Big Ten Football: Which Bowl Matchups Are Most Winnable?

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Big Ten Football: Which Bowl Matchups Are Most Winnable?
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The refrain is the same almost every single bowl season: the Big Ten plays a tough slate of games and comes up short, especially in the bigger bowls.

Over time, that has pushed the perception of the conference down to the level of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

However, each December and January brings a new chance for the Big Ten to collectively redeem itself, especially by continuing to play against SEC teams and multiple BCS bowl games.

Taking an initial look at the seven bowl games involving Big Ten teams this year, there certainly appear to be some strange mismatches. Considering these results will be held against (or to the benefit of) teams in 2014, we should include Rutgers and Maryland as well. Unfortunately, that does not do much to improve the Big Ten's bowl outlook overall.

There will be plenty of time to give full previews later, but here is a quick list of the Big Ten bowl games for this season, from most winnable to least winnable.

 

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1. Texas Bowl: Minnesota (8-4) vs. Syracuse (6-6)

Here's the game that the Big Ten absolutely has to win, no matter how disappointed Minnesota may be to head back to Texas. Syracuse was not a great team in season-opening losses to Penn State and Northwestern, and the Orange did not get much better since then.

David Cobb should find plenty of running room against the Syracuse defensive front, and the Gophers should also be able to shut down the weak passing game led by Terrel Hunt. Anything less than a two-score margin would be surprising.

Chance of Big Ten win: 85 percent

 

2. Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl: Michigan (7-5) vs. Kansas State (7-5)

Alright Wolverines fans and players: 2013 has been a tough season but this is a real chance to build more positive momentum for 2014. On paper, this game is ridiculously even. Michigan generates 383 yards of offense per game compared to Kansas State's 401, and both teams hold opponents to 367 yards per game.

The difference between the two teams is the more dynamic attack options presented by Devin Gardner. With a full month to get healthy, he will once again be a threat rushing and throwing. Those types of attacks are the one type Bill Snyder's teams have struggled with, which bodes well for Michigan.

Chance of Big Ten win: 65 percent

 

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3. Military Bowl: Maryland (7-5) vs. Marshall (9-4)

The Terrapins took care of business in their non-conference play by going 4-0 before hitting a big wall against Florida State, Wake Forest, and Clemson in ACC play. Still, Maryland regrouped and came within one play against Boston College of winning three in a row to close out the 2013 regular season.

Marshall has one of the best offenses in the country, averaging nearly 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. However, the Terrapins stifled most teams outside FSU and Clemson, only giving up 366 yards per game. As long as Maryland keeps this game close, the superior athletes in Randy Edsall's program will prevail.

Chance of Big Ten win: 60 percent

 

4. Rose Bowl: Michigan State (12-1) vs. Stanford (11-2)

The 100th edition of "The Grandaddy" features two teams with tough defenses and surprisingly efficient offenses. Stanford has a marginally better offense than the Spartans (413 yards per game compared to 386) but the key is that the Cardinal have total balance between the pass and the run. That will be critical in trying to keep the best defense in the country off balance.

That best defense in the country from East Lansing finished with an amazing performance against Ohio State, and MSU's season numbers on defense have stayed below 248 yards per game. The only worries are that Stanford has been here and won last year while the Spartans may be a bit awe-struck in reaching Pasadena for the first time since 1988.

Stanford has also played one of the toughest schedules in the country. That makes this just slightly better than a toss-up, even with how great Michigan State is in 2013.

Chance of Big Ten win: 52 percent

 

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5. Orange Bowl: Ohio State (12-1) vs. Clemson (10-2)

This game will bring out the Woody Hayes history book, as this is the one BCS game that Ohio State has not played in during the BCS era. The Buckeyes' 1976 season was Ohio State's last, and only, appearance in the Orange Bowl.

In addition, the last time that these teams met, the legendary Hayes punched his career away by taking a shot at a Clemson player. Don't expect anything so dramatic this time.

Ohio State has given up a lot of career days for quarterbacks, which means Tajh Boyd could be slated for a massive game on a big stage. Of course, Clemson also looks to have a huge vulnerability to the dynamic Buckeye offense, led by Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller.

