When a high school player commits to either Alabama or USC, they do so knowing if they have a halfway decent career, an opportunity to play in the NFL will surely follow. There might be more future NFL talent on the field in Saturday's matchup between the schools than any other nonconference game in college football this year. Yet, even with all that talent, a pair of receivers still manage to stand out. Alabama sophomore Calvin Ridley and USC junior JuJu Smith-Schuster combined for 178 catches, 2,499 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns last year and might be the two best receivers in the country.
ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough and Kyle Bonagura were asked were asked the following question: Who would rather have in Saturday's game, Ridley or Smith-Schuster?
Scarborough: I think Ridley is already one of the top receivers in the country. Just look at his burst, his speed, his hands. Go find the long catch he had before halftime of the SEC Championship Game and tell me he's not an elite talent. I'm not saying he's reached Amari Cooper status yet, but he's well on his way with more than 1,000 yards as a true freshman. With Lane Kiffin calling the shots, I'm interested to see how he evolves in the offense. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets more bubble screens and quick passes to let him pick up yards after the catch.
But with all that said, I'm not sure Ridley is going to outperform JuJu Smith-Schuster in this game. I'll let my colleague fill you in on his many exploits, but rest assured that there's a reason he's widely considered to be the top draft-eligible receiver in college football. I think his ability to go up and get the ball could present problems for Alabama's secondary (he's 6-foot-2 with plenty of hops).
However, my decision is based primarily on matchups, meaning that I don't see Ridley having a big game against Adoree' Jackson. Jackson, simply put, is one of the best athletes on the planet. Go find the video of him doing a backflip. Go find his long-jump numbers. The kid is talented. And the last time we saw Ridley go up against a top cornerback -- the national championship against Clemson and Mackenzie Alexander -- he only had six catches for 14 yards. I'm not saying Ridley will get shut down to that extent. Rather I'm guessing a seven-catch, 80-yard performance is what's in store for him.
Bonagura: If we were comparing these guys at the same stage of their careers, after their freshmen years, I would have sided with Ridley here. What he did as a true freshman was nothing short of brilliant. It's worth considering if the season he had -- catching 89 passes for more than 1,000 yards for a team that won the national title -- was the best season ever for a true freshman receiver.
Alas, this is about who we'd take right now and I'm convinced Smith-Schuster is the best receiver in college football -- and I've had that opinion since early last year. His combination of size, speed and strength is something usually reserved for Create-a-Player mode and I've yet to see a defensive player physically equipped to cover him alone. That includes practice where he regularly goes heads up with Jackson. While Jackson can run with him, Smith-Schuster takes full advantage of his three-inch and 35-pound advantage.
We're talking about a player who slowed down during a play last year, allowed one of the Pac-12's best corners to engage him and then tossed him in the air with one of the most vicious stiff-arms of the season.
Want toughness? Consider this: After breaking his hand against Cal last year, Smith-Schuster underwent surgery on a Monday, two days after the game, in which eight screws was interested into his hand. That week, he caught eight passes for 138 yards against Arizona despite wearing a soft cast in the game. The injury occurred with six games left in the season and he still finished the year with 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns.