8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Ohio State -7.5, Over/Under: 64.5
This year the Cotton Bowl Classic has a Rose Bowl feel to it, featuring a matchup between the respective champions of the Pac-12 and Big Ten, as the Eighth-Ranked Southern California Trojans battle the Fifth-Ranked Ohio State Buckeyes at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Typically, this would be an encounter reserved for the pageantry of the Rose Bowl, but due to that particular venue hosting one of the CFP National Semifinals, these two storied programs will have to settle for a trip to the lavish confines of AT&T Stadium instead, which is a pretty cool consolation prize all things considered. These two teams have met in the Rose Bowl on seven occasions, with USC currently owning a 7-Game Winning Streak against Ohio State overall. 2017 has been a hard one to quantify for Southern Cal (11-2, 9-1 in Pac-12), particularly when measured against the outrageously high expectations that they had entering the season; simply put, it felt like National Championship or bust for the Trojans and their stud Quarterback Sam Darnold (63.7%, 3,787 YDS, 8.7 Y/A, 26 TD, 12 INT), who had attracted a plethora of attention as the favorite for the Heisman and the presumed No. One Pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. However, Clay Helton’s troops would struggle under the weight of said expectations, starting the season 6-2, featuring inconsistently sloppy play from Darnold, a bevy of injuries, and an ugly 49-14 loss at bitter rival Notre Dame. As a result, they dropped out of the College Football Playoff Picture (and nearly out of the rankings) altogether, but credit must go Helton and his charges for doing a tremendous job of turning things around, and becoming the team that we thought they could be all along… well, almost. After that embarrassing defeat to the Irish, the Trojans closed out the campaign with four consecutive victories en route to capturing the Pac-12 South, and inevitably besting North Division Champion Stanford in the Conference Championship Game (31-28), earning their first league title since 2008. While it certainly sounds like common sense, the key to this late season surge for USC has been taking care of the football; through the first eight games of the term they committed a whopping Nineteen Turnovers which led to a disappointing Minus-3 Differential, featuring at least two in each contest, but during their recent 5-Game Winning Streak they’ve only given away the football on four occasions parlaying into a much healthier Pus-4 Differential. This, coupled with a return to health of many contributors, has allowed the Offense to really get on a roll, averaging a whopping 539.0 Total Yards since late October, including 501 in the victory over Stanford. And as is so often the case in this sport, this team’s fortunes have peaked and plunged with the performances of their Quarterback, with Darnold rebuilding his Draft tock in the eyes of many after his manic start. As mentioned earlier, the Redshirt Sophomore had struggled with his accuracy and decision-making early on, displaying all the telltale signs of s young Quarterback trying to do too much, but has really settled into a rhythm of late, completing 63.9% of his Attempts for an average of 299.0 Yards per Game, with Nine Touchdowns in comparison to just Two Interceptions, while launching a full-fledged assault downfield, netting an impressive 10.2 Yards per Attempt. The aforementioned victory over the Cardinal was arguably his finest of the campaign, for the matter that he remained patient throughout the affair, content with taking what the Defense would give him, while exploiting mismatches downfield when granted the opportunity to do so, connecting on 17-of-24 Passes for 325 Yards and a pair of Scores. Balance has been key for this unit, with Southern Cal proving far more consistent on the ground than they did earlier in the season as well, pummeling the opposition for 240.0 Rushing Yards over their last five outings, led by Junior Tailback Ronald Jones (242 CAR, 1,486 YDS, 18 TD), who has taken his play to another level, gaining 162.8 Yards per Game over that stretch, even outperforming Heisman Finalist Bryce Love, ripping off 140 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns in the Pac-12 Championship Game. A more efficient approach offensively has also gone a long way to protect the Defense, which in suffering the brunt of the injuries was oftentimes exploited repeatedly when having to defend a shorter field. This unit has allowed 26.3 Points per Game (62nd Overall) on 405.5 Total Yards, while at times getting trampled on the ground, yielding 159.0 Rushing Yards on 4.4 Yards per Carry. Helton is going to need big-time performances from Defensive Linemen Rasheem Green (37 TKL, 11.5 TFL, 9.0 SK, 4 PD, 1 FF) and Christian Rector (35 TKL, 11.5 TFL, 7.5 SK, 2 FF, 2 FR), who have combined for 23.0 Tackles for Loss and 16.5 Sacks this season, particular without Porter Gustin (16 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 3.0 SK), who has been relegated to just Four Games this year with a nagging toe injury, which has left him in doubt for tonight’s clash with the Buckeyes.
