ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — After missing its chance to get into the College Football Playoff, Southern California is going to the Cotton Bowl to play the highest-ranked Group of Five team in a stadium where coach Lincoln Riley won a few championships before taking over the Trojans.
Two days after losing in the Pac-12 championship game, when a win very likely would have put them in the four-team CFP playoff, the Trojans got matched Sunday to play American Athletic Conference champion Tulane on Jan. 2. Both are 11-2 teams that have made record improvements this season.
Riley said Sunday that the status of Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams, likely a Heisman Trophy finalist, was uncertain for the Cotton Bowl after what the coach called a “significant” hamstring injury suffered early in the Pac-12 title game.
“It’s good we’re not playing probably in the next two to three weeks,” Riley said. “We’ll try to rehab that. Those things, you know, hamstrings are different for everybody, but the nature of his is pretty severe. I mean, if we played in the next couple of weeks, he most likely would not be available.”
Even after getting hurt in the first quarter, Williams threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns Friday night in the 47-24 loss to Utah. He got hurt on a 59-yard run.
“What a talented quarterback," Tulane coach Willie Fritz said. "And what a competitor. You could tell he was hurt and he still was fighting and scratching and clawing.”
The Green Wave went from 2-10 last season to matching an FBS record with their nine-win improvement — with a chance to get one more in their most significant bowl game since the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day 1940, when they were in the Southeastern Conference.
Tulane was 16th in the final CFP rankings, six spots behind USC. The two teams have played three times, but not since 1946.
Before going to USC around this time last year, Riley had been Oklahoma's head coach for five seasons. The Sooners won four consecutive Big 12 championship games from 2017-20 at the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys where the Cotton Bowl is also played.
The Trojans have already matched the program’s biggest season-to-season improvement, from 4-8 last year. Their first AP national championship was an 11-0 run in 1962 that followed a 4-5-1 season.
Both of the Trojans' losses this season are to Utah. This will be their third Cotton Bowl, the second at AT&T Stadium, and 56th bowl overall.
“If we’re truly serious about being the kind of program that we feel like we can be, then this Cotton Bowl game against Tulane will be a great opportunity for us," Riley said.
The Green Wave, in their seventh season under Fritz, beat UCF 45-28 in the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday. Quarterback Michael Pratt had 442 total yards and five touchdowns, and Tyjae Spears had 199 yards rushing with a 60-yard score to extend his FBS-best active streak of 100-yard games to seven.
RANKED vs. RANKED WAVES
Tulane will go into the Cotton Bowl after back-to-back wins when ranked and playing a Top 25 opponent.
The Green Wave's win in the AAC title game over then-No. 22 UCF was a week after they won at then-No. 24 Cincinnati, ending the Bearcats' 32-game home winning streak. That also snapped Tulane's 61-game losing streak against ranked teams, which dated to 1984 and was the longest such streak in poll history.
Before beating Cincinnati, the Green Wave hadn't won a game against another Top 25 team when ranked since 1956, and the school said there were 24,142 days between those games. They needed only seven days to do it again.
BACK-TO-BACK HEISMAN WINNERS?
With Williams a top candidate, the Cotton Bowl could have back-to-back games featuring Heisman Trophy winners. Alabama and Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young played in last season's CFP semifinal at the Cotton Bowl.
The last back-to-back Heisman winners in the Cotton Bowl were Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie in 1984 and Auburn running back Bo Jackson in 1985.
MEN OF TROY AT JERRYWORLD
USC will play its third game at AT&T Stadium. Tulane has never played there.
The Trojans lost their 2016 season opener there 52-6 to Alabama, and another scheduled game against the Tide at JerryWorld in 2020 was canceled because of the pandemic. USC lost to Ohio State 24-7 in the Cotton Bowl five years ago.
When Cincinnati last season became the first Group of Five team to make the four-team playoff, the Bearcats played their national semifinal game against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.
With this season being the Cotton Bowl’s actual turn in the rotation to host the highest-ranked G5 team, it becomes the first New Year’s Six bowl to host G5 teams in back-to-back years since the four-team playoff began in 2014.
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