Why the 2017 Cotton Bowl Comes With a Pinch of Salt

The New Year's Six will kick-off this Friday with the 82nd edition of the Cotton Bowl, which will pit two college football blue-bloods against one another in what is essentially a preview of what the CFP will look like when it inevitably switches to an eight-team format.

How do I know this? It's simple, really.

In the post-BCS era, FBS college football has been split into two sections: The "Power Five" conferences, and the "Group of Five" conferences. The Power Five represent the former "AQ," or automatic qualifying conferences, which used to include the former Big East. In the ashes of the Big East rose the AAC, which exists now as the top also-ran conference; still a major long shot to make the final four no matter how well their conference champion performs.

While AAC powers, such as this year's undefeated Central Florida team, can gripe they have no legitimate chance of making the CFP, by definition the four-team playoff means at least one conference champion from the Power 5 schools will be left on the outside looking in. In the first three seasons of the CFP, the conference champs from the SEC, ACC and Big Ten have basically been automatic qualifiers, with the champions from the Pac-12 and Big-12 left to fend for themselves.

In an unprecedented scenario this season, however, both the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs were not included in the final top four, with two SEC teams (Alabama and Georgia) joining ACC champion Clemson and Big-12 champion Oklahoma in the group that will play for a national title. The result? A Cotton Bowl Classic that will feature two traditional powerhouses who feel they were not invited to the dance.

No. 5 Ohio State will take on No. 8 USC, two 11-2 conference champions with a checkered history of national titles, Heisman winners, and NFL first-round picks. In any year in which the Rose Bowl was not a CFP semifinal, this would be a traditional Granddaddy of Them All matchup between the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs. In fact, the two schools have met one another in the Rose Bowl seven times, with Southern California leading the series 4-3. USC has dominated the head-to-head rivalry as of late, winning seven straight against the Buckeyes.

Ohio State was present in two of the first three CFPs, winning the inaugural playoff national title in 2015 by virtue of victories over Alabama in the semi-final and Oregon in the title game. After missing the 2016 playoff, OSU fell in the semifinal last season to eventual national champion Clemson.

In an unpredictable 2017 Big 10 race that saw Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, and briefly even Michigan State make a claim for the conference title, the Buckeyes handed undefeated No. 4 Wisconsin their first loss of the year in the Big Ten title game to claim their second conference title under Urban Meyer (they were withheld from the 2012 game due to postseason sanctions). However, in a decision that clearly came down to Ohio State's embarrassing blowout loss to unranked Iowa in Week 9, one-loss conference runner-up Alabama was awarded the fourth position in the CFP, leaving many in Buckeye land (including senior QB J.T. Barrett), jaded.

On the other side, No. 8 USC was the preseason No. 4 team in the country and were in the top five in the AP Poll for the first five weeks of the season. A close loss to Pac-12 title contender Washington State knocked them out of the top 10 for all but one week the rest of the season, and the Trojans fell as far as No. 21 in the AP Poll. They were never truly in the race for the CFP, in spite of rebounding from a blowout 49-14 loss to arch-rival Notre Dame in Week 8 to win their final five games of the season, including victories over crosstown rival UCLA and No. 12 Stanford in the Pac-12 title game.

Two proud programs will march in to Jerry World two days earlier than they had hoped to play for the distinction of "who's No. 5," but one can assume neither team will take the game lightly. Both will look for definitive victories that will leave the CFP selection committee wondering if they made the right decision in omitting the two schools from the national title tournament.

On paper, the Buckeyes look to have the slight edge over the Trojans. In spite of an injury-plagued career at Ohio State, senior J.T. Barrett set career highs in pass yardage and touchdowns this season, adding 743 yards on the ground to the potent rushing combination of freshman J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. Dobbins and Weber combined for nearly 2,000 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns for Ohio State, which averaged 250 yards per game on the ground this season. USC's key linebackers Cameron Smith (First-Team All Pac-12) and Uchenna Nwosu (7.5 sacks, 9.5 TFL) will have a tall order in stopping the Buckeyes ground game.

USC features their own star back in junior Ronald Jones, who came up just shy of 1,500 yards rushing (1,486) to pair with a whopping 18 touchdowns. He and top receiving target Deontay Burnett (975 yards, 9 TDs) will look to lead the Trojan offense against a Buckeye defense that allowed less than 300 total yards per game on defense.

The 2017 Cotton Bowl Classic may not have national title implications, but it will showcase two top-tier programs who feel their seasons could have gone farther in a display that could sway college football toward a playoff expansion in the coming seasons. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

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