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

USC quarterback Caleb Williams looks to pass against Arizona
USC quarterback Caleb Williams and the Trojans are headed to a New Year's Six bowl despite losing to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

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

Williams limped his way through the Pac-12 title game after he “popped” his hamstring on a first-quarter run. Riley noted after the game that Williams was “not even close to 50%” during the second half and that he considered going to backup Miller Moss. But the Heisman Trophy favorite refused to check out, instead fighting his way through the rest of the Utah loss while largely confined to the pocket, unable to scramble as usual.

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

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

Riley said Williams likely would not be able to play if USC had another game in the next two weeks, referring to it as a "significant hamstring injury."

"Hamstrings are different for everybody, but the nature of his is pretty severe," Riley said. "... We will see how it progresses. We obviously hope to have him. He's a warrior."

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

No bowl bid could ease the pain for USC missing the College Football Playoff. But after falling just short of the final four, a consolation trip to the Cotton Bowl will have to do.

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

Tyjae Spears carries the ball for a touchdown.
Tulane running back Tyjae Spears carries the ball for a touchdown against Cincinnati on Nov. 25 in Cincinnati. Tulane won 27-24. (Aaron Doster / Associated Press)

That might not be the matchup USC pined for to finish its first season under Riley. But after suffering a second loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game Friday, the Trojans fell to No. 10 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, behind the Utes as well as Alabama and Tennessee.

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

The Trojans will face a far less familiar opponent this time. It’s been 76 years since USC and Tulane last met on a football field, though both have followed similar trajectories this season.

Tulane is one of the few teams in college football that can claim a more staggering turnaround than USC this season. The Green Wave were a paltry 2-10 last year, scraping the bottom of the American Athletic Conference, before they came alive this season, routing Central Florida on Saturday on their way to an 11-2 record and AAC championship.

That unexpected run was anchored by a rushing attack that could give USC and its questionable defense fits. 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 Spears could be an especially tall task for a Trojan defense that just gave up a season-high 223 rushing yards in its Pac-12 title loss to Utah.

Whether USC will have to face that challenge in the bowl without the benefit of its own star remains to be seen.

While USC waits to learn more about Williams' recovery, others might opt not to play in the Cotton Bowl for different reasons. Wideout Jordan Addison is expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick and could choose to opt out of playing in the game to guard against injury.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.