Mailbag: Why Alabama is the worst possible matchup for USC & more

It’s the Greatest Opening Weekend in the History of the World!

One of the strange subplots to this weekend’s loaded slate of matchups is that it’s widely assumed that Saturday’s primetime showcase event, USC-Alabama, will be one of the least competitive.

Well, at least one person’s not making that assumption.

What am I missing regarding USC vs. Alabama? If you look position by position, I would say USC has the edge at QB, running back and four of five O-line positions. Receivers are even. Defensive line and linebackers go to Alabama and secondary is a wash — USC has better corners but Alabama the better safeties. The game is on a neutral field. How is Alabama such a huge favorite?

— Brian Hoepner, Los Angeles

I’d say the main thing you’re missing is any institutional knowledge of the two programs’ performances over the last seven years, during which time Alabama has won four national titles while USC has gone through four head coaches.

That’s not to say the Trojans don’t have talent – they absolutely do – but you’re taking a far more optimistic view of it in some of those comparisons. Quarterback Max Browne was a five-star recruit, but he’s never played. We have no idea if he’s better than Alabama’s Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett. Similarly, we’ve never seen new Alabama running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, so I’m not opposed to giving USC’s Ronald Jones and Justin Davis the edge, but running back is generally the position you worry about least with Alabama.

But the main reason this matchup is so unfavorable for USC is that Alabama doesn’t allow the Trojans to take advantage of their biggest strength, their offensive line. USC’s O-line may be one of the best in college football this season (even there, USC may be without veteran right tackle Chad Wheeler), but it’s still highly unlikely to win a matchup with Alabama’s ridiculous D-line.

By the same token, Alabama is one of the worst possible matchups for USC given the Trojans’ undisputed weak link, their defensive line. To withstand the Tide’s rushing attack you need an exceptional defensive front like Clemson’s last year, which produced three NFL Draft picks and held Alabama to 3.0 yards per rushing attempt in the national title game. USC does not have that right now.

Of course, an upset is always possible. This is not the TCU-South Dakota State clash that’s taking place across town. Perhaps USC exploits all the youth on Alabama’s offense, which includes a true freshman right tackle, Jonah Williams. Most realistically, perhaps Adoree Jackson breaks a punt return for a touchdown while the Trojans also capitalize on a couple of turnovers deep in ‘Bama territory.

I covered the 2012 Alabama-Michigan game in Arlington, another glamorous matchup in theory, which the Tide ran away with in the first quarter and won 41-14. I don’t see that exact scenario repeating itself here, because this Tide offense does not have as proven a quarterback (AJ McCarron) and offensive line as it did that year. But ‘Bama could certainly dominate both lines of scrimmage and pull off an uglier, lower-scoring blowout.

I’m predicting 26-10.

I know arguing preseason bowl projections is a fool’s errand, but yours raised a question for me from a committee point of view. You have Alabama and LSU in the semis. One of those teams has to lose in their matchup on November 5th. Is there really a scenario where you think the playoff committee would pick a team with a November loss that didn’t make its conference’s championship game over two Power 5 champs?

— Pete, Cambridge, Massachusetts

While it’s certainly more ideal to lose in September than November, a late-season loss is no longer as damaging as it was in the BCS. Michigan State lost on Nov. 7 last year, to a 3-6 Nebraska team no less, at which point it fell to 13th in the committee’s rankings. It promptly made up 10 spots over the last four weeks. But of course, the Spartans were able to do that in large part by getting into and winning their conference championship game. In my scenario, the Alabama-LSU loser obviously would not pull that off.

To be clear, the committee has continually stressed the importance of winning one’s conference. That’s why Ohio State had almost no shot to move back into the top four last year once it could not still win the Big Ten East, 12 future draft picks or not. Ohio State, with its light resume, did not meet the committee’s stated threshold that a non-champion or independent must be “unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.”

But two years in, the committee has yet to deal with a scenario where more than two Power 5 champs finish with at least two losses. As I wrote Monday, seasons like those will likely be the exception, not the norm going forward. Over the last eight seasons of the BCS, 20 of the 40 automatic qualifiers from the current Power 5 conferences finished with at least two losses. And I’m predicting this year’s Big Ten and Pac-12 champs will fall into that category.

It’s not a given that a one-loss non-champion would get in over a two-loss champ. On the contrary, had North Carolina upset Clemson in last year’s ACC championship game, 11-2 Pac-12 champ Stanford would likely have gotten the nod over either 12-1 North Carolina or 12-1 Clemson. But that’s because those teams didn’t play great schedules. An 11-1 LSU or Alabama this year will have probably beaten at least three Top 25 foes and eight or nine bowl teams. That’s a much more compelling case for “unequivocal” than anything we’ve seen to date.

