College Football Weekend Preview: Could the Big Ten Go Winless in Bowl Games?

Despite a record 10 teams qualifying for a bowl game, the Big Ten is not favored in a single contest.

Back in September in his very space, I opined that Big Ten football had hit its lowest point in history when conference teams lost a combined 11 games in back-to-back weeks, including three to the likes of the Mid-American Conference.

As the start of the bowl season gets underway for the Big Ten, there's the possibility that they could hit a new low by going winless.

Think that's out of the realm of possibility? Longtime college football columnist Pat Forde of Yahoo Sport calls for that exact scenario to play itself out. And not one team is a Las Vegas favorite in December and January.

There's only a few ways a conference can raise its profile. One way is to have a team, preferably more than one, in contention for a national championship.

The other ways to raise its profile are basically the same: A) win non-conference games and B) win bowl games, which are non-conference games.

At least Ohio State gave the Big Ten a hint of respectability by making a late run for the national championship. Outside of the Buckeyes, however, the conference is in sorry shape.

The opportunity exists, as it does every bowl season, to change perception, but the odds of that happening appear slim.

Chip Scoggins of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune does a good job of setting the stage:

One successful postseason probably wouldn’t change a negative opinion entirely, but the Big Ten has a chance to put a nice bow on a season that looked bleak in the early stages. That also would help reverse an ugly trend.

The Big Ten went 49-64 in bowl games in the BCS era (1998-2013), the worst of any Power 5 conference.

The conference went 2-5 in bowl games last season, and 6-16 in January bowl games the past three seasons.

The Big Ten kicks off the bowl season with two games the day after Christmas.

As usual, published here are our bowl game previews, with particular emphasis on the best senior pro prospects from each team, before we know the underclassmen entries for the NFL Draft...

 

Heart of Dallas Bowl, Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech

Friday Dec. 26 at Noon CT on ESPN

The Skinny: The Tim Beckman era in Champaign in Illinois has been underwhelming, but the Illini have improved by two wins each year, going 2-10 in 2012, 4-8 in 2013 to 6-6 and bowl eligible in 2014. The Illini will take on the Conference USA West division champion, featuring one of the nation's better rush defenses.

Illinois Senior to Watch: Tight End Jon Davis—Davis has never really excelled in any one area, but he is versatile, more H-back than tight end. Over his career, Davis has caught 69 passes, but he's also carried the football 40 times. Davis could fill a niche role as an undrafted free agent.

Louisiana Tech Senior to Watch: Safety Terrell Pinson—He's likely an undrafted free agent, but Pinson features terrific size for the safety position at 6-2 and 210 lbs. His senior season was effective with 57 tackles for 7.5 for a loss, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions, eight passes broken up, one forced fumble and two recovered, one for a touchdown.

Prediction: The Big Ten's worst run defense, allowing 249.6 yards per game, will get run over by Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon. 27-21, Red and Blue.

 

Quick Lane (Motor City*) Bowl, North Carolina vs. Rutgers

Friday Dec. 26 at 3:30 p.m. CT on ESPN

The Skinny: For Rutgers' first year in the Big Ten, to finish with a winning record (7-5), it wasn't a bad season by any means. But finishing 84th in the nation in total offense and 96th in total defense, however, tells another story. North Carolina came into the season expecting to contend for a division title, the season obviously ending in disappointment. The offense was average, but the defense was even worse than Rutgers, finishing 119th in the nation, allowing nearly 500 yards per game.

North Carolina Senior to Watch: Defensive lineman Ethan Farmer—An honorable mention All-ACC performer, Farmer made 43 tackles, six for a loss and 2.5 sacks as a senior. He has a chance to be a rotational defensive lineman at football's next level as a potential undrafted free agent.

Rutgers Senior to Watch: Guard Kaleb Johnson—Another honorable mention all-conference selection, Johnson has started 49 consecutive games for Rutgers. He's undrafted free agent material, but his experience at both guard and tackle should get him looks from the NFL.

