Alabama comes into 2010 ranked No. 1 in both the AP and Coaches' Polls, and the oddsmakers in Las Vegas seem to agree, making them a 4:1 favorite to repeat as BCS Champion. They received 54 out of a possible 60 first-place votes in the AP Poll, with Ohio State garnering 3 votes, and Boise State, Texas, and Oklahoma each bringing home a single vote. The Coaches' Poll was quite similar; 'Bama brought home 55 of the 59 first-place votes, while Ohio State was the recipient of the other four.
With Alabama being the "buzz" of the college football world since their dismantling of the Texas Longhorns last January, one has to wonder if they will go unbeaten once more. Both the coaches and sportswriters alike think they are deserving of their No.1 ranking, but does this mean they will go undefeated? Not necessarily. We only need to reflect back to 2007, when the LSU Tigers brought the BCS Trophy home to Baton Rouge with a pair of losses. In fact, it has become rather commonplace to win college football's top honor with a defeat. With the exception of last year, the previous three champions each had at least one setback. (Florida had one loss in both 2006 and 2008)
After all this talk, one might think that Nick Saban & Company are worry-free down in Tuscaloosa. But for anyone who has been watching "All-Access" on ESPN this month, you can see that the hardest working coach in college football has his hands full. Replacing nine starters on defense and game-planning for one of the hardest football schedules in the nation are just a few of the obstacles facing the Crimson Tide this year.
Other hindrances facing the Crimson Tide in 2010 are their lack of depth in one of the nation's youngest defensive backfields, scheduling issues that include six SEC opponents having a "bye" the week before they face Alabama, the impact of "AgentGate" on the eligibility of Marcel Dareus, and the added pressures that come with both the 2009 BCS Championship Trophy and Heisman Trophy resting in Tuscaloosa.
With that said, here are the Top Five teams with the best chance of knocking Alabama off its lofty perch atop the college football landscape in 2010.
Baton Rouge is the setting for what will be one of the best games of the 2010 college football slate. Early predictions are that Lee Corso and ESPN College GameDay will be there. Nick Saban will be there. Les Miles will be there. Will Jordan Jefferson show up? That is the million-dollar question that just might keep Miles from standing in the unemployment line come January 2011.
By the time this game rolls around, both Alabama and LSU should have a good idea of what the postseason has in store for them. While both teams are knee-deep in the middle of their SEC schedules, this game has SEC West Champion written all over it. The loser of this game will more than likely be sitting at home the first weekend in December, rather than playing for the SEC Championship in Atlanta.
Both Alabama and LSU should be plenty rested and hopefully injury-free entering this game having had a "bye" week before this matchup in Death Valley.
While 2009 was a lackluster year for Jordan Jefferson, he is poised to have a break-out year in the 2010 campaign. And with one of the best secondaries in college football, Patrick Peterson leads a revamped and much improved LSU defense. Will the inexperience along their defensive line be able to corral Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson? Or will Julio Jones turn a quick catch into a 70-yard touchdown down the side-line, reminiscent Alabama's 24-15 victory in Tuscaloosa last year?
The keys to this game will most likely be in the passing game. Can Greg McElroy or Jordan Jefferson be mistake-free? Have Mark Barron and the rest of Alabama's secondary gone through their "growing pains" by now?
If Jefferson can take advantage of the crowd in Baton Rouge, his team may be able to walk away with a win and just might save his head coach's job.
The Florida Gators venture into Tuscaloosa the first week in October in what might be another classic No.1 vs. No. 2 slugfest. If that happens, this will be the third time in three years that this has occurred. (The previous two instances were the 2008 and 2009 SEC Championship games) The Tebow-less Gators should be 4-0 entering this game, with their toughest competition thus far having been Kentucky the week before. Alabama, meanwhile, enters the game having dueled with Ryan Mallet in Fayetteville the week before.
Alabama's inexperienced secondary should have met its match against Arkansas, so Saban should know what to expect out of them against John Brantley and the Gators. The big question is not with Alabama in this game. I fully expect them to come out with a similar offensive game-plan that dismantled Florida 32-13 in last year's title bout. It is whether John Brantley is ready to take the reigns at Florida and handle the pressure of playing the #1 team in America. Greg McElroy has been here before. Brantley has not.
Early consensus is that these teams will be meeting again the first weekend in December, for their third straight SEC Championship appearance against each other. Feelings around the Gainesville family are ones of revenge and redemption. They were downright embarrassed last December.
Will those feelings be enough to stop Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide this year?
Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN predicts the Iron Bowl will decide the SEC West Champion. The opinions of other sportswriters across America vary. During SEC Media Days, the writers predicted Auburn finishing as high as 1st in the West, to as low as 5th. The general consensus was Auburn would finish 3rd or 4th in the West. Of course this is all speculation.
