With new coach Steve Sarkisian taking over for the much lampooned Lane Kiffin this season, people were curious how the Trojans' would respond to a different branch from the Pete Carroll coaching tree. SB Nation's Bill Connelly spotted them as a sleeper team who could break through to "bigger and better" things in 2014.
Well, that didn't exactly happen. An impressive beat down of Fresno State followed by a good win on the road at Stanford catapulted the Trojans to #14 in the rankings. But then, Southern Cal slipped on the banana peel at Boston College in a Cob-nominated 37-31 loss. After a 38-34 loss to Arizona State, the Trojans upset Arizona 28-26 on the road, but then lost to Utah 24-21 and UCLA 38-20. The end of season 49-14 thumping of Notre Dame might have been the highlight of Southern Cal's season.
Junior quarterback Cody Kessler could be playing his final game for the Trojans, as he's considering declaring early for the NFL draft. He's not projected as a first or second round pick at this time; one evaluator the Orange County Registrar consulted slotted him in the fourth round. While the NFL may not feel that Kessler has "elite physical" skills, he put up dominating numbers this season: 3,505 yards, 36 touchdowns, 70.7 completion percentage...and just four interceptions. He's third in the nation in passing efficiency (168.8), trailing just Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett. He's not a threat to run, as he's lost 149 yards on 52 carries this season.
Junior tailback Javorius "Buck" Allen provides more than enough power on the ground - most of the time. He's rushed for 1,337 yards and nine touchdowns this season, though his production dropped off noticeably in the Trojans last three games. Allen topped the 100 yard mark on the ground in eight of the first nine games of the season, but only 213 yards total against Cal, UCLA, and Notre Dame. Allen is also considering declaring for the NFL draft; he's projected as a second or third round back at this time. Sophomore Justin Davis is Allen's primary backup, rushing for 550 yards and four touchdowns this season, playing in every game.
Junior wide receiver Leonard Agholor earned third team AP All-American honors this season, catching 97 passes for 1,223 yards and eleven touchdowns. Agholor is also the Trojans' leading punt returner, returning two for touchdowns this season. Agholor finished the season hot, with five games over 100 yards receiving, which included 220 yards against Washington State followed by 216 yards (on 16 catches!) against Cal. True freshman JuJu Smith started his college career with a bang against Fresno State (4 catches for 123 yards), totaling 51 catches for 658 yards and five touchdowns on the season. Junior George Farmer and sophomore Darreus Rogers each have caught four touchdown passes as well, though they only have 24 and 19 catches on the season respectively.
Offensive line was a concern going into the season, and after sophomore left tackle Chad Wheeler suffered a knee injury, Buck Allen's rushing numbers dropped as well. Freshman Toa Lobendahn moved outside from guard to replace Wheeler, earning him freshman all-American honors. Junior Max Turek moved inside to center this season and earned first team all-Pac-12 honors. He's certainly talented enough to jump to the NFL early, but he's already decided to return for his senior season. Another true freshman to keep an eye on is guard Damien Mama, who's recovered from a minor knee injury suffered in early November.
Southern Cal's defense has put up some decent numbers this season, and has looked pretty good most of the time, ranking second in the Pac-12 in total defense. But they did show a weakness for one thing: a mobile quarterback. They didn't face many this season, as the schedule maker kept the Trojans away from Oregon. But Boston College's Tyler Murphy did gouge the Trojans for 191 yards in September, including a 66 yard touchdown run. UCLA's Brett Hundley didn't do much on the ground, though he didn't even try to as the Bruins commanded that game after an early Hundley mistake.
Up front, the Trojans are led by junior defensive end Leonard Williams, who (stop me if you've heard this before) is also considering heading to the NFL after this season. The second-team all-American is second on the team with 71 tackles and leads with six sacks. But junior nose tackle Antwaun Woods (37 tackles this season) tore a pectoral muscle during bowl practices, and has been ruled out of the Holiday Bowl.
Senior middle linebacker Hayes Pullard leads Southern Cal this season with 87 tackles on the season, while junior weakside linebacker Anthony Sarao is third with 70 tackles. But the star in the back seven is sophomore nickel back Su'a Cravens, who earned third team all-American (and first team all-Pac 12) honors this season. He leads the Trojans with 16 tackles for loss this season and also is tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. He didn't like moving up from the secondary at first, but he's quickly grown comfortable in his role.
The Trojans' secondary appears to have been the weak part of the defense this season, thanks in large part to the injury and subsequent suspension of senior cornerback Josh Shaw. You may recall Shaw's story: Shaw injures his ankles in August, claiming that he jumped off a balcony to save a seven-year old nephew from drowning. Southern Cal releases his heroic story, only to have it quickly rebuffed as a story of an argument with a girlfriend emerged instead. After the district attorney declined to file charges against Shaw, he was reinstated late in the season and earned the start against Notre Dame. While Shaw was out, senior Kevon Seymour (47 tackles) and freshman Adoree' Jackson (42 tackles) led the secondary.
I see this matchup coming down to two factors: motivation and the battle in the trenches. Does Southern Cal want to be in San Diego? Does Nebraska really want to? And are the Huskers distracted by the coaching change, or do they want to send the old coaching staff out in style?
As for in the trenches, neither team is at 100% up front. Southern Cal is tied for 95th nationally in sacks allowed, so you'd have to expect a healthy Randy Gregory to have a field day. Except Gregory isn't 100%. It does sound like Jack Gangwish will play, which means that Nebraska should be OK up front defensively. The injury to Trojan nose tackle Antwaun Woods may offset Nebraska's offensive line issues, where third string center Paul Thurston will be pressed into duty. Whichever team handles their injuries best likely will be the one hosting the Holiday Bowl trophy high after the game.