TCU vs. Michigan State, 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl preview: All about the D

Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE

Aside from Notre Dame-Alabama, the Buffalo Wild Wings will feature the best duo of defenses during the 2012 bowl season. First team to 10 points, wins. Dec. 29, 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN.

5 Players To Watch

Denicos Allen (SAM, Michigan State, Jr.) and Max Bullough (MLB, Michigan State, Jr.). I spent most of 2012 raving about Alabama's suffocating defense, how the Tide smother your strengths, how they have overcome personnel losses to still field an elite unit. But guess who finished the season with the No. 1 defense according to Def. F/+?

It wasn't Alabama, it was Michigan State. The Spartans have an elite pass defense and quite possibly the single best run defense in the country. Big senior tackles Tyler Hoover and Anthony Rashad White implode the line and free up Allen and Bullough to wreck shop. The two linebackers have combined for 133.0 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two picks, two forced fumbles and seven passes broken up; Nebraska and Ohio State combined to rush for 517 yards against State; the Spartans' other 10 opponents rushed for a total of 678. Notre Dame? 122 yards. Michigan? 163.

TCU wants to run the ball to take the pressure off of redshirt freshman quarterback Trevone Boykin, but they almost certainly won't be able to do much of it in this game. Boykin will have to come up big for the Horned Frogs to score.

Josh Boyce (WR, TCU, Jr.). Luckily Boykin has Boyce on his side. The TCU pass attack is pretty balanced overall, with as many as six players seeing a couple targets per game; but Boyce (800 yards, 8.6 per target, 66 percent catch rate) is the go-to guy who opens up the field for a nice deep threat in Brandon Carter. Boykin was not expected to play a significant role in 2012, not with Casey Pachall returning, but when Pachall left school to go to rehab, Boykin kept the Horned Frogs afloat after some initial struggle. Part of that is because of Boykin himself, and part is because of a stellar receiving corps.

Devonte Fields (DE, TCU, Fr.). One of Gary Patterson's most high-profile signees, Fields did not waste time making an impact. He led all freshmen with 17.5 tackles for loss (no other freshman had more than 13), logged nine sacks, defensed four passes, and forced two fumbles. He leads an active, aggressive defense that features aggressive defensive backs (safeties Elisha Olabode and Sam Carter and corner Jason Verrett have combined to pick off 14 passes and break up 33 others; their 47 passes defensed are more than those of 27 entire FBS teams) and all sorts of speed. There is just one senior on TCU's entire defensive two-deep, but the Horned Frogs still ranked ninth in the country in Def. F/+. Goodness, is this D going to just get better and better in the future.

Bennie Fowler (WR, Michigan State, Jr.). You almost certainly know running back Le'Veon Bell's name by now, and to be sure, if MSU can get away with running Bell all game, the Spartans will do just that; Bell is third in the country in rushing yards per game, and he crossed the 200-yard mark on three different occasions this season. But Fowler may be the single most important player on this State offense. When he is dialed in, State has just enough of a passing game to ride defense and Bell to victory. He caught 25 of 29 passes for 305 yards in wins over Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Central Michigan, for instance. But in losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State, he caught just two of 11 passes. State's is a generally balanced passing game -- six players have caught between 26 and 41 passes -- but Fowler is likely the most important of the bunch.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. Defense can be fun, too. Like the Russell Athletic Bowl between Rutgers and Virginia Tech, most of this game's difference-making talent resides on the defensive side of the ball. Yes, low-scoring games can be boring, but these teams have two of the more exciting defenses in the country. TCU's 4-2-5 is always fast and active, while State's front seven is enormous and dominant.

How deep are these defenses? Two of the season's biggest stars, TCU end Stansly Maponga and State end William Gholston, didn't even get a mention in the Players to Watch section.

2. I'll go ahead and say it: Michigan State will be the most underrated team in the country in the 2013 preseason. The Spartans were a preseason Big Ten favorite, but a 6-6 season suggests they were an extreme disappointment in 2012. And to an extent, they were. But wow, were they close to something much, much better. State lost five of its six games by a combined 13 points. If this offense is three or four points per game better, the Spartans are possibly 10-2 or 11-1. Of course, State also won three games by one possession, meaning this team was just a couple of steps away from both 3-9 and 11-1. In other words...

3. This game is almost destined to be close. State played in eight games decided by one possession; TCU played in five. They each played in two overtime games. Neither offense is incredibly prolific, and both defenses dominate. Sounds like a close game to me. You like close games, right?

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

Actually, shall we just revisit the "low-scoring, close game" script from the Russell Athletic Bowl preview?

1. A single big play. Six TCU receivers have at least one catch of 35 yards or more, and five active State receivers have done the same. Four TCU runners have at least one carry of 20 yards or more, and four State runners have done the same. The potential for a big play in this game is widespread; the problem, of course: these defenses don't allow them. A single long pass or big run, a single easy score could swing this game from 13-10 one way to 17-13 the other. Points will probably be hard to come by in this one; easy points could be even harder.

2. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. From the Russell Athletic preview:

Both teams force them and commit them, and in a low-scoring game turnovers (which are, on average, worth about five points each) quite frequently make the difference. They could also turn a tightly-projected game into a blowout one way or the other, especially if one team builds an early lead.

TCU is more prone to both committing and forcing turnovers than State, but the premise remains the same. Turnovers are death in a low-scoring game.

3. Turn opportunities into points. Despite all the size in the world (Le'Veon Bell is 237 pounds, tight end Dion Sims is 6'5, 285, Bennie Fowler is 6'1, 218), Michigan State simply hasn't been able to convert red zone trips into touchdowns this season. Kicker Dan Conroy has attempted a ridiculous 31 field goals this season, seven of fewer than 30 yards. State gets close but can't close the deal, and in a season with five losses of four or fewer points, this has cost the Spartans dearly. TCU, meanwhile, is in basically the same boat; Jaden Oberkrom has attempted 27 field goals (granted, only four were from fewer than 30 yards, as TCU went for it on fourth down almost twice as much as State did). Neither team will get many opportunities to score. It sounds obvious, of course, but whichever team scores touchdowns instead of field goals (or instead of not scoring at all) will win.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: State by 12.8.
Bill's Pick: State by 3. TCU is a good team that was close to being very good in 2012. State is a good team that was close to being elite. Go with State in this one, and marvel at how good TCU might be in the coming seasons.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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