The Alabama Crimson Tide are likely still burning from last year's desultory finish to a once-flawless season, falling to Auburn on a last-second touchdown and then surrendering 45 points to Oklahoma in a Sugar Bowl defeat.
Tailback T.J. Yeldon (left -- 14 TDs last year), safety Landon Collins (middle) and receiver Amari Cooper (right -- possible high pick in the NFL draft) are among the many returning stars for Alabama this season.
Crystal LoGuidice/John Reed/John David Mercer / USA TODAY Sports
By Jay Clemons
In 2008, Nick Saban's second year in Tuscaloosa, the Alabama 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 crushed 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, against top-flight opponents (largely), 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 last-second miracle 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.
Alabama returns an embarrassing array of elite-level playmakers, starting with the monster trio of tailbacks T.J. Yeldon (1,418 total yards, 14 TDs last year), sophomore Derrick Henry (Sugar Bowl dynamo) and sophomore Kenyan Drake (829 total yards, 9 TDs), and ending with a three-pack of explosive wideouts (DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and Amari Cooper -- a virtual Julio Jones clone).
The offensive line still retains its experienced, punishing identity, led by senior guard Arie Kouandijo, center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Austin Shepherd. That veteran leadership will likely influence freshman Cameron Robinson, who could be an immediate starter at the high-profile spot of left tackle.
The defense boasts fewer returnees, although that's hardly a concern for a Tide program that turns down a slew of All-American recruits every February.
Technically, Alabama returns only four starters from last year -- DT Brandon Ivory, linebacker Trey DePriest, linebacker Xzaiver Dickson, safety Landon Collins -- but it's a meaningless figure, considering sophomore A'Shawn Robinson could be a national game-changer at defensive end.
Back to the offense for a second: Was it only two years ago that Alabama had reportedly stockpiled as many as eight All-American running backs, at a time when most top 20 programs would move heaven and earth just to have one or two in the fold?
In short, there's a reason why coach Saban and his relentless staff have taken the art of recruiting to a new stratosphere over the last seven years. There's also a reason why South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, without provocation, declared Saban to be the greatest recruiter in the history of college sports (during SEC Media Days).
Even if Spurrier's assessment is not unilaterally factual (recruiting is so subjective) ... at the very least, it sounds true. Right?
WHO's GONE/WHO'S NEXT
Under Saban's watch, the Crimson Tide will always be a haven for on-the-scene blue-chippers at tailback, receiver and along the offensive/defensive lines.
But Alabama has a fresh star to debut this season, in the form of quarterback Jacob Coker, a Florida State transfer who was apparently a shade below Jameis Winston last August, when the two QBs were competing for the top spot on the Seminoles' depth chart.
Obviously, Winston went on to capture the Heisman Trophy and lead Florida State to a BCS national title. But if Coker was truly that competitive during fall camp ... it stands to reason the Seminoles would have been, at minimum, shoo-ins for the ACC championship last year (and a BCS bowl berth) -- if Coker had been named the starter.
Fast forward to the present: While Saban has yet to officially designate a QB starter for the Saturday opener against West Virginia (as of this writing), Coker seems like the odds-on choice to lead the Crimson Tide for the next two seasons.
One reason for that: Back in the spring, ESPN analyst David Pollack unabashedly declared that Coker (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) is the most talented quarterback of the Saban era -- bar none.
That's high praise, considering Coker has attempted only 41 college passes (all at FSU) and Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron previously led Alabama to national titles.
THE SEASON WILL BE A SUCCESS IF ...
Alabama wins the SEC title, or at least garners an invitation to the College Football Playoff.
Given Saban's absurd track record over the last five years (three BCS national titles), the locked and loaded Crimson Tide should have the mentality of "CFP Or Bust" -- especially with a schedule that's more friendly than daunting.
GAME TO CIRCLE ON SCHEDULE
Nov. 8 at LSU
Obviously, no intrastate matchup carries more current weight than the Iron Bowl; and Alabama should be extra-motivated to right the "wrong" of last year's Kick Six miracle, at the hands of Auburn.
But within this new age of the College Football Playoff, Alabama needs to run the table against West Virginia, Florida, Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU first, before making the Auburn rematch super-relevant on a national stage.
Playing at Baton Rouge, presumably at night, is never easy. But this year offers a new set of challenges for Saban and Co., since the Crimson Tide will be playing their fourth road outing in a five-game stretch.
Plus, by that time, LSU should have plenty of clarity with its quarterback situation (either Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris) and newcomer tailback Leonard Fournette -- an Adrian Peterson clone, circa 2004 -- could be hitting the final stretch of an unprecedented Heisman campaign.
(No true freshman has ever claimed college football's most celebrated award.)
Of course, Alabama should have clarity with its own cluster of highly skilled quarterbacks and running backs by that time, as well.
Thank god the SEC has the annual foresight to schedule this titanic clash in November.
GRADING THE OVERALL SCHEDULE
In the Saban era (2007-13), Alabama has decimated season-opening, neutral-site opponents like Clemson, Virginia Tech (twice) and Michigan by an average margin of 21.5 points.
So, what chance could West Virginia possibly have against 'Bama Saturday at the Georgia Dome? (The odds aren't good.)
After that, the Crimson Tide have a tough, but fair slate against Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Tennessee (in Knoxville), LSU (after a bye week), Mississippi State and Auburn.
It's an interesting schedule for a championship contender. It's also a good docket for Yeldon -- or whoever carries the primary load in the backfield -- to realistically contend for the SEC rushing title.
PREDICTION: 13-0 (8-0 in SEC, conference title, berth in College Football Playoff)