The Crimson Tide will be tested in November
Despite suffering an upset loss to Auburn in the 2017 Iron Bowl, the Alabama Crimson Tide snuck into the College Football Playoff and emerged with the sixth national championship of the Nick Saban era. But looking ahead to 2018, a repeat will be difficult.
First and foremost, Saban must replace an incredible amount of talent, including 12 players selected in the 2018 NFL Draft (four in the first round alone). Saban also lost both coordinators and multiple assistants from last year’s championship squad — now a nearly annual practice in Tuscaloosa.
Nevertheless, the Tide rolls on. Alabama will likely to be favored in all 12 regular season games in 2018. Yet as we saw last year, the Crimson Tide aren’t invincible. And with that in mind, we rank the toughest games on Alabama’s 2018 schedule.
12. Nov. 17 vs. The Citadel
Some call it Cupcake Week, and others refer to it as So-Con Saturday, but whatever the name, Alabama will host FCS Southern Conference opponent The Citadel during what has largely become the most despised annual tradition in college football: SEC heavyweights playing weak non-conference tune-ups the weekend before pivotal rivalry contests. The Bulldogs posted a 5-6 record last season, and lost to Clemson 61-3 in their only matchup with an FBS opponent.
11. Sept. 29 vs. Louisiana
Only slightly better, Alabama is set to host two Sun Belt conference opponents in September. Louisiana (or Louisiana-Lafayette or Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns or UL-Lafayette or ULL, or whatever we’re calling them these days) recently hired Billy Napier, a former Saban assistant who spent 2017 as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator, as its new head coach. Napier replaced the well-regarded Mark Hudspeth, who made the Cajuns a consistent New Orleans Bowl participant, but couldn’t get the program over the hump and departed following three straight losing seasons. The Ragin’ Cajuns were 5-7 in 2017.
10. Sept. 8 vs. Arkansas State
Louisiana's Sun Belt Conference rival Arkansas State has been an even more consistent winner, and the Red Wolves should contend for the league crown in 2018. After years as a stepping stone for eventual SEC head coaches Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn, plus Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, ASU has finally found consistency under head coach Blake Anderson, who has led the Red Wolves to a 31-20 record and four bowl games in his first four seasons at the helm. Anderson also has arguably the top Group of 5 quarterback — Justice Hansen — at his disposal. The 2017 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year threw for 3,967 yards and 37 touchdowns last year, though he also tossed 16 interceptions.
9. Oct. 6 at Arkansas
The competition jumps up a notch in SEC play, and Alabama faces a challenge with games against four conference opponents (and five overall) under the direction of first-year head coaches. That’s a lot of unfamiliar foes when it comes to film study. Nevertheless, new Arkansas head coach Chad Morris has a tough task ahead of him, having inherited a squad that was 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the SEC last year under Bret Bielema. One of Morris’ top priorities is to upgrade speed on the roster, and the only way to accomplish that is through recruiting, so it may take time for the Hogs to become a threat in the SEC West. Therefore, Arkansas should be the weakest conference foe on the slate in 2018.
7. Oct. 20 at Tennessee
Like Chad Morris, new Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt faces an uphill battle in his attempt to turn around a prestigious program. But Pruitt has a slight advantage over Morris because of his close ties to Saban: the Volunteers’ new leader was Saban’s right-hand man during the last two seasons and spent eight of the last 11 years in Tuscaloosa. Pruitt also happens to be the polar opposite of Butch Jones, which has lots of fans excited in Knoxville and could pay dividends with the Tide visiting Neyland Stadium in Week 7. There’s nowhere to go but up following last year’s winless march through SEC play, so it’s a relatively low-pressure situation for Pruitt — and that’s important because the Vols have arguably the most brutal stretch of SEC games to begin conference play - drawing Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina in a six-week period.
7. Sept. 1 vs. Louisville (Orlando, Fla.)
Though one of the most high-profile matchups of the opening weekend, Alabama’s date with Louisville in Orlando lost a lot of its luster after 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson declared for the 2018 NFL Draft. Head coach Bobby Petrino, who was 0-4 against Alabama at Arkansas from 2008-11, must turn to untested Juwon Pass at quarterback. However, because of Petrino’s success developing quarterbacks, the offense should be dangerous once again in 2018. More concerning, Petrino and new defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder must also rebuild a defense that lost seven full-time starters, including first-round cornerback Jaire Alexander, and several other key contributors. It should be no surprise to see the Crimson Tide as heavy (as in 28-to-31-point heavy) early favorites according to oddsmakers.
