The Alabama Crimson Tide put together one of the most dominant performances in college football history in 2020. Alabama made easy work of its 10-game SEC-only schedule during the regular season and then beat a top-10 Florida squad by a not-as-close-as-it-looks 52-46 margin in the SEC Championship Game. The Tide also beat Notre Dame and Ohio State by a combined 83-38 in the College Football Playoff.
Of course, that was last season. Alabama must replace an incredible amount of talent, including six first-round picks (among nine total selections) in the 2021 NFL Draft, three of whom were finalists for the Heisman Trophy — winner DeVonta Smith among them. But the cupboard is far from bare. The current Crimson Tide roster has the highest average 247Sports Composite player rating overall (.9471), among offensive players (.9483), and among defensive players (.9457). With new quarterback Bryce Young, top returning receiver John Metchie III, stud tackle Evan Neal, and arguably the deepest, most talented defense in the country at his disposal, head coach Nick Saban’s team is the preseason No. 1 team in the country yet again.
The Crimson Tide can be expected to be favored in every regular-season game, but which opponent is the biggest obstacle to a repeat? We count down the toughest games on the Alabama football schedule.
12. Sept. 11 vs. Mercer
Mercer, an FCS opponent from the Southern Conference, played a split-season schedule in 2020-21. The Bears started 0-4 (three losses in October before returning to the field in February) but won five of their final seven games, including three wins over ranked opponents, to finish 5-6 (5-3).
11. Nov. 13 vs. New Mexico State
Speaking of FCS opponents, FBS independent New Mexico State sat out the 2020 campaign but was humiliated 43-17 by Tarleton State in February before rebounding for a 36-29 victory over Dixie State two weeks later to earn a 1-1 split in its short spring season. The Aggies may have a tough time beating UTEP and UMass, let alone Alabama.
10. Sept. 25 vs. Southern Miss
Southern Miss has three wins over the Crimson Tide in its history, all three of them upsets over ranked Alabama teams. Nevertheless, recent meetings haven’t been kind — the Tide won 49-7 in 2019. New head coach Will Hall brings optimism to Hattiesburg, and Frank Gore Jr. is a rising star in Conference USA, but the Golden Eagles probably won’t pick up another series victory anytime soon.
9. Oct. 16 at Mississippi State
Arguments can be made that Alabama will face easier tests in SEC play. After all, Mississippi State has an extra week to prepare for the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs will welcome Bama to Starkville. But it’s a close trip (75 miles closer than Auburn, in fact), and Mississippi State was shut out 41-0 in Tuscaloosa last season. Mike Leach’s offense should improve in his second go-round, but it’s highly unlikely the unit gives Alabama much trouble.
8. Oct. 23 vs. Tennessee
Tennessee lost seven of its final eight games of the 2020 season and then fired head coach Jeremy Pruitt late in the offseason coaching carousel. More than two dozen Vols have left via the transfer portal, and new head coach Josh Heupel will rely on several newcomers to be competitive in 2021. If Heupel can find a quarterback — and transfers Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton are competing with three-game starter Harrison Bailey, so there are options — his offense could be dangerous.
7. Nov. 20 vs. Arkansas
Four straight losses, including 52-3 to Alabama in the regular-season finale, took some shine off an otherwise impressive first season for head coach Sam Pittman. A 3-7 record may not seem like much, but the Razorbacks were much improved (and a little unlucky, having lost three games in which they had a post-game win expectancy of 67 percent or greater, according to cfb-graphs.com). Pittman hit the portal hard for help on both lines, but the defensive back-seven is solid, and new quarterback KJ Jefferson has one of the top weapons in the conference in receiver Treylon Burks.
