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Big 10 Bowls -- A Preview

   by ASA - 12/22/2011

Ten of the 12 Big Ten teams are headed to bowl games this season, including a pair of squads heading to BCS bowls. Apparently, Vegas oddsmakers don’t like the Big Ten’s chances as seven of the 10 squads are underdogs. Since 2009, the Big Ten is 8-9 straight up and 10-6-1 ATS in bowl games. In BCS bowls in that span, the Big Ten is 3-1 straight up and 4-0 ATS.

Sugar Bowl
Michigan Wolverines (-2.5) vs. Virginia Tech Hokies
Jan. 3, 7:30 PM CST, ESPN

Michigan is back in a BCS bowl for the first time in five years. A victory over the Virginia Tech Hokies would give Michigan its first BCS bowl win since the 2000 Orange Bowl. VA Tech will be making its fourth trip to a BCS Bowl in the past five seasons. The Hokies’ only win in those appearances came against Cincinnati in the 2008 Orange Bowl (lost to Stanford by 28 points last season).

Michigan’s QB Robinson and RB Toussaint have both rushed for over 1,000 yards and have 25 combined rushing touchdowns. Virginia Tech will do its best to stop the run and force Robinson to air it out. D-Rob is only completing 56% of his passes this season and has 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Michigan’s offense gets most of the attention, but Michigan’s defensive improvement from a year ago is why this squad is where it is now. The Wolves improved from 110th nationally in total defense last season to 18th this year.

Virginia Tech was easily the most surprising selection as a BCS at-large bid. The Hokies lost both of their games against Clemson this season and don’t have a “marquee” win on their resume. QB Thomas has 19 touchdowns and 9 interceptions this season while RB Wilson ranks 5th in the country with 1,627 rush yards. Defensively this squad allows just 314 yards per game (13th nationally) and 17.2 points per game (8th nationally), however, much of those stats came against weak opposition.

Something to consider: Michigan is 9-2 ATS in its last 11 games against non-conference opponents but just 8-20 ATS against teams with a winning record. VA Tech has failed to cover nine of its last 12 games this season but has covered 14 of its last 20 as an underdog.

Rose Bowl
Wisconsin Badgers (+5) vs. Oregon Ducks
Jan. 2, 4:00 PM CST, ESPN

Wisconsin makes its second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1998-99 after last year’s 21-19 loss to TCU. Oregon will make its second trip to the Rose Bowl in the last three seasons after a 26-17 loss to Ohio State in the 2009 edition. Both will be highly motivated for a different result here.

Both of these offenses couldn’t be more different in scheme and style, yet so similar statistically. Oregon runs a fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense to perfection, averaging 515 yards (6th nationally) and 46 points per game (3rd). Wisconsin is more methodical at it uses a mammoth offensive line and an extremely efficient balance of run & pass to chew up the clock and keep the defense guessing. Wisconsin averages 477 yards per game (15th) and 45 points per game (4th).

Wisconsin has the 8th best defense in the nation and 6th best scoring defense. It was a bit exposed against the Spartans in the Big Ten Championship. MSU used its speed and quick hitting plays to rack up 471 yards and 39 points against UW. The Badgers' best defense, in this game, could be its offense. Their offensive line could wear on the smaller Ducks, and the ground game led by Montee Ball – who needs just two touchdowns to set the single-season FBS record – will help keep Oregon's offense off the field.

Something to consider: Oregon coach Chip Kelly has only lost six times in his three years at Oregon. In five of those losses, high-quality teams had extra time to prepare their defenses, including the last two Bowl games. Wisconsin has covered five of its last seven Bowl games – all as an underdog.

Gator Bowl
Ohio State Buckeyes (+2) vs. Florida Gators
Jan. 2, 12:00 PM CST, ESPN2

The Buckeyes and Gators are used to playing in bigger postseason games, but a matchup between two storied programs like Florida and Ohio State (teamed with the recent news that former Florida coach Urban Meyer will coach next season at OSU) will certainly be motivation enough for both of these squads.

We mentioned above that Meyer will take over coaching the Buckeyes next season, but interim coach Luke Fickell will finish up this season by coaching the Bowl game. The extra month of practice should certainly help this young Buckeyes team, particularly quarterback Braxton Miller. The Big Ten freshman of the year showed strong promise and improvement while starting the final eight games, including his 335-yard, three-touchdown performance in the season-ending loss at Michigan.

The immediate concern for the Buckeyes is finding ways to score against a Gators defense that finished ninth in the nation in total defense. Ohio State had the worst passing attack in the Big Ten while Florida held opponents to fewer than 167 pass yards per game and allowed just 13 passing touchdowns all season.

After starting 4-0, Florida lost six of its next eight games and didn’t beat anybody that finished the regular season with a winning record. The 6-6 mark is Florida’s worst regular-season finish since 1987. The Gators averaged just 334 yards per game (102nd nationally) and averaged just 13 points per game against FBS opponents during the final eight weeks of the season.

Something to consider: Florida has won four of its last five Bowl games, including last year against Big Ten Penn State and in 2006 against Ohio State in the BCS Championship. Florida has failed to cover eight straight games while OSU has covered four straight as an underdog.

