Alabama and Nick Saban opens the 2013 season in the midst of a Playstation-like run.
Only Saban does it without the benefit of a reset button.
The national storyline has started the same for the past several years: Will anyone derail the runaway national championship train that has become the SEC?
The storyline within the league is simpler: Which challenger has the best chance to dethrone Alabama?
The Crimson Tide seems likely to open as preseason No. 1 after having won three out of four BCS National Championships. Saban can talk all he wants about his players being too comfortable. Chances are the nation’s best coach will find ways to make them, shall we say, less comfortable.
That said, the list of Alabama’s challengers isn’t short on quantity or quality.
Georgia played the Tide to within 5 yards – and possibly one snap – of the SEC Championship in Atlanta last year. The Bulldogs also return QB Aaron Murray for his senior season.
Alabama’s lone 2012 loss came to Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Well, Johnny Football is back intent on penning another brilliant chapter and the Aggies get the Tide at Kyle Field this time. Texas A&M returns the bulk of the team, though it must reshuffle an offensive line after watching star T Luke Joeckel go No. 2 overall in the NFL Draft.
The LSU-Alabama game has morphed into one of the nation’s most anticipated contests on an annual basis. While the Tigers sometimes lack consistency – specifically QB Zach Mettenberger and a surprisingly drop-happy receiving corps – they certainly possess the talent and dominant defense to take down the Crimson Tide.
That’s not even to mention SEC darkhorses South Carolina and Florida – both of whom won 11 games last year and return enough talent to make a run at double-digit regular-season wins again.
Neither team gets a regular-season shot at the Crimson Tide. Those honors from the East instead go to annual rival Tennessee and Kentucky, meaning Alabama doesn’t exactly get the division’s best shots.
The Gamecocks have proven in each of the past two seasons that they can still win in Life After Marcus Lattimore. QB Connor Shaw can do a little bit of everything and South Carolina might actually have a healthy tailback or two in 2013. Oh, and there’s the matter of The Most Dominant Player in the Nation, DE Jadeveon Clowney. Michelangelo painted his masterpiece last year during the Outback Bowl win over Michigan. Now the 6-foot-7-yet-freakishly-athletic behemoth comes back for what has to be his final season in college before wreaking havoc on NFL quarterbacks.
Florida, meanwhile, took a significant step forward during Will Muschamp’s second year as head coach. It was such a leap, in fact, that many will wonder entering the year whether this year’s Gators team can live up to last year’s success. The defense dropped some star power after losing S Matt Elam, DT Sharrif Floyd and LB Jelani Jenkins, but Muschamp has a way to get the most out of that side of the ball. Questions surround QB Jeff Driskel and an offense that flourished exclusively when it handed the ball off frequently.
While those five teams represent the biggest threats to Alabama, it should be noted that nobody saw Texas A&M coming last year.
For now, though, everyone is chasing an Alabama team that returns QB A.J. McCarron. The offensive line will be restructured after losing three starters from last year’s title team. Of course, restocking is a little easier when your worst signings are high-caliber four-star recruits. RB T.J. Yeldon could easily find himself in the Heisman Trophy race this year and WR Amari Cooper proved to be a superstar as a freshman.
The Crimson Tide will also feature a revamped defense under Kirby Smart. We saw that last year, though. Alabama didn’t exactly struggle, even from the start.
Saban already finds himself drawing additional comparisons to Bear Bryant – the gold standard of college coaches – by the year. A third consecutive BCS National Championship would give him five in his career and would only enhance his position in the league of his own.