Big Ten Playbook: A guide to the 10--count 'em, 10!--Big Ten bowls

Your tables are ready, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. Happy Holidays!

Gould Headshot square

One of the perils of placing four teams in the New Year’s Six bowls, as the Big Ten has done, is what I call the `Bridge Too Far’ principle.

When everybody moves up in weight class, many of them are going to face what coaches call ``difficult matchups.’’ And what I call ``more talented opponents.’’

I pointed this out to Ron Zook in 2007, when he guided Illinois to an improbable Rose Bowl. With Ohio State moving up to the national championship game, Illinois moved up to the daunting task of playing high-octane USC in Pasadena.

When I asked him if he was concerned that Illinois was setting the bar of expectations awfully high in the third year of his rebuild, he said, ``What do you want me to do? Tell them no, and I’ll take it the next time.’’

Confession: I liked the Zooker. He was old school, in a good way. And I thought the new AD pulled the plug on Zook at the wrong time. But that’s what new ADs do.

Even though Illinois lost 49-17, hey, it played its way to Pasadena. The real disappointment was that Zook wasn’t able to use that accomplishment to give Illinois another shot at Rose Bowl glory.

So what’s going to happen this year, when 10—count ‘em, 10!—Big Ten teams are dashing through the snow to get to bowls that (hopefully) provide better weather?

Even though everybody has moved up in weight class due to the Big Ten's magnificent season, my Midwestern focus tells me a lot of these teams have shown they are good enough to thrive against tough bowl opponents. In addition, I tend to go with the devil I know. Don't you?

And so, I’m going to make some picks here, But I’m going to reserve the right to change them up before kickoff, depending on things like injuries, eligibility and whim. And because tomorrow, I may not remember what I picked yesterday.

Let’s take a look. . .


THE GAME: Maryland (6-6) minus-2.5 vs. Boston College (6-6), Ford Field, Detroit, Dec. 26, 1:30 p.m. CT (ESPN)

THE PICK: Maryland, 28-24

THE COMMENT: This game reminds me of the 1985 Cherry Bowl, in which Maryland slugged Syracuse 35-18 at the Pontiac Silverdome. That was the second and last Cherry Bowl. I had the pleasure of not covering it, but I do remember awakening in the Northfield Hilton the next morning (to cover the Super Bowl Bears’ last regular-season game vs. the Detroit Lions) and seeing myriad pizza boxes in the hallway. I don’t know if they were from Maryland’s ``celebration’’ or Syracuse drowning its sorrows. Suffice to say, the Great Lakes State has better pizza than bowls.

I’m expecting the Terrapins to extend their winning streak to two in bowl games contested in Michigan. That might be an NCAA record. But don't forget to hold the anchovies.


THE GAME: Minnesota (8-4) plus-7 vs. Washington State (8-4), Dec. 27, Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, 6 p.m. CT (ESPN)

THE PICK: Washington State, 30-27

THE COMMENT: Before Illinois hired Tim Beckman, I had a really good tip that Mike Leach wanted the Illini job. Knowing that Illinois wasn’t going to hire Leach because the Pirate theme wouldn’t work in Central Illinois, I quickly ran Leach's Jolly Roger up the flagpole before that speculation could be torpedoed. Which it was.

So now Leach has swash-buckled his way from land-locked Eastern Washington to the very attractive (to us Midwesterners) Holiday Bowl by the sea. Did Illinois make the right call?

More importantly, can Tracy Claeys, who looks like your accountant’s brother, add a little frosting on the cake to the excellent job he’s done in his first full year? It's a legitimate question. And a reason to watch.


THE GAME: Northwestern (6-6) plus-4.5 vs. No. 23 Pitt (8-4), Pinstripe Bowl, Yankee Stadium, New York, Dec. 28, 1 p.m. CT (ESPN)

THE PICK: Pitt, 45-42

THE COMMENT: I used to try and kid one of my favorite coaches, Pat Fitzgerald, whom I’ve known since he was a Dick Butkus Jr. type of middle linebacker at Northwestern, about being a defensive guy who coaches a team that often relies on offense. He didn't find that amusing. Lately, though, his defense has been better. But considering that Pitt beat Penn State and Clemson, this could be a tough matchup for Northwestern. That said, the NU that won at Iowa and played tough in losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin is very solid. Viewers’ key: Northwestern, which returns a ton next fall, is poised for a very interesting 2017.

While I tend to prefer warm-weather bowls, there’s nothing wrong with playing in the Rebuilt House that Ruth Built. The Wildcats already have played at Wrigley Field. Can Fenway Park accommodate a gridiron?


THE GAME: Indiana (6-6) plus-8 vs. No. 19 Utah (8-4), Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., Dec. 28, 7:30 p.m. CT (FOX)

THE PICK: Utah, 38-28

THE COMMENT: Even before Kevin Wilson’s abrupt departure amid speculation he was pressuring players to play hurt, this looked like a tough draw for Indiana. The Utes can go up and down the field. But new IU coach Tom Allen adds intrigue. A fast-riser who received a long-term deal when Wilson ``resigned,’’ Allen, 46, makes his debut in this game. The Hoosiers could rally up here, but Utah has had a lot of horses when I’ve seen them.


