Cotton Bowl: Five reasons to be excited about Ohio State vs. USC

Buckeyes, Trojans meet for first time since 2009 on Dec. 29

The Ohio State Buckeyes will spend Christmas together in Texas. It will be day three of their week-long stay before the Cotton Bowl.

Defensive end Jalyn Holmes plans to make it a special day. It will be the first Christmas away from home for many of the players. In recent years, the Buckeyes have left for bowl games until after the holiday.

“We’re going to do a little Secret Santa,” Holmes said Friday after practice at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “We’ll try to have some type of Christmas spirit down there in Dallas. I’ll probably wake up all the young dudes on Christmas morning. I’m going to do something. We’ve got to do something to enjoy each other.”

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The game Dec. 29 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, against No. 8 Southern California (11-2) is not the best gift No. 5 Ohio State (11-2) could have received this month. It’s not a playoff game. However, it is a matchup with historic overtones. There are plenty of reasons for the Buckeyes and their fans to be excited about this game. Here are five:

1. Last goodbye: This will be the final game at Ohio State for a number of players who have played central roles in the first six years of the Urban Meyer era, such as quarterback J.T. Barrett, center Billy Price and a big portion of the defensive line, one of the top position groups in the country.

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Holmes, a fifth-year senior, is one of those players.

“It’s all sinking in a little bit,” Holmes said. “This is really the real senior week. This is our last game. I’m trying to enjoy every moment and not trying to wish away time. Times where I don’t feel like getting up and coming in here, I’ve got to remember next year I won’t be in the Woody.”

2. Last chance: Barrett, the all-time winningest quarterback in Ohio State history, doesn’t have much left to prove. He already owns almost every career record in school history.

One more victory against a top-10 team, of course, would add to Barrett’s legacy, especially considering his performance in Ohio State’s last bowl game, a 31-0 playoff loss to Clemson a year ago in the Fiesta Bowl. The nagging doubts of fans continue to motivate him.

“A lot of people don’t like me, and they don’t like that it’s me playing the position,” Barrett said. “They want somebody else doing it. There’s a lot of negativity coming along with the production I’ve had. You can let that weigh on you as a person, or you can embrace it and learn to like people hating you.”

3. Pro prospects: The Cotton Bowl will feature numerous NFL Draft prospects. Leading the group from USC is quarterback Sam Darnold, a redshirt sophomore who could be the No. 1 pick if he leaves school. He averages 291.3 passing yards per game and has thrown 26 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.

USC running back Ronald Jones II, a junior, is another player to watch. He averages 123.8 yards per game and scored 18 touchdowns.

“They have some great skill players,” Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker said. “It’s kind of fun to watch them sling the ball everywhere. Their running back is blazing fast. USC is USC. They’re supposed to be fast, physical and have great athletes. The main thing when I pop on the tape is that wow factor.”

4. Series history: The Buckeyes and Trojans will meet for the first time since 2009. This will be their eighth meeting in a bowl. All the previous games took place in the Rose Bowl between 1955 and 1985. The Trojans won the last three Rose Bowl matchups against Ohio State by a total of five points (18-17 in 1975; 17-16 in 1980; and 20-17 in 1985).

5. Looking ahead: This game will go a long way toward setting a tone for the 2018 season for Ohio State. A year ago, the loss to Clemson cast a shadow over the offseason. A strong performance in the Cotton Bowl could have the opposite effect.

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Ohio State will lose at least six of its nine captains. In a way, next year began this month as the Buckeyes started preparation for this game. Underclassmen like sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa are getting ready to step into leadership roles.

“I think I need to be a little more vocal next year,” Bosa said. “We’re going to have a lot of young guys and a lot of guys who haven’t played in games yet. I think I lead by example already.”

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