USC vs Alabama Gameday Preview: Matchups, Injuries and More

Chris Humphreys, Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys, Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

USC vs Alabama

AT&T Stadium | Arlington, Texas5:00 p.m. Pacific | ABCAll-time Series: Alabama leads 5-2Last meeting: Alabama 24, USC 3 in 1984

The 2016 USC football season has finally arrived with a match up fans have been eagerly awaiting since it was announced in 2014.

The fortunes of USC and No. 1 Alabama have been very different over the past two seasons — the Tide won the 2015 National Championship while the Trojans fired their second head coach in three seasons.

Clay Helton has technically managed USC through 10 games as head coach already, but all but two of those were as an interim, making Saturday’s match up his first official season-opening contest as a permanent head coach.

Saban has never lost a season opener at Alabama. USC hasn’t come up short in Week 1 since 1997.

Meanwhile, his opponent, Nick Saban, is entering his tenth year with Alabama and coming off his fifth career national title, No. 4 with the Tide.

He has never lost a season opener. USC hasn’t come up short in Week 1 since 1997.

The world seems to agree that the Trojans have an uphill battle on their hands. Vegas oddsmakers set USC as a 12-point underdog, while the consensus of college football prognosticators is that the Tide are too well coached and too talented to falter against such an inconsistent opponent.

However, USC has been recruiting incredibly well despite the period of turmoil around the program and will field a roster loaded with talent of their own.

The question is whether or not that potential can deliver with a shock result in Arlington.

Game Day Links:

Preview Podcast:

In our USC vs. Alabama preview podcast, host Michael Castillo is joined by Reign of Troy editor Alicia de Artola to break down the match up between the Trojans and Crimson Tide.

LISTEN: USC vs Alabama Preview

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USC Injury Report:

  • Out for the season: DT Kenny Bigelow (knee)
  • Out: RB Vavae Malepeai (shoulder)
  • Questionable: S John Plattenburg (concussion), OT Chad Wheeler (foot)
  • Probable: S Marvell Tell (hamstring)
  • Suspended: OLB Don Hill (indefinite), CB Isaiah Langley (one game), ILB Osa Masina (indefinite)

Alabama Injury Report:

  • Out for the season: N/A
  • Out: DE Raekwon Davis (eligibility)
  • Questionable: N/A
  • Probable: LB Rashaan Evans (pulled muscle)
  • Suspended: OG Alphonse Taylor (undetermined)

When USC has the ball…

It’s no secret that Alabama has one of the nation’s best defenses. They were ranked No. 1 in S&P+ last season, on their way to winning their fourth national championship in seven years.

Gone is defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, along with the likes of key players Reggie Ragland and A’Shawn Robinson. But for all of the lauded praise the Tide have gotten for their performances, it’s perhaps the depth of the defense that is most impressive.

Despite returning just four starters, Alabama boasts three first-team Preseason All-SEC selections on defense, and a pair of second-teamers.

How does that happen when you field a starting lineup that features just five career starts at linebacker –all from Shaun Dion Hamilton–  and a defensive line breaking two of three newbies other than Jonathan Allen?

With depth and rotation. And it’s exactly how Alabama tends to deliver the death blow to its opponents.

Take edge rusher Tim Williams as a prime example. While he’ll make his first career start against USC on Saturday, he finished third in the entire SEC last season with 10.5 sacks. Players coming off the bench aren’t supposed to do that.

Add in key returners like All-SEC lineman Jonathan Allen, dynamic safety Eddie Jackson and do-everything defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Alabama will be the most talented defense USC will face since…perhaps ever.

Not to mention, they replaced Smart with new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who lead Florida State’s 3-4 defense to the national title just three years ago.

That’s alarming, given that while the Trojans return everyone on offense save for its starting quarterback, they didn’t quite light the world on fire last season.

In six of nine games coached by Clay Helton in 2015, the USC offense scored three or fewer touchdowns. That’s with high-end playmakers like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson and Ronald Jones leading the way.

