ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — After missing its chance to get into the College Football Playoff, Southern California is going to the Cotton Bowl and will play American Athletic Conference champion Tulane on Jan. 2.
Two days after the Trojans lost in the Pac-12 championship game, when a win likely would have put them in the four-team CFP playoff, they got matched up Sunday against the highest-ranked Group of Five team. The Green Wave were 16th in the final CFP rankings, six spots behind USC.
It is a matchup of 11-2 teams that have both have made record improvements this season. The two teams have played three times, but not since 1946.
After going 2-10 last season, the Green Wave have already matched an FBS record with its nine-win improvement this year — with a chance to get one more in their most significant bowl game since New Year's Day 1940 in the Sugar Bowl 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's first Cotton Bowl will be the the program's fourth bowl appearance in seven seasons under coach Willie Fritz.
The Trojans have already matched the program's biggest season-to-season improvement, going from 4-8 last year to seven more wins for first-year coach Lincoln Riley. Their first AP national championship was an 11-0 run in 1962 that followed a 4-5-1 season.
Both USC losses this season were to Utah, including 47-24 in the Pac-12 championship game.
Before moving to the West Coast around this time last year, Riley had been head coach at Oklahoma for five seasons. In his first four seasons there, from 2017-20, the Sooners won four consecutive Big 12 championship games at AT&T Stadium, the home of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys where the Cotton Bowl is also played.
Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams, who likely will be a Heisman Trophy finalist, threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns in Friday night's rematch against the Utes, even after injuring his hamstring on a 59-yard run before halftime. He has some extra time to recover, depending on the severity of the injury.
The Green Wave beat UCF 45-28 in the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday, when quarterback Michael Pratt accounted for 442 total yards and five touchdowns, and Tyjae Spears had 199 yards rushing with a 60-yard score to extend his FBS-best active streak of 100-yard games to seven.
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