No college football bowl game has more tradition than “The Granddaddy of them All,” the Rose Bowl. It’s the oldest bowl running, first played in 1902 and annually since 1916. The game has been home to 19 Heisman Trophy winners and produced 29 national champions. It’s so important, it keeps a spot on New Year’s Day no matter what — this year excluded with Jan. 1 being an NFL Sunday.
When it’s not part of the College Football Playoff rotation, the Rose Bowl features a Pac-12 team against a Big Ten opponent as it has for decades. This year’s matchup on Jan. 2 is a spectacular one between two of the sport’s marquee programs in No. 5 Penn State and No. 9 Southern Cal. The schools ended the regular season with a combined 17 straight victories.
USC Trojans vs. Penn State Nittany Lions
Point spread: Trojans -6.5
Date: Monday, Jan. 2, 5 p.m. ET
Location: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
We can easily make the argument that the Trojans (9-3) are one of college football’s four best teams right now and can beat anyone but perhaps Alabama despite not even winning their own Pac-12 division. Yes, USC opened its season with an embarrassing 52-6 loss outside Dallas to the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Following a 27-10 loss at Stanford on Sept. 17, Coach Clay Helton was in big trouble with his team at 1-2. But Helton made a change at quarterback following that game, benching Max Browne and inserting freshman Sam Darnold. USC took off after that, only losing Darnold’s first start in the final seconds at a good Utah team.
Southern Cal beat both teams that played in the Pac-12 title game, taking out Colorado 21-17 on Oct. 8 and absolutely dominating Pac-12 champion Washington 26-13 in Seattle on Nov. 12. But there was never a chance of a three-loss team reaching the College Football Playoff even if USC had won the Pac-12 South and beaten the Huskies again in the conference title game.
Darnold should be a Heisman candidate next year after completing 68.1 percent of his throws for 2,633 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has one of the most electric receivers in the country in JuJu Smith-Schuster (63 catches, 781 yards, nine TDs), who should be a first-round NFL draft pick in the spring, yet Schuster isn’t even the top playmaker on the team. That would be All-American Adroree’ Jackson, who was the 2016 Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back. He’s also a great return man and will line up at receiver. Jackson returned two kicks and two punts for touchdowns this season, tying him for the national lead in overall return touchdowns.
This is USC’s record 33rd Rose Bowl appearance and first since beating Penn State in the game following the 2008 season. It’s a 94-year-old rematch of the first Rose Bowl Game played in the current Pasadena stadium. Last season, USC lost in the Holiday Bowl 23-21 to Wisconsin.
USC is 8-4 against the spread this season.
Penn State Nittany Lions
The No. 5 Lions are one of the most unlikely division winners in college football history and certainly the most unlikely in Big Ten history — granted, divisions haven’t been around in that conference for very long. In the preseason AP Top 25, Ohio State was ranked sixth, Michigan seventh and defending Big Ten champion Michigan State 12th. All are Big Ten East teams like Penn State, which didn’t get a single poll vote off last year’s 7-6 record and was introducing new coordinators on both sides of the ball.
Coach James Franklin entered the year on the hot seat in Happy Valley, but he deserves an extension after leading the Nittany Lions to an 11-2 mark — the school’s best since 2009 under Joe Paterno — and that shocking division title. Franklin was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Many PSU fans are angry their team didn’t earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. After all, the Lions beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game (rallying from a 28-7 deficit) to win the championship of college football’s best conference this year. Plus Penn State beat Ohio State, which is in the playoff. It was the Lions’ first win against a top-two team since 1990. However, PSU also had a questionable non-conference loss to Pittsburgh and was crushed by Michigan 49-10 in late September.
Penn State’s star is sophomore running back Saquon Barkley, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and an All-American. Barkley has rushed 247 times for 1,302 yards and 16 touchdowns while catching 23 passes for 347 yards and three scores. Only Michigan and Ohio State kept him out of the end zone. Sophomore QB Trace McSorley was named second-team All-Big Ten and really blossomed as the season went on. He had four TD passes in the win over Wisconsin and threw for 3,360 yards and 25 TDs against just five picks this season.
It’s the third straight bowl game for Penn State. It lost last year 24-17 to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. It’s the Lions’ first trip to the Rose Bowl since that loss to USC following the 2008 season. PSU is 9-3-1 against the spread this year.
Rose Bowl Prediction
These schools didn’t have a common opponent during the regular season. Southern Cal has won 11 of its past 13 Rose Bowl trips for what that’s worth. It’s basically a home game for the Trojans — although Penn State fans will travel well — and all their losses were away from L.A. Go USC -6.5 and over the total.