Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Game Preview

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Fresno State looks to earn the first 12-win season in school history against a USC team under its third head coach of the year. Will the Trojans rally to finish their late surge, or will the Bulldogs send Derek Carr out on a high note?

ROYAL PURPLE LAS VEGAS BOWL: #20 Fresno State Bulldogs vs. #25 USC Trojans

WHEN: Saturday, December 21 -- 12:30 PM, PST.

WHERE: Sam Boyd Stadium; Las Vegas, NV (36,800)

2013 SEASON: Fresno State 11-1 (Mountain West conference champions), Southern California 9-4 (3rd, Pac-12 South division)

TV: ABC

RADIO: Fresno's two ESPN affiliates, 940 and 1600 AM, will carry the Bulldogs broadcast in English and Spanish, respectively. The Trojans broadcast can be heard on 710 AM in and around Los Angeles.

SERIES RECORD: Officially, the Bulldogs own a 1-0 advantage in the series history despite playing the Trojans twice.  Fresno State won the 1992 Freedom Bowl, while USC's 50-42 victory in 2005 was vacated.

2012 LAS VEGAS BOWL: The Boise State Broncos defeated the Washington Huskies 28-26 in last year's matchup.

WEB SITESGoBulldogs.com, Fresno State's official athletics site | USCTrojans.com, Southern California's official athletics site

This season's Las Vegas Bowl features two teams that have been beholden to some lofty expectations in 2013.  The USC fanbase expects to be nationally relevant year in and year out, so the Lane Kiffin hiring was a total disappointment in that respect.  Ed Orgeron brought respect back into the program during his brief stint as interim head coach, yet the university elected to bring Steve Sarkisian back from Seattle to roam the sidelines of the Coliseum next season.  In the meantime, Clay Helton will act as the Trojans' third head coach this year and the team is quietly gunning for a 10-win season, its first since 2011.

Two hundred miles to the north, Fresno State had been pegged as the last potential BCS buster.  For roughly three months, the Bulldogs were true to form despite some close calls until stumbling late against San Jose State.  The team rebounded to secure its first outright conference title since 1989, which is a testament to the talent and tenacity that Fresno possesses, but critics decried the Bulldogs' soft schedule and... well, they're right.  A convincing win against a USC squad on its heels would silence a lot of voices and secure the best season in school history.

What to watch - Southern California: For all of the turmoil surrounding the Trojans' 2013 campaign, one of the things that stands out is that they have had a very sound defense.  Opponents have the third-lowest red zone conversion rate in the nation, while its third-down defense and total defense numbers have earned top-30 distinction.  The Trojan pass defense has faced more attempts than all but ten other teams, and they have acquitted themselves quite well against talented quarterbacks like Sean Mannion and Chuckie Keeton.  Derek Carr and Fresno's wide receiver talent are on another level, though; there's no one person to focus upon, and the 'Dogs may put the lie to the numbers if SC isn't prepared.

It may help, however, that SC's lone Associated Press All-American representative, Leonard Williams, is a disruptive force along the defensive line.  He and fellow lineman George Uko have tallied five sacks each, and the unit as a whole has enough talent to frustrate Fresno's aerial assault.

Much of the defense's good work was overshadowed by the offense's disarray under Lane Kiffin.  Cody Kessler's production steadied once Orgeron took over -- he has a 68.8% completion percentage in the last six games -- and he showed the capacity to exploit below-average secondaries.  Marqise Lee must be licking his chops over getting the chance to attack the Fresno defensive backfield.

What to watch - Fresno State: Derron Smith may not have been the conference's defensive player of the year, but it's hard to blame him for the secondary's foundering in weeks past.  He finished the regular season with four sacks and six interceptions and was third on the team in total tackles, and it's likely he'll continue to be the face of coordinator Nick Toth's gambling ways.  Getting to Kessler will mean going through Abe Markowitz, who replaces injured all-conference center Marcus Martin, so the point of attack should receive a lot of Smith's attention.

On offense, a lack of evidence suggests that the record-breaking wide receiver trio of Davante Adams, Isaiah Burse and Josh Harper will take the field together one last time.  Harper missed the conference title game with a leg injury, but it was encouraging that the offense had an average performance (perhaps the only time that 400 passing yards can ever be considered average) in his absence.  Dion Bailey was an All-Pac-12 selection as a defensive back, but he and Freshman All-American Su'a Cravens can't cover all three Bulldogs at once.

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