Sam Darnold, if he declares, will likely be a high first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. That belief makes an immediate pro pursuit an entirely reasonable decision for the USC quarterback.
If the Cotton Bowl was Darnold's final college game, however, he's leaving the storied program on a sour note.
And the 24-7 loss to Ohio State didn't help how Darnold is viewed in NFL scouting departments.
Darnold, who has publicly remained undecided about his future, has been considered a potential No. 1 overall pick since guiding USC to nine consecutive victories last season. He took an anemic offense and turned the Trojans into one of the nation's best scoring attacks.
As a result, USC entered 2017 as a popular College Football Playoff pick. But instead of solidifying his place as a top selection this year, Darnold battled inconsistency throughout the campaign. Those problems were on full display during the Cotton Bowl.
Darnold opened the showdown with an encouraging first quarter despite the scoreboard's reading. A fumble by Deontay Burnett led to an Ohio State touchdown, and a third-down drop by the receiver hurt the Trojans. But a 7-0 deficit wasn't a major issue for USC.
The pick-six was, though.
On USC's first offensive play of the second quarter, Darnold properly read the linebacker on a run-pass option but failed to recognize Damon Webb shifting inside at the snap. The Buckeyes safety easily jumped the slant route and cruised 23 yards to the house.
Darnold didn't entirely unravel following the interception, but every encouraging moment seemed to precede a horrible mistake.
Trailing 17-0, he seemed to give USC some life. Four completions and a 14-yard scramble moved the offense into scoring territory. But Darnold lost a fumble to end the drive.
On the next possession, he threw a well-placed ball to Michael Pittman Jr. for a 32-yard gain down the sideline. Darnold double-clutched the next pass and should've been intercepted. USC managed to score after recovering a mishandled punt, but Darnold shouldn't get credit for engineering a scoring drive.
In the third quarter, poor footwork caused a brutal third-down miss of Burnett across the middle. On the next possession, Darnold impressively evaded pressure from two defenders and whipped an 18-yard completion on 3rd-and-17 to move the Trojans across midfield.
Then, the drive stalled at the 33-yard line.
To open the fourth period, Darnold launched a perfectly placed 37-yard completion to Tyler Vaughns down the right sideline. Two snaps later, he overthrew a wide-open Burnett in the end zone. Two snaps after that, Chase McGrath missed a field goal.
One key incompletion dropped the Trojans from seven points to zero.
The USC defense continued to give Darnold a fighting chance, and three straight completions plus an Ohio State penalty put the Trojans at the 12-yard line. But once again, Darnold coughed up the ball at a horribly inopportune time, and his third turnover sealed the result.
Yes, the offensive line didn't help its quarterback much. Ohio State amassed 14 tackles for loss, including eight sacks. The Buckeyes constantly created pressure with three- and four-man fronts, and blitzes overwhelmed the Trojans.
But Darnold cannot hold the ball so carelessly in scoring territory. He cannot miss open receivers sprinting across the middle of the field. He absolutely cannot miss uncovered targets in the end zone.
Not if he wants to succeed in the NFL.
Darnold finished the contest 26-of-45 for 356 yards, showing off the mobility and downfield touch that have attracted scouts. But the feeling of, "Wow, that was special," often quickly turned into, "Wow, that was just terrible."
One frustrating game won't derail Darnold's draft stock. If he turns pro, he's probably not going to fall out of the top 10.
Besides, that first-round contract is appealing, and it's risky to pass up that money when it's there. Plus, USC's offensive line isn't guaranteed to improve next season. And while the Pac-12 is a fine conference, it's not a greater teacher than the speed of the NFL.
Yet he might love USC enough to stay for another year. Perhaps money isn't as crucial a factor as it will be for others. Maybe Darnold wants to address the apparent flaws in his game before entering the draft.
Both outlooks are understandable—even admirable—and Darnold will reveal his decision about 2018 in the near future.
But if you were looking to the Cotton Bowl for clarity on his situation, Darnold only provided more uncertainty.