(20) USC Trojans vs (1) Alabama Crimson Tide (-11.5, 54 o/u)
Arguably the most intriguing matchup from Week 1 of the college football season takes place Saturday night (September 3) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as the no. 20 USC Trojans take on the no. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (8:00 PM Eastern).
The Trojans (8-6 SU, 6-8 ATS last season) entered the 2015 season as the no. 8 team in the nation and were as high as no. 6 heading into Week 3. The rest of the season saw them gradually fall, but they were still able to capture a weak Pac-12 South division and play in the conference championship game, losing to no. 7 Stanford, 41-22. Despite falling out of the top-25, USC still earned a trip to the Holiday Bowl to take on the no. 23 Wisconsin Badgers, which resulted in another loss (23-21).
Moving into 2016, USC will be starting a new quarterback as last year’s starter, Cody Kessler, was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. The new man under center will be Max Browne, a redshirt junior who won the job over redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. The two were not far apart in fall camp, but the Trojans will opt for the experience of Browne to start the season.
Browne will have the luxury of leaning on one of the nation’s top tailback combinations: Justin Davis (902 yards, 5.3 yards per carry in 2015) and Ronald Jones (987, 6.5 yards per carry). He will also benefit from having Maxwell Award hopeful JuJu Smith-Schuster (89 receptions for 1,454 yards and ten TDs) on the outside, who has the athleticism and talent to mask a poorly thrown ball. USC is also fortunate to be returning all five starters along their offensive line from 2015.
One Trojan who will not take the field Saturday night is weak-side linebacker Osa Masina, who is serving a suspension for what head coach Clay Helton referred to as a violation of team rules. His absence will certainly be felt against a power-running team like Alabama.
The 2015 Crimson Tide (14-1 SU, 8-7 ATS) feared their championship hopes were flushed away by a Week 3 loss to Ole Miss. However, they would go on to dominate the rest of the season and their 20-point average margin of victory, as well as a commanding victory in the SEC championship game (29-15 over 18th ranked Florida), would allow them to waltz into the College Football Playoffs as the no. 2 seed.
We all know what happened after that.
Unlike USC, Alabama has yet to name a starting quarterback, but the competition has been narrowed from four to two: Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett. While Bateman is believed to have the edge, coach Nick Saban is in no rush to name a starter for the Week 1 tilt, and has said that both quarterbacks will get a chance to play against USC.
Quarterback isn’t the only position of flux for the Tide; six Bama players were drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, and another in the third. Filling the voids left by A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Reggie Ragland, and Cyrus Jones will not be easy for the defense, but does anyone doubt Nick Saban anymore?
Arguably the biggest hole to fill will be the one left by reigning Heisman Trophy-winner Derrick Henry at running back. The Tide also lost second-leading rusher Kenyan Drake, but sophomore back Bo Scarbrough makes the situation a lot less concerning, even knowing they’ll be replacing three-year starting center Ryan Kelly, and right tackle Dominick Jackson. Scarbrough’s superior talent will hide a lot of Bama’s offensive flaws.
Alabama is also returning a star receiver of their own, Calvin Ridley (1,045 yards and seven TDs), who is getting some love in the Heisman watch, a rarity for wideout. Bama’s receiving corps also returns ArDarius Stewart (700 yards and four TDs), the team’s second-leading pass-catcher in 2015.
These two teams will be matching-up for only the eighth time in history. Alabama leads the all-time series 5-2, but they haven’t played since 1985, so that doesn’t tell us much. However, the Trojans are 0-4 ATS in their last four games as an underdog, and the Crimson Tide are 5-2 in their last seven games as the favorite.
It’s a lot of points, but Nick Saban’s defense will shut down the Trojan’s ground game and give Max Browne fits in his first collegiate start. Bo Scarbrough will take the pressure off of whoever is taking the snaps for Alabama and the Crimson Tide will get their title defense off to a promising start.
Pick: Alabama (-11.5).
Photo credit: Matthew Tosh (flickr) CC BY-SA 2.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.