (1627 yards and 9 TDs on 266 carries).
CHANCE OF B1G VICTORY: 60%. It would help if, instead of the new road uniforms they will be sporting for this game, Michigan just played it in Clemson uniforms, given how badly the Tigers pwned Virginia Tech in two meetings this year (combined score: Clemson 61, Virginia Tech 10). That said, Virginia Tech had difficulty against explosive offenses this year (see: those two ugly losses to Clemson and nail-biters against Miami, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina) and the Michigan offense definitely fits the "explosive offense" bill. The motivation factor seems to lean in Michigan's favor, too: this is the best bowl game they've been in since the 2007 Rose Bowl (and just the second bowl, period, for the upperclassmen who suffered through the lean early years of the RichRod Era), while this is the fourth BCS bowl in the past five years for Virginia Tech (the ACC, everyone!).
WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Michigan 34, Virginia Tech 24
CAPITAL ONE CITRUS BOWL: #21 Nebraska (9-3) vs. #10 South Carolina (10-2)
THE GAME: The first thing my dad said when he heard about this game was "Nebraska vs. Spurrier!" Which was an acknowledgment of the infamous 1996 Fiesta Bowl and the 62-24 beatdown Nebraska put on Spurrier's Gators to lock up their second-straight national title. Unfortunately for Nebraska, Tom Osborne isn't walking through that door (well, he might be, but not to coach the game). Tommie Frazier isn't walking through that door. Lawrence Phillips isn't walking through that door (unless the door in question is part of a prison cell). In fact, the only thing the 2k11 Cornhuskers have in common with the '95 edition is the red "N" on the side of their helmets: that Nebraska team was one of the greatest teams in college football history; this Nebraska team was the third-best team in their division. South Carolina's minus two of their pre-season offensive headliners (RB Marcus Lattimore and QB/alcohol enthusiast/general bon vivant Stephen Garca), but the offense soldified around new QB Connor Shaw over the last few games and the defense is legitimately fierce.
PLAYER(S) TO WATCH: Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina DEs. Together, these two terrormonsters combined for 76 tackles (23.5 TFL), 14.5 sacks, 3 pass break-ups, 12 QB hurries, and 5 forced fumbles. Oh, and Ingram scored three touchdowns. There might not be a better 1-2 punch at defensive end in college football this year; if they can get to Martinez, T-Magic could set a bowl game record for arm punts in this one.
CHANCE OF B1G VICTORY: 25%. This feels like a game where the South Carolina defense just chokes the life out of the Nebraska offense and makes life miserable for Martinez and Rex Burkhead. The Nebraska defense has run hot and cold all season, but they may need to score points for Nebraska to have a shot in this one.
WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: South Carolina 27, Nebraska 10
OUTBACK BOWL: #12 Michigan State (10-3) vs. #18 Georgia (10-3)
THE GAME: Congratulations, Michigan State and Georgia! You lost your respective conference championship games; instead of heading to the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl, you're headed to the Outback Bowl in scenic Tampa, FL! Have a Bloomin' Onion on the house. Be sure to wash your hands before heading over to Mons Venus, though.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jarvis Jones, Georgia LB/DE. Jones was second in the nation in sacks (13.5) and we all know what happens if you can pressure Kirk Cousins: SPARTY NOOOOOOOO.
CHANCE OF B1G VICTORY: 33%. Michigan State is in the midst of the best four-year stretch in program history (36 wins since 2008), won a share of the Big Ten last year, and took home the inaugural Floyd of Rosedale division title this year, but there's one thing they haven't been able to accomplish in that span: win a bowl game. They lost to Georgia in future #1 pick Matt Stafford's last hurrah in the Capital One Bowl three years ago, a suspension-ravaged Sparty team lost a shootout (41-31) to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl two years ago, and their Big Ten champion squad got ritually sacrificed to the Dark Lord Saban last year (49-7) in the
Capital One Citrus Bowl. Meanwhile, FUN FACT OF STATISTICAL IRRELEVANCE THAT WILL DRIVE SPARTY FANS INSANE: Georgia has never lost to a Big Ten team* in a bowl game (7-0). Random history aside, Georgia just seems better than Sparty: two of their three losses were to top-ten teams (Boise State, LSU), their defense was an iron vise for most of October and November, and Aaron Murray has quietly become a mighty fine quarterback.