Any fan from the state of Alabama knows that one team could be undefeated, and one team could be winless, coming into the Iron Bowl. The result will always be the same. There will be a hard-fought contest year in and year out. It's tradition. There is a chance that both Alabama and Auburn meet with perfect 11-0 records. It's not out of the realm of possibility. Alabama has a much harder road to get there than Auburn does with Florida being on their schedule.
Both teams should be firing on all cylinders by the time this game comes around, with the exception of any injuries. Auburn comes off a "bye" week while Alabama faces Georgia State the week before. If Alabama needed to rest any players with nagging injuries before the Iron Bowl, I trust Nick Saban will have held them out of the GSU game. This is Georgia State's first year of football. The only highlights to their roster are former Alabama Head Coach, Bill Curry, and former backup Quarterback Star Jackson, who takes the realm for the Panthers. Alabama should be favored by infinity, and thus will be well rested for the Iron Bowl clash.
Question marks remain from last year's Auburn defense. The Tigers secondary was "banged up" in 2009, but the majority return. Craig Stevens leads a linebacking corps that should be improved as well.
Offensively, Cam Newton (pictured) takes over at quarterback. Newton was a 5 Star JUCO signee in last year's #4 ranked recruiting class. He originally signed with Florida before transferring to community college. The hype surrounding Newton in the Auburn "inner circles" is that he can make them a contender. That remains to be seen. Being a dual-threat quarterback for a community college is much different than the SEC.
Another highly-touted recruit from Auburn's recruiting class is Michael Dyer, one of the top running backs in the nation last year coming all the way from Arkansas. Arkansas continues to be a hot-recruiting bed for offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn's play calling in last year's Iron Bowl almost led to an upset of last year's BCS National Champions. His play calling, along with the impact, or lack of, of Auburn's highly-touted recruits will most likely decide this traditional in-state battle.
Fayetteville is the site of Alabama's first true test of the young 2010 season. Many people think that Penn State would be the first test, but the Nittany Lions should not be much of a factor in Tuscaloosa this year. Both teams have a good chance of being undefeated for this meeting, if Arkansas is able to get past Mark Richt and his Georgia Bulldogs.
Many Arkansas fans would rather forget last year's meeting, a 35-7 trouncing in Tuscaloosa. Head of that list would be Ryan Mallet. Arkansas's quarterback, and future NFL first-round draft choice, was pick-pocketed four times last year by Alabama's defense, and those numbers must be way down in order for them to pull an upset this year.
Alabama's cornerbacks will have their work cut out for them. San Jose State and Duke, much less the rookie quarterbacks of Penn State, do not have anything compared to what they face in Arkansas. Matching up against what most sportswriters call the best receiving corps in the SEC will prove to be the toughest job of their young careers thus far.
Alabama will more than likely have to score abundantly to keep up with Arkansas in what should be a high-scoring affair. Questions remain as to whether the Razorback defense will be better than their dismal unit from 2009 that ranked last, or next to last, in almost all defensive statistical categories. If they can improve and shut down Alabama's running game, they just might have a chance of pulling an early upset.
It all falls on Mallet. Will he follow in the footsteps of the over-hyped Jevan Snead of Ole Miss last year, or can he learn from the beating that he took last year and turn the tables on the Tide? If he does, the Razorbacks have a great shot at heading to Atlanta in December.
The second week in October looks to be the toughest matchup on Alabama's schedule this year. South Carolina has enough advantages coming into this game, that if they can get some decent quarterback play out of Stephen Garcia, and upset is definitely plausible.
Here are some of the advantages that South Carolina has this year: First off, South Carolina has home field advantage. Columbia is never an easy place to get a road win. Secondly, USC benefits from scheduling. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks have a "Bye" (have you noticed the trend here with the "bye" weeks of Alabama's opponents) the week before the 'Bama game. Alabama comes into the game having faced Arkansas in Fayetteville and the Florida Gators in Tuscaloosa the previous two weeks. Barring a miracle, the Crimson Tide will most likely be a little "dinged up" coming into this match-up.
If Alabama comes into this game undefeated, they could be in for a huge "let-down" after the gauntlet of opponents they just faced. The timing could be just right for the upstart Gamecocks. With what is considered to be Spurrier's most talented team to date, the ol' ball coach most likely still has a few tricks up his sleeve. If the running game is led be new sensation, Marcus Lattimore, and Garcia is able to play mistake-free, then this game has upset written all over it.
That's why the South Carolina Gamecocks have the best chance of pulling off an upset over the defending BCS Champions..........