The first week of the 2014 college football season boasts a rematch of the less than enthralling 2013 Las Vegas Bowl eight months ago. In that game, on the back of Cody Kessler's 345 yard and 4 touchdown performance, USC jumped out to a 35-6 halftime lead and cruised to a 45-20 win. USC controlled the game on both offense and defense, gaining 499 yards and giving up only 253, including just 216 to Heisman hopeful Derek Carr. The Bulldogs are hoping for a more competitive contest this time around, but face an uphill battle going into the unfriendly confines of the Trojan's den.
In the third ever meeting between the schools, each side finds itself in transition. USC is ushering in a new Head Coach in Steve Sarkisian, who looks to take the Trojans from a middling Pac-12 team to a true contender. Though not a simple task, Sark has plenty to work with. USC returns much of there offensive attack from 2013, including starting QB- Cody Kessler, RB- Buck Allen and WR- Nelson Aghalor, all of whom were position leaders in yards last year for the Trojans. However, the offense did lose its most explosive weapon, Marqise Lee, to the NFL draft. Lee put together seasons of 1143 and 1721 yards in his first two years catching the ball for the Trojans, only to see a knee injury slow his progress, as he only managed 791 yards in his final year. The hope is that Darreus Rodgers and George Farmer can replace his production and big play ability. With this group leading the way, the Trojans seem to be ready to take the next step.
The Bulldogs finds themselves in a very different situation. Coach Tim DeRuyter's first ranked passing attack from a year ago loses its two brightest stars. Quarterback David Carr flourished in Deruyter's offense, putting up 5082 yards with 50 TDs and a 68.7 completion percentage. Almost half of these touchdowns went to his favorite target, Davante Adams, who posted back-to-back 100 reception seasons for a combined 3000 yards. Redshirt Senior, Josh Harper, hopes to step into Adams' shoes and build upon his 1000-yard season of a year ago. But the question of who will be throwing him the ball, remains. Coach Deruyter has yet to announce a starting Quarterback for their season opener against the Trojans. Redshirt Senior Brandon Connette and Junior Brian Burrell find themselves in a heated battle for opening day starter. Burrell was in line to take over the starting job after Carr's departure, but Connette's transfer from Duke has muddied the water. With only a few days remaining before game day, this decision has yet to be made and will likely come close to game time. One thing does remain from last year's stellar offense and that is the two-headed attack at running back. Josh Quezada and Marteze Waller, who combined for almost 1500 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013, look to have increased roles with a less experienced Quarterback at the helm. Look for the offensive attack to struggle in this game against a carbon copy of the defense that handled the Bulldog's 2013 potent passing attack.
But there's more to these teams than skill positions. Here are a couple of impact players on each team:
Players to Watch- USC
1. Su'a Cravens and Leon Mcquay III- S- These two stellar sophomores are poised to be one of the most dynamic safety duos in the nation. Cravens is a guy that can do it all. In his first year, he showed that he could step up in the box and get after the quarterback or defend the run. On top of this, Cravens notched 4 interceptions last season and demonstrated the ability to cover space and lock down a receiver. Mcquay is a lesser-known quantity on the college level, for he was playing behind the now departed Dion Bailey. Coming out of high school, he was highly touted as an athletic safety with good instincts that could play the ball. Expect these two stars to be making plays all over the field on Saturday against an inexperienced offense.
2. Leonard Williams- DT- No one on this Trojan team has as much hype entering the 2014 season as this 6-5 300 pound defensive lineman. Williams is being touted as a possible top 5 pick in the 2015 NFL draft for his ability to get after the quarterback, as well as stop the run from his DT position. Though hindered by a shoulder injury, Williams displayed all of these abilities in 2013 while grabbing 6 sacks, a blocked field goal, and 73 tackles. Facing an offensive line that was manhandled in their meeting back in December, don't be surprised if Williams starts his 2014 campaign with a bang.
1. Ejiro Ederaine- OLB- Known for his wacky fumble return touchdown in 2013 against San Diego State, Ederaine could become a household name in 2014. Simply put, Ederaine was a machine for the Bulldogs last year. He racked up 63 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss. But, what really jumps off of his stat line for Ederaine is the 10 sacks he recorded from his outside linebacker position a year ago. He showed consistent ability to rush the passer, notching 3 multi sack games and 5 straight games with a sack. Though against competition a little tougher than he faces week-to-week, Ederaine hopes to get after Kessler and disrupt what should be a potent USC passing attack.
2. Cody Wichmann- G- Starting right guard for the Bulldogs, Cody Wichmann hasn't missed a game in 3 years. Since he took over on the line as a redshirt freshman, Cody has played in 39 games and started 36. He has been named to the 2014 Mountain West Preseason All- Conference Team and the 2014 Preseason Outland Trophy Award List. He anchored an O line that allowed the 6th fewest sacks and protected for the best passing attack in 2013. Needless to say, Wichmann is the man on this offensive line unit. But, he has his work cut out for him come Saturday. Cody will be matched up with future NFL first rounder Leonard Williams. If Fresno State has a shot in this game, protecting this untested passing attack from Williams would go a long way.
After not putting up much of a fight in the Las Vegas bowl and losing much of its potent passing attack, Fresno State's chances look bleak against an experienced and talented USC team. The Bulldogs need to find some early season magic to come out of Pasadena with a win.