By Adam Biggers
Michigan State Spartans and 16th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs will be won in the air, the similarities between each team's ground game intrigues me.
LeVeon Bell proved to be a bruising back who could carry the load for the Spartans in the regular season, dodging tackles and racking up 900 yards on the ground in the process. He possesses a great combination of power and speed, and at 6-foot-2, 237 pounds, Bell will surely be a hard take-down for the Bulldogs defense.
Throw in Larry Caper, who is typically a sure-handed running back with a knack for making grabs in the flat; Edwin Baker, another powerful back with speed to burn, and the Spartans will present a monumental task Jan. 2 for Georgia to handle.
However, the Bulldogs defense, one of the best in the country, ranked 19th against defending the run this season, allowing a stingy 1,344 yards on the year.
And to top it off, the Bulldogs have an athletic, play-making back of its own: Freshman Isaiah Crowell, a load at 5-11 and 217 pounds, who galloped for 847 yards and 12 touchdowns this season—and he did that against a slate of Southeastern Conference opponents. While the Spartans did a sufficient job against Big Ten defenses, Georgia had to do it against SEC foes.
Defend the Big Ten if you must, but its defenses aren't the SEC's defenses. Statistically, Michigan State and Georgia's defenses are similar and match-up well, but that's on paper, and for a later article to address and discuss.
But, don't give Georgia the advantage just yet, as the Spartans were efficient in stuffing running backs this year, too—allowing 1,356 yards on the ground and coming in one spot nationally behind Georgia in terms of run defense.
Here are some numbers to digest: Rushing offense, rushing defense.
Bell rushed for 100 or more yards twice this season: 112 in the Spartans' 37-21 road win over Iowa and 106 in their 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. What does that mean? Well, if Bell's stats don't wow you, they should suggest he comes to play when his team needs him most.
Bell carried the ball a season-high 20 times in the Spartans' win at Iowa, pitching in a touchdown and two catches for 49 yards (long of 45). The win over the Hawkeyes helped Michigan State prove it could win a crucial game away from Spartan Stadium.
Crowell topped Bell in the 100-yard plus category, going for the century mark four times this season. He was out two games (Georgia Tech and New Mexico State) against opponents he would have likely ravaged for 100 or more.
One of Crowell's best performances was a 30-carry, 147-yard display in a 27-13 win over Ole Miss (Mississippi).
Stats don't tell the whole story
If not for balanced backfields, both Bell and Crowell would have likely rushed for over 1,000 yards this year. Both backs were reliable, showing they could handle the ball and produce.
The pure rushing numbers shade toward Bell having the advantage, but I would have to disagree based on one fact: Crowell got his against the SEC. But, consider Bell's other skills: He has great hands and catch. Crowell didn't rack up the receiving yards like Bell did this season (30 receptions for 228 yards).
There will be other backs that factor in the game, of course, but I wanted to highlight the two headliners. Two even defenses, not to mention two similar offenses, should make for a BCS-like match-up Jan. 2. The Outback Bowl is easily the best non-BCS game out there—a must-watch, not only for Spartans and Bulldogs followers, but for college football purists.
If one back has the potential to be a game-changer, it's Bell. He's shown in three years at Michigan State that he has the ability to do as much. Experience in big games comes in handy, and while Crowell is a fantastic athlete in his own right, I give the edge to Bell as the Outback Bowl's "game buster."
Adam Biggers has followed college football for over 20 years, specifically the Michigan State Spartans. He can be reached by e-mail at Adam.Biggers@Yahoo.com, or, by Twitter @AdamBiggers81.
He will continue to highlight other aspects of the 2012 Outback Bowl in later articles, so check back often.