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Arkansas State Red Wolves vs. USC Trojans Preview and Prediction

Cody Kessler

Cody Kessler

USC and Week 1 opponent Arkansas State have some similarities. Both begin their second year under head coaches Steve Sarkisian and Blake Anderson. Both have outstanding quarterbacks looking to build off statistically impressive 2014 campaigns in Cody Kessler and Fredi Knighten. Each harbors realistic aspirations of conference championships.

Steve Sarkisian

That's where the similarities end. For traditional powerhouse USC, Saturday is an expected blowout on the road to the Trojans' return to national prominence. Anything less than one-sided domination will be met with external concern.

For Arkansas State, a program that achieved its first measure of sustained success in the FBS over the last four years, Saturday is an opportunity to score a historic victory. Even hanging tough in the Coliseum would help propel the Red Wolves further onto the national stage.

The stakes are much different for both teams. Still, Sarkisian is expecting a challenge from the Red Wolves' up-tempo offense.

"They're really doing a fantastic job of bringing in good football players," Sarkisian said of Arkansas State. "They play fast, they play hard, they play physical. It will be a heck of a matchup for us."

Arkansas State at USC

Kickoff: 11 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: USC -27

Three Things to Watch

1. Cody Kessler's Heisman Campaign Launching

Coming off a record-setting junior campaign, Kessler is front-and-center in the Heisman Trophy conversation. With the Red Wolves replacing every member of last season's solid secondary but one, the Trojan quarterback should have an opportunity to start 2015 with a padded resume.

"The Heisman is a great award," Sarkisian said. "But a lot of the Heisman is about your team, and how your team performs; especially late in the season...The early on [hype] is great, but for Cody, it's not about that. It's about our team performing well."

Still, a big start to the year doesn't hurt.

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2. Options But No Clear Answers at Running Back

USC had just two scholarship running backs available last season, Buck Allen and Justin Davis. Both are out, with Allen now in the NFL and Davis an injury scratch for Week 1. Nevertheless, there's considerably more depth at the position with Tre Madden returned from injury that sidelined him most of 2013 and all of '14.

Madden is the veteran presence in a very young group. Three freshmen — Aca'Cedric Ware, Ronald Jones II and training camp standout Dominic Davis — will all see opportunities against Arkansas State. Madden's performance with nearly two years of rust and the acclimation of the freshmen to the college game are unknowns, but Saturday will provide some insight into what can be expected of the run game this season.

3. Defensive Aggression

A repeated storyline throughout USC's 2014 season was defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's conservative approach to blitzing. It was a vast departure from his time at Washington, where Wilcox oversaw one of the most aggressive blitzing defenses in college football.

Youth in the secondary and lack of depth in general explain Wilcox's different approach. Neither are now the issues they were last season, so expect to see a much more aggressive approach from the Trojans against Arkansas State. But doing so with purpose is the key, a point Wilcox drove home at training camp.

"Everybody wants to play aggressive," Wilcox said. "Are you going to zero-blitz every down? I don't think that's fair to say. It's mixing and matching."

With the capable rushing of Arkansas State quarterback Fredi Knighten, USC's blitz must be measured or risk getting burned by the dual-threat playmaker.

Final Analysis

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Arkansas State is a consistent winner, even amid repeated head coaching changes. Entering his second year at the helm, Anderson has a team ready to compete for the Sun Belt Conference championship. The Red Wolves most certainly won't roll over for the Trojans, so USC must come out aggressive from the outset to squash any hope of an upset early.

While the preseason hype might spark memories of 2012's failures, this is a different team. Expect USC to come out energized and tenacious in the first quarter and establish a big lead that allows Sarkisian to play reserves — a luxury USC didn't have last year.

Prediction: USC 45, Arkansas State 21

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.