Expect a ton of points and a wild game, which means it could be decided by the least turnovers/penalties or whoever is more motivated to be here. This is a pure toss-up.

Chance of Big Ten win: 50 percent

 

6. Outback Bowl: Iowa (8-4) vs. LSU (9-3)

The Hawkeyes get another crack at a good team, although Iowa has come up short against the likes of Northern Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin in these types of games so far in 2013. Much like Michigan State, LSU has a solid defense and enough athletes on the defensive line to give quarterback Jake Rudock fits. The quartet of Iowa running backs, led by tough Mark Weisman, will need to make some big plays to save Rudock in this one.

Of course, Iowa has an even better defense, allowing only 303 yards per game and led by possibly the best linebacker trio in the country. The Hawkeyes have to be absolutely thrilled to draw a team that is essentially replacing its starting quarterback with Zach Mettenberger out after tearing his ACL in the season finale.

That alone turns this from what would be an unfavorable matchup for Iowa into a toss-up. Iowa broke LSU's heart a few years ago in a Florida bowl game, and it could happen again. Don't sleep on this game, which could be the best of the New Year's early bowl games.

Chance of Big Ten win: 48 percent

 

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Iowa-LSU had a good finish in 2005...

7. Capital One Bowl: Wisconsin (9-3) vs. South Carolina (10-2)

Now the hard games against the SEC begin to take their toll on the Big Ten bowl outlook—as usual. The Badgers drew the hardest of the three SEC games by a wide margin, as LSU and Georgia lost starting quarterbacks for the season in late November.

South Carolina will look to send defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney out in style, perhaps with another statement tackle like last year against Vincent Smith of Michigan. Wisconsin struggled at times against elite defensive linemen, so look for the battle along the lines when Joel Stave is leading the charge.

Wisconsin also struggled against dynamic quarterbacks, and a healthy Connor Shaw can burn a defense by rushing or passing. If Shaw has a day like he did against Clemson in the finale (152 yards passing, 94 yards rushing), the Badgers will be disappointed on New Year's Day once again.

Chance of Big Ten win: 40 percent

 

8. Gator Bowl: Nebraska (8-4) vs. Georgia (8-4)

Another year, another terribly exciting Gator Bowl. Yes, that's sarcasm. The bowl has treated the Big Ten to classics like the horrible Urban Meyer OSU-Florida bowl two years ago, and Michigan getting blown away by Mississippi State during the Rich Rodriguez era. This will not be fun to watch either without Taylor Martinez or Aaron Murray in the mix.

Despite having essentially half a team all year because of injuries, Murray carried the Bulldogs to a respectable winning record in SEC play and an 8-4 finish. Even without him, the Bulldogs will be a dangerous team, thanks to having most of the other weapons back on offense for the bowl game.

Meanwhile, Nebraska will be a one-man show with Ameer Abdullah. Georgia's defense will likely figure that out, like many Big Ten teams did, which could lead to another ugly loss in the Gator Bowl for the conference. Plus, until Nebraska proves it can win these New Year's Day bowl games against the SEC, it is difficult to pick the Cornhuskers.

Chance of Big Ten win: 35 percent

 

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Rematch from last year

9. Pinstripe Bowl: Rutgers (6-6) vs. Notre Dame (8-4)

Even Dick Vitale dissed this game for his beloved Irish on Twitter Sunday night. That's not a good sign, as Notre Dame has been the epitome of mediocrity since the 2012 BCS Championship Game.

The Scarlet Knights are giving up 25 more yards per game than their offense is gaining, which is a sure fire sign of a team headed for a losing record. Notre Dame will have the best players on the field by a wide margin, and Brian Kelly will have his team ready for the tough New York conditions.

The pseudo home-field advantage for Rutgers will likely be negated by how strong the Notre Dame alumni base is on the East Coast. There is simply no reason other than bowl craziness to think Rutgers wins this game.

Chance of Big Ten win: 10 percent

 

On the whole, I expect the Big Ten to be favored in only three or four of its nine bowl games, although the conference should come home with four or five wins. As long as some of those wins come against the SEC and in at least one of the two BCS bowls, it will be a successful bowl season.

Otherwise, get ready for more narrative of how bad the conference is for all of 2014.

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