* They have lost to Nebraska and Penn State in bowl games, but those teams weren't in the Big Ten yet.
WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Georgia 27, Michigan State 13
GATOR BOWL: Ohio State (6-6) vs. Florida (6-6)
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PLAYER TO WATCH: Braxton Miller, OSU QB. His numbers in 2011 were solid, but not breathtaking -- 67/134, 997 yards, 11/4 TD/INT, 695 yards rushing, 7 TD -- but he still figures to be the most exciting player on the field (unless Demps or Rainey just go nuts). Consider it a preview of what he might do to the Big Ten for the next 2-3 years (although he won't be running Meyer's offense in the bowl game).
CHANCE OF B1G VICTORY: 75%. This has the pungent aroma of an offense-free cripplefight. Florida scored 12 points or fewer in five of their final eight games and while there's an argument to be made that the departure of former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is a case of addition by subtraction, John Brantley still sucks and the Gators have no decent receivers. If you can keep Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey from going bananas on the ground, you can beat Florida, no problemo. Ohio State ended the season on a three-game losing skid, but were at least competitive in all their losses. In fact, if the offense plays the way it did against Michigan, this could get real ugly.
WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Ohio State 27, Florida 17 and Meyer flips two more recruits to OSU during the game.
MEINEKE CAR CARE BOWL OF TEXAS: just Northwestern (6-6) vs. Texas A&M (6-6)
THE GAME: If ever there was a bowl game seemingly designed for our Ferrari-driving friends to win, it would seem to be this one. The "Cardiac Cats" are well-known for their comeback prowess, especially with Dan Persa at the helm (and Persa should be as healthy as he's been all season for this game, as well as motivated to end his jNW career with a bang)... and they're playing a team whose second half collapses were so notorious even the 2010 Iowa team thinks they were a little weak in the clutch. The Aggies are also under the command of not just an interim coach but an interim interim coach, after former head coach Mike Sherman got served his walking papers and former interim head coach Tim DeRuyter bounced to Fresno State to fill their head coaching vacancy. By gametime, A&M might just let Reveille run things. On the other hand, this match-up has a few echoes of the Iowa-Oklahoma match-up: on pure talent alone, the Aggies certainly outclass jNW and if they get their shit together, they could bury our plucky purple friends, particularly since A&M has a potent passing attack and the Wildcats' pass defense is still a bit, um, theoretical. Expect points. Lots and lots of points.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Dan Persa, Northwestern WB. Sure, that whole PERSASTRONG campaign was a complete farce and injuries robbed him of a chance to credibly follow-up last year's efforts (and get jNW to a better bowl than, um, this one), but even Persa at 75% effectiveness was pretty salty: 193/260, 2163 yards, 17/7 TD/INT. As noted above, he should be healthy for this game and he should be motivated to end his jNW career on a high note. Expect fireworks.
CHANCE OF B1G VICTORY: 0%. Come on now, Northwestern doesn't win bowl games. You know that.
WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Texas A&M 41, Northwestern 34
TICKET CITY BOWL: #24 Penn State (9-3) vs. #20 Houston (12-1)
THE GAME: Ah, the wonder and majesty of the Ticket City Bowl -- does any other bowl compare? I daresay "no." Keep your Pasadena rose parades and Tostitos-fueled scenes of bacchanalia; give me a bowl named for a ticket resale website, a chilly Dallas morning start, and a decrepit old stadium. Yessir, that's all I need to be happy. In seriousness, though, this is a potentially intriguing match-up between one really good offense (Houston) and one really good defense (Penn State). There's also definite potential for a blowout either way and/or a damp squib of a game, since neither team exactly wants to be in this bowl game.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Case Keenum, Houston QB. He set roughly a bazillion NCAA passing records in his never-ending career, but this is your last chance to watch him work his magic before he doubtless washes out of the NFL in three years and makes some CFL team extraordinarily happy. The Penn State secondary was last seen getting bombed into submission by Russell Wilson, incidentally.
CHANCE OF B1G VICTORY: 60%. When good defense meets good offense with a month to prepare, it's usually wise to bet on good defense. There's also serious letdown potential with Houston (they were a game away from playing in a BCS bowl) AND their defense wasn't exactly good in the first place -- even the Ginger Avenger ought to be able to do some serious damage against them. THAT SAID there's also serious "eff this shit" potential from Penn State; the players weren't too excited about the game when it was announced.
WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Penn State 38, Houston 24
LITTLE CAESAR'S PIZZA (PIZZA) BOWL: Purdue (6-6) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)
THE GAME: Things I still fervently believe:
a) That MAC teams (except Temple) "play defense" only as a way to give their offenses a bit of rest.
b) That MAC defenders are either failed offensive players or underclassmen biding their time until they get a chance to play offense.
c) That whatever vengeful ACL-hating deity the Purdue faithful managed to upset is one vindictive bastard.
d) That most of life's problems can be solved with judicious application of pizza and MACtion.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jordan White, WMU WR. You can thank me in three years when White is putting your fantasy football team on his back and leading them to glory, just like another former WMU standout, Greg Jennings. (I think gifting me10% of your winnings is a fair reward, right? I accept Paypal.) White led the NCAA in receptions (127) and yards (1646) and was second in the nation in touchdowns (16). The kids call production like that "crazy good."
CHANCE OF B1G VICTORY: 40%, and that figure is dependent on Purdue not losing more guys to ruptured ligaments. OMHR went just 1-1 against mid-major competition this year (beat MTSU 27-24, lost to Rice 24-22) and they've lost to a MAC team two years running (28-21 to NIU in 2009, 31-20 to Toledo last year). Western Michigan is no stranger to claiming B1G scalps (as we know all too well) and went 1-1 against BCS schools this year (losing 23-20 to Illinois and beating UConn 38-31). They're not going to be intimdated by Purdue.
WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: Purdue 45, Western Michigan 42
KRAFT FIGHT HUNGER BOWL: Illinois (6-6) vs. UCLA (6-7)
THE GAME: It's been called the saddest bowl of all-time and you can certainly make that argument: one team ended the year on a six-game losing streak, while the other is the first (to my recollection, at least) to make a bowl game despite having a sub-.500 record. Both teams fired their head coaches in the immediate aftermath of the regular season, so both teams will have lame ducks stalking the sidelines come New Year's Eve. To make matters even worse, the game's being played at AT & T Park and playing football games at baseball stadiums is always a little bit sad. Still not sad enough for you? The high-water mark for both teams was probably a win over Arizona State... who also wound up finishing 6-6. This is the zenith (or perhaps the nadir) of sad, mediocre football. Watch it in wonder. Or profound disinterest -- whatever works for you.
PLAYER(S) TO WATCH: For about half the season Nathan Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins were the most enjoyable QB-WR connection in the Big Ten, but then they caught the same hopeless case of the sads that inflicted the rest of the Illini and their productivity fell off a cliff. Maybe the de-Zooking will rejuvenate these two for one more game.
CHANCE OF B1G VICTORY: 45%. It's hard to imagine either team particularly wants to be playing this game (or any other game), given the way their seasons went and the absence of their head coaches. That said, that disinterest seems split pretty evenly between Illinois and UCLA, which makes that issue a wash. But deduct 5% from Illinois' chance of winning on account of the fact that they LOST THEIR LAST SIX GAMES OF THE SEASON. They haven't won since well before Halloween. They are ripe with the stench of losing.
WAY-TOO-EARLY PREDICTION: UCLA 27, Illinois 21