Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide will catch a bit of a break not facing four SEC teams that had Top 20 defenses last season.
The primary reason the SEC has dominated college football for the better part of the last decade is because of the superior brand of defense exhibited throughout the league.
Last season, five SEC teams finished in the top 10—including the top three defenses overall—in total defense nationally.
Nick Saban’s Alabama squad led the way, but his team had to navigate through some nasty defenses to earn the national title in 2011.
Heading into the 2012 season, the Crimson Tide will have go through traditional defensive powers like LSU and Michigan if they hope to repeat as national champions for the first time since 1978-79.
Which teams will provide the toughest tests for new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and the Crimson Tide offense this season?
Find out in this power ranking of each defense the Tide will face in 2012.
The Tide defeated Western Carolina 52-6 in the teams last meeting in 2007.
The Catamounts are an FCS school that plays in the Southern Conference, but unlike last season—when the Crimson Tide struggled with a power from that conference in Georgia Southern—this matchup should mirror nothing more than a scrimmage.
Western Carolina went 1-10 last season and gave up more than 30 points in every game in 2011.
Being that Alabama’s scout team would likely prove to be a tougher challenge than facing the Catamounts, the Tide essentially will get an extra bye week before the Iron Bowl.
The Owls have gone 0-6 against SEC teams losing by an average of 30 points per game.
The Owls went 1-11 last season and finished last in the Sun Belt, but the arrival of new head coach Carl Pelini (brother of Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini) has added a much needed jolt to the program built from scratch by former coach Howard Schnellenberger.
Pelini will bring back eight starters—including his entire linebacker segment highlighted by junior Randell Johnson—from a unit that finished fifth in the Sun Belt in total defense.
While the Owls should be improved, FAU has failed to defeat a ranked opponent in nine tries and have lost by an average score of 49-10.
Expect that trend to continue when they visit Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 22.
WKU is scrappy team from the Sun Belt capable of hanging around if the Tide do not bring their A game.
Hilltoppers head coach Willie Taggart’s squad returns seven starters from a defense that finished fourth in the Sun Belt in 2011.
This is a team that hung with top-ranked LSU last season deep into the third quarter, and considering this game is sandwiched between games with top 10 opponents, Alabama could struggle if they come out flat.
Defensive end Quanterus Smith (six and a half sacks last season) and linebacker Andrew Jackson (109 tackles, 17 tackles for loss in 2011) are players that Nussmeier and the offense will have to keep an eye on.
While they have added more talent on defense, the Rebels are likely in for another long year.
New Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze may have an offensive background, but his biggest concern in his first year in Oxford will be fixing a defense that finished dead last in the SEC in total defense last season.
Freeze will have eight returning starters from last season, headlined by linebackers Mike Marry and Serderius Bryant, to help build a stronger foundation on defense.
The Rebels could be without free safety Charles Sawyer, who is recovering from a torn quadriceps muscle suffered at the beginning of fall camp, per CBSsports.com.
While Ole Miss has some talent to work with, they are likely to struggle in their first year under a new coaching staff.
LB Sean Porter racked up 9.5 sacks last season, which led the Big 12 in that category.
In a telling sign of the differences between the SEC and the rest of the leagues across the country, the Aggies finished third in the Big 12 in total defense, allowing slightly less than 380 yards per game.
That same total would have landed them at No. 11 in total defense in the league they will begin playing in this season.
New coach Kevin Sumlin will have six returning starters to work with on the defensive side of the ball, highlighted by first-team preseason All-SEC linebacker Sean Porter (h/t, secdigitalnetwork.com).
The Aggies are capable of playing solid defensively, especially against the run, but as their numerous second-half collapses last season indicate, they will have to get more consistent if they hope to be an elite defense in the SEC.
Gooden is a physical LB that should help the Tigers defense in their transition to the SEC.
Like fellow former Big 12 member Texas A&M, Missouri must adjust from the pass-happy offenses in their former league to the physical and punishing ground attacks found in the SEC.
However, the Tigers surrendered just less than 130 yards per game on the ground last season, which would have placed them in the top five in rushing defense in the SEC.
Six starters return for Missouri on defense, including standouts in linebacker Zaviar Gooden and corner E.J. Gaines.
