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Hope for the Best: Southern Cal edition

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Vegas has Bama as a 10-point favorite…but have they underestimated the Trojans?

Pac-12 Championship - Stanford v USC
The Men of Troy, led by Clay Helton, will not be patsies in a Crimson Tide hit job.
Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

In the lead-up to the season-opening clash of football titan betweens perennial powerhouses Alabama and Southern Cal in Dallas, the debate has been mostly one-sided. Whether it was the sharks in Vegas or the man on the street, everyone outside of SoCal has operated under the assumption that the Trojans are a mere speedbump on Alabama’s Road to 17.

Even the adamant Alabama haters have conceded that this prize fight looks like a mismatch: a heavyweight champion in his heyday battling an old slugger well past his prime. After all, the Tide is coming off of its 16th National Championship, and the team (especially the defense) once again appears to be loaded with talent and veteran experience at key positions. Sure, Alabama will be breaking in its third new quarterback in as many years, and unlike in past championship runs, both backs at the top of the depth chart have recorded scant playing time.

But, as is oft said, Alabama doesn’t rebuild, Alabama reloads. Such appears to be the case this season. USC, conversely, is definitely in a rebuilding mode under first-year head coach and former USC OC Clay Helton. The teams couldn’t be in more different places in terms of development, with Alabama the once and (likely) future king, the Trojans a deposed despot clinging to hopes of one day regaining the throne.

Is the disparity between the two teams really that great? It certainly appears so on paper. But appearances can be deceptive, especially those appearances cast before the kickoff of the first game of the season.

Make no mistake, USC is no scrub opponent who will concede Alabama’s greatness without a fight. The Trojans may be down, but they are far from out. With a roster filled with talented (if not experienced) potential, the Trojans are not a waffling Wisconsin or a venom-less Virginia Tech. This USC team has a former five-star golden boy at quarterback, a pair of solid backs who split over 1,800 yards last year, a wide receiving corps as deep as Alabama’s, one of the best corner tandems in the nation, and a defensive front seven that could we;; develop into the PAC-12’s best by season’s end.

Add to that equation the offensive wizardry of Helton (who has created a tougher, more physical West Coast offense at USC), and the history of defensive rejuvenation attributed to new coordinator Clancy Pendergrast, and the Trojans have the makings of a contender for the PAC-12 crown this season (especially with Oregon and UCLA expected to take a tumble.)

For the Trojans, however, it all starts with Alabama, the gold standard of college football programs for much of the last decade. One must expect that they will be mentally prepared for the battle that lies ahead. Alabama, on the other hand, must battle the demon of complacency that possesses many teams that experience consistent success. Coach Nick Saban preaches on it like a fire-and-brimstone Apostolic, and for good reason. He’s seen more talented teams than the one he fields this year torn asunder by complacency in his time at Alabama.

So while on paper, the season opener resembles the aforementioned “champ versus over-the-hill contender” bout, the game won’t be played on paper. It will be played on grass, over lines of fresh lime, beneath the bright lights and glaring eye of national television. Every yard, every first down, every stop, will be purchased with sweat and grit and pluck. Alabama very well may walk out of the Dome victorious…but they’ll get the Trojans’ best haymakers through all 12 rounds.

After all, in boxing and in football, sometimes the difference in winning losing boils down to landing that one big punch. The Trojans, in their game against Alabama, have a puncher’s chance…and it may be all they need to shock the world.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the particulars…

The Alabama offense versus the Southern Cal defense

The Trojan defense is a work in progress in 2016, as they move to a new (somewhat unusual) style of defense under new defensive coordinator Pendergrast. Pendergrast’s weapon of choice is the 5-2, a middle-ground between the 3-4 and the 4-3 that magnifies the strength of both systems while minimizing weaknesses of each. The 5-2 features three down linemen, two outside linebackers who play upright on the line of scrimmage as proxy defensive ends, two inside linebackers and a four man secondary. The five players up front play a one-gap style, which allows them to attack downhill to affect the passer while forcing the run into a snarled up middle between the tackles.

