ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — When quarterback Caleb Williams followed coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Southern California, they had the same goal.
“We wanted to get USC back to where it was, what all of you might remember USC as,” Williams said.
The Trojans came up just short of making the four-team College Football Playoff in their first season on the West Coast, but Williams won the Heisman Trophy and they have a chance to reach 12 wins for the first time since 2008. They play American Athletic Conference champion Tulane on Monday at the Cotton Bowl in a matchup of 11-2 teams that both made record improvements.
“It's just a steppingstone to where we want to be and where we're trying to go, and where we will be,” Williams said.
Riley said this season has been as "fun a season as I’ve had coaching in a long time.”
“This has been a different challenge and we knew it would be coming here," he said. "And I think the ability for a team to rally and come together certainly in the way that we have, and to be able to experience some of the success, has been great."
USC, which was 4-8 last season before they arrived, has already matched the program's biggest season-to-season improvement. The Trojans' first AP national championship was an 11-0 run in 1962 that followed 4-5-1 the previous year.
That is still not as impressive as Tulane's turnaround. The Green Wave have already matched the FBS record after going 2-10 last year, and can make it an unprecedented 10-win improvement in their most significant bowl since the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day 1940.
“When you get to this point, you have a body of work. The guys have shown what they can do,” seventh-year Tulane coach Willie Fritz said.
“We've done a lot and made some real history at Tulane over the season that we've had,” quarterback Michael Pratt said. “But it'd mean the world to us to be able to come in here and finish this off, and get a win at the Cotton Bowl.”
Tulane, in a New Year's Six game as the highest-ranked Group of Five team, won 17-10 at Big 12 champion Kansas State in mid-September in its only game so far this season against a Power Five team.
Southern Cal lost to only one team this season, to Utah twice — in mid-October and again in the Pac-12 title game after they had moved to fourth in the CFP rankings. Williams still threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns after injuring his hamstring on a 59-yard run early in the title game, and said he is ready to play in the Cotton Bowl.
"I feel good. I feel like I'm where I need to be,” said Williams, who has thrown for 4,075 yards and 37 touchdowns with four interceptions, and run for 10 more scores. “I feel good, ready to play, itching to play.”
Riley said Sunday that Williams had practiced well without any real limitations since getting to North Texas.
“He is ready to go. He has progressed maybe a little faster than what we anticipated,” Riley said. “Certainly, very fortunate on our part that we had the opportunity to have a month, really, before this game. I mean, had it been even two weeks, I doubt he would have been available."
Pratt has thrown for 2,755 yards with 25 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He has been picked off only twice in the past eight games. Pratt had 442 total yards and five touchdowns in the AAC championship game against UCF.
Over the Trojans' last seven games, only one-win Colorado failed to throw for at least 300 yards with multiple touchdowns against them. But they are third nationally with 19 interceptions this season.
USC’s offensive line will look significantly different in the Cotton Bowl. All-America guard Andrew Vorhees, after dealing with a lingering injury, won’t play after also missing the Pac-12 championship game, and is beginning his prep for the NFL draft after appearing in 55 games for USC. Third-team All-American center Brett Neilon hasn’t recovered from a knee injury in that title game.
“Two big losses,” Riley said. “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."
Green Wave running back Tyjae Spears has rushed for at least 100 yards in seven consecutive games, the longest active FBS streak. The rising NFL prospect, who said he never considered opting out of his final game, had 199 yards rushing in the AAC championship game that included an impressive 60-yard TD run with a leap over one of his tripped-up teammates.
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