Nebraska fans must be asking themselves: Can Mike Riley start now?
The new Cornhuskers coach has many skills that will be welcome in Lincoln, but in the here and now, Riley's hex on the 2014 bowl opponent is of particular interest.
Despite a deficit in talent and resources, Oregon State tended to be a spoiler for USC in its glory days during the last 10 seasons. Three unranked, Riley-led teams upset three ranked USC squads in the last six meetings, including an upset of the No. 1 Trojans in 2007 and the No. 3 Trojans in 2006.
Alas, Riley is simply observing right now, leaving the team to interim coach Barney Cotton. The coaching change assures Nebraska that Bo Pelini won’t preside over a four-loss season, though that landmark is attainable for the seventh consecutive year.
If Cotton can lead Nebraska to a bowl win, the Cornhuskers will finish a season with fewer than four losses for the first time since 2003, another season in which an interim coach led the way in a Nebraska bowl game. That interim coach in a 10-3 season in 2003 was Bo Pelini.
On the other sideline, USC has a coach with plenty of familiarity with the Huskers in recent seasons. First-year coach Steve Sarkisian must feel like Nebraska is following him. While coach at Washington, Sarkisian faced Nebraska three times in a 12-month span, including a home-and-home and the 2010 Holiday Bowl. Nebraska was 2-1 in those matchups.
Nebraska vs. USC
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 8 p.m.
Spread: USC by 6 1/2
Nebraska’s Key to Victory: A return to form for Ameer Abdullah
Perhaps the layoff will help Abdullah because the Nebraska star tailback struggled in the final month of the season. While fighting through a knee sprain, Abdullah averaged 4.8 yards per carry in November and rushed for just one touchdown during the final month of the season. Before that, Abdullah averaged 6.9 yards per carry and tallied 17 touchdowns in the first eight games. The offense will all start with Abdullah — putting quarterback Tommy Armstrong into third-and-long situations against a pass rusher like Leonard Williams could be bad news for the Huskers.
USC’s Key to Victory: Keep Cody Kessler comfortable
Kessler is the nation’s second-most accurate passer, as far as completion percentage goes (70.7 percent). Yet he’s had a few games this season in which he has been under pressure. UCLA sacked him six times in a USC loss. Arizona State sacked him three times in a loss. Boston College sacked him five times in a loss. Given the opportunity, Kessler can pick apart a defense. The onus will be on the Cornhuskers pass rush to set the tone. Nebraska has a star pass rusher in Randy Gregory, who turned in an uneven season due to injury.
Though neither USC’s nor Nebraska’s season will be particularly memorable in the annals of each school’s history, this game will be notable for the first bowl matchup between two storied programs. USC is looking to continue its unbeaten streak against Nebraska, going 3-0-1 in home-and-homes in 1969-70 and 2006-07. The two teams in 2014 are evenly matched. The game may come down to which offensive playmakers are allowed to flourish — will Nebraska be able to feed the ball to Ameer Abdullah or will Cody Kessler be able to feed the ball to receiver Nelson Agholor?