This year, Jackson has moved over to defense full-time, Jones is solidly behind senior running back Justin Davis, and the world still awaits who will stand next to Smith-Schuster as a reputable No. 2 option in the passing game.

In six of nine games coached by Clay Helton in 2015, the USC offense scored three or fewer touchdowns.

Sprinkle in the fact that USC will throw Max Browne into the fire for his first career start, along with it being new defensive coordinator Tee Martin’s first game as a full-time play caller, and the matchup against Alabama is downright daunting.

To succeed, the offensive line –led by NFL Draft prospect Zach Banner at right tackle– will need to right its ship of consistency to establish a steady run game, while ensuring the likes of Williams and Allen struggle to get Browne in their sights.

The Trojans relied heavily on the big play a year ago. With next-level talent on the perimeter and in the backfield, USC will need a stabilizing, momentum-establishing drive early to get in rhythm.

If they struggle out of the gate, Alabama’s physicality might become too much to handle, given how little the Trojans managed to get out of the offense in 2015.

USC’s Projected 2-Deep on Offense

Wide Receiver: Darreus Rogers (Sr.) / Greene OR PittmanWide Receiver: Steven Mitchell (RS Jr.) OR Deontay Burnett (So.)Tight End: Taylor McNamara (RS Sr.) / Tyler Petite (So.)Right Tackle: Zach Banner (RS Sr.) / Chuma Edoga (So.)Right Guard: Viane Talamaivao (Jr.) / Jordan Simmons (RS Sr.)Center: Toa Lobendahn (Jr.) / Nico Falah (RS Jr.)Left Guard: Chris Brown (RS So.) OR Damien Mama (Jr.)Left Tackle: Chuma Edoga (So.) / Chad Wheeler (RS Sr.)Wide Receiver: JuJu Smith-Schuster (Jr.) / De’Quan Hampton (Sr.)Quarterback: Max Browne (RS Jr.) / Sam Darnold (RS Fr.)Running Back: Justin Davis (Sr.) / Ronald Jones II (So.)

Alabama’s Projected 2-Deep on Defense

Defensive End: Jonathan Allen (Sr.) / Da’Shawn Hand (So.)Nose Guard: Da’Ron Payne (So.) / Joshua Frazier (Jr.)Defensive End: Dalvin Tomlinson (RS Sr.) / Dakota Ball (RS Sr.)JACK: Tim Williams (Sr.) / Anfernee Jennings (RS Fr.)SAM: Ryan Anderson (RS Sr.) / Christian Miller (RS So.)MIKE: Shaun Dion Hamilton (Jr.) / Keith Holcombe (RS So.)WILL: Reuben Foster (Sr.) / Rashaan Evans (Jr.)Cornerback: Marlon Humphrey (RS So.) / Anthony Averett (RS Jr.)Cornerback: Minkah Fitzpatrick (So.) / Shyheim Carter (Fr.)Strong Safety: Eddie Jackson (Sr.) / Hootie Jones (Jr.)Free Safety: Ronnie Harrison (So.) / Deionte Thompson (RS Fr.)

When Alabama has the ball…

With USC vs Alabama being dubbed the  ‘Kiffin Bowl’, it’s fitting to look to the impact of the former Trojan head coach in his new role as the offensive coordinator for the Tide.

Simply put, Alabama’s offense has looked worlds better under his tutelage.

Long labeled as an ugly, grind-’em-out team, the Tide offense ranked fifth nationally in S&P+ in 2014. Then last season, they produced the Heisman Trophy winner, Derrick Henry.

With a sprinkling in of spread concepts and shotgun formations, alongside traditional bubble screens, bootlegs and rollouts, this is still your dad’s Alabama offense, yet all grown up schematically, with a pair of tinted aviators.

However, Saban announced early in the week that quarterbacks Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett would split duties against USC, which was somewhat surprising.

