ROSE BOWL: PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS VS. USC TROJANS (-7, O/U 59.5), Mon., 5 p.m. ET
One month into the season, Penn State and USC appeared unlikely to receive a postseason invitation of any sort, much less destined to face each other in the Rose Bowl.
The Nittany Lions (11-2) lost a shootout with rival Pittsburgh and were blown out by Michigan, while not looking terribly impressive in their wins over Kent State and Temple.
Meanwhile, the Trojans (9-3) got off to an even worse start in their first full season under coach Clay Helton, and they fast appeared headed toward another season of results that betrayed their immense talent level.
USC was humiliated by top-ranked Alabama on a national stage it its season opener, routed by an average Stanford team and lost its poise down the stretch against a mediocre Utah club after dominating most of the game.
But the Trojans and Lions turned their seasons around in short form and in similar fashion, behind the rapid development of promising dual-threat quarterbacks and defensive units that quickly came of age.
Freshman Sam Darnold completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 2,633 yards and 26 touchdowns against eight interceptions, and also ran for 230 yards and two scores.
USC ended its season on an eight-game winning streak, covering the spread seven times in the process. But its early losses prevented a trip to the Pac-12 title game, which was won by playoff-bound Washington.
Penn State used an epic upset of Ohio State as the core of a nine-game winning streak to finish the regular season, capped by a memorable three-touchdown comeback against Wisconsin in the Big 10 title game.
But the Lions were left on the outskirts of the playoffs because of their early defeats, and instead accepted an invitation to Pasadena.
JOSH NAGEL'S TAKE
Both teams benefitted from a switch to up-tempo offensive game plans that allowed their young quarterbacks to thrive.
Penn State coach James Franklin made the change in the off-season, and sophomore Trace McSorley was viewed as a solid prospect for the system.
But he developed faster than most observers anticipated and a variety of run-pass options, along with the running of explosive back Saquon Barkely, made the Lions difficult to stop.
McSorley threw for 3,360 yards with 25 touchdowns against five interceptions, while rushing for 352 yards and six scores.
Both clubs stepped up their efforts on the defensive end and finished with similar numbers, as USC finished ranked No. 24 in scoring defense (22.2), while Penn State is right behind at 23.4 points per game (23.4).
The Lions finished with an average of 36.7 points per game on offense (No. 23), and the Trojans scored 32.9 per game (No. 41).
USC also has a weapon on special teams with speedster Adoree Jackson, who has four combined touchdowns on kick and punt returns.
This spread opened at USC in most markets, with some opting for the extra hook at -7.5. However, the key number of a flat touchdown has been the consensus number for quite some time.
Many books have moved briefly to Penn State +6.5 based on underdog action, but each time the half-point was all USC supporters need to punch back and balance the books. If there is any movement before kickoff, I?d anticipate books again moving a half-point below the key number.
The total has seen significant action, as most shops opened in the 62.5 range, but money on the Under has forced it as low as 59 in some shops.
SportsLine data scientist Stephen Oh has a top-rated ATS selection for this game. Get this and all other SportsLine expert picks by clicking here.
At first blush I was inclined to support the underdog here, on the basic principle of value with a strong key number in what rates to be a relatively even matchup.
But there are some motivational questions for Penn State after it was left out of the playoffs, and a possible hangover spot exists from the dramatic Big 10 title game.
I'm still not ready to back the favorite, but I think the game will see its share of explosive offensive plays, and I like going Over the total at the reduced number.