One college football blue blood in Michigan faces a recent upstart in Kansas State. This is intriguing. Even better: These teams never have met. For Michigan, this is a chance to get a bad taste out of its mouth for a 2013 season that has been, well, a disappointment.
Things could be even worse if not for narrow wins vs. Akron and UConn. The Wolverines—who haven’t won a Big Ten title since 2004–need to look at this as the first game of 2014.
[ MORE: View the 2013-14 bowl schedule ]
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Dec. 28, 10:15 ET
Storyline: While Michigan floundered down the stretch with a 1-4 mark in November, Kansas State finished strongly. The Wildcats, coming off a Big 12 title in 2012, went 2-4 in their first six games, including an upset loss to FCS North Dakota State. But K-State won five of its last six. Kansas State’s Bill Snyder is an iconic coach who faced Michigan eight times as the offensive coordinator of Iowa under Hayden Fry from 1979-88.
Player on the spot: Devin Gardner. The Wolverine quarterback needs to make some plays in the passing game for Michigan to be successful. Gardner reduced his turnovers in the back half of the schedule, tossing 10 picks in the first six games and just one in the last six. But coordinator Al Borges was running a stripped down version of his attack in the second half of the season. Still, look for K-State to come after a skittish Gardner whose confidence still has to be spotty. KSU knows if it puts the game in Gardner’s hands, it has a good chance at victory.
Best individual matchup: Michigan cornerback Blake Countess vs. Kansas State WR Tyler Lockett. K-State has a stud Lockett, who has 71 catches for 1,146 yards and eight TDs. Countess was among the best corners in the Big Ten in 2013. If the Wolverines can limit big plays in the passing game, it will make this Wildcat offense much easier to defend.
Best unit matchup: Kansas State quarterbacks vs. Michigan front seven. The Wildcats use Daniel Sams and Jake Waters at quarterback. Sams brings a running dimension, gaining 784 yards on 148 carries with 11 touchdowns. Waters is the better passer, hitting 138-of-233 attempts for 2,198 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Wolverines have talent along the front seven. It needs to contain this duo, get pressure and limit big plays while also dealing with K-State running back John Hubert, who has 968 yards rushing.
[ MORE: Get all of our Big Ten bowl coverage ]
THREE REASONS TO BE OPTIMISTIC
1. Chip on the shoulder. For weeks, Michigan has heard chirping from critical media and disappointed fans. This is a chance to end the season on an up note after Michigan opened the season as the pick of many to win the Legends Division. The Wolverines need to play with an us-against-the-world mentality to serve as motivation. The team needs to block everything out and just play for each other.
2. WR Jeremy Gallon. He’s among the best in the nation, catching 80 passes for 1,284 yards and nine touchdowns. And who can forget his crazy game vs. Indiana, when he notched a Big Ten single-record 369 receiving yards on 14 receptions?
3. Devin Gardner. Yes, he has endured peaks and valleys. Still, come game day, he’ll likely be the most talented guy on the field. He has shown he can win a game. Remember the Notre Dame game? Gardner hit 21-of-33 passes for 294 yards with four touchdowns and ran for 82 yards and a TD in a 41-30 win. If he gets protection, Gardner can make plays with his arm and legs.
[ MORE: AP: Devin Gardner bothered by turf toe ]
THREE REASONS TO BE WORRIED
1. Secondary. It’s not a really strong area for the Wolverines, as youth is being served. Yes, passing isn’t a major asset for Kansas State. But it will take its shots down field in hopes of exploiting the inexperience in the Michigan secondary.
2. Confidence. Does Michigan have much of it? This team struggled down the stretch, going 1-4 in November in what has been a disappointing season that opened with dreams of winning the Legends Division and Big Ten title. If the Wolverines get punched in the nose right away, how will they react?
3. Rushing game. It’s anemic. How bad is it? The Wolverines have the No. 11 rushing attack in the Big Ten (130.8 ypg). The biggest issue is an offensive line that largely has been ineffective all season. The interior of the line has struggled to get a consistent push, as personnel has been shuffled to largely no avail.
My pick: Michigan 26, Kansas State 24
|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|
And if you want to leave a comment on this post, use the box below. All comments need to be approved by a moderator.