All season we've been having the "conference supremacy" debate as teams have squared off in a couple "inter-conference" match ups that have truly shed some light on which league was the best. The ACC took their lumps early with the Virginia Tech physical mandhandling by Alabama as well as late when Georgia Tech and Clemson got beat down by middle of the road SEC teams. Other league's have had their run-ins with the unfortunate losses including Tennessee going down to UCLA, Ohio State dropping the game to Southern Cal and the Sooners loss to BYU.
Well, with the year wrapped up we head into the bowl season and every conference has got one goal as a collective; win the bowl season. For the Big 10 let's take a look at what goes into a successful bowl season as they attempt to repair their much tarnished national image. The conference has seven of their eleven teams bowl eligible with just Purdue, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan home for the holidays. So let's look at the three keys to any successful bowl season:
Winning The Games They're Supposed To Win
Stealing Close Games
Competing In The Games They're Legitimate Dogs
First and foremost let's qualify these statements so that we can break each of the Big 10's bowl games into one of the three categories. We'll make this our universal rule and the cut off; Spreads between -4 AND +4 qualify as Close Games, spreads of +/-4.5 or greater qualify as Supposed to win (-4.5) or They're legitimate dogs (+4.5).For the Big 10 they don't feature a single game in which they are "supposed to win" so they are already climbing an up hill battle. The league is a dog in five of their seven games and a legitimate dog (+4.5 or greater) in two of those contests:
Ohio State +4 Oregon
Michigan State +8.5 Texas Tech
Wisconsin +3.5 Miami
Northwestern +7 Auburn
Iowa +4 Georgia Tech
Minnesota -2 Iowa State
Penn State -2.5 LSU
With all of their games falling in the close to legitimate dog range the Big 10 saves a step in this process. Five of the contests fall into the close category so let's rate each of these regarding their likelihood of being a win for the Big 10.
Minnesota vs Iowa State
This game is the biggest must win for the conference, if they cannot win this game, over an offensively and defensively challenged Cyclone team with a first year coach then they don't deserve to win any other bowl games. Harsh? Yes but this Cyclone's team doesn't do anything particularly well and their offense appeared to get worse as the season rolled along. Minnesota, under Tim Brewster's resurrection process needs a bowl win and his second trip to the Insight Bowl should turn out better than his 42-21 beat down by Kansas last year. This is a must win for the league.
Iowa vs Georgia Tech
The Hawkeyes bring their defense to work against an offense that has one true enemy in terms of preperationg; TIME. When teams have all summer, a bye week or a month to prepare for the Jackets they're immensely more effective against the Wreck. I expect Kirk Ferentz's defense to play disciplined, confident, assignment football against Paul Johnson's squad. Another positive in Iowa's quest to pull out a Big 10 BCS Bowl victory for the first time since the 2005 season is the horrendous Georgia Tech defense. As the guy's at From The Rumble Seat so magically display with graphs and numbers the Tech defense won't offer much resistance.
Penn State vs LSU AND Wisconsin vs Miami
I couldn't decide which of these two games was the most/least likely to happen so I tied them. Penn State has looked absolutely pathetic against teams with any sort of talent level; see the Iowa and Ohio State games, and Wisconsin doesn't have the athletes to run with Miami. Let's break it down further; the times Daryll Clark has faced elite defenses he's looked like a true freshman going 24-60, 40% completions, 1 TD to 4 INTs and just 323 yards.
That looks bleak but sadly Wisconsin had their own woes as they lost to both of the ranked teams they faced by a combined score of 51-23. Both LSU and Miami bring a level of athleticism that neither team has experienced since their date with Ohio State and both of those dates were at least a month and a half before the game is played.
If Miami and LSU play their A-games neither of these Big 10 teams will win. The flaws of The U and the Bayou Bengals are where the Badgers and Lions can capitalize and get a victory in these close contests. Miami is young, inconsistent and at times lacks focus. The Badgers need to hammer them on offense and then take advantage of Harris' errant passes. Penn State must capitalize on the LSU offenses inability to score and Crowton's incredible predictability to keep the game low scoring.
Ohio State vs Oregon
The Oregon offense is the nation's most dangerous and potent attack. No disrespect to Boise State or Georgia Tech or Alabama but LaMichael James and Jeremiah Masoli are the cogs in the most electrifying offense in the country. Ohio State, although they've played a more athlete for athlete talents team in the nation, they've not yet experienced a team running on all cylinders the way Oregon is currently. This is a team that has scored 37 or more points for six straight contests and was held below 31 points just twice all season.
With the Buckeye's offensive woes Terrelle Pryor is going to have to come up big in this contest. The Oregon defense has proven themselves susceptible in the back half, one of Pryor's weaknesses. Tressell is going to have to unleash the kid's arm in order to elevate the Ohio State Universities chance to win. On defense the Buckeyes need to survive the shock they've experienced against speed based offenses. Last years Texas game was a major step, this year, with better overall talent the Buckeyes may stem the tide.
Competing In Big Spread Scenarios
Michigan State vs Texas Tech
Sure this is the largest spread in the Big 10 bowl games at 8.5 but the fact is Texas Tech just isn't that great of a football team. They've lost most of the magic from their 11-1 campain of a season ago and haven't been anywhere near as consistent on offense as they have been in the past. The best game the Raiders played this season was a 10 point loss to Texas. Yes I know they thrashed Nebraska 31-10 but I contest that at this point Nebraska was in the dumps; evidenced by their 9-7 loss to Iowa State the next week.
Michigan State will have to run the football and play stout defense but this is a game that they should keep close. I have got a feeling that the Spartans should be able to keep this one closer than most people expect and Leach is just 2-2 in his last four bowl games, all as the favorite.
Northwestern vs Auburn
Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka should be in the house for the game but he may not be enough against a team with some serious athletes. The biggest disadvantage for the Wildcats, outside of the talent gap, is that the Tigers get a few weeks to rest their exhausted defense. Gus Malzahn is going to run Ben Tate and Kodi Burns full speed at the Wildcats and they will have their hands full.
For the Big 10 a moral win should be plenty here if the 'Cats can keep the game within the seven point spread. However, Ted Roof and the rested Auburn defense should have plenty in the tank to suffocate Pat Fitzgerald's attack.