The Las Vegas Bowl features the most intriguing matchup on the first day of bowl season. Not only is it a clash between small school Fresno State and power program USC, but plenty of star power will also be on display for both sides.
Even though it's a game that comes very early in the bowl schedule, there should be no shortage of motivation. Beating USC would be a huge feat for Fresno State, and the Trojans want to end an up-and-down season on a high note before starting the Steve Sarkisian era.
With that in mind, let's examine the most important key for each team in what should be an exciting shootout in Las Vegas.
Fresno State: Don't Let the Situation Become Overwhelming
Between a matchup with a program like USC, finally getting a chance to enjoy the national spotlight after a successful regular season and the bright lights of Las Vegas, there are a lot things capable of forcing the Bulldogs to lose focus on the task at hand.
Head coach Tim DeRuyter understands the challenges presented by the situation. After going through two other bowl preparations, he talked about striking the right balance between rewarding the players and getting them prepared to succeed at kickoff, via Jason Clay of Fresno State's athletics site:
DeRuyter plans to draw on experiences learned over his past two bowls - the loss to SMU last season with the Bulldogs in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl and in 2011 when he led Texas A&M as the interim head coach to a win over Northwestern in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas - to help Fresno State put an exclamation point on what has already been a banner year.
"I guess the biggest thing I've kind of learned is the process of trying to balance the reward for the players as well as trying to get them focused on the game," DeRuyter said. "We didn't do it as well last year, we're hoping to improve that, and we've changed some things up and we're always going to try to fix some things that aren't right and keep improving."
The biggest thing for the Bulldogs is understanding they have enough talent to go toe-to-toe with USC. And even if they happen to fall behind early, their top-ranked passing attack gives them a chance to fight back as long as they don't become overwhelmed.
That's something DeRuyter and his coaching staff must continue to preach, because it's easy for the underdog to lose confidence in these types of games. The Trojans will try to capitalize on that in the early going, and the Bulldogs must respond.
Which team will win the Las Vegas Bowl?
Luckily, the presence of Derek Carr should be a major help to the cause. The star quarterback has thrown for over 4,800 yards and connected on 48 touchdown passes to go along with a completion rate above 70 percent, making him one of the most efficient signal-callers in the nation.
Davante Adams and Josh Harper both topped the 1,000-yard mark, and Isaiah Burse was just 13 yards short. So Carr has plenty of weapons at his disposal. If Fresno can remain focused and play its style of high-flying football, the team has a realistic shot of pulling off the upset.
USC: Attempt to Match Fresno State's Offensive Pace
Normally, a team going up against an offense with as much firepower as Fresno State's would be best served trying to slow the game to a crawl. Conventional wisdom suggests fewer possessions is the optimal way to combat the high-powered attack.
That's not the best option for USC, though. After giving up 35 points in a loss to UCLA, expecting the defense to come up with key stops in a slow-paced game is a risk. Furthermore, the Trojans have more than enough talent on offense to win a shootout.
The strides Cody Kessler made late in the season are a great sign both for the bowl game and for the future. Over the final four games, he threw six touchdowns and no interceptions while completing at least 60 percent of his passes in every contest.
Marqise Lee didn't live up to the sky-high expectations due to some nagging injuries, but he's still a reliable target. But the difference-maker could very well be Nelson Agholor, who can beat Fresno in a multitude of ways, as Gabriel Baumgaertner of Sports Illustrated points out:
This Trojans squad is not dominant like the ones in the Pete Carroll era, but it still possesses some of the nation's finest athletic talent. Agholor, a Tampa native, is a prime example. A dynamic wideout and return man, he scored two punt return touchdowns against Cal on Nov. 9, made eight catches for 104 yards in the Trojans' upset of Stanford on Nov. 16 and is a fine complement to superstar receiver Marqise Lee. A deadly threat in the open field, Agholor may excel against the Bulldogs' porous secondary and special teams.
Whether it's Lee, Agholor, Tre Madden or another one of USC's numerous offensive skill players, the opportunity is there to post monster numbers against a lackluster Bulldogs defense. It's a unit that will struggle to contain all of the Trojans' weapons.
All told, USC should embrace what's likely to become a high-scoring affair and let its playmakers go to work. When the dust settles, there's a good chance the Trojans will have done enough to score a narrow victory to end the often frustrating season with a triumph.