We are mere hours away from the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, presumably sponsored in part by a pimped out Barney. Everyone toss your wallets into a pile in the center of the room and exempt yourselves from rational decision-making.
The atmosphere leading up to kickoff abounds with fluctuating urgency. At least USC got off to a decent start this week compared to last year's Sun Bowl, as interim-interim Clay Helton wrestled his players away from airport slot machines long enough to punctually attend the inaugural dinner.
Amid 99-cent shrimp cocktails and hangovers incorporating everything short of Bradley Cooper, the Trojans would rather be in Pasadena. It's understandable, for who in their right mind aspires for a non-BCS December bowl with a silly name? Based on its track record recollected by Bleacher Report's Trenise Fereira, certainly not USC: "Even before the BCS era, USC went 6-6 in bowl games between 1980 and 1998, and all of those losses came in lesser bowls."
Sam Boyd Stadium will still be filled with an eager fan base playing bingo and Streak for the Cash on their smart phones. We know the Song Girls will be present, garbed in ugly sweaters. Ho ho ho, who wouldn't go (besides Coach O)?
Motivation is the key in this Top 25 matchup against Fresno State. The Mountain West champion Bulldogs are assuredly hungry after being one San Jose State letdown away from automatically qualifying for a Sugar, Fiesta or Orange Bowl bid. USC, conversely, has to decide whether it is fighting on for pride and job security, or packing it in to preserve health and look forward to the next Steve Sarkisian chapter (now headlined with allegedly fresh Secret Santa sanctions).
If the Italian Trojan was a gambling man (online poker-ing as we speak), then the Trojans do not wish to trade seats with 1-11 California. An exciting football game is lurking in our future, doused with All-Americans Leonard Williams and Nelson Agholor, and the exuberance generated during Christmas miracle worker Ed Orgeron's brief tenure.
Of course, will USC realistically summon enough of a heartbeat? Am I willing to bet all of my unpaid loans on that answer? On to the bold predictions:
1) Ty Isaac eclipses 100 rushing yards for the first time in his young career.
Silas Redd will conclude his senior campaign on the bench with a bum knee. Tre Madden appears to be a game-time decision as well. That leaves two running backs in this successful yet inconsistently abled stable.
Many expect Javorius "Buck" Allen to carry the load and continue his recent tear, and he'll be sure to accumulate his stats. However, the opportunities are there for freshman change-up Isaac, and Helton should maintain balance among his spread touches to keep the Bulldogs guessing.
USC would benefit greatly from an attempted regeneration of "Thunder and Lightning." Fresno State, after all, was personally victimized by a record-setting Reggie Bush (294 rushing yards, 519 all-purpose yards…and he pushed them in front of a bus) and two goal line scores from LenDale White the last time these two teams met in 2005.
Although it was David Fales' six passing touchdowns that sealed San Jose State's upset victory, it was the Spartans' commitment to handing the ball off 45 times that exposed Fresno's No. 81 scoring defense (29.1 points per game) and ordinary run defense (147.7 YPG).
The Trojans' battered offensive line is more equipped to run block at this point, and it's their best chance to thrive.
Kessler's regular-season performances should already deem him worthy of the starting job.
There aren't any Matt Leinart-like or Matt Barkley-esque box scores, but Kessler protects the football (six interceptions on the year) and poses more mobility and a stronger arm than people give him credit for. He was an integral cog in the orchestrated shocker of Stanford:
It would be a waste of five-star talent Browne, but he is ultimately a product of Lane Kiffin's recruitment and regime anyway, and he's expressed no threat yet of transferring.
Kessler merely has to follow suit today--prevent turnovers and capitalize on awarded play-action. Whether USC wins or loses, he cannot be the reason it loses, and the role is his to exchange for University Bookstore credit only if he so chooses.
3) Both defenses will sack their opposing quarterbacks a combined SEVEN times.
Clancy Pendergast's relentless 5-2 pass rush has been the story of USC's success from the beginning, as it ranks 14h nationally with 35 sacks. What isn't as publicized is the front seven of Fresno State, providing the highest sack rate (3.25, courtesy of NCAA.com Statistics) in the country.
Average that with how often Trojans quarterbacks have found themselves on the ground (2.54), and then perform the inverse (USC's 2.69 to Fresno's 0.92), and Saturday morning math indicates the over/under should be five sacks.
Factor in the LA Times' reported losses of starting offensive linemen Marcus Martin and Aundrey Walker, and paused humility of Devon Kennard and company, and I'm tacking on an additional sack for each team and rolling lucky sevens. By the way, there will be a quiz at the end of the article.
4) Soma Vainuku records at least two touchdowns.
The blocking fullback from Eureka (the city, not the castle) evolved into a spark plug a la Stanley Havili in the two weeks prior to being shutout by UCLA. Vainuku burst out of the flat and into the receiving end of Kessler's sole touchdown pass versus Stanford, and then exploded in the "Running of the Buffaloes" with five carries for 70 yards and a score against Colorado.
The Trojans need every ounce of creativity and intangibility available, although the ensuing negligence of Marqise Lee before he drops a bubble screen in the third quarter shoves him toward the NFL Draft once and for all.
5) USC loses 41-30 and fails to attain that 10th victory.
How is this possible? Doesn't every aforementioned prediction imply triumph? Aren't the Trojans 6.5-point favorites according to Bovada? Do I NOT half-expect Traveler to now wake up in HIS bed tomorrow morning soaked in the blood of MY torso?!
The majority of the contest will remain competitive. Issues quickly arise, though, once Josh Shaw and a susceptible secondary surrender those first few chocolatey chunks of yardage at the mercy of the nation's leading passer Derek Carr. He is as gung-ho about rehashing USC's lack of interest in him upon his recruitment as he is inspired to avenge that San Jose State defeat.
Soon after, the complacency sinks in. The Trojans succumb to the fact that their playoff game is colored in with a royal purple crayon, and the coaching staff overhaul and depth concerns ultimately weigh down their shoulders. Coach O mails them a fresh batch of cookies and they'll eat their feelings whilst regrouping from January to August 30th.
That's when USC will be waiting in the Coliseum for their rematch with Fresno State, and the momentum arrow shall shift. I would take that bet.