Alabama’s two toughest games are, almost without question, its first and last of the regular season.
None of us can wait any longer to finally see the Crimson Tide clash with Florida State. But what will that game mean for either team in the immediate aftermath? Both have tremendously high expectations and plenty of opportunities to get better throughout the season.
Can the Tide make it four straight SEC titles? They will certainly be favored to, regardless of how many potential roadblocks there are — and there are a few on this year’s slate.
Here is how the entire Alabama schedule stacks up, ranked from easiest game to most difficult.
12. Nov. 18 vs. Mercer
Mercer plays Alabama and Auburn this year, meaning the Bears are at least getting rich while getting beat.
11. Sept. 9 vs. Fresno State
What are reasonable expectations for Jeff Tedford in Year 1 with the Bulldogs? Whatever they are, they probably don’t include winning at Alabama, especially a week before heading to Seattle to face another 2016 College Football Playoff team, Washington.
10. Sept. 16 vs. Colorado State
Mike Bobo’s third Rams team should score plenty of points, but early concerns on defense, among other factors, make topping the Tide a tall order.
9. Sept. 23 at Vanderbilt
This game is fun for the simple fact that this is the first meeting between the SEC schools in six years — despite, of course, being in the same “conference” ... whatever that means anymore. If we really wanted to be snarky, we’d say the Commodores haven’t scored a point against the Tide in 10 years. But we wouldn’t do that. (Bama won the 2011 meeting 34-0, the first game between the two since 2007.)
8. Oct. 14 vs. Arkansas
For all of Alabama’s dominance in the SEC West under Nick Saban, the Razorbacks are the only division team that the Tide remain undefeated against during his tenure. It would be a surprise if Bama didn’t extend its win streak over the Hogs to 11, considering this is a home game and given the question marks around Arkansas entering this season.
7. Oct. 21 vs. Tennessee
The Third Saturday in October has been decidedly one-sided in the Saban era — to the tune of a 10-0 Tide record against the Volunteers. But Tennessee has played Bama tough before in Tuscaloosa — most notably in 2009 and ‘15 — meaning this game, like most rivalries, is far from a sure thing.
6. Nov. 11 at Mississippi State
Junior Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald looks very promising for the Bulldogs, and Stark Vegas will be electric for this one. Let’s not overlook the fact that this game comes a week after the LSU contest, too — a hangover effect that has affected the Tide even after wins over the Tigers.
5. Sept. 30 vs. Ole Miss
Recent history in this matchup forces us to put it in the top five of Bama’s toughest games, regardless of the questions surrounding the Rebels this season. Ole Miss handed the Tide their only regular-season losses in both 2014 and ‘15 and darn near did it again last September, falling 48-43 in a year the Rebels didn’t even qualify for a bowl game.
4. Nov. 4 vs. LSU
The talent on the field in this rivalry, and the hitting, remains unmatched. But the actual balance of the rivalry has been lacking: Since a 9-6 OT loss in 2011, Alabama has won six straight against the Tigers by a cumulative margin of 140-67. This game comes off a bye for both teams.
3. Oct. 7 at Texas A&M
The Tide have made relatively quick work of the Aggies since Johnny Football left, but A&M always has a loaded roster. The combination of talent, home-field advantage and the potential pressure on Kevin Sumlin to deliver another signature win could make this a dangerous trip for Saban and Co.
2. Nov. 25 at Auburn
You never know what to expect during the Iron Bowl, and that could hold doubly true this season if the Tigers live up to the preseason expectations. Jordan-Hare Stadium is the site of this year’s contest, and Auburn is thinking big after a surprising run to the Sugar Bowl last season. The Tigers have the offensive weapons to potentially give the Tide defense trouble.
1. Sept. 3 vs. Florida State (Atlanta)
This is the game we have all been waiting for... and the game we won’t have to wait much longer for. Saban vs. Jimbo. SEC vs. ACC. Two of the last four national champions. Buckle up. This one should be worth the wait.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.