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Big Ten Bowl Preview Part 2: New Year’s Day and beyond

Before tonight’s big Motor City Bowl game I wanted to hit on the second half of the Big Ten bowl matchups. Tonight begins the quest for the big money begins as Off the Tracks sits eight points out of first place in the Big Ten Bloggers' pick 'em Standings. A bad final two weeks to the season cost me the lead, and I have to make up ground in a hurry with a good bowl showing.

I may be running a diary of tonight’s game if I feel like it, but if it anything like last year’s attempt I will quickly lose interest. At least expect some sort of a wrap tomorrow, followed by a basketball update before the FIU game. In the meantime, on to the New Year’s Day games.

Only Illinois is a real shock to be in the next group of four teams, as they had the biggest wins of anyone in the conference this year. Even at 9-3 and arguably the worst BCS bowl team you cannot discount a number of their wins. Wisconsin and Penn State were both good contests at home, while the Ohio State win was one of the most shocking results in recent Big Ten history. Even the non-conference schedule carried an unusual amount of heft for a Big Ten team as both Ball State and Missouri find themselves in bowl games, and Syracuse… well, Syracuse is at least a BCS conference school. Most Big Ten teams won’t play more than one outside of the conference.

But the New Year’s Day games are what the Big Ten conference plays for, and thanks to the loyalty of the Rose Bowl committee we have four of them to watch this year. As mentioned in part one, everyone in the conference would like to send the Rose Bowl committee a Christmas card for the additional $410,000 that each school will receive from a second BCS berth. Unfortunately in three of these four games the Big Ten team is expected to be the underdog, since we have absolutely no hope of competing with the mighty SEC.

Outback Bowl
January 1, 11am at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL #16 Tennessee (9-4) vs. #18 Wisconsin (9-3)

For the second year in a row the Badgers quietly worked their way through the Big Ten schedule on their way to a New Year’s Day bowl. Their 9-3 record is quite impressive considering how banged up they were in some games, and because of the time off to heal I expect big things from them in Tampa. The loss at Penn State was pretty bad from a competitive standpoint, but there was no shame in losing at Illinois or Ohio State. Also of note was the fact that Wisconsin was the only team in the conference to have a spotless home record.

Tennessee is here because they play in the SEC, which is obviously the best conference in the country. Nevermind that they lost to a 6-6 California team that crashed and burned worse than any of Michigan State’s worst seasons. They also lost to a 6-6 Alabama team that was among the most overhyped in the nation. Since Alabama losing to Louisiana-Monroe was a tragedy on the level with Pearl Harbor and 9/11, what is Tennessee losing to Alabama on the level of? Is it the same as the Holocaust?

Wisconsin is no stranger to New Year’s Day lately, having played on the first day of the year for four seasons straight. The last two were wins over SEC schools in the Capitol One Bowl, and Wisconsin has traditionally been one of the Big Ten’s strongest teams in bowl play. This is actually the fifth year in a row they have played an SEC school in a bowl, and they have gone 2-2 in that time. P.J. Hill is still questionable with a leg injury for the Badgers, but they have been fine without him for most of the year.

Wisconsin has never won the Outback Bowl, losing to Georgia both times but I think things will be different this year. Tennessee may be suffering a bit of a letdown in losing such a close game to LSU in the SEC title game, but they have a tendency to lose big when they do lose. Florida, California, and Alabama all won convincingly over the Volunteers, and they recently announced that six players are declared academically ineligible for the game. Three of those players are starters, and that is too costly in a game like this.

PREDICTION: Wisconsin 24, Tennessee 14

Capitol One Bowl
January 1, 1pm at Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, FL
Michigan (8-4) at #12 Florida (9-3)

Michigan has trouble stopping spread quarterbacks not from Purdue, and we’re supposed to expect them to stop a player like Tim Tebow who had arguably the greatest running AND passing season a quarterback has ever had? That is a difficult task to accomplish, but injuries have been a problem for Michigan most of the year and they have had more than a month to get healthy. Of course they were totally healthy in the game that cannot be mentioned in Ann Arbor and look what happened.

Obviously Michigan is playing for the retirement of Lloyd Carr and to send seniors Jake long, Chad Henne, and Mike Hart out on a winning not since they never beat Ohio State and have yet to win a bowl game. Strictly on numbers the Wolverines aren’t even close offensively to what Florida has done, so a shootout will likely doom them. People don’t realize how close the Wolverines were to missing a bowl, but late wins at Michigan State and Illinois prevented what would have been a 6-6 record and place in Detroit for the Motor City Bowl.

