With the leaves just beginning to turn and an autumn chill in the air, the college football season is now upon us. And as has been the case in four of nine seasons under head coach Nick Saban, the Alabama Crimson Tide enter the year as defending national champions.
Naturally holding the top ranking after their fourth title in a seven-year stretch, Alabama bucks the opening week trend of playing a patsy to take on 20th-ranked USC on Saturday, September 3rd.
The game will take place on a neutral field – at 7 p.m. eastern standard time at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas – but even if it were played in Los Angeles, the Crimson Tide would likely hold the same status as double-digit favorites over the Trojans.
After rolling through the nation’s top conference (7-1 in SEC play) to compile a stellar 14-1 record, Alabama will see five starters return to lead a defense which surrendered 17 points or fewer in all but three of its games. The Crimson Tide are favored by 11.5 points over USC at the Bovada sportsbook.
Coming off of a disappointing 2015 campaign – in which the Trojans went 8-6 in their first year removed from sanctions while firing head coach Steve Sarkisian after only five games – USC will face its first test against an SEC squad since 2006. Similarly, Saturday’s evening affair marks Alabama’s first matchup with a Pac-12 (formerly the Pac-10) team since 2001.
It is worth noting that although the SEC holds a winning record (15-13) vs. the west coast’s major conference over the last 18 seasons, Pac-12 teams are 16-9-3 against the spread over that span. In other words, Pac-12 teams are known for exceeding national expectations when facing the superior talent offered by an SEC roster.
Another perennial SEC powerhouse will open the year away from home, as the 5th-ranked LSU Tigers travel to Wisconsin to take on the unranked Badgers at Lambeau Field. As 10-point favorites at Bovada, LSU and head coach Les Miles will be looking to keep pace with Alabama until the two teams face off on November 5th.
The Tigers will feature Leonard Fournette at running back, as the junior begins his Heisman Trophy hunt following his incredible 2015 season. Last year Fournette rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns in exactly 300 carries, nearly topping eventual Heisman winner Derrick Henry of Alabama, who needed 395 carries to amass 2,219 yards and 28 TDs.
Fournette will face a formidable Wisconsin defense, one which ranked second in all of college football in terms of total defense last season. The Badgers were particularly stout against the run, surrendering just 95.4 rushing yards per game for the fourth-lowest total in the nation.
In a matchup featuring a pair of ranked teams, the 3rd-ranked Oklahoma Sooners (-11) tangle with the 15th-ranked Houston Cougars in a contest between two high-flying aerial attacks.
Last year the Cougars dominated the American Athletic Conference (AAC), finishing 7-1 in conference play before winning the AAC Championship Game, and even notching a signature win against Florida State in the Peach Bowl to cap a 13-1 season.
Oklahoma also compiled a one-loss regular season last year, winning the Big 12 before being blown out by Clemson in the National Championship semifinal round.
With both teams opting to air it out more often than not, this game should be defined by the play of the defensive secondary. In that regard, advantage goes to the Sooners, who have All-Conference defensive backs Jordan Thomas and Steven Parker returning to the fold, while Houston will be forced to juggle three new pieces among its secondary.