Entering Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium, the No. 21 Fresno State Bulldogs own the nation’s top passing offense and are ranked fifth with 45.3 points per game, but they are 6.5-point underdogs to the 25th-ranked USC Trojans.
Boasting an 11-1 record and the Mountain West Conference title, the Bulldogs and quarterback Derek Carr will have plenty to prove. Carr earned conference player of the year honors with 4,866 passing yards and 48 touchdowns, while connecting with top receiver Davante Adams 23 times for scores.
Adams finished the regular season with 122 receptions for 1,645 yards, and both he and Carr were named to All-Mountain West first-team. Adams was also named to the AP All-American second team.
Even with the nation’s most high-powered aerial attack, the Fresno State defense may have forced oddsmakers to tab the Trojans. The Bulldogs are 81st in the nation with 29.1 points allowed per game, a glaring stat highlighted by their 62-52 letdown to San Jose State that smudged their otherwise perfect record.
All-around defensive back Derron Smith was the only Bulldog picked for the conference first-team defense, ranking third on the team with 69 total tackles, along with 4.0 sacks, six interceptions and 11 passes defended.
Smith will be asked to contain USC (9-4) sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler, who has thrown just one interception in the last six games with the Trojans going 5-1 to end the season.
Kessler has the potential to torch the Fresno State defense, with his talented group of receivers. But it might also be his last game with USC top-flight wide out Marqise Lee. The junior hasn’t officially decided his future, but before the season began Lee was expected to catapult atop NFL team draft boards.
Several injuries slowed Lee in his third collegiate season, but he was still second on the team with 50 receptions for 673 yards and two touchdowns.
Lee and Kessler will look to carry the offense, with running back Silas Redd expected to be out, and team-leading rusher Tre Madden questionable with a hamstring injury.
Madden compiled 703 rushing yards and three touchdowns this season, but hasn’t gained 100 yards or more since the Sept. 28 blowout loss to Arizona State.
Defensive end Leonard Williams and linebacker Devon Kennard headline the Trojans defense, combining for 15 of the team’s 35 sacks this season.
The Trojans are coached by Clay Helton, who represents the third head coach for USC in the 2013 season.
Helton took over for Ed Orgeron, who recently stepped down after serving as the interim coach following the firing of Lane Kiffin on Sept. 28, after a blowout loss to Arizona State. Steve Sarkisian will take over as head coach in the 2014 season.
Betting Odds: USC favored by 6.5 points
Over/Under: 62 points
Time: Saturday, Dec. 21, 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Prediction: USC over Fresno State, 34 - 24