Stanford and TCU would much rather be entering bowl mania with conference championship T-shirts in their bags.
Instead, the No. 13 Cardinal (9-4) and No. 15 Horned Frogs (10-3) can carry the motivation of falling just short in their conference title games, and their shot at one of the elite bowl games.
Because of that, the Alamo Bowl is a battle of heavyweights this season, as Pac-12 Conference runner-up Stanford faces Big 12 Conference runner-up TCU on Dec. 28 in San Antonio.
Stanford had its chances to top USC, in their 31-28 loss in the Pac-12 championship. Had the Cardinal won, perhaps they'd be in the Trojans' shoes and facing Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.
Stanford had a 4th and goal from the 1-yard line in the second half, trailing 24-21, but was stopped by USC.
"The bottom line is we had opportunities and we didn't make enough plays," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "We made enough plays to keep it close but not enough plays to win. The sequence of fourth-and-1 to take the lead in the Pac-12 championship game, there's no hesitation at all.
"That's what we're going to do."
The Cardinal didn't use star running back Bryce Love on those plays, as once again he grappled with a lingering high ankle sprain. Instead they used Love's understudy Cameron Scarlett. Still, Love ended up with 22 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown, upping his season total to 1,973 yards.
TCU succumbed to the superb passing attack of Oklahoma and quarterback Baker Mayfield in the Big 12 Championship Game. Oklahoma is heading to the College Football Playoff, while TCU now faces redshirt freshman quarterback K.J. Costello of Stanford.
Costello, who started the season as third string behind Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns, went just 10 of 22 passing against USC but for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
That offensive balance wasn't the problem for Stanford, but stopping USC's offense was for a second consecutive time this season. Ronald Jones II ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
And it doesn't get any easier, although the Horned Frogs are more likely to do their damage via the air. TCU quarterback Kenny Jones is completing two-thirds of his pass attempts for 2,838 yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Scouting the running game: The biggest problem with Stanford running back Bryce Love's nagging ankle injury is he never had the proper time to recover. The one game he sat out, Stanford narrowly escaped a huge upset road loss to Oregon State. Finally, after chasing down a Pac-12 North title and earning a spot in the conference championship game, Love has four weeks to heal and prepare for the Alamo Bowl. This is a tailback who was averaging over 10 yards per carry, and reeling off explosive and long touchdown runs regularly before his injury.
Scouting the passing game: A week after firing four touchdown passes against Notre Dame, Stanford's K.J. Costello added two more with no interceptions against USC. But his accuracy can improve, as he went just 10 of 22. With the emergence of receiver Kaden Smith (four catches, 80 yards, both touchdowns), Stanford has another weapon in its arsenal along with J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Trenton Irwin and Dalton Schultz. TCU allowed 333 yards and three touchdowns most recently to Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, but Costello is no Mayfield.
Scouting the run defense: USC trampled Stanford's run defense both times the saw each other this season, and it's never been a strong point for the Cardinal. Pressuring the quarterback and playmaking in the secondary has been. TCU, though, doesn't have a 1,000-yard rusher and Stanford's defensive front will be fresh.
Scouting the pass defense: Stanford safety Justin Reid has provided a superb season as a ball hawk, with a team-high five interceptions and many big plays. While starting cornerback Alijah Holder is out injured for the season, fellow starter Quenton Meeks has remained strong. The Horned Frogs have five receivers with 250 yards or more this season, so they spread it around like the Cardinal do.
Scouting the special teams: Stanford kicker Jet Toner didn't get any field goal attempts but made all four extra points against TCU. Punter Jake Bailey had five attempts for 228 yards. Cameron Scarlett had four kickoff returns for 116 yards.
Intangibles: This is a Stanford team that always seems to play its best after a devastating loss or an emotional setback. That's how the Cardinal went on a five-game winning streak after starting 1-2, overcame having a hobbled Love and also going through three different quarterbacks. Dropping the Pac-12 title game and facing TCU in its home state? Emotionally and physically speaking not an issue for Stanford.
DE Eric Cotton missed the USC game with a foot injury.
CB Alijah Holder is out for the season with a knee injury.
LB Sean Barton is out for the season with a knee injury.
