NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS (9-3) VS. USC TROJANS (8-4)
DEC. 27, 8 P.M. ET, QUALCOMM STADIUM, SAN DIEGO (ESPN)
Season highlights: Nebraska started 5-0 for the first time since 2010. It amassed a Big Ten-record 784 yards in the opener against Florida Atlantic and won in resounding fashion at home against historical nemesis Miami, grinding out 343 rushing yards. The Huskers reached nine wins for the seventh straight season under Bo Pelini. They saw receiver Kenny Bell and I-back Ameer Abdullah shatter records and capped the regular season by matching the largest road comeback in program history in a 37-34 overtime win at Iowa on the day after Thanksgiving.
Season lowlights: Michigan State stole the thunder from Nebraska’s high-powered offense, holding the Huskers to 1.3 yards per rushing attempt in a big-game disappointment nearly erased by a late Nebraska charge. Six weeks later, there was no comeback at Wisconsin as Melvin Gordon gouged the Huskers for a then-FBS record 408 rushing yards in a five-touchdown loss that ultimately cost Pelini his job. A week later, Minnesota won at Memorial Stadium for the first time since 1960, eliminating the Huskers from contention for the West Division title. On Nov. 30, Pelini was fired.
Player to watch: With a month to heal from a Nov. 1 knee sprain, Abdullah should get an opportunity to go out in a flash. His 4,500 career rushing yards rank behind only Mike Rozier, with 4,780, in Nebraska history. A Doak Walker Award finalist, Abdullah topped 200 yards four times and registered a play-of-the-year candidate with his 58-yard catch-and-run in the final seconds to beat McNeese State. Only the knee injury, which knocked him out against Purdue and severely limited him in three other games, kept Abdullah from a run at 2,000 yards.
Motivation factor: It remains to be seen how the Huskers respond in practice to the Pelini firing, met with anger from many players. Can interim coach Barney Cotton rally the team? The answer is likely yes, considering the cohesiveness of this group and the connection formed with the outgoing staff. They figure to play with abandon. For some Huskers, it’s an opportunity to make a first impression on new coach Mike Riley, who won’t be involved with the game but, no doubt, wants to see his team in action.
-- Mitch Sherman
Season highlights: Three wins stand out. The Steve Sarkisian era got off to a great start when the Trojans won at then-No. 13 Stanford on Sept. 6, ending the Cardinal’s 17-game home winning streak -- then the longest active streak in the country. The Trojans’ most significant win of the year came at eventual Pac-12 South Division champion Arizona, which entered the game 6-0 and ranked No. 10. Lastly, the Trojans’ 49-14 win against rival Notre Dame was the one of the most lopsided wins in the 86-game history of the series.
Season lowlights: If not for a Hail Mary to lose against Arizona State, USC would have won the South. It still would have won the division with a win against UCLA but instead lost 38-20. Josh Shaw’s fictitious hero tale was the most prominent of many off-the-field issues that didn’t put USC in a good light. It came just a few weeks before AD Pat Haden was fined $25,000 following a bizarre incident in which he confronted officials in the second half of a game against Stanford.
Player to watch: DL Leonard Williams. Despite being possibly the best pro prospect in the country -- ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. has him No. 2 on his latest Big Board -- Williams has managed to fly somewhat under the radar. While other players in the Pac-12 put up massive sack numbers, the shared opinion among coaches and scouts is that Williams is the best defensive lineman. The bowl will likely be his final game in a USC uniform, but Williams, a junior, has not announced whether he will enter the NFL draft.
Motivation factor: Assuming QB Cody Kessler comes back, USC will be among the favorites in the Pac-12 South next year thanks to its returning young talent. If the Trojans end the year with a big win, they may also have some momentum when recruiting heats up ahead of signing day on Feb. 4.
-- Kyle Bonagura