Big Ten Bowl Watch Guide, Part 1

Part one covers the three pre-New Year's Day contests, beginning Saturday night in Florida with Wisconsin and Florida State. That clash is followed by a pair of games pitting Big Ten teams against Big 12 opponents, opening the debate about the merits of playing strong defense versus honing an offense that lets it all hang out.

The Badgers get the first chance to begin fixing the Big Ten's image problem when they take on Florida State, a Southern team with name recognition and a recent BCS bowl appearance to its credit but still trying to get back to the top of the heap itself.

Next are two chances to compare the Big Ten and the Big 12 with Northwestern facing Missouri and Minnesota taking on Kansas.

The Big 12 enjoyed a far better national perception than did the Big Ten league all season, but fans of the Big Ten are eager to argue that their league can stand up to anyone's.

In the Alamo and the (perhaps aptly named) Insight Bowl, fans get to see how good offenses in a league full of them match up with stop units from a more defensive-minded league.

Style is a matter of taste, but production is measured in wins and losses, and the Big Ten gets two important chances to draw a line in the sand early before Ohio State and Texas replay the same scenario on a bigger stage in January.

Champs Sports Bowl
Saturday at 4:30 p.m., ESPN
Orlando, Fla.

Wisconsin (7-5, 3-5) travels to Florida to take on Florida State (8-4, 5-3 ACC) in a matchup of the Big Ten's co-sixth-place team and a squad that narrowly missed appearing in its conference's championship game.

After losing four of five games from Sept. 27-Nov. 1, the Badgers were able to sneak into a bowl game on a three-game winning streak. Head coach Bret Bielema's team whipped Indiana 55-20 then beat Minnesota and Division I-AA Cal-Poly by a combined four points to close out the season.

Wisconsin led the Big Ten in rushing (212.0 yards per game) but finished last in tackles-for-loss and 10th in sacks.

Meanwhile, the Seminoles led the ACC in scoring, pass defense, sacks, tackles for loss and kickoff return average.

FSU struggled mightily in the passing game, finishing 87th in yards through the air and 91st in passing efficiency.

A potential tipping point: The Seminoles led the ACC and finished No. 6 in the nation in sacks, an area of weakness for the Badgers, who were seventh in the Big Ten and tied for 77th nationally in sacks allowed.

What Ohio State fans want to watch:

Get a sneak peak of Dusin Scherer, a junior who took over at quarterback for the Badgers after the Buckeyes beat them. There is a good chance he will be a key for the Badgers in 2009, and his last game of 2008 will come against a team that will likely get after him and play the pass well. All his receivers are due back in 2009, too, but the offensive line starts three seniors against the Seminoles.

What about the Badger defense? Despite respectable season statistics, this is a unit that gave up fourth-quarter leads against Michigan and Ohio State in back-to-back games when the season still had some promise. The secondary that ranked 21st in the nation in pass efficiency defense has three starters (safeties Jay Valai and Chris Maragos along with cornerback Niles Brinkley) who should be back next season.

Alamo Bowl
Monday, 8 p.m., ESPN
San Antonio, Texas

Northwestern (9-3, 5-3) takes on Missouri (9-4, 5-3 Big 12). The Wildcats finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten while Missouri tied for the lead in the Big 12 North division.

Many years this would be a game for those who love offense, but in 2008 it is a clash of styles. The Wildcats were one of the first major college teams to excel in the spread in which the Tigers now specialize, but Northwestern's best unit this year was its defense.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald's team led the Big Ten in sacks (2.75 per game) and was second in tackles for loss. The Wildcats finished fourth in the conference in rushing and scoring defense but both those were good for the top 35 in the nation.

Meanwhile, the offense was inconsistent, finishing middle-of-the-road in terms of both passing (sixth) and rushing (seventh) but scoring just 24.5 points per game, which ranked eighth.

Turnovers were also a major bugaboo as they gave the ball away 27 times.

In Missouri, the Wildcats get a pass-happy team with an excellent senior quarterback in Chase Daniel, who finished seventh in the nation in pass efficiency and fifth in total offense.

The Tigers enter bowl season ranked sixth in the nation in both total offense (497.5 yards per game) and scoring (43.2 points). They average 340.4 yards per game through the air.

On the flip side, though, they gave up 285.3 yards passing per game, a total that was better than only two other Division I-A teams. Ninety-eight teams allowed fewer than the 414.2 yards per game Missouri allowed.

The return of running back Tyrell Sutton, who told reporters during bowl practice he expects to have recovered enough from wrist surgery to play against the Tigers, would be a huge boost for Northwestern.

Buckeye fans will want to watch:

Northwestern lists just three senior starters on its defensive depth chart for the Alamo Bowl, so keep an eye on some of those youngsters as this could be a unit that gets even better next year, especially if star junior end Corey Wootton resists the urge to go pro early.

Also keep an eye on Northwestern's offensive line, which starts just one senior and will be the most veteran part of the Wildcat offense next season when quarterback C.J. Bacher, three of his top receivers and the top two running backs all will have exhausted their eligibility.

Ohio State and Northwestern won't play in 2009, but having another team show it can stay in the national rankings is good for the league, which is good for the Buckeyes, too.

Insight Bowl
Wednesday, Dec. 31
Tempe, Ariz.
6 p.m., NFL Network

Minnesota (7-5, 3-5) takes on a Kansas (7-5, 4-4 Big 12) in a matchup of a Big Ten team that tied for sixth place in the standings and the No. 3 team in the North division of the Big 12.

The Golden Gophers saw some of the shine come off a bounce-back season when they skidded to four consecutive losses to end the year, but they get a chance to save some face and win some respect by knocking off Kansas.

Minnesota struggled to run the ball this season, especially during the four-game losing streak when they failed to rush for more than 99 yards in any contest. They finished last in the Big Ten in rushing with 105.8 yards per game, the 104th-best average in the country.

Thus the most important man on offense is sophomore quarterback Adam Weber, who improved noticeably in his second season running the Minnesota spread offense. He is a threat as a runner and a passer.

His favorite target, wide receiver Eric Decker, is a good one who led the Big Ten in receptions and was second in yards.

The Golden Gopher defense is good at attacking the line of scrimmage, finishing in the top 25 of the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss, but has been susceptible to the pass (next-to-last in the conference). That could mean feast or famine for the Gophers.

Turnovers are a major key to Minnesota's success or lack thereof. Only Ohio State had a better turnover ratio in the Big Ten.

Kansas heads to the desert with a resume that resembles Missouri's, although Jayhawk quarterback Todd Reesing has a year of eligibility remaining. He was 21st in the nation in pass efficiency rating and eighth in total offense.

Able to score at a 32.7-points-per-game clip, the Jayhawks had a tough time stopping teams in the pass-happy Big 12.

Buckeye fans will want to watch:

Playing the highest profile position on the field, Weber could be a key to the Big Ten gaining more positive national press in the near future if he can continue to improve. Outplaying known-quantity Reesing would be a good feather in his cap.

Tight end Jack Simmons is the only senior starter on the Golden Gopher offense, so this is a great chance to scout early for 2009.

A defense that will be under heavy fire from the Kansas spread all day is mostly comprised of underclassmen as well.

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