Head coach Nick Saban now knows what awaits him in the 2012 season. Will he be able to lead the Tide to another BCS National Championship Game?
When the Southeastern Conference released the schedule for the 2012 season on Wednesday, many people began the mad dash to decide which team had the best chance to win the conference's seventh straight BCS National Championship.
Most of the attention has been circling around LSU, Alabama, and Georgia, and their schedules for the 2012 season. Alabama's schedule features a new conference opponent in Texas A&M and a big non-conference opponent in Michigan, among others. Here are the games on the 2012 schedule, ranked in difficulty from the least to most challenging games.
Alabama's last FCS opponent, Georgia Southern, brought a unique challenge to Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Eagles scored more points on the Alabama defense than any other team in the 2011 regular season.
The Western Carolina Catamounts will probably bring a less challenging game to Bryant-Denny Stadium than the last FCS opponent the Crimson Tide faced: Georgia Southern, pictured above. Last season, the Catamounts did not win a game against a fellow FCS team, getting its only win of the season against Mars Hill, from the division below the FCS, Division II.
In what will be Mark Speir's first season as the head coach for Western Carolina, he will lead the team into Tuscaloosa to face the Tide on Nov. 17th, sandwiched in between games with Texas A&M and Auburn. In this Iron Bowl tune-up game, I think this one will look a lot like the game against Georgia State in 2010: a blowout that will probably see Alabama's backups increasing the lead.
Howard Schnellenberger ended his tenure at FAU last season. His successor, Carl Pelini, has the tough task of facing the Crimson Tide next season.
Alabama will now step up to the FBS for the next non-conference opponent, playing Florida Atlantic on Sept. 22nd. The Owls do have some excitement surrounding the program, just hiring Carl Pelini as the head coach, the brother of Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. That doesn't change the fact that the Owls went 1-11 in a down Sun Belt Conference last season.
The only reason this game is ranked as more difficult as the game against Western Carolina is because of the fact that Western Carolina is in the FCS, playing opponents such as The Citadel, whereas Florida Atlantic does play conference games against bowl-bound opponents like Louisiana-Lafayette. This game will remind the Tide faithful a lot of the 2011 game against Kent State: an early season game against a team from an inferior conference, in preparation for the tests coming later in the year.
Western Kentucky went into Death Valley and shocked the Tiger fans in attendance in the first half, being within one score of the lead at halftime.
In the most challenging of the three tune-up non-conference games scheduled for the Tide of 2012, the Western Kentucky Hillltoppers will come to Tuscaloosa on Sept. 8th. To WKU's defense, the Hilltoppers are coming off of their first winning season since making the jump from FCS to FBS beginning with the 2008 season, which included playing a tight first half with LSU in Death Valley.
But, in a realistic point of view, Western Kentucky is still in the Sun Belt Conference, whereas Alabama is...well...Alabama. The improvement made in the last five years in Bowling Green has been impressive, but they simply aren't on Alabama's level, and that will show in what will likely be another non-conference blowout win for the Tide.
Zack Stoudt split time at the quarterback position for a struggling Rebels team last season.
Welcome to the SEC, Coach Freeze. To conclude your first September as a head coach in the SEC, you get to go to Tuscaloosa to face half of last year's BCS National Championship Game, only one year removed from when this same team came to Oxford and won 52-7.
Even worse, Ole Miss is in a scheduling sandwich, as they come in between a tune-up game with Florida Atlantic and a bye week. Ole Miss is still battling its way out of the cellar of the SEC West, and they will probably look like the bottom team in the division in their Sept. 29th meeting with the Tide.
The Missouri Tigers will be shaking much more formidable tacklers in their first year as a member of the SEC.
Alabama will be making what could be the program's first trip to Missouri for a football game, to play one of the SEC's newest additions, the Missouri Tigers, on Oct. 13th. Columbia probably hasn't seen anything like the sea of crimson that will invade their town in the days leading to the game, but that comes with being a member of the SEC.
For the actual game, I feel like both Missouri and Texas A&M will need some time to recruit the right balance of brute physicality and speed to compete year-in-year-out in the SEC, and Missouri isn't quite on Alabama's level yet. My guess is a final score that's similar to the 2011 Arkansas game, but the game itself won't be that competitive.
The return of the Alabama-Tennessee game to the Third Saturday in October was a close match in difficulty with the Missouri game, but I have the edge to Tennessee for the extra motivation that comes with rivalry games and also the difficulty of playing in Neyland Stadium.
While Derek Dooley still has work to do in Knoxville, he can ride the arm of Tyler Bray in certain situations. While Alabama's defense is probably too good to let Bray beat them, he may be able to keep things interesting for a little longer than many experts think. In the end, Alabama should earn its 6th straight win over the Volunteers on Oct. 20th.
Dan Mullen has started the turnaround process at Mississippi State, but is still strides away from being able to beat Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Coming off of a rather disappointing season in 2011, the Bulldogs are having to right the ship without their starting quarterback of the past two seasons, Chris Relf. However, Mississippi State is deep at quarterback, with the nephew of Brett Favre, Dylan, in the third-string slot in 2011, so the spread attack that Mullen is so good at running should not take too much of a hit.
That being said, the talent level in the two programs is too much for the Bulldogs to overcome, especially with the game being played in the environment Bryant-Denny Stadium creates. Alabama is currently on a four-game winning streak against Mississippi State, averaging a margin of victory of 22.5 points, and the Crimson Tide faithful can expect that trend to continue on Oct. 27th.
