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USC's offense vs. Wisconsin's defense is a Rose Bowl-worthy matchup in the Holiday

USC was one game away from playing in the Rose. Wisconsin was two frustrating losses from perhaps joining the Trojans there. Instead, the two will meet a couple of hours farther south and a couple days before New Year's. Dec. 30, 10:30 ET, ESPN.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2015 Bowl Calendar

1. Now what, USC?

New USC head coach Clay Helton and his team are basically Ben and Elaine at the end of The Graduate. "We got our way! We're going to be together! ... Now what?"

After more than a month of coaching to keep his interim job, and before a month of recruiting to finish up his first signing class, Helton and his squad have to take on a Wisconsin team that had all sorts of offensive issues but has a defense that can compete against anyone.

USC went 5-3 under Helton after Steve Sarkisian was fired, losing badly to smoking hot Oregon and Stanford teams, falling at Notre Dame, and earning some of their wins in relatively unimpressive fashion. They benefited from about 3.46 points per game in turnovers luck, which aided in their going 3-0 in one-possession games under Helton. Tip the luck scales, and perhaps Helton doesn't get the full-time gig.

The Trojans have to grow, and Helton is bringing in a completely different defensive coaching staff. But it will be interesting to see how USC fares in a game that pits strength against strength (USC's offense against Wisconsin's defense) and weakness against weakness. Based on little advantages, this could either result in a 17-13 finish or 45-42.

We know USC will have play-makers next year, and we get to watch a lot of them in San Diego. Freshman Ronald Jones II and junior Justin Davis formed a dynamite duo, combining for 1,815 yards and 13 touchdowns; Jones flashed epic potential in the open field and found it frequently until the schedule got tougher.

Whoever wins the job next year of succeeding quarterback Cody Kessler will have JuJu Smith-Schuster back. The sophomore heads a senior-free receiving corps. Yes, the QB situation will need to figure itself out, but USC's skill position battery will look like it should always look.

The questions are on the defensive side. In letting the entire defensive staff go, Helton acknowledged as much. The front seven will take a major hit, but freshmen linebacker Cameron Smith and cornerback Iman Marshall showed flashes of the potential that their recruiting rankings said they'd have. For now, the most interesting aspect of this game will be our last looks at linebacker Su'a Cravens, tackle Delvon Simmons, and the departing upperclassmen.

2. A pretty awesome wasted year for Wisconsin

"I'm just waiting for the ball to drop for 2016 already. I'm not really liking 2015 too much and I don't think it's liking me too much either."

Corey Clement said that after a season wasted by a sports hernia and stained by an off-campus altercation that got him suspended for a bit. No season is ever a true waste, and Wisconsin's 9-3 record is proof the Badgers did plenty of things right. Still, you can forgive Badger fans if they share Clement's sentiments.

Wisconsin was projected to be an easy favorite in the Big Ten West, but a 10-6 loss to Iowa doomed the Badgers in conference play before they'd really begun. The run was still struggling after the loss of Clement in the season opener, and Joel Stave had a Bad Joel game, completing 21 of 38 passes with two picks. Still, they out-gained Iowa by 99 yards, they created three more scoring opportunities, and their average starting field position in the second half was 30 yards farther up the field than Iowa's.

On average, a team with Wisconsin's stats would win that game 75 percent of the time. But fumbles, field goal attempts, and a late turnover on downs gave the Hawkeyes an unlikely win, and they wouldn't let Wisconsin back into the title race.

Wisconsin won six of seven from that point. and they had the field tilted on them in a 13-7 slog of a loss to Northwestern (Bad Joel had another two picks).

Considering the turnover -- head coach Gary Andersen left, as did all-world running back Melvin Gordon, two All-American offensive linemen, and about half the two-deep in the defensive front seven -- 9-3 is a pretty encouraging disappointment. The defense is young, Clement will be back (as will Wisconsin's top two rushers in his absence, Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal), and the Badgers will be in good shape to win the division race.

If USC is a little careless on offense, and the Trojans can't force Bad Joel out of his shell, the Badgers might manage a 10th win. USC is the favorite because the UW offense has been sketchy, but the Badgers have a shot.

3. Key Stat: The Little Things™

Check out the monstrous stat preview here.

Spread: USC -3
S&P+ Projection: USC 28.1, Wisconsin 25.0
Team Sites: Conquest Chronicles, Bucky's 5th Quarter
Category USC offense Wisconsin defense Wisconsin offense USC defense
FIELD POSITION 28.1 (108) 27.7 (27) 33.2 (11) 29.4 (61)
FINISHING DRIVES 5.3 (16) 3.3 (3) 4.1 (107) 4.4 (44)

Northwestern game aside, Wisconsin was a spectacular field position team. The Badgers' defense is ruthlessly efficient, and Wisconsin can usually manage a first down or two before punting. That, plus decent special teams, make them excellent field tilters.

USC, on the other hand? Much less so.

Can Wisconsin utilize field position to its advantage against a team projected to otherwise have an advantage? And if the Badgers create gains, can they avoid giving them back by blowing scoring opportunities, as they did for much of the year?