Pac-12 Conference champion and No. 8-ranked USC going against Big Ten Conference champion and No. 5 Ohio State would be the kind of postseason matchup ideal for a New Year's Day afternoon in Pasadena, Calif.
However, the rotation for College Football Playoff semifinals moved this classic Rose Bowl matchup to Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 29 for the Cotton Bowl Classic.
"To have the opportunity to compete against an Ohio State, to have the opportunity to be on the same field as a coach (Urban) Meyer, it's one of those things you dream about when you grow up and you're a young football coach," USC coach Clay Helton said.
"And to be here at USC to be coming to an historic bowl like the Cotton Bowl and playing an Ohio State, you can't help but being excited."
This season's postseason marks 54 in USC program history, but just the second in the Cotton Bowl. The Trojans (11-2) last played here in 1995, capping the 1994 season with a win over Texas Tech.
Ohio State (11-2) won its one and only Cotton Bowl Classic over Texas A&M in 1987 though the Buckeyes won the first College Football Playoff championship at the same venue, AT&T Stadium, in January 2015 over another Pac-12 Conference opponent, Oregon.
Both the Buckeyes and Trojans had designs on participating in this season's College Football Playoff, with each stating their case after their conference title wins.
"Tough schedule, but it's something I think the committee should take into consideration," USC quarterback Sam Darnold said. "We beat a great Stanford team that beat Notre Dame ... so that's what I look at."
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett similarly touted the Buckeyes' resume.
"Our resume speaks for itself," he said. "We put ourselves in a good position of being the conference champions ... We did what we were supposed to do. And that was today go beat the No. 4 team in the country in Wisconsin and be the Big Ten champs."
The playoff committee instead selection 11-1 Alabama, which finished second in the SEC West, sets up an intriguing clash of conference champions, and two programs with a lengthy history.
The Cotton Bowl Classic marks the 24th meeting all-time, and the first since 2009. An 18-15 Trojans win in Columbus extended USC's winning streak over Ohio State to seven games.
Meyer said he remembers one of those games quite vividly.
"I remember back in 1979 when Earle Bruce took over for Woody Hayes (as Ohio State head coach) and they had a chance to win the national championship," Meyer said. "And I remember the tailback was, I believe, Charles White, and it was a one-point game (USC won, 17-16, in that 1980 Rose Bowl.)"
Barrett and Darnold lead offenses ranked No. 5 and No. 24 in the nation. Both defenses feature difference-makers like Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, and USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu.
The matchup may not be in the College Football Playoff, nor in the Granddaddy of 'Em All, but the 2017 Cotton Bowl Classic has the potential to be a memorable clash for these history-rich programs.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Sam Darnold entered 2017 with lofty expectations and Heisman Trophy buzz, coming off a nine-game winning streak the previous season that culminated with a record-setting Rose Bowl performance.
Darnold endured a tough start, throwing as many interceptions in six games (nine) as he threw in all of 2016, and coughing up a number of fumbles. But in USC's last seven games, Darnold passed for 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions. In its two losses, the Ohio State defense surrendered eight touchdown passes and made no interceptions against 12 interceptions in wins, thus suggesting Darnold needs to continue his clean play to give the Trojans a chance vs. the Buckeyes.
WR Michael Pittman Jr. dealt with an ankle injury early in the season, though his role in the USC offense increased from week-to-week over the back-half of the campaign. His contributions reached a culmination with a Pac-12 Championship Game record 146 yards receiving in the Trojans' 31-28 win over Stanford on Dec. 1, a game after which offensive coordinator Tee Martin compared Pittman to former USC standout JuJu Smith-Schuster.
LB Uchenna Nwosu earned plaudits as the "MVP of the defense" this season from head coach Clay Helton. He came through with arguably the most valuable play of the Pac-12 Championship Game, getting into the backfield to make an ankle-tackle of Stanford RB Cameron Scarlett. That play denied Stanford a touchdown to take the lead. Nwosu heads into the Cotton Bowl Classic with 71 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries and 13 pass deflections.
