USC and Alabama are going to play each other to kick off their seasons at Dallas' AT&T Stadium on Sept. 3. And when they do, there will be as much talent on the field as in perhaps any college game this year.
It's quite possible that the only non-blue-chip prospect on Alabama's starting nickel defense will be safety Eddie Jackson, who an was All-SEC player last year. The same goes for USC's offense, where it'd be left tackle Chad Wheeler, who could be a first-round NFL pick next year. Both units are loaded with former four- and five-star talents.
This can happen because Alabama has posted six No. 1 recruiting classes in a row, while USC finished in the top 15 every year from 2012 to 2015, when it was second. Alabama has superior talent, but USC is hugely skilled in its own right.
The result will be the most star-powered game of the early season. These are some things to track:
The trenches have long belonged to Alabama. USC's going to need its secondary's help to win them back.
The Tide have made hay for years from really strong centers who could control the opposing team’s nose tackle and allow one or two fellow linemen to release down the field and take out linebackers. Four of the last six All-SEC teams have included Tide centers (William Vlachos, Barrett Jones, Ryan Kelly), and now Bama turns to Ross Pierschbacher, who played guard a year ago.
The Trojans are in a bit of a bind after seeing their defensive tackle rotation depleted between graduation and the NFL, then rocked when prospective starter Kenny Bigelow tore his ACL in spring practice. What’s more, the Trojans will be leaning on sophomore inside linebacker Cameron Smith, 210-pound weak-side linebacker Quinton Powell and a secondary without a DB heavier than 200 pounds to hold up between the tackles.
With a star-studded cast of coverage specialists like Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall, USC coordinator Clancy Pendergast will try and outnumber the Tide at the point of attack by dropping a safety or nickel toward the line of scrimmage or playing base 5-2 defense whenever possible, like this:
If USC can play Alabama with eight-man fronts from a 5-2 base while leaning on corners and safeties to hold up in man coverage, it could rob prospective Tide QB Cooper Bateman of the easy, quick throws he excels at making.
If Bateman can’t punish the Trojans down the field, it could lead to some interesting decisions for the normally conservative Nick Saban.
Most teams wouldn’t dare try to match up against this cast of Bama receivers in man coverage, but with players like Jackson in the secondary and the Tide’s question mark at QB, USC might as well take risks and let those DBs go to work.
On the other side of the ball, a physical USC run game could move the ball against a svelte (by Bama standards) defensive front.
For most teams, the best way to attack Alabama has been with a spread passing attack and a mobile QB who can negate the advantages the Tide have against a drop-back passer. Still, two of Saban’s most recent defeats came at the hands of smash-mouth rushing attacks from Auburn and Ohio State. There are no easy options.
Helton brought a more physical run game back to Los Angeles and is defining the Trojan attack around a pro-style spread not totally dissimilar to what Lane Kiffin has installed in Tuscaloosa.
Like the Tide, USC will regularly line up in three-receiver sets and throw quick passes outside on RPO (run/pass option) plays if opponents load the box.
However, they still mix in 21 personnel sets (two RBs, one TE, two WRs) and run the ball behind a fullback more often than the Tide have tended to do in the Kiffin era. Both styles should make for interesting theater when the Trojan blockers take on the Alabama front.
One of the few questionable areas for Alabama in 2016 is how well its normally ultra-stout run D will hold up after big men A’Shawn Robinson, Darren Lake and Jarran Reed, inside linebacker Reggie Ragland and hard-charging safety Geno Smith-Matias all moved on.
It’s possible that Alabama hasn’t put a better-looking pass defense on the field in the Saban era than the squad it has lined up to take the field in 2016.
But the group’s bona fides in building a brick wall in the trenches aren’t quite up to the Tide’s normal standards, at least not yet. Perhaps the additions of Ronnie Harrison and Rashaan Evans make the Tide as potent (or more potent) as a run defense. The Trojans need to make them prove it.
USC may start by using its play-action/RPO game to hit athletes like Steven Mitchell and JuJu Smith-Schuster outside against man coverage, but things could also get interesting if USC can get explosive sophomore back Ronald Jones going against eight-man fronts by Alabama.
Here’s an example of the Trojans springing Jones on outside zone against Stanford in the 2015 Pac-12 title game:
The Cardinal play a similar style of defense as the Tide, albeit without as much talent. The Trojans were able to run the ball fairly effectively on them, especially with Jones. Might as well give that a try against the Tide, right?
Because of his ability to win the perimeter or cut upfield and pull away with his speed, Jones might be the most dangerous outside-zone running back USC has had since Reggie Bush.
Even if the Trojans are able to dramatically slow down the Alabama offense, they’ll still need explosive plays of their own to score enough to win, and Jones will be critical in this sense.
There’s no harder test for Helton to walk into in his first full season on the job than facing Alabama in Week 1.
The Trojans are trying to reassert themselves as a dominant program, and Alabama won’t be much in the mood to help. The Tide should be great, as ever, even if they’ll be a different-looking team in some ways.
But between Alabama’s still transitioning defensive front, USC’s skilled defensive backs and some of the Trojans’ world-class offensive weapons, the underdogs have what they need to have a chance.
Whether they can have more than that is an open question.