Your recent tweet about Notre Dame’s expectations got me thinking: Which other teams go into this season thinking "playoff or bust?" Realistically, I’d say Notre Dame, Florida State, Clemson, Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Michigan and Oklahoma are the only teams that should enter the season with a legit expectation to make the playoff. But are there other schools (particularly in your "Kings" tier) that think otherwise?

— Thomas, San Jose, California

To be clear, my Notre Dame tweet was largely in reference to the fact it has no other prize to play for, though the Irish certainly feel the playoff is a realistic goal this year. As for the other teams, “playoff or bust” is less about returning starters, etc., and more about the general year-to-year expectation level. Because while Iowa, for example, was overjoyed to reach the Rose Bowl last season, Ohio State fans would have considered the same bowl a disappointment.

So while the actual pool of teams with “realistic” playoff aspirations is far deeper than you’re suggesting – I’d contend that closer to 20 teams have the core talent to do it – they’re not all necessarily going to consider anything short of that a good season. For example, Michigan, which hasn’t won a Big Ten championship in 12 years, is in no position to claim “playoff or bust.” If the Wolverines go 11-2, beat Michigan State and/or Ohio State but don’t reach the playoff, that’s still a great season given the recent state of the program.

My playoff-or-bust list: Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, LSU, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. Most years I’d include Ohio State, but not with the absurd amount of talent it is replacing. And while most SEC teams with Tennessee’s profile would hold similarly lofty expectations, the Vols have been so down for so long that just winning the SEC East would be a triumphant season for them.

There’s an epidemic of coaches not naming a starting QB: Texas, Michigan, Alabama, South Carolina. Is it simply to avoid transfers? Do they really believe that the deception will benefit them?

— Matt, Las Vegas

It’s stupid. Sorry I don’t have a more sophisticated description than that.

Case in point: Texas coach Charlie Strong said Monday he knows which of his QBs, Tyrone Swoopes or Shane Buechele, is going to start but won’t reveal his decision before Sunday’s game. Yet at the same press conference, when asked about Notre Dame’s mysterious two-quarterback plan, he replied, “We’re preparing for both quarterbacks, and I know both quarterbacks are going to play, so it’s just a matter of us making sure that whomever is in the game that we handle our business.”

It sounds to me like he’s saying it’s not a big deal whether or not your opponent announces its starter … but no way in heck are we going to announce ours.

Hi Stewart: It’s game week! Looking back to last year, one of the most influential results of the entire season turned out to be a fairly un-hyped, early-starting intersectional Week 1 matchup between Stanford and Northwestern. Stanford likely makes the playoff last year if it hadn’t lost in Evanston. Which lower-profile game this week could potentially have just as much impact as the headliners?

— James, Asheville, North Carolina

Other than the fact it’s at home, not 2,000 miles away, Stanford’s opener this year fits much the same bill. It’s easy to overlook Kansas State coming off a 6-7 season, but this is still a Bill Snyder-coached team. The Wildcats could be much-improved, especially with a clear, healthy first-string quarterback in Jesse Ertz. The Cardinal, conversely, will be breaking in a new starter, Ryan Burns, for the first time in four years.

If, like me, you believe Stanford is capable of winning the Pac-12, then a K-State upset Friday night could impact its playoff chances just like last year’s.

If you’re looking for a more shocking prospect, though, how about Thursday night’s Appalachian State-Tennessee game? Expectations have not been this high for the Vols in nearly a decade, and a lot of people are already looking ahead to their Week 2 game against Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. But don’t overlook the Mountaineers, who won 11 games last season while producing a defense that ranked 11th nationally. That’d upset the apple cart.

And finally, you know we’re going to have a couple of FCS over Power 5 upsets. There were three last year (The Citadel over South Carolina, Portland State over Washington State and South Dakota over Kansas). My leading contender this weekend: Richmond over Virginia.

Hi Stewart: Do you ever go back after the season and compare your preseason bowl projections to the actual bowls at the end of that season? If so, how accurate have your preseason bowl projections typically been?

— Garret, Sacramento

I don’t, but someone on Twitter, David Smalling, did it for me. He said last year I had 12 teams and three matchups exactly right. Which was much better than I would have guessed.

Hi Stewart. Who do you think generally has the advantage when a coordinator changes teams and plays his previous team? For example, will Wisconsin’s offense have an advantage against LSU because it has been practicing against a Dave Aranda defense the past several years? Or will the LSU defense have an advantage because Aranda has been practicing against Wisconsin’s offense and knows their tendencies?

— Chris, Shreveport, Louisiana

It’s interesting just how many of these big opening weekend games have coach-vs.-former school angles, most notably Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin vs. USC (though the Trojans have very few players remaining from his tenure); Texas A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone against UCLA, where he coached Josh Rosen last season; and Aranda, LSU’s defensive coordinator going against his employer of the past three seasons.

