A Big Ten Bowl Day

Today five Big Ten teams play in bowl games.  The big game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Rose Bowl, but other Big Ten teams also will have a chance to strut their stuff on the national stage.  Northwestern matches up against Texas Tech, Michigan State plays Alabama, Michigan will break its bowl drought against Mississippi State, and Penn State and Florida will square off.  I’ll be rooting for all of those Big Ten teams — even Michigan.

In recent years Big Ten fans have paid careful attention to the conference’s bowl record.  They feel like the Big Ten is disrespected on the national level, particularly in comparison to the SEC.  (I regret to say that Ohio State is responsible for a lot of this perception.  The Buckeyes are one of the Big Ten’s flagship programs, and they have never beaten an SEC team in a bowl game.  That record unfortunately includes two national championship game losses.)  Bowl games are supposed to be fun, but for the Big Ten they are serious business, and not just because they produce significant revenue for the member schools.  Big Ten fans want everyone to recognize what they believe to be true — that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country, with the biggest stadiums, the richest traditions, the greatest rivalries, and the most dedicated fans.  If you want to exercise such bragging rights, however, you have to earn them on the field.

This year the Big Ten has gotten off to a good start in bowl season.  It is 2-0, with Illinois and Iowa both posting bowl wins.  Today will tell the tale, however, particularly since three of the bowl games match up the Big Ten and the SEC.  Each of the games, moreover, poses intriguing questions and matchups.  How will Northwestern perform without their fine quarterback, Dan Persa, and will it be able to win its first bowl game since the Truman Administration?  Can Michigan State put a signature win over the defending national champions as a capstone on a break-through season that has seen the Spartans win 11 games?  How will Michigan’s Denard Robinson fare against the Bulldogs, and can the beleaguered Michigan defense keep the Wolverines in the game?  And which Penn State and Florida teams will show up for the Outback Bowl?

To me, the most interesting game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Grandaddy of them all.  I haven’t had a chance to see much of the Horned Frogs and their top-ranked defense, and there are lingering questions about the toughness of TCU’s schedule and the Mountain West Conference.  TCU will have a chance to answer those questions when its faces Wisconsin’s power running game.  If Wisconsin wins convincingly, on the other hand, it will quiet complaints about the BCS system by members of non-BCS conferences.

On (To) Wisconsin

This week the Buckeyes travel to Madison, Wisconsin and Camp Randall Stadium to take on the Badgers in the biggest game of the season to date.  Freshly dubbed the no. 1 team in the country, the Buckeyes must find a way to beat a tough, physical team in a night game in one of the most raucous venues in the land.  ESPN’s Game Day will be there, and lots of experts will be watching the game to see whether Ohio State really is deserving of its new ranking.

How can Ohio State win the game?  Well, they need to figure out how to stop Wisconsin’s running attack.  The Badgers’ ground game is spearheaded by junior John Clay, a big, punishing runner who can bust through the line of scrimmage and run people over.  Clay is one of the premier running backs in the nation.  He averages 6 yards a carry, has scored 9 touchdowns, and leads a rushing game that is the 11th best in the country.  Stopping the run has been a strength for Ohio State this year, but Clay, James White, and Montee Ball are in a different league than the other backs the Buckeyes have faced this year.

This will be a game where the offense has to help the defense.  Turnovers could be killers, not just because they keep Ohio State from scoring but also because they will further energize a loud crowd and allow Clay and colleagues to keep pounding away at the Buckeye defense.  The problems with the Ohio State special teams this year also mean that the less reliance on the punting unit, the better.  Ohio State’s offense has to protect the ball while also putting some points on the board and keeping the defense off the field.  Wisconsin has a fine quarterback in senior Scott Tolzien, but I’d rather face a Wisconsin that is throwing the ball to try to catch up than a Wisconsin that is running the ball down Ohio State’s throat.  A lot will depend on Terrelle Pryor, his scrambling, and his ability to hit Ohio State receivers — and if Ohio State were to get a solid effort from its running backs that would be useful, too.

The intangibles in this game all favor Wisconsin.  They are playing at home and are looking to turn around a season that ran off the rails a bit when the Badgers lost unexpectedly to Michigan State.  Ohio State, in contrast, will be carrying the burden of a no. 1 ranking for the first time in a long time.  Add to that the challenge of playing at night in a huge stadium that will be packed with screaming fans, and you end up with a very big challenge for the Buckeyes.