New Year's Bowls Mark New Beginnings For Big Ten
As the calendar turns to 2014, cue the spotlight on the Big Ten. There will be four premier games on the docket, and those four games will help shape conference expectations for the 2014 regular season.
The Big Ten already is taking hits. They have started 0-2 in bowls, but that could be perceived as 0-4 as both incoming schools, Maryland and Rutgers, also lost their games. It is not a good look for a conference that wants to regain its former glory.
The games set for New Year's are not easy matchups. Only Wisconsin is a betting favorite, and Bovada.lv has the line at -1.5.
2014 can be a year that sees that Big Ten gain more respect nationwide, but everything starts with the bowl games. It will also help define the upcoming seasons with position changes and hot seat discussions.
Gator Bowl: Nebraska (8-4) vs. Georgia (8-4)
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini had a tumultuous year. Not only did Nebraska underperform, but he had some gaffes that could have alienated Nebraska fans. The Gator Bowl game could set the stage for a do-or-die year for the coach.
Pelini's job, and the upcoming season's perception, rest on the arm of Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Armstrong Jr. has put on quality showings this year for a redshirt freshman, and if he performs well against Georgia's defense Nebraska will enter 2014 as a favorite to compete for the Big Ten championship. That is where they want to be.
The Huskers are not the favorites in this matchup, but with Aaron Murray out due to injury they have a much better chance to put the Big Ten on the board in bowl season.
Capital One Bowl: Wisconsin (9-3) vs. South Carolina (10-2)
The Badgers were one of the least talked-about teams in 2013. The early-year debacle against Arizona State moved them down the rankings and out of the spotlight.
This is a chance to show the nation that they are not only a Big Ten contender in 2014, but a national championship contender as well.
South Carolina will be up for this game. Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney and company are trying to salvage a disappointing season. They are going to give Wisconsin their best shot.
This game hinges on how well Wisconsin's defense plays.
With Melvin Gordon announcing his return next season, Wisconsin will want to avoid dropping another marquee game this season. Voters will look down on the Badgers because of their conference affiliation, and chose not to remember just how good they can be.
Outback Bowl: Iowa (8-4) vs. LSU (9-3)
After a 4-8 season in 2012, Iowa got back to a bowl game. That was a win for Kirk Ferentz, who, thanks to huge guaranteed contract money, never seems to join the hot seat in spite of a rather lackluster record.
Much like Nebraska, Iowa gets a top-tier SEC team without its star quarterback.
The Hawkeyes want to at least be a factor in the 2014 Big Ten race, and they closed out the year with wins over Michigan and Nebraska. If they can keep that going against a fast, athletic team like LSU, they will begin to receive some respect within the conference.
Iowa finished the season with a Top 10 defense, but that is a bit misleading considering the opposition they played.
This game, and 2014, is all about Jake Rudock stepping up and delivering. If he has a big game, Iowa raises its national profile. He can announce himself to a large national audience on New Year's and give the Hawkeyes fan base big hopes for the upcoming season.
Rose Bowl: Michigan State (12-1) vs. Stanford (11-2)
The Rose Bowl may be the most anticipated game in all of bowl season. It is an old-school clash. Two hard-nosed, blue-collar teams will play gritty and mean.
The Spartans flew under the radar all season long, but showed up to ruin the Buckeyes' national title dreams. The job Mark Dantonio has done at Michigan State has been phenomenal, and they were only four points away from playing for a national title themselves. An early-season loss to the Irish hurt their national profile.
Quarterback Connor Cook got progressively better, and that paid dividends for the Spartans.
Everyone knows how good their defense is, and it projects well again in 2014 despite what's expected to be heavy losses to the NFL. With Cook settling into the quarterback position, the Rose Bowl can be a stepping stone to a high-profile 2014.
If the Spartans close the year with back-to-back wins against Top 5 teams, they may enter next year as a preseason favorite for a conference title and a serious College Football Playoff contender. Cook will shoulder those hopes.
The Rose Bowl will have a large contingent of Sparty fans. It should not feel like an away game in Pac-12 country. This will be Michigan State's chance to finally step outside big brother's shadow and this is a game that sets 2014 up as their year.
A grand performance, a victory and a potential No. 3 final ranking moves MSU into national power territory. Recruits will begin to see East Lansing as a destination. Dantonio, Cook and the nasty defense have bigger dreams in 2014, and it starts in Pasadena.