Welcome to the first edition of the famed “What To Watch For (W2W4)” of the 2016 season! This season promises to be wild and wooly as Alabama will try to find the answers to question marks at QB, RB and OL on offense throughout the season. Meanwhile, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will lead the fastest, most athletic defense in Bama history but will have to fend off depth concerns at DL and DB. As always, the expectation for Alabama is not to rebuild – instead, Bama will simply reload. Once again, there is a vast amount of talent on this team and it’s loaded for Bear…or Trojans, as the case may be.
The fall of the Trojan empire has been well publicized and Bama’s own Lane Kiffin played a pretty significant role in the fall of Troy. Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were the co-offensive coordinators for the famed Leinart & Bush teams of the early 2000s but over the last few years they teamed up to form the co-Trojan horses who helped finish burning the program down from the inside.
With former athletic director Pat Haden kicked to the curb after funneling athletic department monies to himself, the new USC brain trust eschewed a national coaching search that promised to bring in the top names in the industry. Instead, they lazily walked down the hall to ask interim coach Clay Helton (Kiffin’s former QB coach) he wanted to remain as the USC head coach. It’s as though the USC administration was emotionally defeated from their probation, firing Kiffin, firing Sarksian and booting Haden so they decided to flip their football switch from “Fight On” to “Fight Off.”
Fortunately for Helton, at least his predecessors had restocked the USC cupboard with 4 and 5 star talent and they reportedly are even using 83 of their 85 total scholarships. So much for the probation excuse, eh? Last season, these Trojans were not ribbed for anyone’s pleasure as they shot blanks to the tune of an 8-6 overall record. USC’s lackluster season culminated in a 23-21 loss to Wisconsin where they were outgained by over 100 yards and thoroughly outplayed from the get go (regardless of what the scoreboard said).
Coming into this matchup, the Bama Lighthouse staff was lamenting the fact that Alabama wasn’t opening up against Kent State or some other lesser team in order to gain some experience and confidence for their young offense. USC boasts two of the best corners in the country and they certainly are talented enough to prey on the adolescent Bama passing game. USC reportedly was set to return four of their five offensive linemen which gave the Lighthouse pause as it could mean that USC would neutralize Bama’s vaunted front seven. And, as far as the intangibles are concerned, we felt USC should be way more amped to play this game than Alabama. USC has an opportunity to put itself back on the national stage with a win over #1 Alabama and you know beating Lane Kiffin is certainly high atop USC’s wish list for the 2016 season. With Alabama coming in off of yet another Natty, complacency could be a problem so it stood to reason these Trojans would be stiff competition.
But, then we watched the tape of USC playing Wisconsin. Mercy me. USC’s 5-star pretties enjoyed running around the field on national TV while Wisconsin’s corn fed maulers spent their evening holding onto the football (37 minutes to 23 minutes) and ear holing the boys of Troy. After watching the tape, we enter the season being far more optimistic than we were before watching USC get drunk on Wisky. Here’s what to watch for Saturday night…
Alabama on Offense
Since our initial season preview was released, Coach Saban released statements that seem to indicate Jalen Hurts will not be making an appearance against USC. Hurts is a true freshman and clearly has a few miles to go before understanding the nuances of pass protection, audibles and gaining total command of the huddle and the line of scrimmage. However, we believe Hurts is still in the plans for the 2016 season and we will not be surprised to see him at QB sooner rather than later.
That being said, the competition seems to have boiled down to Cooper Bateman (rJR) versus Blake Barnett (rFR). The Bama Lighthouse has been embracing Barnett in a warm cuddle since he walked away with the MVP honors of the Elite 11 quarterback competition in 2014. During that competition, Barnett showed tremendous athleticism, arm strength and poise throughout the week and walked away with the event’s top honors. If you aren’t familiar with the Elite 11 quarterback competition, you should know that the Elite 11 alumni include Andrew Luck, Matt Stafford, Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater and many others. The 2014 class was a veritable “who’s who” with Deondre Francois (FSU’s starting QB), Drew Lock (Missouri’s starting QB), former A&M starter Kyler Murray, former Baylor starter Jarrett Stidham and Josh Rosen – the much talked about chosen one from UCLA. And Barnett beat out all of these great QBs to win the competition.
It’s important to note that in 2012 Bateman, too, competed in the Elite 11 competition. Bateman was one of about 20 quarterbacks to make the event but he failed to make the final 11. He was beaten out by USC’s current starter Max Browne, Josh Dobbs, Jared Goff, Christian Hackenberg and former Alabama walk-on and current Florida starting QB Luke Del Rio.
