The Big Ten Faces Long Odds in All its Bowl Games

By Vico on December 8, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Ohio State is around a ten-point underdog to Alabama, which should not surprise many people. Alabama, as the one-seed in the playoff, should be nominally favored in that contest. This is not unique.

That no other Big Ten team is a preliminary favorite in its bowl game does seem unique. Baylor is around -2.5 over Michigan State right now. Missouri, which lost at home to Indiana, is about a touchdown favorite over Minnesota. Auburn is a similar favorite over Wisconsin. 

Using Sagarin rankings, all ten B1G bowl participants are underdogs. Vegas agrees. Every Big Ten team opened as an underdog. Maryland (+14) is the biggest underdog. Michigan State is nominally the Big Ten team that Vegas likes the most in its matchup, though Baylor is still the favorite.

While it does seem a stretch that the Big Ten could lose all its contests in the 2014-15 bowl schedule, every year, fans of the conference, brace for the worst and anticipate a bowl record that will be subject to national ridicule. In this feature, I look at the Big Ten bowl games and offer a preliminary assessment of each of the Big Ten's teams ability to put a win on the conference's bowl record, excluding, for the time being, Ohio State's semifinal game with Alabama.

Heart of Dallas Bowl (Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech)

Ohio State fans have seen this Illinois for themselves in November when the Buckeyes pasted the Illini by 41 points in November. It's not a good team. Louisiana Tech, which hammered Illinois in Champaign in its last meeting in 2012, is an 8-4 team that gave Marshall a run for its money in the Conference-USA Championship Game.

Their one shared common opponent (Western Kentucky) would suggest an edge for Louisiana Tech. Illinois beat Western Kentucky 42-34 in September while Louisiana Tech beat Western Kentucky 59-10.

Louisiana Tech is slight favorite (-3) in this game. There are a few wrinkles that bode well for the Illini. One, Louisiana Tech has six season starters that are ineligible for the bowl game because of academic issues.

Two, Louisiana Tech's offense is not good. It's a Skip Holtz offense, after all. Louisiana Tech wins its games mostly on defense (32nd nationally). Illinois has shown some ability to move the ball against equivalent defenses like Minnesota.

Quick Lane Bowl (Rutgers vs. North Carolina)

Rutgers leaves the American Athletic Conference for the Big Ten and gets taken to Detroit in its first year.

Rutgers is a sloppy, turnover-prone team that ranks 92nd in the country in turnover margin. However, Rutgers has some weapons on offense. Every good defense it played nailed Rutgers' offense to a wall this season (17 points against Ohio State, ten points against Penn State, three points against Michigan State, zero points against Wisconsin). But, against mediocre competition, Rutgers' offense looks explosive.

UNC will have to find some consistency on offense if it wants to keep pace against the Scarlet Knights. The Tar Heels followed that impressive 45-20 win at Duke with a 35-7 letdown loss at home against NC State.

Pinstripe Bowl (Boston College vs. Penn State)

It seems alien to think of Penn State being an underdog, ever, in a game involving Boston College. It would, however, be appropriate this year. Boston College (-3.5) is the early favorite in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Boston College might be a slight favorite because its offense is better (well, "less bad") than what Penn State puts on the field. Whether its the lack of bodies on a sanction-stricken roster or a transition year from O'Brien to Franklin, but Penn State's offense is so bad it's almost insulting. The Nittany Lions have the worst offense in the Big Ten (117th nationally, 325 yards per game) by a whole nine yards over, you guessed it, Michigan (114th nationally).

Boston College, for its part, has the 15th-ranked rushing offense in the country. It manhandled USC earlier this season. However, it cannot throw a football (123rd nationally in passing offense).

First one to 13 points probably wins this game. Penn State's defense will have to carry the load in the Bronx.

Holiday Bowl (Nebraska vs. Southern California)

What better matchup for the Big Ten could there be than an interim coach taking on a program that has won 13-straight games against teams currently in the Big Ten? USC last lost to a Big Ten team in 1996 (24-7 against Penn State).

