Dienhart: Ranking the 2016-17 Big Ten bowls, from 1-10
Pressed for time during the holiday season? Sure you are! Who isn’t? What with the trip to Toys “R” Us to buy a Mr. Microphone and surfing the web for a good deal on a Zamfir pan flute CD, we all are busy.
That’s why I’m here. Let me prioritize the Big Ten bowls for you, from best to worst. You’re welcome.
1. Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Clemson. Good luck trying to find a better postseason matchup than this. This playoff game between No. 2 seed Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State, the first team to make the playoff without winning a conference championship, is going to be special. This clash drips with intrigue. It begins with a classic matchup of top quarterbacks, with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett facing off with Clemson Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson. Each is a dynamic playmaker who can make things happen with their arm and feet, though Watson is the superior passer who has enjoyed the better season.
2. Rose Bowl: Penn State vs. USC. Two of the hottest teams in the nation will square off in the “Granddaddy of them All,” as the Nittany Lions have won nine in a row and the Trojans eight. USC turned around its season by switching QBs in September, handing the reins to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. And, he has been a sensation. Penn State has its own sensation at quarterback in sophomore Trace McSorley, who has been a magician when it comes to operating the Nittany Lions’ spread attack installed by new coordinator Joe Moorhead.
3. Orange Bowl: Michigan vs. Florida State. Two heavyweight programs square off in one of the better bowl matchups of the season. Each had playoff dreams when the season began but came up short. Michigan was hurt by losing two of its last three games, both in heart-breaking fashion. This game will feature one of the best individual matchups of the postseason: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook vs. Michigan LB Jabrill Peppers. Cook has rushed for 1,620 yards and 18 touchdowns on 268 carries this season. He ranks sixth in the country in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Peppers is college football’s Swiss army knife, one of the most dynamic players in the nation who was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Michigan is boffo vs. the run, ranking sixth in the nation, as it allows just 3.1 yards per rushing attempt.
4. Pinstripe Bowl: Northwestern vs. Pitt. This could be a game that features a lot of points, as each program has a prolific offense. Pitt is playing well under Pat Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator. The Panthers are the only team to have beaten two Power Five league champs, taking down Clemson and Penn State. The big storyline will be the battle of running backs between the Panthers’ James Conner and the Wildcats’ Justin Jackson. Conner is an inspirational story, overcoming cancer and a knee injury to run for 1,060 yards and 16 TDs this season. This will be his final game, as he has declared for the NFL draft. Jackson is No. 2 in the Big Ten with 1,300 yards rushing (108.3 ypg).
5. Foster Farms Bowl: Indiana vs. Utah. Indiana is in a bowl for a second season in a row. And that’s a big deal, as the Hoosiers last pulled off that feat in 1990 and 1991 under Bill Mallory. In fact, the last time IU won a bowl was 1991, when it knocked off Baylor in the Copper Bowl. Talk about X-factors: The abrupt resignation of Kevin Wilson over “philosophical differences” with the Indiana brass earlier this month throws a twist into things for Indiana. Defensive coordinator Tom Allen has been promoted to lead the program. How will he perform in his debut as the top man? Utah has a nice QB in Troy Williams, who has thrown for 2,579 yards with 15 TDs and has a good target in Tim Patrick. But Utah has no mojo entering this bowl, as it has lost three of its last four.
6. Music City Bowl: Nebraska vs. Tennessee. The teams have something in common: a fast start in 2016 followed by a slow finish. Nebraska jetted out of the gate with a 7-0 mark and dreams of a Big Ten West title before going 2-3 down the stretch, as the program still hasn’t won a league title since 1999. Still, Year Two under Mike Riley was promising after a 6-7 debut. UT began 5-0 before going 3-4 the rest of the way. Something to monitor: Will Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong be able to play in the final game of his career? That is in doubt, due to a lingering hamstring injury.
7. Cotton Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Western Michigan. Who doesn’t love a David vs. Goliath clash? The Badgers are a muscular Big Ten team that just missed out on winning the conference title. The Broncos are America’s 13-0 darling, the “little engine that could” that already has knocked off two Big Ten teams behind uber hot coach P.J. Fleck. Will the Badgers be motivated? This is the ultimate “lose-lose” for Paul Chryst’s team; win, and they were supposed to beat Western Michigan; lose, and they’ll get dogged for losing to a MAC team. Bottom line: WMU is a very good MAC squad that probably could finish in the middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten.
8. Holiday Bowl: Minnesota vs. Washington State. A win over Washington State would be the biggest of the season for a Minnesota squad that lacks a marquee triumph in Tracy Claeys’ first full season. And Minnesota has bad memories of Wazzu coach Mike Leach. Back in 2006, Leach rallied his Texas Tech team from a 38-7 deficit with eight minutes left in the third quarter to topple the Gophers 44-41 in overtime in the Insight Bowl. Minnesota coach Glen Mason was subsequently fired. Leach has done a great job reviving Washington State with his “Air Raid” offense, bringing Wazzu to the precipice of the Pac-12 North title this season before losing the Apple Cup to Washington.
9. Outback Bowl: Iowa vs. Florida. Don’t expect many points, as neither team has a dynamic offense. The Hawkeyes are No. 12 in the Big Ten in total offense (333.3 ypg) with the No. 13 passing attack (161.3 ypg). But Iowa will be motivated, as it hasn’t looked good in its last two bowls. The Hawkeyes got smoked by Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl in 2014 and got embarrassed in the Rose Bowl last season vs. Stanford. Iowa needs to get its RB duo of LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley revved up. Daniels has 1,013 yards rushing and Wadley has 966, offering the Hawkeyes a strong 1-2 punch to throw at a salty Florida defense that led the Gators to the SEC East title.
10. Quick Lane Bowl: Maryland vs. Boston College. This is a reunion of familiar foes. In fact, this meeting will be the 12th between Maryland and Boston College, who were both in the ACC from 2005 to 2014. The teams haven’t played since Maryland bolted the ACC for the Big Ten in 2014. Getting to a bowl was a nice achievement for DJ Durkin in his first year as Maryland coach. It will be key for Terrapin QB Perry Hills to play well. He has battled injury time and again this season, as Hills missed four games and parts of two others. And, when he is absent, the offense struggles. He is adept at running this spread attack, making plays with this arm and feet and limiting mistakes. Witness his 10 touchdown passes and just three picks to go along with his 66 percent completion percentage. As a result, he ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency.
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