National University Holiday Bowl Preview
University of Southern California Trojans (8-5) vs. Wisconsin Badgers (9-3)
December 30, 10:30 PM ET
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, California
Line: USC -3.5
Bowl swag: According to Saturday Down South, the participants will receive a “gift suite” and a fossil watch.
USC (#25 CFP Poll)
The last time we saw USC, they were being stomped into the sub-par grass at Levi’s Stadium in the PAC-12 championship game. This was a disappointing end for USC, who finished the regular season on a strong note, winning four out of their last five games. They had hoped to leave Santa Clara as participants in a New Year’s Day bowl game against a Big Ten team in Pasadena. Instead, they’ll have to settle for a Big Ten matchup in San Diego, a couple of days early, and at 10:30 at night.
This will be USC’s second consecutive appearance in the Holiday Bowl. Last year, they narrowly beat Nebraska 45-42. This year, they take on a great defensive squad in Wisconsin. USC has a major advantage over the Badgers in that they will only have to travel about 120 miles to get to Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers. Wisconsin will have to travel almost 18 times as far (though driving through Southern California traffic, the travel time should be roughly equal).
This game will come down to which unit is better: USC’s offense or Wisconsin’s defense. And this sits squarely on the shoulders of Cody Kessler. Between 2011, his redshirt freshman year, and now, Kessler has seen four head coaches: Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Clay Helton, Steve Sarkisian, and Clay Helton (again). It hasn’t been an easy road for Kessler who, despite the changing landscape, has turned out to be a really solid quarterback. He ranks 13th in passing touchdowns, 17th in quarterback rating, and 21st in passing yards. Kessler attempts an average of 31.8 passes per game, but on two occasions, he attempted more than 40 passes in a game (against Oregon and Notre Dame). That’s my way of saying that he’s really, really important to this team. Look for Kessler to connect with his favorite target JuJu Smith-Schuster early and often. Smith-Schuster has nearly 1400 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. USC also has two capable running backs in Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis. The offensive is USC’s key to the game.
Wisconsin (#23 AP Poll)
As much as USC wanted to get to the Rose Bowl this year, so did Wisconsin. Or, more specifically, Wisconsin wanted to win a Rose Bowl after losing three straight in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out for the Badgers this year, but under new coach Paul Chryst, they put together a really solid season.
Every team has its strengths, and Wisconsin’s is its defense. They ranked first in scoring defense, third in total defense (trailing only Boston College and Alabama), ninth in red zone defense, and tenth in 3rd down defense. They have held teams to 13 or fewer points eight times this season, including two shutouts (no easy feat, even against non-conference opponents). The defense is theoretically more than capable of limiting the damage from Kessler, Smith-Schuster, Jones, and Davis. But have they been tested?
I’m not sure how you manage to play in the Big Ten and avoid playing Michigan State, Michigan, or Ohio State in a given year, but here we are. Wisconsin went 2-3 against bowl-eligible teams on their schedule. The wins were against Nebraska and Minnesota, both were 5-7. However, if there is such a thing as a “quality loss” then I’d say that losses to Alabama, Iowa, and Northwestern fit in that category.
As I’ve mentioned, there’s no question that Wisconsin has the better defense, but what about the offense? The offense starts with the quarterback, and Wisconsin’s quarterback Joel Stave and USC’s quarterback Cody Kessler have a lot in common. Both graduated high school early and enrolled in college a semester early. Both redshirted their freshman year. Both have spent five years in college and will graduate in 2016. Both rank in the Top-5 in wins among active FBS quarterbacks. However, USC’s Kessler is the better quarterback, with more yards, touchdowns, and yards per play, a higher quarterback rating and completion percentage, and fewer interceptions.
I think I’ve changed my mind three times since I started writing this article. USC has the geographical advantage and the better offense. Wisconsin has the better defense. Ah, I’m going with USC by Traveler’s nose.