Cotton Bowl pits undefeated Western Michigan against sturdy Wisconsin

Western Michigan enters the Cotton Bowl undefeated, but the Broncos will face by far its toughest test in Wisconsin.
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Entering the third year of the College Football Playoff format, the matchup between the top ranked Group of Five champion and a power conference foe has been a consistently excellent game of the New Year’s Six bowls. Boise State held off Arizona at the eight-yard line on the final play of the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, and Houston topped Florida State 38–34 in the 2015 Peach Bowl. Now Western Michigan gets its shot to continue the undefeated streak of the Group of Five and finish off its own perfect season when the Broncos take on Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl on Monday.

Points of interest

1. Corey Clement comes in hot

Few other running backs entered bowl season riding as impressive a streak as Wisconsin’s leading rusher. Clement has topped 100 yards in five straight games entering Monday’s matchup and seven of his last eight. After an injury- and suspension-marred 2015 season, Clement got off to a slow start in 2016 before producing the breakout campaign he was expected to. After rushing for 164 yards in the Big Ten championship game, he gets a Western Michigan defense that has allowed 4.71 yards per carry.

2. That other Corey is pretty good, too

The last time we saw Wisconsin’s defense, it was getting picked apart by a Penn State attack whose best plays largely consisted of a backyard offense: Go long. The last time we saw Western Michigan’s sensational receiver Corey Davis, he slicing through Ohio’s defensive backs en route to offensive MVP honors in the MAC championship game. Wisconsin’s secondary fared much better over the course of the season than it did in the Big Ten title game and finished the year ranked 24th in the country in yards allowed per attempt. But Davis, the FBS’s all-time leader in career receiving yards, knows how to use his 6’3”, 213-pound frame and breakaway speed to create nightmares.

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3. Motivation

There’s likely to be some members on each sideline wishing they were somewhere else on Jan. 2. On the Wisconsin sideline, the Badgers can’t help but wonder what might have been had they kept rolling after they built a 28–7 lead on Penn State midway through the second quarter of the Big Ten title game. Would a blowout win have been enough to push them past Washington into the College Football Playoff field? Likely not, but it would have at least sent them to the Rose Bowl.

Western Michigan could realistically hope for no better than the Cotton Bowl. This is exactly what the Broncos set out for: an undefeated regular season and the chance to take down a major Power 5 team in a New Year’s Six bowl. Still, coach P.J. Fleck is a master at motivational tactics—it’s how he turned Western Michigan from 1–11 in 2013 to 13–0 this year—yet he may be the one most in need of motivation. Though Fleck would never admit it, he surely hoped to be taking over a Power 5 program right now and could be licking his wounds after not landing a bigger job this off-season.

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Burning question: Can Western Michigan’s offensive line hold up against Wisconsin’s front seven?

The Broncos’ talent at the offensive skill positions can go toe-to-toe with just about any Power 5 program with quarterback Zach Terrell (70.8% completion rate, 3,376 yards, 32 touchdowns, three interceptions), running backs Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan (2,165 yards and 20 touchdowns combined) and Davis (1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns). But all that talent will be wasted if the offensive line crumples against the toughest challenge it will have faced all season. Wisconsin’s defense ranks fifth in the country in S&P + rating and has allowed just 3.23 yards per carry despite rarely being at full strength. With linebackers T.J. Watt, Vince Biegel and T.J. Edwards and defensive lineman Conor Sheehy, the Badgers can bring pressure from several different sources.

X-factor: Darius Phillips

Phillips began his career at Western Michigan as a wide receiver, which may explain why he expects much more than merely catching passes even now that he has switched to cornerback. The junior has four interceptions this season and has returned three of them for touchdowns, tying him for first in the nation in pick-sixes. A fourth defensive score of the season could jumpstart a Broncos upset, as could a return touchdown—Phillips has two of those, too.

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Statistically speaking: 0–5

This has no bearing on Monday’s game, but there’s some extra conference pride on the line for Western Michigan. The MAC has yet to win a bowl game, with the Broncos the only team left to try to salvage this postseason. MAC teams have been on the tough end of some tight finishes, including Toledo’s three-point loss to Appalachian State in the Camellia Bowl, Eastern Michigan’s four-point loss to Old Dominion in the Bahamas Bowl, Ohio’s five-point loss to Troy in the Dollar General Bowl and Miami (OH)’s one-point loss to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl. The MAC won 14 nonconference games against FBS opponents in 2016, but a winless bowl season won’t help its standing among the Group of Five conferences.

Final analysis

Western Michigan has already beat two Big Ten teams this season (Northwestern and Illinois), but neither was of Wisconsin’s caliber. (For what it’s worth, the Badgers beat Northwestern and Illinois by a combined 59 points.) The Broncos should have some success through the air, and Davis is a safe bet to haul in at least one score, but Wisconsin’s front seven is too talented and should contain a Western Michigan running game that averages 237 yards per game. Without that balance, Terrell’s passing will become predictable, perfect for a Badgers secondary that ranks third in the country with 21 interceptions this season.

The pick: Wisconsin 34, Western Michigan 21