USC (7-5 overall; 5-4 in the Pac-12)
The Trojans were supposed to be spending their holidays in South Beach, not in El Paso. No team in the country has been as disappointing or as underachieving in 2012 as this Lane Kiffin-coached squad. The combination of a star-studded offense and a talented back seven on defense was supposed to push this preseason No. 1 team all the way to the national title game. Instead, the offense was wildly inconsistent while the defense looked consistently unprepared. USC lost four of its last five coming into this game, and it must play without four-year starting quarterback Matt Barkley, who was injured against UCLA. Big-armed redshirt freshman Max Wittek will give it a go in his place. The key to the game will be how the Trojan defense handles the Yellow Jacket option attack. If things go awry, Kiffin's seat will be on fire heading into the offseason.
At their best: USC's first play of the season was a quick out from Barkley to wide receiver Marqise Lee that the talented sophomore turned into a 75-yard touchdown jaunt. One could argue that it was all downhill from there, although the Trojans actually looked like the No. 1 team while dispatching Hawaii, 49-10. Barkley's 372 yards and four touchdowns was the perfect kickoff to his Heisman campaign. Or so it seemed at the time.
At their worst: Two weeks after pasting Hawaii, No. 1 USC promptly laid an egg against Stanford, losing to the Cardinal 21-14. The Trojans, playing with a backup center, were inept on offense and seemed to tighten up as the game went on. USC gained just 280 yards of total offense (26 on the ground) and was a pitiful 1-of-13 on third downs. The Trojans tumbled from the top of the rankings, and Barkley's Heisman hopes were crippled.
Headliner: Perhaps the lone bright spot in USC's season was the play of Lee, who capped off a brilliant second year by winning the school's first Biletnikoff Award. He caught a Pac-12 record 112 passes for 1,680 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was also third nationally with 216 all-purpose yards per game. Lee was a busy guy, as USC found ways to utilize him as a receiver, a runner and as a kick returner. There was even talk of him playing defense at one point, but that never transpired. Still, his overall versatility led to his fourth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy vote and he'll be one of the favorites for the award in 2013.
Georgia Tech (6-7 overall; 5-4 in the ACC)
The Yellow Jackets could never quite find their rhythm in 2012. After a 2-4 start, Tech got hot and won four of its next five before dropping its last two. Because the top two teams in the ACC Coastal Division were on probation, the Yellow Jackets made the ACC title game. The ensuing 6-7 record as a result of losing to Florida State then required an NCAA waiver in order to qualify for a bowl. It was a tough road to get to El Paso. But, as usual, the Yellow Jackets got there by running the ball. Paul Johnson's triple option attack pounded opponents to the tune of 312 yards per game (fourth nationally) and averaged nearly 35 points per outing. Quarterback Tevin Washington scored 19 touchdowns on the ground and threw seven touchdown passes, while running back Orwin Smith led the team with 673 rushing yards. The Yellow Jacket defense struggled at times, allowing almost 30 points per game. Tech has lost its last six bowl games.
At their best: The Yellow Jackets slaughtered Virginia 56-20 in the third week of the season, rushing for 461 yards while averaging 9.2 yards per carry. The Cavaliers were held to just 98 yards on the ground and 297 overall. This was probably Georgia Tech's most complete game of the year and the first time it scored 50 or more points in an ACC game since 2000.
At their worst: If Tech had done what it was supposed to do against Middle Tennessee State, it wouldn't have needed a waiver from the NCAA to qualify for a bowl. Instead, the Yellow Jackets were embarrassed 49-28 as the defense allowed 510 total yards to the Blue Raiders. It was Georgia Tech's first loss to a non-BCS school since 1996.
Headliner: Orwin Smith's career has been nothing short of phenomenal. He has just 1,803 rushing yards in his last three seasons, but he has done so in 184 carries. That means he's averaging an incredible 9.8 yards per carry over that span. Basically, the guy gets a first down every time he touches the ball as a runner. Of his 75 carries this season, 24 have gone for 10 or more yards. He's a threat to score from any point on the field. He's also a solid receiver and prolific kick returner, too.
What: Sun Bowl
When: Monday, Dec. 31, 2 p.m. ET, CBS
Where: Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas
Weird: The last time these two teams met, in 1973, USC's athletic director, Pat Haden, was the Trojans' starting quarterback. USC won that day in Atlanta 23-6.
Line: USC -7.5
Prediction: USC hasn't faced a true triple-option team since the 1980s, which means the Yellow Jackets could give the undisciplined Trojan defense some trouble. Georgia Tech's defense should also be in for a tough time against USC's talented offense. In other words, all signs point to a shootout. However, the Trojans should get the hang of defending the option by the second half and make just enough stops late in the game to pull away.
USC 45, Georgia Tech 35