But you’d be surprised how little those connections impact a game. First of all, everyone knows everyone else’s tendencies whether a guy coached there or not. They all watch and chart film. They subscribe to services that do the same. If LSU had a new defensive coordinator from somewhere other than Wisconsin, the Badgers’ staff would watch tape of that team instead. The challenge isn’t identifying what the other guy does, it’s devising a way to neutralize it.

A slightly bigger benefit for a coach’s new employer is his knowledge of his old team’s personnel. Again, it’s not like Kevin Sumlin needs Mazzone to tell him that UCLA defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes is a stud, but where he could come in handy is his knowledge of the younger players who didn’t show up much on tape last year but could be out there quite a bit Saturday.

Ultimately, the coach’s new school stands to benefit from familiarity more so than the old school, but even that will likely be minimal. Unless of course the old school is dumb enough not to change its signals.

Dave Aranda

Stewart: Do you think the recruiting base of a potential school should really be a factor when discussing expansion candidates? For example, would adding a school like UCF really make a big difference in Big 12 schools recruiting the state of Florida? Is a kid from Florida that much more likely to go to Oklahoma because UCF is in the same conference? Especially considering that school may only play in Florida one time during a recruit’s time at the school?

— Thomas Bagley, Lehi, Utah

I don’t think it’s an overrated factor at all, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve long said the Big 12 would be smart to consider UCF.

Case in point: There is mounting evidence that the SEC’s decision five years ago to add Texas A&M has helped the conference considerably in recruiting the state of Texas. In 2012, eight of the Top 10 and 11 of the state’s top 20 recruits on Scout.com signed with a Big 12 school (not including Texas A&M). Four years later, six Top 20 players signed with SEC schools (again, not including A&M), just one fewer than signed in the Big 12 (seven). Ole Miss, LSU and Alabama now sign as many five-star Lone Star State recruits as Texas and Oklahoma.

Now, did this suddenly start happening because every other year Nick Saban, Les Miles and Hugh Freeze bring their schools to play a game in Texas? Of course not. But there’s been another noticeable shift since A&M switched conferences: TV viewers in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, have shifted their attention from the Big 12 to the SEC. According to Nielsen data reported by ESPN.com’s Jake Trotter, nine of the 10 highest-rated games there in 2010 involved Big 12 teams; by 2015, the SEC now claimed six of the top 10.

There are of course several mitigating circumstances to consider here. For one, Texas’ decline under Mack Brown occurred during this same time period and likely contributed heavily to both trends. Second, those SEC powers were already recruiting pretty well even without Texas. And lastly, UCF does not currently claim nearly the drawing power that A&M did at the time of its move.

But I still think it’s a relevant case study. By adding a Texas school, the SEC extended its brand into an extremely fertile recruiting state and recruits followed. Would the Big 12 achieve the same effect in Florida if it added UCF and/or USF? Probably not to the same extent, but right now Orlando and Tampa are entirely SEC- and ACC-focused. If suddenly the biggest game in town in a given week involves Texas or Oklahoma, I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be an impact.

I’ve already scolded my friends for not bringing it to my attention, but there is an all-time road trip out there this weekend. Saturday morning, Houston and Oklahoma play each other in Houston. Saturday night is USC-Alabama in Dallas. Sunday moves to Austin for Notre Dame-Texas, and then Monday night we have Florida State-Ole Miss in Orlando. Is there a time this will ever be replicated?

— Brett, Chicago

I know a few media members who are planning to cover the three games in Texas you mentioned. But to truly make it an “all-time” road trip, I don’t think you’re being ambitious enough.

First, your journey should begin Friday night in Waco for Baylor vs. Northwestern State. Not a great game, obviously, but it’s college football. Then either that night or the next morning, you make the three-hour drive to Houston for the Sooners vs. the Cougars at 11 a.m. local time.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

From there, you’re heading to College Station for UCLA-Texas A&M at 2:30. Ideally you’d have access to a helicopter or private plane rather than driving an hour-and-a-half. But the good news is, it’s a CBS SEC game so it won’t actually kick off until closer to 2:40 and it will move very slowly. You might make it by halftime. (And of course, if the first game’s lopsided, you leave early.)

But that’s only going to be a brief stopover, just long enough to catch a Josh Rosen or Trevor Knight touchdown pass, before making the two-hour, 45-minute drive to Arlington. Again, this is an ABC primetime game that won’t actually kick off until about 7:20 p.m. You’re probably going to miss kickoff, but maybe you arrive during the second quarter and stay for the duration.

And then it’s on to Austin on Sunday night. By which point you will be exhausted, but if you’re still up for that flight to Orlando, let’s consider the magnitude of your anticipated accomplishment. You will have seen at least part of six games in four days involving eight preseason Top 20 teams, a ninth Top 25 team (Baylor) and A&M team that just missed the cut.

And no, that will never be replicated.