Zack Baun and Wisconsin's defense will have its work cut out for it against Oregon in the Rose Bowl
As the song goes, it's the most wonderful time of the year. It's bowl season on the college football schedule as 39 games will fill the calendar staring Dec. 20 and going on through the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 13. The Big Ten will make its presence felt with nine teams set to appear this postseason.
Since 2013, the Big Ten has gone 28-27 in the postseason (5-4 in 2018). That includes a 10-7 record in BCS/College Football Playoff games with Ohio State claiming the national championship for the conference in 2014.
This year's bowl slate will have some stiff competition. The Buckeyes are back in the playoff, and their opponent in the Fiesta Bowl CFP semifinal is defending national champion Clemson. The Tigers are one of three conference champions and six Top 25 opponents that Big Ten teams will face this bowl season.
For the Big Ten to continue to post winning records in bowl games it will take more than each team's star players to make this possible. Below you will find a player (or position group) for each team (listed alphabetically) who needs to show up in a big way to help their team win their bowl game.
Indiana: Peyton Ramsey, QB
The Hoosiers will be making their first-ever appearance in the Gator Bowl, as head coach Tom Allen has his team in the postseason for the first time since 2016. Indiana will face a red-hot Tennessee team that won five in a row to become bowl eligible after a slow start. The Volunteers' defense has done its part during this streak, holding opponents to just 14.2 points per game.
Ramsey was beat out for the starting quarterback job in fall camp by redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr. but he still has appeared in 10 games. Ramsey has made six starts this season as Penix was lost to a season-ending injury he suffered on Nov. 2. On the season, Ramsey is completing 69 percent of his passes for 2,227 yards, 13 touchdowns, and four interceptions. He's 3-3 as the starter this year but has had to face some tough defenses in Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan. If the Vols continue to play as they have been on defense, Ramsey will need to be at the top of his game in the Gator Bowl.
Illinois: Daniel Barker and Justice Williams, TEs
The Fighting Illini have reached a bowl game for the first time under Lovie Smith. When they play California in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 30th, Smith will count on a variety of players to try and win Illinois' first bowl game since 2011. But what the Illini need more than anything is production from the tight end position. Barker and Williams have combined for 332 yards and four touchdowns on 28 receptions this season. They'll need to come up big against the Golden Bears, who were more vulnerable against the pass over the last month of the regular season. A victory out west will cement the fact that Smith's rebuild in Champaign is finally starting to bear fruit.
Iowa: Nate Stanley, QB
The Hawkeyes have a chance to give the Big Ten its fourth consecutive victory in the Holiday Bowl when they take on USC on Dec. 27. Stanley's numbers may not jump off of the page and he gets a little lost sometimes among the other talented quarterback in his conference, but his combination of accuracy, efficiency, pocket presence, and fearlessness make him the perfect field general for Iowa's pro-style offense.
The Trojans come into this game ranked 18th in the country in total offense and fifth in passing behind big-armed freshman signal-caller Kedon Slovis, but this is a team that can be scored on. Over the last five games, USC has given up an average of 33 points per game. Iowa's defense is good but Stanley and the offense will need to do its part if the Hawkeyes want to keep the Big Ten's Holiday Bowl win streak intact.
Michigan: pass rush
It's not the College Football Playoff or technically even part of the New Year's Six lineup, but one of the bowl matchups everyone is eagerly anticipating is when Michigan and Alabama meet in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1. The Wolverines may be catching a break with Tua Tagovailoa out due to a hip injury, but Mac Jones has been more than adequate as the Crimson Tide's quarterback. He enters the Citrus Bowl with 1,176 yards, 11 touchdowns, and just three interceptions while completing 69 percent of his attempts.
One of the easiest ways to throw Jones off of his game and make it harder for him to connect with his talented receiving corps is to put pressure on him. Getting him down (two sacks taken this season) may not be easy, but Jim Harbaugh needs a pass rush that produced 36 sacks in 12 regular-season games to make its mark down in Orlando, Florida. The leading pass rushers for Michigan this season are Josh Uche (8.5), Kwity Paye (6.5), and Jordan Glasgow (5.0).
Pass rush is just one aspect of a Wolverines defense that once again ranks among the best in the nation. Michigan is sixth in total defense and 18th in scoring. Of course, this unit will be tested by Alabama, regardless of who is at quarterback.
