It's been a great year for the top of the Big Ten. In the final College Football Playoff committee rankings, the Big Ten got one playoff spot (Michigan State), two more in the top 7 (Iowa and Ohio State), and two more in the top 14 (Northwestern and Michigan). The middle of the pack did not have a strong year, though, as only three others - Penn State, Wisconsin, and Indiana - reached the six-win threshold normally required for bowl eligibility. Two more (Nebraska and Minnesota) got spots anyway due to the huge number of bowls and shortage of eligible teams. Here's an early preview of the major bowls and the rest of the Big Ten lineup.
Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma (December 31, 4:00, Miami; ESPN)
Clemson is the last unbeaten standing after Michigan State knocked off Iowa. Wins over Notre Dame (in a literal hurricane), Florida State, and North Carolina are the highlights on their resume. Oklahoma has also piled up a few impressive wins - Tennessee, Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State, the last three all in November, with all but TCU on the road - but they have that inexplicable loss to Texas in October dragging them down a bit.
Oklahoma's offense against Clemson's defense will be a fun matchup to watch; Oklahoma has an explosive offense but struggles a bit when they're behind the chains, while Clemson's defense creates a lot of big plays but also gives up quite a few.
Odds: Oklahoma 53% (projected margin: +1)
Cotton Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan State (December 31, 8:00, Arlington, TX; ESPN)
The Tide had little difficulty dispatching Florida in the SEC title game, while Michigan State's win over Iowa in the Big Ten title game was a bit more dramatic. Alabama's wins have generally been by a comfortable margin (the only one-score win being against Tennessee), putting them well ahead in the margin-aware ratings. The top of MSU's schedule has been substantially more difficult (three games more difficult than Alabama's toughest), putting the Spartans ahead on a pure "who did you beat and where" basis (ranked #2 in my no-margin ratings, behind only unbeaten Clemson), but even the "easy" games have been close.
Talking heads love to cite time of possession completely out of proportion to its actual importance - if you're playing Baylor, you're going to win TOP by a lot no matter how close or not-close the game is - but for once, in this game it will be significant. Both teams love to spend the first few quarters smashing away with a battering ram, hoping to eventually wear out the opponent late, and the team with higher time of possession early is more likely to do so late.
Odds: Alabama 77% (+7.5)
Other New Year's Six
Peach Bowl: Houston vs. Florida State (December 31, Noon, Atlanta; ESPN)
Houston won a relatively loaded AAC (not CUSA as I said last week; oops) to claim the Group-of-5 spot, while Florida State was the last of the three at-large selections. If not for an inexplicable loss to UConn, Houston might have had a case for crashing the playoff (although it would have been an uphill battle with all of the one-loss teams playing respectable non-conference games as well), and Florida State doesn't rate as that big a step up in competition, compared to Navy.
Odds: Florida State 54% (+1)
Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Notre Dame (January 1, 1:00, Glendale, AZ; ESPN)
Two teams that didn't miss the playoff by much - their three losses are by a combined eight points, with two to playoff teams (Clemson and Michigan State) and the third to another team that just missed (Stanford). Offensively, Notre Dame has a slight advantage, but the Buckeyes have a clear advantage on defense, especially up front.
Odds: Ohio State 68% (+4.5)
Rose Bowl: Iowa vs. Stanford (January 1, 5:00, Pasadena; ESPN)
If you like your football as an old-school rock fight, then boy, have we got the game for you. This might make MSU-Alabama look like a Big XII game. Stanford's opening-week loss to Northwestern turned out to be a huge factor in avoiding controversy with the selection of the semifinalists this year; that limited us to four 1-loss-or-fewer Power 5 conference champions, and none had a sufficiently embarrassing schedule to make it worth giving Stanford a second look.
Odds: Stanford 57% (+2)
Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Ole Miss (January 1, 8:30, New Orleans; ESPN)
The Cowboys got all three of the other top teams in the Big XII at home but could only beat one of them (TCU); however, Baylor's loss to Texas took them out of the tie for second and gave Oklahoma State the Sugar Bowl spot on a tiebreaker over TCU. Ole Miss managed to win at Alabama but got destroyed by Florida (pre-Will Grier suspension), lost to Memphis, and then allowed Arkansas to convert a 4th-and-forever in overtime en route to a Razorback win that gave Alabama control of their own destiny in the SEC West again.
