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SEC preview: Alabama

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In the only national poll released, Alabama is the prevailing No. 1 team in the nation. There is one coach -- the guy in Tuscaloosa -- who doesn't much care for that talk in August.

Coach Nick Saban -- right on cue and in a repeat stance from the year before when he attempted to drum up doubt that the Crimson Tide belonged with the nation's elite -- predictably bristled at the notion of being asked about defending consecutive national championships.

"In the last 21 years, you as the media have only picked the right team four times to win the SEC," he said at SEC Media Days. "Now if I was 4-17 as a coach, I'd be back in West Virginia pumping gas at my daddy's gas station."

You can bet a gallon of $3.65 unleaded that Saban and the Crimson Tide should get used to answering questions about a three-peat, though. With a two-time national championship quarterback handing off and throwing to arguably the most dynamic playmakers at running back and wide receiver in all of college football, who would logically pick against this team?

Sure, there are holes to fill along the offensive line and in the secondary, where the Tide lost no fewer than three first-round picks in April's NFL Draft. But with the depth this program's built, capable players will step in to replace the departed stars.

A whopping 16 players were named to the preseason All-SEC teams at SEC media days in July, including seven to the first team.

AJ McCarron is back under center, which is a good start for any team. Having blossomed from game manager into game-winner, McCarron could become the greatest quarterback in program history with a third straight title.

Sophomores T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper will lead the running and receiving corps, respectively, and would each be in Heisman Trophy contention were they doing it anywhere else but Tuscaloosa.

If there is worry, it's about the retooled offensive line. Guard Anthony Steen and tackle Cyrus Kouandijo were each preseason first-team All-SEC, but will they be in December? Their performance could determine if Alabama can three-peat in January. They're the only returning starters on an offensive line which lost two first-round picks in D.J. Fluker (San Diego) and Chance Warmack (Tennessee), plus the line's heartbeat in center Barrett Jones, a fourth-round pick of St. Louis.

The potent offense and retooled defense will have two major SEC tests before October's done, with a Sept. 14 trip to Texas A&M and a Sept. 28 visit from vastly-improved Ole Miss. But those who would bet against Alabama are brave, and more likely foolish. Just don't expect Saban to buy into any notion of superiority.

"It's crazy to speculate because of the fact that each year you have a different type of team," he said. "You always lose about 25 percent of your team in college."

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The season actually starts before the calendar flips to the ninth month as the Tide take on Virginia Tech Aug. 31 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Following an off week, Alabama starts SEC play on Sept. 14 at Texas A&M, the only team to beat the Tide last year. The home opener is Sept. 21 against Colorado State and former Tide offensive coordinator Jim McIlvain, followed by a visit from much-improved Ole Miss on the 28th. So the season's first month will be very challenging for this team. Will they be ready for the noise and heat of College Station, not to mention the playmaking brilliance of Manziel, so early in the season?

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Most Nick Saban-coached teams are defense first, but this one will be led -- at least early -- by the offense. In McCarron, TB T.J. Yeldon and WR Amari Cooper, they boast a nucleus not unlike the Dallas Cowboys' "Triplets" of 20 years ago (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin). LBs C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard lead a retooled defense that should be able to withstand the loss of first-round CB Dee Milliner. What's more, this team has so much talent that an injury at most positions wouldn't be a backbreaker. That's what years of attracting four- and five-star prospects do for you.

AREAS OF CONCERN: There will be three new starters on the offensive line, and that could be problematic in the season opener against a Virginia Tech side that can generate a big-time pass rush, not to mention the trip to Texas A&M. Who will become the top cover corner to replace Milliner, who in most games locked up a whole side of the field? If McCarron is injured, the offense could be compromised because the other quarterbacks might not be able to make the best possible use of Cooper. And who can replace PK Jeremy Shelley as a reliable maker of field goals?
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