Our early preview series rolls along with a first look at a much-anticipated rematch. The Fresno State Bulldogs had a dream season in 2013, notching 11 wins and the program's first outright conference title since 1989. For a short while, it didn't matter much that a BCS berth had slipped away. A bid in the Las Vegas Bowl was a fine consolation, and a win against big, bad Southern California would cure a lot of ills.
It didn't work out that way.
Now, the Trojans boast a new head coach, another new class of highly touted recruits and a new lease on life now that the NCAA's sanctions are in their rear view mirror. Here's an examination of the Bulldogs' first opponent of 2014.
Location: Los Angeles, California
Stadium: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Mascot: USC’s famed mascot is the white horse named Traveler, currently Traveler VII, who is accompanied by a rider in a Trojan uniform who brandishes a sword.
Head Coach: Steve Sarkisian. This is his first year leading the men of Troy after five seasons as the head coach at the University of Washington. He compiled a 34-29 record with the Huskies and led them to four consecutive bowls games in the increasingly competitive Pac-12. Sarkisian has plenty of history in Southern California, though, most notably as part of the staff that won the national title in 2003.
Conference/Division: Pac-12 South
2013 Record: 10-4 (6-3 in Pac-12). The Trojans had themselves an adventurous season which included a rock fight against Washington State, Lane Kiffin’s unceremonious firing at an airport, an ugly loss to Notre Dame… and six wins in seven games to close out the campaign. Three coaches – Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton – had a turn as head coach and, while it wasn’t always glamorous, the Trojans mustered five wins against teams that went to bowls of their own, including an upset of Stanford.
Last Bowl Game: After a season of disarray, the Trojans put together a strong performance in the Las Vegas Bowl last December, defeating the Bulldogs 45-20.
Five Key Players
1. Cody Kessler, quarterback: The last time that the Bulldogs saw Kessler, he was having his way with Fresno’s depleted secondary and earned Las Vegas Bowl MVP honors with his best game of the season. Max Wittek departed the program in the offseason, so the junior will begin the year under center without having to look over his shoulder for a change. His challenge will be breaking in the latest wave of playmaking talent with the departures of Marqise Lee, Xavier Grimble and Silas Redd.
2. Su’a Cravens, strong safety. There may not be a sophomore in the nation at any position that will face higher expectations from his fans than Cravens in 2014. The former five-star recruit started 13 games for USC last year and was named to every Freshman All-American team imaginable after racking up 52 tackles and four interceptions. He is not the only player in this secondary with All-American potential, to be sure, but he is probably the safest bet in that regard.
3. Darreus Rogers, wide receiver. With Lee’s ascension to the NFL, Nelson Agholor is the clear number one receiver. What is less clear is who will end up with him in the starting lineup, and though the Trojans aren’t lacking for options, Rogers might have an inside track to a prominent role. He had only 22 catches in 2013, but he acquitted himself well while the offense scuffled midseason against Notre Dame and Utah.
4. Toa Lobendahn, guard. The Trojans have three-fifths of a near-elite offensive line in Chad Wheeler, Max Tuerk and Aundrey Walker. Both guard positions, however, have been subject to competition since spring ball, and true freshman Lobendahn found himself in the lineup during the Trojans’ spring game. USC has never been shy about handing a job to a youngster that earned it, so he might be next in line for such recognition.
5. Leonard Williams, defensive end. The big boy in a well-regarded front seven was an easy choice for all-conference and All-American honors after accumulating 73 tackles (including 12.5 tackles for a loss) and five sacks in 2013. Now, the stakes have been raised to include even louder A-A hype, first-round projections in next year’s NFL draft and more. If he is fully recovered from last season’s shoulder injury, he could be the most disruptive force in the country.
Offensive overview: Not every team could lose its top receiver, top tight end and all-conference center and expect to keep the machine humming along, but USC is not an ordinary college football team. Kessler has earned the starting quarterback job, and though he’ll be learning a new offensive system, he won’t have to shoulder all of the responsibility because the Trojans possess one of the deepest rotation of running backs in the nation. The Bulldogs are familiar with Javorius Allen, but Justin Davis and a healthy Tre Madden can and will produce, as well. Agholor might be the best receiver on the West Coast. Randall Telfer could be the best tight end if he stays healthy.
Defensive overview: It is no accident that Phil Steele named three Trojans to his four-deep preseason All-American squad, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a "stars and scrubs" unit. He named seven to his All-Pac-12 team, too, led by Williams and Cravens and middle linebacker Hayes Pullard. On its best day, this defense has the athletes to hang with any attack.
Early prediction: One of the best Bulldogs teams in program history could not find its rhythm against a Trojans team that was not at its best when they met last December. In the months since then, USC may not have gotten any better but the Bulldogs still have pressing questions that make it easy to imagine the season opener devolving into another unmitigated nightmare. The ‘Dogs will be plucky, but at the moment I am not optimistic about an upset. USC 35, Fresno State 13.