Despite the new and improved system and Pendergrast’s demonstrated ability to transform defenses from “worst to first” in a short period of time, the Trojans will have their work cut out for them in dealing with Alabama’s Lane Kiffin-schemed offense. While Kiffin is known as a proponent of a semi-spread pro-style offense, he has shown the ability in his two previous years at Alabama to pivot to the strength of the players on the roster. That’s something he’ll have to do again this season, as Alabama will break in yet another new quarterback (either Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett…or both) while also allowing his two first-time “starters” at running back learn the ropes. While early returns are favorable for an offensive line that features All-World left tackle Cam Robinson and the steady Ross Pierschbacher at right guard, the rest of the line is rebuilt (and supremely talented).

When Alabama elects to run the ball, they will face a Trojan defense that is physical, but lacking depth in the front seven. Sophomore nose tackle Noah Jefferson (6’6”, 315 pounds) is your typical space-eater in the center, a gigantic man who can hold serve in the middle and sop up blockers like a biscuit does syrup. On either side of him are equally adept big men in sophomore left defensive end Rasheem Green (6’5”, 280 pounds) and sophomore right defensive end Malik Dorton (6’2”, 280 pounds). They’re talented to be sure, but Alabama’s new offensive line weighs in at an average of over 305 pounds, and their MO is simple: to run over anything that gets in their way and force submission over four quarters. Whether or not the Trojan defensive line is up to the challenge remains to be seen, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the questionable depth of USC’s front seven doesn’t rear its head in the late third and fourth quarters.

The best the Trojans can hope to do is get early penetration on the Alabama offensive front…and if not penetration, at the very least a stalemate. Green running backs often struggle with patience and discipline, often trying to do something huge with every touch of the ball. That impatience will play right into the hands of a USC defense designed to clog up the middle gaps, so Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris will need to develop rhythm early in order to have the kind of success that will build confidence rather than frustration.

The Trojans received quite a blow this week when it was announced that a 12-game starter at Will linebacker, sophomore Osa Masina (6’4”, 230 pounds) would not be making the trip to Dallas due to suspension. That leaves the Trojan linebacking corps dangerously thin, and more important, dangerously undersized in the middle. In the Trojan 5-2, two outside linebackers are committed to the line of scrimmage as pass rushers, and junior Uchenna Nwasu (6’3”, 243 pounds) and sophomore Porter Gustin (6’5”, 260 pounds) are more defensive end-like in size and function. Their main contribution in the running game is to force the run inside with penetration. They aren’t athletic enough to chase running backs outside. The bulk of run defense falls upon the three down linemen, and the inside linebackers who back them and clean up the gaps on running plays.

At the Mike slot, the Trojans have a future NFL Draft pick in sophomore Cameron Smith (6’2, 245 pounds), a burly, athletic ‘backer who was second on the team in tackles as a freshman with 78 in 2015. He also had three interceptions, which is somewhat shocking given his size. Smith is easily the best linebacker on the USC roster, and the SC defense will go as Smith goes.

Behind Smith, however, the Trojans are fielding glorified safeties, at least by SEC standards. Playing next to him in Masina’s absence at Will will likely be senior Quinton Powell (6’2”, 200 pounds). Powell has seen a lot in his time at USC, but his small frame will be a liability against Alabama’s physical front and running game. Smith’s primary back-up is another senior, Michael Hutchings (6’1”, 215 pounds). Again, he’s much smaller than the typical linebacker, and is in fact smaller than Alabama’s presumed starter at running back, Scarbrough.

Things don’t get much better in run support with the Trojan safeties, as both strong safety John Plattenburg (5’11”, 180 pounds) and free safety Chris Hawkins (5’11”, 185 pounds) are smaller than Alabama’s cornerbacks. Their ability to “clean up” Alabama’s physical backs is questionable, and it will get more so as the game wears on and fatigue sets in.

