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Your Big Ten Bowl Primer

The Big Ten put a record 10 – count ‘em, 10 – teams into the football postseason this year.

Can Russell Wilson lead Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl win over Oregon?

(And they say the bowl system is broken?)

That’s over 30 more hours of Big Ten football enjoyment over the next eight days!

These games will be the senior send-off for a number of the league’s top stars, including Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson, Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, Iowa WR Marvin McNutt, Penn State DL Devon Still and many others. It could also be a jumping off point for several key junior-eligibles, including Wisconsin RB Montee Ball, Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy, Illinois DL Whitney Mercilus and others.

These games could also set the tone for what we’ll see out of each of these teams in 2012.

The previous Big Ten record for bowl teams was eight in 2003, 2007 and 2010. The 2011-12 bowl season marks the seventh straight season that seven or more Big Ten programs have earned postseason berths, continuing the longest streak in conference history.

Of course, the two biggies will have Big Ten champion Wisconsin against Pac-10 champion Oregon in the Rose Bowl Jan. 2 and Michigan facing Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 3. For the 10th time in the 14-year history of the BCS, and the eighth time in the last 10 seasons, two Big Ten teams will play in BCS games this postseason.

Since the inception of the BCS in 1998, the Big Ten has qualified 24 teams for BCS bowls, more than any other conference. The SEC ranks second with 23 BCS bids, followed by the Big 12 (19), Pac-12 (18), ACC (15) and Big East (14).

Last year, Big Ten teams were a combined 3-5 in bowl games. Of this year’s 10 Big Ten bowls, oddsmakers have Big Ten teams favored in just three of them. It should be noted, though, that five of these games have lines of four points or fewer, meaning they could go either way.

With the first Big Ten bowl match-up coming Tuesday as Purdue tackles Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, we thought we’d share some insights and thoughts in all 10 of these Big Ten bowl match-ups. Here we go:

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl

Purdue (6-6) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)

* Date, Time (TV): Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

* Location: Ford Field; Detroit

* Line: Purdue favored by 2-1/2 points.

* AP Rankings: Both teams unranked.

* Series Record: Purdue leads, 2-0 (Last Meeting: Sept. 14, 2002: Purdue 28, Western Michigan 24)

* Bowl Records: Purdue, 8-7; Western Michigan, 0-4.

* What We Need To Know: Purdue is back in the postseason for the first time since 2007, when the Boilers outlasted Central Michigan 51-48 in a wild one. But everything isn’t peaches and cream in West Lafayette as the Boilers will be without top tackler Dwayne Beckford (suspension after drunken driving arrest) and top runner Ralph Bolden (injured).

Purdue must find a way to impact Western Michigan QB Alex Carder, who threw for 3,434 yards and 28 touchdowns this season. Western was eighth nationally in passing yards per game. The Broncos dropped games during the season to Michigan (34-10) and Illinois (23-20). Purdue lost to Michigan (36-14) and defeated Illinois (21-14).

* You Gotta Have Hope: Purdue makes its first postseason appearance in three years under coach Danny Hope. There were rumblings that Purdue could be shopping for a new coach, but the Boilers won two of their last three games to reach the six-win mark. And now they’ve given Hope a two-year contract extension through 2016.

* I’m Leaning Toward: I already picked this game in my second batch of bowl picks. I went with Purdue 33-27 in a good one.

Insight Bowl

Oklahoma (9-3) vs. Iowa (7-5)

* Date, Time (TV): Friday, 10 p.m. (ESPN)

* Location: Sun Devil Stadium; Tempe, Ariz.

* Line: Oklahoma by 14.

* AP Rankings: Oklahoma, 19th; Iowa, unranked.

* Series Record: Oklahoma leads, 1-0 (Last Meeting: Sept. 15, 1979: Oklahoma 21, Iowa 6)

* Bowl Records: Oklahoma, 26-17-1; Iowa, 14-10-1.

* What We Need To Know: The only previous time these schools met – in 1979 – Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was an Iowa player. His Sooners were the preseason No. 1 team, but three losses later OU needs a win just to salvage a 10-win season. QB Landry Jones threw for 4,302 yards and 28 touchdowns, but he missed top receiver Ryan Broyles (injured) down the stretch. Beyond Broyles, the Sooners have been rocked by other injuries.

