Bowl season hasn’t been kind to the Big Ten in recent years, and with the conference struggling throughout the 2012 campaign, it will take some doing to reverse that trend. Still, some impressive offensive talents will get their chances to shine on the New Year’s Day stage.
This trio has the best prospects of earning some bowl-game pride for their beleaguered conference:
1. Venric Mark, Northwestern
By far the most evenly matched of the conference’s five New Year’s bowls pits No. 20 Northwestern against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs aren’t the best defense in the mighty SEC, but they’ll give the Wildcats a tougher test than most of the opponents they’ve faced in a 9-3 season.
The offensive hero for NU has been tailback Venric Mark, who piled up more than 1,400 yards from scrimmage and led the nation with 20.1 yards per punt return. The MSU defense will need to contain the lightning-fast Mark at all costs. Even so, it’s a good bet that he’ll still get the 148 all-purpose yards he needs to eclipse Damien Anderson’s school record for a season.
2. Montee Ball, Wisconsin
Already the NCAA’s career record holder for touchdowns (82) and rushing touchdowns (76), Montee Ball looks to cap his amazing four years in Madison with a Rose Bowl win. No. 6 Stanford will be prohibitively favored against Ball’s Badgers, but don’t count the Big Ten champs out.
Keeping the ball away from the Cardinal offense has been a key factor for the two teams that beat Stanford on the year: Washington (136 rushing yards) and Notre Dame (150). If Ball can lead a similar effort from the deep Wisconsin backfield, the Badgers could pull the upset in a defensive slugfest.
3. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska
Even while struggling as a passer in a blowout loss to Wisconsin, Taylor Martinez ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns. As seventh-ranked Georgia gears up to face Martinez’s No. 16 Cornhuskers in the Capital One Bowl, they’ll face some unwelcome memories of Connor Shaw.
Shaw, a dual-threat quarterback like Martinez, led South Carolina’s 35-7 rout of the Bulldogs back in October. Martinez is entirely capable of putting on a similar show, and if the Nebraska offense controls the tempo, even Georgia’s sensational Aaron Murray won’t be able to save the favorites.