TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Since we can’t make multiple cross-country trip to scout USC, we enlisted a little help to get a feel for the Trojans heading into Saturday’s contest..
USC beat writers Zach Helfand of the L.A. Times and Joey Kaufman of the Orange County Register and Southern California News Group spoke with SEC Country to breakdown the matchup between two of college football’s powerhouses.
Kickoff for the contest is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
Zach Helfand, USC beat writer for L.A. Times
Question: What is the coaching staff doing to get quarterback Max Browne and USC’s offense ready to face Alabama’s defense?
Helfand: USC has spent an unusual amount of time this preseason running the first-team offense against the first-team defense. Usually, that’s not too common after training camp, but USC knows Alabama is going to be overwhelmingly talented, so USC wants to simulate that as much as possible. Other than that, it’s the same old same old. USC should have a pretty strong offense. Its line should be among the best in the nation (though losing its most experienced member, left tackle Chad Wheeler, who’ll be limited with a foot injury, hurts). JuJu Smith-Schuster might be the most NFL-ready receiver playing in college right now, with apologies to Calvin Ridley. Browne was a former top quarterback recruit in the country. And USC has two running backs who nearly got to 1,000 yards last season. Alabama’s defense looks like it’s going to be very, very good, but USC is probably more concerned about its defense than its offense. For instance, Adoree’ Jackson, always a big-play threat, might get a couple touches on offense, but he has practiced exclusively with the defense during the preseason. The staff feels he’s more needed there.
Q: Looking at it from a big picture standpoint, what would a win over Alabama do for USC?
Helfand: A win would be hugely significant. For one, it would vault USC right to where fans feel like it belongs, in the very top tier of college football teams. And it would also set up USC nicely for the playoff. The Trojans have a meat grinder of a schedule, with Stanford, Notre Dame, Washington, Oregon and UCLA remaining. Plus Utah on the road. A win over Alabama means USC 1) is good enough to defeat any of those teams and 2) would get in the playoff with one loss, and possibility have a narrow path in with two quality losses. Not to mention it would be an ideal way for Clay Helton to begin his first full season, instantly adding credibility to his coaching chops, and would probably signify that USC is way ahead of where most people expected it to be. There’s a reason defeating Alabama is so difficult, though.
Q: What’s your feel for the game and prediction?
Helfand: It’s really tough to pick USC here. Alabama has no holes on either side of the ball. The one wild card is at quarterback, but it looks like Nick Saban has two quality options, and he can yank one if turnovers become an issue. USC is not far off talent-wise except at defensive line, where it’s too young and inexperienced. That unit has to prove it can stop a really good ground game before they get my vote of confidence. I haven’t decided on a score yet, but Alabama has been favored by about 11.5 points, and I think that’s a hair on the low side. I’m picking Alabama by close to two scores, but it’s the first week, and crazier upsets have happened. I think USC’s path to a win would call for a few turnovers, big plays from Jackson and Smith-Schuster, a strong run game and a defensive line that is much better than expected. That’s a lot that has to go right.
Joey Kaufman, USC beat writer for Orange County Register and Southern California News Group
Question: In what ways can USC exploit Alabama?
Kaufman: Will Alabama’s defensive line measures up to its past standards? Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson and Darren Lake have left. USC also brings back its entire offensive line from last season, led by 6-foot-9 right tackle Zach Banner. The Trojans may fare better than expected in the trenches and generate some holes for running backs, senior Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones. They are USC’s most experienced groupings.
Q: We hear a lot about USC’s skill players like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree Jackson. But what’s a position or player Alabama fans should know about that isn’t being discussed?
Kaufman: The two most explosive running backs in the Pac-12 last season were easy to remember. They were Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Oregon’s Royce Freeman. The third? That was Jones. He had 11 runs of 20-plus yards in 2015 while breaking Charles White’s USC freshman rushing record. Jones is a threat to break off at least a couple long off-tackle runs.
Q: What’s your feel for the game and prediction?
Kaufman: It is probably more of a slopfest with two new starting quarterbacks. Both teams are able to run the ball in a game that comes down to both offensive and defensive lines. In the end, the Trojans’ front seven is too inexperienced. Alabama wins, 31-17.