Music City Bowl
Northwestern was planning for a better bowl, finishing the season with seven-straight wins and a No. 21 ranking, but after Ohio State wasn’t selected for the Playoff, it meant the Music City Bowl for the Wildcats. Conveniently for them, Kentucky has been the opposite, having lost three of its last Four. In a battle of Wildcats, Northwestern was a -7.5 point favorite as of mid-December at 5Dimes Sportsbook.
OUtside of the random blowout loss at Duke early in the season, Northwestern has been a consistent team with its only other two losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. The Wildcats didn’t have an overly difficult Schedule, but stringing together seven wins is never an easy task. Kentucky finished 7-5 and didn’t do anything that stands out, which is why it’s more than a touchdown underdog. Wins against South Carolina and Missouri are nice, but home losses to Ole Miss and Louisville take away any of those relevant wins. It doesn’t help that UK also beat Eastern Kentucky by only 11 points and Eastern Michigan by Four.
Defense may be what separates these teams the most and that’s an issue for Kentucky, which bases its offense around the run. Benny Snell had a nice season rushing for 1,318 yards and 18 touchdowns, but faces one of the best run defenses in the country that allows just 3.3 yards per carry. If Snell can’t find any room, this offense will struggle. Quarterback Stephen Johnson (10 TDs, 4 INTs) was headed for bigger numbers, but threw just one touchdown in the final six Games. The Wildcats will probably run Snell into the ground even if it doesn’t work because Johnson has rarely shown he can move the ball by himself.
Even worse for Kentucky is that it doesn’t do many things right on the defensive side. Northwestern doesn’t have the most explosive offense, but it gets the job done against weaker defenses. Northwestern will also turn to the ground with senior running back Justin Jackson, who had a slightly down season with 1,154 yards and nine touchdowns. That said, he had his best receiving year with 43 receptions and 266 more yards. And that may be all Northwestern needs against a defense allowing 4.7 yards per carry. Clayton Thorson (15 TDs, 12 INTs) provides experience at quarterback, but he’s still mostly a check-down guy with 6.59 yards per attempt. That said, he’s probably slightly easier to trust than Johnson if it comes down to the wire.
The selling point is Northwestern’s defense, which has led to success all season. If they can stop Benny Snell from getting anything going, that may be all that’s needed unless Johnson has a career Game for UK. It’ll be hard to take Kentucky even with the spread pushing a touchdown.
Kentucky finished 3-9 ATS this season and Northwestern was 9-3 ATS. Kentucky has failed to cover in its last five non-Conference Games and last five at a neutral site. Northwestern is 16-5 ATS in its last 21 Games overall and 5-2 ATS in its last seven bowl Games.
Our Pick – Northwestern -7.5