This season marks the beginning of a new era in a new stadium for the Las Vegas Bowl.
Sin City's college football tradition has grown from humble origins in its first installment almost 30 years, a 35-34 nail-biter between Bowling Green and Div. I-AA (now known as FCS) newcomer Nevada.
From originally featuring members of a pre-MACtion Mid-American Conference, the football-defunct Big West, and once-football-defunct-but-recently-resurrected Western Athletic Conference, the evolved Las Vegas Bowl is now a pairing of Pac-12 vs. Big Ten.
Home to this new-look bowl is the still-somewhat-new Allegiant Stadium. The venue, just west of the Strip, proved to be a hit hosting its first Pac-12 Championship Game earlier this month. The inaugural edition of the Las Vegas Bowl there has the potential to be outstanding in its own right with a pair of very different but evenly matched teams.
This pairing marks the first meeting of the two programs since Arizona State won in a controversial finish in 2013.
SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl: Wisconsin (8-4) vs. Arizona State (8-4)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 30 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: Allegiant Stadium (Las Vegas)
Spread: Wisconsin -6
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
Wisconsin football boasts a long and storied tradition of excellent rushing offense, and the 2021 Badgers did not deviate from convention. The Badgers ranked third in the Big Ten with 524 rushing attempts over 12 games and second with an average of 215.4 yards per contest.
In the first full season since the exit of Jonathan Taylor, college football's first (and only) two-time 2,000-plus-yard rusher since Troy Davis in 1995 and '96, Braelon Allen stepped up to set the pace at 1,109 yards with 12 touchdowns. Allen's workload began to pick up midway through the campaign, and he eclipsed 100 yards in seven of the final eight games.
A month off should give the freshman fresh legs going into the Las Vegas Bowl, and that's vital for a Wisconsin roster without Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo due to injury.
Arizona State counters with a run defense that held opponents to 3.6 yards per carry but reflected the Sun Devils' entire campaign with decidedly up-and-down performances. They held three of their final four opponents under 100 rushing yards but surrendered 237 yards on the ground in a loss to Oregon State that officially bounced ASU from Pac-12 South contention.
Arizona State also surrendered almost as many rushing touchdowns in four losses (eight) as in eight wins (nine). Its containment of the Badgers' defining quality will likely be the key factor in determining the Las Vegas Bowl.
If the Sun Devils can stonewall the run, forcing Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz to throw, Arizona State should have turnover opportunities. Some new playmakers will have to step up, however: Darien Butler and Jack Jones, who each picked off three passes in the regular season, opted out of the bowl game. Chase Lucas, ASU's primary cornerback along with Jones, is another scratch.
When Arizona State Has the Ball
Quarterback Jayden Daniels came into the 2021 season with some Heisman Trophy buzz but endured some consistency issues — especially in the passing game. With Chip Trayanum transferring out of the program and Rachaad White opting out of the bowl game, Arizona State's two best running backs are out.
That puts a heavier burden on Daniels to deliver the kind of stellar individual performance some anticipated from the third-year starter. With his announcement earlier this month he's returning for 2022, Daniels can set the tone by finishing on a high note, but that's a challenge against a top five-ranked Wisconsin passing defense.
Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams are a dynamite duo at cornerback, having combined for 15 passes defended on the season. Williams also has three interceptions.
And as tough as the Badgers were against the pass, they were downright nasty against the run. Just three opponents went over 100 yards on the ground against Wisconsin, while the Badgers yielding just two yards per carry.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported the prospect of COVID scratches on the Wisconsin lineup. Pending a bevy of absences, the Badgers will have the more complete roster. Couple that with a bad matchup of styles in general, and Arizona State may be in store for the kind of trip to Vegas one endures when they lose their entire vacation's allowance on the first night.
Prediction: Wisconsin 30, Arizona State 14
Podcast: Previewing Every Bowl Game