Alabama has a loaded roster that will challenge for the school's third consecutive BCS national title.
There are not many challenges that have gotten the best of Nick Saban and his Alabama program in recent memory.
The 2013 version of the Crimson Tide appears to have everything in place to make a run at the school’s 16th national title in school history, but the road to winning its third straight crystal football is sure to have its share of potential hiccups.
But what are some of the most significant hurdles for Saban’s club this fall?
A combination of new faces in key positions and the pressure of maintaining a dynasty is bound to provide moments of intrigue in the fall.
Here are the four biggest challenges that Saban and the Tide will face in 2013.
While Saban is lauded for his ability to continue to lure top-flight talent to Tuscaloosa in droves, perhaps he doesn’t get enough credit for developing that talent.
Year after year, the Tide lose a batch of players bound for the NFL, and he’s been able to reload on a level the likes of which the sport has never seen.
This year, players with experience, like defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, corners John Fulton and Geno Smith and defensive tackle Brandon Ivory, must adjust to being counted on as the leaders of their respective units.
These players were all heavily recruited and have shown flashes of their ability already, but none of them appear to be sure-fire NFL-caliber replacements whom the Tide have enjoyed at most of those positions.
That said, given Saban’s history of plugging in players over the years, this is a challenge that he’s all too familiar with and one that’s he’s continually met over the course of his career. At this point, expecting the new faces on his roster to rise to the Tide's high standards is par for the course.
Both the offensive and defensive lines—staples of dominance in the Tide’s recent run—will look quite different from the last few years.
Three new starters and a new offensive line coach in Mario Cristobal will be responsible for trying to block for a loaded cast of skilled talent surrounding them.
If the spring is any indicator of their performance and their ability to mesh as a group, the Tide will be just fine on the offensive line. But developing the cohesiveness that they have enjoyed up front in recent years will be an ongoing process throughout the upcoming season.
Meanwhile, defensively, a change in philosophy may be on the horizon.
In order to deal with spread quarterbacks such as Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel, Saban has a goal of adding more athleticism to the Tide’s defensive line, per Alex Scarborough of TideNation:
“We added fast-twitch pass-rushing athletic guys to the defensive line category, it being a higher priority because of spread offenses, more spread offenses, more athletic quarterbacks, those types of things.”
With showdowns against mobile maestros such as Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas and Manziel in the first two games of the season, Saban’s defensive adjustments up front will get tested right from the start this season.
Saban has specialized in molding dominant secondaries in his time at the Capstone, and he has some special pieces to work with this fall—especially at both safety positions.
The situation at corner is a little more of a concern with Fulton missing the spring rehabbing from a toe injury. The play of senior Deion Belue in the spring is an encouraging sign, as is the development of rising sophomore Smith.
Former receiver Cyrus Jones converted to corner in the spring with mixed results as expected. But depth could become an issue should injuries hit the position. With spread teams trotting out four and five receivers, having multiple corners who can hold up in man-to-man coverage is essential in slowing those attacks down.
With Alabama’s collection of crystal trophies expanding at a rapid rate, Saban has been able to conquer gravity—at least the version that governs the college football universe.
Even with the issues stated before, Alabama is still the team with the biggest bull's-eye on its back entering the season, and with good reason. The schedule appears to be more favorable than the Tide have fielded in previous title runs, and there’s droves of experience and talent available on both sides of the ball.
Perhaps the Tide’s biggest challenge will be maintaining their level of focus and intensity week in and week out—while tuning out the noise from the outside that will build as they inch closer toward history.
The margin for error is razor-thin, and they will undoubtedly take every opponent’s best shot. But that is nothing new to Saban or the Tide's program.
Regardless of how the season plays out, the road to determining 2013's national champions will undoubtedly have to go through the reigning two-time defending champs.