The hype surrounding Saturday’s matchup between No. 1 Alabama and No. 20 USC has been cranked to another degree. All of the buzz surrounding this contest leads to one question, “Is this the biggest season opener in the history of USC football?”
To thoroughly answer this question, one must revisit some of the more memorable season-opening contests which the Trojans have played in the past. USC has had a tradition of performing well in season openers, and this remains true today — the Trojans have not lost a season opener in the last 17 years. Several defining moments in the program’s history have come during these season-opening match-ups, including:
1962: vs. Duke
In 1962, former USC Trojans head coach John McKay was entering his third season at the helm of the University’s football program. USC came away with a 14-7 victory over Duke. This victory would be the first of many for the Trojans in 1962, as the team would go on to win McKay’s first national title that season. Beyond starting the season 1-0, the victory was crucial in turning around McKay’s tenure as head coach. Over his first two seasons, McKay earned an 8-11-1 record. McKay finished his career as a legendary four-time national champion coach for the Trojans and producing two Heisman winners.
2003: at Auburn
The USC Trojans, then ranked No. 8, entered Jordan-Hare Stadium in Alabama to kick off their 2003 season against the then-No. 6 Auburn Tigers. USC would go on to dominate the game, shutting out the Tigers, 23-0. The contest also featured the debut of quarterback Matt Leinart as a starter. The first pass went for a 5-yard touchdown to former wide receiver Mike Williams.
The win for USC was the beginning of a 12-1 season for the Men of Troy in which they also won the first of two consecutive national championships. The decisive victory against a top-10 opponent also further confirmed that the Trojans’ run to the Orange Bowl in the 2002 season was by no means a fluke.
2004: at Virginia Tech
Following their 2003 national title season, USC entered 2004 ranked as the undisputed No. 1 team in the nation. The Trojans began their national title defense by defeating Virginia Tech 24-13 in a tough neutral site game.
In a contest in which they trailed 10-7 at halftime, USC powered back in the second half to earn its first win of 2004. A standout performance from former running back Reggie Bush — five receptions for 127 receiving yards — helped the Trojans outscore the Hokies 17-3 in the second half for the victory. Many consider this season’s opening contest against Virginia Tech the birth of the Reggie Bush era.
The Trojans dominated in 2004, winning their second consecutive national championship. USC went 13-0 and maintaining the No. 1 ranking all season long.
Saturday: vs. Alabama
This contest has all the potential to be the biggest season opener in USC football history — if the Trojans can come away with a win. Should No. 20 USC pick up the victory against the Crimson Tide, the team would instantly find itself in talks for a berth for the College Football Playoff. One could hardly imagine a more ideal start to the Clay Helton era should USC come out on top. If redshirt junior quarterback Max Browne can leave AT&T Stadium with a win Saturday, it will only further affirm Helton’s decision to grant him the starting role. The verdict: USC will play its biggest season opener this Saturday.
Hype-wise, it is safe to say the promotion and build up behind Saturday’s contest has been the loudest of any USC openers in recent history.
From a national perspective, spectators will expect this contest to be a case of Alabama flexing its muscles all over a USC team that is coming off of a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl in 2015 and has a new head coach and quarterback. This game has been projected by many as nothing more than an early season tune-up for the Tide against a ranked opponent.
However, from the USC perspective, so much could ride on this contest with a victory. While a season-opening loss to the reigning national champions would not alter the college football world, a victory over Alabama would launch USC to the front lines of national title discussion.