B1G Debate: Which Big Ten bowl game is most intriguing? Who has the most to prove?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Which Big Ten bowl game is most intriguing? And which team has the most to prove?
RYAN: It’s important to differentiate here. If this was about which game I’m most excited to watch, the answer is easy: the Rose Bowl. And that would be my answer each and every season, regardless of who is playing. There are 3 football games that I can almost guarantee I’ll watch from start to finish each year, and that would be the Super Bowl, the national championship and the Rose Bowl. It’s like my body is programed on New Year’s Day to flip over to ABC in the early evening to see some of that glorious sunshine and perfectly manicured grass. It’s beautiful.
Anyways, as for the actual matchup I’m most intrigued by — and let’s leave the College Football Playoff out of it, because of course Michigan vs. Georgia is going to be awesome — I think it would be Michigan State vs. Pitt.
I sort of cringed for Spartans fans when the pairings were released last week, because this just looks like an awful matchup. Michigan State has had this great season, but it’s been a tough final month … and now it has the potential to get really ugly. The Spartans, as you probably know by now, have a horrendous pass defense. The Panthers, as you probably know by now, have a terrific passing offense. Kenny Pickett averages 332 passing yards per game and has 42 TD passes to 7 INTs. Michigan State hasn’t held a team under 300 passing yards since mid-October.
But that’s why this is such a great matchup. Mel Tucker is going to have a month to regroup and prepare his team for this passing attack. It’s not going to be perfect, because it’s not like he can bring in reinforcements for this game. But are there little things he can do to give Michigan State’s defense a shot in this one? Absolutely. And Michigan State’s offense is well-equipped to play in a shootout, as long as they aren’t in a 21-0 hole in the blink of an eye, like in the Ohio State game.
Either way, I think this game will say a lot about Michigan State as a program. If Tucker can figure out a way to slow Pitt, that should make Spartans fans feel great about their head coach’s ability to adapt, a skill he’ll need over the next 10 years.
The next one on my list would be Penn State vs. Arkansas. Are the Nittany Lions really about to go 7-6 in the season they gave their head coach a 10-year, $85 million contract? The Ohio State/Utah matchup in the Rose Bowl will be good as well, though we’ll have to see how motivated the Buckeyes are. It’s CFP or bust for Ohio State, so will it come out motivated? That’s TBD.
What do you think?
CONNOR: If we knew definitively that Pickett was playing, yes, I couldn’t agree more. It’s an intriguing matchup to see if Tucker can actually make those adjustments, and the idea of Pat Narduzzi against Michigan State means we’ll get at least one moment of him calling his shot.
The problem is that if Pickett doesn’t play in this one — he said he’s undecided on The Dan Patrick Show on Wednesday — then this game suddenly lacks a whole lot of star power. It’s Kenneth Walker and Pitt star receiver Jordan Addison, but there’s no guarantee he’ll have someone who can get him the ball. Pitt is also going to be without Mark Whipple after he left to become Nebraska’s offensive coordinator.
I’ll stick with your “can they make adjustments” storyline and go with Ohio State-Utah in the Rose Bowl. Utah smashed Oregon in the mouth. Twice. Ohio State got smashed in the mouth in the regular season. Twice. We don’t necessarily know what the Buckeyes wideouts will be doing, but CJ Stroud and TreVeyon Henderson will both be playing, which is entertaining in itself. Ohio State has this weird tendency of dominating in non-Playoff New Year’s 6 bowls.
For whatever reason, we saw them play fearless in those spots in 2015, 2017 and 2018. Can that work against a team as physical as Utah? That’s going to be an excellent test. The difference between this year’s team compared to those previous 3 is that this one is the first game after a season-ending Michigan loss. As you said, do they show up motivated to play 60 minutes? Or will Utah be the third team to smash the Buckeyes in the mouth? Plus, it’s the Rose Bowl. It’s always intriguing.
I like that you went to Penn State-Arkansas. I’m super bummed that Treylon Burks isn’t going to be playing in that one. He might be my favorite receiver in the 2022 NFL Draft class. That dude had 3 times as much production as the next-closest receiver on that team. He’s worth the price of admission every week, but to be honest, that game gets more intriguing now that he’s not playing in it because I would’ve picked Arkansas to beat Penn State by multiple scores.
What would it say about Franklin, who, as you said, got that monumental contract, if he lost to Year 2 Sam Pittman? Pittman took over a team that hadn’t won an SEC game in over 1,000 days, and they’ve got a veteran-laden group that should have tons of motivation. I sort of hate that we keep coming back to that “motivation” word, but it’s true.
Which B1G team has the most to prove this bowl season? I want to call dibs on Iowa, but I’ll let you answer that first.
