The major bowls get started in the late afternoon of New Year’s Day, with the kickoff of the Rose Bowl between Michigan State and Stanford (5 PM ET, ESPN). What follows is the Notebook Nine—the nine points to keep in mind, covering everything from personnel matchups, to each team’s season performance arc, to the Las Vegas line to the historical context…
*Stanford is favored by 6 ½, with the Over/Under at 42.5. That would give us a game that plays out along the lines of the Cardinal winning 24-17.
*This is Stanford’s fourth straight major bowl game. They won the Orange Bowl in 2010, blowing out Virginia Tech. A loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl ended the 2011 season. Both of those games were with Andrew Luck at quarterback, and the first had Jim Harbaugh as the head coach. The Cardinal won the Pac-12 title last year under head coach David Shaw, and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
*By contrast, Michigan State has not been in the Rose Bowl since 1987, and that’s also their last appearance in any major bowl game. The Spartans won that game back in ’87, knocking off USC 20-17. The ’87 team was coached by George Perles, and led by running back Lorenzo White and linebacker Percy Snow. But the biggest play was quarterback Bobby McCallister making a big throw down the sidelines as his body carried him out of bounds to set up the winning field goal.
*Moving back to the present day, each team has a tough runner that’s had a big year. Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford ran for 1,338 yards and had his biggest games against the toughest Big Ten teams. Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney went for over 1,600 yards and had big games against Arizona State (twice), Oregon and USC. Both these teams have shown they can move the trenches against the best defenses in their respective leagues.
* Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio made a key decision in his team’s first three games. He benched senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell and handed the keys to the offense to Connor Cook. While no one will mistake Cook for Jameis Winston anytime soon, the change gave Sparty enough offense to win. If Dantonio plays it safe, this is a nice 8-4 or 9-3 team playing earlier on New Year’s Day, but not a champion.
*Michigan State’s defense has a good reputation nationally, but All-American linebacker Max Bullough has been suspended. The Spartans still have some great talent—defensive end Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Denicos Allen and defensive backs Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis, but how they will handle being without their leader, especially against a Stanford offense that likes to pound the ball?
*Stanford’s record against top teams is outstanding. They blew out Arizona State twice, once in the regular season and once in the Pac-12 Championship game, once at home and once on the road. Their combined halftime lead in those games was 57-14 and Gaffney ran wild. Stanford also had a 23-0 lead on Oregon thanks to dominance of the trenches on both sides of the ball, before some crazy plays at the end created a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 26-20 final.
*The Cardinal’s offensive line, as you might expect with that performance, is stocked with players the pros love. Kevin Danser and Cameron Fleming on the right side, along with David Yankey at left guard, all have the NFL in their futures. On the flip side, the defensive front seven has three more highly regarded prospects.
*Quarterback Kevin Hogan will be a key to this game, but the key will be avoiding negative plays. He threw two costly interceptions in a 20-17 loss to USC, and that game is the reason Stanford isn’t playing Florida State for a national title on Monday night. Hogan has also struggled against a pedestrian defense in Oregon State, and a good one in Notre Dame. The good news? He played his best game in the conference championship win over Arizona State.
Who comes out on top? I have no problem picking Stanford to win outright, although that pointspread is a little high for my tastes, giving the likelihood of a defense-oriented game. But it’s still tight enough that I won’t try threading the needle, so I’ll just take the Cardinal and give the points. The total looks right on the money, although I will lean to the Under.
BOWL HANDICAPPING RECORD (through games of December 30)
Outright Winners: 8-9