B1G Primer, Bowl Edition: The Big Ten’s opportunity to earn a little respect
The perception of Big Ten football is worse than what many in the league would like. There are just 4 B1G teams in the College Football Playoff Selection Committee’s final rankings, compared with 6 in the AP preseason poll. No one is asking for the Big Ten to have 9 teams ranked, like there are in the most recent men’s basketball poll, but the league probably expected more teams to be in the mix.
And while the SEC also only has 4, consider that their fourth-best team (No. 9 Georgia) is ranked ahead of the B1G’s second-best team (No. 11 Indiana). For the first time since the CFP started in 2014, the Big Ten has only 1 team in a New Year’s Six bowl game. And there have been analysts, such as ESPN’s David Pollack, who have dinged the Big Ten not just for the way the conference has handled this season, but also for the play on the field. (Hey, at least the Big Ten isn’t the Pac 12.)
That means the Big Ten has a chance to change some minds with a strong bowl season. After Iowa’s Music City Bowl matchup with Missouri was abruptly called off Sunday after a COVID outbreak with the Tigers, the Big Ten has just 4 bowl matchups. Since it is favored in 3 of those matchups (and would have been in Iowa’s game, too), the Big Ten can rack up some wins.
Here’s a look at each matchup:
Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Wednesday: Wisconsin (-7) vs. Wake Forest
There is always some mystery as to which players will be available for bowl games, but that’s especially true for Wisconsin (3-3) this season. Starting quarterback Graham Mertz, who left the regular season finale against Minnesota after a hit to the head, told reporters that he’ll be good to go on Wednesday. But there is no word yet on other key players from Wisconsin’s offense who missed the last game, including running backs Jalen Berger and Nakia Watson, wide receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor and left tackle Cole Van Lanen. Berger has reportedly returned to practice, but Davis and Pryor are likely out again, which is a big blow (the Badgers averaged 47 points in the 2 games those two played).
Wake Forest (4-4) is a great opponent for Wisconsin’s sputtering offense that has averaged just 10 points per game over its last 4 outings. The Demon Deacons have allowed 37 or more points in 4 games and are 107th in total defense. On top of that, star defensive end Carlos Basham, a potential first-round pick, opted out a couple weeks ago.
Wisconsin’s top-ranked defense, which allows just 263.5 yards per game, will have its work cut out for it against an offense that has put up 38 or more points 5 times. Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman, who was one of the main characters on Netflix’s QB1: Beyond the Lights, has 10 TD passes and only 1 interception.
While Wake Forest has turned its program around under Dave Clawson with 5 straight bowl appearances, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst’s bowl record of 4-1 (with a 1-point loss to Oregon in last year’s Rose Bowl as the only demerit) speaks for itself.
Wisconsin 24, Wake Forest 20
Citrus Bowl, Friday: No. 14 Northwestern (-3.5) vs. Auburn
These are interesting times for Northwestern. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is retiring after the season, Pat Fitzgerald is once again being mentioned as a candidate if the Chicago Bears job comes open (something he would probably have a very hard time turning down, if offered) and the 2 running backs that Northwestern has relied on all season (Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser) have entered the transfer portal.
But at the same time, Northwestern is in a great spot against Auburn. True freshman Cam Porter has emerged as the go-to back the last 2 games, which is why Anderson and Bowser are leaving. Fitzgerald, despite the distraction, has won 4 of his last 5 bowl games. And surely Hankwitz, who is a Broyles Award finalist, wants to go out on a high note.
Auburn is a program in transition after firing Gus Malzahn after a 6-4 season and hiring Boise State’s Bryan Harsin. Former 5-star recruit Bo Nix (11 TD passes, 7 interceptions) hasn’t quite made the leap that Auburn hoped he would in his sophomore season, as the Tigers had the No. 8 offense in the SEC in terms of yards per play. Northwestern is coming off a game in which it picked off 2 passes from Justin Fields and didn’t allow him to throw for a TD. The Wildcats, though, must plug the holes that allowed Trey Sermon to run for 331 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game. If Northwestern can limit Auburn’s star freshman running back Tank Bigsby and force Nix to beat them, the Wildcats should be able to send the 73-year-old Hankwitz out a winner.
Northwestern 28, Auburn 24
Sugar Bowl, Friday: No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Clemson (-7.5)
I’ll have some more in-depth thoughts on this matchup later in the week, but the short of it is that Clemson looked a lot closer to No. 1 Alabama than No. 3 Ohio State in its most recent outing, a 34-10 shellacking of previously No. 2 Notre Dame. On paper, it appears the gap has widened between these two programs since Clemson’s 29-23 victory over Ohio State in the CFP last season.
Of course, if Justin Fields is on his game, anything is possible. It feels like Ohio State has yet to play its best game this season, and this week is the perfect time to bust it out.
Prediction coming later this week
Outback Bowl, Saturday: No. 11 Indiana (-6.5) vs. Mississippi
Indiana’s dream season isn’t getting the ending that the Hoosiers would’ve hoped for, as they were inexplicably shut out of a NY6 bowl. How Tom Allen’s team responds to the snub will determine how this game goes. Ole Miss has a ton of talent, especially offensively, but it often shoots itself in the foot. Matt Corral has the third-most interceptions in the country with 14. Considering the Hoosiers lead the country with 2.43 interceptions per game, this looks like a great spot for Indiana.
While Corral has the potential to put up huge numbers (he averages over 332 passing yards and 3 passing TDs per game), Indiana has intercepted multiple passes in 6 of 7 games this season.
How sharp will the Hoosiers be? They have had their last 2 games canceled due to a COVID outbreak. That certainly hurts backup QB Jack Tuttle, who has only gotten to start 1 game since star QB Michael Penix Jr. tore his ACL on Nov. 28. Tuttle played very well against a tough Wisconsin defense, and if he can settle in, Indiana has a great shot to end its season the right way.
Indiana 31, Ole Miss 27
Week 9 record: 2-2 straight-up / 2-2 vs. spread
Season record: 26-24 straight-up / 21-29 vs. spread