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Utes worth wager in Las Vegas Bowl

After a long run of success in bowl games, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham missed the party the past two years. It’s time to see if he can recapture his magic touch.

The Utes are 3-point favorites over Colorado State today in the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Utah struggled to 5-7 records in 2012 and 2013 before regrouping to go 8-4 this season. During Whittingham’s 10-year tenure with the Utes, he is 6-1 straight up and 5-2 against the spread in seven bowl appearances. His victims included Alabama, California and Georgia Tech.

Motivation and location are huge factors in my handicapping of bowl games. In this instance, I don’t believe the location is an advantage for either team. As for motivation, Utah has the edge, as the seniors on the roster have not been in the postseason since they were freshmen.

The Rams (10-2) are being forced to finish their season without the leader that brought the program back to prominence. Jim McElwain left this month to take the Florida job.

Colorado State has one of the nation’s top quarterback-wide receiver combinations with Garrett Grayson and Rashard Higgins, but they will face a defense that puts a lot of pressure on quarterbacks. Utah senior defensive end Nate Orchard set a school record with 17½ sacks this season, while Hunter Dimick had 10 sacks.

Grayson’s stats look better than those of Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, but the latter also enjoyed a tremendous season. Wilson threw 17 touchdown passes with only four interceptions. Utah running back Devontae Booker enjoyed a breakout campaign, rushing for 1,350 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Utes also have a dynamic playmaker in Kaelin Clay, who scored three touchdowns on special teams. Clay had 39 receptions for a team-high 460 receiving yards and four TD catches. He produced 1,349 all-purpose yards.

When you look at the resumes of both teams, it quickly becomes clear that Utah faced a tougher schedule by a wide margin. The Utes also played extremely well on the road, compiling a 5-1 spread record with outright wins at Michigan, UCLA and Stanford. They also took Arizona State to overtime in Tempe before losing 19-16.

I’ll lay a field goal with the Utes.

Two more bowl plays:

Idaho Potato Bowl, today

■ Air Force (+1½) over Western Michigan — The location is the blue turf in Boise, Idaho, and it should favor the Falcons of the Mountain West. Air Force recorded victories over bowl-bound teams Colorado State, Boise State, Navy and UNR. On the flip side, the Broncos’ best wins were against Central Michigan and Bowling Green, teams that won seven games apiece.

The Falcons finished 2-10 last season, and Western Michigan went 1-11, so the teams are equally motivated to be in a bowl. All indications are that Air Force will have quarterback Kale Pearson back as its starter. He missed the regular-season finale, an upset victory over Colorado State. Pearson had a 14-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and also rushed for 646 yards and six touchdowns

Quick Lane Bowl, Friday

■ North Carolina (-3) over Rutgers — The Scarlet Knights took a big hit when star running back Paul James was lost to a season-ending injury in September. Rutgers also will be without leading rusher Desmon Peoples. Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora’s team has four wins over bowl-bound teams such as Duke, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and San Diego State.

Rutgers’ defense allowed 40.2 points in its past six games. That fact must have North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams salivating. Williams passed for 20 touchdowns and ran for 12. He produced 3,624 all-purpose yards.

I expect Williams to have a big day, while it would be fitting for Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova to throw multiple interceptions. He has demonstrated a propensity for committing turnovers throughout his career, and we might see that again in his final college game.

Season: 34-37-2 against the spread

Brian Edwards of VegasInsider.com and BrianEdwardsSports.com is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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