That said, expect a hyped Trojan defense to take the field with something to prove in the opening stanza. Pendergrast will give them a simple strategy for attacking Alabama’s front, and because of the presence of an absolutely electrifying tandem of corners in junior Adoree Jackson (5’11”, 185 pounds) and sophomore Iman Marshall (6’1”, 200 pounds), Alabama will likely have little choice but to run the ball into the teeth of the USC defense early. Kiffin won’t want to subject his new quarterback to confidence-busting risks, so the passing game will be kept short and sweet in the early going, with a steady diet of RPOs keeping the Trojan defense off-kilter.

Given the attacking nature of the Trojan defense and their likely tightly-coiled energy coming into the game, Kiffin would be wise to help his quarterback gain confidence while exploiting the aggressive front seven with screens and short passes in the slot. He will want to stay away from Jackson and Marshall as much as possible until the QB of choice settles in, as nothing shatters quarterback mojo like turnovers.

Screens (bubble or otherwise) that get Alabama’s running backs in space, and short passes to the dynamic Calvin Ridley in the slot, could prove quite useful in keeping drives alive. The mix of run to pass will be kept in balance as well, because as usual, Alabama will thrive when the running game is hitting on all cylinders. The Trojans have talent, but even the most talented defenders will have trouble taking down Scarbrough in space under a full head of steam, or matching steps with Ridley’s quick, fluid cuts.

If Kiffin does decide to cut the quarterback loose to a greater extent as the game wears on, the QB-in-waiting will have a plentitude of targets at whom to throw. The aforementioned Ridley will be joined by Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart, Cam Sims, Gehrig Dieter and a host of supporting cast members behind them. Add in the wildcard of tight end O.J. Howard, and whichever quarterback takes snaps versus USC will have an embarrassment of riches with which to work in the wide receiving corps. Jackson and Marshall are a terrific pair of corners, but they can only cover two men on any given play. With as many talented receivers as Alabama has, there should be room for the Tide to exploit the sharp falloff in depth behind the two star defensive backs.

The wild card for Alabama, and the point at which the Trojans can disrupt the Alabama offense, would be through the pass rush. Pendergrast’s defense focuses pressure on the quarterback on pass plays, with five defenders rushing the passer at a minimum. These linemen/ OLBs will be one-gapping, taking the guess work out of assignments and allowing them to play with speed and aggressiveness. With several new faces on the offensive line (including left guard Lester Cotton and right tackle Jonah Williams), such a powerful push could be a wrinkle they haven’t seen as new starters. And with an unproven quarterback running the offense, successful pressure by the Trojans could prove disastrous for Alabama in the form of turnovers, third-and-longs and snuffed drives.

Pendergrast has a tendency to move from the 5-2 to a 2-4-5 (which looks like a 4-2-5) nickel when the offense lines up more than three receivers. They pull the nose, leave the OLBs on the line and bring in a fifth defensive back, which could be a spare corner or a safety like Marvell Tell. This seems like a sound philosophy, until one considers the leeway it will give Alabama in regard to running RPOs (run pass options). With a new quarterback, there’s no way to predict Kiffin’s level of comfort with the new starter making run/ pass calls at the snap. It’s possible that Alabama will simplify things, at least until the quarterbacks get in a rhythm and begin to “see” the defense at game speed.

However, if Kiffin extends his confidence to the signal callers, RPOs could be a devastating weapon for Alabama, as it was in the previous season. For example, say Alabama shows three wides with a tight end (in other words, four receiving targets). The Trojans will instinctively shift to the nickel and pull the nose. The QB could then elect for a run after reading the Trojan shift, allowing a big back like Scarbrough to take advantage of a lighter (as in no nose), pass-oriented defensive front with between-the-tackles runs. When the Trojans adjust and stay in 5-2 versus a three wides and a tight end, Alabama can then stay with the pass and exploit mismatches with small safeties covering Bama’s elite receiver talent.

