PASADENA, Calif. — The matchup in the 103rd Rose Bowl would have seemed preposterous in late September.
That was right before No. 5 Penn State (11-2) won nine straight games and No. 9 Southern California (9-3) won eight in a row, propelling these traditional powers out of the depths of disappointing starts and all the way back to the Granddaddy of Them All.
While both teams missed out on the College Football Playoff, a storybook ending is still possible for two teams whose comeback stories didn't start in October. Both schools have risen from years of struggles and the depths of NCAA sanctions to meet in Pasadena.
"Their program and our program may be two of the hotter teams in college football at the end of the season," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "And both had similar stories. I don't know if you could have written a better script for the Rose Bowl."
Indeed, this season has been phenomenal for both teams since those rocky starts.
Penn State was a .500 team after a 39-point loss at Michigan to close September, but the Nittany Lions ended up as Big Ten champions amid record-setting statistical years for tailback Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, who starred in the conference title game.
"To be where they were at 2-2 and then run off nine straight just shows the resiliency of that team," USC coach Clay Helton said of the Nittany Lions.
USC was 1-3 after September and had already changed starting quarterbacks amid complaints about Helton's first full season in charge. The Trojans then ran the table, with freshman passer Sam Darnold turning into a star and coordinator Clancy Pendergast's defense becoming the envy of the West.
After a persuasive road victory over playoff-bound Pac-12 champion Washington , the Trojans are sharper than they've been since coach Pete Carroll's last trip to the Rose Bowl eight years ago — also to face Penn State. USC will also reap the usual benefits from being at home during bowl week before playing at the venerable stadium 14 miles from campus.
"(USC) is obviously one of the more storied and historic programs in college football," Franklin said. "Very similar to a Penn State, just on a different coast."
Here are more things to know about a rare Jan. 2 edition of the Rose Bowl:
• BIG BACKS: Along with the intriguing matchup of quarterbacks, two of the nation's most interesting tailbacks will be at work in Pasadena.
Barkley was the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year with 1,320 yards rushing and 16 TDs, while speedy Ronald Jones II emerged from USC's typically deep backfield with 1,027 yards and 11 TDs. Both teams would love to establish a running game early to relieve pressure on their quarterbacks.
The running backs have something in common: They both love Reggie Bush, the former Trojans star. "Ever since we've been announced playing in the Rose Bowl, for some reason I could not stop watching Reggie Bush highlights," Barkley said. "I just try to be a complete back like him."
• COMEBACK KIDS: The Nittany Lions have repeatedly rallied from deficits to win this season, including a comeback from a 21-point deficit to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
The Trojans have been remarkably consistent during their eight-game surge, but they're hoping to get off to a quick start that will cushion the vaunted Penn State defensive line's ability to control the second half.
"That's the one thing: We have to get a huge lead," USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. "Penn State, they're huge in coming back in the second half. Their games have been unbelievable."
• ROSE REDUX: The game is a rematch of the 95th Rose Bowl, won by USC in its fourth consecutive trip to the Granddaddy.
One play in that January 2009 game holds particular significance for many Trojans, including defensive back Chris Hawkins: USC safety Taylor Mays' famously vicious hit on Penn State receiver Jordan Norwood, which also leveled his own USC teammate, Kevin Thomas.
"I plan on doing that myself if I get the opportunity," Hawkins said. "I'll probably get kicked out the game nowadays, so I plan on going a little lower, but that's probably my favorite play from any Rose Bowl. ... Oh, (Mays) would have been out the game for sure. Probably would have kicked him out two extra games when he went to the NFL and everything."
• NEVER ON SUNDAY: The Rose Bowl is a New Year's Day institution — except in years when New Year's Day falls on a Sunday.
The tradition-rich arena has refused to hold its game on Sundays since 1893, when the organizers decided they had to postpone the pregame Rose Parade because the floats and commotion would alarm the horses hitched outside nearby churches.
Although markedly fewer horses are used as transportation to Pasadena's houses of worship these days, the ban has never been lifted.
That's why the Rose Bowl is on Jan. 2 for just the 14th time in its 103 editions.