WHO: No. 5 Penn State (11-2) vs. No. 9 USC (9-3)
WHAT: The 103rd Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual
WHEN: 5 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California
THE SKINNY: The Granddaddy of Them All is not a College Football Playoff Semifinal this season but it has that that sort of feel with a high caliber matchup between two of the hottest teams in the country that each has a pretty good case to be in the final four.
The Nittany Lions head West as Big Ten champions after a magical run that included beating Ohio State in a thriller and Wisconsin in the conference title game thanks to a remarkable comeback. The team has not skipped much of a beat defensively from last year behind defensive end Garrett Sickels (12.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks) and safety Marcus Allen (101 tackles) but it’s the offense that has really helped spark the team’s run to the roses.
Quarterback Trace McSorley has really impressed with 25 touchdown passes against just five interceptions on the year and forms a potent backfield tandem with tailback Saquon Barkley, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Head coach James Franklin has done a masterful job of bringing this team together to regroup from some painful early losses to finish the season playing as well as anybody but there’s still one task left on the table for Penn State to accomplish.
That would involve beating USC, who is no stranger to starting off the year in ugly fashion. The Trojans made it through the first month of the season with a 1-3 record and plenty of talk that the school needed to fire recently named head coach Clay Helton. Instead the team lived up to their motto and fought on, running off eight straight wins that included a throttling of playoff participant Washington up in Seattle.
A change at quarterback has proven to be the spark that set the team off and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold is a key cog to USC’s recent success, looking less like a young signal-caller and more like some of the big time QB’s who have come through the program in recent years. He’s able to lean on an experienced offensive line and has a deep stable of playmakers to distribute the ball to, including wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back Ronald Jones II. Defensively, Thorpe Award winner and superstar return man Adoree’ Jackson headlines a talented group of players that can throw just about every look out there that you can imagine.
All that makes for one of the most compelling games of the postseason as the two teams return to the Rose Bowl for the first time since meeting back in 2009 (a 35-24 USC win). Each program has been through the ringer of NCAA sanctions and extensive coaching turnover since that point and will be looking to show the rest of the country that they are back among the college football elite with a win. Talent favors the Trojans in this one but the Nittany Lions haven’t let that stop them this year and won’t go without a fight to begin 2017 in what should be a fantastic game.
THE PICK: USC 34, Penn State 27