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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, December 25, 2013 at 4:00 PM

There aren’t a lot of dream matchups for football fans in the first week of bowl action. The best teams show up later on the card. But, we have a true sleeper for a possible classic Thursday Night when Utah State takes on Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.

*Northern Illinois just missed making a second straight trip to a BCS Bowl game, and was clearly the best “mid-major” team in most Power Ratings.

*Utah State would have been the best mid-major team in the nation if they hadn’t lost star quarterback Chuckie Keeton midseason. They still closed the season playing very hard, and almost shocked Fresno State on the road in the Mountain West championship game.

Neither team could win their conference championship game. That gives BOTH a chip on their shoulder heading into what’s shaping up as an intense bowl showdown.

 

Won-Lost Records (strength of schedule)

Utah State: 8-5 (#83 schedule in USA Today)

N. Illinois: 12-1 (#113 schedule in USA today)

Utah State lost road heartbreakers to Utah and USC before Keeton got hurt. He was injured early against potent BYU. The next outing brought Boise State when the team was still in shock. They’re better than that 8-5 record would suggest. It’s very unlikely Northern Illinois would have gone 12-1 against Utah State’s schedule.  

 

Yards-Per Play

Utah State: 5.5 on offense, 4.6 on defense

N. Illinois: 7.0 on offense, 5.6 on defense

Great stuff here from both. Utah State ended the season at +0.9 even after losing their QB halfway through. Northern Illinois was a full +1.4 better than its opponents. You can see that Utah State’s strength was on defense, while Northern Illinois was fantastic on offense. That could signal a fascinating battle to watch all night long…and probably encompasses the key to picking the right side of the game. Figure out who wins between Northern’s offense and Utah State’s defense…and the rest is window dressing.

 

Turnover Differential

Utah State: +11

N. Illinois: +13

The sign of well-coached teams. Both squads did a good job of avoiding miscues and forcing mistakes from their opposition. Utah State was more turnover prone with their back up quarterback though. That needs to be fixed if they plan on grabbing victory here. Utah State averaged 0.8 giveaways in the games Keeton finished, 1.8 after he was injured, 2.0 to teams who earned bowl bids.

 

Market Performance

Utah State: 8-5 ATS

N. Illinois: 8-5 ATS

Oddsmakers underrated both teams as a general rule this season. That cancels out if you’re trying to figure out who they’re going to be wrong about Thursday Night.

 

Current Line: Northern Illinois by 1, total 58

 

It’s interesting that Northern Illinois is such a small favorite considering the won-lost records, and the difference in quarterback potency. Jordan Lynch was in the Heisman Trophy discussion, and is clearly a guy who can carry a team on his shoulders. Darrell Garretson has been gutty in relief of Keeton for Utah State. But, he’s the kind of quarterback who’s best at throwing short swing passes rather than rifling the ball downfield. Remember how easily USC passed on Fresno State’s defense in the Las Vegas Bowl? Garretson was 16-35 with two interceptions against that same defense.

Note that Northern Illinois opened at -2, and has been bet down in the days since. Las Vegas bettors got to see a lot of Utah State this season, including a game at UNLV in early November.

JIM HURLEY will have selections for you in both the Little Caesar’s Bowl (Pittsburgh/Bowling Green) and the Poinsettia Bowl by late Thursday morning here at the website. You can always purchase every day’s best plays online with your credit card. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-888-777-4155.

 

Here’s the upcoming prime time football preview schedule in the NOTEBOOK…

Friday: Washington vs. BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl

Saturday: Michigan vs. Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

Sunday: Philadelphia at Dallas for the NFC East title on NBC

Monday: Texas Tech vs. Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl

Tuesday: Duke vs. Texas A&M in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl

New Year’s: Central Florida vs. Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl

Christmas is in the rearview mirror…and things are really starting to get BUSY! Buckle up for the money making ride of your life through the college bowls through the BCS Championship and the NFL through the Super Bowl with JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK!

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