ARLINGTON, Tex. — Lincoln Riley never shied away from setting a big goal for his season at USC: To restore the Trojans to national champions.
It was a lofty standard, and seemed unreasonable after the 4-8 record USC endured in 2021. But it turned out to be closer to reality than anyone outside Heritage Hall expected, with USC coming one win away from securing a place in the College Football Playoff.
Instead, the 10th-ranked Trojans find themselves in the Cotton Bowl, preparing to face No. 16 Tulane in the New Year’s Six battle. And while the national championship is out of reach this year, USC coaches and players understand that a win on Monday could be a launching pad toward that goal in 2023.
“As far as starting this foundation Coach Riley came to establish, this is the end to the beginning,” linebacker Shane Lee said. “That’s the best feeling going into an offseason, especially with guys coming in, guys coming out, a lot of transition happening, you definitely want to have a great foundation.”
Riley himself downplayed such importance on Sunday, noting he’s had teams lose bowl games in the past and come back into the playoff race the next year.
“If you win, you’re going to use it positively. And if you don’t win, you’re going to use it as fuel, right?” Riley said.
But the Trojans are coming off a disheartening Pac-12 championship loss to Utah in which the offense struggled to move the ball in the second half — albeit with quarterback Caleb Williams injured — and the defense struggled to tackle for the entirety of the game.
Compounding that disheartening result with another loss heading into the off-season could be detrimental to morale entering January workouts. On the flip side, a win over Tulane, the American Conference champion, could be a springboard to bigger and better things in 2023.
“I want to win a national championship. I couldn’t do that this year,” Williams said. “It’d be special (to win the Cotton Bowl) but it also carries a lot of momentum into the next season for the guys that’s coming back.”
Especially for a defense that needs to see signs of progress after an up-and-down season.
“This off‑season is a huge off‑season for this program, and it starts right now,” safety Bryson Shaw said. “We have to set the tone, close this season out the right way with massive momentum going into the off‑season. A little edge to this.”
When USC has the ball
All eyes will be on Williams from the opening snap to see how he looks after suffering a hamstring injury against Utah. He doesn’t expect any limitations, but acknowledged he will have to be smart to avoid any further injuries.
He does have an advantage in the sense that Tulane’s defense is not known for its pass rushing. But USC will also be down senior offensive linemen Andrew Vorhees and Brett Neilon, which will put pressure on younger, less experienced players to step up in their absence and protect Williams.
“I think we’ve benefited from having time, being able to bank a lot of practices with these groups as we’ve had to shuffle some guys around to make it work,” Riley said. “I think our guys have tried to take advantage of the time, create continuity over the last month.”
When Tulane has the ball
Tulane is a smash-mouth football team, utilizing two-tight end sets and rushing for 197.1 yards per game. Junior running back Tyjae Spears ranked 19th nationally with 105.8 rushing yards per contest.
The Trojans have been middling against the run this year, but will have a stiffer challenge given their lack of depth at middle linebacker. Ralen Goforth and Tuasivi Nomura have both entered the transfer portal, putting pressure on Lee and Eric Gentry to step up in their place.
Gentry was limited by a sprained ankle the last time USC played, but he says he’s able to plant off his foot better now and should be good for extended snaps against the Green Wave.
“You may not have as much depth, but we’re fine with the people that we got here,” Gentry said.