Big Ten bowl season finally arrives this week, and that means it's time for us to make our predictions.
Today, we'll offer our picks in the eight non-BCS games involving Big Ten teams (our Rose Bowl and Allstate Sugar Bowl selections will arrive in the near future).
Brian Bennett holds a slim one-game lead over Adam Rittenberg from the regular-season and Big Ten championship game predictions. But as always, glory is won in the postseason. Who says bowls don't matter?
On to our picks ...
Little Caesars Bowl
WESTERN MICHIGAN vs. PURDUE (Dec. 27)
Adam Rittenberg: Purdue should be geared up for its first bowl appearance since 2007, but I don't like the vibe around the Boilers, who have had several off-field incidents and will be without leading tackler Dwayne Beckford (suspended) and top rusher Ralph Bolden (injured). Western Michigan can put up a ton of points, and I don't think the Boilers will quite keep up. ... Western Michigan 31, Purdue 27.
Brian Bennett: If Purdue follows its win-loss pattern this season, then it must lose this game. But the Boilermakers simply have to be able to beat a MAC team if they want to build any kind of momentum in this program for Danny Hope. Even without Ralph Bolden, Purdue has a huge edge in the running game. The Boilers' season ends the only way it really could: with a blocked kick to seal a victory ... Purdue 34, Western Michigan 33.
No. 14 OKLAHOMA vs. IOWA (Dec. 30)
Brian Bennett: I don't know how motivated the injury-ravaged Sooners will be, and the Hawkeyes have been really good in bowl games under Kirk Ferentz. But the loss of Marcus Coker is too much to overcome in an already difficult matchup for Iowa. Oklahoma picks off James Vandenberg twice and holds on. ... Oklahoma 27, Iowa 20.
Adam Rittenberg: Without Coker, Iowa needs to hope Oklahoma has a letdown in Tempe. The Sooners have advantages at too many positions. While the Hawkeyes' defense will fight hard for retiring coordinator Norm Parker, Oklahoma has too much firepower for a unit that hasn't slowed down many teams. Vandenberg will play well at times, but the Sooners prevail. ... Oklahoma 31, Iowa 24.
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
TEXAS A&M vs. NORTHWESTERN (Dec. 31)
Adam Rittenberg: Texas A&M is the better team here, but the Aggies have more than a few distractions following a very disappointing season. Dan Persa will have a huge game in his final performance for the Wildcats. But my lack of faith in Northwestern's defense prevents me from picking the upset. The unit hasn't developed much at all and never comes through in the clutch. A&M has too many weapons and pulls away before a partisan crowd. ... Texas A&M 42, Northwestern 31.
Brian Bennett: Tough call here between an Aggies team that collapsed all season long and a Northwestern program that hasn't won a bowl game since the Truman administration. I agree with Adam that the Wildcats' defense is going to have a tough time, especially without senior cornerback Jordan Mabin. Playing a virtual home game and perhaps motivated to perform after the tragic death of offensive lineman Joseph Villavisencio, A&M guts this one out. ... Texas A&M 35, Northwestern 31.
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
UCLA vs. ILLINOIS (Dec. 31)
Brian Bennett: First one to 10 points wins. Or team that doesn't jump over the right-field wall at AT&T Park gets the trophy. There aren't two bowl teams with less momentum than the Bruins and the Illini. But one unit I know will show up is the Illinois defense, which has been strong all season and should be motivated to play for Vic Koenning in his final game as interim head coach. Whitney Mercilus cements his national sack title with two quarterback takedowns, and the Illinois offense figures out how to reach the end zone a couple of times. ... Illinois 17, UCLA 9.
Adam Rittenberg: Both of these teams are in various states of flux, and I'm leery picking Illinois to win for the first time since Oct. 8. But as you point out, the best single unit in this game is Illinois' defense, which has played well all season. Mercilus, Jonathan Brown and the Illini win one for Vic and Nathan Scheelhaase scores a late touchdown as the Illini win an ugly one. ... Illinois 14, UCLA 10.
