1. The Baylor Bears take on the Michigan State Spartans Thursday morning, on New Year’s Day. It will be the top ranked matchup for 2-teams NOT in the Playoffs, which is nice, but little consolation for the Bears or Spartans. This is the 8th consecutive bowl game for Michigan State, while the Bears are in their 5th straight bowl game. This is the second ever meeting between the Bears and Spartans, with Michigan State winning the previous matchup 28-10, on September 28, 1968 in Spartan Stadium. This time, there will be much more on the line in the 79th Cotton Bowl Classic.
2. Offensively, the Spartans are led by Junior Quarterback Connor Cook, who has 2900 yards passing at a 22/6 touchdown/interception ratio. He is a prototypical pro-style quarterback, with good size (6-4, 220 pounds) and two years of starting experience. In 2013, he was much more of a game manager, with just a 7.3 yards per attempt rate. This year though, he has taken on a larger role with the offense as they have shifted to more of a balanced attack rather than the run heavy style of years past. This year, he is averaging 9.0 yards per pass, which is tied for the 6th best in the nation (Bryce Petty is at 8.8 yards and ranked 9th for comparison). Cook, a 2nd team All-Big 10 selection for the second consecutive season, led the conference in passing.
Cook’s main target this year has been senior Tony Lippett, a 6-foot-3 wide receiver from Detroit. The senior has blown up this year, with over 1100 yards receiving, 11 touchdowns and 18.73 yards per catch. He is a big play threat and a guy that can take over games. His 60 receptions lead the team by a mile, with no other receiver over 26 grabs. However, the Spartans have balance from their secondary options. They have 5 players with 15 to 26 receptions. Josiah Price is second on the team with 5 touchdowns, so the tight end will be a player to watch in the red zone.
3. While the Spartans are passing the ball more, this is still a run-centric offense. They are led by Jeremy Langford, a senior running back who had 1360 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns in 2014. This is after a 1400 yard campaign in 2013 with 18 touchdowns. Langford is a good all-around back, probably a tier behind Big-10 bellcow runners like Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah. He is a quick runner, who makes good cuts and has solid vision at the point of attack.
Senior backup Nick Hill is more of a speedster at the position and is a good change of pace runner. He has 100 rushes on the year and has averaged almost 6 yards per carry. This is a good running back duo behind a talented and experienced offensive line. Junior Center Jack Allen was selected as an All-Big 10 First Team member, with sophomore tackle Jake Conklin and senior guard Travis Jackson on the 2nd team.
4. The strength of this team is the defense though, ranked 7th in the nation in yards allowed per game. This is a Top-10/15 defense according to every metric. They are strongest against the run, allowing just 97.5 yards per game (good for 6th in the nation). That is incredibly impressive playing in the run heavy Big 10. However, against two of the best rushing attacks in the nation, the Spartans allowed 213 yards to Indiana and 268 yards against Ohio State. Those were the only two teams to average more than 6 yards per carry against the Spartans. Those are also the only Top-15 rushing attacks the Spartans saw in 2014. Against the 19th best rushing attack in Nebraska though, the Spartans dominated allowing just 47 yards on 37 carries. They also played against the 22nd ranked Oregon rush attack, allowing a 4.33 yards per carry average, but 3 touchdowns. The Bears rushing attack is 23rd in the nation, right behind the Ducks.
5. The strength of the Spartan defense is in the front-7, with star safety Kurtis Drummond patrolling the secondary. Michigan State has size and strength in the front 7, with their 4-2-5 defense really looking more like a 4-3. In terms of scheme and how they want to play defense, the Spartans look quite a bit like a Big 12 rival for the Bears; TCU. They are aggressive at the point of attack, and really focus on stopping the run. One big change for the Spartans though is their size at the linebacker and safety spots.
The Spartans have tremendous size at those two positions to battle against the bigger and more physical Big-10 teams. Their “star” position (or Bear Nickel Back in the Baylor 4-2-5 defense) is 6-0, 230 pound Darrien Harris. They do have a more athletic backup who gets a lot of time against more passing based attacks in 197 pound Mylan Hicks. Their other two linebackers are 242 and 252 pounds. Their safeties are both over 200 pounds. This is a big and physical defense, and one that has struggled against quicker spread attacks that can put speed all over the field.
Other players to keep an eye on defensively for Michigan State? Corner Trae Waynes (1st Team All-Big 10, 3 interceptions), Defensive End Shilique Calhoun (1st Team All-Big 10, 6.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss) and linebacker Taiwan Jones (2nd Team All-Big 10, 11 tackles for loss, 3rd on team in tackles with 54).