The last time Fresno State and USC met it was the 2014 season opener. Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler took the opening drive 90 yards, capping things off with a one-yard touchdown run and pose right in front of my camera. Times were different then. Fresno State was coming out of the Derek Carr era and discovering that Tim DeRuyter wasn't up to the task of head coach without his star quarterback. USC was beginning what everyone thought was going to be a long and productive reign under new head coach Steve Sarkisian.
DeRuyter now coaches the defense at Cal. Sarkisian was fired by USC for alcohol problems. Current head coach Clay Helton is overseeing a struggling Trojans program while Jeff Tedford has his Bulldogs thriving in the Valley. Tedford is doing such a great job and Helton such a poor job that it wouldn't surprise me in the least if Helton walked away from this game with a loss.
Then again, the spread for this game indicates a very comfortable USC victory. The Men of Troy are a 13.5-point favorite. Fresno State has traditionally not had the firepower to compete with USC over the course of four quarters, but that doesn't mean the Bulldogs haven't upset the Trojans and aren't capable of doing so once again.
While Fresno State returns just eight starters from last season's 12-win team to the NFL, the recruiting been much better under Tedford, something that was lacking under DeRuyter. That combined with improved player development has turned the Bulldogs into an annual contender in the Mountain West as they enter this season the defending champions.
The bottom line is this: If Helton loses this game, the calls for his head will be so loud that there's a good chance they drown out any positive noise coming out of USC. Lose this game and the explanations get harder and harder. If the Trojans lose this game, they will have to face Stanford, BYU, Utah, Washington, and Notre Dame coming off the bounce. That's one hell of a bounce.
Fresno State at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -13.5
When Fresno State Has the Ball
With Marcus McMaryion gone, it's now Jorge Reyna's time to lead the offense. While he won't have two of the Bulldogs' most prolific targets from last year with KeeSean Johnson and Jamire Jordan gone, he still has plenty of weapons in running backs Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims. Additionally, Fresno State brought in wide receiver Derrion Grim from the junior college ranks.
The Bulldogs also have an advantage in the head coaching department as Jeff Tedford has proven himself to be leaps and bounds better than Clay Helton throughout the course of their respective careers. That also doesn't account for new offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb. Expect Grubb to make use of standout tight end Jared Rice.
Up front is a question mark for the Bulldogs. Left tackle Netane Muti could be the top lineman but he is returning from a torn Achilles that cost him all of last season. Counterpart Syrus Tuitele is the only returning starter with two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore projected to man the interior spots. With a defensive front like USC has, this is will be something to watch very closely, especially as the Bulldogs try to establish the run with Rivers.
If Fresno State can run the ball early, it will help Reyna find his rhythm and allow him to pick his spots against a Trojans secondary that is practically brand new. Reyna also has some mobility (75 rushing yards on nine carries last season), and the Trojans' problems defending running quarterbacks are well documented. Either way, don't be surprised if the Bulldogs look a little out of sorts on offense against USC. Just two starters return from last year's unit, which ranked fourth in total offense and third in scoring offense in the Mountain West.
When USC Has the Ball
After missing out on Kliff Kingsbury, USC went and did the only other thing that it could do – bring in Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator and trust his brand is strong enough to provide the Trojans with a rebound in both offensive production as well as quarterback play. Harrell has given the Trojans a second chance at an air-raid offense. That said, no one on or close to the team is likely to tip their hand through the media before Saturday's opener, so it's a bit difficult to tell where USC is at with the installation process.
Fortunately, Harrell has said that his playbook installation is a simple process and that the Trojans should pick up on it rather quickly. In fact, his process is so simple that it doesn't even include an actual playbook. Harrell uses quarterback meetings with wrestling highlights and pop culture references. He is, if nothing else, a loyal Mike Leach disciple. These types of relaxed environments have worked at USC in the past (see: Pete Carroll), but whether or not it's going to work for Harrell remains to be seen.
The up-tempo offense will be something slightly new and the Trojans will have to drill into sophomore quarterback JT Daniels the idea that he doesn't need to force passes as he did in 2018. If Harrell can get Daniels to play to his strengths without staring down receivers and forcing throws, the Trojans are going to have a formidable passing attack, especially with the playmakers on this roster.
At wide receiver alone, USC has a ridiculous amount of talent. It's really one of the things that makes getting a handle on this team so frustrating. The Trojans have way too much talent to be struggling as they have been in recent seasons. USC signs studs like Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, Velus Jones, Bru McCoy, Kyle Ford, and Devon Williams to do what they do best. If Harrell can truly change the atmosphere surrounding the quarterbacks, this team has more than enough firepower at wideout to frustrate and confuse any defensive coordinator.
This seems like the type of game where Fresno State is able to give a new-look USC team plenty of trouble, but the talent disparity should reveal itself by the end of Saturday's opener. The Bulldogs are likely looking at too high of a mountain for their young and rebuilt squad to climb. One thing is for sure – Fresno State will be ready to play and won't be intimidated playing the Trojans in renovated, recently minted United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Bulldogs will believe in themselves, but will that be enough to keep some of the nation's most talented receivers out of the end zone?
The one benefit to coaching at USC is that you always know where you stand. If you don't, it's not hard to find out. Clay Helton knows this is a year in which the Trojans must take several steps forward. It's one thing to just finish with a better record, as there are many reasons why that could occur. USC fans want to see remarkable improvement in the overall product.
They want to see JT Daniels becoming the blue-chip quarterback he was expected to be coming out of high school. They want to see highly coveted receivers flying all over the field, impossible to cover, and helping the offense score points galore. The Trojans know that this is a make-or-break year and it starts with this game. Take care of business at home and get things started on the right foot. Fresno State ought to make it interesting, but USC should have more than enough talent to pull away at the end.
Prediction: USC 31, Fresno State 23
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.