2017 Cotton Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions: USC vs. Ohio State
USC Trojans vs. Ohio State Buckeyes, Friday Dec. 29, 8:30 p.m. ET
It's not supposed to happen that the best bowl game of the year is played on Dec. 29. That's just not right. But it could potentially be the case this year. Big Ten champion Ohio State clashes with Pac-12 champion USC in what should really be the Rose Bowl. It should be a very compelling game - as long as both teams are actually focused on being here. Both teams fancied themselves as playoff team, and while USC was dreaming Ohio State had a very legitimate claim and should have been in instead of Alabama in my view.
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Cotton Bowl Betting Storylines
The most interesting showdown here is between the quarterbacks. Both are likely playing their final college game and hoping to go out with a win. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is one of those guys who seems like they are in their ninth year in college. He'll go to the NFL next year, but he is not going to be a high pick and is no lock to make a roster. USC's Sam Darnold, meanwhile, is leaving school early and will be no worse than the second QB off the board. Barrett has accomplished a lot more as a player, but Darnold is the prototype quarterback, and that is what the NFL favors above all else. Barrett has had knee issues, and that limited him against Michigan, but he is expected to be fine after his time off. It's a good bet that one of these guys will win the game with his arm and a very good bet that one will wind up as the MVP of the game. The biggest difference is that Darnold faces an Ohio State defense that ranks eighth nationally in yards allowed and is consistently a Top 20 pass defense. Barrett, meanwhile, faces a USC defense that ranks an ugly 97th in the country against the pass. Darnold is going to have to work harder to have a good day than Barrett is.
We need to touch on the coaching matchup here, and it won't take long. Urban Meyer is one of the great coaches of all time, and even when not at his absolute sharpest he is a force on the sideline. Clay Helton is not Meyer and not a particularly inspiring or good coach. Massive, massive mismatch - and that's coming from a guy that thinks that Meyer has lunch with the devil every day.
There is an interesting running showdown here as well. Ronald Jones will eclipse 1,500 yards on the season for USC in this game - likely in the first quarter - and is red hot, having run for at least 120 yards in each of his last five games. He's a likely NFL-bound junior looking to go out on a high note. He is the majority of the USC running attack. Ohio State's attack is led by J.K. Dobbins, who has set the single-season freshman record for the school already and was Big Ten Championship MVP after running for 177 yards. Both guys are capable of being game breakers. Again, the difference facing the two is in the quality of defenses. Jones will be attacking the eighth-ranked run defense in the nation, while Dobbins faces a USC run defense ranked 57th.
Cotton Bowl Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened with the Buckeyes favored by 6.5, but that wasn't enough for bettors. It has since moved through the key number of seven and sits now at 7.5 . A small majority of bettors have been on the Trojans, so it's clear that sharp money is on Ohio State. The total opened at 63.5 and has climbed slightly to 64.5 in early action.
The Trojans are 1-4 ATS in their last five bowl games and a dismal 2-8-1 ATS in their last 11 games overall. They have failed to cover a spread in their last six neutral-site games. They are 0-4 ATS in their last four against the Big Ten. They have gone "over" the total in six of their last seven. The Buckeyes are 6-1 ATS in their last seven neutral-site games and 10-2-1 ATS in their last 13 against the Pac-12. They are just 3-7 ATS in their last 10 against teams with winning records. They have gone over the total in eight of their last 10.
USC vs. Ohio State Cotton Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions
I just don't respect the Pac-12 right now, and have no faith in Helton to have his team ready for a battle here. Ohio State lacks some consistency - they did lose to Iowa by 31 somehow - but when they are at their best they are better on offense and dramatically better on defense than USC. This one has a chance to play out as a real mismatch, and Ohio State is the comfortable pick.
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