The USC Trojans will tango with the Fresno State Bulldogs on Saturday in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, a game that will either be a disaster or a thriller, depending on if USC shows up.
The Bulldogs were just one slip-up from a BCS berth this season, so they will undoubtedly come into this bowl game looking to prove that their loss to San Jose State was a fluke.
Based on how the Trojans have played in lower-tier bowl games in the past, USC could very well aid Fresno State in their mission.
|USC's Performances In Non-BCS Bowls Since 1998|
|2001||Las Vegas Bowl||19-6||Utah||USC|
|2009||Emerald Bowl||24-13||USC||Boston College|
|2012||Sun Bowl||21-7||Georgia Tech||USC|
Even before the BCS era, USC went 6-6 in bowl games between 1980 and 1998, and all of those losses came in lesser bowls.
Everything about this matchup lends itself to be a potential trap game for the Trojans. There's the fact that USC will play with only 30 healthy, scholarship athletes, while Fresno State is fielding a full, very talented roster. Then there's the emotional hangover from beloved interim head coach Ed Orgeron's resignation in the wake of Steve Sarkisian's hire that is still working its way through USC's system. On top of that, there's the fact that save for wide receivers coach Tee Martin, the assistant coaches' futures with USC are in flux as Sarkisian continues to mold his coaching staff.
All of these factors could yield a disastrous outing for USC, much like their performance last year in the Sun Bowl.
It was clear from the opening snaps of the Sun Bowl that there was little heart left in the team after the difficult season it had in 2012, and 2013—though the Trojans did win more and caught fire in the latter half of the season—was quite taxing as well.
That said, the players and coaches have made it clear that a 10-win season is their goal, and that they intend to give it all they have to accomplish that.
Interim head coach Clay Helton told Gary Klein of the LA Times that getting to 10 wins is the priority, despite all the uncertainty the coaching staff is facing:
Helton said coaches made "a promise" as a staff to do "everything" for the players as the 9-4 Trojans attempt to finish the season with 10 wins.
"Obviously, we have to take care of ourselves and families at some point in time," Helton said, "but until that last game is over and done with, we owe that to USC and to these kids."
Both teams have a lot of pride riding on this game. If Fresno State wins, the Bulldogs would establish themselves as legitimate competition in 2014. If USC wins, the Trojans would emerge from the ashes of NCAA sanctions and their lingering effects to be a team worthy of consideration next season.
And as fate would have it, Fresno State and USC open their 2014 season facing each other, which means what happens in the Las Vegas Bowl will lay the foundation for next year's clash.
USC proved in the latter half of 2013 that it can rally and perform well despite the odds against it, but the Trojans are also a team known to lay an egg when things aren't going their way. We can expect the Trojans to spend the week getting physically and mentally prepared to face Fresno State and end their season on a high note.
But whether USC finishes its season with 10 wins—which would further be noteworthy, as USC would have two 10-win seasons in three years of sanctions—or falls short to the hands of the Bulldogs will be determined more by the Trojans than by their opponents.
USC will indeed be making an appearance in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl. But will the Trojans show up?
The verdict is still out on that one.