Pre-New Years Day Big Ten Bowl Game Predictions

Mark Schipper@@MyTimesProseContributor IIIDecember 30, 2011

Pre-New Years Day Big Ten Bowl Game Predictions

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    These slides are perhaps a foredoomed effort to handicap and select winners of the four Big Ten pre-New Years Day bowl games.

    The first game looked into has already been played. Though, if the reader reaches the bottom of the slide, it is clear the author's integrity, if not his reputation as a prognosticator, remains in tact.

    There is no exact or consistent method employed in reaching the published conclusions. There is plenty of room for debate or conflicting perspectives, and the author encourages those brave or foolish enough to attempt picking college sporting events to make their voices heard. 

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl from Detroit, Michigan, December 27

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    Western Michigan University Broncos (7-5, 5-3 MAC, 3rd West) vs Purdue University Boilermakers (6-6, 4-4 Big Ten, 3rd Leaders)

    Ford Field, indoor stadium, field turf, capacity: 65,000

    Payout: $750,000 per-team

    Purdue is favored by 2 points

    Sagarin Ratings: Purdue 68.89—Western Michigan 69.01

    Studs Turkel liked to say hope dies last. Studs' books always had a good trade in Detroit. Hope will play no minor role in this enterprise. The civic and business leaders, the smart politicians and the chambers of commerce, hope to convince the sporting crowd that Detroit in December is substantially better than it sounds.   

    The last time Purdue played this game it was in 2007 against the Mid American Conference champion Central Michigan Chippewas. That game set the all-time attendance record at 60,600. Western Michigan claims 114,500 alumni in Michigan, and 33,000 in Metropolitan Detroit. Purdue's alumni organization says they've more than 200,000 graduates living within a four-hour drive of the stadium. There's a lot in these numbers to hope for. 

    Danny Hope, Purdue's head football coach, hopes his team will be able to run the football. The Broncos rank 107th nationally against the rush, allowing 5.48 yards per carry and 215 yards per game. They rank 11th of 13 teams in the MAC. But Purdue lost Ralph Bolden, their leading rusher, to his second ACL tear in two years during the season finale at Indiana. The Boilermakers will operate the ground game with the two Akeems: Shavers and Hunt. Shavers is a junior and Hunt a freshman. Bolden, at 674-yards, rushed for more than both backups combined; though their yards per carry average—around four—and touchdowns, six for both Bolden and Shavers, (two for Hunt), are comparable. 

    Purdue will have to run and hold the football to win, because Western Michigan has the capacity to throw. The Broncos led the MAC at 328 passing yards per game. Jordan White, Western's senior wideout, leads the nation in receptions per game at 10.58, and yards at 137. On the season he has 127 grabs for 1,646-yards and 16 touchdowns. He is the first consensus All-American in the history of WMU football. 

    The Broncos second and third receivers, Chleb Ravenell and Robert Arnheim, have 59 catches each for more than 1,400 combined yards and 12 touchdowns. 

    Junior Alex Carder is the Broncos' quarterback. He's completed 67.2-percent of his passes for 3,434 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The offense he directs is second in the MAC in passing efficiency at 154.8. Purdue is eighth in the Big Ten in passing defense, allowing 202.8 yards per game. They rank 10th in the league with a paltry eight interceptions on the season. Purdue is 11th in the league in red-zone defense, allowing scores 88-percent of the time, while the Broncos are third in the MAC in red-zone offense, scoring on 91-percent of opportunities.

    Purdue is -2 in turnover differential, while Western Michigan is even.  

    Purdue does not throw well in their two quarterback system and may be without OJ Ross, their third leading receiver, who was suspended for the all-encompassing and always undisclosed violation of team rules. 

    Western Michigan has not built an effective running attack, gaining only 127 yards a contest, eighth best in the MAC. But Purdue may help, as the Boilermakers rank 10th in the league in rushing defense, and 91st nationally. 

    Purdue has not been to a bowl game since 2007. Western Michigan has gone three of the last five years, but never won. The Broncos carry an 0-4 all-time post-season record into this one. 

