Anywhere but Birmingham! Alabama has been fine with playing Southern Cal in Los Angeles or Pasadena or Honolulu. But the Trojans have had the better of it when the two blue bloods of college football have played in the Heart of Dixie.
Alabama has a 5-2 advantage in the battles of the heavyweights, but Crimson Tide fans have never seen Bama win the battle on home turf. USC has played against Alabama twice in Birmingham and twice has come away with the win.
But that is balanced by Bama having won two regular season games in Los Angeles, a Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, and the last meeting between the two, the Aloha Bowl in Honolulu at the end of the 1985 season.
Now we are in Game Week for the only the eighth game in the series, the premier game of the most prestigious season-opening weekend in the history of college football. Alabama, last year’s national champion and ranked No. 1 in all major polls to start the 2016 season, will take on USC at 7 p.m. CDT Saturday in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. ABC will televise the game.
A quick review of previous games:
The first meeting of the two opened up the 1938 season, a game in Los Angeles. Coach Frank Thomas had a very good team that season and so did the Trojans. Bama would finish 7-1-1, while USC would have a 9-2 season, including a win over Duke in the Rose Bowl. The Crimson Tide was a 19-7 winner in that first game.
Bama’s win over that Rose Bowl USC team notwithstanding, when the teams next faced off the cry from the West Coast seemed to forget that 1938 meeting. Alabama had been to five Rose Bowl games prior to 1946 and the Crimson Tide had a 3-1-1 record in that prestigious game. So what was the reaction of the California media? That Bama had been successful, but had never played Southern Cal.
After the 1946 Rose Bowl, the Trojans crowd was quiet. Alabama took a 34-14 win that was not near as close as the final score. It was 20-0 at halftime and USC didn’t make a first down until Alabama led 27-0 in the third quarter and began liberal substitution. Final yardage: Alabama 351, USC 41.
It was to be the last bowl game for Coach Thomas, who was very ill, and it was to be the last Rose Bowl game for Alabama or any other Southern team. After that rout, the Pac-8 – which owned the game – elected to make it a closed shop, playing only Big Ten teams.
That was also the last game played between the two until the NCAA allowed college football teams to schedule one more game, going from 10 to 11 in regular season. Alabama Coach Paul Bryant, who was also the Tide’s athletics director, saw the opportunity for national exposure and a big payday for the department with a game against a big name opponent. One of his best friends was USC Coach John McKay, and the schools came to an agreement to play in 1970 in Birmingham and 1971 in Los Angeles.
The Trojans, led by tailback Sam Cunningham, took an easy (and embarrassing) 42-21 win over Alabama in the 1970 season-opener in Legion Field. That was not a good Crimson Tide team. It would finish 6-5-1. The most interesting thing about the game is the number of myths that were given credence, though several of those stories were not “revealed” until decades after the game.
The most ridiculous was that Bryant scheduled the games knowing that USC would defeat Alabama and thus hasten desegregation of the Tide program. Alabama had already begun that process with the signing of Wilbur Jackson the year before the game was played.
Also arising from that game was the story that Bryant had gone to the USC dressing room after the game where he got Cunningham and took him to the Alabama dressing room, parading him in front of the likes of Johnny Musso and John Hannah and saying, “Gentlemen, this is what a football player looks like.” It didn’t happen, of course, but truth does not often come from Hollywood.
In 1971, Alabama had two African-American players on its roster, Jackson and junior college transfer John Mitchell. But the Tide also still had the likes of Musso and Hannah, and had a new offense, the wishbone. When Alabama returned the trip to the Los Angeles Coliseum to open the 1971 season, Alabama was an upset winner over the Trojans, 17-10.
It may be that it was the 1971 game – not the 1970 game – that was historic. Bryant’s change to the wishbone started the second half of his Alabama career, a 12-year period that would produce three national championships, nine SEC titles, and a record of 124-19-1. After back-to-back six-win season,s the 1971 team had Alabama back among the elite with an 11-0 regular season record before losing in the national championship Orange Bowl game to Nebraska.
A second round of home-and-home games produced an Alabama upset of No. 1 USC in Los Angeles in 1977, the Tide holding on for a 21-20 win. That Bama team had played a non-conference schedule that also included Nebraska (in Lincoln), Miami, and Louisville, and finished 10-1 in regular season play. After Bama romped Ohio State, 35-6 in the Sugar Bowl, it was expected the Tide would win the national championship, but Notre Dame poll vaulted Alabama with its Cotton Bowl win over Texas.
There was a bit of controversy about the 1978 national championship, primarily because in regular season play in Birmingham, seventh-ranked USC upset No. 1 Alabama, 24-14. It would be Alabama’s only loss, and the Trojans would be upset late in the season. The result was that Bama was able to creep back to second in the nation and to play top-ranked Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. When Alabama won, 14-7, the Crimson Tide had the AP national championship. The coaches poll, however, went to Southern Cal.
The most recent meeting – over 25 years ago – came in the Aloha Bowl in Honolulu. Great teams don’t end up in the Aloha Bowl. Alabama was 8-2-1 (albeit with some exciting wins, including a final regular season win over seventh-ranked Auburn that boosted the Tide to 15th in the nation) and USC was 6-5 and unranked.
Quarterback Mike Shula led Alabama to a 24-3 win. At the time that left Bama and USC tied for most bowl victories in college football history at 21 each.
How close are the two teams historically?
Alabama ranks first all-time in national championships with 16, while the Trojans are fourth with 10.
Bama is sixth all-time in both games won (864) and winning percentage (71.8) with USC 10th in games won (813) and eighth in winning percentage (70.0).
The Tide is first in Bowl games played at 63 and bowl wins (35), but only 17th in bowl record (35-24-3 for 58.9 per cent) with Southern Cal third in bowl games (52) and bowl wins (33) and eighth in bowl winning percentage (64.7).
In the historic barometer of college football success, the Associated Press poll, Alabama has been ranked 744 weeks (fifth all-time) and 75 weeks as the number one team (also fifth), and USC is sixth in the number of weeks in the poll at 743 and fourth in the number of weeks at number one (91).
Southern Cal does have it over Alabama in individuals, the Trojans with six Heisman Trophy winners (third best) to Bama’s two winners (11th), USC third in consensus All-America players with 80, the Tide sixth with 64, Southern Cal first in NFL draft picks (493) and with first round selections (79), Alabama 10th in drafted players (326) and fifth in first-rounders (52).
New college football history begins Saturday night.