College football odds: No. 22 Northwestern at California

One of the most anticipated seasons in Northwestern football history begins Saturday at California with the No. 22 Wildcats a 5.5-point WagerWeb favorite.

Last year, Northwestern won its first bowl game since the 1949 Rose, recording its 10th win in the process. Pat Fitzgerald’s crew returns the core pieces from that team, but faces a tougher schedule featuring the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin. Northwestern once again will employ a quarterback rotation of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, a big-armed junior who can spark the passing game. The receivers had a somewhat underwhelming season, but could be a bigger threat this season as almost everyone returns. Tight end Dan Vitale blossomed down the stretch in 2012 and will attack the deep middle along with wideout Christian Jones.

Cal will start freshman Jared Goff at quarterback. Goff will become the first true freshman to start his first game at Cal in school history after beating out redshirt freshman Zach Kline and junior Austin Hinder in fall camp. The last true freshman to start a game for Cal was Kyle Boller in 1999. He came off the bench in his first game before getting his first start a week later. Goff gave himself a chance to earn the starting role by graduating early from Marin Catholic High School, where he threw for 7,687 yards and 93 touchdowns to become one of the top recruits in Cal’s class.

The Wildcats are facing a BCS-conference opponent on the road in a season-opener for a fourth consecutive season and have gone 3-0 in such games over the previous three seasons. If history is any indication, Saturday’s opener is likely to be an exciting one; NU’s victories in its last three season-openers have come by a combined seven points, with the Wildcats coming up with a game-ending defensive stand to clinch each win. Northwestern defeated Vanderbilt in the 2010 opener, 23-21, before holding off Boston College in 2011 (21-17) and rallying to win at Syracuse, 42-41, in 2012. NU is 23-12 in games decided by seven points or less in Fitzgerald’s tenure.

Northwestern and California are meeting on the gridiron for only the second time in their programs’ histories and the first since clashing in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1949. Northwestern has not played a game in the state of California since facing Southern Cal in the 1996 Rose Bowl at the end of its magical 1995 Big Ten championship season. The last time NU squared off with a team from the Pac-12 was when it met UCLA in the 2005 Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas), a 50-38 win for the Bruins.

WagerWeb trends: Wildcats are 12-1 ATS in their last 13 games overall. Wildcats are 6-1 ATS in their last 7 road games. Wildcats are 5-1 ATS in their last 6 games in August. Golden Bears are 1-6 ATS in their last 7 home games. Golden Bears are 0-5 ATS in their last 5 games overall.

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