Two of the hottest teams entering bowl season clash in this year’s Goodyear Cotton Bowl.
Both USC and Ohio State entered the 2017 college football season with lofty expectations. Although both of these iconic teams each won their respective conference championships, they were left on the outside of the College Football Playoff. They’ll settle for a bid in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, which is scheduled for December 29th at 7:30 on ESPN.
Storylines Heading Into The Game
Buckeyes barely miss out on CFP - Despite finishing the season with four consecutive wins and a conference championship, Alabama edged out Ohio State for the fourth and final spot in the College Football Playoff. In the committee’s eyes, the Crimson Tide’s dominance all season long outweighed the Buckeyes’ conference title. Ohio State’s 31 point loss to seven-win Iowa didn’t help their case, either. Will Ohio State come out motivated after being left out of the College Football Playoff, or will they still be thinking about what could have been?
Changes coming to the CFP format? - Although the new College Football Playoff format doubled the number of teams vying for a national title, there are still concerns that too many quality teams are being left out. At least one Power Five conference champion is guaranteed to miss the playoff each year, while both teams in the Cotton Bowl were left out despite winning their conference championship. Are four teams enough? Should the playoff field expand to eight teams? How can conference champions be left out of the playoff? Both USC and Ohio State have helped spark these questions, and as a result, changes may be coming soon to the College Football Playoff format.
Premier QB Matchup - This year’s Cotton Bowl hosts arguably the best QB matchup of the bowl season with top-tier NFL prospect Sam Darnold squaring off against decorated senior J.T. Barrett. Turnovers plagued Darnold early in the season, but has turned it around by throwing just three interceptions in his last seven games. This game will serve as Darnold’s last chance to improve his draft stock before the combine, if he does indeed decide to leave USC for the draft. He’s locked in a battle with Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, and others to be the top QB prospect in this year’s NFL Draft.
|J.T. Barrett||Sam Darnold|
On the other side, Barrett will be putting the finishing touches on one of the most impressive careers in Ohio State history. The three-time captain has thrown for 9,309 passing yards and 104 passing touchdowns, both of which are school records. Despite suffering a knee injury against Michigan, the senior looked sharp in the Big Ten Championship game and should be close to 100% when he takes the field for the final time in a Buckeye uniform.
+22.5 - When Ohio State wins, they win big. The Buckeyes currently rank fourth in the nation in scoring margin per game at +22.5 points per game. Urban Meyer’s squad routinely dismantles their opponents, winning eight games by at least 20 points and scoring over 40 points seven times this year. This is in part due to their first-half success, as Ohio State is averaging 25.4 points per first half. Expect a game similar to the Big Ten Championship, but bear in mind that the Buckeyes could run away with this game early.
70% - Clay Helton’s defense has been stingy in the red zone, allowing scores on just 70% of all drives inside the 20-yard line. In 50 defensive red zone trips, the Trojans have given up only 26 touchdowns and held opponents scoreless 15 times, ranking amongst the best in the nation in red zone defense. If USC’s defense can continue their success inside the 20, they’ll give Darnold and company a chance to keep pace on the scoreboard.
523.6 vs. 489.5 - With a premier quarterback matchup comes two excellent offenses. Both Ohio State and USC have been moving the ball up and down the field, averaging 523.6 and 489.5 offensive yards per game, respectively. Both teams can thank their balanced attacks for their success. Barrett and running back J.K. Dobbins, who has rushed for 1,364 yards on the season, have helped the Buckeyes rank sixth in the country in total offense.
For the Trojans, Darnold and running back Ronald Jones II headline an offense that is averaging 34.5 points per game. Jones II has been one of the top backs in the nation, reaching the 100-yard mark on the ground nine times this year. Hopefully, the scoreboard is working in Arlington, because both of these star-studded offenses will be lighting it up on gameday.
Ronald Jones II, RB, USC - The junior running back has been sensational all year for the Trojans. For the third consecutive season, Jones has posted over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and is in the midst of his best year yet. He’s had at least 100 yards of offense in 10 of the Trojans’ 12 games this year, including a current five-game streak. He’s been the driving force behind USC’s five-game winning streak, as Jones is averaging over 25 carries and 162 rushing yards per game during the win streak. He’ll get a good test from the Ohio State front seven, who held freshman phenom Jonathan Taylor to just 41 yards on 15 carries.
Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State - Ward leads a Buckeye secondary that ranks in the top 20 in the nation in both passing yards allowed (20th) and defensive passing efficiency (15th). The junior defensive back posted elite statistics in the regular season, allowing only 36.2 percent of passes to be completed in his coverage and also had 12 pass breakups. Ward was named to PFF’s All-American Team with a season rating of 91.3, one of the best cornerback ratings in all of college football. His matchup with Darnold is one of the most intriguing matchups of this game, as both of these stars are well on their way to being first round picks in the upcoming draft.
In case you missed it - our 2017 PFF First Team All-American Defense pic.twitter.com/8fYLMSDKpS— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 16, 2017
Why Ohio State Wins
At the end of the day, Ohio State has the more complete team. Both offenses are talented and balanced, but the Buckeyes’ defense sets them apart. Players such as Nick Bosa, Jerome Baker, Ward, and others have shined this year for Urban Meyer’s defense. Not to mention they’ve saved their best play for the end of the year. In their last four games, the Buckeyes are giving up just 14.5 points per contest, including two games against ranked opponents. If the defense can continue to play at a high level, Ohio State should leave Arlington with their fourth bowl win in the Urban Meyer era.
Why USC Wins
USC has by no means played stellar defense this year, but they have been torching opposing defenses. During their current five-game winning streak, the Trojans are averaging 38.8 points per game and have tallied over 500 yards of offense in four of those games. Darnold and Jones have carried the Trojans, but will need some help from the defense to beat an elite team such as Ohio State. Holding the Buckeyes to field goals in the red zone and creating turnovers will be two keys for a Trojan victory. USC’s strength in the red zone and ability to create turnovers (24 this season) may be enough to carry them to a win.
Outside of the two CFP games, the Cotton Bowl should be on the top of your watch list for the bowl season. Both teams have several players that have NFL potential, especially on the offensive side of the football. While these offenses seem equally talented, Ohio State’s defense and coaching give them the edge. Barrett and the Ohio State offense will have a field day, while Darnold will struggle against the most talented defense he’s faced all year.
Ohio State 34, USC 24
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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