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Published: Thursday, 12/9/2010

Big Ten has chance to show SEC its strength

ANN ARBOR -- Some have boasted the Big Ten -- not the bully Southeastern Conference -- has earned the crown as the most accomplished league this college football season.

That debate could clear up after the bowl game glut, which provides four head-to-head January matchups between the two tradition-heavy conferences.

"They are definitely the conference you want to play against if you really want to test yourself," Michigan defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said.

Michigan is focused on its second straight postseason game -- and the second in a row against an SEC opponent -- when it meets Mississippi State Jan. 1 in the Gator Bowl.

Ohio State, a 3-point favorite against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, seemingly represents the Big Ten's best chance at beating a team from the SEC. Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State are all underdogs in their bowl games on New Year's Day.

Reputation alone, the conference clashes will showcase glaring contrasts in style. The SEC, that of warm weather and innovative offenses, likens its game to track meets, emphasizing speed above all else. The Big Ten is saddled with a stereotype of being the antithesis to the SEC, a bunch of robust Midwestern boys pushing and tugging one another for 60 minutes. It's probably an unfair assessment of a conference whose teams have evolved to incorporate spread elements to their offensive packages. Only Wisconsin still works a traditional pro-style offense, and who can argue with the results? The Badgers will take their oversized offensive line and hard-charging running backs to Pasadena to play in the Rose Bowl against Texas Christian.

"You always hear about the SEC speed and the Big Ten is slow, big muscle guys," UM receiver Darryl Stonum said. "In 2008, Michigan did a great job against Florida proving we can play against an SEC team."

In Lloyd Carr's final game as coach, the Wolverines ended a disappointing 2007 season with a 41-35 win over Florida in the New Year's Day Capital One Bowl. It was the Big Ten's only win against the SEC in three bowls that year.

The leagues have gone 1-1 against each other in each of the last two bowl seasons. Two years ago Iowa beat South Carolina in the Outback, and Georgia topped Michigan State in the Capital One. Last year, Penn State prevailed over LSU on a mud-covered field in the Capital One, and Auburn survived a fight from Northwestern in the Outback.

The SEC and Big Ten met just once this past season, with Alabama trouncing Penn State in September -- 24-3 -- at home.

In all, eight of 11 Big Ten teams advanced to bowls. Only two of the SEC's 12 teams have already concluded their seasons, and the conference will look to collect its fifth straight BCS Championship when Auburn plays Oregon on Jan. 10.

"If you're a team in the Big 10 you want to play the SEC because everybody says they're the best conference and they're the most powerful conference," UM safety Jordan Kovacs said.

Here's a look at the Big Ten-SEC bowl battles:

Outback: Florida vs. Penn State. This will be the swan song for one coach. Who would have guessed before the year that it would be 46-year-old Urban Meyer and not 84-year-old Joe Paterno? Meyer Wednesday announced his resignation effective after this game. At 7-5, his Gators have been disappointing, and yet they're a seven-point favorite against a Penn State squad that got better once quarterback Matt McGloin took over midway through the year.

Capital One: Alabama vs. Michigan State. Alabama coach Nick Saban's current team is an 11-point favorite facing his former team. The Crimson Tide stumbled in their quest to repeat as national champions, while MSU finished strongly -- a departure from the program's fades of the past -- winning a share of the league title and narrowly missing out on a BCS berth.

Gator Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Michigan. This could be the final game for UM's Rich Rodriguez, whose boss will make a decision on the coach's future soon. It might be the final game for MSU coach Dan Mullen too. Mullen, guiding the Bulldogs to their first January bowl since 1998, is a hot name to replace his former boss Meyer at Florida.

Sugar Bowl: Arkansas vs. Ohio State. The Buckeyes have been lambasted for their shortcomings in bowl games against SEC opponents. They'll get a chance to finally get it right against a Razorbacks team making its first BCS appearance. Winners of six in a row, Arkansas has reached this point mostly with the skills of quarterback Ryan Mallett, who played against OSU in 2007 as a Michigan freshman.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com or 419-724-6160.



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