UK Markets open in 6 hrs 20 mins

No. 17 Memphis vs. No. 10 Penn State: Cotton Bowl preview and picks against the spread

No. 17 Memphis (12-1) vs. No. 10 Penn State (10-2)

Location: Arlington, Texas | When: Dec. 28 (Noon ET) | TV: ESPN | Line: Penn State -7

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Memphis: Memphis opened the year with five straight wins before dropping its only game of the season at Temple on Oct. 12. From there, Memphis closed out the season with seven consecutive victories, including one in prime time over then-undefeated SMU on Nov. 2. Later in November, the Tigers beat Cincinnati twice in a row — once to clinch the AAC West and a rematch in the AAC title game. Memphis won its first outright conference championship since 1969 and set a single-season record with 12 wins. After the AAC title game, head coach Mike Norvell left for Florida State

Penn State: Penn State, with first-year starter Sean Clifford at QB, started the year 8-0 and was ranked No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, but was upset on the road by then-undefeated Minnesota. Three weeks later, the Nittany Lions faced another undefeated team on the road. This time it was mighty Ohio State. PSU made things interesting but ultimately fell 28-17. In the end, it finished the regular season 10-2 for the third time in the last four seasons, all under James Franklin. 

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH

Memphis emerged as this season’s best team from the Group of Five conferences, finishing ahead of Boise State and Appalachian State. In the five years with this format, Group of Five champions are 3-2 in New Year’s Six bowl games against Power Five opponents: Boise State beat Arizona in 2014, Houston beat Florida State in 2015 and UCF beat Auburn in 2017. Can Memphis do the same? The Tigers have a top 10 offense, but Penn State allows only 14.1 points per game. 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Memphis RB Kenneth Gainwell: Memphis had two 1,000-yard rushers — Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor — in 2018, but did not see a drop-off in production thanks to redshirt freshman Kenneth Gainwell. Gainwell enters the Cotton Bowl ninth in the nation with 1,425 rushing yards along with 12 touchdowns. Gainwell also has 44 receptions for 532 yards and three more scores. 

Penn State LB Micah Parsons: Micah Parsons has led Penn State in tackles in his first two years on campus. Parsons, just a sophomore, earned AP All-American honors and was named the Big Ten’s linebacker of the year. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Parsons enters bowl play with 95 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and three sacks. Those totals came on the heels of 82 tackles and four tackles for loss as a true freshman.

Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons (11) in action against Purdue during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

Penn State EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos: The 6-5, 259-pound edge rusher is entering his final game with the Nittany Lions, and his length and pass-rush juice absolutely have the attention of NFL teams. But one club we spoke with recently raised a very real concern with Gross-Matos’ edge-setting ability against the run. It’s probably his biggest question as a prospect, and it’s likely one that will be tested in this game. Memphis operates a run-heavy spread attack that mixes in old-school power plays. They use multiple backs and tight ends and can gash teams that are not disciplined against the run. NFL teams will want to watch Gross-Matos show some awareness and restraint against this type of team before stamping a first-round grade on him.

- Eric Edholm

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Memphis: The first game of the Ryan Silverfield era at Memphis comes on a big stage. Silverfield was on Norvell’s staff at Memphis the last four seasons but was given the head coach on Dec. 13, only a few days after Norvell’s departure. A win over a program like Penn State would be a heck of a way to kick off his tenure. It would also snap a four-game bowl losing streak.

Penn State: Penn State is playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game for the third time in the last four seasons. The Nittany Lions lost a heartbreaker to USC in the Rose Bowl in 2016 before knocking off Washington in the Fiesta Bowl in 2017. PSU lost to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl in 2018. A win over Memphis would get PSU to the 11-win mark for the third time in six seasons under James Franklin. 

PICKS

Nick Bromberg: Penn State -7

Sam Cooper: Penn State -7

Picks from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast

Pat Forde: Penn State -6.5

Pete Thamel: Penn State -6.5

Dan Wetzel: Penn State -6.5

Sean Sullivan: Penn State -6.5

More from Yahoo Sports: