The USC Trojans have been hyped as college football’s best team (including by yours truly), and with good reason. The Trojans have the nation’s best quarterback, senior Matt Barkley, and a team loaded with tremendous talent on both sides of the ball.
It has become clear, however, that if the Trojans are going to finish the season where they started, which is at the top of the rankings, they are likely going to have to go through the team who finished at the top last season. That team is the defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide, who made college football’s first big statement on Saturday night with a 41-14 rout of the Michigan Wolverines.
The Wolverines came into the game ranked eighth in the nation in both the Associated Press media poll and USA Today coaches’ poll, and were expected to keep it close against the Crimson Tide, who lost considerable talent from the 2011 championship team, including five players selected in the top 35 of the 2012 NFL draft.
Instead, the Crimson Tide made the Wolverines look like they had no place even being on the same field. The Crimson Tide scored 31 points before the first half was over, while they stifled quarterback Denard Robinson for most of the game, allowing just 27 yards to the usually-prolific running quarterback.
Running back Trent Richardson, strong safety Mark Barron, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower and outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw are the five top-35 draft picks who Alabama lost, and all of their talents will be missed. The Crimson Tide are still fantastic, however, because they have been able to fill all of those holes right away.
True freshman T.J. Yeldon is emerging as an immediate star at running back, with 111 yards in his first game. In the secondary, sophomore safety Vinnie Sunseri stepped up for a great showing in his first start replacing Barron, while junior cornerback Dee Milliner is already challenging for the notion of being the nation’s best cornerback after defending five passes versus Michigan.
The linebacker corps has also held up very strong. Junior linebacker C.J. Mosley emerged as the unit’s new star tonight with six tackles and an interception returned for a touchdown, while sophomore linebacker Trey DePriest was also impressive.
As a result of filling the voids created by those departures, the Crimson Tide have reloaded a roster that looks as deep as any in the nation.
Junior AJ McCarron has returned from last year’s national championship team as the starting quarterback, and he certainly still has weapons to work with. While Richardson is gone, the Tide could have a three-headed monster at running back between Yeldon and juniors Jalston Fowler and Eddie Lacy.
Another huge asset for the Tide’s offense is their offensive line, which may very well be the best in the nation. Both of their offensive tackles, sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio and junior D.J. Fluker, are likely future first- or second-round NFL draft picks. Inside, they have the nation’s best left guard, senior Chance Warmack, along with an incredibly versatile lineman, Barrett Jones, who is starting at center after being an All-American left tackle for last season’s national championship team.
Of course, Alabama won last year’s national championship behind a defense that led the nation in both total defense and scoring defense, and shut out LSU in the BCS National Championship Game. By holding Michigan, an offense that averaged 33.3 points per game and 404.7 yards per game in 2011, to just 14 points and 269 yards on Saturday, it certainly appears that Alabama could have the nation’s best defense again.
Even with the loss of four superstars on that side of the ball, the Tide still have an incredibly talented defense. Senior Damion Square leads a defensive line that can give opposing offensive lines fits, while Mosley, DePriest and senior Nico Johnson are all standout linebackers. Milliner, Sunseri and senior free safety Robert Lester lead an Alabama secondary that will make the lives of opposing wideouts very difficult.
With all of this said, I am not changing my pick for a national champion: I still believe confidently that Barkley, wide receivers Marquise Lee and Robert Woods, and a talent-laden defense can lead USC to the title.
Alabama, however, has displayed that they are more than capable of defending their national championship, and after a season-opening dominant performance, they deserve to hold the top spot in the rankings until someone can defeat them.
Head coach Nick Saban is both an incredible teacher of the game of football and a fantastic recruiter. Saban’s skills have shone through immediately this season, as he has brought in the talent necessary to seamlessly replace outgoing players, and integrated players like Yeldon into roles where they contribute immediately.
As long as the Crimson Tide have Saban as their coach, they will also be a tough team to beat, and for this year, it looks like they are going to be a formidable matchup for the rest of the nation once again.
Dan Hope is the Patriots game-day correspondent, an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report and a regular viewer of college football games every Saturday. For live analysis of the best college football teams and players every weekend, follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.