Bateman’s inability to throw the ball down the field is pretty well documented but he isn’t quite as prone to throwing picks as Barnett is. Barnett, by comparison, trusts his arm implicitly and feels there is no window he cannot throw the ball thru. As a result, Bateman inspires yawns while Barnett’s play conjures up frozen rope “OOOHS” and ill advised “AHHHHH SHITS.”
Saban understands his best chance to drive the offense is with Barnett behind the wheel. But, Bateman is the least likely to turn Saban’s Mazerati into a total loss. Look for Bateman to start the game and establish a little bit of a rhythm and then Barnett will come in and try to put the staff at ease regarding his turnover issues – turnovers are the only thing holding Barnett from being Bama’s one and only QB this season. According to recent reports, Barnett texted noted QB whisperer George Whitfield and told him his “on base percentage is getting higher.” This could be the break thru we’ve long been waiting for.
Ok, here are a few more goodies to look for…
Pass the Dutchie on the Left Hand Side: Wisconsin absolutely wore out the USC defensive line by running off of their left guard and left tackle. USC allowed gaping holes to their right (Wisky’s left) so look for Cam Robinson and Lester Cotton to put the Trojans on roller skates Saturday night. When the Tide needs to convert a critical 3rd & short, look for them to run left.
Let’s Get Physical: USC’s new defensive coordinator is the same as their old (2013) defensive coordinator in Clancy Pendergast. Clancy’s fancy defense employs a 5-2 alignment that is predicated on getting up field and beating one on one matchups and this philosophy was good enough to rank 13th in total defense in 2013. Alabama’s young line will have to man up and become people movers across the front lines but with USC’s aggression and blitz happy scheme, we look for the Trojans to register several tackles for loss Saturday night. Alabama’s tight ends will play a key role here as they must win their fair share of blocks.
One on One, I Want to Play that Game Tonight: USC’s defense has two of the preeminent corners in all of college football in Adoree Jackson and Iman Marshall. From what we saw on tape, though, these guys play with a pretty significant cushion (read soft) so slants and deep post routes were open throughout the evening. However, any ball that hangs up or flutters will be picked off by either of these two ball hawks. Look for Bama to isolate the Trojan safeties in man coverage – we think Robert Foster and OJ Howard should have plenty of room to get open in the middle of the field, especially attacking safety Chris Hawkins (#4) who is returning from an ankle injury. Surprisingly, even with all their talent at corner, USC ranked 94th against the pass last season (probably due to their very soft coverage and the inability for their LBs to cover). Marshall appeared to be far more physical than Jackson, for what it’s worth, so look for Bama to run at Jackson and force him to come up and play the run.
Hammer Time: Regardless of who the QB will be Saturday night, the Bama running game should be his best friend. However, his second best friend will be the RB who can pick up the blitz. USC will be VERY aggressive and will assault the line of scrimmage and the backfield with a variety of blitz packages so Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough will be asked to drop the hammer on a few blitzers. This is a key part of the game and their success/failure will determine which back is the more trusted back by Saban and Co. FYI – we think Harris will be that guy but time will tell.
Kris Kross – USC’s linebackers and safeties seemed completely lost against crossing routes so look for Alabama to clear out a side and then drag Foster, Stewart or Ridley across the middle. Gehrig Dieter could also be a reliable weapon on third downs across the middle as the Bowling Green transfer caught 92 of 93 catchable passes last season.
- Jonah Williams – Keep an eye on the true freshman at RT to see how he holds up to the physicality of the college game. Look for USC to line up 2015 sack leader Porter Gustin against Jonah Williams all night long. Should be a heckuva battle.
- Miller Forristall – He’s one of our favorite true freshmen and this tight end could quietly be a weapon in the middle of the field.
- Bo Scarborough – Look for him to line up wide as a wide receiver and to be used as a receiver out of the backfield. Wisconsin took advantage of multiple blown coverages against their backs and tight ends so Bo could be huge in the passing game.
- RPOs – Alabama will use a ton of zone read options and run/pass options this season since all three QBs have the ability to run. (See below for an quick explanation of RPOs).
- Roll Out the QB – Look for Kiffin to roll his QBs out to avoid the pressure and to limit their reads to half the field.
