ARLINGTON, Texas — After missing its chance to get into the College Football Playoff, Southern California is going to the Cotton Bowl to play the highest-ranked Group of Five team in a stadium where coach Lincoln Riley won a few championships before taking over the Trojans.
Two days after losing in the Pac-12 championship game, when a win very likely would have put them in the four-team CFP playoff, the Trojans got matched Sunday to play American Athletic Conference champion Tulane on Jan. 2. Both are 11-2 teams that have made record improvements this season.
Both USC losses this season are to Utah, including 47-24 in the Pac-12 championship game. The Trojans are going to their third Cotton Bowl, the second at AT&T Stadium, and 56th bowl overall.
“If we’re truly serious about being the kind of program that we feel like we can be, then this Cotton Bowl game against Tulane will be a great opportunity for us,” Riley said.
The Green Wave went from 2-10 last season to matching an FBS record with their nine-win improvement — with a chance to get one more in their most significant bowl game since the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day 1940, when they were in the Southeastern Conference. Hawaii went from a winless season in 1998 to 9-4 a year later in coach June Jones' debut.
Tulane was 16th in the final CFP rankings, six spots behind USC. The two teams have played three times, but not since 1946.
Before moving to the West Coast around this time last year, Riley was head coach at Oklahoma for five seasons. In his first four seasons there, the Sooners won four consecutive Big 12 championship games from 2017-20 at the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys where the Cotton Bowl is also played. Oklahoma made the playoff after three of those, losing in a national semifinal each time.
The Trojans have already matched the program’s biggest season-to-season improvement, going from 4-8 last year to seven more wins in Riley's first year. Their first AP national championship was an 11-0 run in 1962 that followed a 4-5-1 season.
Tulane’s first Cotton Bowl will be the the program’s fourth bowl appearance in seven seasons under coach Willie Fritz.