Prediction: North Carolina's skill position players like quarterback Marquise Williams and wide receiver Ryan Switzer will be the difference in the game. 30-24, Go Heels.

 

St. Petersburg Bowl, UCF vs. North Carolina State

Friday Dec. 26 at 7:00 p.m. CT on ESPN

The Skinny: Central Florida won a share of its second league conference title, one of the tri-champs of the American Athletic Conference. The defense was once again the strength of the team, par for the course under head coach George O'Leary, third in the nation, allowing just 282.8 yards per game. North Carolina State, one season after going winless in the ACC, is headed in the right direction under coach Dave Doeren, even if there's still a long way to go.

UCF Senior to Watch: Safety Clayton Geathers—Geathers was named first-team All-American Athletic Conference as a senior after making 82 tackles, six for a loss, a sack, an interception, forcing a fumble and breaking up nine passes. At 6-2 and 208 lbs., he possesses ideal size. Geathers is a potential late-round draft choice and could go higher if he runs well in pre-draft workouts.

North Carolina State Senior to Watch: Punter Wil Baumann—One of the best senior punters in the nation, Baumann was named first-team All-ACC after leading the conference with a 45.3 yard gross average. He'll be waiting to see if he receives an invitation to an all-star game or the NFL Combine.

Prediction: The Central Florida defense will be the best unit on the field, and Wolfpack quarterback Jacoby Brissett will be able to muster very little offense. 24-17, Knightmare.

 

Military Bowl, Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech

Saturday Dec. 27 at Noon CT on ESPN

The Skinny: As one of the tri-champs of the American Athletic Conference, Cincinnati gets to strut its stuff against a Power 5 conference team. The Bearcats ended the year on a seven-game win streak behind the strength of an offense that averages 35 points per game. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, limped into the postseason with one of the most impotent offenses in the Power 5 conferences. They make up for it, however, with a shutdown defense that's particularly solid in the secondary.

Cincinnati Senior to Watch: Inside Linebacker Jeff Luc—Luc was considered the No. 1 linebacker in the nation coming out of high school by some services. Luc originally enrolled at Florida State, transferred to Cincinnati and waited until his senior year to become a full-time starter. It took several years, but Luc finally developed into a top-notch linebacker, making 120 tackles in 2014 and becoming the nation's career active leader in forced fumbles per game (0.32). Right now, he's probably a late-round draft choice with the opportunity to climb up draft boards with good performances in the offseason.

Virginia Tech Senior to Watch: Safety Kyshoen Jarrett—A hybird rover, Jarrett projects to strong safety in the NFL. He led the Hokies this season in both tackles (86) and interceptions (three), two of which came in the improbable victory over Ohio State, for which he was named the Bronco Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week. Jarrett has a chance to be a mid- to late-round draft choice.

Prediction: Cincinnati won't score in bunches, but quarterback Gunner Kiel (nephew of former Packers quarterback Blair Kiel) will do just enough to stay ahead the Hokies, whose offensive struggles will continue. 20-14, Cincy.

 

Sun Bowl, Arizona State vs. Duke

Saturday Dec. 27 at 1:00 p.m. CT on CBS

The Skinny: Both teams finished with identical 9-3 records, and both finished just short of appearing in their respective conference championship games. The difference between the two, however, is that Arizona State plays in one of the toughest divisions in America (the Pac-12 South) while Duke plays in one of the weakest of the Power 5 conferences (the ACC Coastal).

Arizona State Senior to Watch: Safety Damarious Randall—On a team without a lot of playmakers on the defensive side of the football, Randall stepped up as a senior. With 101 tackles, 9.5 for a loss, three interceptions, eight passes broken up and two forced fumbles, Randall was named first-team all-Pac 12 in 2014 and showed he has a chance to become a late-round draft choice.

Duke Senior to Watch: Wide receiver Jamison Crowder—At just 5-9 and 175 lbs., Crowder won't be as highly rated as other wide receivers, but his production is undeniable. He's been an all-conference selection for two consecutive seasons as both a wide receiver and a return specialist. Crowder ranks third among all active players with 5,402 all-purpose yards over the course of his career and could be a mid- to late-round draft choice.

