DALLAS – Much has been made of the history and tradition of an Ohio State-USC match-up in tonight’s Cotton Bowl.
Between the two teams they claim 19 national championships – 11 by USC and eight by OSU. The Buckeyes have had seven Heisman trophy winners and USC has had six. USC has the most NFL first-round draft choices and Ohio State is second.
These two elite football programs have played against each other seven times in the Rose Bowl and both teams were ranked in the Top 10 in six of those games. The last two times they played in the regular season, in 2008 and 2009, both teams were in the Top 10.
On the downside of the history in the series for Ohio State, it has lost the last seven times it has played against the Trojans, including a 35-3 in Los Angeles in 2008 and 18-15 in Ohio Stadium in 2009.
History has been a nice talking point ever since the OSU-USC match-up in the Cotton Bowl was announced.
But as a factor affecting players and coaches, history is overrated. Urban Meyer was nine years old the last time Ohio State beat USC. J.K. Dobbins was 10 the last time the two teams played each other.
Competitiveness is often a much bigger factor than history in determining who wins a bowl game.
“Who wants it more?” is a cliché. “Who wants to be there more?” often tells the tale in bowl games.
No. 5 Ohio State (11-2) and No. 8 USC (11-2) arrived at the Cotton Bowl in similar ways.
Both came into the season with national championship hopes. Both lost a game early then had blowout losses – a 55-24 shocker at Iowa for OSU and a 49-14 loss to Notre Dame for USC – which effectively ended their chances to get into the College Football Playoff.
Obviously, Ohio State would rather be 505 miles to the east in New Orleans playing in a College Football Playoff semifinal. And, just as obviously, USC would rather be playing in the other semifinal in the Rose Bowl, just 15 miles from its campus in Los Angeles.
There are examples of teams that wanted to be at bowl games losing those games. And there are examples of teams which didn’t want to be there winning bowl games.
It’s no guarantee either way. So far, Ohio State and USC both appear to want to be at the Cotton Bowl, or at least the players have said all the right things.
Maybe the biggest indicator of wanting to be there is that USC coach Clay Helton and OSU’s Meyer both said they do not expect any players with hopes of going to the NFL to sit out the game.
That is not the case everywhere. Texas offensive tackle Connor Williams, a possible first-round pick, and teammates DeShon Elliott and Holton Hill all chose to sit out the Texas Bowl.
So, with all the top shelf talent on the field and both teams apparently motivated to play, who wins between Ohio State and USC?
There are three factors that could determine if Ohio State wins or finishes with three losses for the first time since Meyer became the Buckeyes’ coach in 2012.
First, OSU’s pass rush has to put pressure on USC quarterback Sam Darnold (3,787 yards passing, 26 touchdowns, 12 interceptions).
In Ohio State’s two losses, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley combined to complete 77 percent of their passes for eight touchdowns without an interception. And they were sacked a total of only three times.
Second, Ohio State must withstand USC’s pass rush. The Trojans led the country in sacks with 43 and this helped them produce 24 takeaways.
Third, Ohio State has to finish drives.
In a 31-16 loss to Oklahoma, OSU had a 13-10 lead with 8:10 left in the third quarter but had only a field goal in the last 23 minutes. Against Iowa, the Buckeyes had 17 points with 10 minutes left in the first half but scored only a meaningless fourth-quarter touchdown the rest of the way.
And after taking a 21-7 lead with 11 minutes left in the first half against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, they let a chance for a blowout get away when they produced only two field goals the rest of the way in a 27-21 win.
If OSU takes care of all three of those, or even two out of three, it can win tonight.
The prediction: Ohio State 35, USC 31.