With three teams ranked inside the top 10 in the final College Football Playoff rankings — five in all — you could say that it has been a largely successful season for the Big Ten Conference thus far.
Michigan State gets a shot at Alabama in the four-team playoff, Iowa received an invite to play Stanford in the Rose Bowl, Ohio State squares off against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, and seven other members of the conference get to continue their season with some well-deserved travel time in the upcoming weeks.
With a handful of high-profile games, it’s difficult to rank the matchups for the Big Ten and its bowl festivities; but we’re going to do it anyway, starting with the most watchable of the bunch and winding our way through all 10 postseason dates.
1. Cotton Bowl – Michigan State (12-1) vs. Alabama (12-1)
Dec. 31 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic matchup between Michigan State and Alabama is the Big Ten’s top game to watch this bowl season by default, as the winner goes on to play in the national championship against either Clemson or Oklahoma. Similar in style, both teams like to keep an open look on offense between the passing and running attack, spreading the field with several receivers and a big offensive line. Mark Dantonio and Nick Saban have toyed with the up-tempo approach on offense, but with the success both teams have had on the defensive side of the ball in 2015, it’s possible that we see an old-fashioned, grind-it-out performance that’s reliant on taking care of the ball and receiving optimal field position. If Michigan State keeps Connor Cook upright with ideal time to throw, the Spartans have a real shot of advancing. But if the Crimson Tide’s No. 1 pass rush (46 sacks) gets involved in the game early, they’ll be able to lean on Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry the rest of the way.
2. Fiesta Bowl – Notre Dame (10-2) vs. Ohio State (11-1)
Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
It isn’t the College Football Playoff, but the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl is a nice consolation prize for both Ohio State and Notre Dame, who were both at times this season considered a contender for the four-team tournament. Ohio State didn’t live up to its record-setting preseason standards, but rebounded from a tough 17-14 loss to Michigan State with a 42-13 road win at then-No. 10 Michigan. Notre Dame’s two losses came by a total of four points — and in reality, two plays — against No. 1 Clemson and No. 6 Stanford, fighting off numerous key injuries in the process. This is the first time the two teams have met since the 2006 Fiesta Bowl (a 34-20 Buckeyes win), and should generate a massive amount of television ratings on New Year’s Day.
3. Rose Bowl Game – Stanford (11-2) vs. Iowa (12-1)
Jan. 1 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
It was only a handful of possessions that kept Stanford and Iowa on the outside of the College Football Playoff looking in, so it only makes sense to pair the two in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual. For two teams with a lot of frustration to hammer out in the trenches, it’s likely that any kind of big play(s) could prove to be the difference. The biggest matchup to watch here will be Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey (leads FBS with 268.9 all-purpose yards per game) vs. an Iowa defensive front seven that ranks 16th nationally in rushing yards per attempt (3.43). Stanford, a 6.5-point favorite, has now been in the Rose Bowl three out of the last four seasons, while this marks the first time the Hawkeyes have played in "The Granddaddy of Them All" since 1991.
4. Citrus Bowl – Florida (10-3) vs. Michigan (9-3)
Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Two of the best defensive units in the nation will clash on New Year’s Day when Michigan and Florida meet up in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. In Year 1 under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan won nine regular season games — just the program’s second time achieving the feat since 2007 — and two of its three losses came by a combined 11 points. The Wolverines haven’t been great on offense (6th in Big Ten with 30.6 points per game), but have done well enough to let their 10th-ranked defense (17.2) win games. Florida has struggled mightily to produce points as of late, finding the end zone just six times (three against South Carolina) over its last five games. Still, the defense has been about as good as the offense will allow; the Gators have held five different opponents to 10 points or less in 2015, and eight to no more than 14. The over/under is set at 41 for a good reason.
