These five will make (or break) Crimson Tide

Is it just me, or does the college football off-season always seem longest right at the end? But I come to you as the bearer of good news. Your wait for the true beginning of the Nick Saban era at Alabama is nearly over.

After almost a month of talking about closed scrimmages, "thud" practices and police reports, we're finally getting close to seeing some honest-to-goodness Crimson Tide football (we're nine days away at this writing). Sounds like this might be a good time to try to examine what kind of season as a whole Alabama fans might have to look forward to.

For the moment, I'll skip past next Saturday's season-opener with Western Carolina and every national pundit's favorite early-season upset pick, the Week 2 road game at Vanderbilt. If Alabama doesn't win those two games handily, we're going to have to sit back and re-evaluate this season before it really even gets started.

By the way, I considered calling this list "Five Alabama Games to Watch this Season," but if you frequent this site, I'd expect that you're going to watch them all in one form or another.

Instead, I give you "Five Games that Will Make or Break Alabama's 2007 Season":

Sept. 15: Arkansas, Bryant-Denny Stadium

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself (lest I have nothing to write about in four weeks), but suffice it to say that the Crimson Tide always learns a lot about what kind of team it has when it plays the Razorbacks.

Going all the way back to the Gene Stallings era (which may not seem like that long to some of you, but it was actually five head coaches ago), Alabama generally enjoys a fine season when it beats the Razorbacks and a disappointing one when it loses to the Hogs.

The Razorbacks return a lot of offensive skill-position and front-seven defensive talent, but will be thin in the offensive front and defensive backfield. Arkansas also had a tumultuous offseason (and that's putting it mildly). Locker-room controversy has undone a lot of seemingly solid teams in recent years, including Alabama in 2000 and Tennessee in 2005.

A victory here could springboard the Tide to a big season. A loss might mean it's probably headed for a six- or seven-win finish at best.

Sept. 29: Florida State, Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.

The game won't count in the conference standings, but the national spotlight will be shining bright for this meeting between long-time regional powers.

The last time these two teams faced off (in 1974), the Seminoles were little more than a glorified homecoming opponent. Things have certainly changed in that regard, though FSU is no longer the perennial powerhouse it was through the 1980s and 90s. (Then again, neither is Alabama).

There will be story-lines aplenty for this one, not the least of which is that FSU coach Bobby Bowden finally gets to face the school that passed him over for its head-coaching job 20 years ago. However you feel about that decision, it would certainly have been a different two decades had Papa Bowden gotten the Crimson Tide job in 1987.

Should Alabama enter this game undefeated and then come away with a victory, it might firmly entrench itself as a Top 20 team. A loss could end any hopes of glory before they even get started.

Oct. 20: Tennessee, Bryant-Denny Stadium

For once, the Volunteers don't have an open date before they face the Crimson Tide (though it's telling that the other four teams on this list --- plus Mississippi State --- do).

As I'm sure you know, Alabama has beaten Tennessee only twice since 1994, and went on to win 10 games both times. Like Florida State, Tennessee is not the juggernaut it was 10 years ago, but still a pretty good barometer by which to measure the relative strength of Alabama's team.

Quarterback Erik Ainge is the key for Tennessee, and for whatever reason, he has played three of the worst games of his career against Alabama. The Vols have still managed to win two of those games, however.

The Phillip Fulmer controversy has died down a bit since the Crimson Tide beat the Vols in Tuscaloosa in 2005, but plenty of bad feelings still remain. An Alabama win over Tennessee this season would not only stick in the big guy's craw, but also perhaps establish the Crimson Tide as a legitimate conference contender.

Nov. 3: LSU, Bryant-Denny Stadium

I don't know that I can add anything that hasn't already been said about this one, which will no doubt be the toughest ticket in Bryant-Denny Stadium history.

LSU enters the season as a legitimate national-championship contender, and probably still will be on the first Saturday in November. Alabama will also have a general idea of where its season is headed (whichever direction that is) by the time it faces Tigers.

You probably already know that Nick Saban recruited many of the top senior and junior players on the Tigers' roster, which adds a bit of intrigue to this particular match-up that you don't generally see. LSU's upper-level players will likely also be familiar with the schemes Alabama will run the season, particularly those on defense.

LSU is likely to come into this game as a double-digit favorite, and hasn't lost in Bryant-Denny since 1999. It's no coincidence that that was the season before Saban arrived in Baton Rouge, and immediately began upgrading the Tigers' player talent to its current level as arguably the best in the country.

Alabama will likely (make that almost definitely) have the edge in the coach's box, however, and that might make a difference in this grudge match.

Nov. 24: Auburn, Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn

Again, I don't have to waste too many keystrokes telling you why this is a big game. But a few points:

* Auburn has never beaten Alabama six consecutive times. If you could pinpoint one reason Saban was hired as Crimson Tide head coach, it would be to keep that from happening for the first time.

* Saban has never won in Auburn. He was 0-3 there as LSU's head coach, including an embarrassing 31-7 thrashing in 2002 that began a skid where the Bayou Bengals lost four of their final six games (a run punctuated by Alabama's 31-0 victory in Baton Rouge, its only one against Saban).

* Alabama's last victory against the Tigers came in 2001 at Jordan-Hare and under a first-year head coach, in a game where the Tigers were overwhelming favorites. Dennis Franchione thoroughly outcoached Tommy Tuberville on that day, and it's possible Saban could turn the trick this season.

I think it's oversimplifying things to say that an Alabama victory over Auburn (or vice versa) makes up for any missteps earlier in the season, but that just might be the case for the Crimson Tide in 2007.

Creg Stephenson has covered Crimson Tide athletics for several print and online publications since 1994, and currently writes for The Anniston Star. Email him at creg_stephenson@hotmail.com


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