With the kickoff of the 2012 college football season less than two weeks away, the spotlight is bright on head coach Nick Saban and his defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
The Tide come into the season ranked second in the AP poll and as one of the more talented teams in the country, but this Alabama team is far different from last year's dominant squad.
Gone are 10 starters (including four first-round NFL draft picks) from the 2011 championship unit. In their place is a group of talented, yet wholly inexperienced young prospects.
For Saban, that means a lot of coaching up will be necessary for a repeat to even be in the conversation.
On the Alabama coach's side is recent history. The past six BCS champions have come from the SEC, four of which have had at least one loss entering the title game.
The SEC will once again be the strongest conference in college football this season, boasting an amazing five of the top 10 ranked teams in the country.
That unbelievable strength gives Alabama some wiggle room for an early-season hiccup as the young players get acclimated to high-pressure situations.
On the other hand, there are a few games on the schedule Saban and company cannot afford to lose.
Here's a look at those contests:
Michigan (Saturday, Sept. 1, 8 p.m. EDT)
Regardless of Michigan's No. 8 ranking in the AP poll and Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson's status as a Heisman favorite, the Crimson Tide cannot (and should not) lose to a non-SEC opponent.
Including Robinson, Michigan returns just six starters on offense and lost nearly all the senior quarterback's weapons from the 2011 Sugar Bowl championship squad.
Despite the Tide losing stars of the secondary in safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, Saban and his defensive staff should be able to cook up a difficult scheme for the young Michigan wideouts.
And for all the hysterics surrounding the Wolverines' star quarterback, Robinson is among the NCAA's most mistake-prone signal callers. Robinson's 15 interceptions in 2011 came on just 258 passing attempts, an average of one interception per 17.2 throws.
With young receivers running routes and a interception-happy quarterback leading the opposition, a loss to Michigan could submarine Alabama's title hopes before they even begin.
At Arkansas (Saturday, Sept. 15, 3:30 p.m. EDT)
Despite the hoopla surrounding the Arkansas program in wake of the Bobby Petrino scandal, first-year head coach John L. Smith's Razorbacks come into the 2012 season with one of the most talented teams in the SEC.
Leading the Razorback charge is senior quarterback Tyler Wilson, who blossomed in his first season as a starter last year. His accuracy and poise in the pocket make Wilson the perfect quarterback to take down the Crimson Tide's inexperienced secondary.
Arkansas will also happily welcome the return of 2010 All-SEC running back Knile Davis, who sat out all of last season with a left ankle injury.
Though Michigan is easily Alabama's most hyped early-season opponent, the combination of Davis and Wilson make Arkansas far more equipped to take down the No. 2-ranked Tide.
Just don't expect it to happen.
The last time Arkansas took down Alabama was in 2006, otherwise known as the pre-Saban era in 'Bama.
And with the Petrino controversy still hoisting a black cloud over this Arkansas team, it feels highly unlikely that Wilson and Co. can do enough to come out victorious this early in the season.
At LSU (Saturday, Nov. 3, 3:30 p.m. EDT)
Should both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers come into their Nov. 3 matchup undefeated, they would likely be playing their third No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in under a calendar year.
But these aren't the same LSU and Alabama squads we saw a year ago.
Both teams are far younger than their predecessors and will come into this rivalry game almost as likely to be one of college football's biggest disappointments as well as a contender.
Either way, with first-ranked USC looking like a preseason juggernaut, there will probably be just one spot for the SEC in this year's national title game.
If Alabama wants to have any hope of that representative being the Crimson Tide, there will be no more important game than the battle in Baton Rouge.
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