What If: 2004 USC vs 2009 Alabama

The 2020 College Football seasons officially kicks off the FBS schedule on Labor Day weekend. One of the originally scheduled big-time games was Alabama vs USC.

Even though USC hasn’t been on the same level that Alabama is on now, the matchup still carries big game appeal because of the names of the schools. But unfortunately this game was cancelled because SEC will not play out-of-conference games and the PAC-12 will not play any games in 2020.

Even though this game is cancelled, it’s still fun to think about the history of these two schools and what might have happened if their prime teams faced each other.

So, what if? What if USC’s most recent championship team (2004) took on the only Alabama undefeated team (2009) of the Nick Saban era?

I would have loved to season Pete Carroll’s offense, led by QB Matt Leinart and RB Reggie Bush, go up against Nick Saban’s defense, led by LB Rolando McClain and S Mark Barron.

History of USC vs Alabama

9/5/2020 was supposed to be the 9th meeting between the two schools – Alabama has won 6 of the 8 all-time matchups.

Their most recent game was week 1 of the 2016 season, when Alabama won 52-6.

Alabama is 2-0 in bowl games, winning the 1985 Aloha Bowl and the 1946 Rose Bowl.

Both USC wins came in the ’70s (1970 and 1978).

About 2009 Alabama

According to Athlon Sports, 2009 was Nick Saban’s best team at Alabama. That team went 14-0 and produced 16 NFL draft picks. It was Alabama’s first undefeated season (and only one under Saban) since 1992 and the 11th in school history.


Defensive rankings

  • Points allowed – 2nd (11.7 ppg)
  • Passing yards allowed – 10th (166 ypg)
  • Rushing yards allowed – 2nd (78.1 ypg)
  • Rushing TDs allowed – T-1st (0.4 per game)
  • Total offense – 2nd (244 yards per game
  • Interceptions – T-2nd (1.7 INT per game)

Defensive stars

  • LB Rolando McClain led the team with 105 tackles and had 14.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 2 INTS
  • S Mark Barron recorded 76 tackles and a team-high 7 INT
  • CB Javier Arenas had 71 tackles, 5 INT
  • LB Eryk Anders had 66 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks
  • DT Marcel Dareus had 6.5 sacks


  • Offense was carried by the running game, led by 2009 Heisman Trophy winning RB Mark Ingram, who ran for 1,658 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and 17 touchdowns, plus 334 yards and 4 TDs receiving. RB2 Trent Richardson ran for 751 yards and 8 TDs.
  • Greg McElroy wasn’t a star quarterback, but he was more than enough, completing 60.9% of his passes while throwing only 4 interceptions and 17 total touchdowns.
  • Sophomore Julio Jones led the team in every receiving category – TDs (4), receptions (43), yards (596).

About 2009 USC

2004 USC won the National Championship, going 13-0. It was the Trojans’ first undefeated season since 1979 and the 9th in school history.

Note – 2005 team was far superior offensively (2004 averaged 38 ppg, 2005 averaged 49 ppg). However, I am going with the unbeaten National Champs.


Offense averaged 38 ppg (6th in country).

  • QB Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy. He finished 8th in overall passing yards (3,322), 4th in pass TDs (33) and threw only 6 interceptions.
  • Like Alabama, the running game was dominant and was a two-headed attack. LenDale White ran for 1,103 yards and 15 TDs and Reggie Bush ran for 908 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and 6 TD and also had 509 yards and 6 TDs receiving.
  • WR Dwayne Jarrett had the 5th most TD catches in FBS with 13 to go with 849 yards.


USC allowed 13 ppg (3rd in country and ranked 6th in total defense, allowing just 279.3 yards per game and led the country in turnovers per game (2.9).

  • LB Lofa Tatupu led the team with 92 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, 3 INT
  • LB Matt Grootegoed had 61 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss and a team-leading 4 INT
  • DT Shaun Cody led the team with 9 sacks
  • DL Mike Patterson led the team with 16 tackles for a loss and also had 6 sacks

Coaching comparison

Pete CarrollNick Saban 
Year 1  6-67-6
Year 2 11-2 12-2
Bowl record 6-2 12 -5
Overall win %83.686.8
National Championships15

WHAT IF they did play?

Using WhatIfSports college football sim matchup feature, I simulated 2009 USC vs 2004 Alabama 100 times. The simulation tool is based on statistical analysis.

Total victories: Alabama 54; USC 46

Average score: 27-25 Alabama

Sample box score

Note – it’s not possible to create an average box score, so I’m using this as a sample.

If you have to choose between USC’s great offense between 2004 and 2005 or Nick Saban’s always outstanding defensive unit – which one would YOU choose?

Mike is a member of the FWAA (Football Writers Association of America) and an alum of the University of Cincinnati.

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