Two traditional college football powers meet on Saturday in one of the most anticipated college football season openers in recent memory. The top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide are the heavy favorites when they meet the No. 20 USC Trojans at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
While Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will face the school that helped him gain national recognition, the overriding storyline seems to be on both schools’ many years of success. The two programs are among the most prestigious in the nation, with USC claiming 11 national championships (seven since 1962) and Alabama winning 16 (11 since 1961).
Alabama and USC have moved in different directions in recent years but they share some clear similarities, starting with their former coaching greats. Paul “Bear” Bryant was Alabama’s head coach from 1958 to 1982, winning six national championships, while John McKay won four championships from 1960 to 1975. There was mutual respect from the two longtime friends despite a different approach to the game, detailed in the 2013 documentary “Against the Tide,” which highlighted the 1970 matchup between the two titans.
“He wasn't just a coach,” McKay had said of Bryant. “He was the coach.”
The coaching dual will be quite different on Saturday, as the most accomplished current coach takes on a coach who has never begun a season in charge of any program.
Under Nick Saban, Alabama has enjoyed a resounding resurgence after the Bryant years. Saban, who joined Alabama in 2007, has won four national championships and is coming off a title win over Clemson in January. Winning has been a basic routine under Saban, who has a stellar 105-18 record in Tuscaloosa.
A strict disciplinarian, Saban had struggles in his first season, but since 2008 the Tide have averaged 12 wins a season. Saban’s most recent predecessors (Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula) all failed to win 11 games in a season.
USC, meanwhile, has seen its football program slip in recent years mostly due to sanctions, and their last title in 2004 was vacated. Since Pete Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, the Trojans have had four different head coaches, with Carroll’s immediate replacement, Kiffin, failing to complete four seasons. The Trojans have a 52-27 record since Carroll’s departure.
Longtime assistant Clay Helton takes over as head coach after serving on an interim basis in 2015. Many have welcomed Helton’s more low-key approach following Kiffin and predecessor Steve Sarkisian, who lasted just 18 games. But there is growing impatience for the Trojans to return to their successful days in the Carroll Era after years of underachieving, and a win over Alabama would give Helton an enormous confidence boost.
An upset over the defending champions, even on a neutral surface, will be harder than it looks. Despite some key losses like Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry and questions at quarterback, Alabama enters the season with one of the most potent offenses in the nation. Three starters return to the offensive line and the Tide also boast one of the best receivers in the nation, Calvin Ridley, and one the best tight ends in the nation, O.J. Howard.
USC will try to contain Kiffin’s offense with what is perceived as their weakest unit on either side of the ball: the defensive line. The Trojans are without three starters from 2015, and will rely on an inexperienced group in a 5-2 scheme that includes former center Khaliel Rodgers and sophomores Jacob Daniel, Malik Dorton, Rasheem Green, and Noah Jefferson. But one new addition should stand out: fifth-year senior Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. A 25-year-old graduate transfer from Utah, Tu’ikolovatu chose USC over Alabama and Nebraska, and should be a solid contributor against the run.
The USC offense turns to a new quarterback, Max Browne, but all the other starters are back, including star wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson. Browne has thrown just 19 passes in two seasons and should he effectively execute the offense the Trojans could pose serious problems for an Alabama defense that is expected to be among the best in the nation.
Jonathan Allen is one of the best defensive ends in the nation, but more attention could be paid to speedy cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who is expected to lead an Alabama secondary loaded with underclassmen. Eddie Jackson and Minkah Fitzpatrick are returning starters who will be called upon to help contain Smith-Schuster and Jackson, along with other USC standout receivers like Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell.
Saban praised USC at a press conference on Monday, calling it a “great program with great tradition.” He also referenced Smith-Schuster, claiming the junior is “as good a receiver as we’re going to play against all year.”
“Overall, (USC) is an outstanding team. I think it’s going to be a challenge for us in many, many ways,” Saban said.
Alabama leads the all-time series 5-2. But the last meeting was in the 1985 Aloha Bowl, with the Crimson Tide defeating the Trojans, 24-3.
Tickets are still available at AT&T Stadium and the game is not expected to sell out. The home of the Dallas Cowboys has a capacity of 80,000 but once held 105,121 when the Cowboys hosted the New York Giants. According to StubHub, seat prices range from $1,237 and $51. There are premium seats available for $9,000 and $2,000, and a Hall of Fame Suite that runs as high has $15,500 and a Owners Club Suite that sells for $16,935.88.
While it’s only the first game of the season, the matchup may have a major impact on the College Football Playoff. Alabama enters the season as the favorite (15/2) to repeat as champions, while USC has the 14th-best odds (40-1).
Point Spread: Alabama by 11.5 points
Over/Under: 53.5 points
Prediction: USC’s defensive line will have problems slowing Alabama’s high-powered offense. Kiffin has the weapons to keep the USC defense on their toes by mixing up the pass plays, while the Trojans may need special teams to exceed expectations to keep this game competitive. Expect a spirited game by both sides, with the Crimson Tide doing the little things right to earn a convincing win.
Predicted Score: Alabama over USC, 35-20