By Adam Biggers
Michigan State has traditionally has had success on the ground. However, the 2011 season required more from senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who threw for a career-high 3,016 yards, 24 touchdowns—while setting program-bests in career wins and passer rating—and led the Spartans to a Big Ten Legends Division title.
While running backs LeVeon Bell, Edwin Baker and Larry Caper had solid showings, they weren't as effective as they were in 2010. That was fine, because Cousins picked up the slack, utilizing receivers like BJ Cunningham, Keith Nichol and Keshawn Martin in big play after big play.
Cousins was arguably the best quarterback in the Big Ten this year, and has the capability of airing it out Jan. 2 against the 16th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (10-3) during the 2012 Outback Bowl in Tampa.
But, the 17th-ranked Spartans (10-3) will be put to the test in their post-New Year's Day bowl, as the Bulldogs have quite the quarterback of their own in sophomore Aaron Murray.
Like Cousins, Murray had a banner year, setting school records with 33 touchdowns and 2,861 yards. He took charge of an offense that was similar, at various levels, to the Spartans'. Both teams had weapons in the backfield, but threw the ball en route to making their conference title games.
It's almost funny how alike the Bulldogs and Spartans are. And that was the thought heading into the Big Ten title game, as the Spartans and Badgers were near-mirror images of one another as well.
Stingy defenses, the Spartans and Bulldogs each gave up less than 20 points per game. Both had steady contributions from their lines, linebackers and secondaries, too.
That being said, which quarterback will have the upper hand Jan. 2? That remains to be seen, but Cousins' numbers certainly suggest that he'll have the edge.
Against ranked teams
Cousins torched the Badgers twice this season, throwing for six touchdowns and nearly 600 yards en route to posting a 1-1 record against one of the best teams in the land. He didn't need to throw much during the Spartans' 28-14 win over Michigan, but connected with receivers for two touchdowns, nonetheless.
Cousins was 2-1 against ranked teams during the regular season, but failed to impress in a 24-3 road loss to Nebraska.
Murray was 2-2 against ranked teams in 2011 and threw for at least 230 yards and two touchdowns in each game. He wasn't horrible in losses to Boise State and South Carolina, either—both of which were formidable adversaries.
He threw for four touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 45-42 loss to South Carolina and threw for two scores in a 35-21 loss to Boise State. He tossed four more in a 45-7 romping of Auburn later in the year.
For a sophomore, he showed great poise in leading the Bulldogs to a 10-2 regular-season mark. However, in the biggest game of the year, a 42-10 loss to Louisiana State in the SEC championship, he completed just 40 percent of his passes and threw two picks. But not many quarterbacks successfully dissected LSU.
Accuracy and tendencies
Cousins completed 65.5 percent of hiss passes and threw just seven interceptions. However, he had the propensity to force throws and could have easily thrown more than seven.
Murray did this season what Cousins has done in the past—he forced a lot of throws. His completion rate of 58 percent is respectable, but his 12 interceptions suggest he doesn't always make the best decisions with the ball.
Near the end of the year, Cousins had a three-game stretch without an interception, finishing with seven pick-less games on the year.
Murray threw three interceptions in a win over Mississippi State, and had three games in which he didn't throw to the other team.
Of course, those comparisons mean virtually nothing this time of year. The level play in the SEC is perceived as far superior to the level of Big Ten, and one could argue each quarterback's true effectiveness against their conference's top competition.
It's a new season, and the hottest quarterback will likely lead his team to a win Jan. 2—but the stats are interesting to discuss and debate.
Adam Biggers has followed NCAA football for over 20 years, specifically the Michigan State Spartans. As the Outback Bowl approaches, he will profile other player match-ups, compare defenses, offenses, and special teams in later articles.
Adam can be reached by e-mail at Adam.Biggers@Yahoo.com, or, by Twitter @AdamBiggers81.