In 2008, Saban’s second year in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide rolled to a 12-0 start (including a 36-0 whitewashing of Auburn) and a No. 1 ranking through November. But Alabama got clipped by Tim Tebow and Florida in the SEC title game and then subsequently got dumped by Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
The following season, perhaps fueled by the crestfallen conclusion to the ’08 campaign, Alabama mowed through the competition for a perfect 14-0 record and BCS national championship. How dominant were the Tide in 2009? Eleven of the victories had a margin of 11 points or more.
Fast forward to the present, as the Crimson Tide are likely still burning from last year’s desultory finish to a once-flawless season, falling to Auburn on a miraculous ‘Kick Six’ touchdown and then surrendering 45 points to Oklahoma in a Sugar Bowl defeat.
Yes, the Crimson Tide are in search of a new quarterback (AJ McCarron, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, had a 36-4 record as the starter) and breaking in numerous players on the defensive side, but they’re also prohibitive favorites to contend for the SEC West title and claim a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
It’s hard to see Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee or even Missouri (last year’s division champion, but major turnover in 2014) getting a steady stream of first-place votes in the East, leaving Florida (current seven-game slide), South Carolina (no more Jadeveon Clowney or Connor Shaw) and Georgia (breaking in QB Hutson Mason) to stump for support atop the division.
The smart money, in my mind, rests with the Bulldogs taking the East, but then again … on paper, South Carolina will have its two toughest home games — Texas A&M, Georgia — out of the way by Sept. 13.
Moving south, the enigmatic Gators need to start fast, notching easy victories over Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky on the first three Saturdays.
After that, the schedule gets precipitously tougher, with UF going through a meat-grinder slate of Alabama (road), Tennessee (road), LSU (home), Missouri (home) and Georgia from Sept. 20-Nov. 1.
Speaking of which, what did Florida and LSU do to the SEC powers-that-be to merit an annual showdown for the next 12 years? That’s a cruel trick for two elite-level programs that typically go strong with non-conference opponents.
**Will Nick Marshall’s latest transgression prevent him from earning first-team honors at QB? Or will Bo Wallace — the SEC’s leading returner passer (3,346 yards passing, 18 TDs in 2013) — overtake the voting?
**Will the first-team voting at the tailback spot — charting Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (1,418 total yards, 14 TDs last year), Georgia’s Todd Gurley (1,430 total yards, 16 TDs), South Carolina’s Mike Davis (1,535 total yards, 11 TDs) — be indicative of any early-season momentum for the Heisman Trophy?
**Who will join Alabama’s Amari Cooper (45 catches, 736 yards, four TDs) on the first team amongst the receivers — Sammie Coates (Auburn), Malcome Kennedy (Texas A&M), Chris Conley (Georgia) or Ole Miss superstar-to-be Laquon Treadwell (72 catches, 608 yards, five TDs)?
If Dupree (61 tackles, seven sacks last year) played for a more prominent program, he might have been a household name in SEC circles by now.
But ‘Bud’ gets his due in this forum, having served the dual role as a linebacker/defensive end in college (16 career sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss) … setting him up to be a blue-chip performer in the pros — as a hybrid defender, of course.
After years of watching Dupree (6-foot-4, 264 pounds) expertly rush off the end, fend off double-team blocks and roll with the sideline-to-sideline flow when pursuing ball carriers, it’ll be interesting to see if the pre-draft hype machine ratchets up in mid-September, after Kentucky battles Florida’s experienced offensive line.
There isn’t a lack of star power in Oxford, with the quintet of QB Bo Wallace, defensive back Cody Prewitt (perhaps the SEC’s most NFL-ready safety), linebacker Robert Nkemdiche (a dynamo-in-waiting), receiver Laquon Treadwell (72 catches, 608 yards, five TDs) and O-tackle Laremy Tunsil (may possess a higher upside than Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi) securing the spotlight for a prolific program.
Schedule-wise, aside from the cannon-fodder matchup with Presbyterian (Nov. 8), Ole Miss has an attractive slate of non-conference foes — emphasizing national prominence (neutral-site opener against Boise State), an up-and-coming program (Louisiana-Lafayette) and traditional regional rival (Memphis).
After that, the Rebels must confront the annual onslaught of SEC West rivals, including trips to Texas A&M (Oct. 11) and LSU (Oct. 25).
The good news: Ole Miss has its three season-defining games at home — Alabama (Oct. 4), Auburn (Nov. 1) and Mississippi State (Nov. 29).