As always, the SEC is going to be a challenge to wade through and Alabama has one of the toughest roads—literally—as the Crimson Tide's most difficult games are all on the road: Michigan (in Dallas), Arkansas and LSU.
Bama returns 13 starters, seven on offense, including quarterback A.J. McCarron and last year's Outland Trophy winner, center Barrett Jones. Many argue that the secondary will be the weakest link, having lost Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron.
Despite its perennial success, Alabama will have an even larger target on its back this season being reigning national champions. Everyone is going to want a piece of them, even FCS opponent Western Carolina (Nov. 17).
After winning the national championship in 2009, Alabama went 10-3 the following season, with the losses coming to three ranked SEC opponents.
To avoid any sort of national championship hangover this year, Nick Saban has already had some words with his returning squad.
He recently told SECSports.com that just two days after the national championship game in January, he had a meeting with next year's team and told them, "You guys are not national champions, you haven't done anything…that team that won is gone and you will be a target for every team we play and you need to get ready to know that you are going to get everyone's best game…"
Here's what the path looks like for Alabama to get the chance to defend its national title in Miami on Jan. 7:
Sept. 1: vs. Michigan in Dallas (Cowboys Stadium)—Last season Michigan went 11-2 and beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. The Wolverines have one of the most blazing offenses in the country, led by slippery quarterback Denard Robinson and speedy running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. The two storied programs will kickoff primetime (7 p.m. CT) on ABC. Keep in mind this is a first game of the season, so who knows what type of game we're going to get. It will be exciting nonetheless.
Sept. 15: at Arkansas—The Razorbacks finished last season 11-2 and return 13 starters and two Heisman contenders in running back Knile Davis and quarterback Tyler Wilson. Last year the Tide annihilated a then-No. 5 Arkansas team, 38-14. But this year, with the game in Fayetteville, being the teams' first SEC matchup and Davis and Wilson leading what's probably a pre-season Top 10 crew, this game will likely have season-long implications in the SEC and nationally.
Nov. 3: at LSU—Does it even need to be said? This is the biggest game of the 2012 season…unless one of these teams loses before the matchup, which in all honesty, could happen (Alabama at Arkansas? LSU at Florida?). The game is at Tiger Stadium. At night. And LSU is hungry for revenge. New starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, a JUCO transfer who watched from the sideline last year as Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson took the snaps, has the weight of the world on his shoulders. The Tigers also have a loaded defense, led by Tyran Matthieu. Of note, the Tide has lost four of their last six at Tiger Stadium.
Oct. 13: at Missouri—The Tigers might have done better than 8-5 last year if tailback Henry Josey hadn't gone down with a nasty season-ending knee injury. It's unknown if he'll play in 2012 (he was recovering from a torn patellar tendon and meniscus before tearing his ACL in 2011). But even without him, Mizzou has under-the-radar quarterback James Franklin, senior wideout T.J. Moe, the nation's No. 1 overall recruit in the 2012 class in receiver Dorial Green-Beckham and 11 returning starters, all of whom are upper classmen.
Game of intrigue:
Nov. 10: vs. Texas A&M—The Aggies can talk the talk and leave the Big 12 behind, but can they walk the walk now that they're in the SEC? Texas A&M has a brand new coaching staff (head coach is Kevin Sumlin from Houston) and quarterback (good-bye to Ryan Tannehill, hello Jameill Showers), but return veteran offensive and defensive lines. It will be interesting to see what kind of fight A&M can put up in Tuscaloosa. Before facing Bama toward the end of the year, the Aggies will have played Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Auburn, so they could be fairly ragged and ripe for the Tide's picking.
Sept. 8: vs. Western Kentucky, Sept. 22 vs. Florida Atlantic, Nov. 17 vs. Western Carolina—While Alabama was off winning its second national championship in three years last season, these three teams combined to go 9-26. These non-conference opponents are nothing to scoff at though—remember when Georgia Southern gave Alabama a bit of a scare with their triple option last November?—but even so, cushy games provide decent recovery for the Tide.
Overall analysis:The schedule could have been worse, liking having to play Florida and South Carolina instead of Missouri and Tennessee in the SEC East. Alabama only faces three 10-win teams from 2011, but all three (Michigan, Arkansas and LSU) are on the road. The Tide must win the games they're supposed to win and leave no room for error. Different betting sites have Alabama beating Michigan, but that first game is no breeze.
Two weeks later, the Tide must travel to Arkansas, but they don't have that long of lunch break afterward—in between the trip to Fayetteville and Baton Rouge, Bama will face Florida Atlantic, Ole Miss, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi State, with road trips to Columbia and Knoxville.
It will be interesting to see how SEC newbies Missouri and Texas A&M fare against the reigning national champs. Those two definitely come into the nation's best football conference as underdogs, but even so, they're not to be overlooked. That said, Alabama has a tough road schedule and a winnable home one. It will be a hearty test to see if the Tide can make it 8-0 when Nov. 3 comes along.
To view Alabama's full schedule, click here.
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