BOWL HISTORY: USC is 35-19 in bowl games all-time, and 1-0 in the Cotton Bowl Classic. Ohio State is the fourth different Big Ten Conference opponent the Trojans have faced in the postseason in as many seasons, having beaten Nebraska in the 2014 Holiday Bowl and Penn State in last January's Rose Bowl, and losing to Wisconsin in the 2015 Holiday Bowl.
This is the eighth bowl game between USC and Ohio State all-time. USC leads, 4-3, last winning in the 1985 Rose Bowl, 20-17.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This means the most in the world right now. It's special to see how far we've come as a team. ... Pac-12 championship is our goal at the beginning of the year, and we achieved that goal. So I'm really excited for what's to come. However we get ranked is not up to us, but we're just going to continue to compete, and that's all we can do." QB Sam Darnold on USC winning its first conference title since 2008.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: RB Ronald Jones II tore through the USC record books, passing such legendary Trojans names as Mike Garrett, Reggie Bush, LenDale White and most recently, O.J. Simpson, to become the program's No. 5 all-time leading rusher. Jones has rushed for at least 122 yards in each of USC's last five games, but the Ohio State rush defense comes in allowing fewer than 109 yards per game. Jones may need support from freshman RB Stephen Carr, who recently returned from injury.
Scouting the passing game: QB Sam Darnold won Most Valuable Player of the Pac-12 Championship Game on Dec. 1, in which he threw a pair of touchdown passes and a pair of critical completions in the fourth quarter. One came on a fourth down to deny Stanford a final possession, the other a 54-yarder from out of the Trojans' own end zone to set up the game-winning touchdown. Darnold has played his best football of the season in USC's final stretch, and it is no coincidence the Trojans are riding a five-game winning streak.
Scouting the run defense: Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's 52 formation scheme is aggressive, but in facing a variety of explosive run offenses this season, has had an element of bend-don't-break. The Trojans allow 158.3 rushing yards per game, but a respectable 4.4 yards per carry. Limiting the multifaceted attack Ohio State features, with dual-threat QB J.T. Barrett and RBs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, could shape the outcome. The Ohio State trio ran for more than 2,700 yards in 2017.
Scouting the pass defense: The USC secondary was prone to giving up long pass plays, allowing 13 completions of 40 or more yards. On the flip side, the Trojans' 16 interceptions ranked tied for 11th-most in the nation. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett threw half of his 10 interceptions in losses. For USC, the difference in the Cotton Bowl may come down to creating pivotal plays on the Buckeyes' passing attack or, conversely, giving up pivotal plays.
Scouting the special teams: WR Michael Pittman Jr. returned a punt for a touchdown in the regular-season finale win for USC over UCLA. That was the highlight in a season that most Trojans opponents successfully limited return possibilities. Conversely, USC gave up four punt returns of 20-plus yards one of the worst yields in the nation. Ohio State PR K.J. Hill could cause the Trojans problems in the punt game.
USC PK Chase McGrath sustained an injury late in the regular season, but returned to the Pac-12 Championship Game healthy enough to knock through his 12th successful field-goal attempt.
Intangibles: While both USC and Ohio State made cases for the College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes' were much more in the discussion. Potential for disappointment or a hangover may linger for Ohio State more so than USC. Meanwhile, the Trojans seek to score a marquee out-of-conference victory to cap the season and build momentum for 2018 much like the Rose Bowl win over Penn State propelled the Trojans into a conference championship season in 2017.
RB Ronald Jones II needs 171 yards to pass Ricky Bell as the fourth-leading rusher in USC program history. The most Ohio State allowed to an individual ball-carrier this season was 118 yards to Iowa RB Akrum Wadley.
DE Porter Gustin missed all of USC's season since the Sept. 16 win over Texas, excluding brief action Oct. 28 at Arizona State and Nov. 4 vs. Arizona. Coach Clay Helton said Gustin could be available for the bowl game, though it remains uncertain.
DE Rasheem Green is among those USC underclassmen who are awaiting NFL evaluations or still pondering whether to leave school early.
QB coach Tyson Helton left to join Tennessee's new coaching staff, with offensive quality control coach stepping into the role of handling the quarterbacks for the bowl game. Head coach Clay Helton will make a decision on the full-time position after the bowl.