The USC Trojans take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on New Year’s Eve in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, the culmination of disappointing seasons for both squads. The 7-5 Trojans fell far, fast, after beginning the year as the preseason No. 1. Georgia Tech had to appeal for an NCAA waiver that would allow them to even go to a bowl this season after finishing with a losing record. The Yellow Jackets were 6-6, but because the teams ahead of them in the ACC’s Coastal Division were ineligible for the postseason, they got into the conference championship game, where they picked up a seventh loss.
Still, some think Georgia Tech might have the edge in the Sun Bowl. Excited just to make it to a bowl game, the Yellow Jackets might be more motivated than USC, which seems to have played the season as if they were still under a bowl ban. Finally eligible after two seasons under postseason sanctions, the Trojans were disappointed not to get to a more prestigious game – and they’ve acted like it.
The team’s bowl experience has been a media relations nightmare, from players posting disparaging Tweets about El Paso (of course, none of the positive posts generate any press), to the team arriving late to an official dinner, to photos of players sampling the weaponry during a trip to Ft. Bliss raising eyebrows and concerns about timing and sensitivity.
After such ugly build-up, the Trojans should be itching to get back on the field and prove that they deserve their first bowl win since 2009, but it won’t be easy.
The teams are pretty even defensively, both around the middle of the national pack, both slightly better against the run. But USC will be facing Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense, and while the Yellow Jackets’ attack is very unique, the Trojans have traditionally struggled against versions of the option or spread offense.
On offense, USC is a pass-first team, while GT favors the run. The Trojans had 694 pass attempts in 2012, compared with just 281 for the Yellow Jackets, who prefer to gain yards on the ground as the nation’s fourth-best rushing offense.
USC’s passing game wasn’t as sharp all year as many expected, but it could hit a few more snags with senior quarterback Matt Barkley out with a strained shoulder, and his replacement, Max Wittek, facing blustery conditions. Fortunately for the Trojans, the team will have star wide receiver Marqise Lee. Over the weekend, Lee reportedly injured his knee during practice and wasn’t a sure bet to play in the bowl game, but the official USC Athletics Twitter posted on Monday that Lee was unhindered during warm-ups and will play.
Still questionable is USC senior tailback Curtis McNeal. He sat out during the team’s final two pre-bowl practices, but he will attempt to play during the game. He shared time all season with junior Silas Redd, who will start against Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets don’t have the talent at wide receiver that USC does – leading GT receiver Jeff Greene had just 18 catches on the year, and the team overall is 115th in pass offense – but their run game is top-notch.
Senior quarterback Tevin Washington has 638 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground, and just 7 touchdowns through the air. Running back/wide receiver Orwin Smith has 637 rushing yards and explosive, big-play potential, and fullbacks David Sims and Zach Laskey combined for another 1100+ yards on the year.
Georgia Tech is seeking its first bowl win in eight tries; last year, they also played in the Sun Bowl, losing to Utah. If USC (or, more specifially, USC’s defense) doesn’t show up, the Yellow Jackets might be able to pull off the win despite USC’s greater talent.
The challenge for the Trojans, as it has been all season, will be to remember their “Prep Not Hype” mantra. It’s not about who the better team is on paper; it’s about the team who shows up stronger when it’s time to play.