2016 Cotton Bowl Preview: A Big Ten-MAC New Year’s Six Showdown

After Friday’s Orange Bowl and Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinals, three more New Year’s Six bowls are on tap for Monday. The first of these is the lone matchup between the Big Ten and Mid-American Conference this bowl season as Wisconsin faces Western Michigan in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

These two leagues are familiar foes during the regular season. All in all, there were seven games involving the Big Ten and MAC this year. Western Michigan played in two of them, beating Northwestern and Illinois. In fact, the Broncos two wins against Big Ten teams equaled or exceeded that of four schools in the conference.

Wisconsin comes into this game as arguably the best three-loss team in the nation. The Badgers lone defeats came against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, all of whom are currently ranked ahead of them. And in all three, they lost by just seven points. It included a thriller against OSU that went to overtime before the Buckeyes prevailed.

For Western Michigan, the mantra that fourth-year head coach P.J. Fleck has imparted is “row the boat.” It embodies a commitment to excellence, embracing the grind, and bettering yourself both on and off the field. And it’s played a major role in the Broncos going undefeated, winning the MAC and clinching the Group of Five berth in the New Year’s Six.

Will the favored Badgers hand WMU its first loss of the season and in so doing complete its fourth 11-win season in the past seven years? Or can the Broncos prove the doubters wrong and knock off the Big Ten runner-up?

2016 Cotton Bowl Preview: A Big Ten-MAC New Year’s Six Showdown

When: Monday, January 2nd, 2017; 1 PM ET
Where: AT&T Stadium; Arlington, TX

Wisconsin Badgers

On Offense

Of the top teams in the nation, Wisconsin may have the most uncertain situation at quarterback. Bart Houston started the first three games but got benched for Alex Hornibrook in an unexpectedly narrow 23-17 win over Georgia State. But the redshirt freshman never really locked up the starting job with his numbers. Houston replaced him in Wisconsin’s 49-20 win over Purdue and started the Big Ten title game after Hornibrook injured his shoulder the week before against Minnesota. All in all, Wisconsin averages 179.2 pass yards per game which is 104th in FBS.

The identity of Badger football has traditionally been centered around a physical offensive line that allows the run game to prosper. It’s no different in 2016. They’re one of three Big Ten schools (Ohio State and Michigan being the others) to average over 200 rushing yards per game. The bell cow in the backfield is Corey Clement who rushed for 1,304 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. His 24.33 carries per game is fourth in the nation. Look for Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw to lighten Clement’s load at times.

Jazz Peavy is the Badgers feature receiver and accounted for over a quarter of the team’s yards through the air. Troy Fumagalli only found the end zone once this year, but he’s currently third in the Big Ten among tight ends in receiving yards.

On Defense

If Western Michigan want to have any chance at pulling off the upset, they’ll need to move the ball effectively against one of the nation’s most stout defenses. Only Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State give up fewer points per game and Wisconsin is one of three schools averaging fewer than 100 rushing yards allowed per game. The Badgers are also seventh nationally in total defense.

On the front seven, there’s a certain player whose last name conjures up images of a dominant defensive player. And T.J. Watt, like his big brother J.J., definitely fits that mold. Watt led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and added 14.5 tackles for loss which was seventh best in the conference.

The third level of the Wisconsin defense is stacked full of playmakers. Four Badger defensive backs have at least three interceptions, including senior Leo Musso who led the team with five. Sojourn Shelton, D’Cota Dixon and Derrick Tindal combined for 11 more. The secondary is a big reason why Wisconsin is top ten nationally in turnover margin.

Western Michigan

On Offense

P.J. Fleck has built an offensive juggernaut in Kalamazoo. The Broncos average 496.7 yards per game, the 14th best total in FBS. They exhibit exceptional balance on offense as well with 3,376 pass yards compared to 3,071 on the ground.

Quarterback Zach Terrell is about as good as it gets in college football when it comes to a confident signal caller who rarely beats himself. The senior from Fort Wayne, IN threw just three interceptions all year, which is the lowest total among quarterbacks with at least 3,000 yards passing. His 180.56 passer efficiency rating is bested by only three players.

His number one target in the passing game, Corey Davis, is easily among the best wideouts in college football. Davis is one of 13 players averaging over 100 receiving yards per game. And his 18 touchdown receptions on the season is second best in the nation. It’s tempting to compare the senior sensation to a certain former MAC wide receiver who currently plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Either way, there’s no doubt Davis’ NFL future appears to be bright.

Western Michigan’s ground attack is anchored by Jarvion Franklin. The junior running back was one of three players at the position in the MAC to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark in the rushing department. In three seasons with the Broncos, Franklin totaled 3,586 rush yards and he’s easily on pace to become the school’s all-time leading rusher in 2017.

On Defense

Sure, the WMU offense is dynamic. But they don’t need to outscore teams. The Broncos were one of 16 schools to give up fewer than 20 points per game in 2016. And their 353 yards allowed per game leads the MAC.

Keion Adams is a player to pay attention to on the defensive front. The 6’2″, 245 pound edge defender has 17 tackles for loss which is 22nd in FBS and leads the conference. He also forced three fumbles. Against a team like Wisconsin that likes to establish the run, he could be a potential X-factor on defense for the Broncos.

Western Michigan’s turnover margin stands at +19. Only College Football Playoff participant Washington has a better number. Part of that is how infrequently Zach Terrell turns the ball over. But it also speaks to how dynamic the Broncos secondary is. Defensive back Darius Phillips is the MAC leader in interceptions with four, while Justin Ferguson and Robert Spillane added three of their own.

What to Expect

Western Michigan is one of college football’s great stories in 2016. It doesn’t matter what conference you play in. Going undefeated is never easy. There’s a reason the Broncos and Alabama are the only two unblemished teams at this point in the season.

But Wisconsin’s a completely different animal altogether. This is particularly the case up front. The Broncos will be hard pressed to match the physicality they’ll see from the Badgers in the trenches on both sides of the football.

That will make it difficult for Western to establish the tempo on offense they’re used to. And defensively, they have to worry about getting put on the back foot against one of college football’s best offensive lines. Look for Clement to have a big game on the ground in a win for the Big Ten West Division Champs.

Prediction: Wisconsin 33, Western Michigan 21