Taking a page from our friends at the Pac-12 blog, we're taking a closer look at each of the Big Ten's bowl opponents. We'll get things started with the Texas Bowl, where Minnesota takes on Syracuse, and we'll have two primers each day the rest of the week.
Let's begin ...
Houston, 6 p.m. ET, Dec. 27, ESPN
Coach: Scott Shafer (6-6, 1st year)
Combined opponents' record: 79-65 (seven bowl-bound teams)
Common opponents: Penn State (lost 23-17; Minnesota won 24-10); Northwestern (lost 48-27; Minnesota won 20-17)
Best wins: Tulane, Boston College
Worst loss: Northwestern
Record vs. Minnesota: 1-3 (last meeting: 2012)
Top passer: Terrel Hunt (1,450 yards, 10 TDs, 8 INTs)
Top rusher: Jerome Smith (840 yards, 11 TDs)
Top defenders: Durell Eskridge (78 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 forced fumble); Marquis Spruill (62 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss); Cameron Lynch (61 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 2 INTs); Jay Bromley (9 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss)
What to know: The Orange had an up-and-down season under their new coach, looking awful in a Week 2 loss at Northwestern, only to rebound with some strong defensive performances in ACC play. There were some ugly losses along the way against ACC heavyweights Florida State and Clemson, as well as some nail-biters against Pitt (loss), Penn State (loss) and Boston College (win). The offense struggled, to put it nicely, ranking 98th nationally in scoring and 108th in pass efficiency. Hunt replaced the struggling Drew Allen as the starting quarterback in September and brings mobility to the pocket. The bottom line is that Minnesota's defense, its stronger unit, should be able to contain Syracuse (the Gophers beat the Orange 17-10 last year in Minneapolis). Minnesota will be tested more by a Syracuse defense featuring a standout pass rusher in Bromley and a playmaker in the secondary in Eskridge. Both are third-team All-ACC selections. Shafer's background is on the defensive side.
Key matchup: Minnesota's offensive line against Bromley and the Syracuse defensive front seven. The Orange can get into the backfield -- they're tied for 19th nationally in tackles for loss (7.3 per game) -- and sack the quarterback (2.75 sacks per game, tied for 22nd). Minnesota's passing issues are well documented, and if the Gophers are behind the chains and have to throw the ball, they'll be in trouble. The offensive line took a significant step forward in last year's Texas Bowl and needs another strong performance to spark underrated running back David Cobb, who finished the regular season with 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns on 219 carries.