The San Diego Credit Union Holiday Bowl matchup between Northwestern and Utah on New Year's Eve can be recognized as the Rose Bowl Alternative Bowl.
The No. 17 Utes (9-4) and No. 22 Wildcats (8-5) each won their division in their respective conferences, the Pac-12 and Big Ten, but they could not win their league title game to get to the Rose Bowl.
Utah claimed its first Pac-12 South title behind an improved and balanced offense and its traditionally strong defense under 15-year coach Kyle Whittingham, who takes an 11-1 bowl record as the Utes' coach into the Holiday Bowl.
Utah is playing in its fifth consecutive bowl game and sixth overall since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. In that stretch, the Utes have a 27-1 record against non-conference opponents.
Northwestern claimed its first Big Ten West title this season after rebounding from a 1-3 start. The Wildcats relied on their defense to win seven of their last eight regular season games. This marks the fourth straight bowl game for the Wildcats and 15th overall. Northwestern has a 4-10 bowl record, although the Wildcats have won two straight.
The physical styles of Utah and Northwestern mirror each other under Whittingham and Pat Fitzgerald, respectively.
"I've watched Coach Fitzgerald's teams for a lot of years," Whittingham said. "They're going to be physical, fundamentally sound, schematically sound and they're not going to beat themselves."
The game's biggest question mark is whether Utah junior quarterback Tyler Huntley, who broke his collarbone in the third quarter of Utah's 38-20 loss to Arizona State in November, will be able to play. The injury was first regarded as a season-ending but Huntley might be cleared to play.
"It's still a question mark. That's still a question mark and so we're still working through it," said Whittingham, who is secretive about injuries. "Right now, we're just keeping our fingers crossed."
Huntley rejoined the Utes for practices in mid-December. He is listed with Jason Shelley as co-starter at quarterback on Utah's depth chart for the Holiday Bowl. If cleared to play, Huntley will start. This is potentially good news for a Utah offense that will be without top running back Zack Moss and top receiver Britain Covey, both of whom have suffered season-ending injuries.
Before his injury, Huntley passed for 1,788 yards and 12 touchdowns in Utah's first nine games.
Of particular concern for Northwestern is its pass defense against Huntley or Shelley. The Wildcats rank 12th among Big Ten teams both in pass defense (258.1 yards per game allowed) and pass efficiency defense (134.9).
To make matters worse, Northwestern will play without a pair of key defensive starters. Senior linebacker Nate Hall (shoulder) and senior defensive tackle Jordan Thompson (knee) won't play in the Holiday Bowl because of injuries.
"Both of our teams have faced a ton of adversity this year," said Fitzgerald, the Big Ten Coach of the Year. "We've both had a lot of guys step up and play well."
Although he missed four games, Hall still finished the season with 51 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, and three pass breakups. Thompson finished with 30 tackles, six tackles for loss and three pass breakups in 13 games.
Northwestern still has plenty of standouts available on defense, including athletic defensive end Joe Gaziano, who leads the Wildcats with 11.5 tackles for a loss and was an All-Big Ten second-team selection. Teammate Paddy Fisher was named to the first team at linebacker along with fellow linebacker Blake Gallagher, who is the team's top tackler with 120 tackles.
Utah's defense led the Pac-12 in red zone defense (63.9 percent, 23-of-36), rushing defense (101.8 yards per game), tackles for a loss per game (7.9) and opponent third down conversion percentage (34.2). They rank in the top 20 nationally in both total defense and scoring defense, allowing 315.1 yards and 18.5 points per game.
Chase Hansen, a converted safety who now plays linebacker, led the Pac-12 in tackles for a loss (22.0). He could be a game-time decision for the Holiday Bowl. He suffered an undisclosed injury in the Pac-12 championship game against Washington.
If he is unable to play, his absence will impact the Utes, but they still have a strong core of defensive standouts including defensive end Bradlee Anae, defensive tackle Leki Fotu, linebacker Cody Barton, and cornerbacks Javelin Guidry and Jaylon Johnson. Anae, Fotu, and Johnson were All-Pac-12 first-team selections along with Hansen this season.