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Cotton Bowl Classic Preview and Prediction: USC vs. Ohio State

J.T. Barrett

J.T. Barrett

A bowl game pitting the champion of Big Ten against the champion of the Pac-12 must surely be set for the Granddaddy of 'Em All, right?

USC RB Ronald Jones II

Well, 2017 Big Ten and Pac-12 champions Ohio State and USC might be playing this postseason, but not before the backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains. They will trade a Pasadena afternoon for prime-time in Arlington, Texas, and the history of the Rose Bowl for the lineage of the Cotton Bowl Classic.

Their meeting in this historic bowl game marks the eighth postseason matchup between the two programs, albeit the first outside of the Rose Bowl.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic: USC vs. Ohio State

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 29 at 8:30 p.m. ET

Where: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Ohio State -7.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Stopping the Texas two-step

Running backs J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State and Ronald Jones II (above, right) of USC are both products of the Lone Star State, making homecomings at the Cotton Bowl Classic. Each is a potential game-changer, coming into the postseason with outputs of 1,364 and 1,486 yards respectively.

While both Ohio State and USC show defenses a variety of looks — the Buckeyes with a multifaceted rushing attack, and the Trojans with a varied passing attack — their featured backs are important cornerstones. The defense that can make opposing running backs work more for yardage gains a tremendous advantage.

Both defensive fronts feature difference-makers capable of slowing the other team's running back. USC needs to get Uchenna Nwosu and Rasheem Green in the backfield, while Cameron Smith limits opportunities to break through the second level. Standout edge rusher Nick Bosa's ability to disrupt rushes before they start will prove crucial for the Buckeyes.

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2. Explosive plays

Both Ohio State and USC rank in the top 10 nationally for plays from scrimmage going for 20 yards or more — the Trojans at No. 6, the Buckeyes at No. 10.

Each offense has the personnel to break off explosive plays, whether it's Ohio State with J.T. Barrett, Dobbins, Mike Weber; or USC getting Jones rolling, or Sam Darnold (right) spreading the ball among his diverse corps of pass catchers. However, the USC defense has been far more prone to giving up explosive plays this season than Ohio State has been. That could come into play.

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The Trojans come in having allowed 71 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage; that ranks them No. 117 in the nation. Ohio State ranks No. 44 in allowing such plays.

3. Big-game stage

USC and Ohio State are two of the most historically successful programs in college football, but recent history is more important for forecasting the Cotton Bowl Classic. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has been on the most prominent stages of college football routinely in his career; though Clay Helton has a Rose Bowl championship under his belt in just two full seasons as a head coach, his opponent is far more accustomed to this level.

What's more, USC has been great in big games in the state of California, winning the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the Pac-12 Championship Game in Santa Clara. Marquee dates outside of the Golden State have not gone as well. The Trojans finished out of the College Football Playoff race as a result of a blowout loss at Notre Dame in October, their most lopsided defeat since suffering a blowout against Alabama at AT&T Stadium — the same venue where the Trojans meet the Buckeyes.

Final Analysis

Conference championships and a challenging strength of schedule made both USC and Ohio State intriguing College Football Playoff candidates at season's end. Though they finished outside of the final four, these are two of the most talented and exciting teams the nation has to offer. That makes the Cotton Bowl Classic the most fascinating of the bowl games outside of the playoff.

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However, Ohio State looks like an especially tough matchup for USC. The Trojans' offensive line was battered much of the season, which resulted in constant pressure on Sam Darnold. That improved over the course of the season, but Nick Bosa is the best rusher coming off the edge USC will have seen all year.

Ohio State's explosive offense can attack USC in a variety of ways. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast may have to sell out on the run, leaving a Trojans secondary that was already prone to big plays in 2017 further vulnerable. If USC is going to win, Darnold must conjure up some of the magic that powered the Trojans in the Rose Bowl a year ago.

That's certainly a possibility. The rise of wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. in recent weeks adds a new dynamic to the Trojans' passing game. Still, the overall forecast favors Ohio State.

Prediction: Ohio State 41, USC 27

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of TheOpenMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.