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Holiday Bowl Prediction and Preview: USC vs. Iowa

Holiday Bowl Prediction and Preview: USC vs. Iowa

Holiday Bowl Prediction and Preview: USC vs. Iowa

The 10th meeting all-time between the USC Trojans and Iowa Hawkeyes marks the first since January 2003. Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer and finalist Brad Banks led the two sides into the Orange Bowl, a game that, in hindsight, marks an unofficial beginning of USC's dynasty in the 2000s.

In the 17 years since, USC has had four full-time head coaches and one interim. Despite rampant speculation each of the last two seasons, the Trojans will not have an interim for the Holiday Bowl. New athletic director Mike Bohn announced the retention of Clay Helton for 2020, which renders the bowl game something of an important tone-setter for USC's season to come.

Iowa, meanwhile, has had only Kirk Ferentz for the last two-plus decades. And with a win in San Diego, the Hawkeyes will reach 10-plus wins for the sixth time in Ferentz's tenure.

No. 22 USC (8-4, 7-2 Pac-12) and No. 16 Iowa (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten) will each be fighting not only for bragging rights but a chance to move up (and stay) in the rankings. USC has finished the season ranked in just two of the past four seasons, while Iowa has done so twice in the last nine seasons.

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl: USC (8-4) vs. Iowa (9-3)

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 27 at 8 p.m. ET

Where: SDCCU Stadium (San Diego)


Spread: Iowa -2

When USC Has the Ball

For all the criticism leveled against Clay Helton in the past year, his decision to hire Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator deserves praise. Harrell's pass-heavy approach cultivated from the Mike Leach-Hal Mumme Air-Raidaid tree unlocked the potential of one of the nation's deepest wide receiving corps.

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Michael Pittman Jr. was a superstar in 2019 and a matchup nightmare for any secondary — and that's before accounting for Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. Either could be a No. 1 option on most other teams. Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, meanwhile, was a revelation. His record-setting debut season is a source for optimism in 2020.

Iowa's defense must mitigate the damage from deep-ball pass plays as much as possible. USC will get yards, but if the Hawkeyes can dominate inside the 20-yard line, starting with shutting down the Trojans' running game, they'll be in good shape. The more havoc A.J. Epenesa can wreak in the backfield, the better for the Hawkeyes.

When Iowa Has the Ball

Hawkeyes football under Kirk Ferentz deviated little from the style employed by his legendary predecessor, Hayden Fry. The Holiday Bowl presents Iowa its first opportunity to honor the late Fry, who died on Dec. 17. It will take the field in San Diego and play a physical brand of football, unafraid to lean on a defense with a run-heavy look or put multiple tight ends on the field.

Although Tyler Goodson, Mekhi Sargent, and Toren Young have all shared plenty of run-game responsibilities, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley can throw it around the field effectively enough. Iowa's wide receiving corps presents a low-key challenge to a USC secondary plagued by injury for much of 2019.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyrone Tracy Jr. both have big-play ability. USC has done a sufficient job limiting explosive passing plays, ranking in the top 20 nationally for pass plays of 20- and 40-plus yards. Vulnerability after being ground down by a physical line, however, is a possible concern.

Final Analysis

The coming 2020 campaign should prove pivotal for the future at USC. Clay Helton will continue to field questions about his job security every time the Trojans underperform or lack consistency. And consistency has been the most vexing issue for this program for at least two seasons.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

USC finished the regular season strong, but an Iowa team that won nine regular-season games plays the kind of football that gave the Trojans fits. Three of their losses — Washington, Notre Dame, and Oregon — came against defenses ranked in the top 25 for points allowed. Iowa comes in at No. 5.

The Trojans must replicate the game plan that knocked off Utah, uncorking repeated and successful deep balls. For Iowa, eliminating these plays means the difference in controlling the game or not.

Prediction: USC 27, Iowa 20

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