Sizing up the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic between Southern California (11-2) and Ohio State (11-2):
Time, TV: Dec. 29, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Site: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
There's no worse feeling in college football than being No. 5. That's where Ohio State finished, one spot outside the College Football Playoff.
Instead of playing for the national title, the Buckeyes will have to refocus after missing out.
It helps that the program has been in this spot before — Ohio State missed the field after going 11-1 in 2015 — and because the Buckeyes knew they had to overcome a 31-point loss to Iowa even after wins in their last four games, including a defeat of unbeaten Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
But their bowl game features two of the elite programs in the sport and might turn out as good as those semifinals that will be played three days later.
“The minute you say the University of Southern Cal, that gets attention,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “One thing about our players, they're excited to represent each other and Ohio State. That's all you can ask from a team.”
No. 7 Southern California also has something to prove. The Trojans were an afterthought by the selection committee even after winning the Pac-12 championship at 11-2.
While the styles of the teams are different — Ohio State uses a spread running attack and USC relies more on its passing games — their seasons evolved in similar fashion.
Both started with Playoff expectations. Those hopes dimmed as the Buckeyes lost to Oklahoma and the Trojans lost at Washington State in September.
Things stabilized until huge road losses — USC at Notre Dame and Ohio State's aforementioned loss to Iowa — effectively knocked them out of contention with about four weeks left.
It was a credit to both programs that each rebounded to win their conference, and that momentum should help.
The Buckeyes and Trojans have met seven previous times after the regular season, all in the Rose Bowl. The most recent matchup was at the end of the 1984 season. The schools have played four times since the last bowl game. USC has won each game.
This game will feature two of the most accomplished quarterbacks in the country.
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett has led his team to a New Year's Six game in each of his four seasons. Freshman running back J.K. Dobbins emerged as the team's big-play threat on the ground.
Defensively, the front seven leads the way with Nick Bosa and Tyquan Lewis standouts along the line, which stuffs the run and pressures quarterbacks with equal effectiveness.
USC's Sam Darnold is 20-3 as a starter since taking over the job three games into last season. He entered 2017 with inexperience at receiver and the pressure of being a possible No. 1 pick. His play was inconsistent but improved in the second half of the season as his line got healthier and his receivers became more consistent.
The defense has been spotty, especially against the run. The Trojans helped overcome deficiencies by forcing 24 turnovers.
While their campuses are miles apart, the programs still keep an eye on each other.
“Having a lot of West Coast evening games, we've had the chance to watch several of (Ohio State's) games. ... And you can see how well coached and how talented they are,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “What jumps off the page is just how well balanced they are, both offensively and defensively. … And that matchup between J.T. and Sam is going to be something.”
Who has the edge?
When Ohio State runs: The Buckeyes operate a spread attack that opens up running lanes for J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. Both are fast and elusive. When defenses key too much on the backs, quarterback J.T. Barrett will carry the ball with success. USC struggled when facing running attacks with mobile passers. EDGE: Ohio State
When Ohio State passes: Barrett has the ability to make big plays in the passing game with offenses crowding the line to stop the run. The problem is Barrett's inconsistency when asked to carry the offense. In losses to Oklahoma and Iowa, he missed receivers and threw five total interceptions. USC, which has 16 picks, has the ball hawks to make Barrett pay for mistakes. EDGE: USC
When Southern California runs: Ronald Jones emerged as the lead back and ran for 1,486 yards. Stephen Carr's return to health gives USC a change of pace against the Buckeyes. The problem will be finding holes against the Ohio State front, which has overwhelmed better offensive lines than that of the Trojans. EDGE: Ohio State
When Southern California passes: Sam Darnold had bouts of inconsistency early in his sophomore year. Things got better in the second half of the season as his inexperienced receivers got more comfortable. The Buckeyes have not faced an elite quarterback except in their loss to Oklahoma, and Baker Mayfield picked them apart. EDGE: USC
Special teams: The Buckeyes create field position because of their success in net punting and kickoff return defense. Placekicker Sean Nuernberger has made 14 of 17 field goal attempts but is shaky beyond 40 yards. The Trojans will counter with Chase McGrath, who has converted two kicks of more than 50 yards. They also boast a strong return game with Velus Jones and Michael Pittman. EDGE: USC
Coaching: Urban Meyer has led the Buckeyes to five major bowls in a row and won two national titles at Florida. Clay Helton has won 21 of 26 games in his two full seasons at USC and led his team to a Rose Bowl defeat of Penn State last season. EDGE: Ohio State
The game likely boils down to which secondary part of the offenses has success. Can J.T. Barrett make big plays in the passing game against a defense designed to stop the run? Can USC run the ball to open up its passing? OSU's strength along the line will be decisive in the fourth quarter.
Pick: Ohio State, 31-28