THE GAME: No. 6 Michigan (10-2) minus-6.5 vs. No. 11 Florida State (9-3), Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla., Dec. 30, Noon CT (ESPN)

THE PICK: Michigan, 41-38

THE COMMENT: Under fire for bringing satellite camps to SEC country, Jim Harbaugh solved that problem by playing his way into a bowl game in fertile South Florida recruiting ground. Some teams might be disappointed at slipping below the playoff and the Rose Bowl. Not a Harbaugh team, which will be intent on reining in the Seminoles. Key question: Is that ballcap Jimbo Fisher wears a beanie with a brim? Or did he leave it in the dryer too long?


THE GAME: Nebraska (9-3) plus-3 vs. No. 21 Tennessee (8-4), Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tenn., Dec. 30, 2::30 p.m. (ESPN)

THE PICK: Nebraska, 31-24

THE COMMENT: Call me contrary. When the Cornhuskers took advantage of a ``favorable’’ schedule and started 7-0, I was skeptical of their top-10 ranking. Now that they’ve lost three of their last five, including getting drilled at Ohio State and Iowa by a combined 102-13, I’m on their bowl bandwagon. Can you say, ``Healthy Tommy Armstrong Jr.?’’ Also, Tennessee, which has gone from charming to alarming, is too skittery for my tastes. The Vols will have a home-crowd advantage, though. So I’ve got that excuse going for me, just in case.


THE GAME: No. 3 Ohio State (11-1) minus-3.5 vs. No. 2 Clemson (12-1), University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz., Dec. 31, 6 p.m. CT (ESPN)

THE PICK: Ohio State, 35-31

THE COMMENT: We—and by we, I mean me and a lot of other people who aren’t Jersey Guys named Blaudschun—have been unblinking in our belief that Urban Meyer’s coaching and Ohio State’s talent are an unbeatable combination. Dabo Swinney is no slouch. And Deshaun Watson is a stud when he’s on his game. I’m expecting the Buckeyes to keep Watson off his game. But remember, there’s no `i’ to dot in Clemson.


THE GAME: No. 8 Wisconsin (10-3) minus-7 vs. No. 15 Western Michigan (13-0), AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Tex., Jan. 2, Noon CT (ESPN)

THE PICK: Wisconsin, 31-28

THE COMMENT: Tell the truth. The last place you expected P.J. Fleck to be this bowl season was standing on the Cotton Bowl sidelines coaching Western Michigan, right? But here he is, after not changing jobs, trying to guide the Broncos to their third Big Ten win (Northwestern and Illinois) and an unbeaten 14-0 season. Check out Western receiver Corey Davis (91 catches for 1,427 yards and 18 TDs) matching wits with Wisconsin’s highly regarded secondary, which will try to bounce back from that Penn State meltdown. But I don’t expect Wisconsin to be badgered again. Too many big bodies who have shown too well in too many big games.


THE GAME: Iowa (8-4) plus-2.5 vs. No. 17 Florida (8-4), Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Jan. 2, Noon CT (ABC)

THE PICK: Florida, 42-31

THE COMMENT: Which Iowa are you expecting to see? The one that got here by beating Michigan and Nebraska while winning its last three games to salvage a season on the brink? Or the Hawkeyes who have lost four straight bowl games, three of them by at least 17 points?

I’m feeling contrary again. This game is more about Florida, which ought to be ticked off at getting drilled by Florida State and Alabama in its final two games. I suspect the Gators are more talented—well, faster. And I believe Jim McElwain, who has more to prove than the excellent and methodical Kirk Ferentz, will have Florida ready to atone.

Key suggestion for Outback Bowl media: Have breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day. And unless there’s been an audible, those salty little steaks aren’t coming until halftime. Trust me. You don’t want to be loading up on that Bloomin’ Onion the whole first half, even though it’s awfully good.


THE GAME: No. 5 Penn State (11-2) plus-7 vs. No. 9 USC (9-3), Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 2, 4:10 p.m. CT (ESPN)

THE PICK: USC, 42-37

THE COMMENT: Talk about a hot house for roses. After a pair of difficult starts, USC has won eight straight and Penn State has won nine straight. No question, the Nittany Lions are on a roll. That second half QB Trace McSorley had in the Big Ten championship game will forever live on as 30 Minutes of Infamy in the Wisconsin history book. And RB Saquon Barkley is, after all, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the year. But Trojans QB Sam Darnold (26 TDs) and sophomore RB Ronald Jones II, who rushed for 742 yards and 10 touchdowns in USC’s last five games, are awfully good. And Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly suggests thinking twice about kicking to Adoree' Jackson

In other words, this ought to be a helluva Rose Bowl game between two teams who would be playoff-worthy in an eight-team playoff.