LOS ANGELES -- Among USC's players, little suspense surrounded the unveiling of the final College Football Playoff rankings last week.
The selection committee had placed the Trojans at No. 8, well short of the top-four berth needed to make the semifinals. It was a clear tell.
"They weren't really considering us, if we wanna be honest," safety Chris Hawkins said. "I don't know how they weren't, but they weren't."
It ultimately felt like a formality.
"We're not really tripping," Hawkins said.
As USC started bowl practices this week, most players raved about the upcoming matchup without hinting at any lingering frustration over a playoff snub.
"Ohio State has for many years been one of the top-echelon teams," cornerback Iman Marshall said, "and having the opportunity to compete against them, and see where we're at, and where we place ourselves, is a great opportunity."
Since Urban Meyer was hired as their head coach in 2012, the Buckeyes have won 72 of 80 games. Only Alabama has more victories during that span.
"They're a great program, USC's a great program," defensive lineman Rasheem Green said.
"I would rather play them than anybody in the country," Hawkins added.
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The Trojans finished 11-2 overall and won the Pac-12 championship, their first conference title since 2008, but Ohio State, which won the Big Ten Conference title and finished 11-2 overall, also presents a clear measuring stick for how they stack up in the national landscape.
Coach Clay Helton described the Buckeyes as "probably the best team we've played all year from a talent standpoint."
USC has not previously faced a top-five team this season.
"It's basically a playoff game in our mindset," running back Ronald Jones said. "We're going to treat it like it."
ON AND OFF THE ROAD
The new early signing period in college football begins a week from Wednesday, a 72-hour period lasting from Dec. 20 through Dec. 22 that allows recruits to ink their letters of intent with schools rather than waiting until the traditional signing day in February.
As a result of the earlier date, USC's coaches spent most of last week on the road recruiting, part of a series of final pitches that continues even while the team is prepping for the Cotton Bowl.
"It's made it a little hectic for coaches, but players win games," Helton said. "You better get your butt on the road and go."
Outside linebacker Porter Gustin continued to watch practice from the sideline at Howard Jones Field on Wednesday, but he was no longer walking around in a boot, a sign he could return for the Cotton Bowl.
"He's really pleased with where he is," Helton said. "He does not feel any pain and it's good to see that progression."
Gustin, who underwent toe surgery in September, has not played nor practiced since October. He had been in a walking boot as recently as Tuesday's practice.
Wide receiver Tyler Vaughns was also held out of contact drills Wednesday after he suffered a shoulder sprain during a 7-on-7 drill the previous day.
Cornerback Jack Jones (ankle) and wide receiver/kick returner Velus Jones (ankle) remained out.
This article is written by Joey Kaufman from Orange County Register and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.