Meanwhile, like their opponent tonight, it’s safe to say that the Cotton Bowl is far from the desired destination for Ohio State (11-2, 9-1 in Big Ten), who had designs of returning to the College Football Playoff for the third time since it’s inception four years ago, only to be scorned by the Playoff Committee when it was all said and done. The case can certainly be made for the Buckeyes getting an opportunity to avenge their embarrassing shutout loss to eventual National Champion Clemson in last year’s Semifinal, but the Committee ultimately relented, with the Buckeyes’ embarrassing 55-24 defeat at unranked Iowa serving as a blemish too big to ignore. With that said, Urban Meyer’s charges did manage to accomplish more than just a few of their goals, securing their first Big Ten Title since 2014 by besting West Division Champion Wisconsin, their third since Meyer arrived in Columbus, Ohio back in 2012, while booking that trip with yet another defeat of arch-rival Michigan (31-20), their seventh straight in the series. If this team can in fact get over the disappointment of missing out on the Playoff, they’ll be in line to secure a fifth 12-Win Season under Meyer’s watch, which would be the most in the country since the Head Coach was appointed six years ago. doing so could be difficult, for they’ll have to slow down the aforementioned Darnold and the USC Offense, which has been red-hot over the past month and some change, though Ohio State’s Defense certainly has the requisite talent to be up to the task. It really is remarkable how Meyer’s Staff is able to repeatedly replenish their ranks after losing so many quality players to the NFL Draft year after year, but they manage to do so nonetheless, with the Defense limiting the opposition to 19.9 Points (21st Overall) on 292.3 Total Yards, including 183.5 Yards versus the Pass and another 108.8 Yards against the Run. The Buckeyes had the unenviable task of replacing four starters from last year’s unit, including three Defensive Backs, but have looked no worse for wear, racking up 100 Tackles for Loss, including 36.0 Sacks, and Twenty Takeaways, with the young Secondary relinquishing a scant 54.7% passing to opposing Quarterbacks. Senior Safety Damon Webb (56 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 4 INT, 3 PD, 1 FR) has set the tone for this group, while fellow Defensive Backs Jordan Fuller (52 TKL, 2.5 TFL, 2 INT, 2 PD), Denzel Ward (37 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 2 INT, 15 PD), and Damon Arnette (39 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 2 INT, 8 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR) have exceeded expectations after being thrown into the fire. On the flipside, expect Ohio State to attempt to pummel Southern Cal’s Defensive Front Seven with their prolific Rushing Attack, averaging a very healthy 250.2 Rushing Yards this season, netting a staggering 5.9 Yards per Carry. The tandem of JK Dobbins (181 CAR, 1,364 YDS, 7 TD) and Mike Weber (96 CAR, 608 YDS, 10 TD) have been a proverbial battering ram, with the former breaking onto the scene as a True Freshman, while the latter settled into a more complementary role after struggling through early injuries. Of course, you can’t talk about the Buckeyes’ Ground Game without JT Barrett (64.6%, 2,9298 YDS, 8.3 Y/A, 35 TD, 9 INT), who will be playing his final game in the Scarlet and Silver, after four very successful seasons in Columbus. When we last saw him, Barrett heroically gutted his way through the Big Ten Title Game, completing 12-of-26 Attempts for 211 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns and Interceptions, while rushing for Sixty Yards and a score on Nineteen Carries in the 27-21 triumph. The Big Ten’s leader in Passing Touchdowns (Thirty-Five), Passer Rating (161.9), and Total Touchdowns (Forty-Five) will end his career as the league’s all-time leader in both Passing (104) and Total Scores (145), with an eye towards adding to that total against the Trojans’ skeptical Run Defense. Barrett has served as the fulcrum for Meyer’s Spread Attack, rushing for 743 Yards and Ten Touchdowns on 150 Carries, while totaling an impressive 3,208 Rushing Yards and Forty-One Scores over the course of his career.