The Alabama Crimson Tide and Southern California face off in a big time regular season match-up this Saturday in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
It’s the first meeting between the two blue blood programs since the 1985 Aloha Bowl when the Crimson Tide got the win.
The University of Alabama is the number one ranked preseason team in both the AP and Coaches polls and the defending National Champion. The Tide is also a double-digit favorite over the Trojans. However, do not believe for one second that USC doesn’t have the talent to play with Alabama.
USC has 66 blue chip level prospects (4 or 5-star rating) on scholarship according to SB Nation. That means 70-percent of their players were considered blue chip guys out of high school. That ranks second to only (as you probably guessed) Alabama – at 77-percent. Clearly, USC has the talent to hang right with Alabama and possibly beat them. As always, this game will come down to execution and making plays when the opportunities arise.
Here’s how the Tide and Trojans will look when they square off this Saturday.
When Alabama is on Offense:
The Trojan’s defense will provide a somewhat unusual look for the Crimson Tide’s offense. USC Defensive Coordinator Clancy Pendergast likes to run a 5-2 defense as his base. This defense looks similar to a 3-4 defense that Alabama runs as its base defense, but the 5-2 plays significantly different.
The 5-2 operates with three down linemen, two inside backers, and two outside backers who play right along the line of scrimmage. What really separates the 5-2 from the 3-4 (which has this similar makeup) is how the gaps are played. The 3-4 is a two gap defense, meaning each player in the front seven has two gap responsibility based on the offense’s strong side. The 5-2, however, is a single gap defense where each player is responsible just for his gap. In this regard, the 5-2 plays much more like a 4-3 over and you replace the weak side defensive end with an outside linebacker.
This means that the Alabama tackles will be dealing with generally more athletic players on the edge. Guys who can play that Tim Williams/ Courtney Upshaw type role where they can edge rush, stop the run, and drop into coverage. Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu are both big bodies that can defend the run and the pass. Also, it allows the USC defense to be very aggressive knowing they only have one gap responsibility. Pendergast will look to blitz the Alabama offensive line early and often with his stud inside backer Cameron Smith and weak side backer Michael Hutchings.
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When USC shifts into its Nickel package, they almost always will pull the nose tackle and replace him with a defensive back. This results in a 2-4 look with two down linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs. Often they’ll drop the nickel down into the box in standard downs to attack the running game.
Pendergast has shut down some of the more high power offenses we’ve seen in recent memory with this 5-2. When he was the defensive coordinator at California in 2011 and ’12, his defenses ranked first in the Pac-12. In 2010, his Bears defense held the high-powered Oregon Ducks offense to just 15 points (averaged 47/game).
This is a scheme that is usually played more on Friday nights at high school games than a big time college football match up. Although, the Denver Broncos ran the 5-2 with some regularity last year during their Super Bowl run.
Because it is a less than common scheme, I would expect the newly formed Bama offensive line to struggle with it early on. However, while the Trojan’s defensive front may confuse the Tide, Alabama’s talent advantage, and own offensive scheme, should win the day.
The Trojans lost their entire defensive line to the draft or graduation. It’s a whole new look for them up front. While Alabama is dealing with its own changes along the offensive line, a significant lack of depth along the USC front seven will begin to open holes in the second half. Also, look for Alabama to run power runs, counters, and a few traps to take advantage of the aggressive nature of the 5-2 defense. While it nets its fair share of tackles for loss and QB pressures, it is susceptible to the big play.
The 5-2 also places its defensive backs on islands. Fortunately for USC, they have the horses in the secondary to manage. Adoree Jackson and Iman Marshall are arguably the best CB tandem Alabama will face all season. Chris Hawkins and Marvell Tell are safeties who are excellent in coverage as well. It’s a secondary unit likely good enough to neutralize the strength of the Alabama wide receiver group – for a while.
I expect Alabama to force USC to play in a lot of nickel on Saturday by running 10 personnel (1 Running back and 4 Receivers). This will allow Alabama to take advantage of USC placing a linebacker on a receiver and running the ball at a defensive back while short a lineman along the front.
USC has one of the best defenses, talent wise, Alabama will see all year. Alabama is also breaking in a new quarterback this game (whoever it may be). I believe we will see our fair share of struggles offensively in this game – especially early. At a certain point, though, I expect the rushing attack of Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris to break through and take the pressure off of the Quarterback.
I see very few points before halftime with a slight improvement over the course of the second half.
When Alabama is on Defense:
Don’t expect much, if any, change in the Alabama defensive style now that Jeremy Pruitt has replaced Kirby Smart as defensive coordinator. This is still Nick Saban’s defense. Also, Pruitt has prior experience on Saban’s staff at Bama and knows what is expected.
USC runs a “multiple offense”. This essentially means they’ll do whatever they need to do beat their opponent. They’ll run a pro-style set in some downs, and USC will switch to a five-wide set when it suits them. The Trojans return ten starters on offense, so they should have the talent to cause the Tide issues.
USC will be starting a new QB themselves in Max Browne. He was the number one consensus pro-style QB coming out of high school in 2013 – so they guy has some serious skills. Accompanying Browne will be star Wide Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. USC also brings back some quality players at the running back position with Justin Davis and Ronald Jones.
USC’s biggest strength on the offense, however, will be limited in this game. The offensive line is arguably the best in the country – when healthy. Unfortunately for Helton’s squad they’ll be without left tackle, Chad Wheeler. Wheeler is considered a future first-round pick by many draft predictions. He will be a tough player to replace even though replacement Chuma Edoga was a five-star himself coming out of high school.
Head coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin are likely going to trust their offensive front this game to provide Browne time to throw. They know the Alabama front seven is deep and very talented. Reuben Foster is likely a first round pick in this year’s draft at middle linebacker and is surrounded by blue chip prospects. USC knows they can’t rely on the run game to win this game and will try to take advantage of their talent at the WR position.
I don’t see USC having the offensive firepower to overcome Alabama’s talented defense. While it’s an incredibly talented offensive unit, the Bama defense is more so.
Saban and Pruitt will rely on their highly-talented secondary of Marlon Humphrey, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Eddie Jackson (need I go on) to at least contain Smith-Schuster on their own. This will allow the Bama defense to unleash players like Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen on Browne. Browne not being a dual threat QB is going to hinder USC’s ability to attack Alabama. Bama knows it can play on the receivers and go after Browne and not worry too much about him taking off like a Deashaun Watson.
It’s unlikely an offense with a pro-style quarterback finds a way to bite the Alabama defense. That being said, Bama cannot allow Smith-Schuster to run around or he will bite the Tide for big plays. Limit USC to the passing game and contain #8 and USC will have a long day.
As we’ve covered, USC and Bama are both are incredibly talented – likely the two most talented teams top to bottom in the country. However, Bama has more depth in key areas like the defensive line.
I expect this to be a close game for at least 3 quarters and wouldn’t be surprised if USC had a lead at one point.
Alabama should wind up pulling away in this game late once the depth chart shows up. With all of that said I’m sticking with the same score I’ve had all week.
Bama wins one closer than the score suggests: 31-17.