Game 1: ‘Call Me Deacon Blues …’
The 2016 USC Trojans, ranked 17th in the USA Today poll and No. 20 by the Associated Press (AP), opens their season Saturday, Sept. 3, against the defending national champion and consensus No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide at 5 p.m. PDT at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and in front of a national ABC television audience. It’s the eighth meeting – the Tide holds a 5-2 edge – but the first since the 1985 Aloha Bowl (24-3, Alabama). During the 1970s, a decade dominated by the schools, they split four meetings – Alabama winning in 1971 and 1977 in Los Angeles; the Trojans toppling the Tide in 1970 and 1978 in the Yellowhammer State.
Against Southeastern Conference foes, USC is 22-11-1, winning its past four (vs. Auburn and Arkansas, 2002-05). Troy is 7-12 all-time against AP-No. 1 ranked opponents, but its most recent win came in 1984: 16-7 over Washington at the Coliseum. Alabama is 15-7-1 against Pac-12 opponents. It beat current Pac-12 member Colorado (2007 Independence Bowl) and lost to Utah (2009 Sugar Bowl) but hasn’t faced a team representing the conference since dropping both ends of a home-and-home to UCLA in 2000-01. The Trojans have won 18 season openers in a row; the Tide 14.
Clay Helton (6-4 at USC in parts of two seasons: 2013, 2015) kicks off his first full season as the Trojans’ full-time head coach. Since signing a five-year contract on Nov. 30, Helton has faced (and lost to) a 10-2 Stanford team and a 9-3 Wisconsin team, both on neutral fields. Alabama headman Nick Saban (105-18 at Alabama; 196-60-1 in 20 seasons overall) begins his 10th season in Tuscaloosa. He’s won five national championships in his past 11 college seasons (four with the Crimson Tide, one with LSU).
This is USC’s first neutral site opener since 2004 – a 24-13 win over Virginia Tech at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. The Trojans return 14 starters, but a first-time starter will lead the nine returnees on offense: redshirt junior quarterback Max Browne. Browne – one of four Trojans voted by his teammates as a captain, along with Zach Banner, Michael Hutchings, and Adoree’ Jackson – should benefit from playing behind one of the nation’s most experienced offensive lines, and from the ability to spread the ball to senior tailback Justin Davis, junior receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, and sophomore tailback Ronald Jones II. On defense, sophomore inside linebacker Cameron Smith, junior cornerback/kick returner Jackson, and sophomore cornerback Iman Marshall lead the way – but USC’s front seven presents a puzzle for new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who returns after serving in the same role in 2013.
The Crimson Tide – who are opening on a neutral field against a Power 5 opponent for the fifth consecutive season – also return 14 starters. Alabama also will be breaking in a new quarterback – or two – on Saturday. On Monday, Saban indicated that both redshirt junior Cooper Bateman and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett are likely to see action. Sophomore running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris will each get a look at replacing Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, but Bama looks loaded with quality pass catchers. On defense, five starters return – senior leaders include defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, and strong safety Eddie Jackson.Alabama Offense
Though the Tide have a number of holes to fill, third-year offensive coordinator (and former USC OC and head coach) Lane Kiffin still has plenty of skilled players. Kiffin loves to find his top players and feed them the ball time and again – remember USC riding receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee to 377 combined receptions in 2011-12? In 2014, Kiffin identified wideout Amari Cooper as the man (124 receptions). Last season, Henry carried the football an astounding 395 times. Who will become that guy in 2016? Alabama hopes, once again, that player will take some heat off of a first-year starting quarterback (Blake Sims in 2014; Jake Coker in 2015). It’s expected that Bateman will see the bulk of duty early Saturday – he’s in the pro-style, game-manager mold. Saban has a history of playing QBs who minimize mistakes rather than becoming game breakers. Barnett is the more athletic option. And even-more-athletic true freshman Jalen Hurts has Tide fans excited – but Saban said earlier this week that he’s not ready for prime time.