Prediction: Junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong may very well declare for the draft as an underclassman as well, and he'll go out with a bang, making several big catches against a Duke secondary that won't be able to stop the Arizona State offense with any consistency. 42-24, Give 'em Hell Devils (Sun variety).

 

Independence Bowl, Miami vs. South Carolina

Saturday Dec. 27 at 2:30 p.m. CT on ABC

The Skinny: Both teams came into the season with high expectations that were not met and came away with identical 6-6 records, barely even qualifying for the postseason. It's difficult to determine which team has the motivational edge, if any, but at least they'll be playing a nationally-televised game on a broadcast network.

Miami Senior to Watch: Linebacker Denzel Perryman—A contributor all four years of his career, Perryman finished his college elgibility with back-to-back seasons in excess of 100 tackles and first-team All-ACC selections. A big-time hitter, he's nearly assured of being a second-day draft choice with an outside shot of going in the first round.

South Carolina Senior to Watch: Guard A.J. McCann—Arguably the best interior offensive lineman in the country, McCann is another player with a shot of going in the first round with a near guarantee of going on Day 2. Playing in the best conference in America, earning all-SEC honors in two consecutive seasons is no small accomplishment.

Prediction: In the final week of the regular season, Clemson beat South Carolina, Florida State beat Florida, Georgia Tech beat Georgia and Louisville beat Kentucky. Add Miami to the list of ACC teams beating SEC opponents. 31-28, The U.

 

Pinstripe Bowl, Penn State vs. Boston College

Saturday Dec. 27 at 3:30 p.m. CT on ESPN

The Skinny: It isn't the Rose Bowl, but Penn State fans are just happy to be going to any bowl game after receiving a ban from the NCAA for the past two seasons in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The Nittany Lions offense can't get out of its own way, but their defense is top notch, ranking No. 1 in the nation against the run. They'll face a Boston College team that's best quality is its run game, averaging over 250 yards per game on the ground.

Penn State Senior to Watch: Safety Adian Amos—At 6-0 and 209 lbs., Amos' NFL value is perhaps greater than his individual accomplishments would lead observers to believe. Just an honorable mention all-conference selection as a senior, Amos received an invitation to the Senior Bowl, the best all-star game in college football, where he'll get to show pro scouts what he can do.

Boston College Senior to Watch: Center Andy Gallik—A finalist for the Rimington Award, given to the nation's best center, Gallik was a big reason the Golden Eagles running game clicked in 2014. A disciple of Steve Addazio, a former offensive line coach, Gallik projects as a mid-round draft choice.

Prediction: Given a month to prepare, James Franklin will put struggling but talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg in a position to succeed. He may not have a perfect game, but it will be enough to beat Boston College. 24-21, We Are Penn State.

 

Holiday Bowl, Nebraska vs. USC

Saturday Dec. 27 at Noon CT on ESPN

The Skinny: After firing Bo Pelini at the conclusion of the regular season, it's anyone's guess what the mindset of Nebraska players will be. If the Huskers got trounced by Wisconsin, there's no telling what a team like USC might be able to do. The Trojans may have hoped for a better season, but under first year head coach Steve Sarkisian, USC is headed in the right direction.

Nebraska Senior to Watch: Running back Ameer Abdullah—Abdullah is the career active leader among all college football players with 6,917 all-purpose yards due in part to his kick return capabilities in addition to what he does as a runner. There are concerns that he may not have much tread left on the tires after such a prolific college campaign, but he won't last until Day 3 of the draft.

USC Senior to Watch: Cornerback Josh Shaw—Shaw has been reinstated after being suspended indefinitley for fabricating a story that he saved a drowning nephew. Shaw may not have been in trouble with the law, but he'll have to work extra hard to overcome the doubts about his character. From a talent standpoint, he's considered a draftable prospect, and a good bowl game can only help his stock. 

