Playing in a New Year's Six bowl is no small consolation prize for a USC team that was 4-8 last season. And yet the tenor of their matchup against Tulane in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic feels different on each side.
For the Trojans, who were one game away from sliding into the College Football Playoff, this bowl appearance may feel more like a look-ahead to next season than a culmination. But for the Green Wave, who were one of the sport's best stories this year, a victory would be as validating as their 11-win season. While this is Tulane's fourth bowl appearance in five years, it is by far the school's biggest bowl game since it played Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1940. (Tulane and USC did meet in the 1932 Rose Bowl, a 21-12 win for the Trojans.)
The Cotton Bowl game itself could have a different look if players such as USC wide receiver Jordan Addison opt out in anticipation of the NFL draft or sit out due to injury, as could be the case of quarterback Caleb Williams. Trojans coach Lincoln Riley did not rule Williams out of the game this past week, but said hard rehab would need to be done between now and then for the player who Tulane coach Willie Fritz called "the best in the country" to be able to play in Dallas.
No. 10 USC vs. No. 16 Tulane
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
When: Monday, Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line via Caesars Sportsbook: USC by 2
Key player: Caleb Williams. It's obvious. If Williams is able to suit up, USC will be a much more dangerous matchup for Tulane's defense. Given that Williams has eligibility left and the bowl game isn't a playoff semifinal, there's a reasonable school of thought that says he shouldn't play regardless of his health. Why risk it? Well, Williams sounds like he wants to play, which as we saw in the Pac-12 title game, may be enough to convince Riley that he should.
X factor: Raleek Brown. With seniors Travis Dye and Austin Jones both not returning to USC next season, the backfield is about to become Brown's playground, and it could start as soon as this game. Brown is a five-star recruit with incredible speed. He spent some time this season returning kicks as well as getting a handful of carries, and all signs point to him being the No. 1 back next season. Brown is going to be a show next season, but if he has a successful soft opening against Tulane, the Trojans will be set up well to succeed in the game.
How USC wins: It's simple: The Trojans need to do what they did all season, but failed to do against Utah twice. That's establish the run early, let Caleb Williams do Caleb Williams' things, and hope that the defense that shows up in Dallas is the takeaway-hungry, bend-don't-break unit that saved them a handful of times this season, not the inconsistent one that gives up big plays in bad moments.
Key player: Running back Tyjae Spears could provide a dual effect for Tulane, moving the ball on offense while keeping USC's offense off of the field. The junior from Ponchatoula, Louisiana, rushed for a season-high 199 yards and a touchdown against UCF in the AAC championship game. It was his seventh consecutive 100-yard rushing game, the longest active streak in the FBS. Spears is a tough runner to bring down, with the 11th-most evaded tackles in the FBS (141). That spells bad news for a USC defense that has the 12th-most missed tackles in FBS (141).
X factor: As good as Spears is, he can't be the only threat that USC needs to worry about defensively. Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt and the passing game must do their part as well. And the receiver who should be the focal point may be Shae Wyatt. While Pratt likes to spread the ball around -- four players have at least 30 catches and three have five or more receiving touchdowns -- Wyatt has been heating up of late. The 6-foot-1 senior from Omaha, Nebraska, has 329 yards and six touchdowns in his last five games.
How Tulane wins: The right Tulane defense has to show up. No, not the one that gave up 176 yards and two touchdowns rushing to UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee in a loss Nov. 12. The one that held Plumlee to minus-7 yards rushing and helped win the AAC championship four weeks later. USC quarterback Caleb Williams can't be allowed to run free. And the Green Wave can't allow him to sit back and pick apart the secondary, either. While Tulane's 24 sacks won't blow anyone away, the Wave have been good at reaching the quarterback, contacting the QB 219 times this season, which ranks seventh in the FBS.