Alabama Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2016 Schedule
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If there’s one thing that was indisputable about the University of Alabama’s most recent national championship season, it’s the Crimson Tide played a worthy schedule.
Alabama faced nine opponents that were ranked at the time they played, which was a record for the most ever by a national champion.
It had an impressive neutral-site win in the season opener against Wisconsin. With Florida reaching the SEC Championship Game, Alabama had to play the top three teams in the East Division, and it knocked off the teams ranked No. 1 and 3 in the College Football Playoff.
Alabama also played in the sport’s toughest division, with every team ranked in the Associated Press poll at some point during the 2015 season and all seven finishing above .500 for the second straight year. Both of those things had never occurred before in college football.
This fall, it will have another challenging schedule, featuring many of the usual suspects and some new ones.
On paper, both Arkansas and Texas A&M may be as difficult an opponent for Alabama in 2016, especially if the Aggies make strides with second-year defensive coordinator John Chavis as many expect.
But it’s Auburn, and despite things not quite clicking last year, the Tigers are still the Tigers. You never quite know what’s going to happen in the Iron Bowl, as evidenced by their recent meetings, including the Kick Six game that derailed Alabama’s national championship hopes in 2013.
“I don’t think I have to tell anybody anything they don’t already know about this game,” Saban said before last year’s meeting. “The Iron Bowl is one of the great rivalries in college football. It means a lot to a lot of people in this state as well as all over the country. It’s certainly an opportunity you appreciate as a competitor.”
Incidentally, this is the only game on this list that will be played at Bryant-Denny Stadium, on Nov. 26.
Even with its off-field issues, Tennessee will be a popular pick to win the SEC East—and with good reason. The Volunteers return 17 starters, including nine in the offense led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
The real difference will be on the lines, where Tennessee has four returning starters on both the offensive and defensive sides.
This might be a make-or-break season for head coach Butch Jones, who hasn’t been able to take advantage of the other division powers struggling. To some, last year’s 9-4 finish was disappointing even though the Volunteers won their last six games, including the crushing 45-6 victory over No. 13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
The Vols have lost nine straight games in the series, dating back to before Saban arrived at Alabama with the 16-13 home victory in 2006. Tennessee also has a brutal stretch right before hosting the Crimson Tide, with the three preceding Saturdays, in order: versus Florida, at Georgia and at Texas A&M.
3. Southern California
In terms of pure talent, these may be the top two teams in the nation. The big unknown factor will be head coach Clay Helton, who has a record of 6-4.
He took over a program in disarray last season and led the Trojans to the Pac-12 Championship Game, where they subsequently lost to Stanford, 41-22, and then to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl.
Helton might be on the West Coast, but he’s an SEC guy, having been born in Gainesville, Florida, and was a backup quarterback at Auburn before transferring to Houston to play for his father.
Some of the previous matchups between the programs have been legendary, and Alabama has a 5-2 edge in the series, yet the buzz surrounding the game will center on two things in particular.
It’ll be a measuring stick as to how well USC and the Pac-12 in general stack up against the best in college football, and USC initially hired Helton to be its quarterbacks coach in 2010 under now-Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
That the season opener will be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where the Crimson Tide won twice in 2015, will only add to the hype.
2. Ole Miss
One would think that the only motivation Alabama needs is to see the scores 23-17 and 43-37, as Ole Miss is the only program since LSU in 2010-11 to win two consecutive games against the Crimson Tide.
Since that second LSU loss during the 2011 regular season, Alabama is 54-6 overall and 52-4 against every team that doesn’t call itself Ole Miss.
The Rebels will have home-field advantage in renovated Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, but Ole Miss is dealing with massive turnover, with only three returning starters on offense and five on defense.
The key returning player is quarterback Chad Kelly, but his offensive line has to be completely revamped.
Alabama, which will have a new starting quarterback for the third straight year, will be keeping a close eye when Ole Miss opens the season in Orlando against Florida State on Sept. 5.
Alabama has won five straight against its bayou rival, with head coach Les Miles barely surviving after last year’s 30-16 dominating performance by the Crimson Tide.
So the pressure will be on the Tigers to notch a big win at home, in arguably college football’s most intimidating stadium. Alabama needed a last-minute field goal and overtime to pull out a 20-13 victory in 2014, and T.J. Yeldon’s late 28-yard touchdown off a screen pass to win 21-17 in 2012.
No one would be surprised if the next meeting is just as close and/or gut-wrenching.
Physically, LSU has been Alabama’s toughest matchup year in and year out. Furthermore, the Tigers return 18 starters, including running back Leonard Fournette, who was the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy until he was stymied by the Crimson Tide.
It might, once again, be the game of the year in college football.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.