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Cotton Bowl Preview and Prediction: Western Michigan vs. Wisconsin


The members of the Football Writers Association of America cast votes annually for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. As a member, I had the luxury of voting. If I had it my way, it would have been a tie amongst three coaches. Two of those three coaches will meet up in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 2 and attempt to lead their teams to victory in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

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Paul Chryst's Wisconsin Badgers defied the expectations of most pundits this season by going 10-2 during the regular season and winning the Big Ten West. Looking at their schedule before the season started, it was tough to see the Badgers reaching the eight-win mark. That – as they say – is why they play the games.

The Badgers just played classic Wisconsin football all season long, pounding opponents with a talented stable of running backs behind a solid offensive line and playing stingy, suffocating defense. That's the formula for what works in Wisconsin, and it's why Barry Alvarez hired Chryst two years ago. Wisconsin football knows exactly what it wants to be. The Badgers are playing in a New Year's Six bowl because of it.

P.J. Fleck's Western Michigan Broncos know who they are as well. They were favored by most to win the MAC before the season began, but few expected them to run the table the way they did. When they defeated Northwestern on the road to start the year – a tall order for most teams in the country – we knew it could be a magical season in Kalamazoo. One-by-one, Western Michigan took down every opponent on its schedule. Meanwhile, the other elite Group of Five teams were taking loss after loss throughout the year. When the dust settled, the Broncos were the highest Group of Five champion in the College Football Playoff rankings, earning them a New Year's Six bowl berth.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: Western Michigan vs. Wisconsin (Arlington, Texas)

Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. ET

Where: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)

TV Channel: ESPN

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Spread: Wisconsin -7.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Wisconsin's secondary vs. Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell

One of the ways the Badgers control football games is to capitalize off of turnovers, especially inceptions. Wisconsin has picked off 21 passes this season, the second-most in the FBS, and has allowed a total of 12 touchdown passes. The Badger defense will be staring across the line of scrimmage at one of the most efficient passers in all of college football in WMU’s Terrell. In nearly four seasons as a starter, Terrell has thrown a total of 30 interceptions compared to 95 touchdowns passes. This season, his TD-to-INT ratio of 32:3 is the best in the country. Something, as they say, has to give.

2. Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis

Making Terrell's life easier is that fact that he has arguably the nation's best receiver as his top target. Davis is comparable both physically and athletically to Atlanta Falcons All-Pro Julio Jones. He is a big-bodied (6-3, 213) receiver with blazing speed and elite hands. He leads the nation in touchdown receptions and is college football's all-time leader in receiving yards. He's pretty good, and quite simply, he's a matchup problem for every opponent, Wisconsin included. Part of the game plan for dealing with Terrell is likely to take Davis away as an option – something that will be easier said than done. If the Badgers are unable to keep Davis in check, this game could turn into a shootout.

3. Can the Broncos slow down Wisconsin's running game?

The Badgers want to come into this game and control the tempo with their physicality and top-notch rushing attack. Look for them to pound the ball early and often with a stable of backs led by Corey Clement, one of the best in the nation. Western Michigan’s secondary is good enough to play man-to-man and load the box in an effort to try to limit the damage Wisconsin does on the ground. At that point, it's just a matter of who wins in the trenches. The Broncos have been decent against the run this season, allowing only 151.2 yards per game. They may be slightly underrated along the defensive front, and it will be worth noting any difficulty the Badgers have moving the ball against them early on.

Final Analysis

Both of these teams are solid and very good at what they do. There is a reason Western Michigan is undefeated. There is a reason Wisconsin won 10 games while playing in the nation's toughest conference. This is going to be a very physical game between two well-coached teams that simply know who they are and how to win football games. Expect a lower-scoring contest than most are expecting, as the Broncos do some grinding on the ground with their underrated ball carriers. After a back-and-forth afternoon of classic, old-school, physical football, look for WMU’s QB-WR combination of Zach Terrell and Corey Davis to hook up on one big play that ends up being the difference.

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Prediction: Western Michigan 24, Wisconsin 20

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on,, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.