Prediction: Quarterback Cody Kessler's terrific season, overshadowed by the accomplishments of Marcus Mariota, will continue against a Nebraska defense that ranks just eighth in the Big Ten, allowing an average of 372.8 yards per game. 38-28, Fight On.

 

Liberty Bowl, Texas A&M vs. West Virginia

Monday Dec. 29 at 1:00 p.m. CT on ESPN

The Skinny:  A pair of 7-5 teams known for their offenses and offensive mastermind coaches meet in Memphis. While the defenses are overlooked, both teams made strides on that side of the football in 2014, particuarly West Virginia. The Moutaineers gave up an average of 388 yards per game in 2014, a significant improvement over the 450 yards per game a year ago.

Texas A&M Senior to Watch: Offensive lineman Cedric Ogbuehi—Ogbuehi is looking to become the third consecutive Aggies left tackle taken in the first round of the draft, following in the footsteps of Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel. He may be right tackle material in the NFL but playing left tackle his senior year hasn't hurt his development.

West Virgina Senior to Watch: Wide receiver Kevin White—A junior college transfer, White made the most of his short time in West Virginia, catching 102 passes for 1,318 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior. Comparisons to Julio Jones are not unfounded. The Texas A&M secondary will have their hands full trying to defend White.

Prediction: West Virginia did not qualify for the postseason last year, giving them extra motivation to beat an SEC opponent who had higher expectations and will consider the Liberty Bowl a letdown. If the Mountaineers can beat Baylor, they have it in them to beat the Aggies. 44-35, Country Roads.

 

Russell Athletic (Tangerine*) Bowl, Clemson vs. Oklahoma

Monday Dec. 29 at 4:30 p.m. CT on ESPN

The Skinny: Clemson enters the postseason on a high note, beating in-state rival South Carolina to end the regular season but knowing they'll be without injured quarterback Deshaun Watson instills little confidence. It's the opposite situation for Oklahoma. The Sooners lost their last game to an in-state rival. They'll be buoyed by the return of usual starting quarterback Trevor Knight for the bowl game, however. Knight missed the Bedlam loss to Oklahoma State.

Clemson Senior to Watch: Linebacker Vic Beasley—With 32 sacks over the course of his college career, Beasley has proven himself as a pass rusher and was named the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. If there's anything Beasley has left to prove, it's that he can be a reliable run defender. At 235 lbs., it's going to be tough to play on the line of scrimmage against the run in the NFL.

Oklahoma Senior to Watch: Offensive lineman Daryl Williams—It will be the perfect test to see if the 6-6, 329 lb. Williams can handle the speed of Beasley off the edge. Williams is likely to be a mid-round draft choice, but won't be asked to play left tackle in the NFL unless he can reliably protect the quarterback's blind side.

Prediction: Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt is a turnover waiting to happen. Big Game Bob will make life miserable for him. 28-27, Boomer Sooner.

 

Texas Bowl, Texas vs. Arkansas

Monday Dec. 29 at 8:00 p.m. CT on ESPN

The Skinny: The Texas Bowl is sold out for a match-up of two teams that don't have far to travel. It's a return to the days of the old Southwest Conference, but each coach is trying to instill a new attitude. Winner gets a leg up on preseason hype for the 2015 season.

Texas Senior to Watch: Linebacker Jordan Hicks—It's a shame Hicks only got one year to play on a Charlie Strong defense. In his only season as a full-time starter, he led Texas with 104 tackles, 11 for a loss. Hicks has a chance to be a mid-round draft choice.

Arkansas Senior to Watch: Defensive end Trey Flowers—A true defensive end, Flowers led Arkansas in tackles for a loss for three consecutive seasons, coming up 45.5 over the course of his career. He'll look to harrass Longhorns quarterback Tyrone Swoopes in Houston on Monday and then become a potential Day 2 draft choice in the spring.

