A season that began with so much promise for Southern California will end today in a place few would have expected to see the Trojans this bowl season.
USC started the season No. 1 in the country with a quarterback favored to win the Heisman Trophy. Losses to Stanford and Oregon took the Trojans out of the national title picture, and losses to Arizona, rival UCLA and Notre Dame sent them tumbling to second-tier bowl status.
Instead of the BCS, the Trojans (7-5) will face Georgia Tech (6-7) in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Both teams are unranked and riding two-game losing streaks, and USC will be without injured quarterback Matt Barkley (shoulder).
The Trojans had higher expectations, but they are happy to be in a bowl game after a two-year ban and a swoon after a 6-1 start.
“We wanted to be in a better bowl game, and that’s typical, but we decided our own fate and this is where we’re at,” All-American receiver Marqise Lee said. “Things happen to the greatest teams out there. Sometimes situations happened where there’s struggles, and that’s what we had. So now we’re here, just ready to play and focused — enjoying practice and enjoying our days here, and we’ll be ready to play …”
Barkley, the first three-time captain in team history, injured his right shoulder in the loss to UCLA. It was announced Thursday that Barkley was not cleared to play in the Sun Bowl. He put together one of the greatest careers in USC history and is expected to be one of the first quarterback drafted by the NFL in April.
It’s not the season Barkley envisioned when he chose to return for his senior season and put off the NFL.
“I wouldn’t say tough. It’s not like you really have an example to look to as how to handle it with all the success teams in the past have had at this school,” Barkley said. “It’s been definitely a learning lesson, not something I could have imagined, but then again nothing is guaranteed.
“When you strive for something, there are times when you’re going to be disappointed. Knowing we were shooting for a very high goal, it just happens that way sometimes. But it doesn’t take away from the … experiences I’ve had.”
Barkley’s injury means that redshirt freshman Max Wittek will get his second start. The first was the 22-13 loss to Notre Dame in which he passed for 186 yards on 14-of-23 accuracy with a touchdown and two interceptions.
“We’re fortunate it isn’t the first time we’ve had to (play without Barkley),” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “We did it a lot of games last season. The team is very comfortable with Max.”
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said he doesn’t expect USC to change much offensively with Wittek.
“… He’s an excellent player,” Johnson said of Barkley, “but I think the young man that played in his place is also very talented. We only had the one game to break it down, but you can see he’s got good feet, a very strong arm and he’s very capable. I doubt they’re going to change what they do.”
And neither will Georgia Tech, which lost the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and had to appeal to the NCAA to be made bowl eligible with its 6-7 record. The Yellow Jackets, with their triple-option offense, are fourth in the nation in rushing, averaging 323 yards per game. Quarterback Tevin Washington has run for 19 touchdowns.
“It’s very difficult (to prepare for),” Kiffin said of Tech’s offense. “Luckily, we had a month to prepare for it. ... In a weird way, it’s like playing Oregon. There are not a lot of plays being run, but they’re so good at it.”
VANDY SEEKS HISTORY
The Vanderbilt Commodores (8-4) have made plenty of history this season, and now they can do something not seen at the private university in nearly a century: Win nine games.
Coach James Franklin isn’t talking about the opportunity his Commodores have today in the Music City Bowl, in their hometown of Nashville, Tenn., against North Carolina State (7-5). Not yet, even though it would be their first nine-win season since 1915. Not when he’s busy coaching and trying to sell as many tickets as possible to turn LP Field, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, into a home field.
“This is a perfect situation for us,” Franklin said. “We’re still trying to build our brand. We’re still trying to build our following. We’re still trying to claim our stake of being Nashville’s team and really establish it, so this is a great opportunity to play in our city, to play LP Field, which is kind of like our other stadium.”
A player from Ferrum College in Virginia was found fatally stabbed in Vienna, Va., on Friday and Fairfax County police have made an arrest in his killing.
Authorities have arrested 22-year-old Johnny Bonilla, of Gainesville, Va., in the death of Zavier O. Stringfellow, 19, of Manassas.
Stringfellow was a defensive end for Ferrum, the same college that produced former Seattle Seahawks star running back Chris Warren (1990-97).