The Aggies may look to Alabama to replace the rivalry lost in the scheduling conflict with Texas.
Texas A&M will have the same problem that Missouri will have, that being not having enough strength and speed to compete for four quarters with many SEC teams, but the overall talent level in College Station is high enough for Alabama's Nov. 10th match-up to be a top five difficulty game.
What will probably derail the Aggies the most in this game is the physicality of Alabama's defense and offensive line. The Aggies face nothing like it in the Big 12, and having to deal with against a team like Alabama that is so dedicated to relentlessly applying pressure in those departments for all 60 minutes could be just too much.
Clint Moseley came out on top of a season-long quarterback battle in 2011. Will he be at the helm when the Tigers visit Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2012?
After blowing the Tigers out by a score of 42-14 in Jordan-Hare Stadium, having the Iron Bowl as the No. 4 most difficult game on the 2012 schedule may sound like a stretch. However, the 2011 Auburn team was a young one, especially on the offensive end. The team may have lost both the offensive and defensive coordinator, but many talented players that came to Auburn wanting to play for Gus Malzahn are still at Auburn and are ready to make explosive plays.
But when it comes time for the entire state to stop what it's doing in preparation for kick-off on Nov. 24th, the people of the state of Alabama will sit down to watch another Alabama win, but not as convincing as the 2011 version. Auburn's youth will be getting a lot of practice in the off-season and will improve dramatically, whereas Alabama will have to grow with new pieces in place.
The Michigan fans finally have a Michigan man at the helm in Brady Hoke. He will take his team to Cowboys Stadium to open the 2012 season to coach his first game against an SEC opponent.
In the marquee non-conference game of the season, Alabama will meet the Michigan Wolverines in the neutral site of Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 1st. While Michigan was nothing to fear during the Rich Rodriguez era, Brady Hoke has gotten the Wolverines to be a defensive-minded team while maintaining explosive offensive talent like Denard Robinson.
This game will be more challenging than most because facing such a formidable opponent so early in the season is always difficult, but especially so when so many new faces are being integrated into the starting lineup. This will be the first career start for several Tide players, and having to make that first career start against a team like Michigan in a venue like Cowboys Stadium is a daunting task.
Tyler Wilson leads an Arkansas team with enough potential to make waves in the SEC West, with a timely upset or two.
The last time the Crimson Tide traveled to Fayetteville, the Tide had to get a late interception from Robert Lester in order to cap a big comeback to keep the title defense dream alive. Ryan Mallet may not be suiting up for the Razorbacks like he did in that game in 2010, his successor, Tyler Wilson, may be just as dangerous in the pocket.
Combine a always potent Bobby Petrino offense with the second-toughest road test of the season and there is no doubt the second-toughest game on the 2012 season is against Arkansas on Sept. 15th, just behind the obvious pick for the toughest game on the schedule. Drumroll, please.
As if there was any doubt that the Nov. 3rd trip to Death Valley to face LSU would be the toughest game on the schedule. This year's LSU team is young at every position except quarterback, so a lot of the guys that beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5th and will face the Tide again in the BCS National Championship Game will be back for a third meeting in 2012.
This game may get as much hype as the Nov. 5th, 2011 match-up got, but likely won't be a precursor to the national championship game like it was this year. The 2012 meeting will be what we thought the 2011 meeting would be: a national semifinal game. Winner has the inside track to the national championship game, loser has to wait for 2013.
With the schedule set for the 2012 season, Alabama's path to reclaiming the crystal ball is a rocky one.
Winning is not a luxury for the Alabama football program, but an expectation. While the fan base is still in tune with reality and therefore does not demand a national championship every season, there is an obvious craze and hunger when a season goes by and Alabama does not end up at the No. 1 spot.
That hunger for championships in Tuscaloosa will come down to, predictably, the three most difficult games of the season: the season opener against Michigan, the road trip to Arkansas just two weeks after, and the big match-up with LSU on Nov. 3rd.
There is no denying that Alabama has a chance to navigate the 2012 season and end up in the BCS National Championship Game again, but a few things have to happen first. I think Alabama needs to adjust quickly to the new starters in order to get a good win over Michigan to start the season.
If those changing parts are able to gel together in time to get the win over Michigan, they also need to respond well to their first proverbial punch in the mouth, which they will receive at Arkansas. While Arkansas does not have a reputation for being a smash mouth SEC team, they are still and SEC team and must be handled with the utmost precision and dominance if the Tide want to start SEC play with a win.
Finally, there is the mountain to be climbed in Baton Rouge. The Tigers are a completely different beast in comparison to Michigan and Arkansas. Not only is LSU returning so many starters, but they get home-field advantage in what could very well be one of the toughest stadiums to play in in all of college football. It will take nearly a perfect game from Alabama to beat LSU. But, on the same token, it will take a nearly perfect game from LSU to beat Alabama.
That being said, if the Crimson Tide is able to do the things listed above, I see no reason why Saban can't lead this team to a SEC West title, leading to what will surely be a victory in the SEC Championship over a relatively down SEC East champion on the way to the Orange Bowl for the BCS National Championship Game.
For more coverage of Alabama athletics from Brett, please look at his official blog on all Alabama sports, brettatbama.wordpress.com, as well as:
Twitter: @Brett_Hudson, @BrettAtBama