Caleb Williams hopes to play when USC faces Tulane in Cotton Bowl

USC quarterback Caleb Williams is hoping he can lead the Trojans’ offense against No. 16 Tulane in the Cotton Bowl, while coach Lincoln Riley offered a more cautious prediction on Sunday.

Williams hobbled through the Pac-12 title game after “bursting” a hamstring on a run in the first quarter. Riley noted after the game that Williams was “not even close to 50%” in the second half and he considered backing up Miller Moss. But the Heisman Trophy favorite refused to check out, instead battling through the remainder of the Utah defeat while largely confined to the bag and unable to climb as usual.

Williams, who still had a bad limp on Sunday, was confident he would play in the bowl game when asked by The Times about an event for his Caleb Cares foundation.

“It would take a lot to keep me out,” Williams said.

Riley said Williams likely wouldn’t be able to play if USC had another game in the next two weeks, describing it as a “significant hamstring injury.”

“Hamstrings are different for everyone, but its nature is pretty severe,” Riley said. “… We will see how it goes on. Of course we hope to have him. He is a warrior.”

Riley confirmed USC senior center Brett Neilon will not be playing for the Trojans again after suffering an injury against Utah.

No bowl bid could ease the pain for USC, who missed the college football playoffs. But after narrowly missing the Final Four, a consolation trip to the Cotton Bowl has to be enough.

USC meets Group of Five champion Tulane in Dallas on Jan. 2 and is seeking a 12th win for the first time since 2008, when Pete Carroll roamed the sidelines.

Tyjae Spears carries the ball for a touchdown.

Tulane running back Tyjae Spears carries the ball for a touchdown against Cincinnati November 25 in Cincinnati. Tulane won 27-24.

(Aaron Doster/Associated Press)

This may not be the matchup USC craves to end its first season under Riley. But after suffering a second loss to Utah in Friday’s Pac-12 title game, the Trojans fell to 10th in the final standings of the college football playoffs, behind the Utes, plus Alabama and Tennessee.

Still, USC was selected, 11-2, to appear in a New Year’s Six bowl as at-large for the first time since 2017, when it was subdued by Ohio State in the same bowl.

This time, the Trojans meet a much less well-known opponent. It’s been 76 years since USC and Tulane last met on a football field, though both have taken similar paths this season.

Tulane is one of the few teams in college football to boast a more amazing turnaround than USC this season. The Green Wave was a paltry 2-10 last year and scraped the bottom of the American Athletic Conference before they came to life this season, beating Central Florida on Saturday en route to an 11-2 record and an AAC championship .

This unexpected run was anchored by a rushing attack that could give USC and its questionable defense seizures. Tulane junior running back Tyjae Spears exploded for 1,376 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns this season. And he saved his best for the last five games when he averaged better than 8.5 yards per carry.

Slowing down Spears could be an especially tall order for a Trojan defense that just gave up a season-high 223 rushing yards in their Pac-12 title loss to Utah.

Whether USC will have to face that challenge in the bowl without the advantage of a star of their own remains to be seen.

While USC waits to hear more about Williams’ recovery, others may choose not to play in the Cotton Bowl for a variety of reasons. Wideout Jordan Addison is expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick and may choose not to play to protect himself from injury. Caleb Williams hopes to play when USC faces Tulane in Cotton Bowl

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