The headliner among the Crimson Tide’s receivers is sophomore Calvin Ridley, who caught 89 passes for 1,045 yards and seven TDs as a freshman. ArDarius Stewart (63 catches, 11.1 per, 4 TDs in 2015) and Robert Foster, who missed much of 2015 with a shoulder injury but has 54 career grabs, are the other likely starters. Junior Cam Sims, who’s coming off of a knee injury, is expected to contribute. And here’s one to file under “the rich get richer”: graduate transfer Gehrig Dieter, who caught 94 passes at Bowling Green in 2015, now suits up for the Tide. Don’t forget senior tight end O.J. Howard, who destroyed Clemson with 208 receiving yards in the national title game.
Both sophomore candidates to replace Henry were 5-star recruits, though it seems that Alabama would love to see Scarbrough – the bigger of the two – seize the position. However, durability has been an issue for him, and Harris isn’t exactly ready to cede the position. Both are fast and physical, but both will also be seeing their first dose of truly important snaps on Saturday.
The Crimson Tide return three starters on the offensive line. Junior left tackle Cam Robinson, who avoided suspension after an off-season run-in with the law, is an All-America candidate. Redshirt sophomore Ross Pierschbacher, who started at left guard in 2015, spent most of the spring and summer preparing to succeed Rimington Award-winner Ryan Kelly at center. However, Alabama’s depth chart for Saturday lists him as the starting right guard, while redshirt junior Bradley Bozeman, a jack-of-all-trades, is slated at center. The other returning starter – senior Alphonse Taylor – lost his hold on the RG spot in the spring and was recently cleared in a separate off-field incident. He’s listed behind Pierschbacher. Sophomore left guard Lester Cotton and true freshman right tackle Jonah Williams each make their first start on Saturday.Alabama Defense
Jeremy Pruitt returns to Tuscaloosa as defensive coordinator. He served under Saban at Alabama from 2007-12, and spent the past two seasons as DC at Georgia. With long-time Tide DC Kirby Smart taking the Georgia head coaching, Pruitt’s return is unsurprising. Tosh Lupoi will serve as his co-defensive coordinator, while Karl Dunbar (defensive line) and Derrick Ainsley (secondary) also join the staff. Alabama held six opponents to 10 points or fewer in 2015 (two shutouts, 15.1 points per game); only four players have rushed for more than 100 yards against the Tide during the past three seasons; and Alabama’s pass rush improved immensely in 2015, notching 53 sacks.
Up front, Allen, a senior defensive end – and likely first-round NFL draft pick – leads the way. He had a team-leading 12 sacks in 2015, along with four pass break-ups (PBU) and two forced fumbles. Talented junior Da’Shawn Hand is listed behind Allen, though many expected him to start. Sophomore Da’Ron Payne gets the initial nod at nose guard, while senior Dalvin Tomlinson will start at the other end spot – but expect to see junior Joshua Frazier and senior Dakota Ball rotate in. The group has some big shoes to fill – key figures Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson, and D.J. Pettway all departed.
At linebacker, junior Shaun Dion Hamilton slides over from WILL to fill the MIKE spot left by Reggie Ragland. He’s played plenty during his first two years, but this is a big step up. There are outstanding seniors at the other spots: Foster (60.5 tackles in 2015) on the weak side; Ryan Anderson (six sacks among 29 stops) on the strong side; and – most importantly, Tim Williams, who posted 10.5 sacks from Alabama’s “JACK” linebacker position a year ago. Junior Rashaan Evans is another effective pass rusher with 4 sacks in limited duty last season.
