2022 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic Preview: USC Trojans vs. Tulane Green Wave
- Time and date: Monday, January 2 at 1:00 p.m. ET / 12:00 p.m. CT
- Network: ESPN
- Location: AT&T Stadium — Arlington, TX
- Spread: USC (-2), per DraftKings
- Over/under: 63.5, per DraftKings
- USC money line: -130, per DraftKings
- Tulane money line: +110, per DraftKings
- All-time series: USC leads, 2-1
- Current streak: USC, 1 (1946)
- Last meeting: USC 20, Tulane 13 — December 21, 1946
- USC last bowl: 2019 Holiday Bowl, 49-24 loss to Iowa
- East Carolina last bowl: 2020 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, 38-27 loss to Nevada
- 2021 Cotton Bowl matchup: Alabama 27, Cincinnati 6
* Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.
Setting the scene
It has been dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the Wonder of the World.” AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX owns the label as the largest NFL stadium by capacity. Its magnificent 300-foot long arches that crawl from east to west cannot be mistaken. The 160-by-72 foot video board which hovers over the turf is an iconic part of the venue’s structure. Though this is not your typical college football atmosphere, it serves as the setting for one of the six most revered bowl games in the postseason lineup.
Tulane and USC converge in AT&T Stadium on Monday to settle a champion at the 87th iteration of the Cotton Bowl Classic. One year ago, these teams clashing in a New Year’s Six bowl seemed unimaginable. Tulane was fresh off a 2-10 campaign, while USC posted its worst record in 30 years at 4-8.
But both teams took full advantage of the clean slates that arrived for fall 2022, and come the first week of December, the Green Wave and Trojans found themselves competing for their conference crowns. Tulane exacted vengeance from a November loss to UCF to emerge as AAC champions for the first time ever, while USC — one win away from the program’s first College Football Playoff appearance — fell short in the second half against a physical Utah bunch in the Pac-12 title game.
The Cotton Bowl will signify the fourth meeting between the teams and the first in 76 years. Tulane and USC originally squared off in the Rose Bowl to cap off the 1931 season, and 91 years later, they return to opposite sidelines in another major bowl game.
USC Trojans outlook
USC (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12) experienced one of the most impressive turnarounds in college football. The Trojans hired former Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley away after he led the Sooners to four conference titles and three consecutive College Football Playoff appearances from 2017-19. Although Riley wasn’t able to qualify for his fourth playoff at his new destination, the Trojans stood one win away from crashing the event.
Riley’s arrival to Los Angeles sparked USC to haul in the most impressive transfer portal class in the FBS. The majority of USC’s starters this year hailed from the portal, but none were more significant than the one who received the highest individual honor in college football. Quarterback Caleb Williams followed Riley from Oklahoma to USC and captured Heisman Trophy honors after a spectacular season featuring 4,075 passing yards, 37 passing touchdowns, and just four interceptions. An avid scrambler, Williams also added 372 yards and 10 touchdowns in the rushing department, cementing his place as the third Trojan quarterback to claim the Heisman.
Williams’ mobility was limited in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Utah due to a hamstring injury, but the All-American quarterback is revitalized after an entire month of rest. That should allow more movement around the pocket for the sophomore, who absorbed seven sacks in his prior outing due to notable struggles with mobility.
The star quarterback must operate without his No. 1 target, however. Jordan Addison, the 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner for nation’s best receiver, opted out of the remainder of the season to focus on the 2023 NFL Draft. Even without Addison in the lineup, the country’s No. 5 passing offense features plenty of viable weapons at Williams’ disposal. Tahj Washington (Memphis), Mario Williams (Oklahoma), and Brenden Rice (Colorado) all transferred in from different areas of the country, but the trio immediately meshed together to create a formidable triumvirate on the west coast. Even the long-tenured Trojan Kyle Ford is a proven weapon capable of exploding for 100 yards, so the absence of Addison shouldn’t slow down this pass-happy offense too much.
Thus, Tulane’s pass defense will certainly have its hands full given the Heisman winner’s ability to inflict damage on the run and the bevy of capable receivers in the lineup. Allowing as few as 188.5 yards per game, defending the pass is typically the calling card of the Green Wave defense. But USC will also attempt to unleash its running game, which generates over five yards per carry, on a somewhat-formidable Tulane ground defense.
The Trojans operate without leading rusher Travis Dye, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in November. But Austin Jones has fulfilled that vacancy spectacularly, averaging 103 rushing yards per game in Dye’s absence while also serving as a frequent option in the receiving game. For a second fiddle to Jones in the Cotton Bowl, USC could present a heavier dose of 5-star true freshman Raleek Brown, who earned significant run in the Trojans’ wins over Rice and Colorado this year.
