Nick Saban and Alabama remain the nation's top program.
Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide are on the brink of college football history.
After winning the 2012 and 2013 BCS National Championship games, a hat trick opportunity of a third consecutive title sits in front of Saban and Co.
That said, don't think it's going to be a cakewalk.
The SEC remains the nation's best conference, and that won't change until it's knocked off. As for this season, the Tide must continue to anticipate every opponent's A-game.
For one, 'Bama became the first school to repeat as national champs during the BCS era. Second, no team has been this consistently dominant—regarding multiple national championships—since the Nebraska Cornhuskers from 1993 through 1997.
Coach Tom Osborne won three in four years ('94 through '97) and was a made field goal away from a perfect season in 1993.
Now that Saban has matched Osborne's achievement, taking a fourth title in five years will put the Tide among college football's greatest dynasties. By the same token, however, this opportunity won't come without a few barriers.
Vs. Virginia Tech Hokies (Neutral)
Coach Frank Beamer's Hokies didn't lose that much to the NFL draft.
As a result, Virginia Tech will be a tougher opening game for Alabama than expected. The Hokies play rough defense, as they allowed just 22.8 points per game and ranked No. 24 in total defense. Losing Eddie Lacy will be costly for the Tide, along with quarterback A.J. McCarron's elite offensive line.
Therefore, expect a solid dosage of T.J. Yeldon to smash the trenches and set up play-action. Receiver Amari Cooper dominated in 2012, and an even better ground attack will force Tech to stack the box and play man coverage.
With McCarron's entire skill set, Cooper makes some big plays to keep the Hokies honest. Defensively, although the Tide lost Dee Milliner and Robert Lester, Alabama remains stellar. Not only will Saban's preparedness slow down Logan Thomas, but his top playmakers—Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller—are gone.
Unless Beamer's defense generates an abundance of turnovers, the Tide will gradually pull away in the second half.
At Texas A&M Aggies
Just like the 2012 matchup, Johnny Manziel will be the difference.
The good news for Alabama, though, is Luke Joeckel being in the NFL. Now the pass rush will get a bit more pressure by collapsing the pocket to keep Manziel contained. But defending Manziel's passing ability will be a problem.
He can set up nicely from within the pocket and make tosses on the run. Ultimately, expect Saban to get more aggressive on the inside, because preaching assignment discipline on the edges will trap Manziel behind the line.
A&M's defense also took a hit with Damontre Moore and Sean Porter in pro ball. Despite 'Bama's losses as well, McCarron's cerebral approach of pre-snap reads and audibles will maintain efficiency.
Who is Alabama's toughest game in 2013?
The Aggies also ranked No. 80 in pass defense last year, so McCarron will attack downfield to capitalize off the run.
Vs. LSU Tigers
Here, just like against Texas A&M, the Crimson Tide have to up the tempo and force the issue on LSU. The Tigers aren't going to have their typical pass rush from recent seasons, and McCarron must take advantage with Cooper, Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell.
Miles, on the flip side, needs to rely on his offense.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger definitely brings the arm strength to press Saban's defense back. And the Tigers have the capability to match 'Bama when needed. The trio of Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone supply the potential to defeat man coverage and move the chains.
Winning in the trenches, though, is LSU's most favorable area. The Tigers have bruising backs in Jeremy Hill and Kenny Hilliard, which helps in short-yard situations.
It will be a higher-scoring contest than thought, and victory comes from the offense that initially sets the tempo.
At Mississippi State Bulldogs
Be wary of the Mississippi State Bulldogs in 2013.
Quarterback Tyler Russell knows how to spread the field, as evidenced by 24 touchdowns to just 10 picks and six players with more than 15 receptions (three with 36-plus). The Bulldogs also feature a dependable ground game in LaDarius Perkins.
Perkins averaged five yards a pop last fall and accounted for 1,176 total yards. Factor the punishing forte of guard Gabe Jackson, and Mississippi State will establish solid balance.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay are gone. Once again, the McCarron-to-Cooper connection then takes over to stretch the field and push the pace.
Include front seven defenders Josh Boyd and Cameron Lawrence gone, and Mississippi State won't slow 'Bama's offensive onslaught.