The 81st annual Cotton Bowl provides one of the more interesting matchups of the bowl season as No. 8 Wisconsin (10-3) takes on No. 15 Western Michigan (13-0). One is a team that's familiar with playing in major bowl games, and the other is an upstart from the MAC that hasn't lost a game yet this season.
One thing both teams have in common is this is the first time either will play in the Cotton Bowl.
It is not, however, the first time these two teams will have played one another. As you'd expect with a Big Ten team and a MAC team separated by a great lake, they've had a few nonconference battles with one another. This will be the fifth meeting with Wisconsin winning three of the first four, including the last game -- a 19-7 win in 2000. This will be the first time they've played outside of Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Date: Monday, Jan. 2, 2017
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Location: AT&T Stadium -- Arlington, Texas
Wisconsin: Honestly, if you'd have asked me before the season began which one of these two teams was more likely to play in a New Year's Six bowl, I'd have taken Western Michigan over Wisconsin. The Badgers came into the season facing a daunting schedule that saw them playing LSU, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State -- all within their first six games. Then, after that, they had to play Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern. It was only natural to expect more than a couple of losses in that stretch.
But there weren't. Thanks to a defense that proved to be as stingy as any other unit in the country, the Badgers got through that opening nine-game gauntlet with a 7-2 record. They finished the regular season with a 10-2 record and came incredibly close to beating Penn State in the Big Ten title game. There's a part of you that has to wonder how amped Wisconsin will be to play Western Michigan in this game when a few weeks ago it was hoping for a Rose Bowl -- and maybe even a playoff berth -- but I tend to believe this Wisconsin team won't want Western Michigan going undefeated at its expense.
Western Michigan: One of the funner stories of the season, Western Michigan is looking to finish the season with a 14-0 record. The Broncos had an outstanding regular season, and so far the postseason's been fantastic as well, since P.J. Fleck did not leave to take another job and will keep on rowing the boat in 2017.
The Cotton Bowl not only provides the Broncos a chance to go undefeated and beat a major program on the biggest stage they've ever played on, but it also afford them the opportunity to beat their third Big Ten West team this year. The Broncos beat Northwestern and Illinois during the regular season, and you could argue a win over Wisconsin should earn the Broncos a spot in the Big Ten.
I mean, they can just kick out Rutgers or something, right?
Players to watch
Wisconsin: As is typically the case with a Wisconsin team, the offense is led by a running back. Corey Clement rushed for 1,304 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, and when he needs a breather, Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw are capable fill-ins. The quarterback situation is a bit murkier. Alex Hornibrook is clearly the future for Wisconsin at the position, but he has to share snaps with Bart Houston from time to time. Whomever's in the game, when they aren't handing off, they tend to look for receiver Jazz Peavy over the top or tight end Troy Fumagalli underneath.
Defensively is where the fun begins on this team, though, tith guys like T.J. Watt (yes he's related to that other initialed Watt guy), T.J. Edwards, Vince Biegel, Garret Dooley and Alec James. And those are just guys in the front seven. I haven't even mentioned the studs in the secondary, which is filled with absolute ballhawks. Only two teams in the country picked off more passes than Wisconsin, and the Badgers were led by Leo Musso's five. Behind him were Sojourn Shelton and -- my personal favorite -- D'Cota Dixon with four. Oh, and Derrick Tindal is pretty good, too.
Western Michigan: Remember the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s? It was led by three Hall of Famers on offense in QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith and WR Michael Irvin. Well, while I can't say they're future NFL Hall of Famers, Western Michigan's offense follows a similar formula. Zach Terrell has been fantastic at quarterback this season, completing over 70 percent of his passes for 3,376 yards, 32 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He's the only quarterback in the country to throw at least 250 passes (he threw 349) with fewer than four interceptions. Of course, having a target like Corey Davis around helps. Davis is a big target with an NFL future, and he finished the regular season with 91 catches for 1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns. Only Louisiana Tech's Carlos Henderson has more touchdown catches than that this season.
Then there's the battering ram that is Jarvion Franklin at running back. At 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, Franklin will wear down a defense, and he wore enough down this season to finish with 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns. Of course, even he needs a rest once in a while, and that's when Jamauri Bogan steps in. Bogan rushed for 865 yards and eight touchdowns of his own.
Oh, and there are some key players on defense as well. Robert Spillane leads the team with 105 tackles and can be found wherever the ball is on most occasions. On the line there's Keion Adams, who finished with 7.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hurries, and three forced fumbles this year. He likes to make life difficult for quarterbacks.
In the secondary there's Mr. Pick Six, Darius Phillips. It's not that he picked off four passes this season, it's that he took three of them to the house.
While my record this bowl season would suggest you ignore my advice here, I'm going to go with Wisconsin in this game. Western Michigan's offense has been very good, but the fact of the matter is it hasn't gone against a defense nearly as strong as this Wisconsin unit. While the Broncos are strong at the skill positions, I have serious doubts about their offensive line holding up against one of the most aggressive and confusing front sevens in the country. So, because of that, I can't help but lay the points with the Badgers. Pick: Wisconsin -7.5