With the Tigers possessing some NFL-caliber talents on defense, plus getting the Tide at home on Oct. 13, this game could prove to be one of the tougher road trips on Alabama’s 2012 slate.
Banks may be the best corner in the SEC.
The Bulldogs hung tough in a hard-fought 24-7 loss to Alabama last season, but they must replace a first-round NFL draft pick in defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.
However, Dan Mullen may have another future first-rounder to build his defense around in senior corner Johnathan Banks, a ballhawking defensive back with 12 career interceptions, including five last season.
Banks is one of seven returning starters for a Bulldogs defense that allowed more than 24 points only twice in 2011.
With the Bulldogs visiting Tuscaloosa one week before the Tide’s heavily anticipated showdown at No. 3 LSU, Saban’s club could encounter a similar type of game as last year’s slugfest in Starkville.
LB Alonzo Highsmith and the Hogs defense penchant for forcing turnovers could help them upset powers LSU and Alabama in the SEC West.
If the Razorbacks’ 29-16 Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State is a sign of things to come on defense under new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, Hogs fans should be excited about the future on that side of the ball.
After spending the previous seven seasons at Ohio State, including serving as the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator last season, Haynes arrived in Fayetteville to take over the Razorbacks defense and helped orchestrate the masterful performance in his first game with the team.
Six starters return for the Hogs, including linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and corner Tevin Mitchel, who welcome the visiting Crimson Tide on Sept. 15.
The Razorbacks may not have an upper echelon SEC defense early in the season, but the arrival of Haynes should help them gradually improve as the season moves along.
DE Corey Lemonier is a preseason first-team All-SEC defensive pick this season.
Similar to Arkansas, Tigers fans are expecting a huge improvement on defense with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
The former Atlanta Falcons and Georgia Bulldogs defensive architect will inherit a veteran unit—one that finished next to last in the SEC in total defense a year ago—that must replace only two starters from 2011.
First-team preseason All-SEC defensive end Corey Lemonier (nine and a half sacks in 2011) anchors a deep and experienced front four that could be amongst the best in the league.
By season’s end, the Tigers' defense has the potential to be the most improved defense in the SEC.
LB Curt Maggitt is one of several young stars on a rising Tennessee defense that will be guided by former Alabama LB coach Sal Sunseri.
The rivalry with Tennessee may have received a boost in the offseason when former Crimson Tide linebackers coach Sal Sunseri left the program to become the new defensive coordinator for the Volunteers.
The father of Tide safety Vinnie Sunseri will have to replace just two starters from a unit that finished seventh in the SEC in total defense, surrendering slightly more than 340 yards of total offense per game.
Sunseri will be switching to the 3-4 scheme he helped run at Alabama, and he steps into a promising situation at linebacker in Knoxville with a pair of young studs to build around in outside linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson.
Combining the returning experience with Sunseri’s familiarity with Alabama’s offense and the fact that they get the Tide at Neyland Stadium, this could prove to be another matchup that may be tougher than it appears on paper.
Wolverines S Jordan Kovacs headlines a defense that finished 17th nationally in total defense in 2011.
The Crimson Tide will face one of their biggest challenges all season when they face Michigan in the season-opener for both teams this weekend.
The Wolverines’ defense made tremendous strides in defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s first year last season—and year two has the potential to be even better.
Seven starters are back from a team that went 11-2 last season, including three in a secondary that may be the best in the Big Ten.
Facing a talented defense in the first game of the year should provide a lot of answers to the questions surrounding Alabama’s offense this season.
LSU returns potentially the nation's best DL unit, which should provide the Tide with its toughest test of the 2012 season.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the toughest defense Alabama will face in 2012 will be when they travel to Death Valley to face LSU for the third time in a calendar year.
The Tigers' defense, despite the loss of All-American corner Tyrann Mathieu, is littered with first-round caliber talents along the defensive line and in the secondary.
The defensive end duo of juniors Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo may be the best in the country, while free safety Eric Reid could take over for Mark Barron as the nation’s top safety this season.
When you combine the talent that Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis will have on hand to work with, plus the added motivation of being humiliated by Alabama in January’s BCS title game rematch, the Tigers will provide the biggest test for the Crimson Tide in 2012.