Happy Bowl Season! While the ‘Cats aren’t bowling this time around, that doesn’t mean you can’t get involved. Sports gambling is now legal in Illinois (and several other states across the U.S.), so you can easily have some skin in the game if you choose to.
With Northwestern’s men’s and women’s basketball games scheduled before the end of the year now either canceled or postponed, us NU folks might find ourselves longing for literally any sports to watch on TV. Enter our hero, New Years Week, the heart of bowl season. Our veteran handicappers, in their final of four years picking every single one of these bowl games, have collectively still hit on about half of their predictions and now come to us with their latest slate of prognostications. Follow their advice at your own peril, and, as always, if you choose to, please bet responsibly!
Please note that all picks were submitted before kickoff of any contests.
Records (pending further results)
Auburn (-1.5) vs. Houston
Zimmerman: The Cougars feel like a very sharp play in this game. The 11-2 squad is incredibly legitimate, and it enters the contest having thrown up a dud in its conference championship matchup with Cincinnati. Houston has a defensive line that will cause Auburn a lot of stress, and the Tigers will be rolling without recent transfer and new Oregon QB Bo Nix. Auburn enters the game having just put forth one of its best performances in a long time together against Alabama, and a significant regression can be expected.
Pick: Houston +1.5
Albert: While this Houston team comes in the more highly-regarded of the two, as Vegas demonstrates, people seem to doubt Houston. Additionally, as any Northwestern fan who watched Northwestern-Auburn last year and heard the seemingly-endless praise of Auburn’s then-new coach would know, Brian Harsin is the second coming of God and why focus on the game when you can focus on him. In reality, I know Auburn is playing without quarterback Bo Nix, but I’m not too worried about a drop off in performance.
Pick: Auburn -1.5 and another 20 minutes of camera time for Brian Harsin along with it
First Responder Bowl
Louisville (-1) vs. Air Force
Zimmerman: 6-6 Louisville comes into a bowl game with 9-3 Air Force as a slight favorite. There’s no question that the Cardinals have a ton of talent, starting with dual-threat quarterback Malik Cunningham. The Falcons will likely struggle to defend Cunningham and the Cardinals’ attack, but it’s not enough for me to side with Louisville. Air Force has quality wins against solid Group of Five teams in Nevada, Wyoming and Boise State, and its motivation going into this game is as strong as it can be for an inconsequential bowl game. Look for the Falcons to get the job done.
Pick: Air Force +1
Albert: I’m taking one of the best rushing attacks in the country in this game. Air Force ended the season both winning and covering in its last 3 games, and if you expand the frame significantly, the Falcons still went 7-2 in their last nine. While players transferring and announcing intentions to do so before bowl games has become ever-present, Louisville has been hit especially hard by them in the process.
Pick: Air Force +1
Mississippi State (-9.5) vs. Texas Tech
Zimmerman: Texas Tech has lost four of its five previous games and is limping into bowl season, but are the Red Raiders 10 points worse than Mississippi State? I’m not so sure. The Bulldogs are a solid squad with an electric air raid offense, but they’re capable of throwing in very poor performances at times. Backing a team to win by two scores is tough, especially when there’s no indication that it has the ability to do so against solid teams on a consistent basis. I’m comfortable taking the points here and riding with the Red Raiders.
Pick: Texas Tech +9.5
Albert: Personally, I cannot stand Mike Leach. He’s gone from one of the more humanistic coaches in the sport to an infuriating caricature who I can’t stand (mostly in the time he’s been in Starkville). However, given his history and relationship with Texas Tech, I think he is personally extra motivated for this game (think Fitz vs. Iowa) and will compel an even better team performance than he normally would.
Pick: Mississippi State -9.5
NC State (-2) vs. UCLA
Zimmerman: In one of the most fascinating games that we have lined up throughout bowl season, I’m inclined to side with the Bruins. Both of these teams have serious quality, evidenced by the fact that both are in the top 25 of The Action Network’s Power Ratings. UCLA has a dual-threat offense that produces over 200 yards on the ground per game in addition to 36.5 points per game, and I expect Chip Kelly’s team to put on a show in its first bowl game since his arrival.
Pick: UCLA +2
Albert: Former Michigan running back Zack Charbonnet has combined with Brittain Brown to lead a UCLA rushing attack that has been quite potent all year long. While UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a dual threat, I have concerns about the Bruins’ ability to audible and lead a pass-dominant offense as I anticipate they’ll need to against NC State. The talent of Devin Leary can’t be understated, and I think that, while this game will be close (and high scoring), NC State is the right pick.
Pick: NC State -2
Guaranteed Rate Bowl
Minnesota (-4.5) vs. West Virginia
Zimmerman: Another game, another opportunity to get behind a live underdog. Both teams won their last two games of the regular season, but none of the four wins were particularly impressive, save for maybe the Gophers’ upset win over rival Wisconsin. Slotted only 11 spots behind Minnesota in the aforementioned Power Ratings, the Mountaineers are capable of putting up points against a defense that over-performed towards the end of the season. I think West Virginia could really surprise people in this contest and earn a postseason victory.
Pick: West Virginia +4.5
Albert: Minnesota is a team that I have had my eye on for a bit now, and I think that this game is honestly one of the more unbalanced among the entire bowl slate. I’m expecting a pretty decisive win on the part of Minnesota. Call it Big Ten bias. Hell, call it whatever you want. I’ll just call it losing money if you take anyone other than Minnesota here.
Pick: Minnesota -4.5
Maryland (-3.5) vs. Virginia Tech
Zimmerman: Contrary to my partner, I’m really not that high on the Big Ten this year, and it’s going to result in me fading the conference for the second consecutive game. Maryland suffered some serious shellackings throughout the year, including blowout losses to Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. The Hokies suffered a lone blowout defeat, and they’re far less prone to quitting or being overpowered than the ‘Terps are. That’s enough for me to get behind Virginia Tech in this contest.
Pick: Virginia Tech +3.5
Albert: Personally, I don’t see this game as one worth watching, given the massive amount of football you could watch over the next two days. I’m going to take Virginia Tech here, as Maryland has consistenly been demolished by more talented teams. While the Hokies have had a very mixed season themselves, I think they are coming in the more motivated team under a new head coach.
Pick: Virginia Tech +3.5
Clemson (-1) vs. Iowa State
Zimmerman: Despite the struggle-filled season that Clemson has endured, the Tigers closed the year with five straight wins and a bit of positive energy around the program. I’m putting faith in a full-effort game from a team that is much more used to playing in meaningful postseason games. Clemson has the talent and coaching edge in this contest, despite the departure of Brett Venables, and while this is primed to be a tight game, those factors push me over the edge with Clemson.
Pick: Clemson -1
Albert: The Cheez-It Bowl, one of my personal favorites. This year, it should be even more fun than usual because there are two talented (but underperforming) teams competing. I’m taking the more talented one — Clemson — here. Obviously, when considering teams like the Tigers during semi-early bowl season, you must worry about the potential for a lack of motivation, but I think that Dabo Swinney’s squad is coming out hungry to prove itself in this game as a means to redeem its season.
Pick: Clemson -1
Oklahoma (-7) vs. Oregon
Zimmerman: I was so thoroughly unimpressed with Oklahoma throughout the year that I have absolutely no choice but to go with an Oregon team that lost two games to Utah by a combined score of 76-17. Oregon is actually ranked higher than Oklahoma in the Power Rating scale, so getting the Ducks with seven points of cushion is a no-brainer. I’ll back Oregon in a battle of interim coaching squads.
Pick: Oregon +7
Albert: ‘Scooooooo Ducks. No coach, no problem. I’m taking the Ducks with the points over the frauds from Oklahoma. This game should be interesting because the teams are really similar statistically in yards allowed, average yards per game, and points allowed per game. Still, it’s Oregon (and the generous spread) or bust for me here.
Pick: Oregon +7