#8 Michigan State v. #5 Baylor
AT&T Stadium — Arlington, TX
January 1, 2015 — 12:30 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
Like the Peach Bowl, this game hovered just outside the BCS hierarchy and has only joined the ranks of the elite bowls. The Cotton Bowl (which hasn’t been played at the actual Cotton Bowl since 2010) is among the nation’s oldest bowl games, having started in 1937 in Dallas and survived without interruption to this day. The game will feature a Big Ten team for the first time since 1987, the first time since the start of the BCS era that an SEC team hasn’t been pitted against a Big 12 school in this game. Watching this game will also give you an advance look at the venue which will host the College Football Playoff national championship on January 12, if you haven’t caught any of the four neutral-site games held at AT&T Stadium this season.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
Michigan State’s only two losses came to teams that are in the College Football Playoff’s final four, and it is hardly an indictment on what by all accounts should be considered a successful season for the Spartans. The 46-27 loss at Autzen Stadium hinged on a couple of critical plays and is more an indication of the Ducks’ resilience than an indictment of Michigan State’s ability in the clutch. The same could be said about the loss at home to Ohio State, where the Spartan attack simply wasn’t as explosive as the Buckeyes.
This isn’t the end for junior quarterback Connor Cook, who has announced he’ll return to East Lansing next year for his senior season. But this season showed a marked improvement for Cook, who had a similar completion percentage as last year’s Rose Bowl campaign but threw for nearly two yards more per attempt — putting him 145 yards over last season’s total passing yardage despite playing two fewer games and attempting 57 fewer passes. His main receiver was senior Tony Lippett, who caught 60 balls for 1124 yards and half of Cook’s 22 touchdowns. The Spartans’ top-40 passing attack was fortified by a top-25 ground game that featured senior tailback Jeremy Langford’s 1360 yards and 19 touchdowns. The combination added up to an offense that finished seventh in scoring, with over 43 points per game.
Michigan State’s defense was what led the team to a Big Ten title last year, and while it was not quite as strong as last year’s unit it was still among the dozen best in the country. The Spartans ranked sixth in yards allowed, giving up just 294 per game, while they allowed just under 20 points to rank 14th in scoring defense. They were ranked 82nd in red zone defense, but that number is deceiving — only Clemson allowed opponents to enter the red zone fewer times than the 27 allowed by Michigan State. And only Louisiana Tech and TCU snagged more turnovers than the Spartans. The X-factor is outgoing defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who has accepted the Pitt head coaching job but will coach the Spartans one last time in the Cotton Bowl. Will the defense find another gear to send a popular coach off in style?
Baylor was also in a BCS bowl last year after winning the Big 12, and now they’d like to go one step further and win their first major bowl game since the 1981 Cotton Bowl. Only a momentous slip-up against the Mountaineers a week after their comeback against TCU kept the Bears from going undefeated. If not for a two-touchdown tumble in Morgantown, Art Briles’ crew would likely be preparing for the Sugar Bowl or the Rose Bowl instead of the Cotton Bowl.
No offense was more prolific in 2014 than the one fielded by Baylor. The Bears averaged just shy of seven touchdowns per game to lead the nation in scoring, and the high-octane offense offered a solid balance of passing and rushing production. Bryce Petty was the starter at quarterback, throwing for over 3300 yards and 26 touchdowns, but injuries also gave sophomore Seth Russell a chance to throw for over 800 yards and eight touchdowns as well. Four different receivers caught at least six touchdown passes and went for at least 500 yards, led by sophomore Corey Coleman’s 57 catches for 969 yards and 10 scores. Combined, the passing attack was fifth nationally with over 340 yards per game through the air. Shock Linwood took over the feature tailback duties in 2014, and the sophomore responded with 1226 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. A combination of ankle and elbow injuries sidelined fellow sophomore Devin Chafin for much of the season, giving freshman Johnny Jefferson the opportunity to spell Linwood for 526 yards and six touchdowns. 14 different players had at least one carry for a ground game that ranked 23rd nationally with over 235 yards each game.
Baylor, like most Big 12 teams, is not really known for its defense. The Bears were 40th nationally in both yardage allowed and points conceded per game, putting them fourth in the Big 12 in total defense and scoring defense. They held opponents to two touchdowns or less in five different games, but they also gave up 40 or more points on three other occasions. The uneven defensive performance led to several basketball scorelines, something that could ultimately happen in Arlington on New Year’s Day if they can’t contain Langford and Lippett.
What is Likely to Happen
Baylor has outscored opponents by an average of 24.6 points per game. Michigan State has outscored opponents by an average of 23.2 points per game, scoring fewer but giving up fewer along the way. There is sure to be an overworked scoreboard operator at AT&T Stadium by the time the clock hits zeroes. As opposed to the defensive affair Michigan State won against Stanford last year, this game is likely to look more like the Fiesta Bowl that Baylor lost to UCF.
Or, if you need a more recent comparison, look at the game Michigan State played against Oregon for similarities. Baylor runs a similar offense, though one predicated slightly more toward the pass, but Michigan State kept that one far closer than the final scoreline suggested. In the end Mark Dantonio’s team won’t have the firepower to hang with the Bears for four quarters, and the Big 12 will have another reason to cry foul about its exclusion from the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Baylor 41, Michigan State 31