Alabama’s secondary returns three starters from a unit that nearly doubled the Tide’s interception total in 2015 (19) and held opponents to a 50.5-percent completion rate. Jackson, the senior strong safety, is an All-America candidate who notched six interceptions a year ago. Sophomores Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick return at the corner spots (19 combined PBU, five combined INT in 2015). Classmate Ronnie Harrison gets the first crack at the free safety spot. Junior Hootie Jones can play both safety positions. With junior Tony Brown suspended for the first four, expect redshirt freshman Deionte Thompson to see some time. When the Tide go into the nickel, freshman Shyheim Carter is likely to see the field.Alabama State Special Teams
Senior Andy Griffith returns to handle the placekicking duties. He notched 55 touchbacks in 100 kickoffs last season and ended up making 23-of-32 field goal attempts after missing his first four. Junior JK Scott, a 2014 All-American, averaged 44.2 yards per boot a season ago. Ridley appears set to take over for the departed (and dangerous) Cyrus Jones on punt returns, though freshman Trevon Diggs (who will also see kickoff return duties) could make a splash. Stewart is the other likely kickoff returner.2016 USC Offense
USC isn’t just welcoming a new quarterback – or quarterbacks, if you buy into the buzz about special packages designed to use redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. The Trojans are also breaking in new offensive coordinator and play caller Tee Martin. Browne, the nation’s top quarterback recruit four years ago, has waited and worked patiently in the background since arriving on campus. What a place and time to make your starting debut: against the defending champs inside the NFL’s crown jewel of a stadium.
Smith-Schuster leads the Trojans’ deep and talented receiving corps. The Biletnikoff Award favorite boasts 143 career catches and 15 career TDs. He’s fast, physical, fearless, and seemingly refuses to be taken out by anything but a career-threatening injury. He’s likely to be joined in the starting lineup by senior Darreus Rogers (28 catches, 10.3, three TDs in 2015) and junior Steven Mitchell Jr. (37 grabs, 9.1, four TDs) in the starting lineup. However, sophomore Deontay Burnett (10 catches in 2015) is pushing Mitchell. Senior De’Quan Hampton (15 catches in 2015) and sophomore Jalen Greene may also contribute early, with senior Isaac Whitney and a bevy of impressive freshmen also looking to crack the lineup. USC returns its top two tight ends from 2015 – senior Taylor McNamara (4 TDs among 12 catches in 2015) and sophomore Tyler Petite (15 grabs, 1 TD). Can redshirt freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe crack the rotation?
In the backfield, Davis and Jones are looking to become USC’s first duo of 1,000-yard rushers since a couple of guys named Reggie Bush and LenDale White. Davis’ consistency, blocking, and receiving skills make him more likely to be the every down guy, while Jones plays the role of home run hitter. If Jones improves his blocking and receiving, though, look out. Sophomores Aca’Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis are battling for opportunities. Fullback is a big question mark as sophomore walk-on Reuben Peters was recently awarded a scholarship.
USC’s offensive line boasts 131 career starts – tied for second in the country. Most believe the Trojan front five should be among the best in the nation. While USC improved its yards-per-carry from 4.0 in 2014 to 4.5 in 2015, the Trojans allowed an alarming 38 sacks. That must improve for this group to live up to expectations. The starting five for Saturday will include: senior right tackle (and All-America candidate) Banner; junior right guard Viane Talamaivao; junior center Toa Lobendahn; either sophomore Chris Brown or junior Damien Mama at left guard (Helton said Wednesday to expect a 50-50 split in Saturday snaps); and sophomore Chuma Edoga at left tackle, stepping in for Chad Wheeler, who’s battling plantar fasciitis. There’s even more solid depth behind this crew.2016 USC Defense/Special Teams
Pendergast’s return to helm the Trojan defense was celebrated by most who recall his 2013 defense fondly. His 5-2 formation comes with a natural aggression that helped the Trojans notch 10 wins during one of the most tumultuous seasons in USC history. Yes, the Trojans had troubling moments on defense that season – but who recalls the fact that, near season’s end, USC’s depth on defense was so suspect that the Trojans played 11 starters for nearly every snap of an upset win against Stanford? While Pendergast has his hands full trying to rebuild USC’s youthful front seven, he’s got far more depth than he ever saw in 2013.
