2015 Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Baylor vs. Mich State

    Baylor (11-1) vs. Michigan State (10-2) Jan. 1, 12:30, ESPN Here’s The Deal: You might want an eight-team playoff, but Baylor and Michigan State would’ve

    December 30, 2014

    Baylor (11-1) vs. Michigan State (10-2) Jan. 1, 12:30, ESPN 

    Here’s The Deal: You might want an eight-team playoff, but Baylor and Michigan State would’ve really, really liked to have had an expanded post-season this year since they both would’ve been in. 

    Michigan State would’ve been a mortal lock to have made a four-team playoff last year, and it probably would’ve slipped in this season in the final CFP rankings. There might not have been a true signature win for the 2013 Big Ten and 2014 Rose Bowl champions, but the season was more about the two losses to Oregon and Ohio State – that’s not bad. This has been a fantastic run under Mark Dantonio shooting for the program’s fourth 11-win season in the last five, but his team has to prove that it really was great and not just a good team that got through wins over a slew of mediocre teams. Even the one good win over Nebraska was sullied a bit by a lousy finish, needing to hang on late in the 27-22 win. The second-best win was … Maryland? Rutgers? Penn State? Those are okay victories, but beating Baylor would almost certainly mean a top five finish and validation. A 25th win in a two-year span wouldn’t be too bad, either. 

    Will Baylor get jacked up to play in the Cotton when it thinks it should’ve been in the Sugar? Thanks to the wild shootout win over TCU, the Bears are the real, actual Big 12 champs according to the tie-breaker, but they never quite captured the respect of anyone outside of the playoff committee through the process after a 41-27 loss to West Virginia. After losing the 2014 Fiesta to UCF, and after getting rudely omitted from the playoff as the inaugural first team out, this is a team coming into the Cotton with a chip on its shoulder and an offense as dangerous and strong as any in college football. 

    The Bears scored 38 or more in every game, only going under in the loss to West Virginia and the 28-7 win over Texas with a balanced and explosive attack that keeps on cranking up the numbers and production even though every defense sells out to try to stop some aspect of it and every offense pulls out all the stops to try to keep up. Now the BU attack gets its biggest challenge of the year trying to produce against the mighty Spartan defense. 

    The statistics look great, but is Michigan State’s defense really that good? It’s sixth in the nation in total defense, fourth against the run and 14th in scoring D, but Oregon hung 46 on the board and Ohio State 49 – there weren’t many other teams with big-time offenses to deal with. Baylor will be the big test, showing whether or not Michigan State really is turning into a perennial superpower, or, again, maybe it just got by on playing in the Big Ten. 

    The Spartans have won three straight bowl games after losing five in a row, coming up with nice victories over Georgia, TCU and Stanford over the last three seasons. Baylor won two straight before losing to UCF in the Fiesta, but this is just the program’s fifth bowl appearance since 1994. 

    One of the most storied bowl games in college football – going back to 1937 – this should’ve been a BCS game, and now it’s part of the New Year’s Six rotation. Now it needs to be a good one with the last seven decided by double digits. 

    Why Michigan State Might Win: Everyone will focus on the MSU D vs. the Baylor O, but the key could and should be Spartan QB Connor Cook. The junior might not have firmly established himself as a must-have NFL prospect like many thought he might early in the season, but he’s a big game performer ripping off 343 yards and two scores against Oregon and 358 yards and two scores against Ohio State after closing out last season on fire in the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl. Baylor’s secondary has been awful, giving up 3,120 yards on the year with 280 or more in six of the last seven games. 

    – Michigan State isn’t air-tight when it comes to penalties, but Baylor is miserable, getting flagged 116 times averaging close to ten a game. The offense usually makes up for the problems, but against the Spartans, the Bears can’t give away any free yards. 

    – The Baylor O line doesn’t give up many sacks – that’s partially a function of the offense – but that doesn’t keep Bryce Petty from getting popped. To be fair, it took an illegal late hit for Petty to get knocked out of the Texas Tech game, but he’s still open for plenty of free shots by good pass rushes. Michigan State’s pass rush has been even better than it was last year with several different players getting involved – it comes from all sides. 

    – Baylor has been better at ball control and time of possession than it was last season, but both should be a major issue against an MSU team that’s going to keep its defense on the sidelines for long stretches. The Spartans are No. 1 in the nation in time of possession, keeping it for over 35 minutes a game. Baylor holds on for 29:29 per game. 

    – Both teams are outstanding in turnover margin. Baylor is great, but Michigan State is better, No. 1 in the nation with a ridiculous +20 on the year. The Spartans only lost the turnover battle once this season, going a -2 against Oregon. But … 

    Why Baylor Might Win: Don’t expect Baylor to make the big turnover, giving up just 12 on the year. The Bears have only lost the turnover battle two times, going -1 against Northwestern State and -2 against TCU. Even when they do screw up, they tend to make up for it. 

    – Again, there’s a chance the Michigan State defense is a bit of a statistical fraud. J.T. Barrett and Ohio State threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns without much of a problem, Marcus Mariota hit 61% of his throw for 318 yards and three touchdowns, and Nebraska roared back through the air finishing with 282 yards. That means … 

    – Bryce Petty could be in for a huge day. Never really in the Heisman chase despite throwing for 3,305 yards with 26 touchdowns and six picks, Petty still deserved a bit more attention. He was more than fine against Kansas State after suffering a concussion – completing 34-of-40 passes for 412 yards and a score with a pick – and now he’s had a month off to get healthier. 

    – This should be a wild shootout and punts might be rare, but Baylor has a potentially huge advantage with Spencer Roth vs. the horrid MSU punt return game. Spartan punter Mike Sadler is great, but Baylor’s coverage teams are doing more. 

    – Baylor’s defense might not match the offense, but Shawn Oakman and the line gets into the backfield on a regular basis. The Bears cranked up 92 tackles for loss and 36 sacks – they’ll get to Michigan State’s running backs sometimes before they can get started. 

    What’s Going To Happen: Get ready for each team to come up with lots and lots of big plays, lots and lots of yards, and lots and lots of fun. The Bears are used to coming up with huge offensive numbers, but so are the Spartans. Michigan State’s defense will be a wee bit better down the stretch, and Cook will be phenomenal. 

    Prediction: Michigan State 48 … Baylor 40
    Line: Baylor -2.5 o/u: 71.5 

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