Prior to 2014 the USC Trojans had never been to a single Holiday Bowl, now they will play in their second straight. The 8-5 Trojans will also be facing a traditional Midwestern football powerhouse for the second straight year. Last year was the Nebraska Cornhuskers and this year is the Wisconsin Badgers. In all, this year's installment of the National Funding Holiday Bowl couldn't have asked for a better matchup in terms of travel and support.
USC head coach Clay Helton made a splash when he fired the vast majority of his staff following Stanford's mauling of the Trojans in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Recognizing that morale was at a low point following the loss, Helton acted swiftly and viciously. In addition to the fact that USC will be coached by a patchwork staff, Helton also decided to chunk traditional bowl practices out the window and went with a more relaxed approach. Most practices were extremely short and often more about having fun and celebrating the their final days together as a team.
For its part, Wisconsin enters the game riding a 9-3 season without much fanfare. After being dismantled in last year's Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin lost its head coach to Oregon State and began anew with an old and familiar face. Paul Chryst, a former Badger player and coach, returned to become the new head coach for the Badgers. Chryst's return brought back the familiar, but it failed to produce any notable wins. Now the Badgers have a chance to finish off their season with a win over USC, which would be a program first.
There won't be much mystery to Wisconsin’s plan of attack in San Diego. Most expect the Badgers to rely on staunch defense and a steady diet of the run game to beat USC. They could surprise a few people and go vertical, but with Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave averaging just over 205 passing yards per game, this seems unlikely. Even still, USC is known to be susceptible to a creative game plan and Chryst has enough overall experience running an offense to create a successful such.
USC administrators and fans were promised a return to the power game by Helton, so it would seem likely that the Trojans will feed their monster backfield early and try to wear down the Badgers over four quarters. It's difficult to know exactly how good the Wisconsin pass defense is, having avoided most of the more explosive Big Ten teams. Despite all of Helton's bravado about the run game, he loves a good passing game and it won't be a shock if he tests the Wisconsin secondary early.
Both teams are in a weird situation for this game. A win would definitely be the right way to end the season, but it won't be enough for either fan base moving forward. The Badgers and Trojans expect great things of their programs and both programs have an extremely difficult out-of-conference test to open the 2016 campaign. In other words, this is as good of a test as either team will get to prepare for the next season. Expect both of these squads to leave it all on the field.
USC vs. Wisconsin (San Diego)
Kickoff: 10:30 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Spread: USC -3
Three Things to Watch
1. The Trenches
This is the type of game you win in the trenches and USC's front seven had been found wanting throughout the year. With Justin Wilcox no longer in charge of the defense, Helton has promised an aggressive defensive scheme moving forward. Peter Sirmon has been tapped as the defensive coordinator for this game and Tee Martin is going to be USC's new offensive coordinator moving forward. Much of what USC will prioritize remains to be seen, but the front seven should be turned loose for the first time in a long time.
Aggression has and hasn't been an issue for the Trojans. While they've been able to get after opposing quarterbacks, many of those sacks are coming from the linebackers. As a unit, the front seven haven't had the expected overall impact. Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave is many things, but a dual threat is not really one of them. If USC is going to have any success in this game at all, it's going to start with getting past the Wisconsin offensive line and getting pressure on Stave.
If the Trojans can't get pressure on Stave that means Wisconsin is controlling the line of scrimmage. Interesting things happen to the Trojan defense when power-running teams control the line of scrimmage. Wisconsin certainly doesn’t have anyone as deadly as Christian McCaffrey in its backfield, but Dare Ogunbowale is extremely capable. If Stave can get wide receiver Alex Erickson going, Ogunbowale becomes even more capable. All of that is a real possibility if Wisconsin wins the line of scrimmage.
Wisconsin's defense has given up an average of just 85.2 rushing yards following its opening day loss to Alabama. The Badgers have held seven opponents (in 12 games) to fewer than 100 yards rushing and are 16-0 under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda when they do. Speaking of Aranda, his name has been tied to the USC job since it came available and a quality performance against the Wisconsin defense could reignite those conversations. It all starts up front.
2. Expect the Unexpected
Conventional wisdom tells you how this game will play out, but bowl season tends to be about everything other than conventional wisdom. How teams prepare for bowls has as much to do with their mindset as anything else. USC has opted for a much more laidback approach to this game than its opponent and there is no telling what kind of an effect that could have come game day.
The Trojans do not have the most outstanding record when it comes to minor bowl games. The standard for minor at USC tends to be anything less than a Rose Bowl, so that pretty much leaves out anything other than New Year's Day games and national championship games. The Trojans hung on to beat Nebraska in last year’s Holiday Bowl and they handled Fresno State in Vegas the year prior. But it's hard to forget the Sun Bowl debacle of 2012 and USC almost always has these letdowns coming off a hard loss, for which Stanford would certainly qualify.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, is one of the more scrappy and consistent bowl teams. Outside of a rare blowout in the 2008 Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State, Wisconsin usually play its opponents within 10 points. The only exceptions to this since 2008 are the aforementioned Champs Sports Bowl and the 2003 Music City Bowl against Auburn. The Badgers’ bowl record may not be the greatest, but they're far less erratic in these games than their Southern California counterpart.
USC hasn't had a particularly amazing season and Wisconsin has to sense that it can find success if it keeps USC off-balance. Chryst will undoubtedly be aware of the coaching constraints USC is dealing with and has the offensive pedigree to design some early tests against the Trojan defense. Trench warfare is often decided by intensity and mental preparation, so catching a defense off-guard in a game like this can give a team an early advantage.
3. It's a Bowl
No matter what's written, said, or predicted, bowls often highlight how much we don't know about this sport. Alabama was sure to win it all after drawing Ohio State in last season’s College Football Playoff, that didn't quite go as planned. Louisville was just fortunate to even be playing Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl. Fresno State had no chance against USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl. From now until the end of time, this will continue to happen during bowl season.
Neither one of these teams have had a season worth writing home about. Coming off of last year, expectations were much higher for both programs. But this is a chance to end the season the right way, to go out on top, and leave a legacy behind for the next generation of players. That matters to some more than others, but we never really see how much until there's nothing left. It never really occurs to the experts that this is the final hill upon which some of these players' careers will end.
This will mean everything to some and nothing to many, but the band of brothers deciding they want it most will be the ones standing tall at the end of this one. Bowls matter for that very reason and the game will be played even if some people decide it doesn't.
This feels like a straightforward call. USC is by far the more talented team and have the horses to run Wisconsin out of the building. In a perfect world, USC should be able to put up a score similar to the Buckeyes' 59-0 in last year's Big Ten Championship Game. This is strictly theory, mind you. The Trojans have the horses, but that doesn't mean they will use them properly or even at all. Again, USC has a troubled history in minor bowls.
Wisconsin will come to play, but the biggest issue is going to be limiting USC on offense. If this game turns into a shootout, the Badgers would likely be overmatched. That doesn't mean Wisconsin can't win a shootout, but it does mean that USC will have to directly contribute to its own demise in some glorious fashion. This is also not out of the realm of possibility. Sometimes bowls are just about which team plays more cohesively, and Wisconsin has shown a tremendous ability to do that over its history. Badgers head coach Paul Chryst also knows how to call a bowl game; recently elevated Trojans offensive coordinator Tee Martin will be taking his first crack at it.
It would be the least surprising thing in the world if Wisconsin came away with a victory for all of the reasons mentioned, but it just doesn't seem likely that this group of USC players are going to accept another team bullying them around. The approach might be relaxed, but the focus has been there. An unfocused USC team is a dangerous bet, but these Trojans know what's at stake and aim to finish their careers on a high note.
Prediction: USC 34, Wisconsin 28
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for CFBHuddle. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.