As was the case last season, RPOs will be a huge part of Alabama’s offense this season, and we could see it come to bear as early as the opener. If Kiffin is comfortable with his quarterback, with all of the weapons at skill positions in the Tide arsenals, a successful RPO strategy and execution could be more than any defense could handle.

The Alabama defense versus the Southern Cal offense

For all of the uncertainty the Tide faces on offense, on the defensive side of the house, everything appears to be the same ole-same ole. The Tide had the tremendous good fortune to see senior sack masters Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson return for their final campaigns in 2016. In addition, the emergence of Da’Ron Payne and Da’Shawn Hand along the defensive line will (along with senior Dalvin Tomlinson) make for a nearly unstoppable force in the front seven once gain. Throw in pre-season All-American Reuben Foster at inside linebacker and talented up-and-comers like Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton, and the advantage the Tide will have in the front seven almost seems unfair.

As if the Trojans’ offensive task wasn’t difficult enough in the opener, it was announced this past week that star left tackle Chad Wheeler (6’6”, 310 pounds) likely won’t be able to go against Alabama due to painful plantar fasciitis. While Helton said Thursday that Wheeler will be a game-time decision, it’s safe to assume that even if he plays he won’t be 100 percent. Instead, former five-star recruit Chuma Edoga (6’4”, 290 pounds) will probably get the start. The sophomore tackle is not totally green, having played two games in 2015…but he’s not what one would consider experienced, either. Starting a relatively new player at arguably the most important position on the offensive line outside of center is not optimal. Doing so against the Alabama defense could be much worse than sub-optimal.

That said, the Trojan offensive line could be considered the strongest part of the entire roster, with veteran leadership and tremendous size among the starting five. In addition to Edoga (or Wheeler), the Trojans will field junior left guard Damien Mama (6’5”, 325 pounds), junior center Toa Lobendahl (6’3”, 295 pounds), junior right guard Viane Talamaivao (6’2”, 315 pounds), and senior Zach Banner (6’9”, 360 pounds). Banner’s stats are not a misprint: he is a gargantuan man who is a dominant run blocker for the Trojan running back tandem of senior Justin Davis (6’1”, 200 pounds) and sophomore Ronald Jones (6’1”, 195 pounds).

Added to the beef and talent present in the Trojan running game is Helton’s propensity to lean towards the run in his play-calling. Though a West Coast guy for much of his career, Helton recognizes the need for power-running ability, choosing to seek balance with a slight skew towards the run (unlike many of his PAC-12 counterparts, who strive for the opposite). Whenever the Trojans under Helton have had their backs against the wall, like any SEC team would, they fall back on the running game rather than slinging the ball around.

These Trojans are not West Coast nancies who avoid contact and try to keep the ball in the air. Helton’s USC will be a physical, grinding offense that prefers to run the ball down the throat of opponents rather than putting up flashy passing stats.

That said, the Trojans have an extremely deep wide receiving corps that rivals the one fielded by Alabama. The starting wideouts will likely be senior Darreus Rogers (6’1”, 215 pounds) and the dynamic All-American junior JuJu Smith-Schuster (6’2”, 220 pounds.) Smith-Schuster is a sure-fire NFL prospect, with phenomenal size, speed and the type of polish for the position one few sees outside of guys like Amari Cooper or Calvin Ridley. Junior Stevens Mitchell (5’11”, 190 pounds) will get the call in the slot, as he is a tailor-made possession receiver with an athletic flair who is a key part of the Trojan offense. Behind those starters are wave upon wave of talented reserves, including senior Isaac Whitney (6’3”, 220 pounds), senior transfer Dequan Hampton (6’4”, 225 pounds) and Adoree Jackson, who plays both ways for the Trojans.

In other words, despite the presence of their own first-time starter at quarterback in Max Browne (6’5”, 220 pounds), the Trojans have an offensive arsenal of their own with which to attack the Bama defense. They have speed and size, and offensive coordinator Tee Martin (yes, that Tee Martin) knows what it takes to beat SEC defenses.