Iowa will be without top rusher Marcus Coker (suspended). The Hawkeyes need the tandem of QB James Vandenberg and WR Marvin McNutt to stand on their heads probably to stay in this one.

* Ferentz Tough In Bowls: Iowa is 6-3 in bowl appearances under Kirk Ferentz, including three straight wins. That string includes wins over South Carolina in the 2009 Outback Bowl, Georgia Tech in the 2010 Orange Bowl and Missouri in last year’s Insight Bowl.

* I’m Leaning Toward: I also picked this game in my second batch of bowl picks. I went with Oklahoma 35-28. I just think Iowa usually steps forward in the bowl game, even if it may not mean a win against tough odds. Oklahoma was supposed to be in the national title game. One question: Will the Sooners be enthused to play in this game against a seven-win Iowa team in Tempe?

Meinke Car Care Bowl

Texas A&M (6-6) vs. Northwestern (6-6)

* Date, Time (TV): Saturday, noon (ESPN)

* Location: Relliant Stadium; Houston

* Line: Texas A&M by 10.

* AP Rankings: Both teams unranked.

* Series Record: First meeting.

* Bowl Records: Texas A&M, 13-19; Northwestern, 1-8.

* What We Need To Know: Things never really clicked for Texas A&M and coach Mike Sherman was fired at season’s end. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter will fill in for the bowl game before Houston’s Kevin Sumlin takes over in 2012. The Aggies dropped four of their last five games, although the lone win in that stretch was a 61-7 rout of Kansas. QB Ryan Tannehill threw for 3,415 yards and 28 TDs.

Northwestern makes a fourth straight bowl appearance for the first time in school history and it will be the swan song for productive QB Dan Persa. But the Wildcats will be without starting CB Jordan Mabin (injured). That hurts a defense that was ranked 80th nationally.

After a 2-5 start, the Wildcats won four of their last five games to qualify for the postseason. The lone loss was against Michigan State (31-17).

* It’s About Time: There is a lot of talk that the 2011-12 school year will be the first time Northwestern reaches the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But Northwestern hasn’t won a bowl game since a win over Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl. The last three years have seen some painful losses, too, with OT defeats to Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl and Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl and last year’s 45-38 loss to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl. Is this the year Northwestern breaks through?

* I’m Leaning Toward: Man, I want to pick Northwestern. A&M should be in disarray with the coaching change. I see a shootout, but I will probably go with the Aggies to win a high scoring tight game.

Fight Hunger Bowl

UCLA (6-7) vs. Illinois (6-6)

* Date, Time (TV): Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

* Location: AT&T Park; San Francisco

* Line: Illinois by 2-1/2.

* AP Rankings: Both teams unranked.

* Series Record: UCLA leads, 6-5 (Last Meeting: Sept. 11, 2004: UCLA 35, Illinois 17)

* Bowl Records: UCLA, 14-15-1; Illinois, 7-9. (UCLA is 2-1 in bowl games vs. Illinois.)

* What We Need To Know: Both teams are operating with interim head coaches after the dismissal of UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel and the firing of Illinois coach Ron Zook. Mike Johnson will be the interim coach for UCLA, while Vic Koenning will call the shots for Illinois.

With division champion USC ineligible, UCLA represented the Pac-12 South in the conference title game. UCLA wrapped the year with a 50-0 loss to USC and a 49-31 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. At 6-7, the Bruins needed special dispensation from the NCAA just to be able to take a bowl bid.

Illinois became the first team in I-A history to open 6-0 and finish 6-6. The best player on the field should be Illinois DL Whitney Mercilus, who has a whopping 14-1/2 sacks this season. The match-up between the Illinois defense and UCLA offense should be a good one.

* Auditioning For Beckman: The younger Illinois players, including soph QB Nathan Scheelhaase, will want to play well because new coach Tim Beckman, formerly of Toledo, will be watching this one closely.

* I’m Leaning Toward: Illinois, I guess. As bad as Illinois’ stretch run was, the Illini were in most of those games. (OK, they weren’t in the last one, a 27-7 loss at sadsack Minnesota.) For UCLA to lose a rivalry game to USC 50-0 with their coach’s job on the line, that’s a new level of laying down. Points should be at a premium in this one.

TicketCity Bowl

Penn State (9-3) vs. Houston (12-1)

* Date, Time (TV): Mon. Jan. 2; noon (ESPNU)

* Location: Cotton Bowl Stadium; Dallas

* Line: Houston by 6-1/2.

