by Lisa Horne
USC's 2014 football season begins on Saturday, August 30 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where the Trojans host the Fresno State Bulldogs. The Trojans (10-4) and the Bulldogs (11-2) played each other last December in the Las Vegas Bowl—USC won 45-20. USC is currently a 22-point favorite.
By the teams' positional units, here is the breakdown.
USC returns Cody Kessler, who started 14 games for USC in 2013. He threw for 2,967 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 148.40 passer rating. Kessler was eighth in the Pac-12 in passing productivity, averaging 211 yards per game.
Fresno State will be featuring a new quarterback after school record-holder Derek Carr departed to the NFL. Brandon Connette and Brian Burrell have emerged as the two candidates to replace Carr. Burrell's career stats are underwhelming: 7-of-12 for 51 yards. Connette previously played four years at Duke passing for a career 1,410 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but his specialty is rushing. In three seasons at Duke, he rushed for a school-record 31 touchdowns, including four against No. 24 Miami last year.
Advantage: USC. Although Connette has a lot of experience, he was utilized primarily as a situational quarterback at Duke. How will he handle a nasty defense in a plethora of situations?
Last year Javorius "Buck" Allen (pictured above) was sixth on the depth chart but eventually started mid-season. This year Tre Madden is back as well as Justin Davis, who rushed for 361 yards before sitting out the rest of the year due to injury. Phil Steele says Allen and Davis "may be the best [running back] duo in the country."
The Bulldogs' presumed starter, Josh "Juice" Quezada, rushed for 807 yards and six touchdowns last year. He is also a threat in the flat—he had 51 receptions for 290 yards and one touchdown. Marteze Waller also returns and Malique Micenheimer adds some explosiveness to the power running game.
Fresno State will run the ball but one of their highly-touted freshman backs may not be in the mix. Kurt Scoby reportedly was taken to the hospital via ambulance on Saturday for severe concussion symptoms, according to the Fresno Bee.
Advantage: USC. Although the Bulldogs have a lot of depth in the backfield, the athleticism of USC's backs is superior. In the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl, Fresno State rushed a total of six times for 37 yards against the Trojans' defense.
USC returns Nelson Agholor, a Biletnikoff Award Watch Lister. George Farmer is also back—he injured his knee in last year's spring practice and missed all of 2013. According to The Orange County Register's Michael Lev, Farmer had "extensive playing time with the first team ahead of Darreus Rogers." True freshmen JuJu Smith and Adoree' Jackson have also been turning heads in practice, although one or both could play on the defense.
Fresno State will pass the ball a lot because the Bulldogs always have weapons, especially in Josh Harper, who was also named to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List. The veteran receiver hauled in 79 passes for 1,011 yards last year. Harper can torch a suspect secondary—against Nevada, he had 17 receptions for 253 yards and two touchdowns. There is depth behind Harper, but little experience.
Advantage: USC. Receivers coach Tee Martin has so much 5-star talent to work with it is almost unfair. If everyone stays healthy, this unit is a huge strength. But a passing game's success is also reflected by the quality of the secondary it faces. If Fresno State's cornerbacks can keep USC's receivers in check and the linebackers and strong safeties can keep tabs on tight end Randall Telfer, this could swing back to the Bulldogs' favor.
USC's offensive line gave up an average of 2.5 sacks a game last year—that was good for 10th place in the conference, 104th nationally. Obviously, that has to improve. Part of the problem is depth—thanks to the NCAA scholarship sanctions—and injuries.
Three linemen who have never started at the college level will probably be starting against Fresno State, according to Los Angeles Daily News' Scott Wolf. Two of them may be true freshmen.
Last year the Bulldogs yielded an average .85 sacks per game—their offensive line was one of the top six units in the country in allowing sacks. This year they lose left tackle Austin Wentworth, a three-year starter who was named to the All-Mountain West Conference first team. Expect this group to be very good.
Advantage: Fresno State. Experience usually pays off in the first game of the season. We may see a lot of snap count infractions—an offensive line coach's pet peeve—and holds from the youthful Trojan linemen. Fresno State averaged more than three sacks per game in 2013. If USC cannot establish the running game early, Kessler could have a long day.
