It might still be March, but let's be honest: College football fans start thinking about next season the minute the national title game is over.
This is especially true in the South Eastern Conference, where football is more than a game—it's a way of life.
At the University of Alabama, however, the sport of football is raised to an even higher level. Football is everything. This is so prevalent that head coach Nick Saban recently called out the fanbase and in an indirect way asked them to calm down and not get too caught up in the high expectations for the upcoming season.
With less than a month before Alabama's A-day game (A for alumni, not Alabama), it is time to pin-point the Crimson Tide's five most important games for the 2009 season.
No. 5 Alabama v Tennessee, Oct. 24
With Tennessee coming off a disappointing 4-7 campaign in 2008 and hiring a new head coach in Lane Kiffin, the Volunteers are not expected in many circles to be a challenger for the SEC East crown.
However, the third Saturday in October is still a major rivalry game that makes the list.
Alabama needs to make sure they don't overlook UT because if you blink in the SEC you will be passed, and Lane Kiffin will find some way to get his boys hyped for this game. Unfortunately for Kiffin, his unkind words for Nick Saban will have the Tide fired up as well.
No. 4 Alabama @ Auburn, Nov. 28
Normally this game would be No. 1, but the Iron Bowl is not expected to have a major impact on the race in the SEC West, as expectations for Auburn are not high.
In all likelihood, Alabama will make sure new head coach Gene Chizik's gets the same Iron Bowl greeting as every other first-time coach: a loss.
Much like the Tennessee game, the Iron Bowl made the list only because it's a high-stakes rivalry game.
No. 3 Alabama v Virginia Tech (Georgia Dome), Sept. 5
The season opener is Alabama's second appearance in the "Chik-fil-a College Kickoff" in as many years.
Everyone remembers what Alabama did to Clemson at the start of last season in this game, but do not expect a repeat performance against Virginia Tech.
VT and 'Bama will both be ranked within the top 15 in the preseason poll and this game will be a lot closer than 34-10.
Coach Beamer will definitely have his team prepared. The duo of quarterback Tyrod Taylor and tailback Darren Evans will be tough to stop, even for a Bama defense that returns 10 starters.
Alabama will find out if its offensive line is up to the challenge of replacing Outland Trophy Award winner Andre Smith and the leadership of Antoine Caldwell. Will either Greg McElroy or Star Jackson be able to replace three year starter John Parker Wilson at quarterback?
All of these answers will surely come on Sept. 5.
No. 2 Alabama @ Ole Miss, Oct. 10
Rebels head coach Houston Nutt proved last year that while he is at Ole Miss, they will be a contender in the SEC West. The team exceeded expectations last season going 8-4 with an upset over Florida in The Swamp, a close game against then No. 1 Bama, the throttling of LSU, and finally its convincing victory over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.
Alabama definitely cannot take this team lightly, especially with how close the two teams were last season. Ole Miss is a game that could easily decide the outcome of the SEC West, and both teams will be up for the challenge.
Bama will need to contain Jevon Snead at all costs if it wants to win this game and not allow another second half debacle.
This will be the halfway mark for both teams so expect to see a great football game in Oxford this year.
No. 1 Alabama v LSU, Nov. 7
This was one of the most exciting football games of last season. Defending national champion LSU took then No. 1 Bama to overtime and the Tide eventually clinched the SEC West that night with a 27-21 victory.
Neither team played a very good game and LSU could have possibly won if they had a QB. They definitely will this season in Jordan Jefferson, who proved he was for real with a dominating victory over Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The Alabama defense will need to do a much better job this season since the Tigers will be hungry to avenge last season's close loss and disappointing season.
We can't possibly forget about the whole Nick Saban controversy. There is and will still be bad blood surrounding this game. LSU head coach Les Miles will also have another opportunity to prove that he can be Saban's successor.
If the Tigers fall to Saban's Tide again, or have another disappointing season, there will be some rumblings in Baton Rouge. The idea that Miles could only win with Saban's players will nearly become fact.
This game, the 'Bama-Ole Miss game, and the LSU-Ole Miss game will decide who will represent the West in the SEC Championship game.