No. 22 USC vs. No. 16 Iowa: Holiday Bowl preview and picks against the spread

No. 22 USC (8-4) vs. No. 16 Iowa (9-3)

Location: San Diego | When: Dec. 27 (8 p.m. ET) | TV: FS1 | Line: Iowa -2

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

USC: USC lost starting QB JT Daniels to an ACL injury in Week 1, but that opened the door for the emergence of freshman Kedon Slovis. But Slovis would also miss time with a concussion, all part of a tough 3-3 start for the Trojans. But when Slovis returned, the Trojans hit their stride offensively USC won five of its last six games, but the lone loss came in blowout fashion, 56-24, to Oregon at home. Still, that strong finish was enough for head coach Clay Helton to be retained by the school’s new president and athletic director. 

Iowa: Iowa started the season 4-0 before dropping back-to-back close games to Michigan (10-3) and Penn State (17-12). From there, the Hawkeyes handled Purdue and Northwestern before dropping another road game, this time a 24-22 decision at Wisconsin. The next week, though, the Hawkeyes upset then-undefeated Minnesota in a move that opened the door for Wisconsin to win the Big Ten West. Like USC, Iowa enters the bowl game on a three-game winning streak. 

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH

This is one of the better matchups of the first half of bowl season. USC quarterback Kedon Slovis has thrown for at least 400 yards in four of USC’s last five games, including a school-record 515 yards in the regular season finale against UCLA. Iowa is a solid all-around team, but has especially defended the pass well. The Hawkeyes rank No. 10 nationally in pass defense, allowing just 184.2 yards per game. 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

USC WR Michael Pittman Jr.: Pittman has been one of the best receivers in the country this season. The senior, a surefire NFL draft pick, is tied for third in the nation with 95 catches to go with 1,222 yards and 11 touchdowns. He comes into this game on a hot streak, too, catching 37 passes for 430 yards and three scores over his last three games. For his career, Pittman has 165 catches for 2,466 yards and 19 TDs. 

Iowa DE A.J. Epenesa: Epenesa has consistently gotten into the backfield for Iowa over the past two seasons and is projected by some as a first-round draft pick next year. After putting up 37 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks in 2018, Epenesa enters the bowl game with 45 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. He was been playing at an especially high level late in the year, including a ridiculous stat line against Nebraska: 14 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks. 

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa celebrates during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 19-10. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

USC OT Austin Jackson: There might only be a handful of better “get your popcorn” matchups in this year’s bowl slate than the ascending Jackson facing off against Iowa EDGE A.J. Epenesa. Both players have brought out their best down the stretch, and Jackson might be the most talented blocker Epenesa has gone against this season. Although the 6-6, 310-pound Jackson remains a raw specimen and needs to refine both his technique and mature into his impressive frame, he’s a player we could see landing in Round 1 to the right team. This is going to be a great test for both, but Jackson has been a mixed bag against some of the better pass rushers he’s faced this season.

- Eric Edholm

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

USC: Vibes haven’t been all that positive around USC, despite the strong finish to the regular season. That mostly revolves around the program’s poor 2020 recruiting class — currently ranked No. 84 in the Rivals.com team rankings — that came on the heels of the decision to bring Clay Helton for his sixth season. The negativity will only get worse if USC loses this bowl game. The program’s last bowl win came over Penn State in the 2016 Rose Bowl. 

Iowa: Iowa is in its 21st season under Kirk Ferentz. With a win over USC, the Hawkeyes can reach the 10-win mark for the sixth time during his tenure. The first three came in consecutive seasons from 2002-04. The Hawkeyes also won 11 games in 2009 and 12 games in 2015. A win would also give the program three straight bowl victories. 

PICKS

Nick Bromberg: Iowa -2

Sam Cooper: USC +2

Picks from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast

Pat Forde: USC +2

Pete Thamel: Iowa -2

Dan Wetzel: USC +2

Sean Sullivan: Iowa -2