LAS VEGAS — An accomplishment on Kyle Whittingham’s bucket list gets a check mark today when he coaches Utah in the Rose Bowl. When the Utes joined the Pac-12 a decade ago, Whittingham set a goal to win the conference and play in this game full of history and mystique.
Whittingham described the feeling this week as “surreal.” It’s not as significant for Utah’s opponent, Ohio State. The Buckeyes, who were upset by Michigan and missed out on a Big Ten title and the College Football Playoff, have had their top four NFL prospects opt out and take a pass on playing in Pasadena.
The motivation angle clearly favors Utah and Whittingham, who is 11-3 straight up in bowls. The Utes are 9-1 since Cameron Rising took over as the starting quarterback and their current six-game winning streak includes two blowouts of Oregon.
Even with star wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson sitting this one out, Ohio State still is the more talented team and the favorite. But the Buckeyes’ focus might not be sharp enough, and rumors are swirling that Ryan Day could be the Chicago Bears’ next head coach.
The Utes are showing up in Pasadena with a purpose and have a good shot to win a big one for Whittingham.
The pick: Utah, +4
Outback Bowl: Arkansas (-1.5) over Penn State
Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson is a mobile playmaker who will cause problems for a Nittany Lions defense missing five starters. Jefferson drives an Arkansas offense averaging 31.5 points. Both teams have had NFL prospects opt out, but Penn State was hit harder by defections, including leading receiver Jahan Dotson.
Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame (-2) over Oklahoma State
Marcus Freeman’s coaching debut for the Fighting Irish is the marquee attraction. Freeman was the popular pick when Brian Kelly stunningly left for the LSU job, and the Notre Dame players will be motivated to ring in a new year and start the Freeman era with a win.
There are concerns with the Irish, who will be without two NFL prospects — safety Kyle Hamilton and running back Kyren Williams — while dealing with injuries on the offensive line. The Cowboys could be flat after falling to Baylor in the Big 12 title game.
Spencer Sanders threw four interceptions against the Bears, and turnovers are a troubling trend for the Oklahoma State quarterback. Freeman’s defense has forced 23 turnovers this season.
Texas Bowl, Tuesday: Kansas State (-3.5) over LSU
Running back Deuce Vaughn and quarterback Skylar Thompson lead a strong ground attack for the Wildcats, who had no players opt out of the bowl. The LSU team that finished the regular season for outgoing coach Ed Orgeron will look a lot different minus several starters.
Last week: 2-1. Oklahoma (W), Air Force (W), Tennessee (L). NC State-UCLA Over (game canceled)