USC vs. Georgia Tech, 2012 Sun Bowl preview: Trojans vs. motivation vs. options and cut blocks

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

Does USC have any desire to play this game? A couple quarters' worth of cut blocks and a redshirt freshman quarterback should give us the answer. CBS, 2 p.m. ET.

5 Players To Watch

Marqise Lee (WR, USC, So.). As I've written a couple of times this season, we are all seduced by a certain type of player at a certain position, be it a big-hitting linebacker or safety, a golden-boy quarterback, or whatever. The position that does it for me the most is the do-it-all receiver, the guy who needs one block to take a short pass to the house and can burn you deep if you press him. In many ways, then, Lee has defined the 2012 season for me. For an incredibly disappointing USC team -- I tried to tamp down national title expectations before the season started, but I still assumed the Trojans would finish much, much better than 7-5 -- Lee has been the brightest ray of sunshine, catching 112 of 158 passes for 1,680 yards and 14 touchdowns and averaging 28.6 yards per kick return.

The USC passing game as a whole is outstanding and should still be good despite the loss of quarterback Matt Barkley to injury. Lee and junior Robert Woods (818 yards, 7.6 per target, 68 percent catch rate) are the big names, obviously, but sophomore tight end Xavier Grimble (297 yards, 9.3 per target, 84 percent catch rate) is incredibly underrated, and freshman Nelson Agholor (340 yards, 11.7 per target, 66 percent catch rate) has shown some Lee-esque tendencies at time. That redshirt freshman quarterback Max Wittek is starting instead of Barkley is a concern, as is the fact that Georgia Tech's pass rush is pretty solid (and by "Georgia Tech's pass rush," I mean junior outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu), but USC should simply have too much for Tech in this aspect of the game.

Silas Redd (TB, USC, Jr.). Georgia Tech will be playing without safety, and leading tackler, Isaiah Johnson, but even so, the Yellow Jackets' pass defense is easily the unit's strength. Tech ranks a respectable 47th in Passing S&P+ but a rather putrid 99th in Rushing S&P+. USC's is a pass-first offense, but the Trojans could choose to run quite a bit against a porous Tech front seven, either with Redd or senior Curtis McNeal. The two have combined to rush for 1,513 yards and score 11 touchdowns, and either or both could have lovely games in El Paso.

Orwin Smith (Slotback, Georgia Tech, Sr.). When healthy, Orwin Smith is just about the perfect Flexbone slotback. He is fast enough to get to the perimeter of the defense (he has gained 1,388 yards and scored 16 touchdowns in just 136 carries over the last two season, a ridiculous 10.2 yards per carry) and has hands good enough to become a weapon in the occasional Tech passing game (30 catches, 577 yards in 2011-12). In two seasons, Georgia Tech has averaged 46.7 points per game when Smith gains at least 65 combined rushing and receiving yards; they average 28.8 points when he doesn't. That isn't all on him, of course -- it is also a sign of how well a given opponent is handling the Flexbone as a whole -- but it is still telling. In the open field, Smith is one of the most explosive players in Tech history, and while he missed the last two games of the regular season with an ankle injury, he is fast enough to torch USC if the Trojans are on their heels.

Jemea Thomas (S, Georgia Tech, Jr.). Isaiah Johnson is out, but fellow safety Jemea Thomas is still around; Thomas is the team's best ball hawk (four interceptions, six passes broken up, three tackles for loss) and probably the defense's best play-maker not named Jeremiah Attaochu. Tech will desperately need him to make his presence known, particularly in the passing game. (That Johnson and Thomas, two safeties, are the team's leading tacklers probably tells you what you need to know about the porous front seven.)

Leonard Williams (DT, USC, Fr.). Heading into 2012, USC thought it would be needing some quality contributions from a set of redshirt freshmen at the tackle position (Antwaun Woods, Christian Heyward, Cody Temple) alongside star sophomore George Uko. Woods had his moments, but the star of the young batch was actually Williams, a highly touted true freshmen who alternated between looking like a freshman and looking like a future All-American. For the season, Williams was sixth on the team in tackles (40.0), second in tackles for loss (13.0) and second in sacks (7.5). He is active, if a bit undersized (270 pounds), and he will be vital in disrupting the Tech Flexbone. The problem: the Flexbone tends to make inexperienced players look really inexperienced.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. Marqise Lee is enough reason in and of himself. Seriously. He is so damn fun to watch.

2. You like a contrast in styles, you say? Even with Max Wittek starting at quarterback, USC will probably take a pass-to-set-up-the-run, pro-style approach. The Trojans attempted almost nothing but short passes early in the season; between this and Georgia Tech's iffy (to be kind) run defense, they should have plenty of options. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, goes about things just a little bit differently from the option-heavy Flexbone. There might not be a single similar play in these playbooks. That's fun, right?

3. USC's future is now. With Barkley sitting this one out, the only difference-making seniors USC will have on the field are safety T.J. McDonald and center Khaled Holmes. Sure, there might be some juniors who decide to go pro -- split end Robert Woods, corner Nickell Roby, defensive end Morgan Breslin -- but regardless, the 2013 Trojans will be built around Wittek, Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor, and Xavier Grimble on offense and tackles George Uko and Leonard Williams and a host of soon-to-be junior linebackers on defense. Get to know them now.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Does USC even want to be here? Their quarterback is out, they showed up almost two hours late for the joint Sun Bowl dinner (though it turns out they may have a reason for it), and they weren't exactly thrilled to learn where they were headed. USC is certainly the superior team on paper, but they do still have to care a little. Losing four of your final five games after starting the year as a national title favorite will certainly test your resolve. So will dreaming of Miami and ending up in El Paso. (And for that matter, so will a steady diet of cut blocks.)

2. Can Tech even slow down the Trojan passing game? It isn't tremendously difficult to see Georgia Tech having a decent amount of success on offense. But can even an uninterested USC offense with a new quarterback help but move the ball against the Yellow Jackets? After a slow start, the Tech defense actually looked fine against Florida State, but FSU doesn't have Lee and Woods. Especially without Isaiah Johnson, can Tech contain this passing game?

3. Fumbleitis. Georgia Tech fumbled 29 times in 13 games this season. It comes with the option territory to an extent, but it can certainly be a hindrance (to say the least) if the football doesn't bounce back into your arms. USC, meanwhile, doesn't have the "We run a lot of option" excuse for why it fumbled 23 times of its own. It is the one chink in Marqise Lee's armor, and it can stop USC's offense even if Georgia Tech cannot. Whoever avoids putting the ball on the turf, and who falls on the ball when it does hit the turf, will derive quite the advantage.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: USC by 18.7.
Bill's Pick: USC by 7. An interested Trojans team could coast, but I see Tech hanging around for quite a while with its funky offense and desire to actually be in a middling bowl game.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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