Western Michigan Broncos vs. Wisconsin Badgers, Monday January 2, 1 p.m. ET
The Cotton Bowl is this year's edition of the David and Goliath showdown that so often is the cream of the bowl season. There have been duds when a precocious outsider faces a major conference power in a big-time bowl, but efforts by the likes of Boise State, TCU and Utah are things of lasting lore. Wisconsin already lost to one such upstart - TCU in the 2011 Rose Bowl - so they know full well how dangerous these spots can be.
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So, can Western Michigan be the next squad to wear Cinderella's slipper? Or will they come crashing hard back to earth like Hawaii and Northern Illinois did when they earned their shots at the big time back in the days of the BCS?
Cotton Bowl Betting Storylines
The first story here is remarkable largely because it is the exact opposite of what I was sure I was going to have to write. I would have bet my house that Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck would not be at the helm for this game. He has done a truly remarkable job of turning things around here, and after an unbeaten season he couldn't get much hotter. I figured he'd have his choice of bigger jobs. Things didn't quite work out that way, though, as jobs weren't as plentiful as they could have been - Notre Dame, UCLA and others didn't make the changes they should have - and Fleck wasn't quite as attractive as other young risers like Jeff Brohm and Willie Taggart. I think teams will regret not looking closer at him now, but for the Broncos, him being around is unquestionably a big positive.
While on the topic of Western Michigan, let's address the biggest issue facing them - we have absolutely no idea how good they are. They have won 13 straight, their numbers are solid on both sides of the ball, and they have a strong QB in Zack Terell and a freak of a receiver who will soon shine on Sundays in Corey Davis. They have just played no one, though. The second-best MAC team, Toledo, just lost their bowl game to Appalachian State. They beat two Big Ten teams in nonconference play, but Northwestern was a disappointing 6-6, and Illinois was lucky to finish 3-9, so that doesn't mean as much as it could. The other two nonconference games were jokes, and all four of those games were back in September. The mostly dominated opponents and showed some resiliency the two times they had to, but Wisconsin is so much better than what they have faced that they are almost in a different class. We can't say that the Broncos aren't capable of stepping up just because they haven't before. But we also can't say that they will absolutely be able to match the Badgers because we haven't seen that from them. We are just left to guess and hope we are right.
Wisconsin might be cast in the Goliath role, but they probably aren't feeling like giants after that mess in the Big Ten Championship Game. Early on they looked fine - many thought they were the better team, and they were playing like it. But then they just collapsed late - from 28-7 up and cruising to losing 38-31. It was a completely humiliating meltdown and the one that leaves questions that can linger for months. Of the many issues the game brought up, the most glaring was the secondary. Wisconsin had been strong against the pass for the most part during the season, but Penn State, which has a passing game more accurately described as average, managed 384 passing yards and four touchdowns. They need to bounce back in a big way here, and they have to do it against a QB-WR duo that has near-perfect chemistry. That could very well be the matchup that determines if Western Michigan has a chance.
Cotton Bowl Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened widely with Wisconsin favored by 7.5 points, and it has remained stable at that level through early betting action. More than 70 percent of bets have been on Wisconsin so far, so if anything we will see that line move up slightly. The total opened at 54, has fallen to 53.5, and is showing hints it could drop a little further.
The Broncos are 7-0 ATS in their last seven nonconference games and 4-0 ATS in their last four against the Big Ten. They are 6-2 ATS in their last eight against teams with winning records and 27-11 ATS in their last 38 games overall. The Badgers are 5-0 ATS in their last five against the MAC and 11-3-1 ATS in their last 15 overall. They are 4-1 ATS in their last five nonconference games.
Western Michigan vs. Wisconsin Cotton Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions
What the heck - let's gamble. I don't have a ton of respect for the Wisconsin offense, and I have real questions about their mindset heading into this one. Western Michigan is extremely well coached, they have decent talent on both sides of the ball, and they know that they have absolutely nothing to lose. They will be fired up, and at the very least should be able to keep this one close enough to cover. At this price Western Michigan is the play.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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