Capital One Bowl
Nebraska Cornhuskers (+2.5) vs. South Carolina Gamecocks
Jan. 2, 12:00 PM CST, ESPN

Nebraska’s first season in the Big Ten had its ups and downs, but with a win here in the Capital One Bowl the Huskers would get to 10 wins and this season can be seen as a success. South Carolina had two narrow losses this season, a three-point defeat to Auburn and a closer-than-the-score-indicates 16 point loss to Arkansas.

Offensively the Huskers are pretty one-dimensional. QB Martinez and RB Burkhead lead the nation’s 13th best rush-offense and have combined for 2,105 rush yards and 24 touchdowns. Martinez has never been a huge threat through the air, throwing for less than 2,000 yards and completing just 56% (12 TD and 7 INT).

South Carolina lost arguably the top RB in the nation when RB Marcus Lattimore injured his knee in week seven against Mississippi State. South Carolina’s offense was averaging 36 points per game with Lattimore in the lineup, but sputtered to just 22 points per game the final six games without him. QB Shaw took over when SC dismissed starting QB Garcia midseason. Shaw performed well, completing 66% with 12 TD and 6 INT the final seven games.

Defensively the Gamecocks have the clear advantage in this game. South Carolina has the 4th best defense in the nation, 2nd best pass defense, and 13th best scoring defense. The strength is in the defensive line, where defensive ends Ingram, Clowney, and Taylor have wreaked havoc on opposing QB’s all season long (combined 19.5 sacks this season).

Nebraska’s Blackshirts has shown the ability to be a shutdown defense (allowed just three points to Big Ten Legends champ Michigan State), but were thoroughly dominated by the Big Ten’s two best offenses in Michigan and Wisconsin. Wisconsin put up 48 points while Michigan put up 45 (both 20+ point losses for Nebraska).

Something to consider: South Carolina is 1-4 straight up and against the spread in its last five Bowl games. Nebraska is having an eerily similar finish as last season when it lost three of its final four games, including its Bowl game, after a 9-1 start. This season the Huskers are 2-2 the last four games (1-3 ATS) after a 7-1 start.

Outback Bowl
Michigan State Spartans (+3.5) vs. Georgia Bulldogs
Jan. 2, 12:00 PM CST, ABC

Michigan State will try and rebound after a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, coming up short of the Rose Bowl for the second consecutive season. Last season Sparty didn’t respond well in the Capital One Bowl, losing 49-7 to Alabama. Georgia also lost in its conference championship game, losing 42-10 to #1 LSU. The Bulldogs finished with their first 10-win season since 2008 and look for their fifth Bowl win in the last six years.

Offensively, the Spartans have surged since a three-point performance on October 30th at Nebraska. Since then, Sparty is averaging 38.6 points in the past five games. QB Cousins has completed 67% of his passes with 13 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions over that span. The rush-offense has been surprisingly non-existent for most of the season. MSU ranks just 76th nationally with 143 rush yards per game.

These two squads are very similar defensively. Both squads rank in the top five of total defense and in the top 15 against both the run and the pass. Both squads are off of disappointing efforts as each allowed 42 points in the conference championship losses. Both squads can get after the opposing QB. Georgia was second in the SEC with 34 sacks while MSU led the Big Ten with 41 sacks.

Something to consider: MSU is 0-4 in Bowl games (1-3 ATS) under head coach Dantonio. That includes two double digit losses to SEC schools, including a Capital One Bowl loss to Georgia in 2008. Georgia outgained the Spartans 337-236 and the Bulldogs held Sparty to just 31 rush yards on 34 carries. MSU has the experience factor as QB Cousins and WR’s Cunningham and Martin all played in that game.

TicketCity Bowl
Penn State Nittany Lions (+5.5) vs. Houston Cougars
Jan. 2, 12:00 PM CST, ESPNU

Houston had a golden opportunity for an at-large bid to a BCS Bowl; all the Cougars had to do was beat Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game. Houston responded with its worst performance of the season. The Cougars had season-lows in yards and points and record setting QB Keenum had his lowest rated game of the season. It will be difficult for the Cougars to be motivated for this upcoming game in the TicketCity Bowl. Especially considering that head coach Sumlin’s name has been thrown around as the hottest name on the market for open coaching candidacies.

On the other side, Penn State endured arguably the worst mid-season scandal/story in the history of College Football. Longtime head coach Paterno was fired and the Nittany Lions sputtered to a 1-2 finished after starting the season 8-1. Because of the rumors of the scandal, more prestigious bowls passed on PSU and the Lions ended up here. Like Houston, it will be difficult for players to be motivated to play here after aspirations of a bigger Bowl.

QB Keenum shattered virtually every NCAA passing mark – career yards, career touchdown passes and total offense – as he threw for more than 5,000 yards for the third time in his career, along with a career-high 45 touchdown passes. However, this team hasn’t faced a defense on caliber with Penn State’s. PSU has the 10th best defense in the nation and 5th best scoring defense. The closest comparison would be Southern Miss’ 31st ranked defense that held Houston to its lowest point & yard total this season.

Something to consider: Penn State has failed to cover 11 of its last 14 games overall and is just 1-5-1 ATS its last 7 as an underdog. Houston is 7-1 ATS its last 8 games but is 1-4 ATS its last five Bowl games.

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