    If Western Michigan plays without turning the ball over, they'll win. If Purdue forces turnovers and finds a way to throw the ball effectively with their diminished running game, they'll be well positioned to carry the day. 

    The Pick: Western Michigan by five.

Insight Bowl from Tempe, Arizona, Dec. 30

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    University of Iowa Hawkeyes (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten, 4th Legends) vs Oklahoma University Sooners (9-3, 6-3 Big 12)

    Sun Devil Stadium, outdoor, natural grass, capacity: 71,706

    Payout: $3.325-million per team

    Oklahoma is favored by 14-points

    Sagarin Ratings: Iowa 75.25—Oklahoma 93.81

    The battle between head coaches here is something like "Fighting Joe" Hooker and General Lee at the Rappahannock. Sooners' head coach Bob Stoops played an All-Big Ten defensive back for the Hawkeyes in the early 80s. Both he and Kirk Ferentz were later forged at the same coaching academy under Hayden Fry in the middle-80s. The one—Stoops—who leads now the full force of the football interests from Norman, was a brilliant student gone to the opposition. Ferentz, the selected successor at the home school, is now challenged to strategize against an old mate. 

    In this game the mysterious and difficult to harness alchemy of bowl season looks a bad mixture for Iowa. 

    The running game for the Hawkeyes was a one-man show for its duration, but that show was shuttered early for problems with the talent. Marcus Coker, the Big Ten's second leading rusher at 115.3 yards per contest, was suspended for the game for violating team rules. That's 281 carries and 1,714 yards, gone. His back-up, Mika'i McCall, is suspended, too. The Hawkeyes have not announced a starter for the game.   

    In the Bedlam game against Oklahoma State, the Sooners allowed 278 rushing yards on 8.4 yards per carry. They lost, 44-10. Coker galloped for 219-yards and two touchdowns as a freshman last year against Missouri in the Insight Bowl. In him the Hawkeyes have lost their most indispensable offensive weapon.  

    Though there is this to consider. In their last three games, Oklahoma surrendered averages of 449-yards of offense and nearly 30-points. Each of their three defeats were administered on the wings of passing teams. The Hawkeyes bring the Big Ten's third best passing attack at 236 yards per game, and score nearly 29 points a contest. Iowa's turnover margin is +2, while the Sooners' is -8, seventh worst in the country. 

    Oklahoma both runs and throws for more yards than Iowa. But the Sooners are without their starting tailback, Dominick Whaley, and two back-ups, Brennan Clay and Brandon Williams. They are left with one regular depth chart back in sophomore Roy Finch, an undersized darter out of Niceville, Florida. Finch has 601 yards on 105 carries for the season, good for 5.7 yards per attempt, with three touchdowns and 264 yards receiving. 

    Oklahoma's defensive line led the Big 12 in sacks with 28. Their offensive line allowed the fewest with seven. Iowa's pass defense is worst in the Big Ten and managed only three interceptions in the season's final six games. Hawkeyes' linemen Mike Daniels, six sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, and Broderick Binns, five sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, will have to attack Sooners' quarterback Landry Jones all night to slow the passing attack. 

    On the back-end, though they've limped home, Iowa cornerbacks Micah Hyde and Sean Prater are opportunistic ball hawks, and we'll make Jones pay for any misfires. 

    Sooners' defensive linemen Fran Alexander, seven sacks and three forced fumbles, and Corey Nelson, five sacks, may find themselves ordered play-after-play to accost Hawkeyes' quarterback James Vandenberg at all costs. Hawkeyes' senior wideout Marvin McNutt, and junior wideout Keenan Davis, will be tasked with manufacturing points for the Hawkeyes under the most uncertain circumstances for an Iowa offense heading into a bowl game in recent memory.