Defensive tackle Leonard Williams (pictured above) will be very active in creating chaos in opposing backfields. Last season Williams had a right shoulder injury that prevented him from being 100 percent—he still had 13.5 tackles for loss of yardage. Williams was selected to Sports Illustrated's Preseason All-American first team.
The Bulldogs usually have a stout and stingy defense but this year we may see a drop in defensive numbers. Tyeler Davison is the lone returning starter in their 3-4 defense. Fresno State may use a lot of line stunts and blitzes to confuse USC's young offensive line—expect USC to counter with zone blocking.
Advantage: USC. Fresno State may have one of the more elite defensive lines in the Mountain West but USC's defensive line is one of the more elite in the country.
Jabari Ruffin (knee) is out for the year. USC moved to a 3-4 defense which makes the linebacker a critical component of the defense. Scott Felix (nee Starr) will be used mostly as a pass rusher. Hayes Pullard and Anthony Sarao are the leaders of this unit. If they stay healthy, this should be one of the best linebacker corps west of the Mississippi River.
Like USC, Fresno State has consistently fielded a strong front seven. The Bulldogs return all four starting linebackers. They are excellent at defending the run and the pass. Fast, quick and very aggressive, this unit is underrated. Ejiro Ederaine had 16.5 tackles-for-loss and 10 sacks last year.
Advantage: USC. As good as the Bulldog's linebacker corps is, there were some telltale games last year. Fresno State gave up 62 points to San Jose State, 51 to Rutgers and 37 to Hawai'i. USC had some poor defensive performances as well—hello, Arizona and Arizona State—but after then-head coach Lane Kiffin's departure, the Trojans vastly improved.
The talent in the Trojans' secondary is elite. It can also be very youthful. Strong safety Su'a Cravens started 13 games as a true freshman last year and is experimenting with the nickel SAM position. True freshmen Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith are both defensive backs but they have gotten looks on both sides of the ball—where will they land?
Starting cornerbacks Josh Shaw and Kevon Seymour return. This could be one of the best defensive back units in the country if the injury bug doesn't bite.
Fresno State has a lot of starters returning but is that necessarily a good thing? The Bulldogs finished last in their conference defending the pass, yielding a jaw-dropping average 283.2 yards per game. Only six teams in the country gave up more passing yards than Fresno State. Kessler may have a record-breaking day if this unit doesn't improve.
USC has two scholarshipped kickers in Andre Heidari and Matt Boermeester. Punter Kris Albarado could be named to the 2014 All-Pac-12 first team. Last year against Utah State, the Ray Guy Award nominee nailed five punts inside the 20-yard line.
Fullback Soma Vainuku led the Pac-12 in blocked kicks/punts with three. Kickoff and punt coverage—a source of angst for Trojan fans in the past—has become a source of pride. This special teams unit is special.
Garrett Swanson can really put some air time in his punts. He is key in the battle for field position. The Bulldogs' kickoff coverage is a different story. Fresno State finished last in the conference in opponent kickoff returns—its coverage gave up two touchdowns and averaged more than 108 yards per game. This needs to improve.
Fresno State was known to play anyone, anytime, anywhere. It still does, but that swag is less apparent since then-head coach Pat Hill's departure in 2011. The Bulldogs are a tough non-conference opponent, but more so at home than on the road. The last time Fresno State beat a BCS (now called Power Five) team on the road was at Illinois in 2009.
USC had gone through three head coaching changes (Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton) before it took on Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Amidst all of the chaos, USC still routed Fresno State. The Trojans are now officially off probation, things are more stable and their new coach is actually an old friend to the program—Sarkisian was a quarterback coach and offensive coordinator during the Pete Carroll era at USC.
The Coliseum has upgraded its facilities (including luxury suites) so the fanfare in the season opener will be obvious. No more scholarship sanctions, no more probation and no more Lane Kiffin means a sold out stadium. It's going to get loud. A thorough thrashing of Fresno State in front of 90,000 fans would constitute a proper sendoff to Palo Alto the following week—Stanford awaits.
Prediction: USC 52 Fresno State 24
*Javorius Allen photo courtesy of USAToday Sports Images. Leonard Williams photo courtesy of Lisa Horne