However, paving the way for the running backs, as well as providing protection for Williams, is a noticeably shorthanded offensive line. The Trojans are without First Team All-Pac-12 offensive tackle Andrew Vorhees, who departed for NFL Draft preparation, and center Brett Neilon, who sustained an injury in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
USC’s offense doesn’t turn the ball over much. In fact, the Trojans ranked first in the nation in taking care of the pigskin by coughing up just six turnovers this year. On the flip side, USC’s defense is as elite as any program at forcing takeaways. The Trojans intercepted 19 passes this year and recovered nine fumbles, amounting to a +22 turnover margin. No other FBS team boasts a margin better than +16 — a monumental factor in producing an 11-2 record.
But the Trojans’ defense led by coordinator Alex Grinch oftentimes plays an overly aggressive nature, which can be a double-edged sword. USC often relies on turnovers to stifle opposing offense, and sometimes, this prevents the unit from generating stops in the traditional method. Grinch’s defense ranks 101st in the FBS in terms of yards allowed per game with recurring difficulties in stopping the aerial attack. Missed tackles can be apparent at times, as they were in the Pac-12 title game when Utah shed USC defenders on 24 occasions. Since tackling and coverage aren’t the fortes of this squad, the Trojans are 114th nationally in limiting opposing third downs — another statistic which demonstrates how essential it is for this unit to amass turnovers.
The star of the defense is Tuli Tuipulotu — arguably the most dominant defensive lineman in the country and the most impactful incumbent from the 2021 squad. The unanimous All-American and two-time First Team All-Pac-12 selection ranks atop the FBS in individual sacks accumulated with 12.5 on the season. As exhibited by his 21 tackles for loss, the 6’4”, 290 pound defensive end has been a hard puzzle to solve for opposing linemen all season, and Monday’s matchup at AT&T Stadium could be his final collegiate appearance should he decide to declare for the NFL Draft.
The next level of defense is where Eric Gentry and Shane Lee reside. These linebackers are two of the top tacklers in USC’s defense, and they’ll need to step up in this area in order to limit AAC Offensive Player of the Year Tyjae Spears. Gentry and Lee are also major proponents of USC’s turnover margin, combining to intercept three passes and force two fumbles on the season. Tulane enjoys testing the short throw game often, so these linebackers should have their hands ready as they’ll be tested in coverage early and often.
USC’s secondary led by cornerback Mekhi Blackmon and strong safety Calen Bullock serves as the final line of defense against a balanced Green Wave offense. Blackmon, a Colorado transfer, immediately rose to status as one of the Pac-12’s top cover corners the second he donned a USC jersey. He deflected 11 passes this year and recorded three interceptions while often matched up against opponents’ top receivers. Bullock excelled in zone coverage on the back end with a team-high five interceptions, and he’ll be essential to limiting Tulane from replicating the explosive offense it exhibited in the AAC Championship Game.
Tulane Green Wave outlook
Tulane (11-2, 7-1 AAC) completed one of the most dramatic turnarounds in college football, fresh off a 2021 campaign which saw a 2-10 record and a month-long stay in Birmingham, due to the damage caused by Hurricane Ida in the New Orleans area. But the major contributors from 2022 aren’t far different than 2021. Willie Fritz’s team relied on veteran leadership and camaraderie to claim the program’s first AAC title and qualify for a New Year’s Six bowl for the first time under the College Football Playoff format.
Tulane is capable of running an explosive, versatile offense as demonstrated in the team’s 45-28 AAC title win over UCF. In that contest, the Green Wave produced four touchdowns spanning more than 40 yards with impressive playmaking ability in the run game and pass game alike.
On the ground, AAC Offensive Player of the Year Tyjae Spears rushed for a season-high 199 yards, breaking tackle after tackle to prove his mettle in the run game. It was Spears’ second consecutive week shattering his season-high after posting 181 yards on the Cincinnati defense just seven days prior. Heading into the Cotton Bowl, Spears rides a 7-game wave of surpassing the 120-yard rushing threshold. During that span, he found the end zone nine times as a rusher, with his break-tackle ability laying down the foundation for many of those scores.
Tulane’s veteran offensive line is a significant impetus for Spears’ excellence. Center Sincere Haynesworth and left tackle Joey Claybrook are the Green Wave’s most impenetrable blockers, and they must shed off All-American defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu (21 tackles for loss on the season) in order for Spears to sustain his 120-yard streak.
