EL PASO, Texas -- The USC Trojans will close out 2012 in a New Year’s Eve matinee tilt against Georgia Tech in Monday’s Hyundai Sun Bowl.
And they’ll be without quarterback Matt Barkley because of a sprained shoulder the senior signal-caller suffered last month. Redshirt freshman Max Wittek will make his second consecutive -- and second career -- start in Barkley's place.
Here are five things to watch -- plus a prediction -- for Monday’s 11 a.m. PT matchup:
1. USC’s defense. The Trojans did not lose four of their past five games this season because of a lack of offense.
They lost them because of their defense, which gave up 36 points per game in those five games and nearly 25 points, on average, during the regular season.
And that will be the biggest challenge for Monday’s matchup, as putting up points on a Tech team that gave up an average of 30 this season shouldn’t be much of a challenge at all.
So, can Monte Kiffin’s unit -- which has proven entirely inept at stopping any spread scheme over the past three years -- finally show what it can do?
It’s possible. It’s also possible USC will give up five or six more touchdowns to Georgia Tech's triple-option and keep the sad streak going.
2. Lee and McNeal. The status of two of USC’s top position players is unknown for Monday’s game, a scary thought for the Trojans when combined with Barkley’s absence.
It would still qualify a significant surprise if Lee did not suit up, considering he was walking without much trouble later Saturday.
As long as he plays, Monday’s game should be another opportunity for Lee to showcase his incredible abilities in front of a national audience.
Heisman campaigns can start in advance, and they have in the past.
3. Windy weather. El Paso is not a cold city, generally, but it can get chilly at night and windy in the mountain areas. The Sun Bowl Stadium is, coincidentally, built into a mountain, so it’s likely the teams will be dealing with at least 20 mph gusts during Monday’s game, with winds up to 40 mph possible.
If it is indeed severely windy, it’ll be difficult for USC to throw the ball efficiently, especially with Max Wittek’s inexperience. But Wittek does have a strong arm, and the Trojans have had time to prepare for the weather. Penn State transfer Silas Redd could play a gigantic role in the eventual outcome if McNeal is out and the winds are strong.
A temperature of about 50 degrees is expected for kickoff.
4. The playbooks. Monday will be an interesting study in contrasts: Georgia Tech runs a small variety of offensive plays and runs most of them well, whereas USC runs a ton of different plays and runs only some of them effectively. Which strategy is better at the college level? Obviously, one game isn’t the end-all-be-all, but a Trojan loss wouldn’t be a good indicator of the long-term viability of Lane Kiffin’s lengthy play sheets.
5. Much motivation? Lane Kiffin has quickly squashed any talk of his players not being motivated to play an under-.500 team in a modest bowl game, but the proof will be in the Trojans’ performance Monday, not his Sunday pregame news conference quotes.
It’s not that USC necessarily struggled with effort in the final quarter of the regular season. But for a team that had serious aspirations to be in Miami on Jan. 7 three months ago, it’s fair to question whether or not El Paso on Dec. 31 has been deemed in house as a worthy season finale.
And, a prediction: Assuming the winds stay somewhat in check and Lee suits up, the Trojans should score enough to offset the damage Georgia Tech is likely to inflict upon their defense.
With the flight half as long and significantly less expensive, USC fans should travel better to West Texas than Tech supporters, but many El Pasoans are expected to root for the Yellow Jackets after the events of the last month. (Two USC players criticized the city in since-deleted Twitter postings, which earned front-page coverage in the local newspaper.) So the home-field advantage is still up in the air.
On the field, maybe Monte Kiffin will try out some new tactics in his last hurrah as a college coordinator, and maybe they’ll work. Even if they don’t, USC should win, 38-31.