Happy New Year everyone! Hope you all had an enjoyable Christmas (or an awesome Tuesday for those of you who don’t celebrate the holiday) and a fun, safe New Year’s Eve.

January 1 not only marks the start of a new year but also traditionally is one of the most highly-anticipated days of the college football season. The marquee bowl games, the much-maligned BCS games, begin with both the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl kicking off on the first day of 2013. Both offer intriguing matchups, but let’s look first at the Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl.

2013 Rose Bowl: #6 Stanford Cardinal (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5)

This year’s edition of the Rose Bowl pits two smash-mouth teams who are almost mirror images of one another: #6 Stanford against Big 10 champ Wisconsin. Both teams like to play power football and pummel the opposition behind big, bruising offensive lines.

Before the season started, it wasn’t a stretch to think the Badgers would return to Pasadena for the third-straight year. After all, they returned star running back Montee Ball and had experienced quarterback Danny O’Brien transferring from Maryland to lead a team that went 11-3 a year ago. Not many people would have picked Stanford after the Cardinal lost standout quarterback Andrew Luck to the NFL while having to get past Oregon and USC in the Pac-12.

It’s a good thing they actually play out the season, then, because things didn’t quite work out that way.

Stanford proved it wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan with Andrew Luck, going 11-2 and knocking off both Oregon and USC when both were undefeated and ranked #2 in the nation. The Cardinal gave undefeated and top-ranked Notre Dame all it could handle, losing in overtime on a controversial goal line call. Stanford comes into the game with a seven-game winning streak that included wins over ranked opponents in its last four games.

Wisconsin stumbled this year, becoming the first five-loss team to ever play in the Rose Bowl. The Badgers actually finished third in their division but advanced to the Big 10 championship game because both Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for postseason play. Once there, Wisconsin throttled Nebraska 70-31 to claim the Big 10 title. Shortly thereafter, Bret Bielema left to take over Arkansas in a move that stunned pretty much everybody. Current athletic director and former Wisconsin coaching legend Barry Alvarez announced he will return to the sidelines and coach the team for this game, adding even more intrigue. Alvarez is 3-0 in Rose Bowls, but he hasn’t coached a game since 2005. Does he still have what it takes, and if so, will that be enough against a tough Stanford team?

Keys to the Game

Whichever team is successful running the ball will win. Wisconsin is led by the aforementioned Ball, who set all-time FBS records for rushing touchdowns (76) and total touchdowns (82). He has rushed for 1,730 yards and 21 touchdowns on the year but will be facing one of the best run defenses in the nation. Stanford ranks third nationally against the run, yielding only 87.7 yards a game. Ball and backup James White (802 yards, 12 touchdowns) will have to find some holes because the Badgers are woeful through the air, ranking 115th at 162.6 passing yards a game.

Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor is no slouch himself, rushing for 1,442 yards and 12 touchdowns to go along with 38 receptions and 2 receiving touchdowns this year. Since Stanford only averages a little over 200 yards passing a game, Taylor will have to carry the load. He’ll be running against the country’s 22nd-best rush defense. He’ll have some help, though, as freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan has changed the Stanford offense with his dual-threat ability. Since taking over the starting role, Hogan has thrown 8 touchdowns against 3 interceptions while rushing for 193 yards.

The Verdict

Wisconsin ran all over Nebraska, but they won’t be able to do the same against a stout Stanford defense that shackled Oregon’s explosive attack. The loss of Bielema has to sting, and while the return of Alvarez should provide the Badgers with a morale boost, one has to wonder if he can shake the rust off in so little time. Fact is, this isn’t a great Wisconsin team. The Badgers finished third in their division, and if it weren’t for other teams’ ineligibility, they wouldn’t be anywhere close to this game.

Stanford is too good, too tough, and too disciplined for Wisconsin. Hogan has played well and transformed their offense, and he continues to get better. The Cardinal will win.