Southern Cal-Alabama Preview
Inexperienced quarterbacks will be at the forefront of the matchup between No. 1 Alabama and No. 20 USC.
The two college football bluebloods will meet for the first time since the 1985 Aloha Bowl on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Alabama coach Nick Saban announced this week that he had narrowed his quarterback competition to two -- redshirt junior Cooper Bateman and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett -- without closing the door on dual-threat true freshman Jalen Hurts at some point this season.
Bateman attempted 52 passes last season, getting one start against Ole Miss before ceding the job back to Jake Coker.
"We want to play the guy that's the most ready to give us the best chance," Saban said. "We also want to continue to develop guys that can compete at this position in the future. That's kind of where it is right now. There's really nothing else to talk about. Nothing else to say."
USC coach Clay Helton made his quarterback decision earlier in camp, going with junior Max Browne over redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, who has intriguing upside but couldn't yet close the gap in terms of knowing the system. Browne, though, threw only 19 passes as a backup to Cody Kessler in the past two seasons.
"We feel that it is in the best interest of our football team to lean on the veteran experience that Max Browne has," Helton said.
That's especially true when playing the defending national champions.
Alabama's defense, which allowed 15.1 points per game last season, will be top-notch again. The Crimson Tide has four defenders ranked among the top 21 draft prospects for 2017, according to NFLDraftScout.com -- cornerback Marlon Humphrey, outside linebacker Tim Williams, inside linebacker Reuben Foster and defensive end Jonathan Allen.
Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson and tight end O.J. Howard are also considered first-round talent.
USC has elite talent, too, notably wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback/returner Adoree' Jackson.
Sophomore talents, such as Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley and USC running back Ronald Jones II, aren't even eligible for the draft yet.
There isn't a huge talent gap between the programs; the big difference has been coaching stability.
Saban has led Alabama to four of the past seven national titles. USC hasn't even won the Pac-12 since 2008, when Pete Carroll was still roaming the Trojans sidelines.
USC is on its third full-time coach since Carroll, with Helton being given the job after taking over on an interim basis following the fourth game of last season. Helton isn't as flashy as predecessors Steve Sarkisian or Lane Kiffin (now in his third season as Alabama's offensive coordinator), and he will rely on a physical offensive approach, led by a veteran line and two running backs -- Jones (987 yards) and Justin Davis -- who have 1,000-yard potential.
The line, however, will be missing injured left tackle Chad Wheeler in the opener. Sophomore Chuma Edoga takes his place, with the unenviable task of trying to block Williams, who had 10.5 sacks last season in a situational role. He'll be an every-down player this season.
Alabama, needing to replace Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry, will be young, but talented, in the backfield with sophomores Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, followed by two true freshmen.
The Tide is pretty much loaded everywhere else, though, as Saban goes for his sixth overall national title, which would tie Alabama legend Paul "Bear" Bryant for the most ever.
The Tide has been very good in neutral-site openers. Alabama has defeated Michigan, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Wisconsin by an average of 36-16 in such games in the past four years.