READ MORE: Alabama to Play Two Quarterbacks vs. USC

Throughout fall camp, freshman sensation Jalen Hurts was said to have been ‘winning the team over’, and had been pegged the perpetrator of a midseason takeover at quarterback.

But for now, the freshman will have to wait while the two relatively older signal callers will get their chance on the field.

Despite the two-quarterback shuffle haunting Kiffin’s past due to the disastrous 2013 competition between Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, Alabama has a good history with playing a pair of quarterbacks if need be.

Last season, senior Jacob Coker needed a month before he beat out Bateman, and then proceeded to carry the flag to the end: a national title.

Against Wisconsin in Week 1, the duo each saw action. The Crimson Tide scored 35 point while riding their strong running game led by a stout offensive line and the Heisman-winning tailback, Henry.

Alabama will be looking to do much of the same Saturday, though there are areas of concern for the defending champs.

Three new starters will be broken in, including true freshman Jonah Williams at right tackle. And in the backfield, the Tide have to bank on a pair of unproven for running backs –Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris– for the first time in nearly a decade.

However, highly touted left tackle Cam Robinson is back, along with a plethora of dynamic receivers, including 21-year-old sophomore Calvin Ridley who lit up the SEC with 89 catches last season.

Fittingly enough, the inexperience of the Alabama offensive line will match up against a USC front seven that returns just one returning regular starter from 2015: inside linebacker Cameron Smith.

Plus, the Trojans are loaded on the perimeter like the Tide, led by a trio of five-star cornerbacks.

Altogether, it creates what could be a wash, as long as USC doesn’t get pushed around up front and succumb to a series of slow, methodical boa constrictor drives.

That’s a big if though. Utah graduate transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu will bear the burden up front, as the player with the most experience. Can get draw blockers and pave the way for Rasheem Green and Porter Gustin to get to the quarterback?

If so, look out.

Alabama’s Projected 2-Deep on Offense

Wide Receiver: Robert Foster (RS Jr.) / Calvin Ridley (So.)Left Tackle: Cam Robinson (Jr.) / Matt Womack (RS Fr.)Left Guard: Lester Cotton (So.) / Dallas Warmack (So.)Center: Bradley Bozeman (RS Jr.) / J.C. Hassenauer (Jr.)Right Guard: Ross Pierschbacher (RS So.) / Alphonse Taylor (RS Sr.)Right Tackle: Jonah Williams (Fr.) / Korren Kirven (RS Sr.)Tight End: O.J. Howard (Sr.) / Hale Hentges (So.)Wide Receiver: Calvin Ridley (So.) / Gehrig Dieter (Sr.)Wide Receiver: ArDarius Stewart (RS Jr.) / Cam Sims (Jr.)Quarterback: Cooper Bateman (RS Jr.) / Blake Barnett (RS Fr.)Running Back: Bo Scarbrough (So.) / Damien Harris (So.)

USC’s Projected 2-Deep on Defense

Defensive End: Noah Jefferson (So.) OR Rasheem Green (So.)Nose Tackle: Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (RS Sr.) / Khaliel Rodgers (RS Jr.)Defensive End: Malik Dorton (RS So.) OR Rasheem Green (So.)Predator: Porter Gustin (So.) / Hill OR Betiku OR MurphyOutside Linebacker: Uchenna Nwosu (RS So.) / Jabari Ruffin (RS Sr.)Inside Linebacker: Cameron Smith (So.) / Olajuwon Tucker (Jr.)Inside Linebacker: Michael Hutchings (Sr.) / Quinton Power (Sr.)Cornerback: Adoree’ Jackson (Jr.) / Lockett OR LangleyCornerback: Iman Marshall (So.) / Harris OR JonesStrong Safety: Chris Hawkins (RS Jr.) OR Leon McQuay (Sr.)Nose Tackle: Marvell Tell (So.) / Ykili Ross (RS Fr.)