No. 10 USC vs. No. 16 Tulane: Cotton Bowl preview, best bets

Cotton Bowl: No. 10 USC vs. No. 16 Tulane

Location: Arlington, Texas

Date: Jan. 2 (1 p.m.)


Line: USC -2.5

Total: 62

How these teams got here

USC (11-2): The Trojans made the splash of the 2021-22 coaching carousel by snagging Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma. Expectations only grew from there after QB Caleb Williams and WR Mario Williams followed Riley from the Sooners and USC added players like former Pitt WR Jordan Addison and former Oregon RB Travis Dye.

The offense was as explosive as we all thought it would be. Williams didn’t miss a beat in his first season at USC thanks to his familiarity with Riley’s system and Dye was immediately an all-around threat out of the backfield. Mario Williams and Addison teamed with Tahj Washington to form one of the best receiving trios in the country.

The surprise for USC was the defense, especially at the beginning of the season. This wasn’t a defense that was great at stopping anyone. It was actually really bad at it. It just was very good at forcing turnovers at the right times. And that combined with the USC offense’s ability to limit turnovers made the Trojans an imposing football team.

USC finished the season forcing over two turnovers per game while the offense averaged just one turnover every two games. That’s a recipe for a lot of success. But the defense’s inability to slow opposing offenses down outside of turnovers showed up against Utah.

The Trojans allowed a staggering 6.3 yards per play in 2022. Those numbers were somehow even worse against Utah. The Utes racked up over 1,000 yards in its two wins over USC and had just two turnovers. The defense’s horrible second-half showing against Utah in the Pac-12 title game combined with Williams’ hamstring injury made it very clear that USC was not going to sniff the College Football Playoff.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 2: Caleb Williams #13 of USC drops back for a pass during a game between the USC Trojans and the Utah Utes at Allegiant Stadium on December 2, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jason Allen/ISI Photos/Getty Images).
How healthy will Caleb Williams be in the Cotton Bowl vs. Tulane? (Photo by Jason Allen/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

Tulane (11-2): A bowl game was a lofty goal for Tulane after a 2-10 season in 2021. The Green Wave gave up 34 points a game a season ago and its only win over an FBS team came against a moribund South Florida team in the penultimate week of the season.

Things were a lot better in 2022. Tulane scored one of the best Group of Five wins of the season in Week 3 with a 17-10 win over Kansas State. Some of the immediate luster disappeared a week later in a loss to Southern Miss but the Green Wave reeled off five consecutive wins to get into the top 25 as Michael Pratt and Tyjae Spears emerged as one of the better QB-RB combinations in the country.

Unlike USC, Tulane was able to avenge its only regular-season conference loss. The Green Wave lost 38-31 to UCF on Nov. 12. But wins over SMU and Cincinnati to end the season coupled with a UCF loss to Navy meant that Tulane got to host the AAC title game. And it scored the final 14 points of the game in a 45-38 win to wrap up the AAC title and go to the school’s biggest bowl game in decades.

Notable transfers, injuries and opt outs

Tulane: None

USC: WR Jordan Addison, G Andrew Vorhees

Players to watch

USC QB Caleb Williams: The Heisman winner has said he hopes to be at or near full-strength for the Cotton Bowl after suffering a hamstring injury on a first-half run in the Pac-12 title game. Williams’ lack of mobility was a massive detriment in the second half of that loss to Utah as he was a sitting duck in the pocket. If Williams has the ability to move around, he’ll present a lot of problems for the Tulane defense. Williams has thrown for 4,075 yards and 37 TDs to just four interceptions and has also rushed for 372 yards and 10 TDs. His 47 total TDs before bowl season led everyone in college football.

Tulane RB Tyjae Spears: It was hard to pick between Spears and Pratt for this entry. Pratt has thrown for 25 TDs and run for 10 more as the Green Wave’s second-leading rusher. We went with Spears, who has 212 carries for 1,379 yards and 15 TDs and has also caught 21 passes for 242 yards and has two scores. More than half of the fourth-year running back’s career yardage has come this season.

Spears has also gotten better as the season has gone on. After he had less than 100 yards over Tulane’s first three games of the season, he’s rushed for at least 100 yards in the Green Wave’s last seven games of the season. He had 35 carries for 181 yards and two TDs against Cincinnati and then had 22 carries for 199 yards and a TD in that AAC title game win.

Tulane running back Tyjae Spears (22) carries the ball for a touchdown during an NCAA college football game against Cincinnati, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, in Cincinnati. Tulane won 27-24. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Tulane running back Tyjae Spears has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of Tulane's last seven games. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

What’s on the line

USC: USC hasn’t won a bowl game since beating Penn State in the Rose Bowl after the 2016 season. USC lost the Cotton Bowl after the 2017 season and then lost the Holiday Bowl in 2019 before not going to a bowl game after a 5-1 season in the COVID-impacted 2020 campaign.

USC’s only Cotton Bowl win came in 1994 when the Trojans beat Texas Tech 55-14. Monday’s game is their third appearance in the bowl.

Tulane: The Green Wave would become the fourth Group of Five team to win a New Year’s Six bowl along with Boise State, Houston and UCF. The Knights were the last non-Power Five team to get an NY6 win when they won the Peach Bowl over Auburn to end the 2017 season.

A Tulane win would also be the school’s biggest bowl victory since a win in the Sugar Bowl after the 1934 season. Twelve wins would also match the 1998 season for the most victories in school history.

Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt (7) drops back to throw against Central Florida during the first half of the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game in New Orleans, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)
Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt has 35 total TDs. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Best bets

Nick Bromberg: I have a hard time trusting the USC defense in this game. I think Williams will have a great game if he’s healthy and the Tulane defense could have a hard time keeping track of USC’s receivers even without Addison. But injuries along USC’s offensive line are also a concern for me. I’m going to shy away from the line on this game and go with the total. Pick: Over 62

Sam Cooper: This game means so much more to Tulane, which is playing in its first major bowl since 1940. The Green Wave have a really explosive offense, particularly in the running game. We all saw how poorly USC tackled in the Pac-12 title game with a CFP berth on the line. It's hard to envision USC 's defense putting up much of a fight in this game. Even if Caleb Williams plays and is healthy, I think Tulane is the right side. Pick: Tulane +2.5