* AP Rankings: Penn State, 24th; Houston, 20th

* Series Record: Penn State leads, 2-0 (Last Meeting: Sept. 17, 1977: Penn State 31, Houston 14)

* Bowl Records: Penn State, 27-14-2; Houston, 7-11-1.

* What We Need To Know: The TicketCity Bowl somehow got a match-up of ranked teams. That came about when the Capital One, Outback, Insight, Gator and Texas bowls all took a pass on Penn State in the wake of the scandal that has rocked that university this fall. Houston, of course, was locked and loaded for the first ever Conference USA BCS bowl bid before the Cougars were decimated at home by Southern Miss in the league title game (49-28).

Houston QB Case Keenum threw for 5,099 yards and 45 TDs this season, but Penn State boasts the nation’s No. 6 pass defense. UH may be inspired to play for coach Tony Levine, named the permanent replacement for Kevin Sumlin who bolted for Texas A&M.

Penn State is still searching for the permanent replacement for Joe Paterno. Longtime assistant Tom Bradley, 1-2 as the interim coach late in the season, will coach this game for the Lions. Keep an eye on Big Ten defensive player of the year Devin Still and his efforts to get after Keenum. Houston is not all that adept in stopping the run, meaning that RB Silas Redd (1,188 yards) could be in for a big day.

* Will McGloin Be Ready?: After all the problems Penn State had this season, QB Matt McGloin and backup WR Curtis Drake got into a scuffle in the locker room on Dec. 17. McGloin suffered a concussion when he was knocked unconscious and his head hit the concrete. It’s still unclear whether he or former starter Rob Bolden will start for Penn State.

* I’m Leaning Toward: Houston, especially if McGloin is limited. Bolden never really showed any signs of being able to move Penn State, which would have to be termed offensively challenged even when at full strength. The PSU defense may play well to hold Houston – averaging a nation’s best 50.8 points -- to 24 points and it may not be enough.

Gator Bowl

Florida (6-6) vs. Ohio State (6-6)

* Date, Time (TV): Mon., Jan. 2; 1 p.m. (ESPN2)

* Location: EverBank Field; Jacksonville, Fla.

* Line: Florida by 2-1/2.

* AP Rankings: Both teams unranked.

* Series Record: Florida leads, 1-0 (Last Meeting: Jan. 8, 2007: Florida 41, Ohio State 14; BCS National Championship Game in Glendale, Ariz.)

* Bowl Records: Florida, 19-19; Ohio State, 20-22. (Florida is 1-0 in bowl games against Ohio State.)

* What We Need To Know: These two teams are used to playing in BCS bowls, but each stumbled to 6-6 seasons this year. It was Will Muschamp’s first year at the helm at Florida after taking over from Urban Meyer, who coincidentally will be OSU’s new coach in 2012. The Gators’ best win was probably over 6-6 Vanderbilt (26-21). Where they used to rule the roost, they lost to the best six teams on their schedule – Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State.

The Gators were 71st nationally in points scored (25.6 ppg) and 87th in passing yards (190.2 ypg) as QB John Brantley never really hit his stride. He had three picks in the season-ending loss to Florida State (21-7). Playmakers Chris Raines and Jeff Demps excelled when they got the ball in the open field, however. Florida will be without offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who has left to become the new head coach at Kansas.

This has been the year from hell for Ohio State, which lost popular coach Jim Tressel and QB Terrelle Pryor after an NCAA scandal. Interim coach Luke Fickell tried to hold it together, but his young team was rocked by suspensions and injuries far too numerous to document. The Buckeyes dropped their last three games, although their five Big Ten losses were by a combined 25 points. They think they’ve found their quarterback in rangy freshman Braxton Miller, who accounted for 335 yards total offense and three TDs in the loss to Michigan (40-34).

* A Florida Home Game?: Jacksonville is just 70 miles from Florida’s Gainesville campus, although word was tickets were selling slowly on both sides of this match-up. That’s too bad because this also has a storyline as a rematch from the 2007 BCS national title game, where Florida destroyed OSU.

Florida has won five of its last six bowl games, while OSU puts a two-game bowl winning streak on the line. This is OSU’s first Gator Bowl since 1978, when legendary coach Woody Hayes was fired after punching a Clemson player late in that defeat. OSU and its fans need to enjoy this bowl game, since the NCAA handed the school a bowl ban for Meyer’s first season in 2012.