    The Hawkeyes' are playing this game for retiring coordinator Norm Parker, who's coached defenses for Ferentz from his beginnings in Iowa City in 1999. Coming into the season, Oklahoma was widely expected to play for a national championship. A December 30 trip to the Insight Bowl may not be enough to put the noble fires to Boomer and Sooner, but the discrepancy in team continuity and experience may be too much for Iowa to overcome.   

    The Pick: Oklahoma by 10

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas from Houston, Texas, December 31

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    Northwestern University Wildcats (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten, 5th Leaders) vs Texas A&M University Aggies (6-6, 4-5 Big 12) 

    Reliant Stadium, retractable roof, natural grass, capacity: 71,500

    Payout: $1.7-million per team

    Texas A&M is favored by 10

    Sagarin Ratings Texas A&M 87.70—Northwestern 72.46

    No-one who watched Northwestern's 1995 run to the Rose Bowl will ever forget it. If they were young and loved college football, the memories are like a fine story with the beautiful settings of fall in the middle-west, right up until the unhappy ending in Pasadena. The Wildcats lost that Rose Bowl to Southern Cal, 41-32, and all seven of the  bowl games they've played in since. The Cats haven't won a post-season football game since the 1949 Rose Bowl with Cal. 

    Their head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, was the middle-linebacker and beating heart of both the '95 and '96 teams. Why the Wildcat's defenses have been so bad and beatable with Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz drawing up the schemes is not known. The Cats will have to be better than their 11th ranked pass and ninth ranked rush defense suggests they are to beat Texas A&M in Houston. 

    The Aggies have run offense splendidly all season. Their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, will play football professionally. Tannehill tends to throw toward Ryan Swope, who set Aggie single season school records with 81 catches for 1,102 yards and 11 touchdowns. His second favorite target is Jeff Fuller, a powerful wideout with the type of big frame quarterback's relish throwing at. Northwestern's poor pass defense will struggle to hold both down. 

    The Wildcats caught a break when Christine Michael, a thundering runner and the Aggies' second leading rusher, tore his ACL in November. That leaves only Cyrus Gray, the Aggies' leading rusher, with 1,045 yards and 12 touchdowns, left to play. 

    Northwestern was further boosted when the Mandarins seated at College Station fired head coach Mike Sherman by cell-phone as he sat in a recruits' driveway shortly after the regular season ended. That move left Tim DeRuyter, the Aggies' defensive coordinator, as the interim head coach. In the between times DeRuyter was hired by Fresno State University to coach their football team in 2012. Recruiting has already begun. The bowl preparation for the Aggies is being carried out on unstable tectonics. 

    Furthermore, A&M was the eighth ranked team in America entering the season. But the team couldn't protect commanding second half leads all autumn, and lost five of six games decided by a touchdown or less. The back-to-back losses to Oklahoma State and Arkansas in September and the first week of October were excruciating. The Aggies then lost three in a row the end of October and November, and dropped another devastating, last second game to their most hated rival, Texas, in front of 83,000 fans at Kyle Field. 

    Texas A&M is a singularly mysterious entity heading into this game.

    Northwestern, in vivid contrast, is an established team with stable coaching led by a senior class that's taken the school to bowl games the last three seasons. But that group has never tasted victory in the post-season. Their senior quarterback, Dan Persa, one of the best players to wear Wildcat purple in school history, is focused on ending his career a winner. As a team leader and player who returned from a savage tear of his achilles tendon at the end of his junior season, his focus augurs well for the team in their preparation for the game. 

    Asked by Wildcat beat reporter Skip Myslenski if he was reflecting on his years in Evanston, Persa responded: "A little bit, but not really. I think we'll file that away until the end of the season before we do that. I mean, the last game will pretty much set the mark for us in terms of if we're successful or not. It's been a long year, a lot of ups and downs. But I won't reflect on that until we're done." 

    The Wildcats won four of their last five games, scoring 32 points a contest. Senior wide-out Jeremy Ebert, 71 catches for 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns, is all heart and a superb competitor. Senior superback Drake Dunsmore is another battler determined to win a bowl game as a Wildcat. Sophomore Cane Colter, Persa's back-up, leads Northwestern in rushing with 589 yards and 8 touchdowns. Colter has showcased himself as an excellent athlete and forced coaches to keep him as a key contributor in Northwestern's offense.   

