With the backdrop of spring practice officially underway this week, Nick Saban’s mission over the next month of practices will be to prepare the 2014 edition of the Crimson Tide to navigate a challenging schedule.
Beginning with another quality nonconference opponent in West Virginia in the season opener on Aug. 30 in Atlanta and ending with the annual Iron Bowl clash against Auburn, Alabama’s slate features a number of tough games from start to finish.
Home games against Texas A&M and Auburn—two teams that pushed the Tide to the limit last season—will give Saban and his staff a chance to match wits against offensive maestros Kevin Sumlin and Gus Malzahn.
Meanwhile, road tilts at Ole Miss and LSU are waiting for the Tide after their two bye weeks.
Additionally, teams such as Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee enter 2014 with considerably more positive momentum after disappointing campaigns last season.
Which contests signify the toughest games on Alabama’s upcoming schedule? Let’s break down the five hardest contests for the Tide entering the season.
5. Nov. 15 vs. Mississippi State
The case can be made that the nosedive that concluded the 2013 season began in Alabama’s sloppy 20-7 win at Mississippi State two weeks before the loss to Auburn.
Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs will undoubtedly have a tougher time giving the Tide fits in Bryant-Denny Stadium this fall—especially considering that they have lost their last three trips to Tuscaloosa by an average of 25 points.
However, the Bulldogs return 18 starters this year, including quarterback and budding star Dak Prescott, who didn’t play in last year’s meeting due to injury.
Additionally, 10 of those starters are back on defense, and the Bulldogs once again catch the Tide a week after they play LSU—a spot in the schedule that has seen the Tide struggle in recent years.
4. Oct. 4 at Ole Miss
After hanging tough with Alabama into the second half in each of the last two meetings—which, in a rare scheduling quirk, were both held in Tuscaloosa—Ole Miss will finally get the Tide to make the trek to Oxford on the first Saturday in October.
The Rebels made a remarkable turnaround under Hugh Freeze in 2011 and return 15 starters from a team that finished 8-5 last season.
A veteran defense with nine starters returning and an offense led by senior quarterback Bo Wallace and reigning SEC Freshman of the Year Laquon Treadwell give the Rebels a chance to continue the program’s upward climb.
While Alabama gets a bye in advance of the meeting against the Rebels, this is a game that could potentially give the Tide their stiffest test in the first half of the season.
3. Oct. 18 vs. Texas A&M
Perhaps no team has frustrated Alabama more in the last two seasons than Kevin Sumlin’s Texas A&M squad.
While Tide fans can breathe a sigh of relief knowing Johnny Manziel is off to the NFL, Sumlin has recruited well enough to ensure that his high-octane attack will still reload in a hurry.
The offensive line returns four starters, and the skill positions are loaded with weapons at running back, receiver and tight end.
While the defense is clearly in need of an upgrade, help is on the way from a decorated freshman class led by 5-star defensive end Myles Garrett, who was rated as the top overall player in the 2014 class by 247Sports.
2. Nov. 8 at LSU
Beginning with its win over LSU in the 2011 BCS title game, Alabama has swung the momentum in the rivalry between the two SEC titans by claiming the last three meetings.
However, if there’s one team that consistently brings out the best in the Tide and pushes them to the limit, it's Les Miles’ club.
The last meeting in Death Valley was an instant classic, with AJ McCarron leading a last-minute touchdown drive to rally the Tide to a 21-17 win.
With LSU desperately needing a win to alter the course of the series, expect the Tigers to play with an added sense of urgency when the Tide roll into Baton Rouge in early November.
1. Nov. 29 vs. Auburn
For supporters of the Tide program, the pain from the season-ending, 34-28 last-second loss to Auburn is unlikely to subside until the Tigers walk into Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 29.
The fallout from that loss is part of the reason why the Tide enter 2014 with something to prove.
Whether it’s a defense that struggled mightily to contain the hurry-up, no-huddle offenses employed by the likes of Gus Malzahn, or an offense that failed to play with the physical identity that had become an integral part of the team’s foundation in its recent title run, there are legitimate questions about how the Tide’s program will respond to the failures that marred the 2013 season.
Unlike the Gene Chizik era, Malzahn’s Tigers have the look of a program only scratching the surface of what it's capable of.
While there are plenty of games that will garner the interest of fans across the country as the season approaches, none can match the appeal or anticipation for the 2014 Iron Bowl—which is exactly the way it should be.