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Cotton Bowl

USC

vs.

Ohio St

12/29/17

The Cotton Bowl is the game everyone is looking to outside of the College Football Playoff. Motivation could play a big factor as Ohio State had hopes of making the playoff with an 11-2 record. Instead, they’ll take on a USC team that never really looked like national title contenders. About a week before the game, the Buckeyes were -8 point favorites at 5Dimes Sportsbook.

This spread is almost the opposite from a year ago when USC beat Penn State 52-49 as a 7-point favorite. That result is reason enough to take the Trojans here in addition to OSU’s mindset. USC never looked like a truly dominant team this season and that led to the loss at Washington State and then a blowout against Notre Dame. Since that loss to the Irish, the Trojans have looked better winning their last five, but failed to win convincingly against UCLA or Stanford.

Ohio State showed its dominance plenty of times, but also had trouble against Oklahoma and most notably gave up 55 points in a loss to Iowa. Since then, the Bucks have won four straight, but struggled to separate against Michigan and Wisconsin.

The main difference between these teams is that Ohio State actually has a defense. Even with that troubling Iowa result, the Bucks allowed less than 20 points per game and just 3.0 yards per carry. That’s a relevant stat because USC bases most of its offense around Ronald Jones II and the running game. Jones has rarely been stopped this season en route to 1,486 yards and 18 touchdowns with 10 of those TDs coming in the last five games. But if that doesn’t work against this dominant defensive front, the Trojans will need Sam Darnold to show up. He still hasn’t decided if he’ll enter the NFL Draft so this could be his last collegiate game. Darnold finished with 26 touchdowns and 12 picks, but figured things out later in the season with just three interceptions in his last seven games. He has the quality to move the ball on any opponent, it’s just about consistency with him. And as an underdog of more than seven points, this is a perfect spot for Darnold to show his stuff.

Of course, J.T. Barrett is still on the other side of the field against a defense that didn’t stop many teams. That said, USC still finished 28th in the country in ESPN’s defensive efficiency rankings, despite giving up more than 400 yards per game. This group has plenty of talent and if it shows up here, it won’t be impossible to contain Barrett and company a little bit.

While the Buckeyes score 42.5 points per game, that’s mostly inflated due to scoring in bunches against the worst teams on their schedule. Barrett is a top quarterback, but this offense has been stagnant against a number of relevant teams from Michigan and Wisconsin to Oklahoma and Penn State (in the first half). The goal per usual will be to run as much as possible between J.K. Dobbins (1,364 yards, 7 TDs), Mike Weber (608 yards, 10 TDs) and Barrett (732 yards, 10 TDs). When that doesn't work to perfection, it’s usually when Ohio State has some trouble. USC was gashed early on against the run, but has greatly improved in recent games and allows 4.4 yards per carry.

If the Trojans can get any resistance, that’ll force Barrett into more passing, which is never a guarantee despite what his 35 passing touchdowns say. Again, a lot of those numbers are inflated against weaker opponents.

These are two of the most talented teams in the country and making the line above a touchdown is only there so more people will bet. The Trojans are 2-8-1 ATS in their last 11 games overall and 1-4 ATS in their last five bowl games. The Buckeyes are 10-2-1 ATS in their last 13 against the Pac-12, but haven’t covered in their last four non-conference games. Both teams have trends pointing to the over.

Our Pick - USC +7.5

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