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FRESNO STATE vs. USC
Saturday, Dec. 21, 3:30 pm
ABC It's always nice when one of the more intriguing college football bowl game match-up's is going to be one of the games that starts off our bowl season. This year, we get the second game out of all the bowls to feature two top 25 teams in the USC Trojans and the Fresno State Bulldogs. Fresno State looked like they could have a shot at a BCS Bowl, but they lost their spot to the UCF Knights after the Bulldogs went down to the San Jose State Spartans at the end of the year.
I’m sure that there are teams that have gone through more coaching drama in a season than the Trojans have heading into this game, but I sure can’t think of any. They entered the season with the handicap of having Lane Kiffin at the helm. He was fired — in an airport parking lot, no less — and Ed Orgeron was named interim. The turnaround he engineered is the only reason this team is in this or any bowl game. It wasn’t enough to convince AD Pat Haden that he would be a better long-term hire than uninspiring Steve Sarkisian, though.
Orgeron pouted and took his toys and went home, so now offensive coordinator Clay Helton gets the chance to wear the interim tag while Sarkisian waits in the wings. That move cerates two questions. First, after all the turmoil does the team still have the will to perform well? Second, what will the offensive play calling look like? Kiffin called the plays until he was fired, then Helton took over. He’ll likely keep calling them, but his attentions will be divided. What impact will that have?
Fresno State QB Derek Carr has been spectacular this year — like something out of a video game. He has passed for 4,866 yards and 48 touchdowns with just seven picks, and he has completed more than 70 percent of his passes. Those numbers have him at the helm of the top passing offense in the country and in the eyes of NFL scouts. The question, though, is how well he can handle the big jump up in class that the Trojans represent.
The toughest opponent Fresno State has played is probably Rutgers, so this is a whole new class of opponent — something that makes Fresno State so hard to evaluate. The Trojans have the top pass defense in the Pac-12, allowing 214.5 yards per game against a conference full of passers. The Trojans will have to contain receiver Davante Adams to have their way in this game.
The pass defense is going to be a story on both sides. Fresno State’s pass defense ranks just 118th in the country — out of 125 teams. It’s their clear weakness, and opponents have exploited it repeatedly. USC hasn’t exactly dominated the skies this year, though they have been much better lately. It has to be the focus for them in this one — something that the distraction of OC and one-time QB coach Helton won’t help.
In any bowl game you need to think about things that could be a distraction and have one of the teams playing well below their optimal focus. There are possibilities on both sides — besides the elephant in the room that is the USC soap opera, of course. Neither team likely spent much time dreaming of playing in Las Vegas on Dec. 21, so there is a real potential for disappointment on both sides. The Trojans were supposed to be strong heading into the season, and they had a chance at a much better fate before getting humiliated by UCLA last time out. Fresno State seemed destined for their first BCS appearance until they lost in their 11th outing against San Jose State. This is about as far from a BCS bowl as you can get. Beyond that, there is a chance that Fresno State could evolve a coaching crisis of its own before this game. Tim DeRuyter is in his second year with the team, and has done a remarkable job. He already gets mentioned for openings when they happen, and as more teams make changes in the coming days he could get into the mix in a serious way. If he were to interview or be seriously rumored, it could really impact the final preparations of his team.
This sports betting line has floated between -5.5 to -7 for the USC Trojans, but right now I see it mainly around -6. I actually see this game being tight early on, but see USC opening it up in the second half with their defensive pressure. I think that USC has a massively bright future, and they'll be a great team next year, but Fresno State's offense hasn't played the kind of defense that USC will bring to the table. I am all over USC laying less than a touchdown here.Love USC to win this game but with the interim coach and my lifelong rooting interest for USC I am going to hedge a little on the strength of the play. Will update as we get closer to the game.
USC has its 3rd coach in 4 months, once game ends it will have its 4th. Coach they loved to play for and who they wanted to have the head job quit when not offered the job. HUGE emotional advantage to Fresno. Can the talent on USC win alone?