College football forecast: Deep purple or Meyer style points?

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

December 1, 2018 04:37 AM
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The underdog side is 11-0-1 ATS in Northwestern games this season, with coach Pat Fitzgerald posting a 5-0-1 mark in that role.
© USA Today Sports Images

Sexy offenses sell, and so do scandals. Pat Fitzgerald coaches a football team that looks slow in purple and wins with defense, and he runs a program free of drama. It’s always tough for the betting public to buy into Northwestern.

Urban Meyer is a soap opera actor, and his flashy team just hung 62 points on Jim Harbaugh in a silver streak. It’s always easy for bettors to buy into Ohio State’s appeal.

Opposites attract in the Big Ten title game Saturday night in Indianapolis, where the Buckeyes can make their final argument to be included in the four-team playoff. It’s no secret Ohio State needs style points, which means Meyer will show no mercy if given the chance to kick the Wildcats when they get down. That’s why the line is 14½ and could go to 15 or higher by kickoff.

There are plenty of reasons to side with the Buckeyes, beginning with these three:

1) Ohio State has the better quarterback and a high-scoring offense capable of covering a big number. The Buckeyes just turned in their most impressive performance of the season by far in a 23-point massacre of Michigan. Dwayne Haskins passed for 396 yards and six touchdowns against a Wolverines defense that was dominant and highly respected.

2) Northwestern went winless in the nonconference, including a loss to Akron as a 21-point favorite, and how it reached this title game is a mystery. Analytics handicappers have been flummoxed by the Wildcats, who are statistically mediocre across the board and seem to win with smoke and mirrors.

3) With a potential playoff spot at stake, Meyer holds the biggest motivational card because the Buckeyes obviously need a convincing win, not a narrow escape.

Of course, there are two sides to every story.

How many teams have defeated Northwestern by more than 14 points this season? Zero.

The Wildcats’ quarterback, Clayton Thorson, is an NFL prospect, too. The senior’s numbers this season (14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) do not show it, but Thorson can play. And the numbers never really show the whole story with the Wildcats, who scored a total of 62 points in their past three victories over Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa.

Fitzgerald also coaches the better defense, which counts for something even if it’s not sexy.

Ohio State never played a complete game until last week, when it was a home ‘dog to its bitter rival, and rarely does a team play its “A” game in back-to-back weeks.

Finally, the purple ‘Cats are the definition of gritty ‘dogs. The underdog side is 11-0-1 against the spread in Northwestern games this season, with the Wildcats posting a 5-0-1 mark in that role. The push was a 10-point home loss to playoff-bound Notre Dame on Nov. 3.

It’s not easy to make a convincing case for Northwestern. It’s sort of a blind-faith play and trust in Fitzgerald, so I’ll take 14½ points with the ugly underdog.

Three more plays for Saturday:

* Texas (plus-8) over Oklahoma: There are several similarities in the Big Ten and Big 12 matchups. The favorite in Arlington, Texas, is in the playoff hunt and the ‘dog is playing the spoiler role. Oklahoma has the hot quarterback. Kyler Murray has accounted for 48 touchdowns (37 passing, 11 rushing) and the Sooners are scoring 50.2 points per game.

The revenge angle is often overplayed, but not in rivalries. Texas won the first meeting 48-45 as a 7½-point underdog at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. That’s an advantage for the Sooners.

But trend followers are well aware of Longhorns coach Tom Herman’s track record as an underdog — 12-1 ATS since 2015, including 7-1 with Texas. For reasons that are hard to explain, Herman and Northwestern’s Fitzgerald are the most dangerous underdog coaches in college football.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger is effective and tough, though nowhere near as flashy as Murray. Ehlinger has accounted for 34 touchdowns (23 passing, 11 rushing). Murray might prove to be too hot to handle, yet Oklahoma is all offense and no defense.

* Georgia (plus-13) over Alabama: Even with a loss in the Southeastern Conference title game in Atlanta, top-ranked Alabama is a good bet to be awarded a playoff spot. There is greater urgency with Georgia, which has one loss and cannot afford another. Revenge is more motivation for the Bulldogs, who were 3½-point underdogs in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Crimson Tide in the national championship game in January.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart knows the Tide inside and out. Smart is a former defensive coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama. There is not a major fear factor, as with most Tide opponents. 

Saban’s quarterback switch to Tua Tagovailoa at halftime of the national title game turned the tables in the Tide’s favor. Tagovailoa has 36 touchdown passes and two interceptions, and Alabama’s defense has allowed 13.8 points per game. Still, Georgia has a battle-tested quarterback in Jake Fromm and plenty of skill-position speed to test the Tide defense.

* CALIFORNIA (plus-3½) over Stanford: It’s not a conference championship game, but it's got to be better than the dud the Pac-12 put on display Friday night and the “Big Game” always has meaning. If the Golden Bears get their way, it will be an ugly game. Cal coach Justin Wilcox has a defense that limited Washington (10), USC (14) and Washington State (19) to fewer than 20 points.

Despite the presence of Bryce Love, the Cardinal running attack ranks among the nation’s worst. Stanford coach David Shaw continues to accomplish less despite having more offensive talent than most of his opponents. The South Point moved from 3 to 3½ on this game and more books are likely to follow. Cal is 4-1 ATS as an underdog this season.

Last week: 3-3-1 against the spread

Season: 52-44-4

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