Holiday Bowl - San Diego, CA
Wisconsin vs. USC
Wednesday, December 30, 7:30 pm PT - ESPN
CRIS Opener: USC -3 O/U 51
CRIS Current: USC -3 O/U 50
Wisconsin's strength of schedule, or lack thereof, is an obvious starting point with this handicap. The Badgers didn't play Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, or Indiana this season. Instead they drew Iowa and Northwestern at home (lost both games) and got manhandled against Alabama in Week 1. Against its five opponents that reached the postseason (two of which, Minnesota and Nebraska, went 5-7 in the regular season), Wisconsin averaged only 319 ypg. You can make a strong argument that UW's 5.29 ypp vs. 4.39 ypp allowed is in fact extremely weak based on the level of competition.
USC meanwhile went through a meatgrinder of a slate (No. 3 SOS Sagarin) and managed to win eight games despite losing its head coach midseason. But just because you play a tougher schedule than your opponent doesn't always make you the better team. When asked to step up in class, the Trojans didn't always fare well. The last three games of the season in particular were alarming as the Trojans were crushed at Oregon 48-28, outgained 5.56-4.82 by UCLA but benefited from a +3 turnover margin, and then dominated from start to finish in the PAC-12 Championship against Stanford, 41-22.
Fundamentally, however, USC should have advantages on both sides of the football. The defensive numbers don't look great but eight games involved opponents that finished the season averaging 6 ypp or more. Wisconsin didn't face a single team that hit that mark. The best offense the Badgers faced all season was Alabama and the Crimson Tide rolled up 502 yards on 7.61 ypp. Point being that while UW's defensive numbers look strong there probably isn't much of any gap between these two squads and USC's strength was stopping the run (3.98 ypc allowed) which matches up well against a Wisconsin squad that isn't much of a threat through the air. In fact, you couldn't ask for a better opponent to just sit back, play base defense, and keep everything in front of you. Wisconsin recorded only three plays all season of over 50 or more yards. USC's problem over the past few seasons has been against speed/spread teams like Oregon or physical run/play action teams like Stanford. The Badgers are obviously neither.
There's more to this and any bowl handicap than just strength of schedule, but I think when we look at each team's results it's clear that not only did USC compete against better competition but they showed more capable. USC's ability to run the football and stop the run grade out as better than Wisky's and after being embarrassed in the PAC-12 title game I look for a far better effort and enough of one to cover the short number.