In terms of brand or name value and recognition for a Week 1 non-conference matchup, it doesn’t get much better than USC and Alabama. These two programs have a wealth of success on the stat sheet, claiming a combined 27 national championships, 1,564 overall victories and eight Heisman winners.
While the rich history and traditions of both programs is a subplot to Saturday’s game, the real focus for this matchup is still what transpires on the field. For USC, this is a chance for new coach Clay Helton to put his stamp on the program. Helton worked as the program’s interim coach last year and was promoted to the full-time role in late November. Recruiting talent hasn’t been a problem for the Trojans in recent years but finding the right coach to develop that talent and take this program back to national prominence has been an issue since Pete Carroll left for the NFL. Is Helton the right coach?
On the Alabama sideline, Nick Saban’s team begins its quest to repeat as national champions. Going back-to-back is never easy, but the Crimson Tide are loaded for another run at the national title. However, this team isn’t without question marks. Three quarterbacks are vying for the starting job, there’s some uncertainty in the trenches, and standout running back Derrick Henry must be replaced. And of course, we can’t mention storylines in this game without bringing up coordinator Lane Kiffin and the matchup against his former team. Kiffin worked as USC’s head coach from 2010-13 and went 28-15 before his dismissal after five games in 2013. This will be Kiffin’s first opportunity to match up against the Trojans since that season.
Alabama has a 5-2 series edge over USC. However, the last matchup took place in 1985.
Alabama vs. USC (Arlington, Texas)
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Alabama -11.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
As many as five quarterbacks could play on Saturday night in this matchup. Junior Max Browne was named USC’s starter in fall camp, and the former five-star recruit has waited for his opportunity to take over as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. While Browne won the job and has showed promise (11 of 19 for 143 yards) in a small sample size, redshirt freshman Sam Darnold could play in a limited role on Saturday night. Darnold made a strong push for the starting nod this offseason and brings more mobility to the position. Both Browne and Darnold are going to have their hands full against an Alabama defense that limited opponents to 15.1 points a game in 2015. Additionally, the Trojans also have a new play-caller in Tee Martin. Needless to say, that's a lot of transition to be dealing with against one of the nation's best defenses.
Alabama has more uncertainty surrounding its quarterback position than USC, as redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and junior Cooper Bateman left fall practice locked into a tight battle for the starting job. True freshman Jalen Hurts was also in the mix but ended fall camp as the team’s No. 3 option. Even though coach Nick Saban cut the battle to be a starter to two quarterbacks – Barnett and Bateman – which one will take the first snap? And if one struggles, how long of a leash will Kiffin and Saban have before making a change?
2. USC’s Run Defense
In an effort to shore up a USC defense that gave up just over 400 yards per game in 2015, Helton hired veteran assistant Clancy Pendergast as the team’s new defensive coordinator. This isn’t Pendergast’s first stint in Los Angeles, as he worked as the team’s defensive signal-caller in 2013. His return should help this defense but big question marks remain about the front seven. The Trojans are thin on proven bodies on the defensive line and return only one starter in the front seven. The addition of Utah graduate transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu was a late boost this offseason, but USC will be challenged by Alabama’s big offensive line and a talented duo of running backs in Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris. Can this unit win a few battles in the trenches and keep Scarbrough and Harris from getting on track? The Trojans have to find a way to keep Alabama’s offense in third-and-long situations or force Bateman or Barnett to take to the air to win this one.
3. Playmakers on the Outside
This matchup features two of the nation’s best receiving corps and two of college football’s top pass catchers in Alabama’s Calvin Ridley and USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster. Both teams are deep with options at receiver, which should present some interesting one-on-one matchups on the outside. Ridley led Alabama with 89 catches as a true freshman last season and could be shadowed by standout USC corner Adoree’ Jackson. But Ridley isn’t the only target for the Trojans, as Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart and Gehrig Dieter round out a standout group of receivers, with tight end O.J. Howard also returning after a huge performance in the national championship game. USC’s receiving corps isn’t as deep as Alabama’s, but there’s no shortage of options for Browne. In addition to his cornerback responsibilities, Jackson could see a limited role on offense, with senior Darreus Rogers and junior Steven Mitchell likely to round out the starting trio. This group is matched against Alabama’s secondary, which features two potential All-Americans in cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick and safety Eddie Jackson.
USC faces a tough assignment in pulling off the upset on Saturday night. Alabama’s defense is arguably the best in the nation and is loaded with talent, speed and athleticism at each level. Even if the Trojans find success on offense by varying the tempo and utilizing running backs Ronald Jones and Justin Davis to keep the pressure off of Browne, the defense has to find a way to slow down the Crimson Tide offense. Even with the quarterback uncertainty for Alabama, that’s no easy assignment for USC. The Crimson Tide simply have too much on defense, and the offense will win the battle up front, allowing Scarbrough and Harris to close out this game in the second half.