That said, USC is not what it was in past years. This year, the Trojans have struggled to put together a complete game for Steve Sarkisian. The season-finale against Notre Dame stands at odds with a season that featured the Trojans stumbling in the second half against teams like Boston College and Utah.

In aggregate indicators, these teams do look evenly matched. For Nebraska's sake, there's no reason to believe Ameer Abdullah can't have a herculean effort in his final game against USC if Boston College was able to hang 452 rushing yards on the Trojans' defense.

Foster Farms Bowl (Maryland vs. Stanford)

Stanford is just a 7-5 team this year with losses to USC and Notre Dame that have not aged well. Its offense is alien for Stanford's recent customs. That said, I think the 31-10 rout of UCLA in the Rose Bowl to end the season is indicative of what's to come for the Terrapins. Stanford opened as a full two-touchdown favorite.

My hunch is Stanford manhandles Maryland in what amounts to a game in its own backyard. Maryland will at least get Stefon Diggs back for the bowl game.

Outback Bowl (Auburn vs. Wisconsin)

Wisconsin was just shut out, 59-0, by an explosive offense with a great running game. It will get no reprieve in playing the Auburn Tigers, which took the top off Alabama's defense in a losing effort in the Iron Bowl. The Tigers have the best rushing offense in the SEC.

While Auburn as a touchdown favorite is a reasonable opening line, Wisconsin will be aided by the turnover in Auburn's coaching staff. Auburn fired its defensive coordinator after an atrocious year-long campaign manifested in a 55 points conceded to Alabama. Auburn's defense is just 61st nationally.

Wisconsin has a tall order against Auburn, but a rebounding effort is not out of the realm of plausibility.

Citrus Bowl (Minnesota vs. Missouri)

Minnesota is playing in its first January bowl game since the 1962 Rose Bowl.

Missouri is about a touchdown favorite in this game, which is reasonable. It's fortunate that Minnesota drew Missouri out of the SEC when it was looking at possible matchups with Auburn or Georgia. Neither one of those matchups would have gone well for the Gophers.

Missouri's offense will challenge a Gophers defense that was successfully broken by Illinois' offense. However, any team that lost to Indiana, at home, on the SEC Network, is a team that Minnesota could plausibly defeat.

Cotton Bowl (Baylor vs. Michigan State)

Michigan State got the matchup I was fearing Ohio State would get (assuming Texas Christian and not Ohio State would have been in the playoff). Baylor will be looking for blood in this game, against a Big Ten team, no less, to solidify its position in the college football landscape amid a non-conference schedule that includes Buffalo, Southern Methodist, and an FCS team.

Baylor should be able to crack this Michigan State defense. Oregon put 491 yards and 46 points on Michigan State. Ohio State put 568 yards and 49 points on Michigan State and in their own place. Baylor could do a lot of damage in Jerry World. Michigan State's defense has been only situationally evil this season (see: Michigan, Rutgers) and not the all-season evil it was last year.

However, Michigan State's offense is solid, if not great. I think Michigan State's offense has become the strength of the overall team. Michigan State should be able to score often on Baylor's defense. Could it score enough? I'm not sure yet.

Iowa vs. Tennessee (TaxSlayer Bowl)

This is the last Big Ten bowl game on the schedule. It actually happens the day after the national semifinal between Alabama and Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.

Both programs are on different arcs. Iowa is stuck in neutral, in a part of the country without a lot of football talent, and with a coach it cannot afford to fire. Tennessee, though 6-6, is a program seemingly on the rise. A largely veteran team with a 7-5 record faces the youngest team in the country whose freshmen fought to a 6-6 record.

Watch Iowa's rush defense in this game. In its three November losses, Iowa conceded 291 yards on 59 carries (4.93 yards per carry) to Minnesota, 266 yards on 42 carries (6.33 yards per carry) to Wisconsin, and 161 yards on 31 carries (5.19 yards per carry) to Nebraska. It could amount to a coming-out party for Jalen Hurd, Tennessee's talented true-freshman running back.

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