The Trojans pack a lot of firepower onto their offensive roster. Fortunately for the Tide, Alabama’s defensive roster is equally explosive, and the Trojan offense vs. Bama defense dynamic will match-strength on strength.

There are a few keys for Alabama that will greatly enhance their ability to impose their will and keep the momentum flowing in a positive direction. Alabama will need to find a way to nullify (or dominate) the Trojan offensive line, as pressure will be key to keeping USC’s immense wealth of receiving talent out of the game. Alabama has two of the nation’s premier pass rushers in Allen and Williams, and Anderson is no slouch. They’ll have their hands full with a veteran Trojan offensive line that averages 317 pounds. The thought of a 255 pound Williams being asked to square off against the man-mountain Banner at 360 pounds is a little daunting, until one remember Williams’ quickness and burst will likely allow him to outmaneuver the lumbering right tackle with ease.

Against the run, Alabama is traditionally fantastic, and with human-missile Foster as the chief run-thumper in the middle, that likely won’t change. Again, the strength of the USC offense is its running game, and it will collide head on with what projects to once again be the strength of the Tide defense. The Trojan line will attempt to open holes inside for its two lighter-framed backs, and Alabama will simply need to do what Alabama does: specifically, play gap-sound run defense, avoid being stoned at the line, and clog the interior lanes to make for tough slogging.

If Alabama can control the running lanes (and there’s no reason to think that eventually, they won’t), then they will force Browne into what will likely be very uncomfortable territory for a new starter. Browne was highly-regarded as a high school senior, but he’s not seen the likes of Alabama’s pass rush and secondary before. Alabama’s Achilles heel the in 2013 and 2014 was the secondary, which though talented, was routinely burned. Things improved in 2015, and with corner Marlon Humphrey fully evolved, he and 2015 break-out star Minkah Fitzpatrick will form arguably the best corner tandem in the country (aside from maybe Jackson and Marshall on the opposite sideline). With emerging strong safety Ronnie Harrison and free safety Eddie Jackson amping up the star power, the Tide secondary will be more talented overall than it has been since the 2011-2012 seasons.

Back to Browne…if he is asked to do too much against the Tide secondary, such a tack will more than likely lead to turnovers. And with as much talent on the field as these two teams have, turnovers could spell the difference between a win and a loss. Alabama will need to find a way to pressure Browne into forcing the ball, as doing so will undoubtedly produce dividends for the Tide secondary.

Special Teams

In the kicking game, Alabama is dealing with the status quo from last season: a spectacular cannon-legged punter in J.K. Scott, and an on-again-off-again, heart attack-inducing place kicker in Adam Griffith. Scott will do his job, and will once again be the Tide’s Howitzer in the battle of field position attrition. Griffith may get on a roll this year (one can hope), though two seasons have proven that he is inconsistent at best, a dynamic which appeared to continue in the spring game earlier this year.

Replacing return man Cyrus Jones will be a tall order, as Jones was electrifying and accounted for several game-changing moments with his returns in 2015. Getting the nod is Ridley, the wide receiver who Saban said “he trusts” to handle the ball wisely. Aside from his ball-responsibility, Ridley also has the shimmy required to break returns for the distance, making his addition to the special teams roster somewhat exciting. Not nearly as exciting is the prospect of Ridley getting pummeled by careening gunners on returns, so stay tuned this week to see how that experiment plays out.

USC has special teams on lock, starting with a solid place kicker in junior Matt Boermeister. Handling the punting duties for the Trojans will be Aussie Chris Tilbey, which increases the chances for Alabama to be called upon to field some tricky rugby-style punts. One can hope Ridley, as a new returner, is up to the task.

In the return game, Jackson handles punts for USC, and he is a spark plug in much the same mold as Ridley. Alabama has struggled with returns in the past, and Jackson is the kind of athlete who can make the Tide special teams pay if they aren’t on top of their game. Returning kicks will be receiver Steven Mitchell, another lightning-quick play-maker who can burn Alabama if they aren’t ready.