6. Oct. 2 vs. Ole Miss
Expect Ole Miss to be a trendy pick to upset the Tide. The Rebels should be 3-0 in non-conference play and then have an early idle week to prepare for the trip to Tuscaloosa. Head coach Lane Kiffin knows Saban well, and his offense, led by Matt Corral, Jerrion Ealy, and a long list of capable receivers, could be one of the best in the nation. But the Ole Miss defense, which ranked 115th in yards per play (6.81) and points per drive (3.20), both according to Brian Fremeau, and 121st in Success Rate (47.8 percent) and Expected Points Added per play (0.163), both according to cfb-graphs.com, would need to make major strides.
5. Nov. 27 at Auburn
Expectations are modest for Auburn in Bryan Harsin’s first season on The Plains, but the former Boise State head coach inherited a talented and experienced roster capable of ruining any team’s weekend. The defense has a lot of moving pieces. Two starters were drafted, three transferred away, and as many as four newcomers could top the depth chart. But the offense returns quarterback Bo Nix, elite running back Tank Bigsby, and every offensive lineman who played a significant snap last season. There will also be a full house at Jordan-Hare, where the Tigers have won two in a row in the series.
4. Nov. 6 vs. LSU
LSU’s national title defense was a disaster in 2020, but the Tigers top nearly every preseason “most improved” list in 2021. Quarterback Max Johnson started late and led LSU to wins over Florida and Ole Miss, and he returns to lead the charge alongside All-American candidate Kayshon Boutte and a talented group of playmakers. The defense was dreadful last year, especially against the pass, but the secondary and pass rush should both be strengths this season. Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks might be the best cornerback duo in the nation and will test a young Alabama receiving corps.
3. Sept. 4 vs. Miami (in Atlanta)
Alabama is more than a two-touchdown favorite in its neutral-site season opener against the Hurricanes, and for good reason. The Crimson Tide are essentially unbeatable in Week 1 (in fact, not only has Saban never lost an opener at Alabama, but no opponent has come within double digits). However, Miami quarterback D’Eriq King is reportedly fully healthy following offseason knee surgery. Assuming he hasn’t lost a step, King’s mobility could be challenging for the Tide. Plus, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee (who together with King injected new life into the Hurricane offense last year) has successfully game-planned against Alabama before when he was a member of the Auburn staff.
2. Sept. 18 at Florida
The Gators kept the score respectable in the SEC Championship Game but still finished with just a 32 percent post-game win expectancy. Having to replace first-round talents Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, among eight players drafted (and a total of 10 starters from that game who are no longer on the roster), will be difficult. But there are a few factors worth considering that could help Florida. First, the Gators should work out the kinks of the new lineup (and under the direction of new signal-caller Emory Jones, specifically) in the first two games against Florida Atlantic and USF. Secondly, Florida plays the Crimson Tide in the SEC opener in Week 3 and could take advantage of any potential growing pains the young Alabama offense might experience early in the season. Third, The Swamp. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but the Gators won’t be pushovers.
1. Oct. 9 at Texas A&M
The biggest obstacle to another undefeated Alabama regular season, and to another SEC West crown, is the Texas A&M Aggies. Jimbo Fisher’s squad lost only once last season (52-24 in Tuscaloosa) and, despite some key personnel replacements, enters 2021 ranked No. 6 in the AP Top 25 with the College Football Playoff clearly in its sights. You may not find a deeper group of running backs in the country, and offensive lineman Kenyon Green and tight end Jalen Wydermyer are both among the very best at their positions. The defensive line (.9162) and secondary (.9262) each rank among the national top six in average 247Sports Composite ranking (No. 6 and No. 2, respectively), and the defense as a whole ranks No. 8 (.9030). New quarterback Haynes King (or Zach Calzada), four new starters on the offensive line, and defensive depth are the only question marks.
Texas A&M also has many of the scheduling benefits as Florida. The Aggies will host the Crimson Tide in the first half of the campaign, with a manageable schedule that will allow them to iron out any wrinkles from the offseason. A&M will be underdogs against Alabama (any team would be), but if there’s a team on the schedule capable of pulling off an upset, it’s the Aggies.