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Northwestern a Bowl Underdog Again, Despite a Better Resume Than Mississippi State

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Death, taxes and Northwestern being a bowl game underdog — they’re the facts of life, it seems. Early betting lines came out last night and the Wildcats are 2.5-point underdogs to Mississippi State, according to 5Dimes. There is still a lot of time for that to change, but NU fans were up in arms about being picked as an underdog against the Bulldogs. Of course, betting lines mean absolutely nothing, but when you look at the numbers, this line does seem a little strange.

From a purely numerical standpoint, Northwestern has a better resume than Mississippi State heading into bowl season. NU is ranked No. 20 in the final BCS poll, while MSU isn’t ranked. The Wildcats are 9-3; the Bulldogs are 8-4. In fact, as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, NU’s lone SEC win (Vanderbilt) is better than any of MSU’s (Auburn, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas). Both teams have been knocked for a lack of “good wins,” but NU’s best win (either Vanderbilt or Michigan State), was better than Mississippi State’s best win, which is, well, hard to pinpoint. The Bulldogs won their first seven games of the season, but lost four of their last five in a very back-loaded schedule. In short, MSU won the games it was supposed to win, and lost the games it was supposed to lose. NU did relatively the same thing, but the Wildcats’ losses were close, while the Bulldogs’ losses came by an average of 23.25 points.

So yes, NU probably deserves to be the favorite in this scenario. That isn’t to say the Wildcats are a much better team — this won’t be a blowout either way — but their resume is better. Most likely, the people putting the lines together — like most of the country — saw two teams they don’t know much about and gave the edge to the SEC team, since the SEC is the stronger conference.

Pat Fitzgerald joked following the Illinois game that NU would probably be a 75-point underdog against an SEC team, and while that is obviously hyperbole, Fitzgerald actually had a point. Bowl spreads are all about perception, and even though the Wildcats had a strong season, the national perception of NU as an average program will persist until the team wins a bowl game and can be in the conference title discussion year after year.

The good news for NU fans is that bowl spreads and national perception have nothing to do with what will actually happen on the field in Jacksonville. I’m not ready to make a prediction just yet, but these Wildcats are used to stooping Vegas — they’re 11-1 against the spread this season. Maybe some odds do favor NU after all.