In that AAC title game, third-year starting quarterback Michael Pratt dominated with his arm in a manner previously unseen. He diced the UCF defense for a career-high 394 passing yards and delivered four touchdowns with his arm. Pratt witnessed a spike across the board in all statistics this year from completion percentage (64.5) to yards per attempt (8.6) to touchdown-to-interception ratio (25-5), proving to be the best version of himself so far. Although Pratt primarily makes his mark with his arm, the Boca Raton, FL native is a capable runner too — utilizing a season-high 87 rushing yards to push the offense past Kansas State when the aerial game wasn’t working as well.
Pratt does a great job of finding defenders in one-on-one coverage and putting his receivers in position to succeed. Tulane’s offensive explosiveness typically relies on making one defender miss, and then turning on the burners in open space. Wide receivers Shae Wyatt, Duece Watts, and Lawrence Keys are no stranger to completing such plays. All three were recipients of 40+ yard touchdowns in the conference championship, and they all possess the necessary speed and agility to thrive against man coverage near the boundaries.
The Green Wave rank 30th in the FBS in rushing offense and 61st in passing offense, and when combining the elements, it amounts to a unit which averages 6.4 yards per play — good for 26th in the nation. There have been times where Tulane’s offense stalled this year, especially in late September and early October, but the group trended in the right direction in November before peaking with 45 points and 648 yards the night they clinched this Cotton Bowl appearance.
Tulane’s defense was its strength through the first half of the season, as evidenced in a 17-10 victory at Kansas State in September. That specific game against the eventual Big 12 champions, Tulane played ultra-aggressive in critical circumstances and stopped the Wildcats on four separate fourth downs to pull off a low-scoring win in Manhattan, KS.
The Green Wave are at their best when sending rushers and displaying unrestrained aggressiveness. In the first meeting with UCF, they were gashed by the Knights’ high-powered rushing attack and produced zero sacks and four tackles for loss. But Tulane made several key scheme adjustments up front for the rematch, escalating those sack and tackles for loss numbers to six and nine, respectively. Defensive end Darius Hodges played a significant role in spearheading this backfield invasion, and the 6’1” sophomore wields a sack total of 3.5 in his three last outing.
Tulane’s linebacking corps is the strongest aspect of its defense. Veteran members Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson form a spectacular tandem as the only two Green Wave defenders to cross the 100-tackle threshold this year. Williams and Anderson are ordinary names, but their ability to break through to the backfield can be defined as extraordinary, and the duo combines for 14.5 tackles for loss this year. Both linebackers have the ability to thrive in short coverage as well, an attribute which will be required as USC tests out halfback screens and mesh routes with regularity.
While the Green Wave usually thrive when applying copious amounts of pressure, dropping seven or eight in coverage may also be a necessary strategy for Tulane against a loaded USC receiving corps. Thus, the most important position group in determining the outcome for Fritz’s squad is the secondary. Jarius Monroe attained All-AAC honors as the No. 1 shutdown corner on the FBS’s 18th-ranked pass defense, and he’ll be tasked with limiting USC from attaining its per game average of 326 in the passing yards department. The safety tandem of Larry Brooks and Macon Clark will also need to be on their A-game as tacklers against a shifty bunch. Brooks and Clark rank third and forth on the team in tackles, and the two talented hitters combine for four interceptions and four forced fumbles on the season.
One of Tulane’s primary areas of weakness on the defense involves containing mobile quarterbacks. In the Green Wave’s only conference loss, they allowed UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee 176 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns with many of that yardage stemming from zone reads. With Williams playing on a healthier hamstring, this element of USC’s offense is set to make a return after an absence in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
USC’s offense scores at the fifth-highest rate in the nation at 41.1 points per game. The Trojans may be shorthanded on the offensive line, but there is a litany of talented skill position players who should help sustain that scoring average heading into the Cotton Bowl. A rejuvenated Heisman Trophy winner in Caleb Williams makes USC more dynamic than it was last outing, and if the defensive issues that persisted from the UCLA and Utah games aren’t fixed, USC will have to win this in shootout form.
While Tulane’s defense has been stellar for the majority the year, the Green Wave showed in both UCF games that quick, up-tempo offenses can pile the points onto this unit — especially by excelling in the run game. But Tulane’s offense has displayed marked improvement throughout the year where it should have no problem breaking 30 points with Tyjae Spears and Michael Pratt improving their individual outputs as the season progresses.
Look for this Cotton Bowl to mirror the happenings of the 2019 Cotton Bowl between Penn State and Memphis, which finished 53-39.
Prediction: USC 45, Tulane 34
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