Well before the BCS bowls get underway, there are several early matchups among the plethora of bowl games that precede the marquee games that will cap off the 2013 college football season.
Some of these programs don't get the type of national attention the powerhouses command but, thanks to impressive efforts this year, should showcase their underrated talents in these impending games.
A couple of the upstart teams involved, though, have lost their coaches, who fled for perceptibly greener pastures. Those moves will have a definitive impact on the outcomes.
Let's take a look at some of the best clashes on tap near the beginning of the schedule, along with score projections for each contest.
Note: Team statistics are courtesy of NCAA.com.
Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 21): Fresno State vs. USC
Bulldogs quarterback Derek Carr has a cannon for an arm and can throw to all parts of the field, but he will be facing a Trojans team that improved down the stretch after the firing of Lane Kiffin.
However, the man who replaced Kiffin as head coach, Ed Orgeron, stepped down when he wasn't retained for next season, as USC instead hired Steve Sarkisian away from Washington.
Quarterbacks coach Clay Helton has taken over the helm for the Trojans for the time being. Helton will be helping sophomore signal-caller Cody Kessler prepare for what should be a generous Fresno defense, which is 91st in the country in yielding 460.1 yards per game.
It's worth noting that Kessler has thrown eight touchdowns and just one interception in his past six starts, with the season finale UCLA being the only loss in that span.
There is no doubt that the Bulldogs have the edge under center with Carr, though. Not only did CBSSports.com's Bruce Feldman highlight the QB's amazing numbers, but he also alluded to Carr's toughness:
That type of grit is what rallies a team, and it will help drive the Bulldogs to victory. The dynamic combination of Carr and top receiver Davante Adams (122 receptions, 1,645 yards, 23 touchdowns) will be too much for USC to handle.
Prediction: Fresno State 35, USC 27
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (Dec. 26): Bowling Green vs. Pittsburgh
He may not be getting the hype that other first-year phenoms have, but Panthers wide receiver Tyler Boyd is well deserving of praise.
Boyd has amassed 77 receptions for 1,001 yards and seven touchdowns, 11 carries for 108 yards and another score and is also explosive as a kick returner. This diving catch against North Carolina on Nov. 16 is a strong indicator of his abilities:
The big concern is Pitt's one-dimensional offensive attack, as its running game averages just 114.9 yards per game—112th in the country.
As for Bowling Green, apparently winning the MAC has its costs. When Miami (OH) won in 2010, head coach Mike Haywood left for Pittsburgh, though he was fired in short order. After guiding Northern Illinois to back-to-back titles thereafter, Dave Doeren fled to NC State.
Bowling Green knocked off the Huskies in this year's edition, which led to the departure of head coach Dave Clawson, who is now set to take over Wake Forest's program.
That leaves the Falcons under the direction of Adam Scheier, who has helped develop a stellar special teams unit at Bowling Green. Under Scheier, BGSU has blocked 16 punts and returned three kicks and four punts for touchdowns since 2009, per BGNews.com's Cameron Teague Robinson.
The coverage will have to be on its toes against the likes of Boyd and Co., but the Falcons will have a big edge on offense in this one.
QB Matt Johnson is coming off a 393-yard, five-touchdown performance in the team's MAC title game win, and he is a dual-threat athlete with a stellar running back in Travis Greene (1,555 yards, 11 TDs) to complement him.
Look for the Falcons' balance (No. 23 in total offense) to keep their momentum alive and to get them this landmark triumph at Detroit's Ford Field.
Prediction: Bowling Green 31, Pittsburgh 24
Fight Hunger Bowl (Dec. 27): Washington vs. BYU
Sarkisian's absence will impact the Huskies in this one in preparing for a feisty foe in the Cougars.
BYU sports an 8-4 record, but three of its losses came on the road—to a formidable Big Ten opponent in Wisconsin, against Notre Dame and in the season opener against Virginia.
The other blemish came at the hands of Utah by a score of 20-13. The Utes upset Rose Bowl participant and Pac-12 champion Stanford to dash the Cardinal's national title hopes earlier in the year.
None of the Cougars' losses came by more than 10 points.
Taysom Hill is a bit erratic as a passer but has still done a serviceable job in tossing 19 touchdowns while scampering for a Cougars team-high 1,211 yards and nine additional scores on the ground.
The challenge for BYU will be containing the Huskies tandem of QB Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey. Price has 20 touchdowns to only five picks, while Sankey has run for 1,775 yards and 18 TDs.
Since neither of these defenses crack the top 50, this has the makings of a shootout.
Due to Hill's liability as a passer and proneness to interceptions (13 in 2013), the Huskies should be able to overcome the loss of Sarkisian, pound the rock with Sankey and get enough plays from Price to pull this one out.
Prediction: Washington 42, BYU 38
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