Michigan State: Josiah Scott, CB
It wasn't easy, but the Spartans are bowling for the third straight season and 12th time overall in Mark Dantonio's tenure. This will be Michigan State's first appearance in the Pinstripe Bowl where Sparty will take on Wake Forest on Dec. 27. The Demon Deacons are making a fourth straight bowl appearance under Dave Clawson and went 8-4 in the regular season behind an offense that averages 33 points per game.
Quarterback Jamie Newman has been instrumental in Wake's offensive explosion, as he's second in the ACC in total offense (289.1 ypg) and has been responsible for 29 total touchdowns (23 passing, 6 rushing). The Deacons like to throw the ball over the field (297.8 ypg, 18th nationally) which is where Scott comes in. The junior leads Michigan State in interceptions (3) and pass breakups (7), and has registered 50 tackles. He has a nose for the ball and should get plenty of chances to make plays in the Pinstripe Bowl in late December.
Minnesota: Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson, WRs
The Golden Gophers may have come up short in their quest to win the Big Ten West, but they will get another chance to make a statement when they take on Auburn in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day. One of the keys for Minnesota will be how its offense does against the Tigers' defense. In particular, Bateman and Johnson will need to show why they were both named first-team All-Big Ten. The dynamic duo combined for 131 catches, 2,284 yards, and 22 touchdowns. Their production is a big reason why the Gophers rank third in the Big Ten and 22nd nationally in scoring (34.3 ppg) and fifth in the conference in passing offense (251.2 ypg).
Opposite of them will be an Auburn defense that finished the regular season in the middle of the pack in the SEC at 208.4 passing yards per game allowed. The Tigers' defensive line gets most of the attention and with good reason, but this defense also has some talent and experience in the secondary. If Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan has enough time to throw, he will certainly be looking to connect with Bateman and Johnson. How big of an impact both make on New Year's Day down in Tampa, Florida, will go a long way towards determining whether the Gophers finish their season on a winning note or with a second straight loss.
Ohio State: Offensive line
The Buckeyes' College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl is the most anticipated game of this bowl season. Both teams are undefeated and feature plenty of firepower on both sides of the ball. While Ohio State's offense is fueled by Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields and running back J.K. Dobbins, the key for the Buckeyes is how well their offensive line holds up against a Tigers defense that is statistically better than the star-studded unit that won the national title last season.
Clemson enters this game No. 1 in the nation in both total (244.7 ypg) and scoring (10.6 ppg) defense. The Tigers are ninth against the run (106.2 ypg) and have generated 38 sacks. Fields has been dealing with a gimpy knee for a few weeks now and was sacked five times by Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. He may be close to 100 percent by the time these two teams play out in Glendale, Arizona, on Dec. 28 but one way or the other, Ohio State's offensive line will need to do its part in both pass protection and run blocking against the Tigers' stingy D.
Journey Brown, RB, Penn State
The Nittany Lions will make their fourth appearance in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 28 when they take on the Memphis Tigers, champions of the American Athletic Conference (AAC) and the Group of 5's New Year's Six representative. Penn State's stingy defense (14.1 ppg) figures to be tested by a Memphis attack that's seventh nationally in scoring (40.5 ppg) and averages 480 yards per game. So what's one of the best ways to slow down a high-powered offense? Keep it off of the field.
That's where Brown comes in. The junior leads the team with 688 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He's seen double-digit carries in each of the past five games and has scored seven of his 10 rushing touchdowns during that span as well. Brown may not be on the same level as Saquon Barkley or Miles Sanders, previous Penn State superstar backs that are now in the NFL, but he'll get his chance to make a name for himself against a Memphis defense that's giving up 172 rushing yards per game.
After giving Ohio State a fight in the Big Ten Championship Game before falling, the Badgers will match up with another conference champion that boasts an explosive offense when they take on Oregon in the Rose Bowl. The Pac-12 champion Ducks average 36 points and 451 yards per game and can do it on the ground or through the air.
Because of Oregon's offensive versatility, Wisconsin's defense will be tested. This particularly applies to the linebacking corps of Zack Baun, Chris Orr, and Jack Sanborn. Their job will be twofold, as not only will this trio have to help try and stop Ducks running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye when they get the ball, but quarterback Justin Herbert can make things happen with his legs. Herbert also makes it difficult on defenses when he drops back by spreading the ball around (10 different Oregon players have 10 or more receptions) and making good decisions when he throws (32 TDs vs. 5 INTs).
Baun, Orr, and Sanborn have been making plays for the Badgers all season, as they have combined for 215 tackles, 41 tackles for a loss, 29.5 sacks, three interceptions, and five forced fumbles. This will need to continue out in Pasadena, California, if Wisconsin wants to win the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1999.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.