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No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Utah: Rose Bowl preview, best bets

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Rose Bowl: No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Utah

Location: Pasadena, California | Time: 5 p.m. ET (Jan. 1) | Line: OSU -4.5 | Total: 64

How these teams got here

Utah (10-3): If the College Football Playoff were expanded to 12 teams, Utah would be the team nobody wants to face. The Utes started the year 1-2 with close road losses to BYU and San Diego State. From there, the coaching staff made the switch to Cam Rising at quarterback. His presence helped launch a big-time turnaround, as did the emergence of running back Tavion Thomas.

The Utes cruised through Pac-12 play, only losing to Oregon State along the way. They went 8-1 in conference play, including a triumphant 38-7 win over Oregon when the Ducks were ranked No. 3 in the country. Utah and Oregon later had a rematch in the Pac-12 title game and it was more of the same. Utah won 38-10 to capture its first Pac-12 championship and clinch the first Rose Bowl berth in program history.

Ohio State (10-2): Ohio State had a surprising Week 2 home loss to Oregon but still looked like a potential College Football Playoff team for most of the season. After that loss, the Buckeyes rattled off nine consecutive victories behind a high-powered offense that featured two freshmen stars at quarterback (C.J. Stroud) and running back (TreVeyon Henderson), as well as the best receiving trio in the country — Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

Sitting at 10-1 entering the regular-season finale against Michigan, Ohio State looked like it was about to win its fifth straight Big Ten title and make a return trip to the CFP. Instead, OSU’s eight-game winning streak over UM was snapped and the Wolverines went on to win the Big Ten and earn a trip to the four-team playoff. As a result, Ohio State dropped to the Rose Bowl.

COLUMBUS, OHIO - NOVEMBER 20: C.J. Stroud #7 of the Ohio State Buckeyes drops back to pass during the first half of a game against the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
C.J. Stroud of Ohio State drops back to pass during the first half against Michigan State at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 20, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

Players to know

Utah LB Devin Lloyd: Utah’s defense ranks No. 12 in the country in yards allowed per game and Devin Lloyd plays a huge role. Lloyd, a potential first-round draft choice, earned All-American honors and was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts this season. Lloyd is a guy who can defend the run, get after the quarterback and drop back in coverage. His stats reflect that. He enters the bowl game with 106 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, eight sacks and four interceptions.

Ohio State WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba: With Wilson and Olave opting out to prepare for the NFL draft, we will get a sneak peak at Smith-Njigba as Ohio State’s No. 1 wide receiver. While Wilson and Olave could both be first-round picks, it is actually Smith-Njigba who leads the Buckeyes in receptions and yards. He enters the bowl game with 80 catches for 1,259 yards and six touchdowns. How will he respond when he is the clear focus of the defense?

What’s on the line

Utah: This is one of the biggest bowl games Utah has ever played in. The Utes played in two BCS bowls, winning the Fiesta Bowl in 2004 and the Sugar Bowl in 2008. Kyle Whittingham has been Utah’s head coach since 2005 and guided the program’s ascendance from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Back in 2008, the Utes went undefeated but were ranked No. 6 in the final BCS rankings. Utah then went on to beat Alabama handily in the Sugar Bowl.

Utah moved into the Pac-12 in 2011 and didn’t reach the conference championship game until the 2019 season. The Utes lost to Oregon that year with a possible playoff berth on the line. This year, they overcame those early-season losses, trounced Oregon twice and now are set to play in the Rose Bowl for the first time. With a win, Utah would get to 12 wins for the first time since 2008.

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd (0 ) readies for a play in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Colorado Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/George Frey)
Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd readies for a play in the second half against Colorado on Nov. 26, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/George Frey)

Ohio State: Ohio State had its sights set on the College Football Playoff. This is a step down from those national title aspirations. But this team has to be motivated to play better than it did against Michigan, right? Even with the opt-outs, this is still one of the most talented rosters in college football and the chance to win a Rose Bowl is always special. It’s a game Ohio State has played in 15 previous times dating to 1920. OSU has won its last three appearances in the Rose Bowl, beating Arizona State in 1996, Oregon in 2009 and Washington in 2018. Excluding the 2020 season amid the pandemic, OSU has won at least 11 games in its last eight seasons.

Best bets

Sam Cooper: The absence of Olave and Wilson — as well as OT Nicholas Petit-Frere and DT Haskell Garrett — obviously looms large for Ohio State, but I still expect the Buckeyes to be motivated to play after that performance against Michigan. Utah is going to be revved up to win this game and is extremely physical along both lines of scrimmage. The Utes should be able to run the ball, though not as dominantly as Michigan did. I'll go with the under, but I don't feel great about it. Pick: Under 64

Nick Bromberg: The Utes ended the season on a roll, and I like their talent up front on both sides of the ball against Ohio State after seeing what the Michigan did to the Buckeyes. Couple that with the absences of Wilson and Olave for the Buckeyes, and I think Utah can win this game outright. Pick: Utah +4.5

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