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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, December 20, 2013 at 7:00 AM

Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl matchup featuring USC and Fresno State was almost one of the marquee matchups of the entire first week of college football postseason action. Fresno State won a stronger than normal Mountain West Conference…and just missed earning a BCS bid. Southern Cal played some very exciting football down the stretch, highlighted by a dramatic win over Stanford.

So, what’s the problem? Why is this only “the best matchup of the first day” rather than “Wow, we can’t wait for that!?”


The buzz has left the building for Southern Cal:

*They lost their season finale in very lame fashion against UCLA

*They hired Steve Sarkisian of Washington to be the new head coach

*That meant well-liked Ed Orgeron didn’t get the job

*Orgeron left rather than hang around as a lame duck

There’s still a chance the Trojans will show up with full fury Saturday. But, that exciting team that had been playing so well until the UCLA debacle may be a distant memory. It’s far from a sure thing that the team will bring peak intensity to a minor bowl against a school that may not get their juices flowing.

For Fresno State…it’s a chance to score a major scalp and cap off a rare 12-win season. In terms of the classic intangibles that handicapper use to evaluate games…the nod would go to the Mountain West Champs. What do the numbers in our standard preview gauntlet say about the game?


Won-Lost Records (strength of schedule)

USC: 9-4 (#13 schedule in USA Today)

Fresno St.: 11-1 (#110 schedule in USA today)

As we do in football, we’ll be using Jeff Sagarin’s schedule rankings from USA Today during our bowl preview coverage. USC has a huge advantage in this category. The Pac 12 was loaded this year, and the Trojans played a tough non-conference slate too except for Hawaii. Fresno State played such a weak schedule that USC will be the toughest team they’ve faced all season! Before you talk yourself into Fresno State because of likely motivation, remember that they’ll less athletes at the point of attack by a meaningful degree.


Yards-Per Play

USC: 6,0 on offense, 5.0 on defense

Fresno St.: 6.7 on offense, 5.6 on defense

And, this jumps out as very important. USC had a yards-per-play differential of +1.0 while playing a very difficult schedule. Fresno State was only +1.1 against a much weaker slate. Stick them both against a nationally average schedule, and USC starts to look like a potent force.


Turnover Differential

USC: +6

Fresno St.: +1

Fresno State committed 5 turnovers in their Mountain West Championship win over Utah State. They’re not typically that inept. But, mistakes start to happen when you step up in class. The Fresno State defense does a very poor job of forcing turnovers, which is probably the bigger issue. Outside of the five they forced against a very bad Idaho team, Fresno only forced 16 turnovers in their dozen other games. That’s barely only one per game while playing fast-break football against a very weak schedule. Big strike against the Bulldogs.


Market Performance

USC: 6-7 ATS

Fresno St.: 5-7 ATS

Both teams were a bit overrated this season. Though, we should point out that USC was actually extremely overrated out of the gate when Lane Kiffin was their head coach (1-4 ATS), then fairly underrated with Orgeron (5-3 ATS even with the poor finale against UCLA). The market overshot the mark badly with Fresno early this season (0-5 ATS) before finally moving closer to reality.


Current Line: USC by 6.5, total 62.5


What’s interesting here is that the line has been going UP even though USC has such a bleak outlook emotionally for the game. Do the sharps know something nobody else does about the team’s mindset? Is that from quants recognizing the huge physical advantages for USC if they DO show up to play? Or, is that public money coming in from rich Hollywood types with Las Vegas being a virtual suburb of LA for sports betting?

JIM HURLEY has been in close touch with his sources on site (both with the teams and behind the line) to get the best possible read on this game. You’ll be able to purchase the final word in USC/Fresno State and the rest of the opening day Bowl Bonanza right here at the website with your credit card Saturday morning. Be sure you check on a huge day of college basketball too.

If you have any questions, call our handicapping office during normal business hours Friday or Saturday morning before the earliest game action at 1-888-777-4155.

Back with you tomorrow to look at Tulane and Louisiana Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl, as we launch NOTEBOOK coverage for all the prime time bowl matchups this season. Sunday and Monday, it’s back to the NFL for Chicago/Philadelphia (Sunday Night on NBC) and Atlanta/San Francisco (Monday Night on ESPN).  

NETWORK’S ANNUAL BOWL BASH is about to begin. Lock in now for every single major release from JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK!

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