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Cotton Bowl Preview: Everything You Need to Know

Cotton Bowl preview
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After being left out of the college football playoff, Baylor looks to make a statement against Michigan State.


No. 8 Michigan State (10-2) vs. No. 5 Baylor (11-1)

Thursday, Jan 1. 12:30 PM (ESPN)

How They Got Here

Despite an 11-1 record, Baylor fell out of the playoff thanks in no small part to their own conference commissioner. Despite using “One True Champion” as the Big 12 slogan all year, commissioner Bob Bowlsby insisted on referring to Baylor and TCU as co-champions. The playoff selection committee said that conference championships would be one thing they would consider and, when all was said and done, the committee chose to jump Big Ten champion Ohio State over both Big 12 schools, leaving Baylor with an at-large invitation to the Cotton Bowl. The Spartans also got in as an at-large after a 10-2 season that left them a game short of the Big Ten title game.

When Michigan State Has the Ball

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While Michigan State’s defense gets all the publicity, the Spartans offense has been surprisingly effective this year. Michigan State ranks seventh nationally in scoring (43.1 points per game) and running back Jeremy Langford has rushed for 100+ yards in his last nine games, scoring 17 touchdowns in that stretch.

He’ll be tested by a Baylor defense that ranks ninth nationally at stopping the run. That could be a key matchup to watch—Michigan State leads the nation in time of possession and would like nothing more than to be able to run the ball effectively and keep the Bears’ offense on the sideline. While quarterback Connor Cook has been solid, the Spartans know they don’t want to have to get into an aerial shootout with Baylor.

When Baylor Has the Ball

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This will be one of the more entertaining battles of the bowl season. Baylor leads the nation in most offensive categories, including both total offense and scoring. Quarterback Bryce Petty has thrown for more than 3,300 yards and has really spread it around, with four different receivers all with at least 596 receiving yards this season. Throw in running back Shock Linwood’s 1,226 yards and 16 touchdowns and you have an offense that can’t really be stopped, just possibly slowed down.

But if anybody can slow them down, it could be the Spartans. This is easily the best defense the Bears will face this year. Michigan State is fifth in the nation in total defense and third against the run. Nine of the Spartans’ 12 opponents this year have been held to 22 or fewer points. This will be a classic strength vs. strength matchup that will feature two of college football’s heavyweights squaring off.


Motivation will not be in short supply for either team. Baylor obviously has a chip on its shoulder after being left out of the playoff in favor of a Big Ten team and would love to gain a little revenge. For the Michigan State defense, longtime defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has accepted the head coaching job at Pitt, but he will be coaching the Spartans one last time in this one. His players would certainly love to send him out as a winner.

This game could come down to just how good Michigan State’s defense really is. The Spartans’ best win was over 9-4 Nebraska and, in two losses to Oregon and Ohio State, Michigan State was lit up for 95 points and 1,059 yards. While the Spartans’ offense is definitely solid this year, they likely can’t afford a defensive letdown like that again and expect to win a shootout.

The Spartans are riding a three-game bowl-winning streak, while Baylor is seeking its third bowl win in four years after last year’s loss to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl.

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