USC Trojans vs. Penn State Nittany Lions, Monday January 2, 5 p.m. ET
This Rose Bowl pairing is one that I never thought we would see. In fact, if you had suggested at the end of September that this is what we would see I would have bet any amount of money against you. So, thanks for not suggesting it. At that point Penn State was 2-2 and had just lost to Michigan by 39, and USC was 1-3 and had opened their season losing to Alabama by 46. It seemed far more likely right now that both teams would be focusing on making their new head coaches comfortable than on selling Rose Bowl tickets.
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The resurgence of both teams since October, and the circumstances that got them into this plum game, are two of the more remarkable stories of the entire season. Penn State has won nine in a row. The Big Ten Championship Game featured a major comeback against Wisconsin, but the highlight of the year is certainly beating Ohio State as 17.5-point underdogs. USC is just a step behind with eight straight wins, and winning at playoff-bound Washington as 10-point underdogs qualifies as their crowning achievement.
Only one team can keep the good times rolling, though. Which one will it be?
Rose Bowl Betting Storylines
For USC the turnaround of the season was fueled by one key factor - they found a quarterback. Max Browne, the top QB recruit of the 2013 class, finally got his chance to start, and it was disastrous. He was benched on Sept. 19 and has already transferred to Pitt. Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, a much less-heralded recruit, stepped in and hasn't looked back since. He started only nine games, but he went 8-1 in those outings, and he threw for 2,633 yards with 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions while completing more than 68 percent of his passes. Those would be solid numbers for a whole season. Combine that with Ronald Jones, the sophomore running back who eclipsed 1,000 yards and averaged nearly eight yards per carry in the second half of the season, and you have an offense that scores plenty - they have at least 45 points in four of their last six. Penn State's defense is mostly sound, but they have their moments of struggle - they let Wisconsin score at will early in the Big Ten Championship Game, Indiana put up some points, and Michigan torched them early and often. If Penn State isn't sharp early then the Trojans could be in for a big day.
The Nittany Lions can score some points as well. QB Trace McSorley set school records for passing yards and touchdowns on a season, and running back Saquon Barkley was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. McSorley was at his best in the Big Ten title game when he threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns to spark a big comeback. Despite all that, though, this is still only a team that ranked 53rd in total yards nationally, so it wouldn't be accurate to think of them as an explosive squad. USC has struggled at times to defend against the pass, though they have been somewhat better of late. There is a chance for McSorley and Barkley to have big days, and they certainly come in with no shortage of confidence. However, despite an offense that is statistically the equal to USC's in many ways, I can't shake the feeling that they are at a disadvantage here.
Rose Bowl Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened widely with USC favored by a full touchdown, and that has fallen just slightly to 6.5. Betting action has been approximately split between the two squads, with only a slight edge to USC, so we shouldn't see dramatic further movement barring news developments. The total opened at 62, has flirted with 63, but is back at 62 again for now.
The Trojans are 6-0 ATS in their last six games and 5-1 ATS in their last six games played in January. They are just 1-4 ATS in their last five against the Big Ten, though, and haven't covered in their last four neutral-site games. Penn State is 8-0-1 ATS in their last nine games overall. They are just 1-4 ATS, though, both in their last five nonconference games and their last five games in January.
USC vs. Penn State Rose Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions
Both teams are hot coming into this one. I don't trust Penn State to be as sharp as they need to be, though - they spent too much time publicly feeling sorry for themselves for falling short of the playoff berth they thought they deserved, even though it was obvious they were going to. USC has more depth of talent, and more speed, and that should be the difference in this one. The Trojans will win, and at less than a touchdown they are particularly attractive.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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