Wednesday, July 28

Are there any chinks in Alabama's armor? (Anybody? Anybody?...)

The consistently awesome Senator Blutarsky -- showing more conscientiousness on his supposed vacation than I do on a normal day -- has left behind some goodies for his readers, today's being a series of polls soliciting opinions on how many wins to expect for each team in the SEC (starting with the West Division). His exercise prompted me to sit down with a copy of this year's SEC schedule and go through it, game by game, to get an idea of where everyone would end up in the standings.

When the smoke cleared, I realized that, among other questionable judgments, I had Alabama ending up at 12-0.

It's obviously not all that far-fetched as conclusions go -- Nick Saban's obviously got them operating at maximum efficiency and then some, to the point that the Tide are basically the consensus #1 across the punditocracy's unofficial preseason rankings. Still, the law of averages dictates that it's going to be extremely difficult for any team, even one as good as the Tide, to rumble through a third straight regular season unscathed. For starters, they're only returning two starters on defense after having handed over a staggering amount of talent in the first three rounds of the NFL draft; there's also that matter of six SEC foes getting a bye the week before they face Bama (about which the always-meek Tide diehards have hardly uttered a word of complaint).

So if the Tide do have to get upended by someone, who's it most likely to be? Take a look at the rundown of the most likely contenders, then cast your vote at the bottom.

PENN STATE (Tuscaloosa, Sept. 11)
Points in favor of an upset:
Name-brand team with one of the nation's top returning RBs (Evan Royster) as well as a big, experienced line to put in front of him, which will be a major test for Bama's gutted front seven.
Points against: PSU's situation on defense is almost as shaky as Bama's -- their entire starting LB corps from last year is gone -- and none of their QBs are anywhere near as accomplished as Greg McElroy. Bama has had very little trouble in these marquee early-season games over the past couple seasons.
Prognosis: Not great. Saban is cash money in games like this, and it's hard to picture a Big Ten team coming out victorious at Bryant-Denny.

ARKANSAS (Fayetteville, Sept. 25)
Points in favor of an upset:
Maybe the most potent offense Bama will face all year, with all but one offensive starter returning. Ryan Mallett gives Arkansas a chance in every game they play. The game's in Fayetteville.
Points against: Alabama will be coming off an almost certain blowout win at Duke, while Arkansas will be returning home from a date at Georgia. Mallett played like cold stale ass against the Tide last year (12-of-35 for 160 yards, one TD, and a pick in a 35-7 loss); the Arkansas defense, meanwhile, has sucked out loud since Petrino got there.
Prognosis: Poor. Arkansas could be good this year, but "good enough to beat the defending national champs" sits squarely in the I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it file.

FLORIDA (Tuscaloosa, Oct. 2)
Points in favor of an upset:
It's Florida, a team that will no doubt be looking for revenge after having gotten cornholed in the SEC title game last December. They've got a terrific offensive line and three of the fastest RBs in the country, all of whom will be poised to strike at the Bama defense right where they're most vulnerable.
Points against: Trading Tebow for a junior making only his fifth career start robs the Gators of any air of invincibility. No more Charlie Strong, either.
Prognosis: Decent, but it's still hard to see Alabama not coming out on top at home; the loss of Tebow, Strong, Riley Cooper, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon James equals, if not exceeds, any glaring losses on the Bama side.

SOUTH CAROLINA (Columbia, Oct. 9)
Points in favor of an upset:
The 'Cocks return more starters than any other team in the conference, including four of five on the O-line and maybe the most promising RB corps they've had in years. As a rule, beware night games in Columbia.
Points against: Carolina winning a meaningful game period, much less against the defending champs, is kind of a surreal picture. It certainly isn't going to happen without a stellar game from the quarterback, but Spurrier has sounded like he's one sideways glance away from strangling Stephen Garcia all summer long. As a rule, positive signs about the Gamecock O-line have been meaningless.
Prognosis: Am I crazy if I say "not that bad"? Carolina will be coming off a bye, and as mediocre as they've been at many points in Spurrier's tenure, they've claimed a top-10 scalp in two of the last three seasons (and come achingly close in many other such opportunities). Given Carolina's M.O., it'd be just like them to knock off Bama to get to 3-2 or 4-1, win a few more games to come within striking distance of the top 10 and get everyone excited, then pull their usual collapse down the stretch.

OLE MISS (Tuscaloosa, Oct. 16)
Points in favor of an upset:
Whenever people start pooh-poohing a Houston Nutt team, that's when you should worry. Has one of the few front sevens that will give Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson any kind of challenge all year. Potential for Alabama to be looking ahead to the Tennessee game.
Points against: Landing Jeremiah Masoli looks like basically the only chance they have of putting up any kind of offense this year. Very green secondary will be a big fat bullseye for McElroy. The game's in Tuscaloosa.
Prognosis: Poor. Nutt is always a threat to pull a stunner of an upset, but he's just got too much talent to replace this year.

TENNESSEE (Knoxville, Oct. 23)
Points in favor of an upset:
If ever there was a year to overlook the Vols, it's this one. Tauren Poole will be a real threat against the Alabama defensive front. The game's in Knoxville.
Points against: Other than Poole, UT's offense may be so horrendous this year that Alabama's defensive inexperience may not even matter. And even Poole will only be able to do so much behind the ragtag O-line Tennessee will have to field.
Prognosis: Sub-poor. Saban has yet to lose to the Vols as Bama's coach, and that includes his first year in Tuscaloosa, when his guys barely made bowl eligibility and Tennessee won the East; it's not gonna happen this year.

LSU (Baton Rouge, Nov. 6)
Points in favor of an upset:
This game has rocketed to the top of the list of games the Tigers get geeked up for each year, as evidenced by achingly close games against demonstrably superior Bama squads in each of the past two seasons. The defense should continue to improve under John Chavis. It's hard to bet against LSU in a night game at home.
Points against: LSU is tied with Vandy for the fewest returning starters in the SEC, and that's not good coming off a year when they were mediocre or worse in nearly every statistical category. The offense, in particular, could be a mess.
Prognosis: Should be good -- and might be, by the time this game is played -- but I don't think it is. LSU got to nine wins last season in spite of being statistically awful; when a team with this much raw athletic talent relies that much on luck to win games, they're wasting a lot of that talent, and I don't see a whole lot to convince me that's going to change substantially in 2010.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (Tuscaloosa, Nov. 13)
Points in favor of an upset:
Dan Mullen clearly has this team pointed in the right direction; they were quite competitive against LSU, Florida, and Ole Miss last year. The defense could be pretty good, particularly against the pass.
Points against: The gap in talent between the two teams remains substantial. Mullen is still struggling to implement his system with the players he's got.
Prognosis: Bad. I know, it wasn't that long ago that Alabama was getting punked by State on the regular, but Bama has clearly come a long way since then; MSU still has a long way to go.

AUBURN (Tuscaloosa, Nov. 26)
Points in favor of an upset:
With Gus Malzahn masterminding the playbook, Auburn's offense could be even better than last season's, while Bama's will almost certainly be worse -- not good considering how easy Auburn made it look in jumping out to a 14-0 lead in Auburn last year.
Points against: Auburn's defense wasn't anything special itself, particularly against the run. As surprising as Auburn was last year, the thought of Gene Chizik knocking off Nick Saban in T-Town remains surreal.
Prognosis: Honestly? Not that bad. I think Auburn's one of the most underrated teams in the country at the moment. Should Alabama roll into this game 11-0, though, it becomes that much harder for me to picture Auburn knocking them off.

Your turn:

Feel free to expound on your choice(s) in the comments.

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