Meeting of the Minds: Which of the big three falls short?

Nick Saban-aday
How close is Slick Nick from falling off a cliff in 2012?

We’ve wrapped up our preseason top 10 countdown, as well as profiling a few teams that just barely missed the cut. Like many of the pundits and prognosticators, we arrived at a consensus triumvirate of LSU, Alabama and USC as the cream of the crop.

Nothing in college football ever works according to plan, of course. A year ago, we had Oklahoma as our No. 1 team, and everyone saw how that turned out.

If one of our top three is going to underpeform expectations, which would it be and why?

Andrew Coppens: I’ve got to go with Alabama because of all the losses on the defensive side of the ball. The Crimson Tide lost the vast majority of starters, and I don’t care how good the replacements are, there will be an adjustment period that could have them losing a game or two that we don’t see right now.

Michael Felder: If a team is to “fall short,” it’s going to be USC. Bama has depth. LSU has depth. USC has no depth. None.

Robert Woods still isn’t 100 percent, they’re a bad fall away from having to play Cody Kessler or Max Wittek and the defense is great until they get tired in the fourth quarter. Depth matters, and when you don’t have any, hanging on at the ends of games is an adventure to say the least.

David Purdum: LSU. Can a team really keep winning at the level the Tigers have been with subpar QB play? New LSU QB Zach Mettenberger, who played against small-school competition in high school, made bad decisions at Georgia. Maybe he’s matured, but you have to wonder why Les Miles is so fixated on Gunner Kiel if he has full confidence in Mettenberger.

Aaron Torres: I’ve talked to people very close to the USC program who admit themselves that USC is a little bit overhyped right now. Mike already touched on the non-existent depth and Robert Woods, but beyond that, I’ve got to ask, did anyone actually watch this team last year?

Were the Trojans good? Of course, and definitely the most improved team in college football from September to December. Still, this was a team that had to escape against Minnesota and Utah early and needed a missed field goal at the end of regulation to survive at Oregon in Eugene. Granted, that’s still a monumental feat. But just as easily as this team finished 10-2, it could’ve been 7-5. Would the Trojans be in anyone’s top three if that were the case? If they went 8-4, would they be the unanimous No. 1? I doubt it.

And really, the turning point in their season came in the win at Notre Dame in a game where – Ty can attest – Notre Dame was driving in for a tying score late in the third quarter before Dayne Crist coughed up the ball and it was returned 90-some yards by Jawanza Starling. If Notre Dame punches it in there (again, from within the red zone), who knows how USC’s season turns out. Instead, it was a 14-point swing and ‘SC never looked back.

Look, is this team solid? Yes. Does it deserve a top three ranking? I can’t think of anyone other than Oregon you could argue should be ahead of ‘SC. But should the Trojans be the overwhelming favorite that the general college football public is making them out to be? Not a chance.

Lane_KiffinTy Hildenbrandt: Hey, did someone mention Notre Dame?

The only answer here is USC. There’s not even a question in my mind that the answer is USC. Why? Michael hit it on the nose: depth. I’m most curious to see how Monte Kiffin’s defense responds to an offensively diverse Pac-12, especially in a year when everyone will be gunning for the Trojans. Though USC’s defensive front will undoubtedly be solid by season’s end, there’s just not enough experience there, initially, for me to not answer USC.

You can say what you want about LSU’s questions at quarterback, but I think we’d all agree that Mettenberger can’t be any worse than Jarrett Lee or Jordan Jefferson. Hell, LSU doesn’t even need a quarterback with the defense it’s bringing back. And you can wax poetic about Alabama’s losses on defense, but you’re really just splitting hairs when you consider that Saban has a top 10 defense every season. Plus, with the experience Bama returns along its offensive line, you just know Saban will pound away with Eddie Lacy and minimize his risks by playing to his strengths.

Kevin McGuire: I am also going to suggest that USC is the most likely to fall shy of expectations between the three, but keep in mind that does not mean I expect another all-SEC BCS title game.

I think the problem with the Trojans is that we are all hyped up to see them once again compete for a BCS title, and that excitement easily gets carried away. USC is coming off two years of probation and a postseason ban, so the Trojans’ return to national significance is huge this season, and we all want to see USC play meaningful games.

But, as Michael pointed out, of the three teams in this discussion, the Trojans have the most depth concerns to worry about. If Matt Barkley goes down or Robert Woods is hindered, do the Trojans have enough options to keep things moving against Oregon or Stanford? What about some of the new coaches in the conference, especially within the Pac-12 South? Lane Kiffin has proven to be a good coach, but now the thinking that will go into the coaching match-ups just became a little more difficult as well. I don’t think we should look past that.

Andrew Coppens: You are all pointing to USC’s depth and you are also making my point, too. Bama has no depth on the defense either. Behind the guys starting there is no one with any experience at all. Just because you recruit talent doesn’t mean they can all play. (Texas anyone?)

Does anyone remember 2010 at all? How’d that work out for the Tide? Last time I checked that wasn’t a spectacular season in Tuscaloosa.

