Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide are judged on what they do in the month of December and January. Win the SEC West. Make it to Atlanta. Win two College Football Playoff games and hoist the national championship.
But before that, they must navigate an SEC schedule that includes foes annual foes and rivals such as Tennessee, LSU and Auburn. However, in 2019, the Tide's stiffest competition may come from Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M Aggies. Here’s a breakdown of Alabama’s 2019 slate ranked from easiest to toughest tasks:
12. Nov. 23 vs. Western Carolina
The annual "cupcake" game for the Crimson Tide between the Mississippi State contest and the Iron Bowl. The Catamounts went 3-8 in 2018 and are merely an exhibition game coming out of the Southern Conference in the FCS ranks. But don't tell Nick Saban that. He expects his players to be prepared and for the Bama faithful to sit in their seats for all 60 minutes during what should be a five-score game at halftime.
11. Sept. 7 vs. New Mexico State
Alabama's less-than-thrilling home slate begins in week 2 when the Aggies come to Tuscaloosa, as the Crimson Tide will be coming off of their weekend opener vs. Duke in Atlanta. NMSU sophomore quarterback Josh Adkins leads an offense that will seek to improve upon their 97th national ranking for yards per game in 2018.
10. Sept. 21 vs. Southern Miss
The Golden Eagles come to Bryant Denny Stadium after an 8-4 campaign in 2018 and make no mistake about it, this is their national championship game. Jay Hopson's squad returns 13 starters and hung around against Auburn last season before losing by 11 points. Southern Miss will be feisty against the Tide for at least a half.
9. Oct. 26 vs. Arkansas
Chad Morris and the Razorbacks are looking to improve significantly from a two-win 2018 campaign. The transition from Brett Bielema's offense will continue to be a long one. Quarterback's Ty Storey and Coley Kelley are gone as SMU graduate transfer Ben Hicks will likely lead the Hogs' attack in 2019.
8. Sept. 28 vs. Ole Miss
Matt Luke has a daunting task this season trying to replace a trio of offensive playmakers in Jordan Ta'amu, D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, as well as solid tackle Greg Little. Redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Corral takes the reigns and should be helped by talented running back Scottie Phillips. The Rebels are in for a tall order in T-Town in late September.
7. Aug. 31 vs. Duke (Atlanta)
David Cutcliffe has done a good job with the Blue Devils and remains an underrated coach in college football. Duke returns nine starters on defense as well as four starters long the offensive line. That's a good thing, as the Blue Devils must replace the majority of its passing attack, most notably quarterback Daniel Jones, who was the sixth overall pick in this year's NFL draft. Fifth-year senior Quentin Harris will need to play the game of his life to help Duke keep the score manageable heading into the second half.
6. Oct. 19 vs. Tennessee
No former Alabama assistant under Nick Saban has defeated the Crimson Tide during his tenure, but Jeremy Pruitt will try his best when he returns to Tuscaloosa for the Third Saturday in October. The Volunteers return most of its starting offense and quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has weapons galore in wide receivers Marquez Callaway, Josh Palmer and Jauan Jennings. Tennessee also will be transitioning to more of a pro-style offense under new coordinator Jim Chaney. Pruitt has a talented and fairly deep secondary, but can the Volts generate enough of a pass rush to throw Tua Tagovailoa and company off of their game? The development and progress of the offensive line, namely freshmen tackles Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris, could be a huge key to this game.
5. Nov. 16 at Mississippi State
Last season, the Tide blanked the Bulldogs 24-0. Will Penn State transfer quarterback Tommy Stevens or talented junior Keytaon Thompson help second-year head coach Joe Moorhead reverse MSU's fortunes? The Starkville faithful are hoping so, especially since the nation's top defense has to replace eight starters, including All-SEC linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. The last time this game was played in Starkville (2017), Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs took Saban and the Tide down to the wire. I don't see that happening again, but give me more cowbell!
4. Sept. 14 at South Carolina
Alabama last played at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2010 and left Columbia with a loss. Jake Bentley will need to have a day like Stephen Garcia did nine years ago if Will Muschamp and the Gamecocks are to upset the Crimson Tide again. South Carolina features one of the better front sevens in the SEC but the key could be the running game. If the Gamecocks can get senior running back Rico Dowdle going, that will take some of the pressure off of Bentley to make things happen.
3. Nov. 9 vs. LSU
The fiercest matchup in the SEC has been a lopsided affair as of late. So much so that CBS has taken this game out of its Saturday prime-time slot. The Tigers will look to build off of a 10-win season under Ed Orgeron and end Alabama's eight-game winning streak in the series. If they are to do so, senior quarterback Joe Burrow needs to be flawless. Talented wide receiver Justin Jefferson is the playmaker on the perimeter that this LSU offense desperately needs.
2. Nov. 30 at Auburn
The Tigers are the most perplexing team in all of college football. Up and down, up and down. This game could very well seal Gus Malzahn's fate on the Plains. The Tigers boast the best defensive line in the nation with studs Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. JaTarvious Whitlow is a dependable running back and wide receiver Anthony Schwartz has speed to burn, but as usual, it will come down to the quarterback play for Auburn. Should Joey Gatewood or Bo Nix emerge as a serviceable signal-caller, the Tigers have a shot at winning the SEC West or at least spoiling Alabama's Thanksgiving weekend (at minimum). If not, this could be it for Gus.
1. Oct. 12 at Texas A&M
Without a doubt, the most daunting challenge for Alabama in 2019 will be a visit to Kyle Field in College Station. A year ago, Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies nearly defeated Clemson, coming up short, 28-26. Kellen Mond is the real deal and is surrounded by six other returning starters on the offense. This contest will likely come down to A&M's defense and if the Aggies can hold the Tide in check. If they can, we likely will have a game entering the fourth quarter. Texas A&M gets another shot at Clemson, in week 2 in Death Valley. If the Aggies can find a way to knock off the defending national champs in early September, then the national implications for this mid-October matchup will be even greater.
— Written by Nick Kayal, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as a college football and NFL writer. Nick is a Morning Show Host in Nashville on 102.5 The Game. Follow him on Twitter @NickKayal.