No bowl bid could ease the pain for USC of missing the College Football Playoff. But after falling just short of the final four, a consolation trip to the Cotton Bowl will have to do.
USC will face Tulane, the Group of Five champion, in the Cotton Bowl Classic on Jan. 2 in Dallas, seeking a 12th win for the first time since 2008, when Pete Carroll still roamed the sidelines.
That might not be the matchup USC pined for to finish out its first season under Lincoln Riley. But after suffering a second loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game Friday, the Trojans fell to No. 10 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, behind the Utes as well as Alabama and Tennessee.
Still, at 11-2, USC was chosen to appear in a New Year’s Six bowl as an at-large for the first time since 2017, when it was steamrolled by Ohio State in the very same bowl.
It’ll face a far less familiar opponent this time. It’s been 76 years since USC and Tulane last met on a football field, though both have followed similar trajectories this season.
Tulane is one of the few teams in college football that can claim a more staggering turnaround than USC this season. The Green Wave were a paltry 2-10 last year, scraping the bottom of the American Athletic Conference, before they came alive this season, routing Central Florida on Saturday on their way to an 11-2 record and AAC championship.
That unexpected run was anchored by a rushing attack that could give USC and its questionable defense fits. Tulane junior running back Tyjae Spears exploded for 1,376 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns this season. And he saved his best for the last five games, when he has averaged better than 8.5 yards per carry.
Slowing Spears could be an especially tall task for a Trojan defense that just allowed a season-high 223 rushing yards in its Pac-12 title loss to Utah.
Whether USC will have to face that challenge in the bowl without the benefit of its own star remains to be seen.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams limped his way through the Pac-12 title game after he “popped” his hamstring on a first-quarter run. Riley noted after the game that Williams was “not even close to 50%” during the second half and that he considered going to backup Miller Moss. But the Heisman Trophy favorite refused to check out, instead fighting his way through the rest of the Utah loss while largely confined to the pocket, unable to scramble like usual.
His status for the bowl remains uncertain. But, whether Williams plays or not, USC is likely to be down at least one key cog on offense.
USC senior center Brett Neilon is not expected to suit up again for the Trojans after suffering an injury against Utah.
Others may opt not to play in the Cotton Bowl for different reasons. Wideout Jordan Addison is expected to be a 1st round pick and could choose to opt out of playing in the game to guard against injury.