* I’m Leaning Toward: Ohio State. OSU’s run defense has been reasonably strong this year, while Florida’s offense has been anything but a juggernaut. Ohio State has had its own offensive issues and the passing game (ranked 117th at just 124.1 ypg) has been abysmal. But Miller has steadily improved as the season has gone on. If he plays anything like he did against Michigan, Florida could be in for a long day.

Outback Bowl

Georgia (10-3) vs. Michigan State (10-3)

* Date, Time (TV): Mon., Jan. 2; 1 p.m. (ABC)

* Location: Raymond James Stadium; Tampa, Fla.

* Line: Georgia by 3-1/2

* AP Rankings: Georgia, 18th; Michigan State, 12th.

* Series Record: Georgia leads, 2-0 (Last Meeting: Jan. 1, 2009: Georgia 24, Michigan State 12; Capital One Bowl)

* Bowl Records: Georgia, 26-17-3; Michigan State, 7-14. (Georgia is 2-0 in bowl games against Michigan State.)

* What We Need To Know: For the second year in a row, Michigan State was passed over for a BCS bid. Last year, Ohio State got the Sugar Bowl nod and this year Michigan – a team MSU defeated in the regular season – also was picked by the folks at the Sugar Bowl. That’s too bad because Mark Dantonio may be the best head coach nationally who hasn’t coached a team in a BCS bowl yet.

Both teams come in after title game losses: Michigan State lost out on a Rose Bowl bid in a 42-39 heartbreaker against Wisconsin, while Georgia had its 10-game winning streak snapped by LSU (42-10). After a lopsided Capital One Bowl loss to Alabama last year (49-7) and that Big Ten title game loss to Wisconsin, MSU is still searching for that breakthrough win. Maybe it comes in the final game for the senior tandem of QB Kirk Cousins and WR B.J. Cunningham.

Georgia coach Mark Richt is off the hot seat for at least 20 minutes, but a bowl win to get to 11 wins this season would be helpful for him. QB Aaron Murray settled down this year and threw for 2,861 yards and 33 TDs as the wins piled up for the Bulldogs.

* A Defensive Struggle?: Georgia and Michigan State each boast top-five defenses nationally, meaning one big play could be the difference in this one. For Georgia, watch out for pass rushing LB Jarvis Jones (13-1/2 sacks). For MSU, keep an eye on impact DL Jerel Worthy, a junior who could leave early for the NFL.

* I’m Leaning Toward: Watching this one very closely. This should be one heck of a game. I’d say right now I’d take Michigan State in a close one, particularly if the Cousins-to-Cunningham Connection is operating early and often for the Spartans. If RB Le’Veon Bell can approach 100 yards, the Spartans can make Y’bor City their own.

Capital One Bowl

Nebraska (9-3) vs. South Carolina (10-2)

* Date, Time (TV): Mon., Jan. 2; 1 p.m. (ESPN)

* Location: Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium; Orlando, Fla.

* Line: South Carolina by 2-1/2.

* AP Rankings: Nebraska, 21st; South Carolina, 10th.

* Series Record: Nebraska leads, 3-0 (Last Meeting: October 3, 1987: Nebraska 30, South Carolina 21)

* Bowl Records: Nebraska, 24-23; South Carolina, 4-12.

* What We Need To Know: Well, Nebraska is new to the Big Ten and once the Huskers were knocked out of contention for a BCS bowl, the Capital One wasted no time in taking them. It will be just the second time since 1998 that Nebraska has bowled in Florida.

South Carolina, led by Steve Spurrier, defeated SEC East champion Georgia 45-42 in a shootout at Athens. But while Georgia won the rest of its SEC games, the Gamecocks stumbled in crossover games against Auburn (16-13) and Arkansas (44-28). USC boasts the nation’s No. 4 defense, led by DT Melvin Ingram and freshman phenom DE Jadeveon Clowney. The Gamecocks rallied after losing offensive stars QB Stephen Garcia (kicked off team) and RB Marcus Lattimore (knee injury) in back-to-back weeks.

Nebraska pins much of its hopes on the option running game led by QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead. Burkhead capped the season with 160 yards on 38 carries in a win over Iowa (20-7). Lopsided road losses at Wisconsin (48-17) and Michigan (45-17) helped define Nebraska’s season. LB Lavonte David and CB Alfonzo Dennard key the defense.

