We start our look at some of the marquee nonconference games involving Pac-12 teams in 2016. First up: USC.
Date of matchup: Sept. 3
Location/venue: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Matchup to watch for: Alabama offensive line vs. USC defensive line. If the Trojans expect to win -- or at least give themselves a chance to -- they’ll need a standout performance from their young, inexperienced defensive line. Nearly all USC’s important contributors from last year are gone, which leaves a lot of questions as new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's move to a 5-2 base defense. Even if USC were to start the season with a tune-up type game, the defensive line would be in the spotlight as, outside of quarterback, it’s the only position group that isn’t mostly established. So to have to go up against a dominant Alabama line in the season opener has the potential to be disastrous. Then again, if the Trojans’ young guys are up to the challenge that would set the tone for what could be a big year at USC.
Area of weakness that USC could exploit: It makes sense to allow for the possibility that whoever ends up at quarterback -- likely Cooper Bateman -- could have an immediate positive impact for Alabama, but until then, the lack of clarity under center has to be somewhat concerning. Especially considering running backs Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake are off to the NFL. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin calling plays against Pendergast, who he hired at USC, will makes things interesting, but a close game could hinge on quarterback play. The flip side, of course, is that USC will also have a first-year starter.
Quick analysis of the stakes: Let’s consider three possible outcomes:
1) Alabama wins big. After getting crushed by Stanford in the Pac-12 title game and losing to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, Clay Helton’s official tenure as the Trojans’ head coach got off to a rocky start. If USC isn’t competitive to open the year, questions about if he was the right choice -- fair or not -- will be discussed. Helton has a five-year contract so it’s way too early to bring up job security, but that’s the general conversation that would ensue. It’s also worth pointing out it wouldn’t be an ideal first game under new athletic director Lynn Swann, who did not know Helton when he agreed to replace outgoing athletic director Pat Haden.
2) Alabama wins close. There would be disappointment, of course, and no one from the program will say publicly a close loss would be satisfactory, but it would indicate the Trojans should be in good shape for the rest of the year.
3) USC wins. USC instantly becomes a national-title contender and #IsUSCBack? trends nationally.