TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The countdown to kickoff for Alabama vs. USC has reached two days.
The Crimson Tide and Trojans clash Saturday inside Cowboy Stadium at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. We’re still breaking down the matchup from every angle. Here are five things worth tracking when the two powerhouses take the field.
How the quarterbacks are managed
Everyone and their mother has an opinion on who will start at quarterback for Alabama. What we know at this point is that redshirt junior Cooper Bateman and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett are the two players Nick Saban said Alabama is “getting ready to play in this game.”
We’re not sure who will get the first series, but Bateman is a safe bet because of his playing experience (seven games, one start last season) and knowledge of the system.
During the 2014 competition, Blake Sims played the majority of the season opener vs. West Virginia. He completed 24-of-33 passes (73 percent) for 250 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. Jake Coker didn’t enter the game until Alabama had secured the victory. Saban later said that the game was too close to make a change at the position. But Sims essentially locked up the job, and started every game that season.
Last season, Coker earned the majority of the reps in the opener vs. Wisconsin. Coker connected on 15-of-21 passes for 213 yards and a score. Bateman briefly played against the Badgers (completed 7-of-8 passes for 51 yards). Last year’s competition carried on into the third game of the season as the coaching staff gave Bateman every opportunity to win the job. Coker ultimately regained the spot during the Ole Miss game.
This competition feels more like last season than 2014. Unless someone has an exceptional game, look for the quarterback battle to carry on into Week 2 against Western Kentucky.
Running back carries
We’ll see Alabama get back to its normal two-back rotation this season. Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris should share responsibilities in the backfield. True freshmen Joshua Jacobs and B.J. Emmons should provide quality depth.
The question becomes how many carries will Scarbrough and Harris get in their first significant game action?
Scarbrough rushed 10 times for 69 yards and a touchdown last year. Harris carried the ball 46 times for 157 yards and a score.
Look for the duo to each get in the 15-20 carry range against the Trojans.
This game offers two of the best individual matchups in college football. From a fan standpoint, it would be nice if every down featured Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey vs. USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Conversely, it would also be great if USC cornerback Adoree Jackson shadowed Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley on every play.
CBSSports.com lists Humphrey and Smith-Schuster as projected top-12 picks for the 2017 NFL Draft. Jackson ranks inside the top 25 for prospects in next year’s draft. Ridley likely would be among the group as well, but he’s only a sophomore. That’s a ton of talent between those four players.
We’ve talked and heard a lot about how this defense could be the fastest Alabama has fielded during Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa. There is a lot of speed and athleticism at every level of this defense.
Guys like Jonathan Allen and Da’Shawn Hand up front, Reuben Foster, Rashaan Evans and Tim Williams at linebacker and Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick in the secondary.
But will defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt turn these guys loose and allow them to really get after USC? The Trojans are without their top left tackle. That’s a bad situation for a quarterback to be in with Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, Jonathan Allen and others on the other side of the ball.
Cyrus Jones was the best punt returner in the country last season. He led the nation with four punt returns for touchdowns. Kenyan Drake showed his big-play return ability in the national championship game with a 95-yard kick return touchdown. Jones and Drake are gone to the NFL.
Alabama has replaced them with Calvin Ridley on punt returns and freshman Trevon Diggs on kick returns. Both are exciting for different reasons.
Ridley has incredible quickness. Even when defenders are right on top of him, Ridley can still make anyone miss and break a big play. Just ask Mississippi State.
Diggs joins ArDarius Stewart back deep on kick returns. Diggs is an intriguing prospect because he’s one of those players who can make an impact in all three phases of the game. He’s worked at both wide receiver and safety which shows he’s a natural athlete. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Diggs took a kick or two back for a touchdown this season.