Minnesota Gophers vs. Washington State Cougars, Tuesday Dec. 27, 7 p.m. ET
This game has had all sorts of drama already and, sadly, it has nothing to do with what's on the field. Ten Minnesota players were suspended for the game in the aftermath of a sexual assault incident that occurred earlier in the fall. The rest of the team, upset that the players were suspended without what they felt was due process, threatened to boycott the game if the players were not reinstated by the university. Things were very tense, and there was even talk about who could replace Minnesota in this game on short notice, but in the end sanity reigned. The team's seniors met with university officials, and the team will play the game - without the 10 players who remain suspended. There may be a resolution, but it will remain a big story in this game. From a practical basis, two of the suspended players are starters and two more are reserves who see a lot of playing time. Bigger than that, though, this situation has interrupted bowl preparations and will hang over the team going forward.
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Holiday Bowl Betting Storylines
Drama aside, a good place to start with this game is at quarterback. Both guys have the potential to play on Sunday, though neither had the season that would vault them up the rankings that some expected. Washington State's Luke Falk is very accurate (71 percent completion rate) and he throws it a ton, but he hasn't quite broken out of the shell of a guy who will be identified with the system he plays with. He'll go somewhere around the third round of the draft if he declares early this year, and a big performance here could make that decision easier. Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner has the prototypical NFL build and arm, and many thought he would break out this year and climb up the draft charts. Instead, he played a touch below average and is highly unlikely to get drafted. The senior will have to rely on free agency to get his pro shot. At the QB position the Cougars have a major advantage here.
Just because Leidner underwhelms (he had seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and four of those TDs came in a joke of a game against Indiana State) doesn't mean that Minnesota will be unable to score here. For starters, Washington State doesn't have much of a pass rush and their secondary is soft, so opportunities will exist for Leidner. Minnesota is also a strong running team, with a three-headed rushing monster of Leidner, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Washington State has been good against the run, but they haven't faced a lot of the pure power attack that Minnesota uses.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, Falk will be able to score, too. Two of those key suspended players were in the secondary, and the Gophers already weren't perfect against the pass. Falk has been less than his best in the last two games against Colorado and Washington, so he will be hungry to make a final statement here before making that NFL decision (let's not kid ourselves - he's going). He is going to find targets whenever he needs them, and they are going to look to score as much as they can through the air early on to limit Minnesota's ability to focus on the run.
Holiday Bowl Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened widely with Washington State favored by 6.5 points. That has climbed through the key number of seven, and now the Cougars are favored by as much as 10 points. Nearly 90 percent of bets have come in on the favorites, so the line movement isn't at all surprising. The total opened at 60 and is climbing slowly, with 61.5 now widely available.
The Gophers are just 2-5 ATS in their last seven nonconference games, and they have gone "under" the total in six of their last eight outside the conference. The Cougars are 9-3 ATS in their last 12 against teams with winning records but just 2-5 ATS in their last seven games overall, and they are 1-4 ATS in their last five against the Big Ten.
Minnesota vs. Washington State Holiday Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions
I hate being on the same side as such an overwhelming majority of public bettors, but I don't see a way around it here. As strong as the Big Ten has been this year, I just don't respect this Minnesota team much - even when they are at full strength and concentration. Washington State is going to pass relentlessly against this team, and they are going to find success. I would have been forced to take the Cougars at this price even if it weren't for the boycott mess. Now I'm happy to do it. A spread of 9.5 is available in several spots as I write this. I'd jump on that - or the lowest number I could find. Washington State is the comfortable choice.
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