USC Trojans (8-5 SU, 6-7 ATS) vs. Wisconsin Badgers (9-3 SU, 5-7 ATS)
Date/Time: December 30/10:30pm ET
Where: Qualcomm Stadium
by Evergreen, NCAA Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: USC -3/WISC +3
While the majority of NCAA Football fans are focusing on the Playoff Bowl games, there are a few intriguing matchups in the lead up to New Years Day and one of those has the USC Trojans squaring off against the Wisconsin Badgers. Those teams take to the field in San Diego for the Holiday Bowl and if styles really do make fights, this particular fight should be a good one. USC has endured many off-field distractions but you can always bet that the Trojans are among the most talented and skilled teams in the game. Wisconsin doesnt have the benefit of being a national recruiting power like USC but the Badgers have gotten it done with dominant line play for decades now and often prove to be a tough opponent for the blue-chip schools.
These teams are quite different in how they go about their business but the prevailing thought is that this is a pretty even matchup, evidenced by the online betting sites installing USC as modest 3-point favorites. Given the game location, you could say USC should have the edge in fan support but Wisconsin has a fantastic reputation for travelling well and there are a ton of Badger alumni scattered throughout the west coast so expect a large red contingent as well. USC is 5-2 against the spread in their last seven bowl games and 9-3 ATS in their last 12 against the Big Ten. Neither school has excelled in neutral field matchups, with each having just one ATS win in their last five neutral site contests.
You cant recap the USC season without talking about the coaching staff drama that visited the team. Steve Sarkisian, who was likely coaching for his job this season, succumb to his apparent alcohol problems and was dismissed by the university. Clay Helton was tabbed as the interim coach and the Trojans gained traction through the middle portion of the season before losing the Pac-12 Championship game. Helton had the interim tag removed from his title and promptly gutted the incumbent coaching staff. Those firings and potential new hires, along with a Sarkisian lawsuit, have USC dealing with the familiar foe that is coaching turmoil.
Amidst all the off field news, the Trojans put together a campaign that had them just one loss short of the Rose Bowl. USC lost twice to Stanford, the second coming in the Pac-12 Championship game, and also dropped decisions at Oregon and Notre Dame. There is no real shame in losing to quality opponents on the road and USCs only ugly loss was a 17-12 dud at home to Washington. The Trojans were 17-point favorites entering that game and while that contest showed how inconsistent this team can be, Helton took over shortly thereafter, installed a more run-oriented approach and USC looked to be the better version of itself for much of the remainder of the schedule. In short, the Trojans have a playmaking edge in this game as Cody Kessler is the best QB on the field and WR JuJu Smith (85/1389/10) is likely the best pure athlete in this game. Even the running game for USC can claim to be the more productive between these two schools, something not often said when Wisconsin is in the conversation. Ronald Jones, Justin Davis and Tre Madden all have at least five rushing touchdowns and average at least 5.3 yards per carry.
Wisconsin will counter with defense and the Badgers bring one of the best statistical overall defenses in the land. UW is a top-10 unit in almost any metric you want to name but they are most importantly 3rd in total yards allowed and lead the NCAA by surrendering just 13.1 points per game. Outside of giving up a few big plays in the opening 35-17 loss to Alabama, the Badgers seldom allowed opponents to reach their offensive averages in any category and bring a total team approach to bottling up the opposition. In losses to Iowa and Northwestern, the defense allowed just 23 total points, further pointing out how limited the offense truly is. Wisconsin failed to field a 1,000 rusher in what feels like forever and Joel Stave has been too inconsistent to make the key plays to turn those close losses into wins. Had there been just a little more offensive firepower, Wisconsin would have been representing the Big Ten West in the championship game instead of Iowa.
Despite the offensive limitations, the Badgers are a tough team to beat. They showed some stunning resilience in winning on the road against Nebraska and had Northwestern beat in the final seconds had a dubious catch/no-catch call went their way. Corey Clements availability in this game could prove to be a huge factor as the talented running back is really the only gamebreaker Wisconsin has. Clement suffered through a sports hernia injury for most of the season and was recently involved in a campus incident with a security guard, leaving his eligibility in question for the bowl game. While Clement has yet to be charged with any specific wrongdoing, the potential remains that Wisconsin would hold him out of the game unless he is cleared across the board. Having him play, and play at full strength, could very well tip the balance of this game as USC has demonstrated the inability to stop talented runners in past games.
There will be many that point to USCs talent advantage in this game and pretty much dismiss Wisconsin, especially as these are not the high-power Badgers that we have seen in some recent years. Those folks should exercise a little caution and check out Wisconsins bowl record a little closer. Sure, there are plenty of losses for UW in the last decade but the Badgers played toe-to-toe with supposedly superior SEC opponents in most of those games and lost games of the 24-21 and 21-17 variety. Even the 45-38 Rose Bowl loss to the Ferrari that was the Oregon Ducks at the time and the ball was in Buckys hands as time ran out. Typically, Wisconsin plays hard, makes good use of the bowl practices and installs just enough new schemes on offense to gain a few advantages against the opponent that is better on paper. I see USC trying to play fast and use their speed to make UW play away from their usual disciplined defense. If the Trojans can stress Wisconsin in that manner and get a lead, they should cruise but I really dont see that gameflow coming to fruition. Wisconsin is, for lack of a better word, a pack of Badgers on defense. They are quick and get pressure without the blitz and have enough talent in the secondary to leave the corners alone so the safeties can make plays. USC will have to be versatile on offense and keep it to third-and-short or UW will get off the field quickly. Wisconsin will have to do something clever on offense but Stave has proven he can make throws and he made several while winning the Outback Bowl just last year. This is his final game as a Badger and I think Paul Chryst will have him at his best to send him off right. There is enough of a running game left for Wisconsin, especially if Clement plays, and Alex Erickson has found a way to be productive even though opposing defenses know he is the only receiving threat for the Badgers. I cant see either team getting more than one score ahead of the other and that usually makes me want to take the underdog, which I will do here. I see USC surviving a nail-biter that could be a Badger win outright if the best version of the UW offense shows up and I wouldnt be surprised to see UW with the ball and a chance to win with less than a minute left. I will give the Trojans the 26-24 win but take Wisconsin and the points.
Evergreens Pick to Cover the Point Spread: WISCONSIN
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