Michael Felder: That’s a patently false statement about Alabama. There’s a difference between “I haven’t heard of the next guys on the depth chart” and “they have no depth.” And let’s get one thing straight, Nick Saban is not the same laissez faire coach that Mack Brown is where development is concerned. Tana Patrick, CJ Mosley and Jonathan Atchison are linebackers with experience who should be starting, except they have better guys ahead of them. Nick Perry has played good snaps as the roaming back-up safety to both Vinnie Sunseri and Robert Lester. Up front they have a couple of bodies on defense who have seen considerable snaps in the rotation.

Big difference between not knowing the guys and not having any guys. USC has legitimate issues with depth. Alabama has guys who have played that you haven’t heard of.

As for 2010, you mean the defense that gave up 13.5 points a game? The defense that held Arkansas to 16 points below its season average? The defense that honestly played one bad game against South Carolina, thanks largely in part to Stephen Garcia playing lights out along with Alshon Jeffrey and Marcus Lattimore. Depth isn’t why Alabama lost to LSU and Auburn. Experience isn’t why the Crimson Tide lost to LSU and Auburn. They lost to LSU and Auburn because the run-pass dynamic of a mobile quarterback paralyzes a defense that’s rooted in rules, and Bama has struggled with that type of quarterback dating back to 2008’s SEC title game.

Kevin McGuire: Nick Saban doesn’t rebuild. He reloads.

Ty Hildenbrandt: Guns don’t kill people. Michael Felder kills people.

Andrew Coppens: While you make a good point Michael about not knowing names being different than not having depth, I still believe having to move SIX guys up the depth chart does hurt the overall depth on the team. You can’t argue there should and will be consistency issues defensively, and the Tide take in a schedule that could very well doom them early. They have Michigan, and then three of the next four SEC games on the road against Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee. All could create issues for that rigid defense you talked about because of how they play offense.

I’d say that road slate is a lot harder than LSU’s of at Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas.

So, looking at that alone, I say it’s much more likely for Bama to trip up than LSU.


Dave Singleton: While you do make a good point that having to move six guys up the depth chart can hurt the overall depth of a team, at least Alabama HAS six guys to move up the depth chart in the first place. USC is down 10 scholarship bodies, so they are simply thinner. And I think the absence of scholarship level players is going to be more damning than having to fill gaps with guys who might not be consistent. There’s a reason Matt Barkley was lightly used in spring; if something had happened to him, they were going to be in trouble. It’s why Lane Kiffin is going to go through this season holding his breath every single time someone is slow to get up from a hit or starts to get a hitch in his stride.

Injuries are a part of the game and we are all aware of this. No one wants them and everyone has to deal with them. But USC has such a razor thin margin of error/injury they are the most likely to fall short of expectations. Even though LSU and Alabama have flaws as well, I think the flaws of youth and inexperience on defense (Alabama) and the uncertainty and QB (LSU) can be better dealt with by those coaching staffs.


Aaron Torres: I think the whole “will Matt Barkley get hurt” thing is one of the most overblown hypotheticals in recent college football memory. Why not just ask “what happens if a piano falls on Les Miles’ head?” The truth is that while injuries do happen, Barkley is almost impervious to taking sacks (unlike, say, a Tyler Wilson, who literally got knocked down on every play last year). If he were to miss time, it’d be because of the freakiest of all freak injuries. Barkley will be fine.

Honestly, though, if we’re worried about key injuries to one player, how about at running back? For all the talk about “what happens if Matt Barkley gets hurt” I think a better question might be “what happens if Curtis McNeal gets hurt?” Given that one of his back-ups transferred (Amir Carlisle) and another is out for the season (Tre Maddon), we are one very easy-to-conceive-of play from either a redshirt freshman or true freshman getting the bulk of this team’s carries. As good as Barkley is, he only truly became effective when the running game got going with McNeal last year. McNeal needs to stay on the field.

If you told me one of these teams ended up with say, an 8-4 or 9-3 record, there’d be no doubt it was USC.

Dave Singleton: Because I do view running backs to be fungible for the most part. If a true frosh had to tote the rock he can carry the ball. His blocking would worry be. But for most teams the QB is not as easily replaced. I don’t consider it to be an overhyped question to consider the possibility of a 4 year starter being hurt.

Of course if you’d like I’ll rephrase: what happens if/when a couple of O-linemen go down?

Consider my use of Barkley as a proxy for the larger concept of injuries to key players being the biggest determiner of success or failure for the 2012 Trojans.

Allen Kenney: I’m disappointed, fellas. Only one of you got the right answer.

USC’s depth is worrisome, sure. I don’t think the Trojan D is all it’s cracked up to be, either.

But take a look at that schedule. Aside from Oregon, the Trojans should have a major edge on every team that takes the field against them, especially in what looks like a down year across the Pac-12. That makes the depth issues a little less of an issue.

The proper response is LSU. The Tigers have a brutal schedule. They do get Alabama in Baton Rouge, but consider the road games: Auburn, Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M. With an unknown at quarterback, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Tigers underperform expectations.