Utah graduate transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a 25-year-old senior, earned the starting nose tackle job quickly during camp, and his veteran presence seems to have given this young group an anchor. Sophomores Noah Jefferson (defensive tackle) and Rasheem Green (defensive end) have stepped up during camp as well. Green can even spell Jefferson at the DT spot, and classmate Malik Dorton is going to be part of a rotation at end. Can former offensive lineman Khaliel Rodgers provide a rotation partner for Tu’ikolovatu?
In Pendergast’s 5-2 – which morphs between 3-4 and 4-3 looks – defensive linemen are expected to attack the line of scrimmage rather than simply plug holes. However, two linebacker spots are often utilized as stand-up rushers to maximize the pressure on opposing offenses. At those spots, junior Uchenna Nwosu and sophomore Porter Gustin are going to get a chance to make a lot of plays. Gustin, in particular, is expected to become a fearsome pass rusher. Can senior Jabari Ruffin, sophomore Don Hill, or freshmen Oluwole Betiku Jr. and Connor Murphy contribute here? Smith – a Freshman All-America in 2015, who is returning from a knee injury that also limited him during the spring – and Hutchings will man the two inside linebacker spots. Pendergast’s defense seems made for the rangy style of Hutchings and the senior stepped up as a leader while Smith recuperated. Senior Quinton Powell and junior Olajuwon Tucker provide depth (sophomore Osa Masina is currently under suspension for a violation of team rules).
The Trojans’ best unit on defense – the secondary – is going to need to perform, as the new scheme will put USC’s corners on an island more often. Jackson and Marshall are the cornerbacks (and cornerstones) – Jackson’s athletic exploits are earning him buzz as a dark-horse Heisman candidate while many expect a big leap from Marshall. Junior Jonathan Lockett, sophomore Ajene Harris (a former receiver), and freshman Jack Jones provide depth. There’s plenty of experience at safety, as well. Junior Chris Hawkins and senior Leon McQuay III have battled through camp at strong safety and both will play. At free safety, sophomore Marvell Tell III has earned the starting job, but junior John Plattenburg has plenty of experience and redshirt freshman Ykili Ross has impressed.
There’s some turnover in the kicking game, as well. Does the return of special teams coach John Baxter mean a spike in big plays on the return and block teams? Junior Matt Boermeester looks set to take over the place kicking duties and improved his strength and accuracy throughout camp. Sophomores Chris Tilbey and Reid Budrovich have battled through camp for the punting job. Tilbey’s been stronger in the late stages of camp. The dangerous Jackson remains option No. 1 on both punt and kickoff returns, with Mitchell and Jones as reserves.The Pick
While the history is unimpeachable – these two programs are among the very few that can and should be referred to as college football royalty – and the talent on both sides is striking, there is a reason the Tide are a 10.5-point favorite. USC must prove it belongs in such a high-profile matchup.
Expect the Trojans to try establishing Davis and Jones, while using quick, easy passes to help Browne find a comfort zone. Will Smith-Schuster continue to dominate targets as he did with Cody Kessler at QB the past two years? It may be so on Saturday, with Browne often likely to seek lifelines against an aggressive Alabama pass rush. Can USC use the Tide’s aggression against them to pop a couple of big plays? What of Darnold? Most believe he’ll play in some short-yardage or red-zone situations where his combination of athleticism and arm might come in handy.
On the other side, expect Pendergast to attack Kiffin from all angles – with USC’s inexperience up front, it’s the Trojans’ best (if not only) hope. Alabama is also starting an inexperienced quarterback and running backs, with the left side of its front five also generally untested in game action. USC must slow Alabama’s rushing attack and force mistakes by the quarterback in order to match up against the Tide’s own stellar receiving group for 60 minutes.
It’s a tall task for the Trojans. But if there’s a time to face a team like the Tide, it’s early in the season when they’re also sorting through things. USC has a puncher’s chance. Momentum-turning plays – a long TD from Jones or Smith-Schuster, a punt return by Jackson, a pick-six from Smith or Marshall – could flip this game on its head. However, though I expect the Trojans to remain competitive into the second half, eventually the Tide will roll.
Alabama 35, USC 23
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 16 years. The editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry, he graduated from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)