The Alabama Crimson Tide will enter the 2012 season with a team possibly better than before, and they will need to be to convincingly conquer Auburn again. The advantages they have are numerous, but they just need to be applied.
Alabama loses a lot on defense, but if history proves correct, Saban's defenses always come back with a fire underneath them. Even the 2010 defense was one of the best in the nation.
It's really all about Alabama's offense this year, which is kind of a foreign concept to critics of the Tide.
As for Auburn, the Tigers certainly won't be the same team from last year. They will show up wearing big boy pants and give the Tide a run for their money.
The outcome has yet to be determined, but here are five advantages the Tide has over the Tigers.
I may be beating a dead horse here, but Alabama's offensive line will enter the season as the best in the nation, even ahead of LSU.
Right now they have three players who could easily go in the first round of the NFL draft; Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, and D.J. Fluker all have that potential and will only cement their first-round status this coming season.
Cyrus Kouandjio isn't eligible for the draft nor has he proven himself extensively on the field, but he just might be the best left tackle prospect in the last decade and will likely be drafted in the first round after his junior year.
The three returning starters proved their worth for two full seasons or more (three for Jones), and they took everything that even the vaunted LSU defensive line threw at them. They can handle anything that comes their way.
They will need their talent and experience against Auburn this year, as the Tigers are fielding an incredible four-man defensive line.
Auburn's defensive line is actually going to be one of the deepest in the nation, and it will be highlighted by defensive ends Corey Lemonier (6'4", 240 lbs.) and Dee Ford (6'2", 245 lbs.).
By season's end, these two will have people wondering if LSU's Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery are the best defensive end combo in the nation.
As great as they will prove to be, Alabama's offensive line is just too much for them to handle. Quarterback A.J. McCarron and the running backs will have a lot of freedom.
With Alabama's base 3-4 defense, its defensive linemen don't rack up a lot of stats, but that's not its job.
Alabama's linemen are some of the most disciplined in the nation, are rarely out of position and are practically never penalized. They hold their ground firmly and give opposing offensive lines nothing.
The two returning starters, Damion Square and Jesse Williams, are proven players capable of handling double-teams without giving an inch.
Williams will be a stronger force this year now that he is in what I consider his natural position at nose tackle.
Auburn's offensive line is still a bit raw and was 10th in the SEC in sacks allowed in 2011 with 32. That doesn't necessarily mean it will flounder again, as Alabama's O-line allowed 32 sacks in 2010 and dropped it to 17 in 2011.
The Tigers have some quality players on their line and are led by senior John Sullen (6'5", 335 lbs.) and a center on the Rimington watch list, Reese Dismukes (6'3", 300 lbs.).
However, Alabama's defensive line is just too experienced and powerful. It will hold out against the Tigers' offensive line, plug holes and allow the Tide linebackers to run amok.
Auburn's linebacking corps is, quite frankly, pretty bad by SEC standards. That will be corrected when Reuben Foster hits the field in 2013, but for now it just isn't a good unit.
It is led by senior Daren Bates (5'11", 205 lbs.) who I believe is a great albeit undersized linebacker who looked bad at times in 2011 because he was simply asked to do too much by himself. His 104 tackles, 8.5 for losses, 2.5 sacks and nine quarterback hurries speaks volumes.
His two wingmen will likely be Jonathan Evans and Jake Holland. Holland seems to have a lot of potential, but Evans looks like a very mediocre player.
Alabama's running backs will break past Auburn's defensive line early and often. At that point it's going to be up to the linebackers to make a solid stop.
The Tiger's D-line will struggle and Alabama's backs will get plenty of yards after contact, always falling forward.
Eddie Lacy will be the workhorse, though he certainly won't have to shoulder the load that Trent Richardson had to in 2011.
He is a proven running back with Heisman potential as 1,600 rushing yards is a distinct possibility.
The rest of Alabama's backs, Jalston Fowler, Demetrius Hart and T.J. Yeldon, are all talented but completely unproven against stiff competition.
With the success Bama running back coach Burton Burns has developing backs, however, it would be safe to assume those three will be beasts.
Some are beginning to call LSU "Defensive Back U," but Alabama has been cranking out NFL-ready backs like crazy since Nick Saban arrived.
Javier Arenas, Kareem Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Mark Barron have already been snatched up by the NFL. Robert Lester and DeMarcus Milliner are next, and Milliner is already getting first-round consideration from some draft pundits.
Milliner was the guy that was picked on constantly in 2010 as he learned the game. Opposing teams picked on him just as much in 2011, but he had already become a veteran and made them pay.
The new guys, CB Deion Belue, S Vinnie Sunseri and S Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, have an incredible amount of potential, and if the spring scrimmage is even a slight indication of it, then big things are in store for them.
As for Auburn's wideouts, they are led by senior Emory Blake, who was third in the SEC in yards-per-catch with 17.03, but have little beyond him.
Trovon Reed (6', 188 lbs.) is also a quality player but thus far looks to be far from a game-changer.
It's all about Blake who will be one of the best receivers in the country and was in 2011 even without solid quarterback play.
Auburn's quarterback, whether it be Clint Moseley or Kiehl Frazier, will put up better numbers than we saw in 2011, but this is a Nick Saban defense.
Even the best quarterbacks struggle against Alabama. Ask any Arkansas quarterback in the past three years.
Not to sound biased, but A.J. McCarron will prove to be one of the best quarterbacks in the nation by the time the Iron Bowl rolls around.
He has all the tools to succeed. He has great size, a great arm, great decision-making skills and great leadership qualities.
Auburn's secondary was embarrassed many times in 2011, but it will be improved this coming season.
The unit is led by cornerback T'Sharvan Bell, who gained fame in 2010 when he gave Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy a concussion on a cornerback blitz, and safety Demetruce McNeal.
These two are good players, but they pale in comparison to the combination of Robert Lester and DeMarcus Milliner who McCarron faces every day in practice.
McCarron's receiving targets are also top of the line. Though they are all unproven, including Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and Kevin Norwood, there may not be a better squad in the nation when it comes to pure talent and depth.
This will be the most potent passing attack Alabama has had under Nick Saban, and Auburn's secondary just won't be up to the task.
To make matters worse for the Auburn secondary, it won't be getting a lot of help as Alabama's rushing attack will be far too dangerous for the Tigers to run nickel and dime packages often.