The Arizona Wildcats are taking on the New Mexico Lobos in the New Mexico Bowl. The Wildcats struggled to win six games this year. But...Arizona is a fairly big favorite in this game. How is that possible? We dove into the numbers to sort it out.
Arizona is currently ranked 84th in the country in S&P+. That's not very good for an Arizona team that made the Fiesta Bowl and came into this season with relatively high expectations. Some of the disappointment, though, can be attributed to those high expectations that weren't necessarily justified. Despite making the Fiesta Bowl last season, Arizona finished 35th in S&P+, benefiting from some fortunate wins (Cal, Washington) and catching some teams at the right place and at the right time (playing Arizona State in Tucson rather than Tempe definitely helped).
The luck swung hard the other way this season, with an absolutely brutal schedule (thanks, Pac-12), significant injuries to key players, and, quite literally, some unlucky bounces (Washington State fumbled four times against Arizona and recovered all of them, which is crazy).
The result is a team that barely scraped by to become bowl eligible. By S&P+, Arizona is the lowest ranked Power 5 team that's playing in a bowl game this season and only ranked ahead of six other teams in bowl games. Without a win against a top ten Utah team, Arizona isn't even bowl eligible this season. Arizona fans, then, have reason to be pessimistic going into this game.
Fortunately for Arizona, New Mexico is (at least by S&P+) the worst team in the bowl field. New Mexico overachieved at 7-5 and pulled off some impressive wins against Air Force and Boise State. But they lost to Nevada by 18. They lost to San Jose State by 10. They barely beat Hawai'i and New Mexico State at home, and those are two of the worst teams in college football.
On offense, Arizona has a clear advantage. New Mexico's rushing numbers are impressive on paper, to be sure, but they're largely a function of running the triple option. The Lobos' passing offense is 121st in the nation (ahead of only other option teams and the awfulness that is Boston College), and even with their rushing numbers (8th nationally), New Mexico is ranked 80th in total offense.
And that may be too generous! S&P+ puts New Mexico's offense at 97th nationally. Arizona, meanwhile is 37th, which is a little worse than you'd expect, but still significantly ahead of New Mexico.
New Mexico's defense is even worse. S&P+ ranks New Mexico's defense as 103rd in the country. By contrast, Arizona's is 109th. Neither of these teams is going to be lauded for their defensive play, but the two teams are about equal. And that doesn't consider the fact that Scooby Wright III is coming back for this game. Even with Arizona's defensive struggles this year, there's a case to be made that Arizona (with Scooby in the fold) is a better defensively than New Mexico.
As of this second, Arizona is either a 7.5 or 8 point favorite, depending on where you look. It seems crazy that Arizona should be that large of a favorite in any bowl game this year, especially considering that the Wildcats are essentially playing a true road game. But it shouldn't be surprising - despite how well things have gone for New Mexico late this season, there just isn't much evidence that they're very good. Look, there's no guarantee that Arizona is able to win this game given the significant amount of time since Arizona last played, the fact that this game is on the road, and the lingering injury issues Arizona is still dealing with. However, the line is fair, and Arizona - if it plays up to its potential - should win this game.