Few, if any, give No. 20 Southern California much of a shot at taking down top-ranked Alabama to open the season. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Trojans have less than a 36 percent chance, and betting lines have them as double-digit underdogs (Alabama minus-10). After all, Nick Saban reloaded a national championship-winning roster with blue-chip prospects to pair with returning starters on both sides of the ball. Plus, since Saban arrived, the Tide has won every season opener by an average margin of 27.3 points.
The Trojans haven’t beaten a top-ranked team in 32 years, but here are three things Coach Clay Helton must do to leave AT&T Stadium with the biggest win of his coaching career.
Put JuJu Smith-Schuster in open space
Southern Cal returns the most explosive receiver in the conference — and will look to him early and often for production. Smith-Schuster led the Pac-12 in receiving yards (1,454), ranked second in receptions (89) and finished fourth in touchdowns (10). Long-scrimmage plays are his forte; he led the conference in receptions of 10-plus yards (59), 30-plus yards (12), 40-plus yards (seven), 50-plus yards (six), 60-plus yards (three) and 70-plus yards (two), and those numbers were spread widely across the field, produced while running a number of routes.
He received 30.7 percent of the team’s targets a season ago, the 15th-highest portion for any receiver with at least 50 targets. As Pro Football Focus noted, he forced 12 missed tackles last year, one of which came at the expense of Utah’s Dominique Hatfield:
Alabama, however, is particularly deft at limiting big plays, having finished in the top 50 in fewest plays allowed of 30-plus yards each of the past six seasons. Only one team, Boston College, allowed fewer yards per play a season ago than the Tide, and five defensive starters return for Alabama in 2016, including all-SEC safety Eddie Jackson.
It will be difficult for Smith-Schuster to find a crease, considering Alabama has analyst Phil Steele’s No. 2-ranked secondary. But for Southern Cal to be successful, he’ll need to be heavily involved in the offensive workflow, whether in bubble screens, jet sweeps or intermediate crossing routes.
Don’t lose sight of O.J. Howard
The incoming senior, and Steele’s No. 1 draft-eligible tight end, surely wants to continue the momentum he built in last year’s national championship game. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Howard obliterated Clemson, which featured one of the best defensive units in the country, for five receptions, 208 yards and two touchdowns. His 9.9 yards per route run were the highest single-game score for any tight end that season.
Since his arrival in Tuscaloosa, the Tide is 10-2 when he has at least three receptions and 12-2 when he amasses at least 30 yards. He’s likely to see more than 10.4 percent of the team’s total targets this season, even with all-American Calvin Ridley on the outside.
Locking Howard up means not allowing him to create more yards after the catch, too. That’s how he accumulated 101 yards (7.8 YAC/reception) a season ago.
And Howard is not only effective as a pass-catcher but elite as a blocker, with a plus-9.1 blocking grade to show for it.
The Trojans don’t have a great group on the defensive line or at linebacker, but they do tout a strong secondary, including Adoreé Jackson, who could be the first cornerback taken in the draft. Southern Cal’s defensive backs, particularly the safeties, will need to keep the action in front of them and never lose sight of Howard.
When on offense, control the line of scrimmage
Despite losing starting center Max Tuerk and bringing in five offensive line coaches in the past five years, the Trojans have one of the highest-graded offensive lines in the country. Steele ranked them No. 1 on his list.
Yet starting left tackle Chad Wheeler, the most experienced player of the group, will cede the starting role to Chuma Edoga in the opener because of injury. That means the blind side of quarterback Max Browne could be a serious problem, especially considering Browne has attempted just 11 passes in college.
Alabama’s defensive line seemingly sets the bar for the rest of the country every season. Let’s take last year, for example: The Tide led the country in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate (sacks adjusted for down, distance and opponent) and finished no lower than ninth in adjusted line yards (a metric attempting to separate a running back’s ability from the offensive line’s ability, adjusting for game situation and quality of opponent faced), opportunity rate (the percentage of carries when five yards are available that gain at least five yards), power success rate (percentage of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go that result in a first down or touchdown) and stuff rate (percentage of carries by running backs that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage).
We’ll see whether newly installed defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar can continue that legacy. Edoga and Co. will need to keep the pocket from collapsing against the teeth of Alabama’s defense, including Jonathan Allen, last year’s team leader in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (12).
The Trojans got plenty of production on the ground a season ago, with 26 of the team’s 63 offensive touchdowns (41.3 percent) coming through rushing, but Alabama allowed seven rushing touchdowns all of last season. If Alabama smothers Southern Cal’s offensive line, taking away the run game, Browne may find himself working with a one-dimensional offense as a quarterback just trying to find his footing in college.