6. Sept. 15 at Ole Miss
On paper, Ole Miss looks like one of the weakest teams in the SEC West and Alabama embarrassed the Rebels 66-3 last season. Head coach Matt Luke led Ole Miss to a decent 6-6 overall record, including a 3-5 mark in league play in 2017 under the interim tag, but that was before suffering double-digit transfers and seeing four other players drafted. Nevertheless, the Rebels can score on anybody thanks to quarterback-receiver duo Jordan Ta’amu and All-American candidate A.J. Brown. Also, Oxford has been a bugaboo for the Tide in recent seasons: The Tide lost 23-17 in 2014 and escaped with a 48-43 win in '16.
5. Oct. 13 vs. Missouri
Alabama and Missouri rarely get together during the regular season — or at all, really. In fact, the Crimson Tide haven’t played Mizzou since the 2014 SEC Championship Game, and the two haven’t squared off in SEC play since a 2012 meeting in Columbia shortly after the Tigers joined the SEC. However, the Tide have surely kept an eye on Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, who led the league in passing (3,964 yards) and led the nation in touchdown passes (44) in 2017. Lock, a potential first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, led the Tigers to more than 500 yards of total offense per game and 7.13 yards per play last season, both of which led the SEC and ranked in the top 10 nationally. Of course, Mizzou didn’t have to play Alabama.
4. Sept. 22 vs. Texas A&M
New Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher is very familiar with Nick Saban, not only because Fisher spent five seasons on Saban’s LSU staff as offensive coordinator, but also because the former Florida State boss squared off with his one-time mentor just last season. The Week 4 kickoff will be Fisher’s first road trip with the Aggies. A&M was surprisingly competitive in a 27-19 Alabama victory in College Station last year, which could give the Aggies confidence they can hang with the Tide in Tuscaloosa in 2018 — and hope Fisher could push them over the top.
3. Nov. 10 vs. Mississippi State
Alabama returns to Tuscaloosa for its first home game in nearly a month to host Mississippi State, which is widely considered a SEC West title contender under first-year head coach Joe Moorhead. The Bulldogs return more production than any team in the SEC, including dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, which should give the former Penn State offensive coordinator a solid starting point and an opportunity for early success. State gave the Crimson Tide a scare in Starkville in 2017, leading 24-17 in the final 10 minutes of the fourth quarter before Alabama stormed back for a 31-24 victory.
2. Nov. 3 at LSU
Simply put, the 2018 LSU Tigers are difficult to project. Thanks to a solid recruiting foundation, LSU has one of the most talented rosters in the conference. However, head coach Ed Orgeron is still a question mark, as is his latest offensive coordinator, Steve Ensminger. The pair must settle on a quarterback (the Tigers are reportedly actively exploring graduate transfers) and must also replace top playmakers at running back and receiver, as well as three starters on the offensive line. Overall, LSU had seven players selected in the 2018 NFL Draft and seven others signed as undrafted free agents (including two undrafted players with eligibility remaining). Of course, despite those concerns, Tiger Stadium offers one of the best home-field advantages in all of college football, and the trip to Baton Rouge will be Alabama’s most difficult road task of the 2018 campaign.
1. Nov. 24 vs. Auburn
Who else? The Auburn Tigers beat Alabama 26-14 last season, a lone blemish that ruined Alabama’s SEC championship hopes and nearly derailed the Tide’s national title chances. But the Tigers must travel to Tuscaloosa in 2018, a place they have not won since 2010. Alabama will be waiting with revenge in mind, and Auburn must rebuild its offensive line, find a primary ball carrier and replace several defensive standouts from one of the nation’s toughest units. Still, the Tigers will undoubtedly be the toughest regular season opponent on the schedule. With quarterback Jarrett Stidham under center and an elite defensive line leading the way for Auburn, the SEC West — and with it, College Football Playoff aspirations — are likely to hang in the balance, as usual.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.