Cotton Bowl Best Bets: Editors’ predictions for USC vs. Ohio State

As the Cotton Bowl nears, we asked our editors to give their predictions as No. 8 USC takes on No. 5 Ohio State on Friday at AT&T Stadium. 

Eric He | Daily Trojan

Eric He, associate managing editor: USC

This game has last year’s Rose Bowl written all over it. You have two teams who could easily make a case to be among the top four teams in college football, but won’t get a shot at the playoff. You have explosive offenses on both sides, and a game that could end up being a shootout. I have picked against the Trojans in big games all season because they’ve played down to inferior opponents, were blown out in Notre Dame and lost to Washington State. And Ohio State will be their biggest test of the year. But I’m going with USC this time, for two reasons.

One: There’s no “fatigued” excuse. We all underestimated how not having a bye week during the regular season hurt the Trojans, because it really hurt them. They had a week off before the Pac-12 Championship and looked strong in a tight win over No. 12 Stanford. Now, they’ll have had nearly a month off to prepare for Ohio State. This is not a Friday night game in Pullman after a road game the previous week. This is not playing at Notre Dame in the middle of the season. Larry Scott isn’t here to screw up the scheduling. There is no excuse for not having rest, for injuries, for fatigue — which were scapegoats for both of their regular season losses.

Two: Sam Darnold. He was quickly written off as a Heisman candidate after a poor start to the season, where he became a turnover machine. But he and the rest of the offense rebounded strong following the blowout loss to Notre Dame. Over the last half of the season, we’ve seen Darnold develop chemistry with young receivers in Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman, weapons he didn’t have early on. And we’ve seen more and more flashes of the 2016 Sam Darnold, the version that consistently made head-scratching plays. Ohio State has yet to face a quarterback of Darnold’s caliber with the exception of Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, and he stabbed his school’s flag all over the Buckeyes’ logo. Now, Darnold would never do that, but he should have some magic left in the tank to wrap up 2017 — and possibly a career at USC.

Ollie Jung, sports editor: USC 

Ollie Jung | Daily Trojan

Everything in my gut tells me this pick is dead wrong. The Trojans are 7.5-point underdogs going up against a surging Ohio State team that regularly scores north of 40 points per game and is coming off a massive Big 10 Championship victory over previously undefeated Wisconsin. This is Urban Meyer’s fifth consecutive trip to a BCS or New Years’ Six bowl (including the Buckeyes’ 2014 national title run). Oh, and J.T. Barrett is the most experienced quarterback USC has faced this year — and the superstar is ready to cap his stellar college career with one more signature win against a college football blueblood in his home state of Texas.

But here is the case for USC: This is a team that is desperate to prove that this campaign — which began with national championship hopes — is not only a success, but also a step forward. Winning the conference title for the first time in nearly a decade was a strong start. Triumphing over Ohio State in a de facto Rose Bowl game would certainly put any criticisms of the 2017 season to bed. Plus, we all remember what happened the last time the Trojans faced off against a Big 10 champ. Say it with me one more time (and perhaps for the last time): In Darnold we trust.

Julia Poe | Daily Trojan

Julia Poe, sports editor: USC

At this point in the season, I don’t even want this overwhelming sense of faith that’s still in my gut as we head into the Cotton Bowl. Yes, I will probably get into at least three arguments with Ohio State fans over this weekend about the superiority of Trojan football, but at this point I hardly even believe half of the arrogant things I love to say about our team.

Ohio State is the worthy favorite in this game, and it’s their offensive ability to absolutely gouge opponents that has me the most worried for the Trojans. I also don’t doubt that Urban Meyer and J.T. Barrett are more talented and more prepared than any other head coach-quarterback combination that USC has faced so far. But I’m a homer through-and-through, and if this team has proved anything, it’s that the Trojans can pull through when it counts (well, for the most part. maybe.)

And nobody is better in a situation like this than Sam Darnold. Yes, he’s turnover-prone and too quick to scramble, but Darnold’s gutsiness pays off in big time scenarios, and he’s finally getting the pieces around him — between backs like Stephen Carr and Ronald Jones and receivers like Deontay Burnett and Michael Pittman Jr. — to counter any offensive punch the Buckeyes bring. If this is Darnold’s last game in the cardinal and gold, we can only hope he’ll go out with a bang. And every time I start to doubt, I remember the feeling I had as I watched the final play of the Rose Bowl last year. If that win gave the Trojan family anything, it was hope. Let’s see if Clay Helton can bring the magic again.

Sam Arslanian, incoming sports editor: USC

The obvious answer here seems to be Ohio State. The Buckeyes have proven themselves as a dominant force in college football over the past several decades. Touting the fifth best scoring offense in the FBS, the Buckeyes can be seen as a force to be reckoned with. However, the Trojans offense doesn’t trail too far behind, coming in at 23rd in the same statistic.

It would be hard to imagine the Trojan defense containing J.T. Barrett or J.K. Dobbins; they are simply too dominant. On the other side of the ball, the OSU defense has done a solid job limiting its opposition, allowing only four opponents to exceed 20 points on the season. USC, on the other hand, is familiar conquering opponents who put up more than 20 points. If USC has a chance of winning this matchup, it will have to be a shootout, like most of their victories this season.

Ball possession is a key in this matchup. Neither team can afford turnovers, something USC quarterback Sam Darnold had struggled with earlier this season. In the last few games, Darnold has found his groove by limiting his turnovers and finding the end-zone through the air. The Trojans need Darnold to continue this performance as it is crucial for USC’s success that he returns to his Heisman-candidate form that he exhibited last season. Despite the statistics and logic surrounding this matchup, I believe Darnold will go head-to-head with Barrett in a high-scoring thriller that will put the Trojans atop the Buckeyes when the clock hits zero.

Trevor Denton, incoming sports editor: USC

Trevor Denton | Daily Trojan

First of all, allow me to say how excited I am for this game. It has all the ingredients of a classic bowl game: two historical powerhouses, two fanbases that travel well (and will create a live environment unlike most bowls) and plenty of NFL talent on both rosters.

It should be a great one, but at the end of the day I see the Trojans pulling out the victory in a high-scoring affair. In my opinion, it’s going to come down to the matchup between quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Sam Darnold. Which Barrett will show up for Ohio State: the one who looked like a Heisman contender against Penn State or the one who threw four interceptions in a 31-point loss to Iowa? In the same vein, can Darnold avoid turning over the football against one of the best defenses he’s faced all year? Something has to give here.

It’s tough to call, but I just have to roll with Sammy D if the game becomes a shootout (both offenses rank in the top 15 in yards per game). In last year’s Rose Bowl, he proved to be unflappable regardless of the size of the game. Expect the same type of game-clinching performance this time around, as he looks to cement his legacy as one of the all-time great Trojan quarterbacks.