- Get Yo Popcorn Ready – The individual matchups between Ridley/Stewart/Foster against Iman Marshall and Adoree Jackson are what football dreams are made of. Enjoy!
- Center Leadership – Pro Football Focus says former Bama center Ryan Kelly has yet to earn a negative grade on a single play in 40 pre-season snaps with the Colts. His presence was underrated last year and will be sorely missed in the interior of Alabama’s line this season.
- Stacked – USC could not defend any stacked WR looks so look for Kiffin to stack some wide receiver sets on the outside. The safeties played way off of this look which opened up the slants to the inside.
- Line Dancing – We love the move of Bradley Bozeman to center as he is the longest tenured starting OL. He’s knows the offense, has played the position before and is comfy at center. Some may ask why Ross Pierschbacher didn’t move back to his old familiar left guard position instead of moving to right guard. Well, Saban & Co didn’t want to put the inexperienced Lester Cotton next to the true freshman Jonah Williams on the right side.
- Both Barnett and Bateman can run for huge yardage if they are able to step up and avoid the blitz. We think this happens a few times.
- Will be interesting to see if Kiffin uses the up-tempo offense in this game with his inexperienced line, QB and RBs. We think he will.
- If Barnett throws a pick or loses a fumble, step outside your house and you should be able to hear the Lighthouse staff losing their minds.
Final Thoughts on Offense
This matchup reminds me of Alabama’s matchup against the Virginia Tech defense in 2013. You may remember that Va Tech also used a 5-2 front that emphasized an uber-aggressive approach and, frankly, our OL didn’t fare well against it. The offensive line will be the key to the 2016 season (much more so than the QB) so they will be called on to gel in a hurry Saturday night against varied Trojan assults. Thankfully, USC has all new starters along their defensive line and they will be adjusting to a new scheme so, the Trojans’ defense will not be nearly as good in game one as they will be in game five. Look for Kiffin to call for some early roll outs, boots and zone reads to get his QBs into the flow of the game (and away from the blitz) and don’t be surprised to see Barnett break off a big run – he’s far more athletic than folks believe. When Bateman is behind center, look for short, quick throws and a ton of zone reads. When Barnett is at QB, look for run/pass options that will allow him to put USC’s linebackers and safeties in conflicts. From what we saw on film, attacking USC’s linebackers and safeties in coverage is the recipe for success.
Alabama on Defense
With USC hiring a new defensive coordinator, the Bama Lighthouse could only glean so much when we watched their game against Wisconsin. We could look at individuals and get a feel for how they fared in their personal matchups but schematically there wasn’t much to take away.
However, offensively everything remains intact for the Trojans with Clay Helton remaining at the helm and it’s here that Bama fans should feel pretty darn optimistic. The Trojans run a pro style offense and they have lots of pretties on offense. They have Ronald Jones and Justin Davis at RB, they have JuJu Smith-Schuster at WR and they have Max Browne, the former 5-star QB and 2012 national Gatorade player of the year, running the show. Impressive, eh?
Then you see Davis and Jones fail to stick their noses in to pick up a blitz. You see Smith-Schuster drop a couple of passes and be easily taken down by contact. You see the USC fullbacks get blown up at the point of attack and you see the offensive line be little more than a speed bump at times. Then you kind of get a little giddy about this matchup.
During our film study, Wisconsin lined up with a basic three man front and showed two linebackers behind them. On three consecutive plays they blitzed the same inside linebacker thru the A gap and three sacks later it was 4th and 40 for the Trojans. USC never adjusted! Former QB Cody Kessler spent much of his time running for his life so, with the statuesque Max Browne back there, it should simply be a footrace to the QB for the likes of Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. These Trojans broke so badly that I wouldn’t be surprised if Kessler turned up pregnant shortly after the game! OY!
Here’s what else to watch for on defense Saturday night…
Falling Down the Mountain: USC right tackle Zack Banner is listed at 6’9, 360 lbs and looks like the Mountain from the Game of Thrones. But, much like the Mountain, Banner is dizzied and mystified by speed and movement as his big frame just doesn’t move well. Wisky knocked Banner’s great big ass on the ground a couple of times and then ran past him faster than Usain Bolt can grab another gold medal. Look for big #73 and watch as Alabama’s pass rushers abuse him around the edges and then knife into the backfield on an inside move. At 6’9, Banner plays very high so you can also look for Bama to bull rush him right into Max Browne’s lap a few times, as well.
