Football nerds unite.
Just think, less than a decade ago, Baylor and Michigan State were teams worthy of laughs in their respective conferences. Baylor was a bottom feeder in the Big 12, and Michigan State’s various foibles made the Spartans an also-ran in the Big Ten.
Thanks to a great offensive mind and a great defensive mind, Baylor and Michigan State have conference titles under their belts.
Now, we get the best of both in a bowl game.
Art Briles revamped Baylor with an up-tempo, pass-happy offense, turning the Bears into a two-time Big 12 champion. Meanwhile, Mark Dantonio built a classic Big Ten program at Michigan State with a grinding offense and stifling defense leading the way to a Rose Bowl last season.
Both teams hoped to reach the College Football Playoff this season, but the Cotton Bowl nonetheless is a fantastic matchup for those who want to see one of the top new age offensive minds going up against old school Big Ten defense.
Baylor vs. Michigan State
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m.
Spread: Baylor by 3
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan State’s defensive statement
The likely storyline for the Cotton Bowl is probably the test for Baylor’s offense against a stout Michigan State defense. True, Baylor can continue to establish itself as a legitimate national power if it can solve a traditionally powerful Michigan State defense. But the reverse is true, too. The 2014 edition of Michigan State has something to prove as well. The Spartans allowed the most yards per game (293.5) and yards per play (4.8) since 2010. Oregon and Ohio State both thrashed the Spartans’ D for their two losses of the year. Michigan State played only one other top 60 offense (Indiana) this season, making that a pretty hollow 10 wins for Sparty this season. Baylor, the No. 1 team in the country in total offense, presents a perfect chance for redemption.
2. Baylor’s run defense
Baylor may quietly have an edge in run defense compared the Michigan State’s run game. The Bears allowed 2.9 yards per carry, fourth-best in the country. Michigan State ranked 28th at 5.1 yards per carry. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford rushed for 1,360 yards and backup Nick Hill added 596 for a combined total of 28 touchdowns. Behind senior linebacker Bryce Hager, Baylor allowed only 2.5 yards per carry in the first half this season — a telling stat considering how many lopsided games Baylor played. Michigan State will try to set up the run, but Baylor might not allow it.
3. Who wants to be here?
Through the lens of history, Baylor and Michigan State in a New Year’s Day Cotton Bowl should be a time for celebration. Yet both teams have the excuses to go through the motions in a bowl game. Baylor was one of two teams left out of the final spot for the College Football Playoff along with TCU, so a Cotton Bowl may seem like a consolation prize even if the Bears are playing in this game since winning the Southwest Conference in 1980.
One of the great aspects of this game is that neither team has faced an opponent quite like the other. The stylistic differences between the Big 12 and the Big Ten couldn’t be more stark. The cliche about New Year’s bowls used to be the comparison of Big Ten power vs. SEC speed. That’s changed. Baylor hasn’t played many teams like Michigan State, but the Spartans at least have the advantage of playing Oregon earlier in the season.