RYAN: Iowa is all yours. The Hawkeyes have shown who they are already, and to me, nothing they do in the bowl game is going to matter. In their last 8 games, they have 5 wins and all are by 10 points or less. The 3 losses are all by 17 points or more. More often than not in the second half of the season, they have been outplayed — and most of the time, by a significant margin. Even with a win over Kentucky, would Iowa fans feel great going into next year? I don’t think so. Lopsided losses to Michigan, Wisconsin and Purdue are going to linger this offseason and prompt change no matter what happens in the Citrus Bowl.
To me, Penn State has the most to prove. As you mentioned, Treylon Burks is out. If the Nittany Lions can’t beat a team that finished in a 3-way tie for third in the SEC West that is missing its best player, well, then maybe Greg McElroy is right that Penn State is a “middle of the SEC” type program. Franklin is going to be held to the highest standard from here on out, and that means taking down a second-year head coach of a program that is happy to be in the Outback Bowl (as it should be). Penn State should not be happy to be in the Outback Bowl (except for getting to munch on some Bloomin Onion), as its standard is a New Year’s 6 bowl.
And right after Penn State, I’d have to go with Ohio State. To lose to 2 Pac-12 teams in one year would be, um, not great. This is a conference that hasn’t been to the CFP since 2016. Utah is playing excellent football and would be really interesting to see in an expanded CFP. But this is Ohio State, with one of the most talented rosters in the country. Even with a few opt-outs, the Buckeyes should still have more than enough to win comfortably. But coming off a disappointing outing against Michigan, Ohio State needs to reassert itself as a dominant program or it’s going to be a long offseason.
Honorable mention: Purdue. I love this matchup because I think it’s a great opportunity for the Boilermakers. There aren’t many people who will pick against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl. From what I saw of Tennessee this season, the Volunteers are legit and have really played well in the second half of the season. Same with Purdue, though, and this is a chance for the Boilermakers to step outside a wacky Big Ten West and show they are building something. Plus, Purdue was absolutely embarrassed by an SEC team in this exact bowl game 3 years ago, so it’s time to show it can hang.
Please defend your Iowa take.
CONNOR: OK, I see what you’re saying. I was thinking of Iowa more as like, “hey, prove to everyone that you can actually show some sign of offensive life.” I’m not saying I’m optimistic, but I do think if we’re gonna talk about intrigue for Mel Tucker adjusting that woeful pass defense, I think we should have the same conversation for Iowa’s “offense.” Has a 9-win team ever had such a disastrous offense without any sort of identity? In the modern era, I doubt it.
If Iowa beats Kentucky and forces a million turnovers — something that could absolutely happen with how much the Cats have forked it over this year — then Iowa would avoid being remembered as such a fraud. A team that got to No. 2 in the country did once have those expectations. What a strange thing that is to think about.
Could this perhaps be a “prove it” game for Brian Ferentz keeping his job? Or will nepotism win out?
(Kidding. Sort of.)
You’re right about Penn State. How does Franklin perform with that massive new deal AND with the fact that Brent Pry is gone. We don’t even know who’s calling defensive plays for the Lions. Franklin is in “prove it” territory until further notice. Penn State doesn’t have a single win against the current Top 25. Those teams went 4-0 against Franklin’s squad. What a tough look it would be if Arkansas made it 0-5. Losing 6 of 8 to end the season? Yikes. Take it from Dan Mullen. You don’t want people to start adding up how bad you’ve been against Power 5 teams over a long stretch of time.
What would meet your expectations for the B1G this bowl season? I think there’s a realistic path to 6-3 or 7-2. Of course, the strength of the league will be determined by that New Year’s 6 showing. Perhaps it’s “prove it” time for the B1G East. Going 3-0 in those New Year’s 6 Bowls and getting a team into the title game would be darn impressive.
RYAN: Going 6-3 or 7-2 would be an excellent outcome for the Big Ten. That would mean 2 or 3 of the underdogs (Maryland, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa) win. We’ll have to see how this all shakes out with opt-outs and such, but I just don’t see that happening right now.
You’re exactly right that a lot of this will depend on the B1G East, with Michigan obviously mattering most. If Michigan loses to the SEC team that got blown out in the SEC Championship Game, that’s not a great look for the Big Ten. The Big Ten has some good opportunities here, though, if its No. 3 team (Michigan State) can beat the ACC champion and its No. 2 team (Ohio State) can beat the Pac-12 champion. The rest of the other games are a tier below in terms of importance when sorting out conference supremacy.
We’ll have to reconvene and take stock of all this at the end of bowl season. Until then, let’s enjoy what ESPN tells me is “the most wonderful time of the year.”