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USC to play Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl

USC to play Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl
Deontay Burnett and the Trojans will look to build on the momentum of their Pac-12 championship game victory over Stanford. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

USC won the Pac-12 Conference. Ohio State won the Big Ten Conference. It was not enough for the College Football Playoff selection committee, which left both teams out of the playoff on Sunday.

They will, at least, combine to make the most compelling non-playoff bowl of the season.

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The committee slotted No. 8 USC against No. 5 Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Dec. 29. The matchup offers a traditional Pac-12 vs. Big Ten bowl game in a year when the Rose Bowl hosts a playoff semifinal.

“That's not too hard to get fired up for,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “It's USC versus Ohio State. That alone is going to excite your football team.”

Many pundits had expected the teams to play each other if both missed the playoff. Most predicted that they’d play in the Fiesta Bowl. The committee opted instead for the Cotton Bowl, likely because Ohio State had played in the Fiesta Bowl in two straight seasons.

Ohio State and USC each entered Sunday with some hope of making the playoff. USC, which went 11-2 and won the Pac-12 championship, was considered a long shot. Ohio State, which also went 11-2 and won the Big Ten championship, was considered a primary contender.

The committee instead selected one-loss Alabama, which did not make the Southeastern Conference championship.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said on Sunday that he had not yet met with his team.

“Was there disappointment? I'm sure there was,” he said. He added: “This will be zero issue.”

Just as surprising as Ohio State’s snub was the committee’s dim view of USC. The Trojans, it turned out, never were in the running for the final playoff spot. The committee ranked them eighth, behind Wisconsin and three-loss Auburn.

USC had few emphatic victories — its only two wins against a ranked opponent both came against No. 13 Stanford. No two-loss team has made the playoff in four seasons under the current system. But USC’s strength of schedule, 11th in the country according to ESPN, was better than every team in the top 10 except for No. 1 Clemson.

Yet USC ended up with the lowest ranking for a conference champion in the playoff era.

Helton cited USC's scheduling of Notre Dame and Texas in addition to a nine-game conference season as factors he believes should have received consideration from the committee. But Helton, who typically avoids public criticism, declined to say USC was treated unfairly.

“All the teams in that final 10 that you look at are terrific football teams,” Helton said. “I think the committee had a very hard decision-making process. We're proud of the resume we put together with our strength of schedule being a conference champion, finishing a strong, hard season in November, winning five straight conference games as well as a conference championship game against a good Stanford football team.”

The ranking had little substantive effect on this year’s bowl selection. USC’s playoff bid had few high-profile backers.

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The ranking is more of a concern for the Pac-12 conference, which has begun to lag behind its its peers in terms of producing playoff teams. The conference finds itself in a disadvantage in some areas. The Pac-12, like the Big Ten and Big 12, plays a nine-game conference schedule, while the SEC and the Atlantic Coast Conference play eight. This season, the Pac-12’s best playoff contenders all lost Friday road games following a Saturday road game, though Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said those such games would not be scheduled in 2018.

The conference has now missed the playoff in two of four seasons.

“I don't think it bothers me at this point in time,” Scott said Friday. “I think if we get to year 10 or 12 and that's a trend, I might feel differently about it. But I think our league is very strong. I think it's deep. There are some particular circumstances that went into teams having two losses rather than one loss this year that were tough. But, yeah, it's very elusive and a hard challenge to be one of the top four teams making the playoffs.”

For now, Helton said his team was happy with the bowl selection.

“It’s one of those things you dream about, and to be here at USC and coming to an historic bowl like the Cotton Bowl and playing Ohio State, you can't help but be excited,” Helton said.

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