In less than four months, the University of Southern California Trojans Football Team are scheduled to open their 2020 season against 17-time National Champion Alabama.
As of today, USC is a 14-point underdog, and many believe it should be higher than that. In 2016, when the two teams met to open the season, the Crimson Tide rolled over the Trojans in a 52-6 rout.
At the time, Alabama was ranked No. 1 in the country, and the Trojans were ranked No. 17. Entering this season, Alabama is ranked No. 4 and the Trojans are ranked No. 13, according to the FPI poll. Unlike their matchup in 2016, USC has an incumbent quarterback in Kedon Slovis who is a preseason Heisman trophy candidate. Arguably, the Trojans should have a better chance against Alabama in 2020, than they did four years prior.
Newly appointed Athletic Director Mike Bohn certainly sees it that way, and is incredibly optimistic that the upset-minded Trojans can take down the behemoth that is Nick Saban and Alabama if given the opportunity.
"I'm very optimistic, and I'm looking forward to that," Bohn told NBC LA via a Zoom conference call last week. "I just hope and pray like the rest of the country that we can play college football."
To Bohn's point, the biggest obstacle preventing the Trojans from upsetting Alabama is whether or not the game will be played at all.
Currently, as the COVID-19 pandemic cripples the country and sidelines sports, college football is seen as one of the biggest underlining question marks when it comes to a return.
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The UFC has already returned from a two-month hiatus without fans. Major League Baseball is set to make a proposal to the MLBPA for an 82-game shortened season on Tuesday. The National Basketball Association has two separate single-site scenarios on the table for a return. The National Football League is moving forward as scheduled, but has a number of contingency plans in place in the event the season has to be postponed or played without fans.
However, college football is in a completely different boat than any of those aforementioned sports leagues. The biggest caveat in the return of college football is the fact that the sport itself is tied to universities and education. Most campuses across the country closed in March, and went entirely online. As of May, it is unknown if they will reopen again in the fall.
Many university presidents have already said that if their school is not open, that they will not be participating in college football. That includes a majority of the schools in the Big East conference, where that part of the country has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus.
Other parts of the country have seen less COVID-19 cases and deaths, and those states and conferences have already outlined the case for college football to be played in those areas with or without other conferences in conjunction.
On Monday, the Pac-12 conference, where the USC Trojans are currently the highest ranked team in the preseason FPI rankings, have already discussed playing a season against only other Pac-12 schools. In that scenario, USC would likely open the season against Stanford on Sept. 19, and not against Alabama.
"It's been discussed in our Pac-12 meetings, and it's been discussed by the commissioners," said USC Trojans head football coach Clay Helton on a video conference call with Stanford head coach David Shaw and others. "That is one of the structures under discussion, depending on where we are at six to eight weeks from now. Those are viable discussions and it has been brought up in our meetings."
Bohn has been privy to those internal discussions, as well as meetings with the president of the university and various health officials. Bohn is open to any scenario if it means the safe return of sports and the student athletes. However, ideally, he would want to open the season against Alabama.
"If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best," Bohn said of the matchup with the Crimson Tide. "Alabama is obviously an elite level of competition and I think it's a tremendous stage for us. I'm thrilled to play them in the opening game. We're going to learn a lot from it."
Bohn is correct, that if the Trojans want to return to the National Championship stage, they will need to prove they can play and beat the best teams in the country on a regular basis. However, under the current structure of a four-team playoff, where one or two losses can derail any and all playoff hopes, the Trojans likely stand a better chance of finishing the season ranked in the top four if they play an entirely Pac-12 conference schedule.
It behooves the Trojans to beat up on their own conference where an 11-0 or 10-1 season could return the program to the national stage. Whereas if the Alabama game is played as scheduled, it's possible the Trojans could be staring at an 0-1 start to the season with a full slate of Pac-12 opponents still on their schedule.