5. Outback Bowl – Tennessee (8-4) vs. Northwestern (10-2)
Jan. 1 – 12 p.m. ET, ESPN3/ESPN2
Tennessee didn’t win the SEC East this season, but the Volunteers are currently riding a five-game winning streak as they head into the postseason. And in defense of the Vols and their lofty preseason expectations, all four of their losses came by a touchdown or less, and two of them were against Playoff teams (Oklahoma and Alabama). Northwestern quietly won 10 games — its win total from 2013-14 combined — and that includes impressive victories over Stanford and Wisconsin. It’s not a New Year’s Six bowl, but this matchup definitely has some intrigue; Tennessee hasn’t won nine games since 2007, and the Wildcats have never reached the 11-win mark in their 122-year history.
6. Holiday Bowl – Wisconsin (9-3) vs. USC (8-5)
Dec. 30 – 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Wisconsin lost three games this season — to Alabama (currently ranked No. 2), Iowa (No. 5), and Northwestern (No. 13) — by a combined 28 points. The Badgers will take their physical, ground-and-pound philosophy to the Holiday Bowl against an extremely talented USC opponent that never seemed to put it all together. The Badgers rank No. 1 in the FBS in scoring defense (13.1 points) and No. 4 in yards per play allowed (4.39), but again struggled through the air with Joel Stave under center. USC, meanwhile, has all the ability to produce 40 points and a shutout on any given Saturday, despite its inconsistencies. Which style of play will come out on top?
7. Pinstripe Bowl – Indiana (6-6) vs. Duke (7-5)
Dec. 26 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
You’re watching this one for two reasons: 1. Indiana is playing its first bowl game since 2007(!), and 2. there will be points. Lots of points. With Nate Sudfeld healthy and playing at a high level down the stretch – 955 passing yards and 11 total touchdowns over last three games — the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense (36.2 points) is sure to have some success against a Duke defense that allowed 38.8 points over its last six games. However, the Blue Devils are no slouch offensively, totaling 30.5 points in 2015 (5th in ACC), which bodes well against a Hoosiers unit that ranks near the bottom (116th) of FBS in points allowed (37.1 ppg). In other words, if you’re a fan of scoring and poor defense, then this is the bowl game for you.
8. TaxSlayer Bowl – Penn State (7-5) vs. Georgia (9-3)
Jan. 2 – 12 p.m. ET, ESPN
It was a struggle offensively for both teams in 2015; Georgia managed to average 26.5 points per game (84th nationally), while Penn State is not too far behind with 23.7 (101st). As result, the Bulldogs parted ways with longtime head coach Mark Richt, and James Franklin fired offensive coordinator John Donovan. The TaxSlayer Bowl scoreboard operator probably won’t be very active, but this matchup gives coaches on both sides an opportunity to take a different approach, work on some things, and get a good look for what’s to come next season.
9. Foster Farms Bowl – UCLA (8-4) vs. Nebraska (5-7)
Dec. 26 – 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ranked as high as No. 7 in the AP Top 25 earlier this season, UCLA enters the Foster Farms Bowl losing two of its last three games, including a 31-27 setback to Washington State and a 19-point defeat at the hands of rival USC. Despite not living up to the preseason expectations, the Bruins have a lot of things to look forward to in the near future, highlighted by true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, who threw 20 touchdowns to nine interceptions in his debut campaign. No one saw Nebraska posting a mere five wins in its first year under new head coach Mike Riley – and if it weren’t for the influx of bowl games, it wouldn’t even be here — but there is some talent across the roster, and the Cornhuskers have the ability to pull off the upset if they can find a way to go four quarters without self-destructing.
10. Quick Lane Bowl – Central Michigan (7-5) vs. Minnesota (5-7)
Dec. 28 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN2
In terms of “watchability,” the 2015 Quick Lane Bowl fails as it pairs a middle-tier Mid-American Conference team in Central Michigan against Minnesota, which will finish with a losing record no matter the outcome. This could end up being a slow, low-scoring affair; but hey, at least you’ll have something to watch when you get home from work on Monday evening.
— Written by Tyler Waddell, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Waddell’s work has previously been published by Bleacher Report, the Los Angeles Times, NOLA.com, Today's U, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @Tyler_Waddell.