Wisconsin vs. Stanford
Bret Bielema guided Wisconsin to four 10-win seasons and three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances in his seven years in Madison, but he couldn't deliver a win in the Granddaddy of Them All before his stunning decision to bolt for Arkansas. His replacement has had a bit more success in Pasadena. Barry Alvarez will make a temporary return to the Badgers' sideline on Tuesday looking for his fourth Rose Bowl victory in this 99th edition of college football's oldest bowl, but Wisconsin figures to have its hands full against an eighth-ranked Stanford team appearing in its third straight BCS game.
Bielema was the hand-picked successor to Alvarez when the winningest coach in school history stepped down after the 2005 season, and the former Iowa defensive lineman kept the Badgers humming along as one of the Big Ten's elite teams. Wisconsin (8-5) blew out Nebraska on Dec. 1 in the Big Ten championship game to qualify for a third straight Rose Bowl trip, though this one - possible only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for the postseason - wasn't met with quite the same enthusiasm as when it entered the last two ranked in the top 10.
The Badgers' spirits were dampened even further three days later with the stunning announcement that Bielema was headed to Arkansas. But it was Bielema himself who first hinted his former mentor may temporarily take the reins in Pasadena during his introductory press conference in Fayetteville. Alvarez, though, has had his hands full with more than just preparation for Stanford (11-2).
Stanford has had no such turmoil surrounding its coach this year, with David Shaw agreeing to a "long-term contract extension" in December. Shaw has plenty of experience getting ready for a BCS bowl at Stanford, which throttled Virginia Tech in the 2011 Orange Bowl before falling to Oklahoma State in overtime in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl.
Those seasons came with Andrew Luck under center, but what the Cardinal did while moving on without the NFL's top overall pick may have been even more compelling. Stanford closed 2012 with seven straight victories, knocking off ranked opponents in its final four and ruining then-No. 1 Oregon's national title hopes in Eugene on Nov. 17. The Badgers and Oregon are the only other programs riding streaks of three straight BCS berths, while Northern Illinois and the Ducks are the only teams besides Stanford to have won 11 games in each of the last three seasons.
While Wisconsin only finished third in the Big Ten Leaders Division, there's still plenty of intrigue in this matchup. The Rose Bowl will be the final college game for Montee Ball, the all-time FBS leader in rushing touchdowns (76) and total TDs (82), and he'll be running into the teeth of the nation's No. 3 rush defense (87.7 yards per game). Stanford leans almost as heavily on Stepfan Taylor, who had just one fewer touch from scrimmage than Ball with his 38 receptions factored in. Taylor finished with 1,442 yards on the ground and will now face a Badgers defense that's 22nd (124.5 ypg) against the run.
Aside from their talented tailbacks and bruising offensive lines, Wisconsin and Stanford have other reasons for concentrating on the run. The Cardinal are 94th through the air (203.5 ypg) while the Badgers are 115th (162.6). Considering the tight games they've found themselves in, the Badgers will take any edge they can get. Their last three losses came in overtime, while their other two were by a field goal apiece in regulation.
Three of Stanford's last four victories came by four points or fewer, and it had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat UCLA 27-24 in the Pac-12 championship game. Defensive lineman Terrence Stephens missed that contest and the regular-season finale, and he has been declared ineligible for the Rose Bowl because of a secondary violation of NCAA rules related to his rental of off-campus housing.
These teams are very similar; they both prefer to run the ball, and they've both got pretty good defenses. While most of Stanford's close call affairs were against competitive teams, Alvarez gives Wisconsin the edge in experience not to mention a record that his Badgers are better than. Lean slightly to the over 47 and don't be surprised if you witness a close game ripe for an outright upset. +190 looks mighty enticing.
The pick: Wisconsin +7 (bought half)