Ohio State (11-2, 8-1 in Big Ten)
After missing the playoff seeding by one spot, the Buckeyes find themselves in the Cotton Bowl for the first time since 1987. If not for a week two loss to Oklahoma or a 31-point loss to Iowa, Ohio State would have likely been in playoff contention. The Buckeyes are only held back by their own mistakes. With the capability to show moments of brilliance, like the 48-3 stomping against Michigan State. Ohio State also quietly has the 8th ranked defense in college football. Averaging almost three sacks a game; the Buckeyes front seven do a great job at bringing pressure. The Buckeyes also allowed no passing touchdowns in the Big-10 championship, while also forcing two interceptions.
They could be an offensive juggernaut when seen on their best day. One of the best dual threats quarterbacks in college; J.T. Barrett has led the Buckeyes with 35 passing touchdowns. The offense is also very well balanced, averaging nearly six yards a rush and have 32 rushing touchdowns on the season. A team that is exciting on both sides of the ball that can be dangerous if they get their way.
The player to watch for:
Quarterback J.T. Barrett can go back and forth between Heisman-esque playmaker, and someone who could be a “Not-Top 10” highlight reel. In the Big 10 championship, he showed both. What could have been a potential cakewalk, Barrett single handedly allowed Wisconsin to get on the board with an easy pick-6. But only four minutes prior, Barrett unloaded an 80-yard bomb in the perfect position.
But for those who haven’t seen much of J.T. the long passes aren’t what kill you, it’s his ability to extend the play. A play prior to the first touchdown he threw in the Big-10 championship Barrett scrambled for a broken play first down on third down near his own goal line. All of the defensive momentum was quickly taken out of the Wisconsin, and Barrett found the end zone on the next play.
The USC defense can get pressure on teams but with Barrett’s ability to extend plays with his feet, outside contain will be the name of the game for the Trojans. Since the USC defense has struggled at times to stop the deeper passes allowing Barrett to extend plays and get passes off could be disastrous for USC.
USC (11-2, 8-1 in Pac-12)
Just like the Buckeyes, two losses are what keep the Trojans out of playoff contention. The Trojans are in the Cotton bowl for the first time since 1995. Also like the Buckeyes the Trojans have proven that they could be one of the strongest offenses in college football. Quarterback Sam Darnold is ranked seventh in the NCAA for passing yards and when he is on, the Trojans have proven that they’re dangerous through the air.
Ronald Jones also leads the rushing attack with the seventh most yards rushing and the fifth most rushing touchdowns as well. When Jones gets enough blocking he can turn small opportunities into massive gains.
Trojans WR Deontay Burnett is a steady source of offensive production but after Burnett things get a bit spotty and inconsistent. Younger wide receivers have begun to step up perhaps most notably wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. who set a Pac 12 championship game record with 146 receiving yards.
When things are working, this offense is a dynamic weapon that can be dangerous from any position on the field. When the Trojans’ offense is not playing up to its potential though, they are very stoppable.
The defense is also dangerous when playing up to potential. Even with injuries in multiple positions, this defense still has what it takes to get to get the job done. This was evident in a huge goal line stop against Stanford in the Title game. Against UCLA they were torched and shredded on deep balls but in the red zone they were phenomenal. The Trojans may not be the dominant wrecking machine that forces three and outs every time but they can usually tighten up when it really matters. This should afford them the opportunity to keep the Buckeyes offense from exploding on USC the way they did to Michigan State or in the fourth quarter against Penn State.
The USC player to watch: Sam Darnold
Sam Darnold obviously hasn’t lived up to the Heisman potential that everyone thought before the season. That has not taken away from what he has been able to do to defenses. Even for a player as young as he is, he still has the poise and the confidence of an experienced player. Poise and confidence were two things that Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook lacked against Ohio State.
Despite a very rocky start, Darnold now has a 9-2 touchdown to interception ratio in the last five games, doing a really good job of taking care of the football. He threw for over 300 yards against Stanford in the title game showing once again that he can carry most of the offensive production if needed. With good weapons around him, Darnold can make this offense dangerous.
If the Ohio State defense cannot halt his production, it’ll be a long night for the Buckeye secondary. If Ohio State can contain Darnold then they will need to do it without sacraficing too much in run defense as Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr both are dangerous rushers capable of taking over a game as well.