Game Time: Saturday, September 3rd, 8:00 PM EST
Watch Online: WatchESPN
Odds: Alabama (-11.5), -390 (Alabama Moneyline) +270 (USC Moneyline), 53.5 (O/U)
The Crimson Tide have a perfect 9-0 record in opening games under Nick Saban, including six against Power 5 opponents. Their recent string of success at Jerry World in Arlington, Texas give the Tide faithful hope their team will continue said streak.
Newly-minted USC head coach Clay Helton doesn't need a win against the Tide, but it certainly wouldn't hurt. And while Alabama is currently a double-digit favorite, it stands to reason that a team replete with California blue-chippers probably won't lay down for the defending champs.
Neutral site games have become de rigueur for Saban and his team. None of the aforementioned opening wins against Power 5 opponents were home-and-home, but rather played either at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta or in Arlington.
When this game was scheduled, Steve Sarkisian was the head coach and the prevailing thought was that this would be THE match-up of opening weekend in 2016. Since, the game has lost a little bit of its luster, but there are plenty of juicy storylines to attract the casual observer.
A Tale of Receivers and Corners
There's one name that will continue to dominate this game most likely until the clock hits zero and that name is, coincidentally, one of the great names in college football, JuJu Smith-Schuster. The dude's a beast. As a sophomore, he accounted for nearly a quarter of USC's total offensive output in 2015. He caught 89 balls for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns. Yes, he's a supernova unto himself.
Smith-Schuster is what we like to refer to as a "matchup nightmare". However, he is going up against two seasoned former five-stars in redshirt sophomore Marlon Humphrey and true sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick. While both talented, but young corners were susceptible to several pass interference penalties last season, their man coverage skills were always on display.
Here, it's about physicality. Not only is Smith-Schuster fast, he's super physical and he welcomes contact. Luckily for him, Saban churns out Xenomorphs, so this will definitely be an exciting positional battle to watch.
On the other side, Alabama is about as stacked at receiver as they've ever been under Saban. Not only do they return freshman phenom Calvin Ridley, but they get back the physicality of Ar'Darius Stewart and the unbridled speed of Robert Foster, whose promising start to 2015 was cut short when he injured his shoulder against Ole Miss. Add in grad transfer Gehrig Dieter and senior tight end O.J. Howard and you have two returning 1,000-yard receivers and a host of experience beside them.
While this unit is certainly deep, USC returns their own pair of former five-star corners in junior Adoreé Jackson and Iman Marshall. Marshall was a freshman All-American last year, finishing third on the team in tackles and first in interceptions, while Jackson is about as well-rounded an athlete as the Pac-12 has seen since De'Anthony Thomas.
This game could come down to the explosive plays made on the edge and all of that is dependent upon two (to three) quarterbacks with very little game experience.
2 (to 3) Quarterbacks with Very Little Game Experience
In 2013, Max Browne was the highest rated quarterback coming out of high school and former USC head coach Lane Kiffin jumped on him early. Since, Browne has had to sit for three years on the bench, including a redshirt his first year in Los Angeles, while Cody Kessler proceeded to rack up over 10,000 passing yards during his three-year career.
Like Kiffin, Helton is a quarterback whisperer, always getting the best out of his play-callers. One would have to believe that given Browne's raw abilities, Helton is foaming at the mouth to get him on the field. Browne has a big arm and a bevy of talent around him, including on the offensive line. If given enough time to throw the ball, he could create some fireworks against an experienced, but not-necessarily-deep Alabama secondary.
Conversely, current 'Bama OC Kiffin (who assuredly has plenty of "up yours" plays drawn up for his former employer) had another offseason of uncertainty at the quarterback position. At this point, whether it's redshirt junior Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett or even true freshman Jalen Hurts, Kiffin will be trusted to know exactly how to ease them into the game.
At this point, it looks as if the most senior QB, Bateman, will get the nod, but if he makes one costly mistake, a mistake that is so obviously on him, the former California gunslinger, Barnett will be brought in, who happened to be Kiffin's first big get for 'Bama on the recruiting trail.
In the end, all three of these quarterbacks will be depended upon to not make costly mistakes against opportunistic defenses and while explosive plays may be the deciding factor to this game, multiple interceptions could be the death knell for either team.
JK Scott vs. Adoreé Jackson
Obviously, the battle in the trenches is always something we watch for in any game and this particular one brings the goods, but I'd like to focus on a special teams match-up that truly has the ability to flip the field for either team: 'Bama punter JK Scott and USC returner Adoreé Jackson.
JK Scott, who apparently has grown two inches in his time at the Capstone and is now 6-foot-friggin'-6, had what some would call a sophomore slump in 2015. In his freshman season, he averaged an astonishing 48 yards per punt and was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award. Last year, he averaged a paltry and downright embarrassing 44 yards per punt (the schmuck!).
Yet, the one consistent factor in every game he's played in is his ability to change field position when his team desperately needs him to do so. He's clutch and he's one of the most dependable players in the country.
The gentleman he will be kicking to averaged a very reasonable 10.5 yards per return last season with an impressive two touchdowns. Those statistics have steadily climbed in Jackson's first two seasons and now it appears he's on the cusp of an even bigger season in 2016.
This will be a battle of Scott's booming punts with plenty of hang time versus Jackson's slippery ability to make something out of nothing and it will be the most exciting aspect of this game.
So, What Happens?
Most if not all the points made in this article will bear fruit in some form another. Smith-Schuster will encounter some physical play with either Humphrey or Fitzpatrick, but he will ultimately make his big catches, securing at least one touchdown against the Tide defense.
USC's running game will have some success against a less deep and smaller front seven, but it won't be enough to put the game away. This game will be won by Browne or Bateman/Barnett's arm.
Ultimately, this is a "head over heart" pick and while USC will almost certainly give 'Bama fits this entire game, you have to trust in "the process" and Saban's abilities in having his team ready for their first outing. This game will be tantamount to the Tide's opener against Virginia Tech in 2009, so I will pay tribute to that.
Prediction: Alabama 34, USC 24