Northwestern Wildcats vs. Utah Utes (-7)
Mon., December 31, 7:00 p.m. ET
Three things to know before betting on Northwestern-Utah:
1. It was a tremendously enjoyable season for Northwestern football fans as the Wildcats surpassed all expectations with an 8-4 regular season record and a trip to the Big Ten Championship, where they trailed by a single score early in the fourth quarter before ultimately falling to Ohio State 45-24. It’s no big secret, though, that Northwestern’s record and division title overstate how good this team actually is. The Wildcats were immensely lucky to escape with a three-point win at home against Nebraska and only beat Big Ten basement dwellers Rutgers and Illinois by a total of 11 points (as a combined 34.5-point favorite). Even in the “close” losses the Wildcats suffered to elite Michigan and Notre Dame teams, the final scores were much closer than the actual action on the field. Northwestern finished only 6-6-1 against the spread. The fact that the ‘Cats are a full-touchdown underdog in their bowl game despite having played for a conference title indicates that oddsmakers see them as having overachieved, as well.
2. This line would be tilted even further in the Utes’ favor if not for injuries to Utah’s starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss. The team played miserably without them in its most recent game, a 10-3 loss to Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game. With that hard-to-watch performance fresh in everyone’s mind, Vegas knows that the public isn’t scrambling to put money on Utah as a touchdown favorite here.
But the Pac-12 title game looks like an outlier. Huntley returned to practice in early December, and says he’ll start in the Holiday Bowl if he’s cleared for contact. Washington’s defense is also one of the very best in the country and shut down the Utes even when they did have Huntley and Moss (21-7 in September). But even without those players, Utah has played well overall, including scoring 35 points against a very good BYU defense less than a week before the Pac-12 Championship Game. Without the misplaced overcorrection for Utah’s situation-specific struggles on offense, this spread would be in the double digits.
3. The positive side of the Utes’ loss in their conference title game was that they held a Washington offense with no shortage of high-profile players to only 10 points. It was a representative performance for a Utah defense that enters bowl season ranked 13th nationally in total defense (4.62 yards allowed per play) and 16th in scoring defense (18.5 points allowed per game). The Northwestern offense, which is 124th in yards per play (4.75) and 107th in points per game (23.7), won’t give Utah much of a challenge. With Northwestern struggling offensively, its defense will spend a lot of time on the field, which will make it difficult for the Wildcats to keep up with an undervalued Utah offense.
Pick: Utah -7
Confidence Level: Extremely High (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)