Will Montee Ball finally add a Rose Bowl championship and MVP to his trophy case?
Seven Big Ten bowl games fast approach, and for each player on each team, it's the last opportunity of the season to put together a breakout performance, one that can springboard him to a higher draft pick or an increased role with the team next year.
As the creed of the Highlanders goes, though, there can be only one. And while we're pretty sure they weren't talking about college football bowl MVPs (nor do we approve of their use of swords, as those are just for decorative purposes), they were right in that only one player gets to name himself the best player of each bowl.
So in the spirit of ruining surprises for everybody, we're just going to tell you right now who those seven guys will be in each of the Big Ten's seven bowl games. Spoiler alert: There aren't many Big Ten players.
Wisconsin is bringing a merciless running game to Pasadena, led by the irrepressible Montee Ball, and even if top quarterback Joel Stave returns to his spot as the Badgers' starting QB after a collarbone injury, it's still going to be the running game that dictates Wisconsin's success in this game.
Unfortunately for the Badgers, Stanford boasts the third-best rushing defense in the entire nation with only 88 yards per game allowed. And it's not as if Stanford has played a slate of nobodies; the Cardinal went to Eugene and choked out Oregon's rushing attack, holding the Ducks to 198 yards on the ground (a good 125 yards off their average) in a 17-14 overtime victory.
The leader of Stanford's front seven is linebacker Shayne Skov, the Cardinal's leading tackler with 73 stops and the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week after a 10-tackle effort in that win over Oregon.
Skov is improving week by week from a torn ACL suffered early last year, and it's entirely possible that Wisconsin will be facing an inside linebacker who's 100 percent healthy for the first time all season—and that should be terrifying.
Nebraska's only in the Capital One Bowl because of a Big Ten Championship loss to Wisconsin that knocked the Huskers out of Rose Bowl contention. And by a loss, we mean a 70-31 bludgeoning that saw Nebraska give up nearly 550 yards of rushing to a talented Wisconsin backfield and offensive line. Unfortunately for Nebraska, the pains on the ground are not over yet.
Freshman RB Todd Gurley leads a bruising Georgia rushing game, one that averaged 184 yards per game on the ground despite having a wholly immobile quarterback in Aaron Murray. Gurley became the primary ball-carrier over the course of the season, gradually taking more and more carries from fellow freshman Keith Marshall (who is, we assure you, no slouch himself).
Gurley racked up 1,260 yards and 16 touchdowns in his freshman campaign this season, and during the SEC Championship Game, he pounded out 122 yards and two scores in just 23 carries against a stingy Alabama defense. For a while, it looked as if Gurley would lead Georgia to the national championship game; alas, the Bulldogs came up just shy.
Gurley will have to settle for running wild against the Nebraska defense, and if Georgia paid any attention at all to what Wisconsin did in the Big Ten Championship, that won't be too difficult.
We fear for Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson. Not for what Jadeveon Clowney is capable of doing to Taylor Lewan, the vaunted Michigan tackle who's likely off to a giant payday in the NFL after this season. No, it's for what Clowney's going to do to Michigan's other tackle, Michael Schofield.
Lewan was a consensus first team All-Big Ten blocker. Schofield couldn't even merit honorable mention from either the coaches or media. Where do you think Clowney's going to line up?
And lest we forget, Clowney is an absolute monster. He's got 21 sacks in his first two seasons at South Carolina, including 13 this season. Clowney's crowning achievement of the season was against Clemson, where he racked up four sacks and then announced he was going pro after next season, the first season he's allowed to by NFL rules.
Now, Gardner and Robinson are phenomenally athletic, and they won't be statues waiting for Clowney to deliver giant hits. But he'll be providing enough pressure to at least get them scrambling out of the pocket and abandoning their reads on a frequent basis, and that's the kind of game-changing pressure an MVP-caliber DE brings to the table.
If there's one thing that can elevate a player to MVP status in a heartbeat, it's a game-changing play, and nobody in the entire conference is more capable of ripping off a touchdown out of nowhere than Northwestern tailback and return specialist Venric Mark. Mark's game-breaking speed helps set up Northwestern's multi-faceted rushing attack, freezing linebackers on play action and letting Kain Colter get loose on keepers.
It also helps that, for an 8-4 team in the best conference in college football, Mississippi State just isn't very good. You can rush on the Bulldogs. They give up 166 yards a game, one of the worst marks in the SEC, and Texas A&M more than doubled that in a 38-13 drubbing that convinced the world the Bulldogs weren't for real.
Look for Mark to make his, um, mark as a tailback in this game, because Mississippi State just doesn't give up punt returns. Only 12 of the Bulldogs' 52 punts were returned, and that was for a total of eight yards. Yes, eight yards. On the entire season. So MSU has that going for it.
But Mark should bust a big run or two in this game, enough to propel Northwestern to victory and Mark to his latest and last accolade of the year as the Gator Bowl MVP.
Yes, Michigan State's wide receivers have had a laughably bad season. But Aaron Burbridge has been a bright spot, if not consistently, and he's got the most potential of any of Michigan State's wideouts.
Moreover, this is going to be a difficult defensive battle between Michigan State and TCU, and in games like this, it's going to come down to a few special plays here or there to do something like win an MVP award, and that's an ability we've seen Burbridge flash from time to time here in his freshman season.
He's also learning week by week, especially having missed most of fall's preseason practice to minor knee surgery, so the time Burbridge (and, to be fair, the rest of Michigan State's young receiving corps) is putting in during winter practices will pay off in both the bowl game and going forward in 2013.
We're aware of the inherent danger in predicting a big bowl game appearance for a quarterback who comes from a conference where teams don't play defense. And that's a pretty accurate descriptor. But it's no more accurate than pointing out that Minnesota's defense spent all season in the Big Ten, where they don't play offense.
So when a high-powered passing attack unlike any Minnesota has seen all season (what, like Nebraska's going to count all of a sudden?), expect pain, especially because the Gopher pass defense is only pretty good. "Pretty good" gets shredded by Seth Doege and the Texas Tech receivers all day long.
Of course, the Red Raiders' defensive prowess is as come-and-go as Tommy Tuberville, so it may be the case that Minnesota can ring up 30 points just by showing up and we're in for a barn-burner. But you can count on a big day for Doege.
Clint Chelf has officially been named the Oklahoma State starting QB for the Heart of Dallas Bowl by head coach Mike Gundy. It could have been J.W. Walsh or Wes Lunt, both of whom also started multiple games this season, and frankly it wouldn't have mattered; Oklahoma State is going to destroy Purdue.
Chelf brings both rushing ability and a lethal arm to the table, while Purdue's defense has looked overmatched in nearly every game it played against bowl competition (though, paradoxically, it was stout in down-to-the-wire losses to the only two undefeated teams in the FBS, Notre Dame and Ohio State).
Oklahoma State tailback Joseph Randle is another fine candidate for MVP honors in this game, as he'll be there to pound the ball up the middle once Purdue's sufficiently terrified of the pass, and the Cowboys are likely to go to the ground game quite a bit in the second half once the game's out of hand.
But the game has to get out of hand first, and the most likely way that's happening is if Chelf bombs Purdue's defense into oblivion, and we're expecting that.