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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Rose Bowl (Bowl #26)...By S.H. Austin

ROSE BOWL (Pasadena)
1/1, 5 p.m. ET ABC

USC by 1 point, total of 46.5

Michigan: 11-1
USC: 10-2
Both teams have been thought of as national championship contenders for so long this year that it's easy to forget how down everyone was on Michigan at the beginning of the season. Phil Steele had the Wolverines at #11 in his preseason annual. Athlon had them at #13. Both were projecting improvement after a poor 7-5 season in 2005. Michigan improved more than most everyone imagined, and were probably the second best team at the country at the end of the season. Vegas oddsmakers had it that way, though you can see that this game has been bet toward USC. If USC really is better than Michigan, then there's no way Michigan is the second best team, of course. You surely know the story of how the regular season ended for these teams, no need to rehash it here. Both were strong teams this season. Both had a game or two (or five in the case of USC) where they didn't knock your socks off. Both lost their regular season finales, meaning they were a combined 21-1 going into those finale's.

Michigan: 30-15 versus the 13th ranked schedule
USC: 30-15 versus the 2nd ranked schedule
We don't buy either of those schedule rankings by USA Today. We've talked a lot already about the Pac 10 being overrated this year. It's now obvious to everyone that the publication was INSANE to rate the 10 teams in that league as having the 10 toughest schedules just because they played each other. Michigan at #13 seems very high too. Non-conference opponents included Vanderbilt, Ball State, and a Central Michigan team that's strong for the MAC, but wouldn't be strong in the Big Ten. It was a down year in the Big Ten too. Much of the analysis of the Ohio State/Michigan game concerned how neither team had played anybody in weeks before the matchup. How could you have the 13th ranked schedule if you went weeks without playing anybody? Both Rose Bowl squads played Notre Dame in non-conference action. We'll talk more about those results in a second. USC went to Arkansas before Arkansas figured out what it was doing this year. Nice schedules to be sure...not top 15 schedules in our opinion. It's funny that both teams had the same average final score. If you assume comparable schedules, this just confirms these teams are close to being even.

Michigan: 7-4-1 versus the spread
USC: 5-7 versus the spread
Since USC was considered national championship material as their virtual college dynasty was supposed to continue...while Michigan wasn't supposed to crack the top 10...average scores of 30-15 led to a nice spread record for one, and a bad one for the other. Note that Michigan was 0-4 ATS as favorites of more than 20 points, 7-0-1 ATS in all other games. The Wolverines are a classic "Milton Berle" team (see pre-series article). They don't run up the score unless defense or special teams TD's come into the mix. But, they do give themselves a chance to win against anybody. USC started the year 1-6 ATS, consistently being overrated by pretty much everyone who said a word about college football. When the team finally lost a game (at Oregon State), the athletes themselves seemed to realize that they had to go for the jugular every game rather than posing for pictures in front of the tuba player. USC covered four straight after Oregon State, including a tough troika of challenges against Oregon, California, Notre Dame. That triple threat wore them down physically and emotionally, allowing UCLA to jump up and bite them in the last game.

Michigan: +120.8, with a season turnover differential of +14
USC: +94.1, with a season turnover differential of +7
Michigan was significantly better than most of the teams they were facing. They could just play their normal game and coast to big yardage advantages. Ironically, one of their best stat games came in a surprisingly tight affair with Ball State. Michigan won yardage 507-297, but still had to sweat the ending because they didn't take full advantage. Typically, they did take full advantage. USC was supposed to be much more explosive than Michigan. They have that in them. It showed up surprisingly rarely this year. They were most dangerous on short fields after field position breaks (they won TO's 3-9 in the four covers immediately after the Oregon State loss). They were surprisingly un-dangerous if they had to drive 70-80 yards for a score. The past few USC teams could score from anywhere, at any time.

