By Shehan Jeyarajah
Baylor might have been just on the outside looking in at the playoff chase, but the Bears still have an opportunity to make waves with a bowl game in the 2015 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic against No. 8 Michigan State on New Years Day.
“For me, being a Texas guy growing up in the state of Texas and playing in the Southwest Conference, that’s the only bowl that existed,” head coach Art Briles said. “I mean, you’re going to the best bowl around.”
The Bears were kept out of the playoff this year by No. 4 Ohio State, a Big 10 opponent. The Buckeyes’ signature win was against this Michigan State team on the road.
“I haven’t really had a chance to study Michigan State yet, but I just know they’ve been very good the last couple of years. They were the defending Big 10 Champions this year,” Briles said.
Michigan State is the highest ranked team in the country with zero ranked wins, but the Spartans have the ability to challenge opponents in several different ways.
Teams coached by Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio have become known for stifling defense, and this year’s rendition is no different. MSU ranked No. 7 in total defense, No. 12 in scoring defense and No. 6 in rush defense.
The Spartans allowed more than 22 points only one time this season in a win, and that was only when Purdue scored two touchdowns late in the fourth to make it a closer game than expected.
Michigan State has also shown an offensive diversity that was lacking in 2013. The Spartans rank No. 22 in rushing yards with 234.9 per game, just behind Baylor’s 235.2. Running back Jeremy Langford is the workhorse of the group with 1,360 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns.
Quarterback Connor Cook does not put up gaudy numbers in the Big 10, but has been a consistent threat for the Spartans. Cook has thrown for over 200 yards in nine of 12 games, including a combined 701 passing yards in Michigan State’s games against ranked opponents.
Michigan State played Oregon earlier in the season, a similar threat to what Baylor poses. Oregon was able to attack Michigan State’s defense in both aspects of the game. The Spartans allowed 491 yards to the Ducks.
Perhaps more importantly, the Ducks held Langford to only 86 yards on 3.6 yards per carry in the 46-27 win on Sept. 6.
Many of the same issues came up against Ohio State in Michigan State’s second loss on Nov. 8. The Buckeyes were able to put up 300 passing yards and 268 rushing yards in the 49-37 victory.
Baylor’s best chance to beat Michigan State will be to turn this game into an offensive battle. Despite improvements, Baylor’s offense is significantly more productive than MSU’s.
The Spartans only faced prolific offensive performances twice this season, and struggled to keep up. In wins, the Spartans allow only 14.4 points per game. In losses, that number balloons to 47.5 points per game. Baylor has the ability to post those kind of lofty numbers.
Baylor is playing angry. Head coach Art Briles and his team were unhappy to be left out of the College Football Playoff, especially to a Big 10 opponent who lost to Virginia Tech at home.
However, the Bears can show the world they belonged in the playoff chase with a convincing win over the Spartans.
No. 5 Baylor will kick off against No. 8 Michigan State at 11:30 a.m. on New Years Day at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN.