No. 8 Michigan State Spartans (10-2 SU, 8-4 ATS) vs. No. 5 Baylor Bears (11-1 SU, 7-4-1 ATS)
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
Date and Time: Thursday, January 1, 2015, 12:00 pm EST
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
TV: ESPN, DirecTV 206
by Badger, Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: MSU +3/BAY -3
Over/Under Total: 72
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The Baylor Bears were the last team left out of the inaugural four-team college football playoff, jilted by the selection committee when they decided to take a team from the Big 10 Conference instead of the Bears, so its only slightly ironic and vastly appropriate that the Bears get to take out their frustrations on a fellow Big 10 foe when Baylor meets the 10-2 Michigan State Spartans in the Cotton Bowl played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on New Years Day.
If you havent already read about the Bears feelings towards being past over for the playoffs by Ohio State, go ahead and google it because youll find volumes of social media posts and college football blogs that have already dissected it to death. The fact of the matter remains that the Bears did everything in their power but win every game on their schedule, and when the music stopped there werent any chairs left for the Baylor in order to get a seat at the party.
So as a consolation gift Baylor gets to play in its backyard in the Cotton Bowl, a short drive North to Arlington in the house that Jerry built, AT&T Stadium. The Bears will be trying to win their sixth game in a row when they meet the Spartans on New Years Day, it what can easily be considered their toughest test to date since they beat fellow Big 12 co-champion TCU back in early October.
Michigan State is sort of being treated like the red-headed step child in this matchup in the Cotton Bowl, despite the fact that they won 10-plus games in four of the last five season and their only two losses this season came against two teams that made it into the 4-team playoff bracket. The Spartans certainly dont care if Baylor got screwed, and if the Bears think Michigan State will just roll over and play dead because the Bears bring the No. 1-ranked offense into their Cotton Bowl tussle then they havent watched a Spartans team coached by Mark Dantonio enough because its not going to happen.
Maybe its because of their proximity to AT&T Stadium (virtually a home with what should be a huge Baylor contingent at the game), maybe because of their No. 5 ranking, or maybe because of public perception (or all of the above), oddsmakers set the opening point spread for the Cotton Bowl with Baylor as 2.5-point favorites. With the game still over 20 days away there hasnt been a lot of action on it yet, but what has come in at the window has caused most sportsbooks to move the number up to Baylor minus -3.
The over/under total opened at 71 at most sportsbooks and it can currently be found at 71, 71.5 and even 72, sort of what youd come to expect from two teams that BOTH average over 40 points per game.
On its face, this game screams as a classic high-powered offense-versus-strong defense matchup, but a deeper look gives you added prospective into how this one might not be that simple.
It doesnt take a rocket scientist to see that Bryce Petty and the Bears offense is pretty prolific. At 581 yards a game, 48.8 points per game and with both a 1,00-yard rusher (Shock Linwood) and 3,000-yards passer in the mix, offense is certainly something that Baylor does and does very well. But defensively the Spartans are probably the best team in the country that can match up against them, if thats possible. Michigan State only allows 196 yards a game passing (26th), and can go three-deep at corner with Darian Hick, Demetrious Cox and two-way player Tony Lippett to matchup with the Baylor spread attack and jam them at the line of scrimmage. They also are hard to run against as well (97.5 ypg 6th), which means a lot of third-and-long situations. In both losses this season the Spartans defense gave up over 300 yards passing, so Petty certainly should have a good day, but its not going to be as easy as everyone thinks it will be.
What should concern Baylor the most is how they are going to stop the Spartans offense. With a senior at QB in Connor Cook, a big offensive line and a pounding running back in Jeremy Langford (1,360, 19 TDs), Lippett at receiver (over 1,100 yards this year) and an unit that puts up their own impressive scoring numbers (43.1 ppg 7th), the Bears could find themselves playing catch-up football if they dont watch out and prepare. With the 104th-ranked defense against the pass (260 ypg), Baylor has their work cut out for them on defense, especially if Michigan State decides to try and grind em down with Langford over and over again.
These two schools have no history versus each other, and no common opponents this season either, so theres very little insight to be gained from statistics. Its really going to come down to a gut feel on this one, and whether youre a fan of big offense or strong defense.
Michigan State is 5-0 ATS in their last five neutral site games. Baylor is 7-1 ATS in their last eight non-conference games, but keep in mind that three of those games came against SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo this year (which is a huge reason they are NOT in the fur-team playoff).
Badgers Pick to Cover the Point Spread: This is going to be a good one, easily the best New Years Day bowl game thats not a part of the semifinals. I have a strong lean toward the over in this game, because even though I think the Spartans defense could cause Baylor some issues, some issues means just 30 to 35 points and not over 50 points like they average. I know Baylor hasnt faced a running offense like the Spartans this season, and they could be caught off guard by the physicality of Michigan State and their downhill approach. If I was forced to pick a side, Ill take Michigan State plus the points, especially if it stays over the magic number of 3. But Im going to take the over of 72 as well, and hope this one turns into a shootout Texas style.