Michigan: 20-7, solid for a Berle team
USC: 26-10, excellent for most, not great for a USC team

You probably have this down pat already for these constantly televised teams. Just be aware that Michigan is a bit more talented and versatile than their conservative approach allows them to appear. And, USC isn't the virtual NFL team this year that they've appeared to be with their prior quarterbacks. Last year, USC probably would have been a double-digit favorite over Michigan. They were a TD favorite over Texas, after all. Make sure you're handicapping this year's teams rather than the typical entrants from the prior few seasons.

Michigan hung tough at Ohio State, which is the biggest one-game challenge anyone can imagine this season. Be aware, though, that they lost total yardage worse than they lost on the scoreboard. The 42-39 result was close. The 503-397 edge for Ohio State was a bit more dominant. Both teams played Notre Dame this season. Michigan won yardage 340-245 on the road, USC tied yardage 404-404 at home. That speaks well for Michigan's chances here. Remember that Notre Dame kept finding ways to get into the red zone and not score in the Coliseum. Michigan's more likely to get points on the board.

USC probably didn't play anyone that's truly similar to Michigan. They did face some tough challenges though, and this head coach has responded well to challenges.

Michigan might be down because they thought they deserved a rematch after losing a virtual dead heat 42-39 in Columbus. We say dead heat because home field advantage is worth three points by itself. That result is basically a tie. Of course, Michigan could also channel that disappointment into a message-sending result that lets the pollsters know they screwed up.

USC is in the same boat. They could be down because they blew their chance to play for the championship. They could take this opportunity to let Ohio State know what they missed out on. We'd have to call it a wash. We have very strong teams coming in off a loss. That fact should be enough to get both involved at peak intensity.

Michigan lost to Nebraska 32-28 in the Alamo Bowl, winning yardage 400-318
USC lost to Texas 41-38 in the Rose Bowl (and BCS championship game), winning yardage 574-556

Michigan has alternated covers with non-covers the last five years. They haven't won a bowl game straight up though in the last three years. The cover two years ago was a 38-37 loss to Texas in the Rose bowl. Coach Lloyd Carr is known for playing conservatively...but the Wolverines have played high scoring bowl games. The last five totals have landed on 60, 75, 42, 68, and 62. He opens things up in good weather. Temperatures were mild in this year's Ohio State game, and that was high scoring too.

USC has covered three of its last four bowl games, with the offense clicking every time. They've scored 38, 55, 28, and 38 going back the last four seasons. The defense held opponents to less than 20 points in three of those four games.

We want to start with the total because of the notes about the recent bowls. Michigan plays much more wide open in their big games than people realize. Yes, coach Carr is conservative much of the time. That's a smart approach in Midwestern weather when you havet some running backs and a defense. In good weather, Michigan is prone to play some thrillers. We think this Vegas total underestimates this potential to an extreme degree. The total in Michigan/Ohio State was ridiculously low once the forecast for decent weather conditions was known. There were 42 points scored in the first half of that game, and 81 points for the full game. Since USC has established in past bowls under this head coach that they'll find ways to utilize all of their weapons, we have a projection for a shootout here.

Let's check to see if there's going to be rain on game day. El Nino is floating around in the Pacific this year, which could impact the forecast. If the field's in good shape, and it's not raining, you have to expect a shootout. This game could be conservative for a half and still get to a 24-all tie that goes to overtime.

With the team side, we're going to give the nod to Michigan because of the stats against common opponent Notre Dame, and because we don't think this collection of USC skill position people are ready for a top five caliber opponent. They haven't played one yet this year. If USC thought Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame presented challenges, they're about to find out what a team who's better than all of those guys will bring to the table.

We have a lot of respect for the USC coach. We're not suggesting it's an automatic wipeout.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

70% that the game goes Over the total as two teams with a lot of exciting weapons play a shootout. It may not be a replay of Michigan/Ohio State or USC/Texas. It doesn't have to be to clear this total. Note that both the games with Notre Dame landed on 68 and points.

30% that the game goes Under because turnovers spike drives, because the team with a lead sits on the clock in the fourth quarter, or because an earthquake knocks the power out statewide.

55% that Michigan wins the game 45% that USC wins and covers

S.H. Austin

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