    The Pick: A tight-knit, focused Northwestern team ends A&M's miserable season by a field goal. 

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl from San Francisco, California, December 31

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    UCLA Bruins (6-7, 5-4 Pac 12, 2nd South) vs Illinois University Fighting Illini (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten, 5th Leaders)

    AT&T Park, outdoor stadium, natural grass, capacity: 45,000

    Payout: $837,500 per-team

    Illinois is favored by 3 points

    Sagarin Ratings: Illinois 72.79—UCLA 70.09

    AT&T Park is a beautiful piece of brick stadium architecture on the edge of the big bay in San Francisco. Behind the park is the city itself, and if you're only visiting, that's nothing to complain about. The people from Southern California enjoy traveling north, because it upsets the proud people there when, after soaking in the majesty of the nation's Golden Gate, they shrug their shoulders and say, it's better in the south. People from Illinois like to go west in December because when they do, Illinois stays in the east. What that means is that there may be a respectable house on hand to witness this New Years Eve contest between two mediocre football teams.

    Illinois will be coached by their defensive coordinator, Vic Koenning. Several weeks ago Koenning told the Chicago Tribune he didn't know if he or his assistants would be kept on to coach the game. With that in mind, his directive to the staff was to put family first and seek other work, which happened to be his plan, too. Illinois dropped the final six games of their regular season after starting 6-0 before head coach Ron Zook was fired.

    Koenning's defense is the Illini's strongest bulwark. Their yardage totals point to a certain stoutness, finishing second in the Big Ten in total defense. But the amount of points surrendered, 20.1 per game, indicates the Illini are vulnerable to big plays. They're solid in the red-zone, allowing points on only 77.8-percent of opponents opportunities. 

    Illinois junior defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus has been the next best thing to a gorilla. Mercilus leads the nation with 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He is a consensus All American and may be good enough to pull down UCLA's mediocre passing attack on his own. Behind Mercilus is sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown, the team leader in tackles with 102, including 19 for loss and six sacks.   

    Illinois' offensive coordinator, Paul Petrino, left after Zook was fired to coach with his brother at Arkansas. It may be a problem, as UCLA's defense was the most vulnerable and obvious opening for the Illini. The Bruins' defense allows 32.2 points per game and has an unbelievably paltry 13 sacks for the season. It is a horrendously bad all around production, but has been given the good fortune of working against a rudderless Illinois offense. 

    Running-back Jason Ford is responsible for the Illini's single 100-yard rushing performance this fall. Ford was declared academically ineligible for the bowl game. Their starting fullback, Jay Prosch, is out with a staff infection. Their freshman running back, Donovonn Young, is working on a damaged ankle. Only senior Troy Pollard is left to carry the load. He has 462-yards and two touchdowns on the season.

    Illini quarterback Nate Scheelhaase has not connected with wideout A.J. Jenkins, one of the nations' most explosive receivers, for a touchdown since the first week of October. Scheelhaase has thrown for 122 yards a game, two touchdowns and four interceptions during the Illini's six game losing streak. In those games Illinois managed only 116 yards on the ground. 

    UCLA's offense may have enough artillery to control the field against Illinois. The Bruins will be coached by offensive coordinator Mike Johnson, the interim man replacing fired coach Rick Nuehisel. UCLA's top two running backs, Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman, rushed for more than 1,600 yards and scored a combined 16 touchdowns. Their quarterback, Kevin Prince, threw for 1,600 more and 10 touchdowns, and ran for 455-yards himself. His best targets are two big gliders in 6-foot-5-inch senior Nelson Rosario, and 6-foot-8-inch junior Joseph Fauria. Both receivers have good, reliable hands. Rosario snatched four touchdowns, while Fauria caught six.  

    The Pick: UCLA wins the Anti-Rose Bowl by a touchdown