Push It: The one thing USC has up front is size and while they don’t appear to be very mobile or athletic, they can generate a pretty good push if they get their hands on you. When Alabama goes into their nickel or dime packages, it will be interesting to see how the front four holds up if USC goes with a draw or a straight running play.
Sorry Miss Jackson: The Trojans are hell bent on getting Adoree Jackson the ball on offense so when #2 is in the game, look for him to get the rock. Jackson registered 27 catches for 414 yards and two touchdowns last season in very limited snaps so when he’s in there’s a good chance he will get the ball.
Bubbly: Clay Helton probably called at least six bubble screens against the Badgers so look for this play to be called quite a few times Saturday night. Historically, Bama has shut these screens down easily but early on last season the bubble screens were a bit problematic.
Baby Got Backs: The Trojan duo of Ronald Jones and Justin Davis rushed for nearly 2,000 yards last season. Neither is listed at over 200 lbs so both have to utilize their speed and quickness instead of power. Jones was particularly effective in open space so it will be fun to watch Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton match up with him. However, Wisconsin’s dominance over the USC front line limited their ability to run the ball and we suspect Bama will have the same success.
You Wreck Me Baby: Wisconsin blitzed the bejeepers out of USC and the Trojans failed miserably to pick most of them up. While the Tide’s front four should be able to generate pressure on their own, look for Pruitt to dial up a few very effective blitzes with his backers. I have visions of Rashaan Evans blitzing up the gut – don’t you?
Bombastic: JuJu Smith-Schuster (89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 TDs) is the real deal at WR and if Browne is given time he surely will try to UPS a few long deliveries in JuJu’s direction. If you are an NFL scout, then you are drooling at the matchup of JuJu going one on one against Marlon Humphrey or Minkah Fitzpatrick. CBS ranks JuJu as their top wide receiver prospect while Pro Football Focus graded out Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson as the top college players at their positions (and they ranked Minkah Fitzpatrick as the top freshman corner last season). What a matchup! Browne throws an excellent deep ball, btw.
New Sensation: Tim Williams bulked up from 237 lbs to 252 lbs in an effort to be an every down DE. With USC running a pro style offense complete with FBs and TEs, it will be very, very interesting to see if the Bama 3-4 includes Williams at defensive end. Bama’s 3-4 requires defensive ends to be more in the 280-290 range so we aren’t positive that Williams will be out there as much as anticipated. If he is out there, keep an eye on him and his ability to set the edge against the run.
- Tee Martin is in his first year as USC’s offensive coordinator and he’ll be trying to call plays for a QB making his first ever collegiate start. Not the best recipe for success. QB’s making their first start versus Nick Saban are 0-3, scoring one lone touchdown and losing by a combined score of 125-13. Advantage Tide.
- USC ranked 102nd in allowing tackles for loss and 105th in sacks allowed last season, confirming what we saw on tape against Wisconsin – their OL is not good. Neil Calloway has been hired to fix this. We wish you good luck against this Bama front, Neil.
- Did we mention that starting left tackle Chad Wheeler will not play in this game? He was 2nd team Pac-12 and was ranked as the fifth best senior left tackle. Losing his presence probably won’t help matters for USC on offense.
- Somehow, even with their porous offensive line, USC ranked 38th in total offense last year, 70th in rushing offense and 31st in passing offense. This should tell you that when their playmakers can get into space, they can make some serious hay.
- Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams have a friendly wager on which one of them ends up with the most sacks this season. FYI – Williams led the country in QB pressures last season while only playing part time. Allen and Williams have each set 28 sacks as their magic number – one more than Derrick Thomas’ single season record. USC’s line should help get them off to a mighty good start.
- Jeremy Pruitt thinks his defense will register more than the 53 sacks (which led the nation) they got last year.
Alabama on Defense – Final Thoughts
Jeremy Pruitt historically has been much more aggressive in his play calling than Kirby Smart but this may not be the game to show that off. Alabama’s front four should have their way with the USC line which means Pruitt can commit seven great athletes into pass coverage. Last season, Cody Kessler used his mobility to buy time and avoid the rush in order to make plays but Max Browne is not mobile and will not be able to avoid pressure nearly as well. Bama will trust their corners to match up with Jackson and Smith-Schuster so I’m sure USC will dial up a few deep shots to attack any one on one matchups. This will be fascinating to watch, assuming Browne will have enough time to deliver the mail.
