Neither of these teams should be here. USC, the top team in the nation by many preseason measures, was not supposed to lose any games — let alone five. Georgia Tech, left for dead at 3-5, had no business getting to the ACC title game, let alone playing the Trojans in a New Year’s Eve bowl game. And yet, here we are, pitting two flawed teams against one another in a battle to see who ends 2012 more disappointed than the other.
Bowl Game: Hyundai Sun Bowl
Location: El Paso, Tex.
First Year: 1935
2012 Participants: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (6-7) vs. USC Trojans (7-5)
Last Meeting: USC over Georgia Tech, 23-6 (1973)
Georgia Tech (previous bowl game: 30-27 loss vs. Utah in 2012 Hyundai Sun Bowl)
We all saw the script for Georgia Tech’s success play out during the ACC Championship Game against Florida State: Pass the ball with some sort of effectiveness, and continue running their triple-option. The issue then, as it will be again against USC, is figuring out who should be delivering those passes. Tech had three different quarterbacks (Tevin Washington, Synjyn Days and Vad Lee) throw the ball against FSU, and while they had 118 yards through the air, they also completed just five of 16 attempts with two interceptions. Ideally, they should be able to establish a bit more consistency against a USC defense that ranked just 71st in the FBS against the pass, and bump that completion percentage up to somewhere around 50 percent. From a defensive standpoint, recent injuries to key Trojans have flipped the script a bit for the Yellow Jackets. Quarterback Matt Barkley is out following his injury against UCLA back in November, and based on recent reports, it appears star receiver Marquise Lee is also out of commission. Suddenly, Georgia Tech’s focus is now stopping the running game, which could very well carry the load for USC. Neither Silas Redd nor Curtis McNeal have seen all that many carries this season (just 263 between them), so they’ll basically be coming at this game with fresh legs. The Wreck’s run defense was middle-of-the-road this year (47th nationally), but benefited from their offense’s own ball-control style. Teams ran the ball on them just 450 times all year, and still managed to rack up 4.27 yards per carry. If USC dictates the pace, it’s something to watch out for.
USC (previous bowl game: 24-13 win vs. Boston College in 2009 Emerald Bowl)
The Trojans are a changed team heading into this game, as it looks like they’ll be without both Barkley and Lee — their two key offensive weapons. In their place, quarterback Max Wittek will be throwing the ball primarily to Robert Woods, but beyond Woods, there are really no threats at the wide receiver position. The running game, as alluded to above, will be shouldering the bulk of the production, and I’d fully expect to see a 20-carry day from both Redd and McNeal. As observed throughout the season, the most crippling result of the team’s sanctions were its inability to pull in full recruiting classes. Lacking depth at receiver, along with the entirety of its defense, has taken its toll over the course of the year. The defense, while impressive in spurts, ended the year on a sour note, and find themselves ranked 63rd overall in total D. USC opponents scored 30 or more points in three of their final five games, including Oregon‘s 62 points against them back on November 3. Their rushing defense, while not alarmingly bad over the course of the season (58th overall), has allowed 170 or more yards on the ground in each of their past two games. And then there’s the issue of penalties. USC lost the 15th-most yards to penalties in the country (66.5 per game), and if they hope to be victorious against Tech’s run game, they can’t extend drives unnecessarily.
Of these two teams, Georgia Tech seems like the one with a clearer objective: run the ball as well as they have all year, while using the passing game to keep the opponent honest. The enemy of Paul Johnson’s triple-option is predictability. If they allow teams to stay home and defend the edge, Tech will have trouble moving the ball all day. USC, on the other hand, has a whole mess of issues to deal with — defending the triple-option, creating a rhythm between Wittek and Woods, establishing the running game as their primary option on offense. And there’s still more. Despite the immense talent the Trojans possess on both sides of the ball, they’ve failed to really harness it with any consistency, and the recent injuries surely don’t help. It might sound like a bit of a stretch, but I think the Yellow Jackets can pull this off. If their ball-control attack starts putting up points, it creates a need to throw the ball. For Wittek, a freshman, that’s a high-pressure situation he’s simply not ready for yet, and it could very well result in yet another shocking loss for USC this season. Prediction: Georgia Tech 31, USC 27