The big 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl breakdown: Life at 7-5

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

High upside? Low downside? Sounds like two 7-5 teams to us! Kansas State and Michigan line up in a wonderfully even matchup in the desert (Dec. 28, 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). How much of each team's highs and lows will we see?

If you're either Kansas State or from the Big Ten, you've grown accustomed to punching above your weight class in bowl games. Bill Snyder's Wildcats went 21-3 in the regular season the last two years but encountered superior teams in both the Cotton (a 29-16 loss to Arkansas in 2011) and Fiesta (a 35-17 loss to Oregon in 2012). Meanwhile, the Big Ten's bowl ties are a bit too good, reeling in the money but creating B1G underdogs more often than not.

It almost feels strange, then, that this bowl feels so ... right. Kansas State and Michigan have the same record and are nearly identical from an advanced-stats perspective. Both offenses hold decent-sized advantages despite inconsistency, and in the end, the only separation is that KSU's special teams unit is better (this is a Snyder team, after all).

Both the Wildcats and Wolverines achieved about what they were projected to in 2013 -- Michigan was projected 24th and currently stands at 32nd (both the offense and defense are a hair less successful than expected), while KSU was projected 37th and is 27th (the offense is better, the defense is worse).

Granted, with recruiting and a strong track record, we kind of assumed Michigan would be experiencing higher heights in Brady Hoke's third year in charge, but that's neither here nor there. We've got an even battle in the desert, and even battles are fun to preview.

How they got here

Michigan's season to date

Almost every 7-5 season is going to feature lackluster wins over iffy teams and competitive losses to good ones. The nature of being 7-5 is that you're neither great nor terrible, and there's a pretty competitive, crowded midsection in the college football bell curve.

Still, Michigan took 7-5 to its limits in 2013; the Wolverines played wonderfully (on offense, at least) in a 42-41 loss to Ohio State, destroyed what turned out to be a pretty good Minnesota squad, scored 63 points on Indiana, held Northwestern to 19, and knocked off a solid (and equally unstable) Notre Dame squad in an incredibly fun Week 2 battle.

They also tried really hard to lose to both Akron and Connecticut, allowed 47 points to Indiana, got romped by Michigan State, blew a solid lead and lost at Iowa, and fell at home to an uninspiring Nebraska team.

This team looked like either a 9-3 or 5-7 team at all times, so I guess 7-5's about right then.

KSU's season to date

Scheduling matters. Kansas State was basically a top-25 or -35 team all season, but a tough early slate (KSU's first three Big 12 games: at Texas, at Oklahoma State, then the healthy version of Baylor in Manhattan) and a season-opening slip against North Dakota State (quite possibly a legitimate FBS top-25 team) led to a 2-4 start for the defending Big 12 champions.

The old man's lost it! He's delegating too much to his staff! Nobody's on the same page! Snyder needs to retire!

And then the schedule eased up, and KSU won five of six to end the regular season. The Wildcats pasted West Virginia, Iowa State, and Texas Tech by an average score of 42-15 before regressing a bit, but in all, this felt like pretty much a 7-5 team as well.

Almost beat Baylor, almost lose to TCU ... yeah. 7-5.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Michigan 7-5 NR 32 35 31 61
Kansas State 7-5 NR 27 -3 18 51 22
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Michigan Offense 55 29 67 20 94 66 74
KSU Defense 69 56 80 49 105 29 92
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Michigan Offense 114 110 119 126 113 108 109
KSU Defense 88 57 45 41 50 74 65
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
KSU Offense 14 27 20 13 45 21 31
Michigan Defense 37 57 28 51 39 46 44
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
KSU Offense 12 25 73 93 119 87 119
Michigan Defense 40 37 69 73 66 92 65
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Michigan Special Teams 64 64 69 89 44 53
KSU Special Teams 40 42 74 100 7 29

Michigan's biggest advantages:

Jeremy Gallon is a Wolverine. This game features two of the most exciting, and small, receivers in college football. And despite pro-style tendencies and an occasional inability to run the ball (like, at all), Michigan is a pretty good passing team at times. The emphasis in that last sentence is heavily on "at times."

Quarterback Devin Gardner completed 21 of 33 passes for 294 yards and four scores against Notre Dame, then completed 11 of 23 for 97 yards against UConn. He completed combined 34 of 46 for 738 yards and three scores against Minnesota and Indiana and completed a combined 27 of 55 for 308 yards against Michigan State and Iowa. Oh yeah, and he threw for 451 against Ohio State. (The problem for Michigan: Gardner's out with a broken foot, and freshman Shane Morris is taking over.)

It is impossible to predict either Michigan's game plan or its likely effectiveness, but for the season as a whole, Gardner-to-Gallon was damn impressive: 123 targets, 80 catches, 1,284 yards, nine touchdowns. No. 2 option Devin Funchess is a big-play threat as well, averaging 15.5 yards per catch (albeit with a mediocre 53 percent catch rate). When it clicks, it clicks.

