It’s a debate that’s been simmering for years, and we’re finally closer to a boiling point. Pac-12 vs. SEC. How do the two conferences stack up? Does the SEC still deserve its lofty perch above the rest of the nation? Is the Pac-12 catching up? Perhaps the level of talent and competition on the West Coast is already there and it’s just the respect that’s missing. In past seasons these questions have gone unanswered. But on September 3rd, when USC lines up against Alabama, everything changes.
For years we’ve blasted the South Eastern Conference for their refusal to travel west and play teams from the Pac-12. It’s no secret that programs from the SEC pad their non-conference schedule with ‘cupcakes.’ Stanford’s David Shaw once said we “can write that -- cupcakes."
Even with the game against USC on the docket, Alabama has its fair share of inferior opponents. This fact was pointed out in a recent Colin Cowherd rant, when he accused both Alabama and Arkansas of manipulating their schedules by placing ‘cream puffs’ in between tougher teams, allowing them to conveniently rest their starters ahead of big games. Case in point: Following USC, Alabama plays Western Kentucky. They’ve also mixed in games with Kent State and Chattanooga. Yes, we call those cupcakes.
In the face of this long-standing tradition of ‘schedule-abuse,’ SEC coaches love to complain about how brutal their season is, scoffing at the idea any other league schedule compares to the that of the almighty SEC. Back in 2012, Nick Saban (in typical Nick Saban fashion) threw down just about everybody when he said ‘No disrespect to any conference, but there are conferences that are in the BCS that if they played in the SEC their champion may be in fourth or fifth place. ... No disrespect to anyone.’ Guess what, Nick? Plenty of disrespect taken.
So here we are. We’ve finally got what we’ve been asking for - a regular season contest between two elite teams from the top two conferences in College Football (sorry Big Ten, we’re not really worried about you right now). One is a hopeful contender from the Pac-12 South, the other a national champion. As the first game of the season, it’s been on everyone’s calendar for months.
During Pac-12 Media Days, Clay Helton expressed his excitement at the opportunity to take on the defending national champs, saying “I think it's given us a little bit of a kick-start in the summer and really has made our football team have a little chip on their shoulder.”
Despite all the hype, USC has managed to maintain a sense of calm during fall camp. Much of the local spotlight has been diverted to the arrival of the LA Rams. This suggests that the Trojans have had plenty of time to quietly prepare for their first opponent. Yet, one has to wonder, how will they react when they’re thrust onto center stage, under the bright lights of AT&T Stadium and the glare of a national audience?
The task for the Trojans is obviously a huge one. Alabama reinforced the notion of SEC superiority last season with its 4th national championship in the last seven seasons. And the Tide show no signs of slowing down, starting play with a firm grip on the number one ranking. Most pundits have them as the safe bet to repeat as champs with their spot in the College Football Playoff already reserved.
The road to the Playoff will no doubt be much tougher for USC and Head Coach Clay Helton. A loss to Alabama would be the Trojans 4th loss in the last five games under the new coach. While Helton led the Trojans to a Pac-12 South title, he came up short in the season’s final two showcases - a loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship followed by a disappointing defeat to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl. Helton clearly has the support of his players and most of the fan base, but questions still remain regarding his ability to win the big game. Saturday’s contest is as big as they come, and USC’s performance will likely be a reflection on how well Helton has prepared his squad.
It will also be trial by fire for new first-team quarterback Max Browne. Named the team’s starter just a week ago, he has yet to face anything like what he will see in Alabama’s defense. In the past two seasons as Cody Kessler’s backup, Browne threw only 19 passes.
The good news for Browne is that he’s surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast. USC comes in with the top ranked offensive line in the Pac-12. They also posses one of the nations’ best receivers in Juju Smith-Schuster. Tailbacks Ronald Jones and Justin Davis have redefined SC’s running game. And don’t forget about Heisman candidate Adoree Jackson. He should create plenty of problems for whoever Nick Saban decides to play at quarterback.
There’s something else slightly in favor of USC. Despite all that talk about SEC dominance, USC has the best record of any Pac-12 school against the SEC. In all-time competition, the Trojans are 22-11-1 against teams from the South East. According to SEC Football Online, only two other Pac-12 teams have winning records against the SEC – Stanford and UCLA. So, you’re telling me there’s a chance?
USC is no cream puff and Nick Saban knows it. His comments on the Dan Patrick Show suggested he might even be a little worried. “If you’re going to lose in college football,” said Saban, “the best time to lose is early on.”
Unfortunately for SC, there is no good time to lose. However, it wouldn’t be fair to call this game a must win. It’s more of a must-not-get-blown-out. The Trojans can survive a loss to Alabama if they make it a game. More important than winning will be showing they can compete at the same level.
The scoreboard on Saturday will show USC vs. Alabama - but it might as well read Pac-12 vs. SEC. That’s the game we’ll be watching - the Trojans battling for the respect of an entire conference. It raises the stakes early and leaves implications that will last throughout the season and beyond. USC has the tools to challenge the best in college football, and right now that’s Alabama. The question is, with only a week to go, will they be ready to do it?
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