* Third Time The Charm: Nebraska is looking for a third straight 10-win season. But South Carolina will be gunning to snap a three-game bowl losing streak.

* I’m Leaning Toward: South Carolina, but this should be a heck of a game. South Carolina has the defensive studs to slow down the Huskers’ running game. Plus, fill-in QB Connor Shaw was pretty good down the stretch after Garcia’s departure. If Nebraska can run for over 200 yards, the Huskers could take this one.

Rose Bowl

Oregon (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (11-2)

* Date, Time (TV): Mon., Jan. 2; 5 p.m. (ESPN)

* Location: Rose Bowl; Pasadena, Calif.

* Line: Oregon by 6.

* AP Rankings: Oregon, sixth; Wisconsin, ninth.

* Series Record: Wisconsin leads, 3-1 (Last Meeting: Sept. 1, 2001: Oregon 31, Wisconsin 28)

* Bowl Records: Oregon, 9-15; Wisconsin, 11-11.

* What We Need To Know: Wisconsin is back in the Rose Bowl for the second year in a row after last year’s tough loss to TCU (21-19). Oregon is back in Pasadena for the second time in three years after a loss to Ohio State in the 2010 game (26-17). So somebody is getting a big breakthrough moment in Pasadena.

This has the potential to be a high scoring barnburner with the nation’s third-highest scoring team (Oregon, 46.2 ppg) facing the No. 4 scoring team (Wisconsin, 44.6 ppg). The first one to 50 should win. Wisconsin has dynamic QB Russell Wilson and RB Montee Ball on its side. Ball is one touchdown away from equaling Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season mark of 39 touchdowns.

Oregon counters with QB Darron Thomas and RB LaMichael James. James led the I-A ranks in rushing yards per game at 149.6. Thomas is 22-3 as Oregon’s starting quarterback. Ducks coach Chip Kelly is the only coach in a BCS game for the third year in a row, although he is 0-2 with losses to Ohio State and to Auburn in last year’s national title game.

* Kings Of Pasadena: Wisconsin 3-4 all-time at the Rose Bowl, while Oregon is 1-3.

* I’m Leaning Toward: Wisconsin. I just think the Badgers faced many more tough tests in the Big Ten than Oregon did in the Pac-12. This has offensive shootout written all over it. He who has the ball last laughs the loudest.

Sugar Bowl

Michigan (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech (11-2)

* Date, Time (TV): Tues., Jan. 3; 8 p.m. (ESPN)

* Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome; New Orleans, La.

* Line: Michigan by 2-1/2.

* AP Rankings: Michigan, 13th; Virginia Tech, 17th.

* Series Record: First meeting.

* Bowl Records: Michigan, 19-21; Virginia Tech, 9-15.

* What We Need To Know: It was an amazing first year for Michigan coach Brady Hoke. The Wolverines could score points under previous coach Rich Rodriguez. But the improvement came on the defensive side of the ball. The Wolverines stormed through Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State to win their last three games and get into contention for their first BCS bowl game since the 2007 Rose Bowl.

QB Denard Robinson found the perfect complement in RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. UM ended up 12th nationally in rushing yards per game (235.7). But Virginia Tech racked up 38 sacks this season and can get after opposing passers.

The Hokies have an offensive star in RB David Wilson (1,627 yards, nine TDs), while QB Logan Thomas (2,799 passing yards, 19 TDs) is also solid. Virginia Tech’s two losses were to Clemson, falling 23-3 at home and 38-10 in the ACC title game.

* Who Got Passed Over?: Sugar Bowl operators were at a loss to explain their decision to match up Virginia Tech (11th in the final BCS rankings) and Michigan (13th). In so doing, they passed over Boise State (seventh), Kansas State (eighth) and Baylor (12th). Arkansas (sixth) and South Carolina (ninth) were also ineligible with two SEC teams already in the BCS. When the Superdome isn’t quite full, they may rue the decision not to take K-State (which typically travels well) or Baylor (with Heisman winner Robert Griffin III).

* I’m Leaning Toward: Michigan. Something just doesn’t sit right with Virginia Tech. They were cruising along and just got rocked by Clemson. I think Michigan probably played a tougher schedule in the Big Ten and with Notre Dame. Tech’s nonconference slate: Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall.

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