Florida is all about Tebow and if he has a chance to run loose there is no way Michigan can compete. It’s amazing to look at his 20/20 accomplishment in a historical context and see that even the great option QB’s throughout history never came close, nor did versatile collegiate players like Michael Vick or Antwaan Randle El. Considering that Purdue is facing someone who very could join Tebow in that exclusive club in less than seven hours I am afraid, but this is about the Capitol One Bowl.

Honestly I think Michigan’s best shot is to have Mike Hart have another 40 carry, 200-yard performance in his final game for the Maize and Blue. Florida cannot score if it doesn’t have the ball, so Michigan should simply grind the clock out with the ball on the ground. To me Chad Henne has never been that impressive of a passer anyway. I know he is 6 TD’s short of Drew Brees’ record, but he’s never been one to put the fear of God in defenses like other great Big Ten quarterbacks. It won’t matter though if Michigan’s defense can’t get some stops.

PREDICTION: Florida 31, Michigan 14

Rose Bowl
January 1, 4:30pm at Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA
#13 Illinois (9-3) vs. #7 USC

Illinois is one of those programs like many in the Big Ten that savors every trip to Pasadena because it may be the last one for awhile. This will be the Illini’s fifth ever trip to Pasadena, but first since 1984. Many Illinois fans might have felt robbed of a trip in 2001 when they won the Big Ten only to be shifted to the Sugar Bowl because of the National title game, but the Rose Bowl Committee went with tradition and grabbed the Illini to make up for it. As a result Purdue is in Detroit instead of Texas or at home, so I guess it’s a good thing.

Should Illinois pull off a win in a game many people think it doesn’t have a prayer of winning it will officially scare everyone else in the Big Ten for next year and arguably install the Illini as the favorite in the conference for 2008. It’s hard to think of that, but considering a win would mean virtual road wins over two of the best teams in the country not only this year, but of the past decade plus all the talent Ron Zook has amassed in Champaign it is not that farfetched.

Illinois is also just a handful of plays from being undefeated. All three losses were by less than a touchdown with Illinois having a chance to win late in all three games. The Illini are playing with a ton of confidence as well and after going into Columbus and ending long Buckeye winning streaks both at home and in the conference they certainly aren’t going to be afraid of USC. I’ve gotten on Illinois for not having a passing game for much of the season, but Juice Williams had his three best games to close the year. If he can have another one this game will be much closer than many people think.

USC has a ton of talent as well, but they haven’t exactly set the world on fire with that talent. One could argue that the Stanford upset of USC was even bigger than the Appalachian State win over Michigan because USC is a better team than Michigan and Stanford is probably worse than the Mountaineers. The Trojans weren’t exactly convincing either against middling teams like California, Arizona, and Washington. I think USC will pull it off, but it won’t be the walk that many people are expecting.

PREDICTION: USC 24, Illinois 21

BCS Championship game
January 7, 8pm at the Superdome, New Orleans, LA
#1 Ohio State (11-1) vs. #2 LSU (11-2)

Ohio State comes in as one of just four schools to play in six BCS games, but they have ironically never played in the Rose Bowl as the Big Ten’s representative to the BCS. Lately they have set up shop in Phoenix over New Year’s playing in three Fiesta Bowls and last year’s title game. This will be the Buckeyes’ second trip to New Orleans for the BCS to go with a 1999 Sugar Bowl appearance. Their Fiesta win in the 2002 title game prevented Miami from completing a Grand Slam of sorts, as the Canes would have won all four BCS bowl in four consecutive years.

LSU will be playing in a virtual home game, much like Florida and USC mentioned above. This is also the final 2007 season skirmish in the battle for conference bragging rights between the Big Ten and SEC. A win by Ohio State would certainly chop down the perception of the SEC as the toughest conference in the country. Indeed some would argue that Georgia should be playing here a week later than they are, but they should have beaten Tennessee if they really wanted to be here.

If it is a close game then I would go with LSU, as they have had enough cardiac games this year to kill off their entire fanbase. Florida, Auburn, Alabama, and Tennessee all came down to the final possession and the Tigers escaped. They weren’t so lucky in a pair of triple overtime losses to Arkansas and Kentucky, but they are still here by virtue of winning the SEC and a ton of other upsets along the way. Should LSU win, Hawaii stomps Georgia, and Kansas loses to Virginia Tech it could open the door just a crack for the Warriors to claim the AP poll.

If you believe that defense wins championships then you have to favor Ohio State in this game. Outside of the SEC the Tigers have stopped teams, but those were the powerful offenses of Tulane, Middle Tennessee, and Louisiana Tech. The Virginia Tech win was nice, but LSU only gave up 26 points in four non-SEC games. Ohio State was a little bit better giving up 25 points in non-Big Ten games, but gave up more than 20 just once overall. LSU did that five times. Ultimately I think Ohio State’s defense is better and will be the edge.

PREDICTION: Ohio State 20, LSU 17