No. 19 HOUSTON vs. No. 22 PENN STATE (Jan. 2)
Adam Rittenberg: This should be a fascinating game, if nothing else. I really think if Penn State shows up to play, the Lions will win. But it's more than fair to ask whether Penn State's entire squad will be motivated or not. The Lions' defense is better than what Houston has faced all season, and while Case Keenum will make plays, Devon Still will be in his face. Houston showed no interest in stopping the run in the C-USA title game, and a healthy Silas Redd goes for 200-plus as Penn State ends an odd season with a win. ... Penn State 28, Houston 24.
Brian Bennett: Hardest game on the board to call, because of Penn State's state of mind. And don't forget that Houston has a new coach, too. You've got the nation's No. 1 scoring offense vs. the No. 5 scoring defense. In a bubble, I'd usually choose the dominant defense over the high-scoring offense. But there are too many other factors at play here, and I think once Keenum throws a couple of early touchdowns, the Nittany Lions will deflate. ... Houston 31, Penn State 24.
No. 16 GEORGIA vs. No. 17 MICHIGAN STATE (Jan. 2)
Brian Bennett: Assuming both teams have shaken off their conference title-game defeats, this is an outstanding matchup. You've got two of the best defenses in the country and two terrific quarterbacks in Kirk Cousins and Aaron Murray. Michigan State was awful against an SEC team in Florida last year, but I think this year will be a different story. The Spartans have a more varied offense than Georgia, which benefited from a weak SEC East this year. It's a grinder, but a key special teams play from Keshawn Martin makes the difference. ... Michigan State 17, Georgia 14.
Adam Rittenberg: Michigan State's time has come, and while the Spartans must shake off the sting of the Big Ten title-game loss, they have no excuses not to be geared up by Jan. 2. Mark Dantonio's squad ended the season playing really, really good football, and I also envision a strong performance from Pat Narduzzi's defense. Georgia's D is formidable, too, but Michigan State will use the quick-passing game it showcased against Wisconsin as Martin and B.J. Cunningham find room to roam. Kirk Cousins hits Cunningham for the game-winning score in the final minute. ... Michigan State 21, Georgia 20.
Capital One Bowl
No. 9 SOUTH CAROLINA vs. No. 20 NEBRASKA (Jan. 2)
Adam Rittenberg: Another tough game to call. Nebraska's offensive line will face arguably its biggest challenge of the season with South Carolina's defensive ends. If Nebraska's defense performs as it did against Michigan State and Iowa, the Huskers have a great chance. Ultimately, South Carolina makes a few more plays and capitalizes on a second-half turnover to win. ... South Carolina 24, Nebraska 21.
Brian Bennett: Can Nebraska run the ball effectively against the Gamecocks? That's my biggest question here. If it comes down to the Huskers needing Taylor Martinez to pass the ball down the field, that could spell big trouble for Big Red. I think Nebraska will find some success with Rex Burkhead between the tackles, but not as much on the perimeter against a fast SEC defense. South Carolina's offense is nothing special, and Steve Spurrier's team has been pretty dismal in bowls. But the Head Ball Coach's defense is the best unit on the field and will make enough plays for the win. ... South Carolina 20, Nebraska 17.
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl
FLORIDA vs. OHIO STATE (Jan. 2)
Brian Bennett: It's the World's Largest Outdoor Urban Mixer. It's also Ohio State's last chance to win a bowl game until at least Dec. 2013. So the Buckeyes had better give this one all they have. Some underclassmen might be bummed about the NCAA's bowl ban, but I see this as the perfect us-against-the-world rallying cry for Luke Fickell. Braxton Miller gives fans reason to daydream all offseason with another star turn, and Dan Herron and DeVier Posey try their best to make up for their contributions to the bowl ban by leading the charge to victory. ... Ohio State 24, Florida 23.
Adam Rittenberg: Even though Ohio State made a head-coaching change, the bowl practices should really benefit the players, especially the young guys on defense. Miller looked like a special player against Michigan, and if given the chance, he and Posey can make some big plays in this game. Florida is without offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, and the Gators' attack leaves much to be desired. I also agree Ohio State players will be motivated for their final taste of postseason play until 2013. ... Ohio State 21, Florida 17.
Brian Bennett: 73-25 (.745)
Adam Rittenberg: 72-26 (.735)