Intangibles

Neither team can claim a home crowd, but for Alabama, the Jerry Dome has become “Bryant Denny West.” The Tide has claimed recent season-opening victories over Wisconsin (2015) and Michigan (2012), and with a home crowd that travels well, one has to expect the Trojan fans to be outnumbered in this game. Not that Alabama needs a home-crowd boost, as the Tide has typically played better on the road under Saban, with a dedicated focus that seems to meander when the men in crimson play in the friendly confines of Bryant Denny Stadium.

Alabama has to have the coaching edge, with Nick Saban gearing up for his 10th season at Alabama, a period in which he has won four national championships. Though he’ll be without long-time sidekick Kirby Smart, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has a proven track record at FSU and Georgia, and all accounts indicate the Tide defense is in good hands again this year. The world has seen what a properly motivated Lane Kiffin can do as offensive coordinator, and with a full arsenal of wide receivers, a possible dual-threat quarterback in Barnett or newcomer Jalen Hurts, and an offensive line that will be at least as good as last year’s title-winning iteration, there’s no reason to think the Tide offense will be in worse shape than in the previous two seasons.

One must also remember the personal narrative between Kiffin and USC, as the former Trojan head coach was left on the tarmac unceremoniously by athletic director Pat Haden before landing at Alabama. As brash and egotistical as Kiffin has appeared at times, there’s no doubt that a chance to prove his worth against his former employer represents an undercurrent that will color his play-calling to an extent, ever how minor it may be. Certainly, Kiffin would like nothing more than to hang half a hundred on his former team, and with the talent Alabama has on offense and a solid game plan, such an outcome is not unrealistic.

Just because the Tide has a great staff doesn’t mean USC is led by leftovers, however. Helton is a brilliant offensive mind who was the play-caller of Steve Sarkisian’s potent offense, and was such, had great success. With a run-heavy philosophy, he has exactly what he wants at USC with a pair of solid backs, an incredibly talented, future pro-laden offensive line and a five-star talent at quarterback. Don’t expect Helton and company to back down from the challenge of attacking the Bama D. Pendergrast, in short, is a mastermind defensive coach, and he has produced results at every stop in the last decade of his career. USC’s defense will be well-coached and on-task, and Alabama’s offense must be ready.

While on paper Alabama appears well-couched as the eventual victor, a sloppy, mistake-filled, turnover-peppered effort could get the Tide beaten. Whereas the talent disparity between Alabama and other opponents is so great that the Tide can survive a few mistakes, against USC, those mistakes will result in Alabama’s title hopes being crushed before they begin. USC is not a mere also ran: they are a legitmate competitor who will test Alabama greatly in the opening game of the season. A loss to USC would be devastating to an Alabama team with one of the toughest schedules in the conference this season, so even though it is only the first chapter, the USC game is a must-win for the Crimson Tide.

Make no mistake, the game with USC will be a 12-round heavyweight bout. Blows will be traded. Blood will be spilled. Wills will be tested. Don’t be lulled into comfort by that hefty 10-point line, as this game could just as easily go the other way with all of the talent the Trojans put on the field.

There’s also the matter of respect. Alabama has it. The Trojans want it. USC is a proud program not far removed from a dynasty of their own. The Trojans would like nothing more than to plant their flag atop the college football heap, and the first step in doing that would be a resounding victory over the mighty Crimson Tide.

In this battle of heavyweights, who will land the first knockout blow? Can the Tide defense withstand the jab of the Trojan running game? Will Alabama’s offense break the will of the newly-cast USC defense with running game body blows of their own? Will Ridley once again prove the haymaker punch that puts the opponent on the canvas for good? Or will USC come off the campus to land an uppercut with its unknown quarterback and stable of athletic receivers?

After a summer of discontent, we will know the answers to these questions soon. One thing we know for certain…there will be blood. Hope for the best…