Alabama on Special Teams
- Our “little birds” indicate that Adam Griffith is struggling once again in fall camp. This dude desperately needs to knock home a couple of chip shots in order to gain some much needed confidence. Grab the rosary beads or your favorite good book if Griffith is asked to make any meaningful kicks in the opener.
- To borrow a phrase from Steeler wide receiver Antonio Brown, JK Scott’s punts are “BOOMIN” once again in camp. The only question for Scott will be whether or not he can hit Jerry Jones’ fancy scoreboard hanging over the middle of the field (we say he can and he will).
- The USC Trojans will be trotting out a new kicker and a new punter and not much is known about either one. Could this be an opportunity to go for a punt block?
- The whole world knows about kick and punt returner Adoree Jackson and our message to Coach Saban is to just kick the ball away from him at every opportunity. Jackson averaged 23 yards per kick return last year and 10.5 yards per punt return and even returned two punts for touchdowns. FYI – it’s very unlikely Saban will heed our advice and Alabama will likely kick and punt to Jackson at will.
- Calvin Ridley is set to be Bama’s punt returner this year and we are betting that he quickly conjures up memories of Deuce Palmer. We do wish Coach Saban would use one of his more expendable options as a punt returner but rest assured Ridley will be electric this season!
- Ardarius Stewart and Trevon Diggs have been tabbed to return kicks this year. We are especially excited to see Diggs (who is apparently the backup punt returner as well) as he has been the talk of camp as a wide receiver, safety and returner. Apparently this kid can ball out!
Final Thoughts and Predictions
Both Clay Helton and Nick Saban will likely begin the game with conservative game plans that emphasize protecting the football. Neither coach knows exactly what they have at the QB position so the first few series will likely feature short, quick throws in an effort to calm some nerves at QB (and along the sidelines). Each team will likely attempt to run the football with some kind of consistency in the hopes of taking some of the burden off of their young QBs and we think Alabama will be more successful at this than USC.
Look for Alabama to start Bateman and early on they’ll likely call for short, easy throws and numerous zone reads and roll outs. However, when Barnett enters the game, the bet here is that he’ll come in with orders to stretch the Trojan defense vertically. Eventually, the zone reads and the RPOs will break down a USC defense that struggles to cover anyone in between the hashes and Alabama should begin to break away in the third quarter. Once the scoreboard tilts in Alabama’s direction, USC will have no other options and will have to put the game on Browne’s shoulders and, as we’ve discussed, new starting QBs have had ZERO success against Saban. We expect Browne to struggle mightily. Lane Kiffin should have a big smile and some warm handshakes for the USC coaching staff and administration after the game. Roll Tide and Hooray for Football!!!!
Final Score: Alabama 27 USC 13
You can follow me on Twitter @lneck25 – all Lighthouse posts are tweeted there.
*Run/Pass Options or RPOs
You’ll hear the term RPO quite a bit this season and, until they change the rules in college football, you’ll be hearing about how effective these plays can be.
A run/pass option is designed to put a single defensive player into conflict. Each defensive player has a gap assigned to them when playing the run. Likewise, he also has an assignment (man or zone) when the offense is dropping back to pass.
In the old days, defenders were taught to look for “high hats” which would indicate a pass. The high hats were the helmets of the offensive line as they stood up to assume a pass blocking stance. If the defenders saw no high hats or they saw linemen pulling, then they immediately played their run assignment.
The rules in college football allow linemen to run three yards down the field on passing plays. Offensive coordinators quickly discovered that they could utilize the same run blocking schemes for passing plays, making it nearly impossible for a defender to know which assignment he was supposed to follow.
The best example is the zone read RPO. At the snap, the line blocks down and/or pulls in an effort to open up a running lane. Meanwhile, the quarterback reads either the safety or the defensive end and, based on that read, decides if he’s going hand the ball off or if he’s going to keep the ball and throw it down the field.
The safeties and the linebackers are put into an impossible situation by this RPO. If they come up to play the run, they are vacating their coverage responsibilities and the quarterback will throw the football. However, if they play pass, then the quarterback will hand the ball off for a big gainer because the linebacker/safety did not come up to play their run fit gap.
So there you have a high level explanation of the RPO concept. Essentially, it creates a game in which the defenders simply cannot win. With a running QB, that actually adds a third level of complexity to the defense, making it all the more impossible to defend. Bama has three running QBs this season so look for zone reads and RPOs to play a significant role in the offense this season.