By Derek DeBurger

After the best season of the past 10 years, Louisville will try to cap it off with a win over the USC Trojans in the Holiday Bowl on Wednesday.

This is the first appearance in the Holiday Bowl in school history and the first time matching up with the Trojans on the gridiron, so the Cards will be looking to get off on the right foot in both series.

Bowl games are not what they used to be. What used to be seen as a way to put a final exclamation point on or salvage the disappointment of your season—maybe even save your coach’s job—is now just a few extra weeks of practice to see what a team has/needs going into the next year.

Unless a team is competing in the playoffs or for a New Year’s Six bowl game, there are going to be several players who either sit out the bowl game or enter their names in the transfer portal. The 2023 Holiday Bowl is no exception, and based on the preseason expectations and actual results of these teams the amount of opt-outs on each side isn’t going to be equal.

At the time, USC was a preseason top-five team with then-reigning Heisman Trophy winner quarterback Caleb Williams that finished as an incredibly mediocre team. The media picked Louisville to finish eighth in the ACC, and they ended up competing in the conference championship game.

It’s nearly impossible to track who is going to play and who won’t, so I’ll just give some of the highlights.

For the Cards, stars Jawhar Jordan and Jamari Thrash are skipping the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft. Jordan is by far the best player opting out for Louisville, but with less depth in the wide receiver position, Thrash may have the bigger impact. A small handful of defensive players have also entered the transfer portal. The only defensive player to receive significant playing time to hit the portal is safety Josh Minkins, but almost every player will have some level of impact as Ron English likes to rotate a lot of his guys throughout games.

For the Trojans, Caleb Williams has decided to skip the bowl in preparation for being the first overall pick in the draft. USC will then be forced to start Miller Moss, a redshirt sophomore with limited experience. If Moss proves to not be ready for the field then the Trojans will have to go to the fourth-string quarterback; former five-star recruit Malachi Nelson entered his name into the portal. Other players sitting out are Brandon Rice—one of the Trojans’ top receivers—and a handful of defensive players. USC has also had a somewhat alarming 20 players hit the portal that will not be eligible to play in this game, although many of them were not starters.

With most of Louisville’s roster still intact, and some of USC’s, let’s talk about what these teams looked like at full strength.

Louisville’s identity from the second half of the season and onward was stout defense and a draining rushing attack. I would expect nothing different, especially with the status of Thrash. Isaac Guerendo has already proven himself to be a great back in Jordan’s absence, and he’ll be asked to do a lot to end the year. I would also expect to see larger-than-normal presences from Maurice Turner and Keyjuan Brown. The defense should still look really good, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see a slight drop-off in production with the decrease in depth. I would also actively look out for a trick play or two, as Jeff Brohm is known for pulling out all the stops in bowl games.

All year long USC has had a ridiculous offense under Williams and offensive guru Lincoln Riley, but a disgusting defense. The Trojans scored the fourth most points per game yet have given up the 10th most. Williams made magic happen all year long, and he had to as the offensive line was non-existent at times. With Louisville’s pass rush, it could easily be a long night for Moss.

Contrary to what one might believe, USC had a fair amount of talent on defense, but a lot of that talent is out for the bowl game either for the draft or the portal. Defensive coaching, a problem that has already been addressed at this point by Riley and USC, will mostly remain in place for the bowl game. With the same poor coaching and less talent on the defensive side of the ball, Louisville could potentially move the ball at will on the Trojans.

Don’t count the Trojans out. Riley is one of the best coaches in the country, and USC is a program that will always be loaded with talent. If USC is feeling particularly motivated, and maybe the Cards are down after not getting a spot in a more high-profile bowl game, this could be a dicey game.

I still like Louisville to win, however, and expect them to improve to just the sixth 11-win season in program history.