Despite finishing the season 9-3, including their thrashing of Hawaii last night, the Wisconsin Badgers were passed over for the Outback Bowl in favor of Northwestern.
Why the Outback Bowl Committee chose the Wildcats over the Badgers is still somewhat of a mystery. Sure, Northwestern beat Wisconsin, but the Badgers finished with a better overall record and are known to travel extremely well. However, I'm not going to get into that now.
In fact, I'm glad Wisconsin is going to Orlando instead of Tampa. Obviously, the Outback Bowl is on New Year's Day and is a more prestigious game, but the Champs Sports Bowl is going to be a much more attractive match-up.
Wisconsin (9-3) vs. Miami (FL) (9-3) or Northwestern (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5)? I think it's pretty obvious which game most fans will watch. Plus, the Champs Sports Bowl will be in prime-time on Dec. 29 while the Outback Bowl will largely be overlooked with it's 11:00 a.m. start time on New Year's.
From a fan's perspective, it's also nice to see the Badgers play an opponent they haven't seen in a while. Wisconsin hasn't played the Hurricanes since 1989, while they played the Tigers only four years ago.
I see Wisconsin-Miami as being one of the best games this bowl season and if the Badgers can pull one out, would be their biggest win since their victory over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl in 2007.
However, it's not going to be easy. Miami was viewed as one of the top teams in the nation before they stumbled a bit down the homestretch but are still one of the most talented teams the Badgers have faced in recent memory.
Here are a few keys to the game for Wisconsin.
If statistics are any indication, this game could very well be a shootout. Miami is giving up 22 points a game and haven't fared well against good offenses. In all three of Miami's losses, they gave up over 30 points, including 40 to Clemson. And there's no question the Badgers have a good offense.
Wisconsin is averaging close to 33 points a game, including their 51 against the Warriors, with a very balanced attack that relies on the ground attack but incorporates the pass as well.
The key for Wisconsin is definitely the running game though. The Badgers finished the year with almost 2,500 rushing yards with Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay leading the way with almost 1,400 of those and 16 touchdowns. Freshman Montee Ball has also chipped in with over 300 yards and four touchdowns.
Miami is giving up about 120 yards a game on the ground and the Badgers need to take advantage of this.
However, Wisconsin can't rely solely on the running game. Sure, they did against Hawaii, but the Hurricanes aren't exactly the Warriors. They've given up points to high-powered ACC offenses, so it's not like they've been total pushovers on defense.
Wisconsin needs to get their passing game going as well. When the Badgers have truly clicked on offense this year, their passing game was in sync. Scott Tolzien has very consistent for the Badgers this year, throwing for 16 touchdowns with only 10 picks, and he needs to have a good game. Nick Toon (52 catches), Garrett Graham (45), and Isaac Anderson (30) have all made Tolzien's transition into a starting role this year much easier and he will surely look for them often against Miami.
Luckily for Tolzien, Miami has had trouble creating turnovers this year as they only have eight interceptions on the year. When the Badgers have struggled on offense, Tolzien has turned over the ball and for Wisconsin to have any hope, Tolzien cannot be careless.
The Badgers will have to make sure to protect Tolzien however. Miami has 23 sacks this year, with Allen Bailey leading the way with seven of those. However, Wisconsin's offensive line has been solid all year, usually giving Tolzien adequate time to make good decisions.
For all the great aspects of Wisconsin's offense, their defense, especially against the pass, represents the polar opposite. Wisconsin gives up 22 points a game and they haven't faced an offense quite like Miami's.
The Hurricanes, led by quarterback Jacory Harris, average nearly 32 points a game and are capable of scoring in bunches. They've scored over 30 points in seven of their games including 52 against Virginia and have a multi-faceted attack, much like Wisconsin.
However, whereas Wisconsin favors the run, Miami favors the pass. Uh-oh. Harris has thrown for over 3,000 yards this season with 23 touchdowns, his favorite target being Leonard Hankerson (44 catches, 6 TDs.) The Wisconsin pass 'D' has been their Achilles heel all year long as they've given up over 2,500 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air this year. Against good passing attacks, Wisconsin has looked virtually helpless and have shown hardly any signs of improvement. Against Miami, this could be a lost cause.
Miami does have an effective running game as well, with three players rushing for over 500 yards this year, but Wisconsin's rush defense is significantly better than their pass defense. Led by senior defensive end O'Brien Schofield (20.5 TFL), Wisconsin gives up less than 100 yards a game on the ground, first in the Big Ten.
Miami's offense is something the Badgers have not experienced this year. Offensively, the Big Ten was weak this year and even then the Badgers struggled somewhat. Simply put, Wisconsin will have to have it's best defensive performance of the year if they hope to hold Miami under 30 points.
Although as a Badger fan and UW student it pains me to do it, I think Miami will have Wisconsin's number on Dec. 29. Not only are the Hurricanes playing just hours from home, but I simply think they are more talented and better coached than Wisconsin. Both teams have high-scoring offenses and inconsistent defenses and the last team with the ball could very well get the victory. I do think the Badgers will keep it close, unlike last year, but in the end I think Miami gets it done.
Miami 38, Wisconsin 34