The battle for the Rose Bowl will be on Fox on Friday and Saturday nights, as we start with the Pac-12 Championship on Friday with UCLA-Stanford (8 PM ET) and then the following night in prime time with Wisconsin-Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship (8 PM ET). The winners move forward to face each other in Pasadena on January 1. Let’s take a look at both games.
UCLA-Stanford: The first thing to note is that this game will be in Palo Alto, as the Pac-12 awards homefield advantage for its championship game. The most important football-related thing to note is that both teams are very similar. They run the ball, they have the tight end incorporated into their passing game and each has a freshman quarterback at the helm.
Stanford’s freshman signal-caller is Kevin Hogan and he’s only been the starter for four games, after Josh Nunes just didn’t work out as starter. Hogan has stepped in and completed 73 percent of his passes (a 20-point increase), and while this is not an offense that goes down the field a lot, the Cardinal is getting more bang for their buck with Hogan, as the completions are worth about a yard more on average. Hogan has led the team to wins over Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA in succession, the first two coming from behind in the fourth quarter.
UCLA’s quarterback is Brett Hundley and he’s been the starter all year, and with the exception of a four-interception train wreck against Cal, he’s been solid and productive. Any doubts that were held about his ability to handle himself in a big game were dispelled two weeks ago when he outplayed Matt Barkley in the Bruins’ victory over USC for the Pac-12 South title.
But while the freshman quarterbacks are a great story, it’s the running backs that are the meal ticket in these very physical offenses. Stephan Taylor for Stanford and Jonathan Franklin at UCLA have each had big years and they not only pile up rushing yards, but they create play-action possibilities to the tight end, something each coaching staff has used very well. Stanford tight end Zach Ertz is easily his team’s leading receiver and Joseph Fauria at tight end has had a good year catching the ball for UCLA.
Both teams have good resumes overall. Stanford has the incredible three-game sweep led by Hogan and also went to overtime before losing at Notre Dame—frankly, it’s quite logical to assume that had Hogan been the quarterback in South Bend, Stanford would have won the game and be playing for a national title spot on Friday night. The Cardinal also beat USC and Arizona, plus bowl-bound non-conference teams in San Jose State and Duke. The only other loss was a four-point defeat at Washington.
UCLA knocked off Nebraska in the non-conference schedule and has wins over Arizona State and USC. They also have an amazing 66-10 blasting of Arizona, showing how high their upside is. Of course their 43-17 loss to Cal also tells us their downside is much lower than Stanford’s.
These teams are similar in style, but in terms of actual results they are mirror images in one way. UCLA’s offense is the most productive in the Pac-12, while the defense is adequate ranking seventh. Stanford’s defense is the stingiest in the Pac-12, while the offense is adequate, ranking seventh. Those numbers are exclusive to conference games, so any non-league inequities won’t factor in. But we have to note that Hogan quarterbacked less than half his team’s league games, giving Stanford an edge.
I guess the question comes down to whether there is a rational reason to pick against Stanford. They’re the better team statistically, the resume is impressive, they’re playing well right now and they just finished blasting UCLA 35-17 on the Bruins’ home field last week. Why should it be dramatically different in Palo Alto? There’s a reason Stanford is an 8 ½ point favorite.
In UCLA’s defense, I believe we can rule out last week’s game. The Bruins had homefield advantage for this game at stake, but that’s nothing compared to Stanford’s playing for survival. How much of the UCLA game plan did we really even see? As far as the rest of it—normally I don’t think there would be a good reason to pick an upset, but this situation of playing games back-to-back is an unusual circumstance.
How many more times can Stanford go to the well? There is the fourth straight do-or-die game against a high-quality opponent that they’ve played in as many weeks. That’s why I would happily grab UCLA with the points and give them a slight lean to pull off the upset and win the Pac-12 championship.
Wisconsin-Nebraska: The Big Ten title bout will be in Indianapolis and present a rematch of a September game where the Huskers rallied from 17 points down in Lincoln and beat the Badgers 30-27. It was the start of what’s been a tremendous ride in close games for Nebraska, and an agonizing one for Wisconsin. The Huskers have had narrow escapes over Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State, while Wisconsin has lost overtime games to Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State, the last two coming over the past two weeks.
Both teams are going to run the ball, but Nebraska can do it with more versatility. Ameer Abduallah is a 1,000-yard back, and quarterback Taylor Martinez has over 800 yards himself. Wisconsin is much more straight ahead. Monte Ball hasn’t had the season a lot of us expected, but when you consider he’s gone over 1,500 yards while running behind an inexperienced line maybe our expectations, rather than Ball’s play, were the problem. James White is the backup, a shifty runner who presents a nice change of pace.
Wisconsin is playing with third-string quarterback Curt Phillips, whose numbers against Ohio State and Penn State haven’t dazzled, but he avoids mistakes and he’s been remarkably consistent on key throws late in the game. Both times he’s led a game-tying drive in the closing seconds, so even though Wisconsin wants to stay away from passing situations in general, they don’t have anything to fear if they need a fourth-quarter drive to win.
What makes this matchup most intriguing is that the Nebraska offense and the Wisconsin defense are the two units that have been most reliable all year, while the Cornhusker D and Badger offense have been up and down. The linesmakers have installed Nebraska as a three-point favorite.
I’m a Wisconsin fan who will be traveling to the game, so I won’t make a pick here. I can just tell you my conflicting emotions—on the one hand, I feel like this is a matchup where UW played well in a road environment and now it’s a neutral field, and that if the game is close, eventually one has to fall our way and against Nebraska.
On the other hand—I see versatility in Nebraska’s attack that’s going to be hard for Phillips to keep up with, as much I like the gritty sixth-year quarterback. And if the game is close—given Wisconsin coach Bret Bielama’s appalling game management skills, the team’s poor record in these games can’t be seen as about luck. I honestly don’t have a strong sense of things either way.
One thing I do have a strong sense of is that Wisconsin should not be playing in this game. Probations are not uncommon, but for a team that finished 7-5 and in third place in its division to be playing for a Rose Bowl spot simply because of the Ohio State and Penn State probations is a joke. A more reasonable solution would be to institute a rule saying that if a runner-up in one division is two games better than the opposite division winner, then a change can be made to the championship game.
This rule would have put Michigan (6-2) in the Big Ten title game over Wisconsin, who is 4-4 in league play. While protection against probation situations would be my prime purpose, it can apply in all circumstances. As it is, I’m looking forward to a fun time in Indy, hoping the Badgers win, but realizing that this would be a “championship” with a major asterisk by it.