Odds: Ole Miss 61% (+3)
The Rest of the Big Ten
Citrus Bowl: Michigan vs. Florida (January 1, 1:00, Orlando; ABC)
Since Will Grier's suspension took effect, Florida's defensive prowess has been matched only by their offensive ineptitude. Michigan's defense has come down a bit from their early-season dominance, but I still don't think Vegas can set the over/under low enough on this one.
Odds: Michigan 68% (+4.5)
Outback Bowl: Northwestern vs. Tennessee (January 1, Noon, Tampa; ESPN2)
Tennessee has a strange profile this year. They spent most of the first half of the season finding ways to blow leads, then put up the best fight of any Alabama opponent all year before a soft finishing stretch. It's rare that an 8-4 SEC team's best win is against a MAC opponent, but that's pretty clearly the case for Tennessee (Bowling Green won the MAC, though, so that's not as much of a shock as it sounds). Northwestern had two ugly losses in back-to-back weeks (against Michigan and Iowa) but has a few nice wins as well (Stanford in the opener and Wisconsin late in the season).
Odds: Tennessee 67% (+4)
Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin vs. USC (December 30, 10:30, San Diego; ESPN)
Four of USC's losses this year - Notre Dame, Stanford twice, and Oregon - are entirely understandable. The fifth - at home against Washington - is a bit less so. Wisconsin's been steady all year, not blowing out anyone other than their non-conference cupcakes and Rutgers but losing to three teams who have a combined four losses on the season (Alabama, Iowa, Northwestern).
Odds: Wisconsin 53% (+1)
Gator Bowl: Penn State vs. Georgia (January 2, Noon, Jacksonville; ESPN)
I had thought the Gator Bowl was off the rotation this year for the Big Ten (to be replaced by the Music City Bowl), but apparently they aren't required to alternate years. Georgia, like a large chunk of the SEC East this year, struggled offensively (scoring 24 points or more in only two of their last eight games) but made up for it with strong defensive performances. Neither team has a really embarrassing loss (the closest is Penn State's loss to Temple, but Temple was actually pretty good this year), but neither has anything resembling a quality win either (Georgia's best is at Auburn, and Penn State's is at home vs. San Diego State).
Odds: Georgia 60% (+2.5)
Pinstripe Bowl: Indiana vs. Duke (December 26, 3:30, New York City; ABC)
As SBN's own Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) and Adam Jacobi (@Adam_Jacobi) said on Twitter: Two basketball schools playing a football game in a baseball stadium in hockey weather.
Duke hit a rough patch late after the controversial loss to Miami (on a Stanford Band-esque kickoff return), while Indiana put up a tough fight against Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, and Michigan but lost them all.
Odds: Indiana 51% (+0.5)
Foster Farms Bowl: Nebraska vs. UCLA (December 26, 9:15, Santa Clara, CA; ESPN)
Nebraska is one of two Big Ten teams to make a bowl at 5-7 thanks to the lack of available 6-6 teams. The Huskers spent the first half of the season finding incredible ways to lose at the last second, but did just enough to sneak into a bowl when we fell short of 80 6-win teams. Their reward is to face a UCLA team that was playing for a division title two weeks ago.
Odds: UCLA 58% (+2)
Motor City Bowl: Minnesota vs. Central Michigan (December 28, 5:00, Detroit; ESPN2)
The Gophers also fell short of the usual standard for bowl eligibility with a final-week loss to Wisconsin, but someone had to fill that last slot. Like Indiana, Minnesota put up a stiff fight against Ohio State, Michigan, and Iowa (plus TCU in non-conference play), but couldn't quite pull off the upset in any of those games. Central Michigan put up a decent fight against New Year's Six participants Michigan State and Oklahoma State en route to a 7-5 finish.
Odds: Central Michigan 67% (+4)
Big Ten Bowl Record Projections
I'm not taking into account the possible championship game for Michigan State, just the results in the 10 games already scheduled.
The Big Ten has nearly equal chances of 5-5, 4-6, better, or worse. MSU faces the worst odds in their bowl game, followed by Minnesota and Northwestern, while Ohio State and Michigan have the most favorable matchups.