The 2023 rendition of the Cotton Bowl Classic features two surprise teams that have exceed expectations this college football season.
The No. 16 ranked Tulane Green Wave are easily the Cinderella of the 2022 college football season. A preseason media poll had the Green Wave finishing seventh in the American Athletic Conference and finishing the season with a losing record.
Thankfully for Tulane, seasons aren’t played on paper or by predictions. Not only did they finish the season with a record of 11-2, they dominated their division, rising from unranked to conference champions, and ultimately a New Year’s Six Bowl Game.
Tulane overcame an early season loss to Southern Mississippi to win eight of their final nine games, avenging that only loss to Central Florida by routing them in the AAC championship game 45-28. A signature win over Big 12 Champion and No. 9 ranked Kansas State sealed their spot in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
Their opponent is a traditional college football heavyweight with 11 national championships to their name. However, after finishing the 2021 season with a paltry record of 4-8, the new-look USC Trojans were not expected to compete for a Pac 12 Championship, let alone a national championship in year one under head coach Lincoln Riley.
USC was expected to finish third in the Pac 12 in a preseason poll, with some media members selecting them to finish as low as seventh in the conference. Thanks to newly-crowned Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Caleb Williams, the Trojans defied all doubters with a historical season that saw them enter the Pac 12 Championship game with an 11-1 record, and as the No. 4 ranked team in the country. A win, and they would have advanced to their first ever College Football Playoff.
Unfortunately for USC, a first-quarter hamstring injury to Williams all but ended their hopes of competing for a national championship and instead they settled for a New Year’s Six Bowl after a 47-24 shellacking at the hands of Utah in the championship game.
Tulane will square off with the Trojans on January 2nd at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The war has been waged, the battlefield is set, and only one team will leave the Cotton Bowl Classic victorious. Below is everything you need to know about the matchup between the two upstart teams.
When it comes to USC on offense, the formula is pretty simple: put the ball in their Heisman Trophy winner’s hands and dominate. Over the course of the season, USC averaged 500 yards of total offense, and over 325 passing yards per game. USC was one of only two teams in the country that ranked in the top five in those two categories.
The story about USC’s run game, on the other hand, is not nearly as clear. In the 3 games without starting running back Travis Dye, the rushing attack has been hot and cold. The first two games, against UCLA and Notre Dame, saw dominant performances from Austin Jones and the rest of the rushing squad. However, USC could not buy a yard on the ground against Utah.
Despite the inconsistency in the running game, USC may lean on it against a sub par Tulane rush defense. Over the year, Tulane gave up 153 rush yards per game, which ranks outside the top 50 in the country. Furthermore, Tulane’s pass defense ranks 16th in the country, only allowing 188 passing yards per game. One thing to consider, however, is that Caleb Williams will be the best quarterback they have faced by a significant margin. In their 13 game season, they only played 4 quarterbacks who threw for over 3000 passing yards, and 3 who threw for over 20 passing touchdowns. Caleb threw for 4075 and 37.
These comparisons don’t even consider Caleb’s rushing ability, which we know is a huge part of his game. One final point I’d like to bring up about Tulane’s pass defense is that it may only be as highly ranked as it is because of the lackluster quarterback play they faced. It’s difficult to say that an entire season’s worth of games is somehow not representative of a team’s ability, but Tulane did get a few breaks over the year. For example, when Tulane faced USF, Cincinnati, and Tulsa, the opposing team’s starting quarterback did not play due to injury or other extenuating circumstances. These quarterbacks still may not have been enough to skew an otherwise fantastic pass defense season for the Green Wave, but it should at least be considered. No matter the case, Caleb Williams will be an incredibly tough test for Tulane.
Tulane’s passing game, on the other hand, is no USC. Led by quarterback Michael Pratt, Tulane threw for just 223 yards per game, ranking 72nd in the country. Their wide receiving core was more of a three person committee rather than dominated by a single producer. Shae Wyatt, Deuce Watts and Jha’Quan Jackson hauled in 692, 574, and 467 receiving yards respectively this season. After those three, however, production fell off mightily as no other Tulane receiver had over 300 receiving yards.
Fortunately for Tulane, the passing game is not where they shine. Tyjae Spears, the Green Wave’s leading back, rushed for 1376 yards this year and had over 1600 yards of total offense, ranking 13th and 16th in the country respectively. Additionally, Michael Pratt ran for over 300 yards, demonstrating his ability to make life tough for opposing defenses on multiple levels. In my opinion, this matchup will be where the game is decided. USC’s rush defense has been hot and cold throughout the year, but generally sub par.
There has been marginal improvement during the year, but the Trojans still gave up 148 rush yards per game over the course of the season (57th in the country). Tulane should definitely seek to take advantage of this if they want to keep up with USC’s offense.
So which team will win the 2023 Cotton Bowl Classic?
If history is any indicator, Tulane could have their hands’s full with the Trojans. In nine previous New Year’s Six Bowl matchups between the AAC and a Power 5 opponent, the AAC team is a miserable 2-7 in those games. As previously mentioned, Tulane’s biggest win of the season came against No. 9 Kansas State. KSU will face No. 5 Alabama in their own New Year’s Six matchup in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
Kansas State is coming off a shocking 31-28 overtime victory over previously undefeated No. 4 TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game, and are therefore a formidable opponent for the Crimson Tide. If Tulane’s defense can replicate their performance against KSU in week three, when they held them to just 10 points, then they have a fighting chance against the Trojans. With that said, I still believe USC is the better team with a better offense than KSU.
The 2023 Cotton Bowl Classic will kickoff at 10:00AM PST on ESPN from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Prediction: USC 41, Tulane 27
Betting Odds: USC (-2.5) Over/Under: 61.5