Safety Ty Zimmerman returns for KSU, which is incredibly important; let's just say the odds of a passing game clicking were a lot higher without him. He missed two games, and part of a third, with an ankle injury, and the big-play faucet flowed a lot stronger without him. Still, Gallon is terrifying, and he'll have a chance to come up big in his final college game.

Kansas State's offensive line isn't very good. I caught hell from KSU fans for saying the Wildcats' line was pretty mediocre in my offseason preview, but my suspicions (and the stats) proved correct to some degree. Without the threat of Collin Klein, KSU's line stats suffered, at least in terms of negative plays. The Wildcats can still line up and push you backwards, but they're leaky; opponents racked up 77 tackles for loss and 23 sacks against them.

The Wolverine defense certainly isn't amazing in regard to making plays behind the line, but if they can limit the damage done by John Hubert and the KSU running game, they can tee off on sack-prone Jake Waters (the passing quarterback of the Waters/Daniel Sams duo) in the passing game. Waters is patient to a fault at times, and the line isn't good enough for patience. Defensive end Frank Clark could meet up with Waters a couple of times in the backfield before the game is over.

KSU's biggest advantages:

Michigan's offensive line is terrible. We knew the line would be really young this year, but it was reasonable to assume (falsely) that the star power of the youth (lots of former star recruits here), not to mention two stout senior tackles in Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, would be enough to avoid a total crater up front. But while there was constant shuffling, coordinator Al Borges and offensive line coach Darrell Funk never found the right mix.

Michigan's offensive line was an outright sieve, ranking last in the country in Stuff Rate (negative plays on the ground) and 113th in Adj. Sack Rate. Michigan constantly found itself in second-and-long after a run was stopped for a loss. Gardner was running for his life from the first quarter to the fourth (which might be a reason why his numbers fell rather perilously in the second and fourth quarters). Can Morris (two career rushes) escape like Gardner could (11 2013 rushing touchdowns)?

The Michigan run game had an incredibly awful stretch near the end of the season; against Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Iowa State, the Wolverines rushed 138 times (including sacks in this instance) and gained 130 yards … 139 of which came against Northwestern. Totals against the other three teams: 94 carries, negative-nine yards. Yes, there were sacks in there, but in these four games, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Derrick Green carried 61 times for just 151 yards (2.5 per carry). Horrific.

K-State's run defense is not without flaws; just ask Oklahoma, which set running back Brennan Clay and quarterback Trevor Knight free for 287 yards on 44 non-sack carries. But if nothing else, Michigan has in no way proven it can take advantage of this relative weakness. And if you can't run on KSU, big gains by Gallon, Funchess and the passing game are much less likely.

Tyler Lockett is a Wildcat. Symmetry! Despite moving backwards a bit too frequently, Kansas State has made enough positive plays to rank 18th in Off. F/+. The KSU coaching staff has proven adept at using a hundred different formations to create confusion and mismatches, and if the Wildcats find something that works, they'll kill you with it from quite a few different looks. But no matter what formation is in use, the Wildcats have just about the most important thing you can have: a big-play receiver.

Lockett, he of 103 targets, 71 catches, and 1,146 yards (and one of the nation's highest target rates -- the No. 2-to-4 receivers in KSU's offense have combined for just 112 targets), can kill you in play action and move the chains when KSU semi-frequently falls behind schedule. He has lived up to the Lockett name in Manhattan, and he is easily the most explosive element in this offense. And he's only a junior! We might get him in college football for one more year!

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Kansas State's BW3 Bowl depth chart features four senior starters on offense and seven seniors on defense, so this isn't a very young team. The lines will be reasonably affected by attrition, but that was already a relative point of weakness. If nobody goes pro early, then you're looking at returning both starting quarterbacks, Lockett, star end Ryan Mueller (18.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks), tackle Travis Britz (5.5 tackles for loss, four blocked kicks!), and defensive backs Dante Barnett and Randall Evans (combined: five tackles for loss, five interceptions, 13 passes broken up).

Translation: This is exactly the type of team we tend to overestimate after a strong bowl performance. KSU was already likely to receive some Big 12 hype; thump Michigan, and they may become the favorite with teams ahead of them in transition.

It's more or less the same story for Michigan. They probably won't receive Big Ten title hype no matter what, but between Gardner's return, a suddenly experienced running game, and a seasoned defense with players like Frank Clark, linebacker Jake Ryan, corner Blake Countess, etc., Michigan should justifiably be expected to improve next year. Their name and experience level should assure their inclusion in the preseason top 25; a lovely performance in Arizona could bump them up a few slots.

Summary

F/+ Projection: KSU 29, Michigan 27
Win Probability: KSU 60%

Both teams should be able to pass, and both teams should find their share of big plays. But while these offenses had all sorts of explosive moments throughout the season, big, negative plays cost them each at key times.

The team that wins will be the team that avoids disaster. That was a problem for both, but the magnitude of Michigan's disasters tended to be a bit stronger, and that's why KSU has the slightest of edges here. Upside and downside? Sounds fun to me.

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