Prediction: Texas made strides in 2014, winning three out of their last four games and four out of their last six, but they were still inconsistent. Arkansas, meanwhile, comes into the game battle-tested from the SEC West and fresh after a month off from the week-to-week grind. 24-21, Woo Pig Sooie.

 

Music City Bowl, Notre Dame vs. LSU

Tuesday Dec. 30 at 2:00 p.m. CT on ESPN

The Skinny: It's a match-up of teams with big-time question marks at the quarterback position. Irish quarterback Brian Kelly has already announced that both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will play in the Nashville bowl game. LSU, meanwhile, appears committed to Anthony Jennings despite inconsistent play, while Brandon Jennings remains the backup.

Notre Dame Senior to Watch: Tight End Ben Koyack—Koyack's 29 receptions this season may not seem impressive, but they're more than his first three seasons combined as he bid his time behind previous Irish tight ends Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas. He'll be a mid-round draft choice but could stand to prove he can be a downfield threat.

LSU Senior to Watch: Offensive lineman La'el Collins—Collins really came on as a senior, named a first-team All-SEC pick. LSU's running backs coach made a memorable comment this season, saying, "If La'el Collins is not a top-five draft pick, I'll kiss my own ass."

Prediction: Collins will pave the way for the three-headed running back monster of Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard as LSU runs over the Irish defense. 27-20, Tiger Rag.

 

Belk (Queen City*) Bowl, Georgia vs. Louisville

Tuesday Dec. 30 at 5:30 p.m. CT on ESPN

The Skinny: Two ranked teams meet in Charlotte, No. 13 Georgia vs. No. 21 Louisville, for perhaps the best Belk Bowl in the game's history. Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham meets his former employer, where he held the same position.

Georgia Senior to Watch: Linebacker Ramik Wilson—Expectations were high for Wilson coming into his senior season, although his numbers dropped from 133 tackles, 11 for a loss and four sacks in 2013 to 102 tackles, six for a loss and one sack in 2014. He could use a good performance to prove his stock isn't moving in the wrong direction. Wilson is a potential mid-round draft choice.

Louisville Senior to Watch: Wide Receiver DeVante Parker—Parker missed half his senior season with a foot injury but came back, not missing a beat. In just five games, he caught 35 passes for 735 yards, averaging 21.0 yards per catch. Already a likely first round draft pick, Parker is just jockeying for position now.

Prediction: When in doubt, go with the SEC team. Running back Nick Chubb will gain a surprising amount of traction against the highly-rated Louisville run defense. 32-28, Uga.

 

Foster Farms (San Francisco*) Bowl, Stanford vs. Maryland

Tuesday Dec. 30 at 9:00 p.m. CT on ESPN

The Skinny: Stanford has to commute mere minutes to the new home of the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium while Maryland has to travel nearly 3,000 miles. If Stanford plays like it did the last two games of the year, 21-point victories over both Cal and UCLA, Maryland doesn't stand a chance.

Stanford Senior to Watch: Wide Receiver Ty Montgomery—Montgomery had exactly 61 catches in both 2013 and 2014. As a junior, he averaged 15.7 yards per catch but as a senior, he averaged just 9.9. Montgomery is another player that needs to prove his stock isn't trending downward. Regardless, he's still dangerous a return special specialist as always, scoring twice on punt returns in 2014.

Maryland Senior to Watch: Wide Receiver Deon Long—Paired with Stefon Diggs, Maryland features one of the best pairs of wide receivers in the nation. With Diggs coming off a lacerated kidney, however, it will be important for Long to step up, especially if Diggs is less than 100 percent. Long is considered a potential late-round draft choice and can only help his stock with a good performance against a tought Stanford defense.

Prediction: Stanford's offense has been their weakness all season, but Maryland's defense is like wet tissue paper. It's been running back by committee for the Cardinal this year, but no matter who carries the football, they'll find success. 35-14, All Right Now.

 

We'll take a look at the New Year's Six bowl games and the playoff in our next column.

*I can't stand sponsored bowl games that don't have a traditional name.

Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor at Cheesehead TV and its "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].

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