Today’s college football bowl games
MUSIC CITY BOWL
North Carolina State (7-5) vs. Vanderbilt (8-4), 9 a.m. (ESPN), LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
What’s at stake: Vanderbilt, playing in its hometown, is on a six-game winning streak. The Commodores can notch their first nine-win season since 1915. The N.C. State Wolfpack can make up for a season that cost coach Tom O’Brien his job by winning its third straight bowl.
Key matchup: Wolfpack QB Mike Glennon against Vanderbilt’s defense. Glennon leads an attack that averages 304 passing yards a game, while Vanderbilt holds foes to 175.8 passing yards a game.
Players to watch: The 6-foot-6 Glennon is considered one of the top NFL quarterback prospects available. For Vanderbilt, QB Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, completes nearly 60 percent of his passes.
The pick: Vanderbilt, 24-21
Southern California (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (6-7), 11 a.m. (Ch. 7), Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas
What’s at stake: USC, after a two-year bowl ban, faced high expectations, so the Sun Bowl is a consolation prize it will play without injured QB Matt Barkley (shoulder). Still, the Yellow Jackets, on a seven-bowl losing streak, may be the more desperate team.
Key matchup: USC QB Max Wittek vs. Georgia Tech’s defense. Wittek, in his second college start, has weapons at his disposal and had extra time to prepare for 53rd-ranked Tech’s defense.
Players to watch: For USC, receiver Marqise Lee, the Pacific-12 Conference offensive player of the year who was fourth in the Heisman voting. He leads the nation in catches (95), is second in yards (1,764), second in yards per game (147) and has 14 TD catches. For Georgia Tech, Tevin Washington is the ACC’s all-time leader in rushing TDs (37) by a quarterback. He leads a Tech offense that is No. 4 in the nation in rushing at 323 yards per game.
The pick: Trojans, 30-27
Iowa State (6-6) vs. Tulsa (10-3), 12:30 p.m. (ESPN), Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tenn.
What’s at stake: Tulsa is trying to avenge a 38-23 loss at Iowa State in the Sept. 1 season opener. The teams will also meet next season in Tulsa.
Key matchup: Iowa State QB Sam Richardson vs. Tulsa defense. He is sparking the Cyclones after throwing seven TD passes without an interception and rushing for a combined 162 yards in Iowa State’s final two regular-season games. The Golden Hurricane, meanwhile, set a school record for sacks (48) and tackles for loss (104) this season.
Players to watch: For Iowa State, linebacker A.J. Klein. The 6-2 senior was the Big 12’s co-defensive player of the year in 2011. His 342 career tackles rank 16th among active FBS players. For Tulsa, running backs Trey Watts, Ja’Terian Douglas and Alex Singleton have each run for at least 750 yards to fuel the nation’s 11th-ranked rushing offense.
The pick: Tulsa, 27-24
No. 9 LSU (10-2) vs. No. 14 Clemson (10-2), 4:30 p.m. (ESPN), Georgia Dome, Atlanta
What’s at stake: Clemson is trying to reach 11 wins for only the fourth time in school history and the first time since a 12-0 finish in its 1981 national championship season. LSU, which one year ago was preparing for the national championship game, is hoping for a top-five finish and to close with four straight wins after its 21-17 loss to Alabama on Nov. 3.
Key matchup: LSU freshman cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins, who have had prominent roles since the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu before the season, will be challenged to contain DeAndre Hopkins, who is second in the nation with 16 TD catches, and Sammy Watkins. The LSU pair have combined for four interceptions, while Clemson QB Tajh Boyd has thrown 34 TD passes.
Players to watch: For LSU, linebacker Kevin Minter, a second-team All-American, leads the team with 111 tackles. Minter had 12 tackles and an interception in LSU’s 24-19 win over Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M on Oct. 20.
For Clemson, Watkins had three TD catches (down from 12 as a freshman) but is coming on strong. He could be primed for a big game if LSU leaves him in man coverage.
The pick: In a battle of Tigers, pick the Bayou Bengals, 28-24The Associated Press