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Ohio State vs. USC: Five storylines to watch in Friday’s Cotton Bowl

It’s not a playoff game, but it’s a tradition-rich matchup

Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Jerome Baker takes himself to calm place before every game, soothing his nerves with the music of artists like Earth, Wind & Fire or Usher.

“I like listening to slow jams before I go into battle,” Baker said.

Baker, a junior from Cleveland, has another pregame tradition. He talks to a cousin on Facetime. He’ll do it again Friday when the No. 5 Buckeyes (11-2) play No. 8 Southern California (11-2) in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“I’m nervous every game,” Baker said. “I don’t care what game it is. She tells me the same thing, ‘You do this every week. You’re going to be fine.’”

» COTTON BOWL: Thursday’s press conference highlightsFaces of the Cotton BowlPreview

With that out of the way, Baker takes a nap. That’s the final step of his preparations.

“I try not to think too much about the game,” Baker said. “That’s kind of weird. I know everything I have in me is going into this game. I think about other things to relax.”

Baker and the Buckeyes have had 26 days to think about this game. After beating Wisconsin 27-21 in the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 2, Ohio State didn’t hear its name called on the playoff selection show the next day and instead received an invitation to the Cotton Bowl. They arrived in Texas on Dec. 23, celebrated Christmas in Dallas and now hope to head back to Columbus with a 12th victory.

Ohio State defensive players talking to media. #cottonbowl

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Here are five storylines to watch Friday night:

1. Traditional matchup: Ohio State and USC have produced more first-round NFL Draft picks than any other schools. The Trojans have 80. The Buckeyes have 77. The programs have combined to win 19 national championships. Both rank in the top 10 in all-time victories.

This isn’t a playoff game, but Ohio State coach Urban Meyer called this a great bowl game.

“The great thing about this is you’re going to see the Pac-12 champion against Big Ten champion in a great venue,” Meyer said, “and that’s why college football is so strong right now.”

2. Different stakes: A national championship, or the right to play for one, isn’t on the line. However, a loss would give Meyer three losses in one season for the first time as Ohio State coach. That’s something he wants to avoid.

A reporter asked Meyer on Thursday in the final press conference at the Omni Dallas Hotel whether that would tarnish the season.

“Sure, it would,” Meyer said. “I think our job is to go win the conference championship and go win a bowl game. I’m not sure ‘tarnish’ is the right word. I would be disappointed and move on to next year. I think as I get older and more experienced, we’re going to move forward; we don’t look back. So we’re going to do all we can to go win this game.”

3. Stopping Darnold: Ohio State’s defense has not performed well against first-round caliber quarterbacks in recent seasons. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson led the Tigers to a 31-0 victory over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl last season. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield engineered a 31-16 victory against the Buckeyes in Columbus this season.

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USC has a quarterback with similar talents. Sam Darnold has 57 touchdown passes in the last two seasons.

“I see a streaky player, and I say that with a lot of respect,” Meyer said. “Once he gets on, that’s the job of the defense not let him get on. The best pass defense is a pass rush. But I see a winner. I see a young man that’s going to go down as one of the winningest quarterbacks in USC history and a guy that’s got a great release, great size, and enough athleticism to make you pay if you’re not secure in all the gaps.”

4. Another weapon: The Trojans also have a big-time talent in running back Ronald Jones II. He averages 6.1 yards per carry and has run for 18 touchdowns.

“I think the running back is phenomenal, not just fast but strong,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “He has an incredible feel right before he gets tackled. Not a lot of kids that you see in college football do this. He kind of takes what you call a raised step right before he gets hit and really delivers a blow, as opposed to a guy just continuing to run. That is something that I don’t know if it’s coached or not. I think that’s kind of a gift. And if you make a mistake, in one thing, he’s gone.”

5. USC’s challenge: Ohio State will be motivated to send its record-breaking quarterback, J.T. Barrett, out with a victory. He’s 37-6 as a starter. No Ohio State quarterback has won more games.

» RELATED: Buckeyes don’t shy away from expectations

Helton said Ohio State’s success starts with Barrett.

“Being a quarterback coach by trade, I’m just so impressed with J.T.,” Helton said. “His experience, his leadership, his dynamics and charisma on the field are just evident. To be a guy that that can rush for 700 yards and still be a 3,000-yard passer, that’s pretty darn special. Then you’ve got to try to stop J.K. (Dobbins) and Mike (Weber) and about six receivers who are as good as anybody in the country. A very complete football team, a very well-coached football team. We’ll have our hands full Friday night.”

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